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The role of parks has changed, from benign green spaces to heroic game-changers that improve our health, clean the air and beautify our streets. They might even save our shorelines from the brutal effects of climate change.

We called them gardeners. And as we paved paradise, we brought them in to plant twig-like trees and to roll out carpets of sod. During the 20th century, landscape architects were underestimated, under-utilized and, as Montreal landscape architect Claude Cormier says, “an afterthought” – at best,“prettifiers,” and at worst, greenwashers.

Just 16 years into the new century, how our tune has changed. Extreme weather, massive polar-ice melting, forest fires, surges in respiratory disease, and smog that renders citizens of some Chinese cities unable to see their neighbours have pushed urban landscape planning to the top of the agenda at every level of government. Increased social consciousness, too, has kept it there. The environmental and health benefits of natural infrastructure are known quantities. According to one Dutch study, every 10 per cent increase in green space can postpone health complaints by five years. Other studies have found even small parks, if well maintained, have a measurable impact in reducing psycho-social stress levels.

As today’s concrete jungles shift the emphasis to “jungle,” Cormier, and others like him, are leading the charge. His wildly playful urban parks that combine nature with inviting hardscapes – in Montreal, Kingston, Ont., and the Toronto lakefront (a beachscape inspired by the paintings of Georges Seurat, no less) – have made him a post-industrial superhero. The success of his projects is thanks in no small part to the increased weight placed on green from the conceptual stages. “We’re working with cities and developers early on to shape their overall project,” says Cormier. “The dimensions of landscape are integrated with the planning right at the start. That certainly was not the case a decade ago.”

Will landscape architecture come to dominate the industry in the 21st century? Some in the field balk at the suggestion, only because the idea of domination is so anathema to the craft. But they agree with the sentiment. “Landscape architects today are sought out to revitalize spaces at every level,” says Lisa Rapoport of Plant, the practice hired to oversee the revitalization of Nathan Phillips Square, home of Toronto’s city hall. “Master planning, infrastructure, art, culture… Every single piece of land is a potential ‘something.’ There’s no such thing as remnant lands anymore – remnant lands are lands we haven’t gotten to yet.”

The shift has happened in Toronto, but is also happening in most major cities. A massive trend toward decentralization has allowed local governments and communities to become more involved in helping to shape their own environments in ways that are more in tune with the evolving city fabric. In terms of the approach to landscape architecture, says Rapoport, “Each area develops using local character and ideas from people who actually live and work there.” These are ideal conditions for landscape architects, who, in Rapoport’s words, “connect the dots – the tissue and tendons and muscle between the bones of a city.”

Where the skyline once defined our built environment, today we’ve coined “streetscape,” to connote those negative spaces that weren’t on the radar of architects or engineers. “In Toronto during the 1970s, there was no such thing as a sidewalk café,” says Rapoport, and exterior space was considered unprogrammed. Now, programmed outdoor space is practically a pre-requisite. When you look at the most hotly anticipated urban projects around the world, the common thread is an ever-evolving, interactive network of green.

The revival of New York’s Governors Island by Dutch landscapers West 8 is centred around family fun with giant slides as a key feature; the pierscape on Chicago’s Navy Pier by James Corner Field Operations and nArchitects will be chock-full of things to do, including riding a giant Ferris wheel; and Waller Creek, by Michael Van Valkenburgh and Thomas Phifer, is in the midst of connecting an ecosystem of five adjacent neighbourhoods in downtown Austin, Texas, via pedestrian bridges and pathways.

These are just three projects that think beyond the traditional boxes of space, scale and time. Urban designer and educator Ken Greenberg sees their success as a welcome contrast to the hulking developments still being pushed ahead in such regions as the Gulf States and in China, “where, through a severe case of hubris, people imagine that they can take vast areas and understand exactly how people are going to live over decades,” he says. “Globally, you’re seeing landscape architects bring this big set of sensibilities about boundless scale and interactivity to urban projects, which is a game-changer.”

Even tall buildings are making room for social and spiritual recalibration. A looming example is Boeri Studio’s Bosco Verticale in Milan, two residential towers that incorporate 800 trees and 16,000 plantings on balconies at every level. The bones of the buildings, though certainly no afterthought, are secondary to the impact of the greenery, chosen to absorb carbon dioxide and protect against UV radiation and noise pollution. Years of micro-meteorological and irrigation studies dictate specific maintenance requirements for each storey and facade, setting them apart from last decade’s ill-fated green walls, which wilted in domino succession when their upkeep proved too complex.

The new 632-metre Shanghai Tower, the world’s second-tallest building, is another example. Architecture firm Gensler has made much of its smart second “skin,” designed to reduce the building’s carbon footprint by 34,000 tonnes annually. But its LEED scorecard was equally weighted by the multi-storey interior gardens that reduce heat and runoff, and provide a tropical public-access space in one of Shanghai’s densest districts. The gardens, located between the two outer skins, improve the local micro-climate while providing spectacular views and public meeting areas.

All this in the name of that old chestnut, sustainability – or, more specifically, “green infrastructure.” Back at ground level, municipal departments, from urban design and environmental planning to public health, water-management and transport, are calling meetings with landscape architects to tackle society’s ills with a more holistic strategy.

“Landscape architects are inherently good collaborators, seeing many dimensions,” says Marc Ryan of Public Work, currently engaged with the City of Toronto on TO Core, a master plan for the downtown core. “Everything is about balance between engineers, architects and landscapers – it’s not about eclipsing anyone but opening lines between them. Between those three disciplines is where our best collaborations happen.”

It’s a familiar story: decades of generic growth have undone the ad hoc balance of urban and green that initially drew people. Recapturing that vitality incorporates landscape architecture at the planning stage. “Enough examples have illustrated what can happen when you don’t do that. I think Toronto is becoming a laboratory for that revitalization because the pressure on our fast-growing city is so extreme and so visible,” says Ryan.

Municipal governments can’t underwrite every High Line, however. The Bentway is a two-kilometre stretch of parkland planned to revitalize the inhospitable wasteland underneath Toronto’s elevated Gardiner Expressway. It’s being made possible by a $25-million private donation. “To have a philanthropist make a significant donation to the public realm is a big deal. It reflects that change in priorities and attitudes and the new holistic view,” says Ryan, the landscape architect of record.

Happily, there are financial incentives to embrace green infrastructure where rents and fees fall short. Liat Margolis, assistant professor of Landscape Architecture at the University of Toronto, argues that landscape systems give cities bang for their buck. “They’re multifunctional by nature, so you can achieve cooling, flood reduction, recreation and biodiversity all at once, by just planting parkland. Financial institutions are beginning to valuate ecosystem services with the notion of risk mitigation.”

In 2014, Toronto Dominion evaluated Toronto’s urban forest at $80 million annually. According to the U.K. Land Trust, green spaces contribute the equivalent of £53.2 million in benefits each year to the health and welfare sector. And every pound spent on parkland contributes £23.30 toward the cost of reducing crime and anti-social behaviour. “Another Fort McMurray fire could shut down the economy of a city and affect the stock market,” says Margolis. “It sounds cynical, but there’s a recognition that there’s a value beyond the aesthetic or cultural in what was previously seen as a luxury.”

Some cities have various incentives in place to encourage private developers to do the greening for them. In the U.S., LEED-certified buildings earn a raft of tax credits, and green roofs are mandatory in buildings above a certain size in London, Toronto, Copenhagen and across France.

Still, public demand can provide incentive all on its own. Paul Lincoln, deputy CEO of the Landscape Institute in London, gives the example of Elephant & Castle, a derelict multi-tower estate south of the Thames now being rebuilt privately. While the developer knocked down the accommodation, it chose to retain the gardens, which had, over decades of neglect, transformed into a wild refuge. Today, the 122 mature trees protected on the site, and the hundreds of planned new trees, are central to the marketing strategy. Says Lincoln, “We used to promote London apartments with images of couples watching the sunset from their balcony with a glass of wine. Today it’s, ‘green walls, green roofs.’”

While developers are seeing the financial returns in marketing green space, it can still be a hard sell. Claude Cormier had $14 million to work with when he designed his award-winning and much-loved Sugar Beach, an .08-hectare portion of Toronto’s $1.5-billion lakefront revitalization scheme. “It’s brought amazing attention to the water and it’s going to create huge value for the neighbourhood that’s now going up around it,” he says. How much value that would amount to, he can’t be sure. Could he foresee a budget for landscaping comprising 10 per cent of a larger infrastructure plan? He laughs: “I’d say we get one per cent or less.” Yet that, too, is changing. “Landscape architecture adds value to brand development if it has a strong, singular personality, but is also flexible and open to the future, it can elevate a project. Just like a great piece of art.”

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