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The St. Lawrence Neighbourhood is an uncommon place in Toronto. A planned downtown community realized in 1976, it boasts an eclectic mix of co-op buildings, townhouses and mid-rise apartments that nestle in retail and recreation facilities as well as elementary schools and daycares. And that’s just on one side of the street; a community centre, a school and more housing, including market-rate condos with street-level commercial space, are knit together on the opposite side. (The main thoroughfare, The Esplanade, is also a shorthand for this neighbourhood, bookended on the west by the St. Lawrence Market and on the east by the Distillery District.) In between lies the green space that serves as the front yard for everyone: David Crombie Park.

A rendering of David Crombie Park with a new, circular fountain at the Hahn edge, a renewed basketball court and playscapes and abundant tree canopy.

The park is named after the Toronto mayor who, along with John Sewell, Jane Jacobs and others, ushered in the urban reform movement of the early 1970s that made such a progressive, mixed-income, multi-generational hub possible. And it is just as diverse as the built fabric surrounding it. The linear public realm includes a basketball court and schoolyards (the kids from all three schools enjoy access) as well as Indigenous placekeeping, horticultural areas and many spaces to simply hang.

Even a beloved park will fall into disrepair after decades of use. When it came time to address the much-needed rejuvenation of this urban beacon, the City put together a masterplan based on consultation with community members. It identified key areas of concern: the original features were aged and weather-damaged; the mechanical equipment for the fountains was outdated; the tree canopy was plagued by the Emerald Ash Borer; and a dedicated dog park and a more fluid navigation through the park were both in great demand. The plan also created space for entertaining the introduction of new features: a splash pad (to replace the wading pool), an inspiring public art piece; a capacious community swing set; and lots of freestanding benches.

For Copenhagen landscape architecture studio SLA and the Toronto office of global engineering, design and consultancy behemoth Arcadis, brought on as the firms that would lead the renewal, the park should pretty much stay as is – but incorporate a lot more trees and green space. While they took cues from the masterplan, they “opted for a quite humble and considerate approach,” Rasmus Astrup, senior partner and design principal at SLA and the project’s design lead, explains. “By studying the park’s history, usage, values, and importance to the local community, we proposed a three-stringed design strategy: To preserve, revitalize, and unite.” Their design, released to the media last week, is expected to be realized in 2027.

I met up with Astrup and Neno Kovacevic, principal of placemaking and landscape architecture at Arcadis, for a recent morning stroll through the park. Their enthusiasm for its current form was palpable as they described their vision of adding layers to what already exists. While we walked, the day was just beginning for many in the neighbourhood. Kids were crossing the park to get to school, while some others had a shorter commute: the Crombie Park Apartments is also home to Downtown Alternative and St. Michael Catholic School. “What other neighbourhood in the city has this kind of mixed-use?” Kovacevic mused. “A developer today would never include a school in a new build.”

From Hahn Place to Jarvis Street, David Crombie Park spreads out across nearly two hectares and seven blocks – five main ones and adjacent segments on either end – interrupted by side streets. A promenade along the north side of The Esplanade is the most seamless way to get from end to end.

The design adapts the park’s many low concrete walls as more accessible seating. In this image of a segment of the park that merges with the sidewalk promenade, the wall is outfitted with a bench and back rests.

At Hahn, on its eastern edge, the park opens with a fountain that (when operational) shoots water up from the centre of four tiered concrete blocks. It’s an austere marker and a rigid perch for anyone hoping to take a load off here. In SLA and Arcadis’s renderings, this underwhelming gesture is replaced by a much more welcoming water feature. As for seating? That’s where the walls come in. The existing layout’s most notable elements are the low retaining walls and higher perimeter barriers that enclose different areas and uses. They effectively carve the park into outdoor rooms. In the redesign, these concrete delineators remain – and are transformed with wooden seating elements (backrests and benches) to render them double duty. It’s simple, yet ingenious.

The horticultural garden will be repaved with its original flagstones.

Walking westward, where there is now only hardscaping, the revised schoolyards (with playground furniture to be supplied by Duncan & Grove) and sports courts will integrate green space. And further still, the park’s highest mound will be designated a safe space for Indigenous community members; it will become a celestial observatory with a stone marker. For this and other Indigenous placekeeping moments (including the sowing of medicinal plants, the integration of the Anishnaabe language throughout the park and a designated space for a sacred fire), SLA and Arcadis worked with Indigenous-owned firm Tawaw Architecture Collective.

A mix of programming animates the park.

In reusing existing materials (including the concrete perimeter walls and the flagstones that pave the horticultural garden) and opting for a low-carbon concrete wherever else the material is needed (to be approved by the City), the design team is aiming for a lower embodied-carbon footprint than a comparable project. They predict the park will achieve carbon neutrality in 15 years, a timeframe calculated with dynamic carbon modelling that accounts for the proposed development’s embodied emissions and the carbon-sequestering prowess of a reinvigorated tree canopy.

The basketball court and kids’ play areas will be revamped.

This is just one reason to adapt rather than replace. The other is to preserve as much of the park’s original character as possible so that residents will be able to recognize it as their own. The project is not meant to introduce a new and flashy tourist destination but to reintroduce a place that is familiar to the community, which also helped guide its design. To wit, when it came to the idea of replacing the wading pool with a splash pad (a masterplan suggestion), the people spoke up. Many remembered learning how to swim at David Crombie Park and hoped their kids would have the same experience. So, the wading pool remains – as does the heroic arch at its centre inscribed with the park’s name. “Why would you want to take this down?” Astrup wondered aloud as we made our way to the Jarvis side of the park.

The wading pool will be preserved – and resurfaced.

The David Crombie Park revitalization is a gentle refresh. But it’s also an innovative landscape that connects the park more intrinsically to its community and beyond: It will integrate bioswales between two segments of the park (where there are currently parking spots); a new route through the park that makes it more cohesive; and a bike path along The Esplanade to bring the linear green realm into dialogue with an ever-changing district. The kids attending the many schools around the park might learn what great urban design truly is; and for the rest of us, David Crombie Park should serve as a lesson for approaching the rejuvenation of other city parks that need our deeper appreciation.

SLA, Arcadis and Tawaw Reveal Their Thoughtful Redesign of David Crombie Park

The firms collaborated on a vision that preserves the beloved park’s character while creating more greenery and accessibility.

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