One Saturday Afternoon at the New Sherbourne Common
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One Saturday Afternoon at the New Sherbourne Common

Hemmed in by multi-lane roadways, a parking lot, and a construction site, the freshly completed Sherbourne Common, Toronto’s new waterfront public space, seems strangely orphaned from the city. Don’t be fooled. If Sherbourne Common seems a bit like an oasis amidst industrial land now, the hope is that in a few years time it will be at the heart of a thriving new waterfront community.
Investments in public space, much as some in our city council may deride them, are crucial to the future development of our city, especially our often neglected waterfront. Slowly, but surely, something is happening here, and it is because of the public investment by Waterfront Toronto.
Designed by Vancouver landscape architects Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg, the south end of Sherbourne Common opened back in September 2010, while the north end was completed just recently and officially opened one week ago, on July 26. The park features grassy expanses, a splash pad that can convert to an ice rink in the winter, trees, benches, a building that will soon house a café, and a children’s play area, complete with water sculptures by artist Jill Anholt.
Anholt’s sculptures, which remind us of something usually found on the tail of an airplane, drip water leisurely down a mesh screen and into an elongated pool that takes it toward the south end of the park. In the winter, ice crystals will form on the screens, creating unique patterns. Lights are turned on at night, illuminating the trickling water in nightclub blue, which, on one bridge across the canal, turn green as they detect movement. (Wondering what that looks like? Here is a full set of photos.) In other words, it’s really freakin’ cool.

The two parts of the park are separated from each other by Queens Quay East—a road that invites crossing about as much as an airplane runway does. In fact, this road, cleaving the park in two, represents one of the biggest hurdles the new park will have to overcome. As it stands, there is not even a crosswalk or a light to allow people to venture from the north to the south end of Sherbourne Common or back again. A planned redesign of Queens Quay East will hopefully work to stitch the halves together.

The north end contains a whimsical, Tim Burton-esque children’s area with play equipment that looks strangely like metal worms emerging from the ground, each with their own giant pupil-dilated eyeballs. This Saturday saw children climbing onto the worms, while another kid who was pumping water into a sand pit, shared the streaming water so a cyclist could have an impromptu hand-washing. Two adults stood, hands on hips, surveying the scene. “This is a great park,” said the woman. “Meh,” the man replied. “It’s all right.”
The maple trees at the south end are new and scrawny, and on this hot day people were huddled together in the shriveling piles of shade provided. Dogs ran unleashed, tongues lolling. Cyclists coasted by, some riding through the splash pad for a good soaking. A few oiled people lay sprawled out in full view of the deadly sun, cooking.
A cement canal that contains a few inches of running water cuts its way through the eastern portion of the park. Closer inspection reveals a good spot to sit and dip your feet on a hot day, but many signs bolted to the cement canal discouraged this activity. One gets the impression the signs are merely there to save the City from any liability should someone somehow manage to drown themselves in three inches of water. Regardless, the warning went unheeded.
Water is one of the most prominent features of the park. And appropriately so, as the park also functions as a storm water treatment facility, cleaning the water underground with ultraviolet light before sending it up through Anholt’s sculptures and then streaming down the canal through the south end of the park where it gurgles back into Lake Ontario, clean as a whistle. It’s the kind of innovative design—combining public space with crucial city infrastructure—that will be sure to turn a few heads outside of Toronto. If anything, it’s certainly deserving of more than a “meh.”
This water treatment design speaks to one of the greatest accomplishments of Sherbourne Common: its diversity of uses. This is a park that invites all kinds of different activities, whether you’re a kid who wants to play in the sand or run through the splash pad, or an adult relaxing on the grass, getting a tan or reading a book on a bench. And soon, when the café opens, it will provide even more.
Indeed, its design even invites some activities that the architects probably didn’t think about—such as the man who decided the canal was an appropriate place to strip down and bathe himself naked. After splashing himself like something out of Animal Planet, he got dressed, climbed on his bike, and rode off.