Shaping Toronto: Landscaping U of T

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Shaping Toronto: Landscaping U of T

A design competition to revitalize the central campus, which could include bringing back a long-buried element.

Shaping Toronto looks at the decisions, processes, and trends that form the city we know and love.

As project names go, “Landscape of Landmark Quality” is the kind we’re immediately tempted to make fun of. It’s as if those who came up with this branding for the University of Toronto’s vision of revitalizing its central campus hedged their bets, thinking fate might be tempted if any winning design was firmly declared a landmark.

Cheesy name aside, the shortlist of four design teams—KPMB Architects + Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates + Urban Strategies, DTAH + Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, PUBLIC WORK, and Janet Rosenberg & Studio + architectsAlliance + ERA Architects—revealed plans last month adhering to the principles the evaluation committee set out. These include improving the pedestrian experience, enhancing green space, creating livelier public spaces suitable for events, removing surface parking and reducing vehicular access around Hart House and King’s College Circle, installing wayfinding, and discreetly servicing buildings. As the competition’s welcome page puts it, “gradual changes to the campus over many decades have resulted in a landscape that falls short of its potential as a vibrant and significant series of public spaces, commensurate with the established institutional status of the University.”

Most of the designs revive an early element of the school’s landscape. When construction began on University College in 1856, Taddle Creek ran along present-day Philosopher’s Walk. Three years later, a section around the current site of Hart House was dammed up and, in honour of the school’s first president, dubbed McCaul’s Pond. While a proposed adjacent botanical gardens was never built, the pond provided a contemplative setting for students. It also offered, as an article in The Graduate pointed out over a century later, space for fishing, mischief, and romance:

In those simpler days it was not unknown for undergraduates to spend spare moments beside the pond picking wildflowers and chasing butterflies. Some caught chub and shiners and the occasional speckled trout in its water. In winter the pond made a natural skating rink and the slopes beside were popular for tobogganing. In spring young lovers found it a romantic rendezvous, and in summer families watched while youngsters sailed toy boats on its surface. At least one student prankster made use of it to hide the College lawn mower under several feet of water, where it remained until the pond was drained years later.

As an aspiring poet put it in an early edition of The Varsity, “thy classic flow, thy poetic surroundings, are an education in themselves!”

It also stunk. By the dawn of the 1880s, sewage carried downstream from drains flowing out of Yorkville transformed Taddle Creek into a polluted disgrace. McCaul’s Pond was drained as part of the waterway’s conversion into an underground sewer in 1884. While no longer visible, the lost creek’s presence created challenges when Hart House was built 30 years later.

The pond may have been gone, but the centre of campus was still graced with a large green space. That area was gradually encroached upon with the arrival of the automobile, eventually leading to the current roads clogged with cars, delivery trucks, and tour buses.

Master plans proposed over the past century have discussed ways of making the campus greener and more pedestrian-friendly. The reconstruction of St. George Street during the 1990s showed how a major revitalization project could improve the landscape. A 1999 plan outlined the possibilities of creating more open space across what had become a concrete jungle.

The current proposals offer many improvements for pedestrians. Plazas and more outside seating prevail, with ideas ranging from turning Tower Road into a processional path to turning the road outside Convocation Hall into a vehicle-free gathering spot. Parking could be moved underground or replaced with gardens. Access from Queen’s Park could be improved with a pedestrian bridge. Brick or cobblestone could replace concrete roadways. Skating trails and room for seasonal events like farmers’ markets could all help create a livelier space.

The winning design will be chosen by the evaluation committee in November. The competition’s website cautions that none will implemented exactly as presented, but will spur a critical review process to develop a new master plan over the rest of the current academic year. Developing landmark quality will take time.

Additional material from The University of Toronto: A History by Martin L. Friedland (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002); HTO: Toronto’s Water from Lake Iroquois to Lost Rivers to Low-flow Toilets, Wayne Reeves and Christina Palassio, editors (Toronto: Coach House Books, 2008); the September-October 1979 edition of The Graduate, the September 29, 2015 edition of the National Post; the October 5, 2015 edition of The Varsity; and the April 14, 2013 edition of Water Canada.

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