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Problematic Park Design - Why Some Parks Don't Work

sche

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Amazing thread and analysis! Really interesting to read through.

I think for many urban design failures, including these 'modern parks', a lot of the problems come when the designers focus more on what it looks like from the air, rather than what it looks like from street level.

You see this in all of the examples from above:
- June Callwood's undulating pattern meant to be modelled after sound waves from a quote, only visible from the air, plus its excessive use of the bright pink
- Sherbourne Common North's tree, bench, and path arrangement, which forms a pattern of horizontal lines & angles from the air
- Village of Yorkville Park and Wellesley-Magill Park's grid of trees, which might look interesting from above but is uninviting from street level

Edit: Even the beloved Music Garden has issues with the one element designed solely from the air - the spiral path. It's so indirect that people create desire lines and just cut across, which damages the flowers and plants.

This focus on design from the air in turn leads to a neglect of the actual experience from ground level, and leads to a lot of the issues described, like a lack of clear entrances, paths that don't seem to lead anywhere, poor sightlines, nonexistent/illogically placed seating, etc..

This also applies to things like architecture too - for example, any condo that puts blank glass at street level and instead details the balconies and/or crown; or a lot of tower-in-the-park apartment blocks; or windswept 1960s-80s plazas, or Roy Thomson Hall, where the Simcoe St frontage consists of blank glass and concrete while effort was put into the roof.
 

Northern Light

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Amazing thread and analysis! Really interesting to read through.

I think for many urban design failures, including these 'modern parks', a lot of the problems come when the designers focus more on what it looks like from the air, rather than what it looks like from street level.

You see this in all of the examples from above:
- June Callwood's undulating pattern meant to be modelled after sound waves from a quote, only visible from the air, plus its excessive use of the bright pink
- Sherbourne Common North's tree, bench, and path arrangement, which forms a pattern of horizontal lines & angles from the air
- Village of Yorkville Park and Wellesley-Magill Park's grid of trees, which might look interesting from above but is uninviting from street level

This focus on design from the air in turn leads to a neglect of the actual experience from ground level, and leads to a lot of the issues described, like a lack of clear entrances, paths that don't seem to lead anywhere, poor sightlines, nonexistent/illogically placed seating, etc..

This also applies to things like architecture too - for example, any condo that puts blank glass at street level and instead details the balconies and/or crown; or a lot of tower-in-the-park apartment blocks; or windswept 1960s-80s plazas, or Roy Thomson Hall, where the Simcoe St frontage consists of blank glass and concrete while effort was put into the roof.

Excellent point.

But lets equally add; you can create a design that looks good from the air....while being mindful of how it appears on the ground and works for park users.

I've provided 2 positive examples of park design in this thread.

Both illustrate this point.

Lets first look at the 'Music Garden'

1614397900209.png


You can read about the inspiration behind the design here:


The key here is how that was executed on the ground.

The photos I selected above showed how the north face of the park held up well in winter.

But these photos from the City of Toronto website (same link as above) show how the park feels in warm weather:

1614398116963.png


1614398143773.png


1614398170542.png


Notice the clear paths that direct your park experience.

The 4-seasons beauty, with a diverse colour palette.

And the amphitheater space that provides both a function and pleasant seating.

****

While over at Village of Yorkville Park..........

1614398310984.png


You can see how the park reads from the air as a series of distinct spaces mirroring the plots of the homes that once stood there.

Description here:

1614398477432.png

From: https://tclf.org/landscapes/village-yorkville-park

There's nothing wrong w/considering the conceptual view of space from above; so long as you don't prioritize at the expense of how it looks and feels on the ground!
 

junctionist

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What I liked about @Northern Light's latest review is that it also discussed a good example of a contemporary park, the Music Garden. It would be good to discuss both good and bad examples of parks in one thread, so that it's not that negative and depressing. Also, it's just as important to identify what works vs. what doesn't. Seeing examples of the city getting things right can make us feel more confident in ourselves.

The Berczy Park revitalization is among the best in recent memory, in my opinion, for having useful and attractive walkways, great sight lines, space for small events, space for people to linger comfortably, and a signature feature that draws people from around the city. Aesthetically, it looks great and feels like a special place in the neighbourhood. It punches above its weight considering that it's a relatively small park space.

With regard to designing things to look good from the air, it's actually a lot more relevant nowadays that so many people live in high-rise buildings. An interesting design from above can encourage people to visit a park when it catches their eye from a condo or office building. But an interesting overhead design should be a bonus to an already successful design, not the driving focus of the design itself.

It's even more puzzling when you see parks from the 1960s in North America designed to look interesting from above, considering there were fewer high-rise buildings and no Google Maps satellite imagery for the masses back then. It's like they were designed to impress the occasional bureaucrat who had access to aerial imagery of the city at City Hall. Meanwhile, the park itself consisted of a couple of uncomfortable benches, some grass, and some trees.
 
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Northern Light

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People seem to be enjoying this; so I'm going to go a bit further; but as per requests to include some positives, that's what this post will be.

I'll take a look at St. James Park as a positive example of park design.

Lets start with a look at the plan from the City website:

1615506374450.png


Notice several key design choices that I've singled out before.

First, clear entrances and exits.

Second, clear, pathways.

Third, take note of the trajectory of the main paths.

They follow a basic desire line; some people are just cutting through the park to get to the other side. They would like to take the shortest possible route.
the paths here mostly follow that logic.

That's important, because it invites people to pass through the space, which unto itself creates desirable animation and perceived safety.

But it also means that people are less likely to trample vegetation/garden beds or even sod, if the paved path gets them where they want to go.

That said, while a path is great, its even better if it leads somewhere. As in 'Why am I going to come this park and stay more than 5 minutes?"

One can see that for families there is a children's playground; for those who crave arts/music, there is a pavilion space which can serve that need; for those in search of tranquility, beauty, or a nice place to read, one can find a formal garden.

Finally there's open lawn which can be used for anything from a picnic, to sunning one's self, to kids playing tag.

In other words, there's a 'there' there.

Lets now look at how this translated into the real world.

Photos taken by forum member @AlbertC show us:

1) look at this entrance area:

1615507035031.png


Observe that the fountain is in a clear line of sight from the edge of the park

So are lots of seats, lights, and bright and cheerful flowers.

The only flaw here, is the failure to 'edge' the planting bed in the foreground, either with a short fence or more robust shrubs or a seatwall. As one can see the bed is a tad molested as a result of people walking over it.

Truthfully, I'm not sure why, as I can't see an obvious reason why you walk down path A and suddenly decided you need to be on the other one and can't wait the 10 feet to the next path. I forgive the optimism of the designers here that an edge was not required.

Notice in this next photo from Albert that the park border maintains an ornate fence along a section:


1615507336328.png


This is also good. Its not just heritage. Its a definition. As a good entrance invites you in; a good fence, without causing offense, says 'not here'.

That helps protect planting beds and direct traffic where the designers wanted it to go.

Here you see the pavillion. A dramatic, but functional piece, that creates a clear sense of place. This is somewhere you can tell someone to meet you. They won't have difficulty finding it, nor will they confuse it with any other spot in the park.

1615507582594.png


This photo below shows it at night; and credit goes to @condovo for this excellent illustration of good design. Park fixtures should generally appeal in both
the day and night, and in all seasons.

1615507564525.png


Back to another AlbertC photo to show the formal garden area, another clear sense of place, inviting, attractive, lots of seating, a central fountain...........and
this is important, paths that lead to it from every direction. A park design clearly saying 'please come here' and making it easy for you to do so.

1615507805013.png


In respect of the above, note the way in which this space is made to feel special through the choice of paving material.

How the pattern of the paving (circular) emulates the fountain, reinforcing as it were its importance.

Also the seats all face the fountain.

This might seem obvious, but in some of the problem-plagued designs we saw earlier, this sort of simple logic was not followed.

Here the designers asked and answered the question, why do you want to be here? To enjoy the water feature.

So lets maximize views of it; lets point people in the direction of that desirable view, but also not encumber access to the space by way of improper seating placement.

****

@Rascacielo shows us below through his photo, the importance of plant choice. Not just species, but size.

1615507927594.png


You have a plant that is a show-off, and its large enough that you can't miss it. While shorter flowers can be found in front of it, there's also a ring of grass to prevent the plant from being competed with, and to 'frame' it for the viewer.

What may not be as detectable here is the variety of plants, and how they serve to provide beauty across several seasons.

You have a mix of perennials, and annuals; many in bloom during summer, but others available to enjoy in early spring, and some in fall.

****

All of that taken together is a pretty impressive park design.

All with a mixture of show-off and practical/functional materials.
 
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Northern Light

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Now for Lisgar Park:

An overhead view heralds problems at the outset:

1615756464794.png


Admittedly the shadows here obscure some of the Park's features; but at first blush, one sees dead space; the playground is barely identifiable as such, it doesn't seem particularly showy in a good way; and that thing I always harp on.......
Where's the 'there'?

But perhaps we''ll find things aren't so bad on closer inspection.

Then again:

1615756722615.png


This is the northern edge of the park, facing a public lane.

I'm sure someone thought they were 'animating' a laneway...............but they were rather mistaken.

First, we observe 2 cars presumably illegally parked, blocking the way through and access to the benches.

If this lane were otherwise an appealing place to sit, I would personally prefer to do so w/o car exhaust in my face, or feeling I have to tuck in my feet lest they be run over!

IF one wanted to put seating here, that parking needed to be prevented.

The poles needed not to obstruct sightlines to the seats, or from them. The guard rails look utilitarian, the boulders are poorly thought out. Presumably they were meant to obstruct vehicles, there were far better ways to achieve that.

****

Lets wander down Abell Street:

1615757067176.png


Another one of these no so brilliant uses of gravel.

Nothing inviting about walking on it, looking at it, sitting around it, not very pleasant for your dog either; just an absurd material taking up far too much space here regardless.

A bit further down the street............this is what passes for a playground:

1615757190933.png


Two words: Why Bother?

Seriously, if a playground is desired, that's fine, but provide enough equipment, and enough scale to be interesting a to child for more than 20 seconds.

I don't know any self-respecting toddler that wouldn't be bored just looking at that slide.

If there's isn't enough room for proper equipment, then the park should be larger, or the playground should go somewhere else.

Not every park feature in every park need be best-in-class, but every last one should of a reasonable quality. This, is not that.

****

Our final stop on Abell is at the southern extent of the Park:

1615757417909.png


Seriously?

Remember why I praised the paths in St. James Park.

They either invited you into the park to enjoy something in the park; or that at least created a clear path across the park, and made it pleasant.

This, does neither.

Note that there is a path through the centre of this park, off on the left of the photo, just after the playground.

But it isn't obvious from the perimeter that it goes anywhere (as far as I'm concerned, it doesn't, but that's a different point)...

What bothers me here is there is no invitation.

The angles here make that very difficult. They also make clear then, the virtue of a diagonal path crossing the space, as opposed to more of a T-shape, where from the outside one can't see the spine of the T.

But the questionable choice here is made worse by the way in which the 'playground was enclosed.

1615758506708.png


A solid, concrete barrier that precludes any view of the central space from the edge; and which precludes any engagement between the playground and said space.

But even as a straight-line path from Abell- Lisgar this route fails.

There simply is no straight-line path.

The placement of the trees at Lisgar cuts off the direct road-to-road visual line, while the poles do the same immediately to the left.

Also....a word about grading............there is every angle here in the pavement and wood surfaces except flat.

A better recipe for ankle-twisting would be hard to find..................unless you were familiar with June Callwood Park.

****

Now let's back track up Lisgar:

1615758813368.png



See what I mean........."What path to Abell?" The sightline is almost completely obstructed.

What on earth is with that mini-set of stairs? If you wanted to clearly convey that this was the entrance, I want those stairs to at least go from the light poll to the curb to the north.

Though in truth, those poles are both poorly thought out in design, and in placement.

Further north, we see this landscape feature separating the park from Lisgar:

1615759063847.png



Its not unattractive; though the bench on the right hand side of the pic feels after-thought-ish to me.

Its not so large that its an intrinsically bad feature for obstructing the view of the central space.

But......look at how the level change is addressed?

A potentially real issue in terms of someone slipping, or simply not paying attention. But more than that, its wasted space.

You could place seating to block any risk of a fall, create a clean-line for your landscape feature, and remove the bloody poles in the middle of my walking route!

A nicer touch here would have been to uplight the landscaping instead.

***

Which brings us back to the north end of the space:

1615759394905.png


Where am I supposed to go?

Where is the entrance?

Is this space even remotely inviting?

FAIL!

One last set of photos..........

What was done to integrate a small space with the neighbouring streets?

1615759533617.png


On Lisgar we see a street that is wider than it need be, with normal asphalt, a narrow sidewalk on each side.

Not well thought out.

Not really any better on Abell either:

1615759656704.png


At least there's room here, give or take the giant poles blocking the middle of the sidewalk.

But the space feels exceedingly bland, and poles aside, really doesn't play with the park at all.

There's only one more thing to say about this park..........

Where's the 'there'?

Why do I want to come to this space?

We already discerned the playground wasn't much of a reason.

There's no other playspace, formal or otherwise.

There's no grand gesture such as a fountain, nor a tranquil space such as the formal garden of St James.

What did this park need to be for its community, room permitting?

A playground; A dog-run; An enjoyable space to sit; an easy cut through; and something to soften and enhance the streetscape.

I don't think I'm being harsh in saying it managed none of those.
 
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Bogtrotter

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Interesting walk-through and commentary. It's certainly not your tradition park with a lot greenery for respite and quiet contemplation. Lush it is not, but they don't always have to be of course particularly if they provide opportunities for other activities. But as you say it doesn't really meet that measure either- that slide wouldn't be much fun for any child more than 2 summers old. Greenery aside it doesn't contain attractive design features either, no sculptural elements or water feature of any kind. Is the extensive use of gravel an economical replacement for grass which requires more upkeep- or is something going to be placed there in future? My first thought would be to put something there- a fountain maybe or wading pool for the kids- heck anything other than an expanse of gravel. The 'park' really has no theme or focal point to draw you in and little of interest within to make you want to spend time there. Your commentary not harsh at all.
 

Northern Light

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Interesting walk-through and commentary. It's certainly not your tradition park with a lot greenery for respite and quiet contemplation. Lush it is not, but they don't always have to be of course particularly if they provide opportunities for other activities. But as you say it doesn't really meet that measure either- that slide wouldn't be much fun for any child more than 2 summers old. Greenery aside it doesn't contain attractive design features either, no sculptural elements or water feature of any kind. Is the extensive use of gravel an economical replacement for grass which requires more upkeep- or is something going to be placed there in future? My first thought would be to put something there- a fountain maybe or wading pool for the kids- heck anything other than an expanse of gravel. The 'park' really has no theme or focal point to draw you in and little of interest within to make you want to spend time there. Your commentary not harsh at all.

Important observation.

Small parks cannot be all things to all people.

So pick what you want them to be; and do that well.

If a dog-run is more important than a playground, do that well, while providing an adjacent outdoor community room.

If high-minded design is the priority, then give me WOW.

If the playground is the priority, then give me no less than 4 pieces of equipment, and make them of sufficient scale that a 6 year old would enjoy them.

If you can do more than one, great! If you can't, drop the extras.

But get the basics right.

If you can't even execute a straight path across the park with any aplomb.................

*****

As to the gravel, this has been a surprisingly common choice across many parks.

Largely attributable to 2 design firms.

That will be a point of discussion in a future post.
 
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Irishmonk

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I just want to chime in and say what a great an important thread this is, so, a tip of the hat to Northern Light.
As I no longer live in Toronto I can't contribute all that much, but I love reading the posts--in particular the incredibly detailed and spot on analysis by NT. I hope landscape architects are reading this!
 

Tuscani01

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Interesting walk-through and commentary. It's certainly not your tradition park with a lot greenery for respite and quiet contemplation. Lush it is not, but they don't always have to be of course particularly if they provide opportunities for other activities. But as you say it doesn't really meet that measure either- that slide wouldn't be much fun for any child more than 2 summers old. Greenery aside it doesn't contain attractive design features either, no sculptural elements or water feature of any kind. Is the extensive use of gravel an economical replacement for grass which requires more upkeep- or is something going to be placed there in future? My first thought would be to put something there- a fountain maybe or wading pool for the kids- heck anything other than an expanse of gravel. The 'park' really has no theme or focal point to draw you in and little of interest within to make you want to spend time there. Your commentary not harsh at all.
They have put a 'focal point' since those photos were taken. Public art was added last year. Still doesn't do anything for the space.

The Canada post facility on the north end of the site also hasn't been in use for a while now, so there are no longer trucks and vehicles parked in that space. Its only a matter of time before that parcel is redeveloped.
 

Northern Light

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They have put a 'focal point' since those photos were taken. Public art was added last year. Still doesn't do anything for the space.

The Canada post facility on the north end of the site also hasn't been in use for a while now, so there are no longer trucks and vehicles parked in that space. Its only a matter of time before that parcel is redeveloped.

That building is heritage listed; but NOT designated.

I would certainly want the facades kept, at minimum; and respectfully so.

I wonder about the state of the interior and if there's anything worth preserving/restoring?
 

Northern Light

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Now for something slightly different........lets look at a proposed park that hasn't been built yet, which is still under consultation, and whose preliminary concept is problematic.

This is the new proposed park at the corner of Broadway and Redpath in the Yonge/Eglinton area.

Project page here:


Lets look at the plans:



1616087412151.png


1616087496989.png


1616087535961.png


1616087563467.png


Additional renders at the link above.

So.....what do I think is wrong here:

Lets go back to that first plan:

1616087712761.png


Problem one: The park turns its back on the corner of the Redpath and Broadway intersection! Absolutely not!

The park design here should feature 2 paths meeting in a T-shape, one coming in from the corner, and then the desire-line short cut path from Broadway to Redpath sort of in place here.

This need not increase the amount of hard surface over all; the current layout proposal splits the desire-line path into two with median islands. That is not only unnecessary, but wasteful of precious space. Its a small park.
Use space wisely!

Problem two: 'Playing Mounds'. They are small, incumbered by a seatwall on one side and unlikely to draw any interest from kids. But if they do; they're too small to take the wear and tear; and on behalf of adults everywhere, when I take a seat on a bench, I don't really want a 6 year old climbing all over the place right behind my back.

Problem three: The Waterplay. I have no problem with the idea per se; though given the small space it might make more sense as fountain/art piece than a play area.
However, its positioning within the proposed space is poor, either way.

Its arguably the central feature of the park, but its positioned on one extreme side of the space. Not only is it bad form to put the 'draw' to the space at the edge; but the water feature as placed would seem to form a barrier to a usable pathway, virtually blocking the entrance at one side. If someone wants to cut through the park, that doesn't mean they want to get wet. The feature should be centrally located in the space with ample dry path running around it; and/or it should be off-centre to the rear (south of the space) so that its a draw, but not in the way.

Problem four: Seating. As mentioned before, seating that turns its back on a very small play area for young children is just peculiar. But that aside, not one seat clearly faces the street/park entrances.
The seats in the middle could, but they are visually obstructed by the landscaping layout. That's really quite uninviting. Also this 'pebble seating' doesn't look remotely appealing, and represents over-programming of a small space too.

With all that said; for those of you that live nearby and find something here to comment on...........

The survey for this park consultation is still open and can be found here:

 
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condovo

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A well-deserved evisceration of June Callwood "Park."

As for my nighttime pic in St. James Park, it's worth mentioning that my old iPhone camera greatly exaggerated the brightness of the canopy lighting. In real life, it's quite subdued, almost dim. It looks great in person, not obnoxious as shown here. lol

1616141036617.png
 

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