A new recreational trail opened earlier this year in Downsview Park as the latest addition to the redevelopment of the federally-owned Downsview lands. Initiated two years ago as part of the Canada 150 celebrations, the first phase of the Sesqui Trail is now complete and features two gathering plazas, a lookout point, and several public art installations. Designed by FORREC along with local artist John Dickson, the trail and artwork are layered with symbolism representing the history of the Downsview lands, with the project being done in consultation with the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation.
UrbanToronto had the pleasure of meeting with Brad Keeler, Assistant Director of Landscape Architecture at FORREC, for a tour of the Sesqui Trail. Beginning at the north end of the trail, we arrive at what is known as the North Plaza. Here, an installation of cor-ten steel designed by John Dickson is carved with the silhouettes of real historical photographs showing various people, buildings, and, of course, airplanes at Downsview.
A semi-circular plaque details the evolution of the site's history from Indigenous presence, to the first colonial settlers, to the establishment of the De Havilland facilities and CFB Toronto, to the urban park and community that it is today. A pair of wood and concrete benches designed by FORREC finish off the plaza. Everything in the North Plaza, Keeler explains, is arranged in a circle to represent an Indigenous gathering place, as the symbolism of the circle carries great significance in many First Nations cultures.
Moving southward from the North Plaza, the path splits into two intertwined trails that weave their way through the park. Keeler explains that the two weaving paths both carry significant meaning for our collective history. A 4-metre wide paved path represents the presence of colonial people on the site, while a 2-metre wide gravel path represents the presence of Indigenous people on the site. The two paths are separate, but converge and diverge at different points, representing the occasional encounters between European settlers and Indigenous people throughout history. Towards the end of the trail, the two paths run parallel to each other before ending at the South Plaza, representing the coming together of the two cultures and our shared path forward into the future.
Further to the meaning of the route the two paths take, the difference in widths and materials is also representative of each culture's relationship to the land. The wider, paved path — in addition to meeting the less exciting requirements for emergency vehicle access - evokes the heavier, unforgiving footprint that colonial settlers have left on the land, whereas the narrower, gravel path represents Indigenous peoples' gentler and more respectful relationship with nature.
The Sesqui Trail intersects with the existing Circuit Path that winds its way through Downsview Park, as well as with existing informal wood chip trails that snake through the forest. Keeler pointed out the change in material to white concrete at the intersection with the Circuit Path, as well as the pavers defining the outline of the paths at each intersection with other trails, which act as a subtle way to both celebrate the intersection and to alert users of the approaching crossing.
As the paired paths of the Sesqui Trail weave their way through the northern forested area, we pass by a second art installation by John Dickson, which will be a large replica of the DHC-2 Beaver plane. The Beaver was an iconic Canadian bush plane, first engineered and manufactured at Downsview in 1947, which was known for its ability for short take-offs and landings, and its versatility to accommodate skis, floats, or wheels, allowing it to be able to take off or land anywhere. It was widely used for commercial and military purposes, and was used extensively by the US Army, serving in both the Korean and Vietnamese wars. The DHC-2 Beaver installation by Dickson is not yet complete, but a concrete pad awaits its eventual installation.
The northern forested grove is left largely untouched, weaving around several large, old trees believed to be planted by the Boake family, the first European settlers who farmed this land. The original settlement homes and buildings have long since been demolished for the expansion of the air force base.
Further along, the trail opens up onto the Lookout Point that faces due west, overlooking the large pond in Downsview Park. Keeler notes that Downsview Park is actually the highest elevation in the City of Toronto, and on a clear day, the view offers vistas over North York to Etobicoke and the GTA communities beyond.
The lookout point is once again designed to be circular, and features another Dickson installation of four model planes perched atop poles along the edge of the lookout. Each of the four planes are miniature replicas of important aircraft that were manufactured at Downsview and were significant to the development of the aviation industry: the DH.60-M Gipsy Moth, the Mosquito, the DHC-6 Twin Otter, and the Dash 8. The propellers of the model planes spin in the wind, and the planes themselves rotate on the poles in strong winds, adding sound and movement to the installation.
Appropriately, Downsview Park is located directly under the flight path for planes approaching Pearson Airport, so visitors can watch the modern-day aircraft passing overhead as they listen to the replica historical planes spinning in the wind. And as Keeler adds with a chuckle, if you're in the planes themselves, you can clearly see the Sesqui Trail imprinted on the land below.
Continuing south on the trail to the final installation, we walk up a small hill and come to the South Plaza, which marks the endpoint of the Sesqui Trail. Here, at the centre of the circular plaza, is the Treaty Table, a large cor-ten steel and bronze surface that acknowledges the historical treaties between the Government of Canada and the local Indigenous people.
A relief showing one of the earliest existing historical maps of Ontario is imprinted on the table, while inset plaques around the perimeter describe the Indigenous history of the land that stretches back over 11,000 years and acknowledges the 8 treaties signed between the Mississaugas and the Crown. Keeler points out that the bodies of water on the relief map are recessed, so that when it rains they fill with water and simulate the landscape. At the base of the table, Keeler explains that they opted for locally-sourced natural granite and slate stone as a nod to the respect and importance of nature to Indigenous cultures. The Treaty Table was once again designed by John Dickson, in consultation with the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation.
The Sesqui Trail is not yet fully built out, however, with a second phase on the way. Keeler describes that once funding is available, the Lookout Point will be expanded to the east, adding raised seating and further planting. He also points to the newly planted areas of small trees, flowers, and shrubs, which at the moment appear sparse, but will eventually fill in the open spaces when they fully grow out over the next decade.
As well, he explains that though there is fresh grass planted alongside the trail, the intent is to let these patches grow naturally and not maintain them as manicured lawns. The rendering shown below illustrates the eventual appearance of the South Plaza once the vegetation has fully matured.
The Sesqui Trail is open to the public and accessible 24 hours a day, forming part of the network of trails that criss-cross the expansive Downsview Park. Visitors are encouraged to stroll along the trail and experience the public art to learn about the storied history of this cultural site.
Want to get involved in the discussion? Check out our dedicated Forum thread, or leave a comment in the field provided at the bottom of this page.
* * *
UrbanToronto has a new way you can track projects through the planning process on a daily basis. Sign up for a free trial of our New Development Insider here.