Photo Credit: Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates Inc.
Initial Research by: Zoe Goldman
Edited by: Samantha Miller & Nicole Brekelmans
Case study compiled in 2019
Project: Corktown Common
Type of Urban Strategy: Ecological Infrastructure, Water
Type of Project: Urban Park
Location: Toronto, Ontario
Date Designed/Planned: 2006
Construction Completed: 2014
Designer: Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates Inc, Maryanne Thompson Architecture Inc.
Corktown Common is a 16-acre park built for Waterfront Toronto by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates and Maryann Thompson Architects. Corktown is bordering an expanding neighbourhood providing a variety of spaces and functions for the growing residential population. The multiple plantings and programs implemented throughout the park accentuate the visual juxtaposition between infrastructure and ecology. This juxtaposition is based on the urban context and the park’s multiple wildlife habitats such as a marsh, woodland, and prairie, with each space increasing plant and animal diversity.
The park is split up into two halves; the first is riverside that includes multiple plantings on the edge to protect the flood protection landform. This provides the park with flood protection from high water levels and protection from potential erosion. On the adjacent side of the park includes rolling hills with open lawns, a marsh, woodlands; each distinct from their specific plantings. This area provides space for multiple activities such as sledding, sports, and lounging, as well as elevations providing views of the city. The park has multiple play options for new families and their children, but also provides an abundance of space for the ecological functions, promoting sustainability and engagement in urban parks.
Corktown Common is one of several projects involved in the revitalization of Toronto’s coastline. This redevelopment was spearheaded by Waterfront Toronto, with their strategy aiming to use dynamic public spaces to encourage the development of new residential and commercial neighbourhoods (Landscape Architecture Foundation, n.d.). This park is unique in that its development included the development of integral flood prevention infrastructure - a large berm creating a protective barrier between the Don River and the newly developed housing projects (Ibid.).
The park was developed on land that was previously an industrial site turned brownfield as the city’s industry declined (American Society of Landscape Architects, 2016, para.03). The site was in need of remediation as well as flood protection as its location made it quite vulnerable to the elevated water levels of the Don River come springtime, with floodwaters threatening to reach approximately 210-hectares of the city of Toronto (Ibid.).
Through Toronto’s relatively recent expansion, this post-industrial site is now at the edge of the continually expanding downtown, still full of remnants of its industrial past. The east and south sides of the site are bound by the rail as well as the Don River, the Queen Street and Eastern Avenue bridges and a few hydro-electric towers are also near the site (Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates Inc., n.d.). With the expansion of the downtown area, a landform was constructed in order to protect against flooding. The landform is constructed of clay and filler material, creating a solid barrier against the floodwaters of a potential 500-year flood (Landscape Architecture Foundation, n.d.).
Although this landform was serving as crucial flood protection infrastructure for the nearby neighbourhood, it was devoid of any ecological or social value, posing an interesting challenge for Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates throughout this design process (Landscape Architecture Foundation, n.d.).
PROJECT BACKGROUND AND HISTORY
When looking at a map of York (Present Day Toronto) in 1815 it shows that the site of Corktown Common is situated within the northern portion of a large marsh, called Ashbridges Bay Marsh (Solano, 2017, pp.111-112). This was one of the largest and highly biodiverse freshwater wetlands that had existed in North America, however, it was unfortunately destroyed as a result of development during the industrial revolution (Ibid., pp.111-112). This development caused the serious degradation of the Don River, as the river became somewhat of a place for people to dump their waste, including the disposal of sewage into the waters. In fact, in the late 1800s this area became a potential health hazard, leading to the dredging, filling, channelizing and draining of the lower portion of the Don River in an attempt to resolve this huge problem (Ibid., pp.112-113). With all this manipulation of the river, flooding became a large problem in the area (Ibid., p. 114).
This prevented the development of the area for quite some time, but with the construction of the Flood Protection Landform, West Don Lands could now be developed. Although this serves as very important infrastructure for the neighbourhood, it was not providing any social or ecological benefits, subsequently creating the need for the park's development (Landscape Architecture Foundation, n.d.). This park is a part of the widespread development plan for Toronto’s waterfront aimed at the ecological and social revitalization of this underutilized edge condition (Ibid.).
GOAL OF THE PROJECT
DESIGN, DEVELOPMENT, AND DECISION MAKING PROCESS
The park is situated on top of a five-meter-tall flood protection landform and allows for the development of West Don Lands with little concern for flood events (Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates Inc., n.d.). The design for the Corktown Commons combined the creation of topography changes, with programming, and a plant palette that includes some native plant species to develop a park that celebrates the juxtaposition of infrastructure and ecology within the city of Toronto (Ibid.). The park collects stormwater, and water from its splash park, and allows it to be filtered through a constructed marsh and then stored and used for the irrigation of the park; the combined water saved daily is projected to be approximately 550,000 litres in the peak season (Ibid.).
The park is developing into a living natural system through the work of the horticultural staff with Toronto Parks (Ibid.). Areas with implemented habitats have approximately 50,000 cubic meters of manufactured planting soil underneath, with different soil types and depths, designed to create a variety of habitats such as marsh, prairie and woodlands (Ibid.). Native wildflowers have also been allowed to grow and spread as they please throughout the park, providing support for pollinator species throughout the spring and summer (Ibid.).
The berm can be split into two sections, the dry or flood protected side and the wet or floodable side. The floodable area is the side of the berm that is closest to the river and has some walking bike paths but is less programmed, as at sometimes of the year it may be inaccessible, while the flood protected side has many more programmed elements such as lawns, a splash park and playground (American Society of Landscape Architects, 2016). The separation of the two sides of the berm also demonstrates a separation between passive and active recreation, passive being the enjoyment of the constructed nature and active being the use of a playground or splash park (Ibid.).
ROLE OF DESIGNERS
Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates Inc. were the landscape architects responsible for the design of the entire park and all sections within it, including planting palette and stormwater collection system (Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates Inc., n.d.).
Maryanne Thompson Architecture Inc. was responsible for the design of the pavilion structure located within the park (American Society of Landscape Architects, 2016).
Programmed elements include: an off-leash dog area, firepit, lounge, multi-purpose field, playground, and a splash park (City of Toronto, n.d.)
Also included are a constructed marsh and a sledding area (Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates Inc., n.d.).
This project was led by Waterfront Toronto, an organization created and funded by the federal, provincial, and municipal governments, with the intention of the redevelopment and revitalization of the underutilized coastline of the nearby Lake Ontario (Landscape Architecture Foundation, n.d.).
The project had a budget of 26.2 million dollars and saved approximately 1.1 million dollars through the reuse of construction materials already on site, instead of having it removed and disposed of (Ibid.).
The main challenges are the desire to create a connection to the shore as well as increase the ecological and social value to the site, while at the same time ensuring that the integrity of the flood protection landform is not compromised (Landscape Architecture Foundation, n.d.).
The response was the addition of five meters of height to the berm at the high points of the park as varying topography was implemented within the design (Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates Inc., n.d.). The park also has a handful of programmed elements that create an experience for everyone within.
GENESIS OF PROJECT
Waterfront Toronto moved forward with their revitalization plan for the waterfront areas. The strategy involves the creation of notable public spaces to encourage further development of new neighbourhoods in the area (Landscape Architecture Foundation, n.d.). Corktown Common is unique to these parks and public spaces as it incorporates flood protection infrastructure into its design (Ibid.). Arguably the park was integral in the generation of the adjacent development as its design was accompanied by this flood protection landform (Ibid.).
The first phase of the project was completed in 2012 and became the centrepiece of West Don Lands. The core development began with 1000 housing units, originally developed for use during the 2015 Pan American Games, and later to be sold to new residents of the neighbourhood (Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates Inc., n.d.).
American Society of Landscape Architects, 2016. Corktown Common: Flood protection and neighbourhood park. [online] Available at: < https://www.asla.org/2016awards/172397.html> [Accessed 11 March 2019].
City of Toronto, n.d. Corktown Common. [online] Available at: [Accessed 11 March 2019].
Landscape Architecture Foundation, n.d. Corktown Common. [online] Available at: [Accessed 11 March 2019].
Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates Inc., n.d. Corktown Common. [online] Available at: [Accessed 11 March 2019].
Rottle, N., Yocom, K., 2011. Basics landscape architecture 02: ecological design.Lausanne: AVA Books.
Solano, L. , 2017. From wasteland to parkland: The making of Corktown Common. Journal of Green Building. [Online] 12 (4), 111–140. [Accessed 11 March 2019].
Urban Toronto, 2017. Corktown Common. [online] Available at: [Accessed 11 March 2019].