Our parklets have long provided us with urban caesuras; now some are giving us a bit of a backbeat

My friends and I used to walk home from school every day along Bolton Avenue in south Riverdale. We’d often stop in “the park” to play on the swingset, hang out on the bench and talk about whether Spider-Man could beat Dracula in a fight. This was how — before we were introduced to the therapeutic virtues of alcohol — we’d unwind.

The park in question was actually a sliver of green space — a parkette as we’ve come to call them — at the corner of Bolton and Allen Avenues, no bigger than the lots of the Victorian row houses that surrounded it. There were a few shrubs and flowers near the entrance, a stretch of grass no longer than a bowling lane and a sandy area with a swingset. It’s an afterthought of a public space, so small it doesn’t appear on the maps on the City of Toronto website. It’s used for the most part by its immediate neighbours for the relief of their dogs.

This, I didn’t realize as a kid, was at odds with the common conception of the ideal park. When the topic turns to public parks in Toronto, we’re quick to think of High Park, Withrow Park and Christie Pits, sprawling wildernesses within the city that approximate the model set down by Fredrick Law Olmstead (1822-1903), who designed Central Park in New York City and Mount Royal in Montreal. Olmstead (the first person to call himself a landscape architect) felt, according to the historians at http://www.fredericklawolmsted.com, that “the perfect antidote to the stress and artificialness of urban life was a nice stroll through a pastoral park. He foresaw places with graceful undulating greensward and scattered growths of trees.” Places families can come for an afternoon or couples can come for an evening and be surrounded by an approximation of nature so persuasive they might forget they are in the heart of the city.

No doubt such places are important to the life of healthy cities. I, however, was born, raised and live comfortably in the urban environment. To me there has never been a better use for a park than the one on Bolton Avenue, which we would happen upon almost accidentally while traveling between the stresses of elementary school and the chores of home. A place to just relax and have fun along the way. Like the rests in a piece of music that are as important as the notes that surround them, such parks are of a piece with the other elements of city life.

It was while I was working as a short-order cook near Yonge and Bloor that I found an entirely new kind of park that scratched the same itch, again discovered by accident while escaping the stress of the moment. During breaks from the every-three-minute deadlines of preparing bacon and eggs, I would wander along Cumberland Avenue, where I discovered The Village of Yorkville Park.

Built over what was once a parking lot, Yorkville Park (on the south side of Cumberland stretching west from Bellair) was designed by Oleson Worland Architects to celebrate the surrounding neighbourhood and reflect the diversity of the Canadian landscape. This reflection of Canada’s landscape, however, is accomplished with no sprawling lawns or wooded clusters. In fact, most of the park is paved.

To my untrained eye, Yorkville Park looks like modern art on the street: a series of unique gardens side by side to mimic the townhouse structure on the north side of the street. At one end, a paved square of land is dotted with Scot’s pines growing out of circular benches. Further west, a weary cook can sit on benches set under metal archways and admire a neat row of crabapple trees. Next, there’s a marshy wetland crossed neatly an X of mathematical-looking boardwalks. A silver-coloured metal structure houses a waterfall bordering one side of a courtyard filled with benches and chairs, while a 650-tonne hunk of billion-year-old granite, cut out of the Canadian Shield and transported to the park in pieces, forms the other border.

You can see parts of Bloor Street from the park, and the skyscrapers and store entrances are never out of view. And yet, in the sparse details, the geometric layouts, the sheer oddity and magnificence of the hunk of granite, Yorkville Park, an entirely urban place, is capable of transporting one away from the stresses of the rat race — it’s like wandering around in a piece of art. The park has received the American Survey of Landscape Architects Award, yet the highest praise I can give it is that on some afternoons in the mid-’90s, it kept me from wanting to throw frying pans against the wall.

Since then, I’ve discovered a few other unique parks in the downtown core that collide with the common pastoral concept of parkland, with magical results. Less like the rests in a piece of music than like the sudden time changes and atonal scales of modern jazz, they’re an interal, slightly odd but fascinating part of Toronto.

If Yorkville struck me as park-as-modern-art, the Sculpture Garden on King between Jarvis and Church is modern art in the park. Right now, the grassy surface in the centre of the park serves as home to a two-storey tall chrome lawn chair. Set in below a garden framed by ivy-covered brick walls, wrought-iron fencing and a waterfall, the sculpture (“Double Storey” by Ilan Sandler) looks fascinatingly out of place outdoors on the cusp of the financial district. Seating on all sides provides a variety of angles from which to view the sculpture (installations selected by a city panel rotate every few months), against a variety of backdrops.

A few blocks northwest, on a mere 1/2 acre of land between Temperance and Richmond just west of Yonge, is Cloud Gardens Park, for which designer George Baird won the Governor General’s Award. The western border of the park features planted flowers and shrubs and a neat line of trees. A half-moon of grass forms the centre of the park, surrounded by a stone walk with tables and chairs. On the eastern border of the park, a maze of ramps that ascends back and forth to various benches and vantage points. Above the walk is a memorial wall of art pieces (a sort of metal-and-brick quilt designed by Margaret Priest and constructed by the Building Trades Union as a tribute to the construction workers of the city). The walkway continues past a roaring waterfall that sprays mist onto the pathway and rises finally to a slotted-metal platform that overhangs the park, offering a view of the gardens below and the financial towers beyond.

Most recently, and most impressively, I discovered the Music Garden on Queen’s Quay West between Bathurst and Spadina, a set of sprawling gardens designed by the cellist Yo-Yo Ma and landscape designer Julie Moir Messervy. The park is designed to interpret Bach’s First Suite for Unaccompanied Cello, each movement of which is represented by a section of the garden.

The Music Garden has dozens of varieties of shrubs, brightly coloured perennials, long grasses, boulders and trees of different varieties, but, like a piece of classical music, not a single element seems unplanned. The garden is completely orchestrated, with different views revealed every few steps along winding stone and concrete pathways, leading to magical set pieces. A maypole at the centre of a broad swirl of a path runs among tall grasses; a boulder in the middle of a grove of evergreens forms a stage; a set of stone and grass steps leads down from a circular, steel pavilion to form an amphitheatre that faces a stone stage at the foot of a weeping willow tree. On Thursday nights and Sunday afternoons from June through the end of September, musicians perform with Lake Ontario as a backdrop.

From nearly anywhere in the music garden you can look south to the lake, west to the Canada Malting Company silos, north to the skyline and east to the CN Tower.

Like the other parks, the Music Garden seems entirely at home in the city, reflecting its attitude and design sensibility while offering a relief from its manic intensity. Which suggests an interesting use for parks. Not an antidote to urban life, but a refreshing facet of it. You can spend a few minutes or a few hours exploring these architectural marvels without ever forgetting you’re in the city.

It occurs to me that the tiny parkette on Bolton might benefit from this type of makeover. The city is dotted with such parks, such tiny, underused lawns: there’s a patch of green across from the CTV building at Yonge and Davenport; a park used primarily as a shortcut for pedestrians on Adelaide near Portland; a dormant circle of grass called Gwendolyn MacEwan Park on Walmer Road just north of Bloor; blocks of little-used parkettes along the subway corridor along the Danforth. As the city debates its development future in the midst of election season, let me suggest commissioning architects to transform these green patches into works of urban art.

Originally published in Eye Weekly on August 28, 2003.