North America through a designer’s eyes

Features - Designer's Notebook

Lucy Wang spent eight months documenting innovative Canadian and American landscapes. Here’s what she learned.

October 4, 2013
Lucy Wang

Last summer, Lucy Wang travelled more than 14,000 miles to 24 cities to see more than 150 sites and nine architecture and landscape design firms.

Wang, who received her bachelor’s degree in landscape architecture from the University of Maryland, documented the trip at L&L asked her to pick three sites that stood out to her as important, interesting and worth a first (or second) look from professional landscape designers.

Yorkville Village Park, Toronto

A kaleidoscope of diverse landscape and historical elements, Yorkville Village Park manages to capture and reflect the diversity of Toronto without overwhelming its users.

Decorated with numerous accolades, including the 2012 ASLA Landmark Award of Excellence, Yorkville Village Park, one of the very first parks I visited on my trip, still resonates with me months later. A stellar cast of designers – Martha Schwartz, Ken Smith, David Meyer Landscape Architects, and local firm Oleson Worland Architects – sculpted what had originally been a parking lot built over a subway into a celebrated linear park that splices Ontario’s major bioregions and ecosystems into the site’s local history. The width of each landscape “slice” is informed by the lot lines of former Victorian row houses.

The park is divided into eleven sections, each referencing a different Ontario landscape with a distinct collection of plant communities ranging from upland pine forest to marshland. Fitting such a large collection of different plant palettes and landscape styles in the span of just a few city blocks risks creating dissonant effects; however, the designers were able to unite the distinct landscapes as a harmonious whole through careful spatial arrangement and use of overlapping texture and color.

The main highlight and most memorable feature of the park is the 700-ton, billion-year-old Muskoka granite rock extracted from the Canadian Shield, a vast geological area in eastern and central Canada dating back to the Precambrian era. The bedrock outcrop anchors the site and the tactile experience of climbing the rock helps users forge a stronger connection with the landscape.

Though the park is tucked into one of Toronto’s most upscale neighborhoods, I talked to the locals and it seems as though everyone has been to this park – a constant flow of people walk through, take pause, bring kids, or sit quietly to read and people watch.

Citygarden, St. Louis

Unparalleled in its openness and accessibility, the park has no fences, gates or signs asking you to keep your feet off the grass.

In 2010, I attended a lecture by Warren T. Byrd, Jr., FASLA, of Nelson Byrd Woltz, where he introduced Citygarden from design conception to construction in an inspiring tale of how landscape architecture, culture and revitalization efforts could come together to transform two blocks of grass into a vibrant city park.

A cross between sculpture garden, botanical garden and city park, Citygarden’s 2.9 acres continue to draw huge crowds since its summer opening four years ago, and represent hope in a city that has seen a precipitous decline in its population. Citygarden features 24 contemporary and modern sculptures, whimsical water play and a diversity of interactive spaces. Perhaps unparalleled in its openness and accessibility, Citygarden has no fences, gates or any signs asking you to keep your feet off the grass and your hands off the public art.

The park is divided into three areas that represent the region’s native ecology: the northern precinct, which represents the river bluffs; the middle precinct referencing the low floodplain; and the southern precinct, which alludes to cultivated river terraces with its lush gardens. Separating the three precincts are two extended walls: a taller arching wall constructed of warm-hued Missouri stone evoking the region’s limestone bluffs and a cool, serpentine low wall referencing the great riverine landscapes.

The deft combination of historical references, pride in Missouri ecology and culture, and practical considerations of sustainable and stormwater management come together in a dynamic setting. And as an economic catalyst to downtown St. Louis, the park sets a new standard for future development. Citygarden’s efforts to educate users on its multi-layered design are noteworthy – it is through parks like these that the field of landscape architecture will strongly resonate with the general public.

Ira Keller Park, Portland, Ore.

Wet or dry, this vintage fountain installation evokes the power and beauty of the Pacific Northwest.

Designed in 1970, the Ira Keller Fountain Park was the signature landscape architecture work that catapulted Lawrence Halprin to the forefront of international attention. New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable dubbed the design “one of the most important urban spaces since the Renaissance.” Halprin’s park was influential in my life as well: I stumbled across the city landmark’s roaring waterfalls in the summer of 2008, and they helped spark my interest in landscape architecture.

The last and northernmost component of Halprin’s Open Space Sequence, the Ira Keller Fountain was designed in conjunction with architect Angela Danadjieva. Like many of Halprin’s other works, the massive tiered fountain design with its dramatic 25-foot waterfalls is a geometrical abstraction of a sublime nature scene. Framed by an evergreen canopy, 13,000 gallons of water per minute cascade through staggering concrete terraces and platforms, at once suggesting the tall mountain ranges of the High Sierras and the powerful waterfalls of the Northwest.

My second visit to the park was in mid-December when the fountain was dry. Even in winter and without water, the design of Ira Keller Fountain Park stands strong. Just as low tide reveals hidden landscapes, the dry fountain gives users an opportunity to explore previously made inaccessible by flowing currents.

The enormous scale and energy of Halprin’s park elicits that same sense of awe from hiking the spectacular mountainous waterfalls in America’s Northwest. Influenced by his wife, a dancer, Halprin choreographed the space for human movement and for users to climb up the ledges and platforms to wade and splash in the water pools. Compared to the rolling hills of pastoral parks designed as antidotes to urban fatigue, the sense of wonder inspired by these interactive rugged landscapes are much more effective.


The author is a contributing writer for, based in Baltimore, Md.

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Photos courtesy of Lucy Wang