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Environmental Restoration in the Urban Landscape

By Andrew B. Anderson, Schollen and Company, Inc.

Terraview Park and Willowfield Gardens Park consist of adjoining parkland shared by two schools and the surrounding residential communities.

Located in Toronto, Ontario, within the watershed of the Don River -- one of the regions most culturally and ecologically significant rivers -- Terraview Park and Willowfield Gardens Park are award winning and precedent-setting models of the potential for environmental restoration within the context of an urban environment.

Over the past 10 years, extensive collaborative efforts between volunteer groups, community members and public agencies and governments have been focused on restoring the health of the Don River. Conservation groups are continuing to actively create and restore habitats; they are scouring the Don Valley and its tributaries for garbage, cleaning up the watercourses, planting native plants, building boardwalks over wetlands and rediscovering the routes of long-forgotten Don creeks that have become little more than underground sewers.


Prior to its restoration, Massey Creek was channeled in concrete as it bisected two sterile and featureless parks.

From its headwaters in the provincially significant Oak Ridges Moraine located to the north of Toronto, the Don River and its numerous tributaries flow through the heart of Toronto prior to emptying into Lake Ontario. As illustrated in the dramatic accompanying "before" aerial photograph, one of these tributaries, Massey Creek, had been channeled as it runs through Terraview Park and Willowfield Gardens Park a number of decades ago. However, as a result of this successful restoration project, its waters flow through the site unencumbered again, as they once did.

Terraview Park and Willowfield Gardens Park consist of adjoining parkland that is shared by two schools and the surrounding established residential communities. Of significance to the eventual restoration of the site was its proximity of one of North America's busiest highways, Ontario's Highway 401 that runs from the Detroit/Windsor border crossing in the southwest to the Quebec border in the east. The highway is located immediately to the north of Terraview Park at the north end of the project site. The combined result of the proximity to the highway and the surrounding residential streets necessitated the development of an innovative and effective stormwater management plan for the site. Prior to the restoration of Massey Creek and the complete redesign and naturalization of the site, the two parks were little more than wide open expanses of pesticide-laden grass bisected by an open concrete storm sewer and abutted by a major highway.

Originally inspired by the idea of regenerating the concrete channeled Massey Creek to a semblance of its natural state, the redevelopment plan for Terraview and Willowfield Gardens Park was one of the first and most complex steps in the long-term plan to regenerate the Don River watershed. The former city of Scarborough (now part of the amalgamated city of Toronto) retained Schollen & Company, Inc., to transform these two formerly sterile and uninspiring parks into successful case studies for natural regeneration, stormwater management and environmental education. The combined efforts of a multidisciplinary team of professionals involving landscape architects, water resource engineers, hydrologists, civil engineers and ecologists--along with an extensive program of community and school board facilitation and consultation--contributed to the success of this progressive project.


Natural stone and native plantings, including potentilla, American elder and chocecherry are used as edge treatments around the wetlands to deter nuisance waterfowl.

Natural Regeneration

The restored watercourse now consists of a series of interconnected stream corridors, wetland cells, ponds and peat bogs. Through the application of fluvial and hydrogeological processes combined with design theory, the foundations were laid for natural regeneration to proceed to restore the site. Aquatic and terrestrial plan material was used extensively to help filter the water prior to it reaching the receiving watercourse; in addition, native trees and shrubs were planted throughout the site to provide shade and wildlife habitat opportunities. Natural stone inlets and outlets and other necessary functional components of the design are today almost completely concealed from view by aquatic plant communities. Only the fish and frogs know that they are there.


Natural limestone armourstone and native plant material, including red twig dogwood, highbush cranberry, and flowering raspberry, surround the new playground that features structures by GameTime.

Two habitat islands were created to provide additional habitat opportunities as well as to provide aesthetic focal points; they undoubtedly act as the setting for many imaginary adventure stories in the minds of the students whose classrooms look out over them. A large berm was created at the north end of the site to act as a buffer between the adjacent highway and the site. Extensive plantings of native salt-tolerant plant species contribute to help mitigate the effects of noise, runoff and saltspray from the highway.


Massey Creek has returned to its natural state as it flows towards the Don River.

Stormwater Management

Because of the proximity of the site to the highway and to the surrounding community, innovative stormwater techniques were necessary to filter the stormwater runoff prior to its discharge into the watershed. The integration of these unique techniques into actively used parkland has resulted in a regeneration project that has become the inspiration for other bold and innovative regeneration projects throughout the Don River watershed and the Toronto region.

The naturalized wetlands filter stormwater runoff from the adjacent community and highway, providing functional and beautiful terrestrial and aquatic natural habitats and inspiring and educating students and community members. Innovative stormwater management techniques used in the project include a peat bog, a subsurface infiltration system installed beneath a multi-use sports field, subsurface storage beneath a playground, a waterplay area that provides baseflow augmentation, and the adaptation of a former concrete channel to create a subsurface detention system. Any stormwater flow is filtered prior to entering the watershed resulting in significant benefits to the watershed downstream, including improved water quality and enhanced terrestrial and aquatic habitats.


In an effort to promote awareness of the region's ecology, an outdoor classroom that overlooks the pond at Willowfield Gardens Park has been built.

Environmental Education

The protection and enhancement of the natural environment is the central focus of the stewardship responsibilities of landscape architects. Given that Terraview Park and Willowfield Gardens Park are each framed by two schools, the opportunities for environmental education and interpretation could not be overstated. An outdoor classroom located in Willowfield Gardens Park overlooks one of the ponds and habitat islands; students from the adjacent school are encouraged to explore and observe the natural systems located on their doorstep throughout the four seasons. Environmental education has been integrated into the school curricula, as the site provides an ever-dynamic and demonstrative outdoor learning environment and laboratory for students, teachers and community members.

Recreation amenities integrated with environmental features include a multi-use play field which conceals an innovative stormwater filtration system; a reconfigured softball diamond; a water park designed to augment baseflow to the watercourse; children's playgrounds with integral subsurface storage and infiltration systems; and interpretive trails.


Massey Creek Watershed Regeneration - Phase 1

Site Plan Key

  1. Naturalized stormwater management pond / wetlands
  2. Peat bot stormwater management system
  3. Natural habitat islands
  4. Playground and water park with subsurface filtration system for watercourse baseflow augmentation
  5. Soccer field with subsurface stormwater filtration system
  6. Baseball diamond
  7. Outdoor classroom node overlooking wetland / habitat island
  8. Outdoor classroom node overlooking peat bog & watercourse
  9. Pedestrian bridge
  10. Pedestrian pathway
  11. Pedestrian access
  12. Naturalized plantings

Recreation Opportunities

Of prime importance to the daily use of the site was the integration of active recreation components into the newly restored parks. Working within the constraints of limited space, two large multi-use sports fields were integrated into the plan, in addition to a large playground and water play area. The sports fields are framed by berms and native plantings, while the playground and water play area overlook one of the newly created wetland cells. Stonedust recreational trails meander throughout the site and provide an interesting and safe alternative to running on asphalt trails or roadways.

In addition to active play areas, it is important to provide areas for quiet passive play opportunities for children. Gently bermed lawn areas are located in close proximity to the play areas to provide opportunities for passive play and winter sliding (imperative to help make the best of Canadian winters). Ample seating for children, parents, caregivers and teachers is provided through the inclusion of benches that coordinate with the play equipment. Limestone armourstone is used to retain the grades around the playground and outdoor classroom. These boulders also provide endless opportunities for play and exploration as well as informal seating.


With Willowfield Gardens Public School nearby, the restored site provides many opportunities for creative play, exploration and learning.

Role of the Landscape Architect

As project manager for the multidisciplinary team of professionals that collaborated on this project, Schollen & Company, Inc., took an "environment-first" approach to develop innovative design concepts while challenging teammates to bring them to fruition. Collaboration and dialogue between the community, school boards and the municipality were consistently facilitated by the landscape architect and led to the clarification of the goals and objectives of all interest groups. The success of this project is due in large part to the firm's unique and inclusive approach to problem solving.


The natural stone retaining walls address soil management and erosion control concerns, while creating an aesthetically pleasing and sculpted buffer.

The landscape architecture firm also filled the role of educator, working with teachers and students at the adjacent schools to explain the functional aspects of the project, and involving students in the design of various components of the parks. This project provided students, community members and allied professionals with an outdoor environmental teaching resource and educated them about the possibilities for innovative approaches to regeneration and stormwater management. The ecological and environmental innovations that were developed by the landscape architect demonstrate the stewardship responsibilities held by the profession. The success of the project, including the connection of the two parks to their greater natural context, demonstrates the role of landscape architects as leaders, innovators and community role models.


Stepped pools were credited for stormwater management, and to provide an ideal setting for natural plants and wildlife.

Local & Regional Significance

The regeneration of Terraview/Willowfield Gardens Park is considered to be one of the boldest and most successful regeneration projects in the Don River watershed, one of the region's most significant river systems. An extensive community consultation process, along with the innovative approaches to stormwater management and naturalization, have made this project a precedent-setting success story. The project was recognized as the Best Environmental Restoration Project in 1999 by the Toronto Remedial Action Plan for its innovation and significant environmental benefits. This success, both ecological and aesthetic, has resulted in a direct correlation between environmental enhancement and economic benefit; adjacent properties have increased in value due to their proximity to the parks. Now, much of the appeal and character of the surrounding residential communities is linked to the presence of the parks, their natural landscapes and their associated attributes and amenities.


Gently bermed lawn areas are located in close proximity to play areas to provide opportunities for "passive" play and winter sliding.

The regeneration of Terraview/Willowfield Gardens Park is of significant importance to the adjacent community. The schoolyards are reconnected to their greater context, and they have been transformed into valuable community resources for nature interpretation, environmental education, and active and passive recreation. Newly created habitats and native plantings have brought wildlife back to the area and enriched its ecological diversity. Through an extensive community facilitation and multidisciplinary consultation process, the public was exposed to the wide variety of design, facilitation and ecological restoration skills held by landscape architects.

Special Factors

The severity of the constraints--environmental, social, physical and budgetary--that were associated with this project necessitated an innovative approach to problem solving. In order to eliminate the pervasive attitude that the degradation of the Massey Creek subwatershed was irreparable and any attempts at regeneration would only achieve limited success, an inclusive process of community consultation and professional collaboration was initiated. The landscape architect's perseverance ensured that all aspects of the project were environmentally responsible, even the concrete from the former channel was reused on site to construct the subsurface infiltration system.


New pedestrian bridges link the site with the adjacent community and provide vantages from which to observe the watercourse. School children and nearby residents are now free to explore all areas of Terraview Park and Willowfield Gardens Park.

A number of new pedestrian bridges were designed and installed to link previously disparate areas of the site. School children and community members alike are now free to explore all areas of the site. In addition to their role in improving site access and circulation, the bridges also provide vantage points from which to watch the waters of Massey Creek flow as they make their way to the Don River and eventually complete their journey at Lake Ontario.

Conclusion

Terraview Park and Willowfield Gardens Park have been transformed into a significant community resource offering a diversity of recreational amenities, play opportunities and natural habitats for all user groups. The success of this restoration project demonstrates that connections between the natural environment, recreation and education are both realistic and achievable.

Andrew B. Anderson, B.L. Arch., OALA, CSLA, ASLA, is a fully accredited landscape architect with Schollen & Company Inc., in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.


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June 17, 2019, 8:45 am PDT

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