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French Royalist Park

By Kim Allerton OALA, Principal, Northwood Associates Landscape Architects Ltd.

Custom play equipment (Landscape Structures Inc.) was placed on opposite sides of the central walkwayI to evoke a village street and create a human scale. A juvenile honey locust shows its foliage in the summertime view (above). The view here (below) was taken in January when the trees and Kentucky bluegrass turf are showing their natural response to the Canadian winter.
Photos courtesy of Northwood Associates Landscape Architects Ltd.

The Town of Richmond Hill is a distinctive community on the northern edge of Toronto, Ontario and is one of Canada's fastest growing communities. Its population increased 39 percent between 1991 and 2001 and the current population of 173,000 is projected to grow to at least 193,000 over the next 10 years. Although Richmond Hill is changing rapidly, it has retained its strong historical roots and has remained a community with a friendly, down-to-earth flavor.

Richmond Hill contains a diversity of beautiful and important features including glacial Oak Ridges Moraine, kettle lakes, tributaries of three major river systems and significant forests and wetlands. Close to 2,000 acres of public parks and open space protect these important natural features and provide recreational amenities for residents.

The playground is divided into a "senior" module (ages 5-12) at left, and a "junior" zone (ages 18 months to 5 years) at right here. The pod and balance beam features at lower right serve as play equipment and as seating for rest and social interaction.

A Theme for Every Park

In recent years the Richmond Hill Parks, Recreation and Culture Department has taken a thematic approach to the design of new parks. This approach was adopted after staff and consulting landscape architects conducted a brainstorming session to analyze what makes great parks great and suggest ways to make Richmond Hill's parks more unique. It was felt that most parks in areas of new development, from 'parkettes' to larger community parks, had a sameness about them that was not helpful in creating a sense of place and building communities. If each new park could be designed around a distinct theme, it would have distinguishing and memorable characteristics that would set it apart from other parks and other neighborhoods.

Stone gate posts formalize the park entrances. Bronze plaques with the park name and Town of Richmond Hill logo are mounted on the gate posts. The posts themselves are not bricks and grout but are precast products shipped in segments that are then stacked to a desired height.

Since that brainstorming session in 1998, parks in Richmond Hill have been designed with themes centered around music, mathematics, communication, transportation, ecology, glaciers, industry, agriculture, historical themes and more. The most successful thematic designs are those that have been articulated in the conceptual design of the park, the basic structure of the park, as well as being expressed in the detailing. It is also helpful to draw on something from within the community or park site itself in selecting a theme. In this way, the historical, cultural, community, environmental and visual landscape contexts can be interwoven in a rich and meaningful open space fabric.

A dusting of snow highlights this formal layout modeled on parterre garden design. The raised ring planters at upper right were constructed with poured-in-place concrete. Below the (summer) view shows iris and lily growing in the diamond-shaped central planter.

Refugees Flee Revolution

In the case of French Royalist Park, the selected theme was centered on a fascinating local story. In the late 1700s, a group of aristocrats fleeing from the French Revolution settled near the present location of French Royalist Park, in what was then wilderness.

Names of the area's 18th-century French settlers are etched into the planter at the seating node. The text was etched using a sandblasting technique and protected with a lithochrome paint product.

In general, it was not a very successful settlement as the aristocrats were not predisposed to the pioneer lifestyle, and there are harrowing accounts in the Richmond Hill histories of the attempts of these nobles to clear and farm the land. Nonetheless, some of the settlers persevered and became long-standing members of the community.

The light fixture at the center of the planter is "Cleveland" by King Lumenaire.

Historical facts aside, this theme was thoroughly-embraced by the park landscape architects as it offered a unique opportunity to develop a design that juxtaposes formal design elements against a natural landscape to illustrate the attempts of the colonists to impose their will over the wilderness. The resulting design blends the formal and the naturalistic and successfully accommodates the given park program on the 7.4-acre site flanked on two sides by a Catholic and a public elementary school.

The local maintenance department specified these large trash receptacles by Toronto Fabricating. The department wanted big cans to limit visits by maintenance crews.

Park Design Elements:

  • Mini soccer field
  • 3 lit tennis courts
  • Basketball skills court
  • Two age-specific playgrounds
  • Seating areas
  • Walkways and connections to trails in the adjacent open space.

Benches by Toronto Fabricating reflect the park theme in their design and color. The plant at left is native red-osier dogwood, notable for its red color in fall and winter. The 4 x 8 in. pavers are laid on sand in a traditional running bond pattern.

Formal Garden and Colonial Elements

The formality of the design pays tribute to French Renaissance landscape elements the de Puisaye settlers would have been familiar with and perhaps longing for. There are also Colonial aspects to the design. Colonial designs typically had rigidly-laid-out beds, walkways and hedges. Settlers often tried to impose formal axial symmetry; sculpting 'civilization' in the wilderness. The winding walkways and trails through the hedgerows reflect and represent the 'wilderness' that the settlers had to contend with and were trying to conquer.

The basketball skills court provides play opportunities for teens and others in the community. An existing mature hedgerow bisects the park block and was used to separate the basketball play area from the rest of the park. Sugar maples, white ash and black cherry make up the feature. Apple trees (one overhangs the path at center) were also retained on site.

The design team challenged playground manufacturers to design custom play equipment to reflect the theme. The proposal prepared by ABC Recreation using Landscape Structures Inc. (LSI) equipment was selected as it clearly evoked the feeling of the French chateau with its peaked turrets on tall towers, while at the same time providing a variety of play 'events' with a range of challenge. The two main structures were placed opposite each other across the central walkway to create a village street scale to foster creative and imaginative play. A large berm was created next to the playground to provide a place for winter sliding and create a 'lookout' for imaginative play. This adds to the play opportunities and helps to shape the playground space by creating a visual edge.

The park's three tennis courts feature an asphalt surface, the region's preferred tennis surface. (Asphalt has good flexibility for the local freeze-thaw cycle.) The job was completed by local contractor Laven Associates.

The main walkway through the park is a promenade linking the playground area, formal gardens adjacent the playground and a circular seating node strategically located next to the existing hedgerow where all walkways meet. It creates another seating opportunity away from the playground and a vantage point where one can overlook the park activities and playground. Just beyond the hedgerow is the basketball skills court, aligned on the central axis and linked to the main walkway by a trail through the hedgerow trees. This places the basketball activity next to the school and in an area where the inevitable noise and commotion it generates will not likely be bothersome to other park users or neighbors.

To maximize the playing season the soccer field is level end-to-end and cross-sloped at two percent to provide good drainage in the spring and fall. Player benches by Anderson Recreation define the sidelines here. A berm can be seen along the goal line opposite the camera here--it was created using excess fill on site and provides additional spectator seating.

Defining Spaces

Entrance gates provide a sense of entry to the park and the wrought iron fencing, in addition to its sophisticated, formal appearance, enhances the safety of the playground by providing a barrier along the park frontage where the busy adjacent street curves around the park. It expands the usable area of the park for young children by making the grass between the playground and the street a safe place to play. A berm next to the soccer field functions in a similar way by helping to prevent soccer balls from being kicked out of the park onto the street while at the same time providing a place to sit and watch soccer games and practices.

Soil to build the berm was obtained from excess fill on site--solving two problems at once.

ABOVE & BELOW: The fleur-de-lis of the French monarchy is repeated throughout the park and appears on the play equipment, the wrought iron fence and signage. The gas-light-inspired fixture above is "Dayform Traditionaire" by Cooper Lighting. Blue and gold were the colors of French royalty and are used throughout the park.

The tennis courts and the main walkways are lit and lighting fixtures were selected for their historic character. It is interesting to note that Richmond Hill was the first municipality in Canada to have a light control bylaw. The 'Bylaw to Regulate Light Pollution was passed in 1995, long before light fixtures had a dark-sky-friendly rating. This can, in part, be attributed to the presence in the heart of the town of the University of Toronto's David Dunlap Observatory, where Dr. C. T. Bolton made his observations that contributed to the discovery of the black hole phenomenon.

Kompan play equipment was selected to complement the LSI custom composite structures. A berm adjacent to the playground (at left rear here) provides a vantage point and good winter sliding. The asphalt used here is an economical option, but also the preferred surface for Rollerbladers and moms with strollers.

Royal blue and yellow, the colors of the French royalty, are repeated throughout the park and the fleur-de-lis symbol is represented in the playground banners, interpretive signage and wrought iron fence panels. Lilies and irises, thought to be the origin of the fleur-de-lis symbol, as well as hybrid French lilacs, are included in the plantings.

The fleur-de-lis may date to the 5th century and is thought to be modeled on the European Iris pseudacorus.

Apart from the tennis courts, park lighting was limited to the main walkway loop through the park. With a leading observatory nearby, Richmond Hill was a pioneer in dark-sky lighting in the 1970s. High-sodium lamps like these use less energy and affect adjacent areas less than white-light metal halide products.

The French Royalist Park design is distinctive and unique, reflecting the theme, the site and the surrounding community. The Town of Richmond Hill considers this park to be highly successful, particularly when put together with the fact that it was achieved within the town's construction and operating budgets - no easy feat when formal elements are incorporated in a design.

Park construction was completed in 2004 and both adjacent schools have now also been built. The park has become a meeting place for the community and is well-used by all ages. For landscape architects, of course, this is the ultimate test and reward.

French Aristocracy in Richmond Hill

French Royalist Park commemorates a unique group of early Richmond Hill residents - the de Puisaye settlers from France who settled in this area in a community officially known as Windham, in the closing years of the eighteenth century.

The colorful and eccentric Comte de Puisaye led a group of 41 exiled French royalists, aristocrats and would-be settlers, who sailed from Europe in the summer of 1798. But could such aristocrats survive in the Upper Canadian wilderness? Many officials had reservations about their ability to do so, especially in a community set apart from other settlers who might help them to learn the necessary skills. Nonetheless, land grants were given, along with rations, building materials, tools and seed for spring sowing.

The Comte de Puisaye sailed to present-day Ontario with 41 French aristocrats in the summer of 1798. The realities of frontier life soon led the upper-class settlers to abandon their experiment in self-sufficiency, however. The text here is also reproduced on an interpretive sign at the park.

By January 1799 the settlers had arrived and set to work with enthusiasm clearing the trees and building log cabins. It must have been very different from their former home across the ocean, with its warm sunshine, cultivated fields and close proximity of friends. As the spring of 1799 blossomed and more emigre settlers arrived, disillusionment seemed to set in.

Servants brought from Europe deserted the enterprise and melting snow and thawing ground made the road to York (Toronto) impassable for days at a time. There were long delays in the arrival of needed supplies.

An interpretive plaque off the central walkway explains the park name and outlines the history of French aristocracy in Richmond Hill. The text is reproduced on this page. The sign itself is a fiberglass product that has proven durable and fade-resistant at other sites.

The Comte himself began to feel that his people were unequal to the hardships of reducing such heavily timbered forests into cultivation. The emigre landowners proved slow to learn the art of farming: oxen broke through fences and ate newly growing crops, trees were accidentally felled on houses. They seemed to make little progress after their initial weeks of hard work. Given their aristocratic background, they preferred the society of York, such as it was, to the hardships of pioneer life.

Before the first year was out, individual Windham colonists began deserting the land. Some stayed on the required seven years and obtained clear title to their Yonge Street lands and then left.

Le Chevalier Michel Saigeon seems to have been the only Windham settler who survived successfully as a pioneer in Upper Canada. He dropped the titled part of his name and all it implied, and embraced New World attitudes. He married, fathered fifteen children and his grave lies in the Temperanceville United Church cemetery at Bathurst Street and King Sideroad.

From "Early Days in Richmond Hill" by Robert M. Stamp (1991).

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October 15, 2019, 4:44 am PDT

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