Park Life: from Conquest to Conservation

Jun 18 • Articles, TORONTO, Urban Spaces • 2732 Views • 45 Comments on Park Life: from Conquest to Conservation


By Deidre Miller…

In Glasgow: Queen’s Park 

It’s a clear day. The sky is a rich, intense blue and there’s not a cloud in sight. Most summer days in Glasgow are sunny, then rainy, then sunny, then rainy, but for once, there’ll be no rain. It’s also 22∞ C. For Scotland, that’s scorching hot.


On the south side, Queen’s Park is full of tenement dwellers wearing the clothes that they keep in storage boxes under the bed for summer holidays in Spain. There are model sailboats in Queen’s Park’s boating pond, which is usually just a habitat for a vast community of seagulls and pigeons. A single, regal and unusually civilised pair of swans are there too, grooming and napping on the water. Children and dogs are frolicking on the hillsides and adults are sunning themselves on blankets.


At the duck pond, the waterfowl swim happily around their faux-natural habitat. It’s  part of Sir Joseph Paxton’s original park design and 150 years later, it is edged with tall reeds and wildflowers, and the trees on the islands are mature. At first glance, it looks like a natural pond. However, there are glimpses of concrete at the edges, and the litter in the water is a rude reminder that this is an under-funded urban park. On the other side of the park, the Victorian glasshouse looks down on the poetry gardens. Along the wooded paths, twenty-foot high purple, pink and white bushes have exploded into bloom.


Queen’s Park is a magnificent example of Victorian landscape architecture, and although the landscaping has been maintained and has matured, the original design is still largely in place. At 150 acres, it’s large for a park in a densely populated area. There are formal gardens and made-man ponds in the southwest; and playing fields, a golf course and open hillsides to the northeast. There’s a formal, tree-lined approach from Victoria Road leading to the centre of the park, and at the top, there’s a flagpole on a viewing platform that looks out, 360 degrees over the city.


From the top of the park, nineteenth and early twentieth century tenement blocks spread out on all sides, arranged in U-shapes with lush, hidden back gardens and cobbled laneways. Church spires punctuate each neighbourhood. To the north, the city centre, the new riverside entertainment district and the university campus are visible on the other side of the Firth of Clyde. The hills around Loch Lomond are just barely visible in the distance. To the south and the east, the sandstone tenements give way to concrete tower blocks, industrial areas and suburban retail. Queen’s Park is only two miles from the City Centre, but it is set apart. It offers fresh air, quiet, structured natural beauty and space to think.


In Toronto: High Park

Meanwhile, in Toronto, it’s the same temperature and it’s unseasonably cool. People are asking “Where’s summer” but it’s a perfect day for a walk in High Park. “Don’t forget to bring a cardigan!”


Families are feeding the Canadian Geese on the shore of Grenadier Pond, even though it’s discouraged. A group of Chinese men are fishing up to the north, past the old dock. The Greenhouses are full of light and colour. The formal gardens are manicured and in bloom, and the hills are covered with picnic blankets and beach towels. Not even the hiking trails can offer an illusion of isolation on a summer day like this, but the people walking on them are speaking quietly and smiling as they pass each other.


High Park, at almost 400 acres, has been owned by the City of Toronto since 1876. When it first opened to the public, it was on the edge of a medium-sized city of 250,000 people. Today, Toronto is a city of 2.5 million in a metropolitan area of five million. High Park developed as the city grew, and today it has a combination of formal, professionally managed gardens, wild areas that are carefully kept clear of non-native species by an army of volunteers, and activity areas. The neighbourhoods that surround High Park were built in the twentieth century and are made up mostly of detached houses that range from Arts and Crafts to Mid-Century Modern. The park puts the city into perspective. Toronto’s urban fabric intrudes only in small ways and at a distance. High Park is so large that it never seems crowded.


One of the interesting things about High Park is the way that it dovetails traditional park design (as you might find in Queen’s Park, Glasgow, for example) with more modern ideas about conservation. High Park is simply too large to have started out as a fully planned landscape of gardens and grounds. Parts of it have always been closely controlled and other parts have been allowed to stay wild.


However, it is fair to say that the wild areas have morphed into conservation areas where nature is controlled in a new way: by trying to keep it pure and authentic so that it will provide a home for native species of both plants and animals in the centre of a city that is (happily) anything but pure and native. And, if many people are now moving around independently of their native landscapes, it is comforting to think that the land itself can retain a sense of place.


In Toronto, there’s an awareness that the wild areas within cities are some of the best preserved natural habitats. They are often old growth; they have never been stripped for agriculture or turned into timber farms. Some newer parks are focused primarily on conservation, and consideration is being given to the issue all over Toronto’s park system. Programs like Toronto’s Waterfront Naturalisation Initiative and Parkland Naturalisation Program aim to conserve and restore natural habitats within the City of Toronto.


In Glasgow, park planners are less likely to move beyond a Victorian garden-style approach to park management, and there is less awareness of conservation. Just recently, Glasgow residents blocked an attempt to build an adventure park in the natural area of Pollok Country Park, a 360 acre estate that was gifted to the City Council in 1966 and that has already been diminished by the development of a new motorway.


Deidre Miller is an engineer with an architecture degree who has lived in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. and worked in building design, evaluation and regulation.



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