I found Joel Weeks Park completely by accident, which is the best way to find a park. Tucked away just north of Queen Street East and right next to the Don River, I stumbled across it while on my way to a Spacing Magazine party near the end of April. The light was fading and so I didn’t get a good look at everything, but what I saw made me want to come back in the daylight.
There’s lots I like about this park–the little canal that hugs one side of the children’s playground, the natural play features like stepping stone logs, the community garden, the shady picnic spots–but there is one thing that I want to focus on, and that’s how this park mixes soft and hard-surface areas really, really well.
But before I do that, I need to talk about the squirrels. More specifically, the squirrels and their giant acorn god.
How had I never heard of these squirrels before? These squirrels should be Instagram stars. These squirrels should have their own Pixar film. They have to be one of my new favourite pieces of public art in a park in Toronto. The genuflecting squirrels are part of a series of public art in the park installed in 2014 by aboriginal artists Mary Ann Barkhouse and Michael Belmore. There’s also a fox and a beaver, which, when I was there, two parents had plopped their baby on top of so it looked like it was riding the beaver like a horse.
But back to that mix of green and grey.
People sometimes turn their noses up at plazas in parks (“that’s not a park–that’s concrete,” is a typical comment), but really, both spaces are important. A good community park needs both grassy, lawn areas as well as hard-surfaced plaza spaces. In high-traffic areas, grass tends to go bald and all your left with is dirt and mud when it rains. So you need good pathways, but you also need community gathering spaces, and plazas can help create that focal point in a park and provide some solid ground for different kinds of activities.
What Joel Weeks Park does so well is how it weaves both green space and plaza space together. The north end of the park is mostly lawn and a children’s playground, while the south end of the park has these wonderful pools of gardens and tree areas, which form a kind of archipelago within the hard-surface plaza. Concrete benches rise up on a curve off the ground, wrapping themselves around some of these garden areas to become long ledges for seating.
At the centre of the park there is a small hill covered in grass that is cut so short its more like a five o’ clock shadow than a lawn. But the hill is a great place to sit or lie down for a moment and stare up at the clouds. It breaks up the park really nicely, separating the children’s playground area and larger green space from the plaza space to the south.
Everything in the park has a pleasing curve to it–there’s no right angles to be found in the whole place. It makes the park feel like its in motion, a kind of meandering flow so that walking through the park feels like drifting along a river. While it’s not a particularly large park, I found myself wandering around and around in it, just following this natural flow. When I Googled the park when I got home, I learned that this is very deliberate. The design is meant to evoke the landscape and pattern of a river, like the nearby Don. So: mission accomplished.
The park was actually a redesign and expansion of a former parkette, completed in the summer of 2012 and designed by Janet Rosenberg Studio–one of my favourite landscape architecture firms in Toronto. The redesign was part of the redevelopment of the Rivertown Toronto Community Housing development within which the park sits–the first conversion of a public housing development into a mixed-income community of its kind in Canada, according to the City. The name comes from a boy who drowned in a sewer nearby in 1982. Not the happiest of stories, obviously, but great that he has such a lovely park named after him.
This post is part of the City within a Park project, where I’m exploring Toronto by visiting a park I haven’t been to yet in every one of the 44 wards in 2015. (Sorry for the ads, if you see them. WordPress, etc etc.)