Breczy Park Toronto – Public Space Done Right

woman, child dog and man in wheel chair
The ultimate placemaking picture in Berczy Park Toronto

Take a close look at the picture below, and you probably think it is one of those slide show images of Jan Gehl, to show some place in Køpnhågn in the 1960’s as part of a successful place making “parking-lot-becomes-urban-park-you-Canadians-should-walk-more-enjoy-the-winter-stop-whining-about-the-cold-it-is-cold-in-Denmark-too-and-look-we-cycle-year-round” story.

Breczy Park Toronto 1960
Breczy Park Toronto 1960. (Source: Twitter Feed Gil Meslin)
But it is not Copenhagen, it is downtown Toronto.

Trip to TO

Just two weeks ago, my wife and I had to go to the GTA as my wife was to have meetings in Oakville. We took VIA (450 km/$44 one way), the GOtrain (45 km/$9.02 – PrestoCard) and a taxi from Oakville Bronte to the hotel 7 km/$15)

Viatrain
Alexandria?

parking lot
Welcome in Oakville, ON, your taxi is waiting half a kilometer away.

man on parking lot
View from our room on a lone man in the Sandman hotel parking lot

Burlington, ON

We stayed in the Sandman hotel in Oakville, near Burlington, a highway hotel planted between the Queen Elizabeth Highway, its off ramp, a mall and oil storage tanks. Indeed, there was nowhere to walk other than to the Denny’s, which serves the most backward breakfast I can image: all the photos on the menu have this light brown shade of toast, hash potatoes, sausages and egg yellows: it is oozing carbs and calories. For some reason we were all charged the 55+ pricing (saving $3) after a lengthy wait. Hmm, all my female friends always tell me I still look 29.

The plan was to stay in Toronto proper, but due to TIFF, the prices were through the roof. The hotels we usually stay were up in the $400-$500 range, thank you very much. Hence our stay in Oakville.

Lake Ontario shore park
Lake Ontario shore park

Nice reno job of Burlington's shopping street. Narrowed to two lanes but even more important: a refuge. With a sign to wait for a gap.
Nice reno job of Burlington’s shopping street. Narrowed to two lanes but even more important: a refuge. With a sign to wait for a gap: cars first, peds wait. Is a cross walk too much to build?

charcuterie
Lunch along Lakeshore. I think the prosciutto was cut to thick, but I was in good company and that made more than up for it.
I spent the actual day in the GTA with my friend who picked me up and drove me to Burlington, where we had lunch along Lakeshore and where we bought cookies at the best vegan cookies and dessert place I have ever seen: Kelly’s Bake Shoppe (‘Shoppe’ because it is on Maine Streete, it doesn’t have a Britishe phone boothe thoughe). You wouldn’t know the products are vegan.

Kellys vegan shoppe
Kellys vegan shoppe
And I suspect that is exactly the plan of Kelly and Erinn when they set out with www.kellysxo.com No incense, no sweaters from Peru, no messy shelves with dry beans and tofu and cutesy hand drawn price tags. The chatty young woman in the store “had heard of Ottawa, near Mont Tremblant?, because I skied there with my parents” but wasn’t exactly sure where it is.

Breczy Park

Berczy Park Toronto
Berczy Park Toronto
At the end of the day, I ended up back in Toronto and spent some time in the renovated Berczy Park. The last time I walked by, it was being dug up but this time I was fortunate as it had just reopened six weeks ago. Had I walked there in the 1970’s I would have crossed a parking lot: that’s right, the photo on the top of this page.

Berczy Park Toronto
Berczy Park Toronto
And what a great park it is now. It is really a wonderful public space like you usually see them in 19th century city centres in Europe. Tired trees were pulled up, new paths and a square were created and all street furniture is replaced. 

The big ticket item in the square is large whimsical cast iron fountain, made in Alabama, decorated with dogs, spitting water in the fountain. The one cat on the edge looks over its shoulder towards two birds sitting on a light post. 

The fountain was fashioned after 19th century European fountains and it matches the older buildings across the street nicely, making the buildings part of the square and making the 0.9 acres (3600 m2) square visually much larger than it actually is. The Brutalist St Lawrence Centre for the Arts (1970) is mostly carefully kept out of the images of the park.

mural on flatiron building
the mural

Desire lines in Breczy Park remained

The designers maintained the desire lines; from above you can clearly see the diagonal lines connecting the corners; no largely ignored 90 degree angles here. Part of the park is paved, part is green space. A huge bench is built around one of the majestic trees that was saved and overlooking it all is the trompe-l’œil on the Gooderham flatiron building, painted by Derek Michael Besant when the park first opened in 1980.

woman on phone on fountain
Would that be an indicator of a successful park?
Closer to the mural on the east side is a quiet corner with benches, where people catch the evening sun, surrounded by plants and a small statue of which I can’t trace the artist anywhere. It looks somewhat modernist.

Breczy Park statue - who is the artist? Let me know.
Breczy Park statue – who is the artist? Let me know.
I spent more than an hour just admiring the park, watching people going home, residents walking their dogs, people taking naps, reading books, chatting with each other. My description doesn’t do justice to the many social interactions taking place, as they should in a city like Toronto.

Berczy Park Toronto
Berczy Park Toronto

Cyclists sponteneously dismount
Magic does happen: Cyclists spontaneously dismount
So why am I sharing all this with you?

Because totally coincidentally the designer, Claude Cormier from Montreal, will speak this week, Wednesday September 27 at the NCC Urban lab in cooperation with Urban Forum and I think you should not miss this. All info here. If you can’t make it in time, watch it on YouTube. There won’t be vegan cupcakes though. 

Vegan cup cake, it nearly sounds like an insult: “hey get your bike of the road, you vegan cup cake!”

See you Wednesday. 

Hans

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