Corktown Common Park is a beautiful urban oasis—the 18 acre park, situated in the West Don Lands district of Toronto, boasts a wildlife-filled marsh, athletic fields, playgrounds and plenty of place to sprawl out on grass or host a bbq. But the coolest of the park’s features is the one you can’t see. Built into the sprawling greenland is a plan to protect the surrounding neighborhoods from flood waters. The landscape architects from Michael van Valkenburgh Associates partnered with engineering firm Arup to build a park that looks like nature, but works like a dyke…
Because Corktown Common was developed on a flood plain, the team began by building up the area’s natural elevation. Nearly nine meters of land was added, creating a natural barrier to rising waters. “We had to make sure that the park and the infrastructure were well integrated so that in the end it didn’t feel like a piece of pure infrastructure but felt like a welcoming park that is connected to the urban fabric,” explains Mueller De Celis. This required MVVA to add an additional six meters of topography on top of the original infrastructure. It comes in the form of rolling hills, playgrounds and open green space.
The park is split into a wet and dry side. As water falls on the dry side—whether that be from rainfall, flood waters or from the water playground—it gets collected and directed through a series of underground pipes into a cistern. This water is then reused for irrigation. MVVA says it expects the water to be used anywhere from two to four times before it evaporates. Beyond sustainability, this system also has the added benefit of relieving pressure from the mouth of the Don River by slowing the water flow that dumps into Lake Ontario.
This infrastructure is masked by more than 700 trees, and more than 120 species of plants (95 percent of which are native to the area). Mueller De Celis says that as soon as the marsh was implemented, wildlife bloomed in what used to be a browned-out, post-industrialized area. She recalls one day when she was giving a tour of the park. There was construction happening in the neighborhood, as usual. “The people who were touring couldn’t hear me, not because of the construction but because of the frogs,” she recalls. In the process of building development-enabling infrastructure, Toronto has found itself with a real ecosystem in the middle of the city (no wildlife was reintroduced). As Mueller De Celis puts it: “It might be a constructed landscape, but the wildlife don’t know that.”
Building parks in floodplains is not a new idea – it can be a good use for that space and flooding then does not damage as much. But, this sounds more unique in protecting a surrounding urban area and providing space for development. And, it sounds like all of this is hidden out of sight from people in the park, making it yet another piece of important infrastructure that works best when no one notices it in the background.