Ground Magazine: Parks & Placemaking

Thanks to Ground Magazine and Linda Irvine, Manager of Parks and Open Space Development, at The Town of Markham for this interview on placemaking and our collaborative efforts to create an inclusive park for a new neighbourhood. Check out an excerpt below…

Linda Irvine (LI): The Town of Markham is one of the fastest growing and culturally diverse municipalities in Canada. This is a very recent but rapid shift. Right now, approximately 57 percent of our residents are foreign born with 65 percent considered visible minorities.

Since my job is to oversee the design and development of all new parks in Markham, it is my responsibility to figure out how our design processes, and the way we look at park design, may have to change in order to respond to different cultural needs or traditions and ensure that cultural expression is an important part of park development.

Fung Lee (FL): Are there projects that demonstrate the application of this new approach to park design?

LI: Right now we’re doing a community park that is more complex in nature. It has both active and passive recreation. We have brought in a Toronto firm, OpenCity Projects, to assist us in doing more comprehensive research than simply relying on a community meeting and the input that we receive there. Their mandate is to undertake research on cultural patterns and traditions to help us create cultural connections within the park experience that will appeal to the Town’s extremely diverse population now and in the long term. Their work is the research foundation for our ultimate park design. It involves literature research and precedent study research to help us understand people’s needs and how they use outdoor space. They are looking at the changing demographics in Markham and have interviewed selected residents—individuals from India, China, Persia, and a fourth-generation Canadian. They asked residents about what they want to do in parks, their views on nature, their views on outdoor space, and what they like to do…. Because of the inclusion of this research, we have been able to bring a little more rigour to this project, as well as more defensible
processes to it.

FL: Were there any particularly poignant items solicited from the research or interviews?

LI: One of the residents they interviewed said that “the park should be a place with meaning; a place that’s relevant to the community and attracts them to use it…. A place that’s for everybody that will bring the community out for a reason.” For us, this statement reinforces that we’re on the right track with our approaches and our mandate for inclusivity.

OpenCity Projects divided their findings into cultural segments: Indian, Chinese, Persian, and Canadian (including native Canadian) and in each of these key cultural areas, they looked at space and philosophy, health and wellness and leisure. They developed a matrix where, under each of these cultural drivers, they looked at different cultural behaviours, traditions and expressions that ultimately will find their way into the park design as appropriate.

FL: Can you give an excerpt from this matrix?

LI: For example, in China, two of the cultural drivers around wellness are feng shui and chi, which means life breath. The matrix describes the characteristics of particular cultural traditions and includes images that help us understand how these could be translated into built form.

One of the major components of this research is to better understand how various cultures organize and use outdoor space as an “outdoor living room.” Of significance is that through discussions with our residents, and this research, we are reshaping our notions and ideas around social seating, social interaction, communication, and family engagement. As well, our consultants are helping us create a design attitude—which includes principles that the park should be authentic, inclusive, progressive, and vibrant. From these principles, they are also articulating a recommended design direction and materiality for specific park features.

FL: Did any of the research or interviews suggest actual park designs from abroad? Or is that relevant at all because obviously we’re not going to have the same materials or types of spaces in China that we would apply here necessarily. But did they look into that kind of research at all?

LI: Well, our consultants picked images of public space from around the world that reflected what they heard the community saying or what was revealed in their literature research. It wasn’t about “well, here’s a park from China that we really like and now we want to replicate it here.” We really are trying to dig deeper into different social, behavioural, cultural, functional, qualitative, and experiential aspects of parks, universally.

FL: A person emigrating here will find it important to build community here, so, obviously, social gathering, even though it’s probably important in their original home too, is almost even more critical here because they’re trying to develop their network, their new community here, in a public space no less.

LI: You are absolutely correct. However, it is important to us in our pursuit of park design with a cultural basis that we not be too literal, or to reduce our design response to clichés such as “putting in a pagoda or a goldfish pond.” To me, that’s not what it’s about. It’s really fundamentally about coming up with appropriate physical responses, innovative spaces, and new design approaches that respond to cultural meaning in ways that are reflective of, and appropriate to, our context, our situation, and realities of today. I believe that if we create great cultural spaces, then regardless of your cultural background, you should be able to feel welcome and included. To do so, we must continue to look at world cultures, to find our universality as human beings, and to look at our differences, to find our common ground. And that’s the genius of the pebble path. Even though its original traditions came from Asia, everyone can appreciate it. At the end of the day, it’s about transcending individual differences to find the humanity in all of us.

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