Last weekend, Toronto’s newest public space, HtO Park opened to the public. This is probably the most exciting addition to Toronto’s much-maligned waterfront in years, and the public immediately embraced it. HtO is billed as “Toronto’s Urban Beach” – its centrepiece is a long sand pit extending along the water’s edge, with metal yellow beach umbrellas providing shade, and Muskoka chairs pitched in the sand. On the edge is part of the new wooden boardwalk that will front the lake throughout the waterfront, with only a short metal rail separating it from the water’s edge.
The Toronto Star’s architecture critic, Christopher Hume, praised the park, but in a separate article, also highlighted the glacial pace of redevelopment (funding was promised while Pierre Trudeau was Prime Minister) and all the bureaucratic red tape and modifications made to the urban beach. Apprently the metal umbrellas were considered a safety risk should children decide to climb on them, and modifications were made to eliminate the steps leading into the water.
Despite all the setbacks, the incomplete park (the western half is still under construction) is a huge success. On the first Saturday night, the park was full of families, children were playing the sand pit, Afro music playing and gathering a crowd, others people walking along the water. There were at least three or four different uses that I saw at one time. Apart from not being able to swim (swimming in the inner harbour is both illegal and dangerous with all the boaters), it really feels like a beach.
The grassy hills and the concrete paths are another delight. The next day, after an excursion to the Leslie Spit, I discovered how much fun it was to ride by bicycle around in circles, up and down. I wasn’t the only one either. At night, the hills are lit up with projected LED lights mounted on short poles light the lawns, while mast lighting illuminates the circular paths.
Toronto’s waterfront keeps getting better every year. It is clear the public wants to enjoy the water – if you build them an interesting and playful public space, they will come.