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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

HtO Park: Toronto’s Waterfront takes a big step forward

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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.



  1. I haven’t seen it yet but looking at the pictures in the article the first thing that occurred to me was how nice it would have been to put lights inside the umbrella shades. Looks great overall though.

  2. Looks good! The waterfront is starting to improve finally.

    But they really need to put greenery along the concrete. Lots of well-designed shrubs and plants are needed.

    There’s just still way too much concrete on the ground and in the air with all the montstrous condos just behind.

    Lots of shrubs (that stay green year round), plants and trees will go a long way towards making it feel more natural and less artificial.

  3. Right, but this isn’t really a beach…it’s sort of a strip of a beach surronded by concrete everywhere.

    You can definitely landscape around the patches of grass and the concrete barriers.

  4. It is going to be much nicer once the trees grow taller and hide the monster condos behind it. What they should do next is make another park or big plaza connecting the Sky Dome to the HTO park, it would have to cross Lakeshore, pass underneath the Gardiner and cross Queens Quay, but if well done it can probably seem continuous. The only thing missing in HTO is a permanent kiosk that serves coffee, juice and food, waiters could serve people as they sit under the trees and umbrellas. Serving beer in a small in esplanade in front of the kiosk would probably be pushing it too far and make it too European.

  5. Its pretty sad that this is considered a big deal. In many ways it only draws attention to what is wrong with the waterfront. A sandbox surrounded by concrete. Great.

  6. I had the same thought about greenery – it all looks so beige, and hot! To heck with what ‘real’ beaches look like, I’d rather sit under a canopy of trees than in the little circle of shade provided by those tiny metal umbrellas.

  7. The new willows and the clump Silver Maples are great choices for this park and both a have a very rapid growth rate.

    In a few years there will be lots of dappled shade on those grassy knolls….maybe grassy knoll is not the best term here but you know what I mean

  8. Todays Globe has an editorial about the benefits of playing and getting hurt in the real world VS. constructions of nature. HTO is cool in its own way but lets not get carried away about what it is. The praise really shows how low our expectations have become.

  9. This is the best park we’ve had since that thing in Yorkville. I love the Muskoka chairs and the grassy knolls. It looks like they’re putting the finishing touches on something identical on the other side of the Rees street slip.

  10. scott> it’s an urban park, at the downtown/centre of a 5 million strong metropolis. i don’t understand where you’re coming from — people can be as excited and happy about this space as they want, and it seems appropriately urban and constructed nature, the way Central Park/Frederick Law Olmstead did “nature.”

    If i want the wilderness I’d move closer to Algonquin park but i don’t have to live near it (thank god).

  11. If one wants a “natural” waterfront, look no further than the Leslie Spit, being reclaimed by nature, or even a 5 minute walk further west, to the wetlands.

    Trees and grass can be found on the Toronto Islands, even (gasp!) a real beach.

  12. “Urban Park” that kind of sums up the doublespeak doesnt it?

    It speaks of what could have been and little people have settled for. Its not a victory really, its a statement of defeat.

    I am happy that people like it but lets not not get carried away about what it is. Its a fake beach surrounded by concrete. If that is your kind of progress then cool, its my kind of failure.

  13. Close the airport (finally!), throw a cyclist/pedestrian bridge over the eastern and western gaps, and then we’d have a waterfront park!

    Hell, make it a low-level draw bridge at one or both ends, and the price shouldn’t even be prohibitive. I wouldn’t even have a problem with turning the harbour side of the airport into housing, so long as there were height and vehicle restrictions. A typical Toronto compromise, but maybe it could be made to work for once. Can you imagine a safe cycling path from past the Humber to the far end of the beaches? Never going to happen through Queen’s Quay now.

    Have to make sure the bridge cannot be used for cars, though. Buses would be acceptable, and much appreciated on weekends. Who goes there now anyway? I don’t much like spending an hour on transit/bike/ferry to get there from Litle Italy.

  14. I applaud the City of Toronto for trying something new for the waterfront. However, this is NOT a beach – Not being allowed to swim in the water? When did you last go to a real beach where you cool off in the water / ocean / lake? For an example of successful urban beaches, look West of us – Chicago has magnificent beaches in the city and people are free to swim in Lake Michigan. My favourite is Oak Street Beach, a few minutes walk from the Magnificent Mile.

  15. Ran into this sweet little spot along the waterfront this weekend completely by accident. The umbrellas are so Christo! Big ideas and big dreams are important, but iterative transformation is what usually happens in the real world. People will want more… and I think they will get it.

    Afro music?

  16. Manchester just created the largest urban beach in Britain with room for 1,500 people. It’s pretty awesome, have a look:


    The beach is dotted with palm trees and surrounded by exotic beach bars with thatched roofs. There are live outdoor gigs on site, an outdoor cinema, art installations and even surfing, with Wifi computer access for workers

    It’s organized on three levels – the first is decking, the second sand and palm trees and the third a grassed area with bars and food stands.

  17. There are also urban beaches in Paris, Toulouse, Lyon, Berlin, Budapest and Prague.

    I was at the “Paris Plage”, last summer and it was awesome. It runs right through the centre of the city and is alive with people walking, cycling, playing on trampolines, cooling off under fine-spray sprinklers, and kicking back in the chairs and hammocks. This summer they added a shallow swimming pool which was filled with kids and supervised by life-guards. It was awesome!

    Ours looks so sterile honestly in comparison to urban beaches in other cities which are fun and playful and “beachy”.

  18. Shawn, I have accepted that for some reason you dislike my comments and will never agree on anything I post and will insist on having the last word.(go for it). I am polite to others and don’t post for specifically you. Others get my comments and yay or nay them and I leave it at that.

    I was around before condos existed on the waterfront and remember the great green hopes that people had and then the anger at was built. My previous posts on this topic are pretty clear and I really don’t have anything to add.

    You seem to like conctrete “Urban Parks” and I don’t. You have stated that you like walking around at night admiring corporate sinage in Dundas Square and I don’t. I like real green spaces like parks and public places that the public actually controls. Something about the name of this blog suggests that this is a good place to post my thoughts. So be a nicer neighbour will ya?

  19. scott> I was nice and come on, it’s a bit paranoid to say I specifically dislike your comments or insist on last word, or think that I think you post “for me” — that’s ridiculous. You says lots of things that beg for some debate, and lots of things i’ve either agreed with or discussed. But when you cast a semi-wide verdict on things or toss out a characterization, on grounds that I can’t figure out (doublespeak? — or the way you just mischaracterized what i’ve said about Dundas Square in the past), I, and many others, will disagree. As the name of this blog suggests…

    Whenever I have an opinion about something somebody usual posts some level of disagreement with it — it’s the way it is, and it’s still friendly.

  20. A few years back, the city ran an open architectural competition for the lands East of the queen’s quay terminal. As I recall, Don Schmidt of Diamond/Schmidt was on the jury. The result of the competition was the construction, in fairly short order, of a concrete sphere and the park around it, designed by a local team. I’m sure they’ve gone on to greatness, but I can’t exactly recall their name: they went by “team zero” or something. Also, Paul Raff, as I recall, won an honorable mention. There were a lot of participants.

    I didn’t win anything. My proposal was for a beach. A real beach, that sloped to water.

    I thought of it as a place where the city could regain contact with the quality of water in the harbour. I made it a place where the three meter drop to water’s edge was negotiated with an internal “amphitheatre,” sloping to water level then sloping back up again to a terrace ringing the opening on all sides. The water at the bottom of the trough would be controlled at a foot or so in depth, just enough to get wet, not enough to swim. You didn’t actually swim into the harbour itself, just in its waters, which came into the basin through openings at the side.

    My drawings suggested skating on the basin in winter, and sledding down the slope.

    Sounds to me like the HtO project missed something about a real beach but it sounds like it had to negotiate a lot of compromises. I’m glad it was built. It looks fantastic in its own way.

  21. After reading the above Torotnoist link I just feel dismayed by how this city (and even country) works. The paranoia and over-regulation of our bureaucratic system is a huge burden to our society and I think this is the next reform needed in our city and country. Unfortunately I do not see David Miller standing up to these stupid baby-sitting regulations enforced by a bunch of incompetent civic works with comfortable high paying jobs. Things like this will ensure that I never live long enough to see a well-planned, imaginative and beautiful waterfront this city deserves. These guys will do everything to make the construction of public spaces a nightmare, but will hand over free reign to developers to build a wall of condos by our beautiful lake Ontario that is mistreated by a 19th century sewer system and a population that doesn’t give a damn because it is cut off three time from the city (rail tracks, Gardiner, condos). Why isn’t city council and David Miller raising a raucous over yet another condo being built by the lake right on the foot of Yonge (of all places)? Or what about TEDCO using our taxes to build a glass box for a corporation at the foot of Jarvis? If this is how they plan on developing the waterfront then things are pretty much doomed. TEDCO should not even be involved with the waterfront, here is an unaccountable city agency that doesn’t give a crap to the citizens of Toronto, to me they are as bad as the Toronto Port Authority. I voted twice for this mayor but the fact is he hasn’t showed any leadership or ambition and our city continues to be an underachiever ruled by a bunch of morons without any vision.

    A comment worthy of the Toronto Sun…

  22. I just checked it out yesterday and it’s awesome. I can’t wait until they finish the other half!

  23. i’ve been down there twice since it opened, in the daytime and at night. both times there were plenty of people who were obviously enjoying the new public space (especially the chairs & umbrellas). you can bemoan the presence of concrete in the downtown core, or get paranoid about the juxtaposition of “urban” and “beach”, but getting hung up on ideology misses the point. we have plenty of traditional parks in the city, and even a number of beaches where you can *gasp* swim if you so desire. spadina wharf is not an appropriate place for this. consider the new park in the context of the surrounding space – the music garden, the boardwalk, the nearby naturalized wetland, and upcoming improvements to the martin goodman trail. our city may be far from perfect, but i found it pretty encouraging to see them assembling some noteworthy public spaces along the waterfront, no matter how slowly and painfully … that is, until i found out that they’re allowing condos to be built at the foot of yonge street. haters, that’s where you should be focusing your energy.

  24. Go to other “great cities”. You’ll find hard-surfaced public space there, de facto “urban parks” that work perfectly fine, and maybe better by being more “concrete” (or some such hard surface) than “green”.

    As for these environs, funny how noone’s raised Yo-Yo Ma park to the W; now, cynics might claim that’s a park that “looks like a park”, unlike HtO–but it doesn’t work in the same way as an activity-generator. It’s too tranquil–to the point where (as here) people fixated on HtO forget that it exists. Maybe that’s a sign of success rather than failure, but still: consider that…

  25. Most of Toronto looks like a crappy third-rate town, not like the economic and cultural capital of Canada should look.

    I am sick of the level of incompetance and lack of vision in Toronto. We never seem to get anything quite right.

    It’s PATHETIC and just depressing to live here!

  26. Dean > wow. That is the silliest comments on this thread. It is not depressing to live here for most of us. Its perfectly enjoyable. There are problems and challenges, but to characterize the city in that way is almost infantile.

    Also, “Dean”, please try being an honest fellow and posting under your own name or something consistent. The folks that look at comments for approval can see when you’re trying to pose as many different people in the comments section. Our server also can detect multiple entries with different emails from the same IP.

  27. Well, I, my wife, sister and son all post from the same computer! Sorry we don’t have 4 different homes to post from!!

  28. Matthew, perhaps you don’t feel this way, but there are many people who are extremely frustrated with the lack of leadership and vision in this city and do find it depressing. Toronto is a city with so much potential that just never seems to quite realize it.

    And by the way, I do find it insulting that you quote me as “Dean.” Can only one person living in a home read and respond on this site? If so, then that would be “silly.”

  29. I just read through some of the “posts” here. I’m a landscape Architect living in Vancouver and have enjoyed Janet Rosenberg’s work from afar for sometime.
    I think the Park looks wonderful from the images… and I know the detail that
    Janet’s firm puts into their work. Nice job-look’s like a great addition to your waterfront..I will certainly visit the new space next time I’m in TO….as for the haters and childish diatribe towards the end of these posts-I’m glad I now live in Vancouver.( and FYI-I love TO…grew up there…but some in TO need to relax!).

  30. People, are you kidding me?

    In our waterfront, which is just full of marinas, the harborfront centre and industry and urban wasteland, the city actually does something RIGHT, and all a good chunk of people on here can do is complain?

    I’ve gone to the HTO several times and I love it there. It’s an easily accessable, beautiful, relaxing spot in the heart of downtown. As someone that lives downtown, those spots are not in great numbers.

    I finished work in an office, biked to the park, the park has new double-reinforced bike lock spots (which is useful if you are a cyclist), for the most part the entire park is clean and well maintained, the grass is perfect, the chairs in the sand are comfortable, as much as you think the condos are obstructing the view….the view of what?? looking away from the park you see the Rogers Centre (lit up at night) and the CN Tower (lit up at night), even the urban landscape looks interesting.

    It’s a great little park, if you are like me and just think that something that is easily accessable, well maintained, well designed, and ultimately a nice place to relax or take a walk, or sit in the sand, or lie on the grass……the HTO park is excellent. From the first time I went there, I couldnt help but think “Wow, the city actually has done something right”.

  31. for the record, i love the music garden too! so happy we got it instead of boston. every time i’ve gone down to HtO i spend a little time there as well.

  32. It would be amazing if they could extrapolate this idea and create a bikepath/boardwalk/beach along the entire lenght of Toronto’s waterfront.

  33. Its interesting to hear what other people have to say about HtO, I have had the opportunity to listen to Janet Rosenburg speak about HtO and about many of her other projects. Janet Rosenburg and her firm do not generally work on traditional parks, her firm is about pushing the boundaries and redefining what we see as a park. I think that HtO was extremely successful in what it accomplished, She did want people to be able to go right to the water, but due to restrictions placed upon her, this was not possible. But HtO allows people a way to enjoy the waterfront, in a traditional, but completely revolutionary way. We spend so much time obsessed with the traditional, but this is not a traditional era, there are new problems that have been presented to us. How was Janet supposed to make a “park” and public beach in an area surrounded by concrete and keep it in context? The context is that of the city and the city is full of concrete and steel, so to use both of those in her design seems extremely appropriate. Toronto has a great many natural parks and traditional parks, and I think that it is also important to push the boundaries sometime and make something different, or her work would have been lost within the city. Also, due to the pollution and smog of the city many new trees have a hard time surviving in the downtown core. I believe that this park is a successful one, and I think it needs to be viewed from beyond the traditional view.

  34. Way to go Toronto!
    You took a pier that housed a youth sail training organisation (Toronto Brigantine Inc.), a summer circus school, a youth/adult canoe club and a youth/disabled sailing club. Paved it. Put up some plastic umbrellas, threw some sand down. And patted yourselves on the back.

  35. I live in Grand Bend on lake Huron. I recently stumbled upon HTO Park while my husband was at a conference in Toronto. I loved it. HTO Park is a pleasant little oasis in the middle of a lot of concrete. I returned several times, you have water and a lot to look at and enjoy. The sand was very nice and the landscaping was very nice as well. I say way to go Toronto! (and I mean it). Enjoy this park!