The Downsview Park Toronto competition was held in 1999 to select an urban park design for a former military base in Toronto. However, the competition exceeded its objectives as it introduced a turning point in the design of urban public parks. As Julia Czerniak points out in her book Case: Downsview Park Toronto, the five selected designs shared a common theme: the configuration of frameworks that structure the site but also allow the growth over time. Landscape becomes the main tool to model the city, and objects lose importance in favor of fields.
The design of frameworks consists in offering guidelines as an approach to designing the park during the fifteen-year implementation process. Thus, the designers recommend flexibility to accommodate the different programs and participatory processes included in the design process. The schemes were not only flexible in the programmatic sense, but they allowed different political and economic conditions, and even the paths to change depending on the vegetation growth, establishing diverse patterns over the surface. Complex processes such as erosion or plants succession were related to these frameworks too.
In all the proposals, the design of the park was based on the definition of the variables with the potential for something different to emerge. In other words, the designs established minimum control in order to allow new decisions and flexibility but, at the same time, maintaining their own identity and logic. For example, Tree City, the winning proposal for Downsview Park, is more a formula than a design: “grow the park + manufacture nature + curate culture + 1,000 pathways + destination and dispersal + sacrifice and safe = low-density metropolitan life”.
The competition jury viewed these frameworks as project strengths because their flexibility allows accommodations for budgetary constraints, remediating soils, or adapting the parks to current necessities. However, the competition also gives rise to debate regarding the role of design. As Czerniak asks, “how much design is enough?” (Czerniak 2001 15). To assure the longevity of the park, it was necessary to guarantee a certain degree of flexibility and openness. A strategy that lacks this characteristic will minimize a design’s adaptability to new circumstances. On the other hand, a too loose strategy would fail to provide identity, organization, and legibility.
Nowadays, ten years after Tree City won the competition, the plans for the park are still up in the air, and politicians and planners have been unable to sell and implement the project. In 2004, Mau’s team redeveloped the project, using the name Six Hundred Acres of Ecologic, Economic, and Social Sustainability, transforming the original plan into a comprehensive park plan. Some critics stated that the open-endedness of the initial proposal was one of the main reasons for the current state of the park.
On the other hand, the Downsview Park Toronto competition offered a good opportunity to study new ways of approaching urban parks design. In Downsview Park Toronto, landscape is transformed into a mechanism though which the city can be projected and envisioned, defining a new discipline entitled Landscape Urbanism.