By: Naomi Skwarna
Illustration By: Jason Logan
Toronto’s Jean Sibelius Square, a sylvan island surrounded by 100-year-old homes, is where I spend at least part of each clement day. As fall turns to winter, birthday parties and laptop work sessions yield to skating on the small flooded rink, the formerly leafy green space emptying earlier and earlier. This park, which was once a place for local teens to surreptitiously smoke pot, is now a thriving community hub where local teens and their dads openly smoke pot. But now, night is on us before we know it, and I don’t yet want to return to my little apartment with its chastening view of a brick wall.
Waist-deep in COVID life, it seems that many of us with the mixed privilege of working from home have shifted to an al fresco existence, taking our work and leisure into the public square. But what happens when winter comes? Will we once again be relegated to the indoor spaces we know and vacuum? I’d like to believe that in our (mostly) post-vax communities, it is possible for us to continue to live outside, even as chill and darkness come. But how will our cities react to this demand?
Leslie Morton, one of the principal partners at PMA—an award-winning Canadian landscape architectural firm with a focus on public spaces— thinks this moment marks the beginning of a new way of designing public life. In the public tenders her company bids on, she sees evidence that our future shared spaces will be even more accommodating, accessible and creatively multi-use/round-the-clock. In the next few years, we’ll see more collaboratively conceived spaces popping up, with widened paths, more permanent and movable seating, ramps and fewer pinch points (to allow for distancing). They will be better designed for people to spend full days there, with all the necessary amenities.
In winter, skating rinks and sledding may be a mainstay of Toronto’s parks, but these activities are not for all. One of the main changes that Morton predicts is the effort to make city parks usable—meaning simply occupiable—and safe at night, especially as the weather gets cold. The answer, she tells me, is firepits. “That was something we could never have put in a park before. I would propose them and the city would say: ‘That’s crazy. We’re not going to put fire in a park.’” Now, Morton is designing three of them. One project—St. James Park and Pavilion in downtown Toronto—has lighting designed by Marcel Dion.
My constitution sends me home when darkness falls (or my butt gets cold), but I will admit that these measures, from baths of coloured light to the possibility of a warming community-gathering firepit, would make me feel more inclined to stay along with others. Light, fire. These things cause us to move toward one another, and after nearly two years of enforced distance, I am looking forward to not going home just yet.