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Rethinking green space

By Dana Yates

Nina-Marie Lister

Researcher Nina-Marie Lister studies the convergence of parkland and cityscapes, particularly in post-industrial waterfront cities such as Toronto. 

The phrase “green space” may be ubiquitous, but it holds no favour for Nina-Marie Lister.

“What does green space really mean?” ask the ecologist and Associate Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at Ryerson University. “The public generally understands that it’s an important part of a city, but green space could mean everything from ball diamonds to Astroturf. The term is over-used, vague and politicized.”

To that end, she continues, each person has a different idea of what “natural” landscapes should look like. Environmentalists, for example, envision protected areas that contain native species and can only be viewed through binoculars.
Truly “green” spaces, says Professor Lister, should meet environmental, agricultural, recreational and artistic needs. And it’s in those “intersection zones” where cities connect with nature that Prof. Lister has found her scholarly niche.

“Cultural and natural landscapes aren’t as separate as we pretend they are,” she says. “We no longer have open, wild spaces to turn into parkland. Instead, in the urbanizing areas of Canada we have abandoned post-industrial brownfields. There’s nothing natural about these spaces and yet they are being reinvented as parkland.”

Even traditional parks are having an identity crisis. Most recreational areas were designed a century ago for use by post-colonial picnickers from England. “Today, there’s a much more diverse and different set of park users,” Prof. Lister says. “For instance, Greeks may hold festivals, Cubans have pig roasts and South Asians host large family gatherings. Toronto is a global city that reflects the faces of the world and we need areas that serve our diversity.”

Prof. Lister is answering that call in a few ways. In 2007, she participated in an urban landscape design project that was a finalist in one of WATERFRONToronto’s recent design competitions. Teams from 13 countries submitted their ideas to transform the neglected land at the mouth of the Don River. Prof. Lister served as an ecological planner, collaborating with Boston’s Stoss Inc. and Toronto’s Brown + Storey Architects and ZAS Architects.

Their submission, “River+City+Life,” was one of four finalists. It included a new lagoon and delta for the river mouth, an expanded waterfront, public green spaces and a "green" metropolitan district. While the proposal didn’t win the design competition, it has since received the 2008 Planning Award from the U.S.-based Environmental Design Research Association and Places Journal, in co-operation with Metropolis Magazine.

“Our project put the river first,” says Prof. Lister. “We proposed something quite radical that would actually accommodate flooding and fluctuating lake levels, while also providing a diversity of recreational spaces to engage the diverse publics of Toronto.”

This focus on “adaptive design” is a recurring theme in Prof. Lister’s work. Based on an invited public lecture she gave at Harvard University, she wrote the opening chapter in the peer-reviewed book Large Parks (Princeton Architectural Press). The publication won the 2008 John Brinkerhoff Jackson Book Prize for its significant contribution to landscape studies and design. Prof. Lister also co-edited a new book with Columbia University Press: The Ecosystem Approach: Complexity, Uncertainty and Managing for Sustainability.

Finally, she is winding down other planning-related projects. The first, “Alternative Cartographies,” which will be exhibited this fall at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal, is funded by the George Cedric Metcalf Charitable Foundation. The initiative uses geospatial data and maps to illustrate the role of food in the urban landscape. Specifically, Prof. Lister has shown that Toronto’s most ethnically diverse neighbourhoods are often located in “food deserts” with limited access to grocery stores and markets. 

Another project, “New Urban Natures,” compares post-industrial waterfront land in cities throughout Sweden, Canada and Germany. Each city is facing some resistance for their plans to convert brownfields into parkland, says Prof. Lister. “These municipalities are working to create a green infrastructure or a living system of connected parklands – a ‘spine’ that will serve a city’s varied needs for recreation, beauty, conservation and natural heritage protection.”

Dana Yates is a Toronto-based freelance writer -

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