University of Toronto Magazine University of Toronto Magazine

Back to Our Roots

At the heart of Canada’s largest urban centre, U of T’s landscape plan is creating a verdant oasis

It has been suggested that many students decide whether to enrol at a university within five to 10 minutes of visiting the campus. This raises the question: how does the St. George campus look to aspiring undergrads?

To urban planner Judy Matthews (BA 1978 Trinity, DLitt Sac Hon. 1997), U of T needs to nourish its relationship with Mother Nature. “There is a need for renewal,” says Matthews, who has contributed both design expertise and financial resources to rejuvenate the campus. “We have one of the finest clusters of buildings in the country, and we have a responsibility to not let the heritage open spaces around them deteriorate. They give the university its special character and play a significant role in campus life.”

Matthews was the driving force behind the St. George Street renewal, which, when it was completed in 1997, turned a car-clogged artery into a pedestrian-friendly thoroughfare lined with hundreds of trees. Planters filled with hardy perennials double as seating areas for impromptu get-togethers. Perhaps more importantly, Matthews’ work opened the eyes of alumni and other U of T community members to the possibilities of enhancing the spaces between the buildings. Yes, indeed, a campus smack in the middle of a booming city can still be lush and inviting.

Throughout the campaign, U of T looked to alumni and friends to help beautify the landscape, and their response was quick and enthusiastic. William and Nona Heaslip (BA 1951 St. Michael’s), for example, built on their support of the Nona Macdonald Visitors Centre by providing a gift to extend and beautify the walkway that winds its way past the centre’s front doors – connecting King’s College Circle with St. George Street. Family, friends and former classmates of the late Robin N. Gibson (BSc 1974 Trinity, MSW 1977) created a “living memorial” in his honour by donating to the revitalization of King’s College Road. Connon Nurseries – Neil Vanderkruk Holdings Inc. contributed native trees and plant materials to the project.

In June 1999, all levels of university governance unanimously approved the Investing in the Landscape Master Plan. The campus’s open spaces were declared one of the university’s greatest assets, and their renewal became a campaign priority. Apart from the St. George Street revitalization, the master plan marked U of T’s first collective action to improve its open spaces since 1827.

In 1917, landscape architects did draw up a plan for the 125-acre campus, but to accommodate the burgeoning student population, the emphasis shifted to erecting buildings. Later cycles of university growth saw modern structures replace mature trees and intimately scaled Victorian houses. Winding pathways gave way to dense infill. The priority: to maximize the square footage of classrooms and residences.

In the 1990s, U of T came to an agreement with the city and its neighbours, identifying all the potential building lots on campus. It mandated that a percentage of the budget for all new construction would be used to ensure that the grounds around the buildings were as beautiful as the structures themselves. At a minimum, one per cent of the construction budget for each new building goes to landscaping, while another two per cent is allotted to developing and improving campus-wide areas.

The Open Space Plan, compiled by Urban Strategies Inc./Taylor Hariri Pontarini Architects/Corban and Goode Landscape Architects with extensive community consultation, focuses on pedestrian corridors and reforestation. Barely off the drawing board, the plan was already winning awards, including the National Merit Award from the Canadian Society of Landscape Architects. The plan’s winning feature: an unabashed celebration of greenery.

“Something essential and wonderful is happening here,” says Charles Waldheim, director of U of T’s Master of Landscape Architecture Program. “The real challenge is to focus not just on the buildings, but on the spaces that we share collectively, that hold the campus together.”

Last year saw the completion of the first phase of the Open Space Plan, the revitalization of the King’s College precinct. The Sir Daniel Wilson and Knox College walkways, which pass between the buildings off St. George Street to the inner campus, were dressed with new decorative paving and densely planted birch. They were also adorned with spring-flowering shrubs and a variety of groundcover, including ivy and ferns. King’s College Road was reborn as a ceremonial corridor, with oak and maple trees lining either side of a cobblestone-trimmed boulevard that leads up to the green field at the historic heart of the campus.

The university chose Andropogon Associates from an international roster of consultants for the King’s College Road project. Andropogon has international experience in campus planning and emphasizes sustainability through natural materials and native plants.

Before European settlement, U of T’s campus was part of the Carolinian forest that covered most of southern Ontario. But the towering oak and maple trees, majestic pines and wetlands have long since given way to the march of progress. Andropogon proposed reintroducing the trees and shrubs that are native to our climate and soil. Not only would the native species create diversity, they would thrive with minimal maintenance and be naturally resistant to pests and disease.

While Andropogon is based in Philadelphia, the project’s landscape architect is former U of T student Laura Moorhead (BLA 1992). “As an alumna, this was particularly special to me. I remember working as a student on design studies about these same campus spaces,” she says. “A university is inherently both a physical and intellectual place. At its best, place-making is a proactive process and not happenstance.”

Moorhead mixed clumps of white birch with magnolia and dogwood trees to line the Sir Daniel Wilson and Knox College walkways. But there is more greenery to the walkways than in the leaves dancing overhead. Nestled around the base of the trees grow densely planted ferns, astilbe and wild ginger.

In Moorhead’s design of the King’s College Road, the almighty car takes a back seat to pedestrian life. The road was narrowed and reshaped to reduce the buildup of puddles and slush, the bane of pedestrians. The road and sidewalks are integrated with the same decorative tumbled pavers, trimmed with cobblestone and handsome black granite. Pedestrians weave effortlessly where they once had to be on the lookout for cars and delivery trucks. Every building along the road now offers an outdoor seating area, inviting you to relax in the shade of a sugar maple or lounge on the grass beside hay-scented ferns.

The boulevard is anchored by the magnificent new Alumni Gates, which rise up to greet College Street. The gates are a gift from alumni around the world to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the U of T Alumni Association in 2000. “The redesign has resulted in a streetscape that functions in a practical sense, but also has the elegance and style appropriate to this symbolic entry to the historic campus,” says Moorhead.

In the King’s College precinct, no matter where you sit to contemplate Aristotle your eyes are drawn to the circular green field, an open space that absolutely reverberates with history. During the Second World War, the Front Campus became a parade ground, where pupils marched up and down as cadets. Generations of students have used the field as a shortcut to their next class. Decades of graduates have made the single-file walk from University College to Convocation Hall, their long, black robes flowing in the wind and their hoods draped over their arms. After the ceremony, the students emerge, hooded and proud, to greet beaming family members and friends waiting on the grass. No matter how many degrees you earn, you still crave the feel of the soil under your feet.

Trees are so integral to U of T that they appear in its crest and are invoked in its motto: Velut Arbor Aevo, which translates as “As a tree with the passage of time.” Trees are such a focus of all phases of the Open Space Plan that the landscape architects describe transforming the campus into an “urban forest.” Green and graceful, the tree canopy formed by the leaves and branches provides shade in the summer and shelter for U of T’s ubiquitous squirrels in the winter. The trees exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen, reduce noise pollution by acting as baffles, and improve water quality by filtering pollutants through their leaves and roots. But as city trees, they also experience stress – air pollution, underground servicing, compacted soils and the territorial markings of neighbourhood dogs.

In 2003, U of T completed an inventory of the 3,000 trees on the St. George campus and learned that, as in many parts of Toronto, its collection of beloved trees is beginning to reach the end of its life cycle. While trees have the longest lives of all the plants on the planet, their lifespan does eventually come to an end. Many of U of T’s largest trees will be approaching their demise in the foreseeable future. As identified in the Open Space Plan, the time to begin planting for the future is now.

People need trees, and lots of them. Each year, Toronto’s trees absorb roughly 28,000 tons of carbon dioxide, the equivalent of the output of thousands of cars. They also absorb about 1,500 tons of other pollutants, such as smog-causing nitrogen oxides. Not only do we need trees to maintain our health, we need them to nourish our souls. And alumni have responded to this need. To mark the university’s 175th anniversary, for example, F. Ross and Susan L. Johnson made a gift of the planting of 175 trees and perennials along King’s College Road and the Sir Daniel Wilson and Knox College walkways.

The St. George campus is an interesting mix of architectural styles, ranging from the Victorian eclecticism of University College to the pure Bauhaus of the Mechanical Engineering Building and the stark modernism of Sidney Smith Hall. By prescribing a single palate of materials and species, in its first phase the Open Space Plan serves as the framework for a unifying, identifiable landscape that will create a sense of place. “This project sets the design standards for the historic campus, presenting a consistent vocabulary throughout the King’s College Circle precinct,” says Moorhead.

The use of native trees and plants will help transform the campus into a cohesive whole. The new Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research (CCBR) and the Leslie L. Dan Pharmacy Building share a common landscape-architecture firm, Diana Gerrard Landscape Architecture, to develop the southeast corner of the campus from University Avenue to just past Taddle Creek Road. Some 66 large native trees, including white ash, Freeman maple, honey locust and paper birch, will have an extensive underplanting of juniper, serviceberry and bamboo.

Another unifying element is the emphasis on the pedestrian. CCBR is set back from College Street, and its long entrance stairway and ramp will form a revised pedestrian access point to the campus. The pharmacy building’s courtyards and new pedestrian corridors will link the FitzGerald, Tanz Neuroscience and Medical Sciences buildings. Look down and you’ll see the same palette of colours in the decorative paving materials that define the King’s College precinct. You’ll also see similar bench seating and bicycle racks.

The most memorable campuses in the world are a collection of buildings and open spaces that encourage human interaction and offer opportunities for contemplation, study and play. The St. George campus, with its graceful trees, hidden courtyards and lush walkways, gives countless possibilities for chance meetings, quiet reflection and even a pick-up game of Frisbee in the heart of Canada’s largest city.

Mary Alice Thring is U of T’s news services officer for capital projects.

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  1. One Response to “ Back to Our Roots ”

  2. University of Toronto Magazine says:

    I want to compliment Mary Alice Thring for her excellent article on the university's landscape plan. I was drawn to it because of my interest in the urban forest - and because of the article's title. I publish tourism magazines for Travel Alberta North, and, over the past four years, one of my annual magazines has described the historical roots, highway routes and cultural tourist attractions of the Peace River Region. It is entitled "Back to Our Routes."

    Doug Madill
    BSc 1973 UTM
    Grande Prairie, Alberta