Waterfront Toronto is embarking on an ambitious project dubbed Destination Playground to create world-class new park spaces in the Port Lands development area that will revolutionize outdoor play and provide a million children from across the city with a unique, nature-centric playground experience. The big question, though, is who will pay for it.
With an emphasis on accessibility, inclusivity, and fostering a love for the outdoors, this revolutionary play space aims to counterbalance the increasing allure of screen time and offer children the physical, cognitive, and emotional benefits of unstructured outdoor play. Not to mention, the lack of available green space thanks to rampant intensification across the city.
Recognizing the importance of reconnecting children with nature in an urban setting, Waterfront Toronto’s vision for Destination Playground revolves around three fundamental principles: being public and free, inclusive and accessible, and safe and nurturing for children and parents alike. The project seeks to ensure that all children, regardless of background or ability, have the opportunity to engage in active play and make lasting memories.
“Good playgrounds are not a luxury – they are key to making the city livable and enjoyable for children,” writes lead designer Matthew Urbanski, of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, in a blog post for Waterfront Toronto. “The experience of being absorbed in play is a pathway to developing creative problem solving abilities. Lack of exposure to playful challenges can leave children without the tools to manage unexpected challenges later in life.”
Although the project is currently unfunded, and could cost as much as $50 million according to an article in the Globe and Mail, a philanthropic fundraising campaign is underway to support the realization of these exciting play spaces. The design team is also actively seeking public input to better understand community aspirations and concerns before proceeding with the detailed design phase including at a recent open house last month.
“Families are living downtown. Cost affordability is forcing families to grow up in smaller and smaller spaces, and there are profound developmental issues with kids in a small space; we have a playground deficit,” Iain McMullan, Waterfront Toronto’s executive director of philanthropy, told the Toronto Star last December.
“We want to build a huge playground, so a half-million to one million kids a year can use it. That would deal with the playground deficit head on. We’re talking sandpits, climbing frames, swinging tires, water play, tunnels … a play space for generations of Toronto kids, accessible by transit and free.”
There are civic projects that benefit from huge donations from the city’s wealthiest families. Case in point, The Bentway, a park space under the Gardiner Expressway, that was created thanks to a $25 million donation from Judy and Wilmot Matthews.
The Destination Playground will feature several distinct play areas, each designed to captivate children’s imaginations and encourage exploration. Here are some highlights:
- Toronto Tower Lookout: Inspired by the city’s downtown skyline, wooden climbing towers connected by suspension bridges rise above the treetops. Inside each tower, children will discover sensory elements, and a maze of air crossings leads to a series of stainless steel slides, catering to different levels of play.
- Black Bear Campsite: This play area brings the experience of camping in the Ontario wilderness to children’s fingertips. With a four-meter tall wooden black bear serving as the centerpiece, kids can slide from its side into kid-sized tents, creating a sense of adventure and imaginative play.
- Moose Habitat: Embodying the spirit of the Canadian wilderness, this expansive play zone features a 12-meter tall wooden moose wading in the reeds. Climbing nets, a treetop walk, and a series of twisting slides offer endless opportunities for exploration and physical activity.
- Customs Offices: Inspired by the historic customs buildings that lined the Great Lakes ports, this play area sparks creativity and storytelling around shipping and sailing. With a replica of the preserved Pier 6 building at York and Queens Quay, children can engage in tactile, hands-on play while immersing themselves in the maritime world.
- Fireboat Adventure: This play area features a replica of the iconic William Lyon MacKenzie fireboat, a beloved Toronto harbor vessel. Children can operate water pumps to spray water down to the sand play area and receive a playful spray in return, fostering interactive and cooperative play.
- Swing Garden: Reminiscent of the carefree swinging experiences of childhood, this garden will offer multiple swing zones nestled within a forested setting. Including accessible swings and group basket swings, this area will provide a variety of swinging options for children of all abilities.
- Sunrise Garden: Celebrating Indigenous storytelling and ceremony, this garden will feature a shining sun structure surrounded by interactive drums and an informal gathering circle. Indigenous artists and children will contribute to a painted mural, creating a visually striking and culturally significant space.
Additionally, the development includes a learning centre, café, and terrace at the heart of the Destination Playground. The learning centre will serve as a versatile space for children and community programming, while the café and terrace will offer food and beverage services with a view of Canoe Cove and the city skyline.
Furthermore, the Port Lands parks and river valley will incorporate Indigenous placekeeping, reflecting and celebrating Indigenous history, culture, and traditions. Collaborating with the MinoKamik Collective and the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation, the design team has engaged with elders and representatives to ensure Indigenous design integration in the learning centre building and incorporate Indigenous storytelling throughout the playground.
If Destination Playground is fully funded construction is scheduled to be complete by 2027.