Churchill Park is a rare and special place where city meets nature. A collaborative Master Plan process is helping it grow as an inclusive, valued, engaged and engaging public space, informed by its unique social and natural history.
By Mary Louise Pigott
Published May 09, 2011
Hamilton's blessed location between the Niagara Escarpment UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve and the Carolinian Nature Reserves of the Royal Botanical Gardens makes us a city/nature nexus that has shaped our history and self-image in largely imperceptible ways, at least until now. Growing awareness of the effects of urban sprawl and loss of greenspace is particularly urgent in Hamilton, as we are stewards of adjacent greenspaces that also happen to be fragile national treasures.
Our city is uniquely positioned, and should be leading the way in the crucial conversations about nature and culture that need to take place if we are to have a sustainable future.
Churchill Park in Westdale is shaping up to be a testing ground for how well our public spaces can address these issues. At the moment, Churchill Park is a bit of a no man's land sandwiched between one of the last old growth Carolinian forests in the country and a dense, walkable neighbourhood with a strong urban character. Once Oak Savannah, it recently lost one of its last remnant oaks, and is now a largely barren space dominated by playing fields.
The theme of urban development bumping up against nature is a common one in our country, but this usually takes place on the sprawling edges of urban boundaries. It is rare indeed to encounter old growth forests mere meters away from mature, urban neighbourhoods. In fact, the only other examples I can think of in this country are Vancouver's Stanley Park and Toronto's High Park.
Could we have our own little Stanley Park right here in Hamilton?
I would argue that we have something even more precious than Stanley Park. Stanley Park and High Park are outstanding urban parks that preserve pockets of nature that are vital to the quality of life of their cities and surrounding neighbourhoods. We have a great deal to learn from them about how well-designed public spaces can enhance and inform the human/nature connection. But Stanley Park and High Park are islands, cut off by their cities from vital, connecting natural corridors.
In her 2010 paper "Killing Me Softly": A Critical Rethinking of Municipal Natural Area Management, Mary-Ellen Tyler of the University of Calgary argues that the establishment of protected natural areas in cities has often had the unintended effect of leading to increased ecological degradation.
Some of the reasons for this are the 'island' effect, and the fact that municipal management of natural areas often emphasizes recreational uses at the expense of ecological considerations. The Carolinian forest that borders Churchill Park is not only one of the most biodiverse pockets in the country, it is unique among urban parks in that it is part of the Cootes Paradise to Escarpment link - the last natural link between Lake Ontario and the Escarpment. As well, it is managed by the RBG, an institution dedicated to ecological preservation and restoration.
Nonetheless, the nature reserve on the south shore of Cootes bordering the park is showing distressing signs of being 'loved to death', and this is where the Churchill Park Master Plan comes in.
A special place in the park. The cherry trees were a gift from our sister city, Fukuyama Japan, and the rustic benches were built by local high school students out of wood from the beloved Churchill Oak.
Our community is about halfway through a Master Plan process that is the first one in the city to be primarily citizen-driven. We are a noisy bunch in Westdale, and passionate about our park. I have been impressed by the openness and flexibility shown by the city in response to our community's clearly articulated need not just to be consulted, but to have a direct hand in shaping the future of our only significant public space.
Running concurrently with the public process are staff processes and an engineering study to deal with the park's significant drainage issues. Final plans will have to be approved by the RBG, which owns the land, and the Hamilton Conservation Authority that manages the nearby watershed. The Cootes Paradise link which includes the park was added to the Niagara Escarpment Planning Area in 2010, which means NEC approval will be required as well. As a participant in the public process, it has been a privilege to watch as the layers of this amazingly complex space are peeled back.
As I mentioned, the forest bordering the park is in decline, and it has become apparent over the last few years that the current management and configuration of the park is contributing to this decline. The lack of a buffer between the mowed areas of the playing fields and the forest edge has encouraged the proliferation of invasive species such as garlic mustard.
The lack of defined access points to the trails has lead to trampling and erosion, and the park's drainage problems have contributed to erosion as well. One of the many positive things that has come out of the process so far is a community consensus on the high value we place on the health of the forest, and a willingness to be good stewards of this resource by sacrificing some of our open space to the creation of woodland buffer zones and wetland habitats.
Grand entrance to one of the most precious ecosystems in the country. I suppose there's something to be said for keeping it low key.
Another wonderful thing to witness has been the emergence of a community consensus on the values of inclusion and accessibility. In its current state, the park is almost comical in its lack of accessibility for all but the most able-bodied and unencumbered.
For a park that is over 19 hectares in size, there are only three clearly defined accessible points of entry. One is tucked away at the end of a residential street and leads only as far as the playground, another is a paved walkway leading only as far as the former lawn bowling club, and lastly there is the vehicle access to the Aviary parking lot. There are no accessible, connected pedestrian pathways anywhere in the park.
The Glen Road access point to the playground.
Entryway to the Aviary, Teaching Gardens, and community gardens. Pedestrians need not apply.
Human beings are undeterred of course, so strong desire lines criss-cross the park, but unfortunately these narrow dirt footpaths are inaccessible for anyone with mobility issues, from the elderly and disabled, to parents with young children in strollers. Parents have adapted by gamely pushing their strollers through the bogs and bumpy grass, but elderly and disabled members of our community are effectively banned from their neighbourhood park.
While there remain some advocates for the status quo, there is a growing realization, reflected in the goals of the public stakeholder group, that the current state of affairs is both unfair and unhealthy for the fabric of our community. Accessible pathways will also go a long way to resolving another one of the park's issues: the lack of connectivity with Westdale's unique street grid and the schoolgrounds of neighbouring George R. Allan School.
A point of connection with the street grid. Welcome to Churchill Park. Please go away.
No defined entry point at Marion and Cline. Marion is the only direct connection from the park to King St., so this is the face the park presents to anyone approaching it from Westdale's commercial district.
Another theme that has emerged from the public process is a strong desire for more gathering places and focal points in the park. Physical elements such as shade, seating, outdoor structures, and public art made the wish list, but also programming to engage all ages and backgrounds.
The former Churchill Fields Lawn Bowling Club, designed by Stanley Roscoe. The community is grappling with its re-purposing. All we know is that we love it and we want it.
Don't get me wrong. Churchill Park is already a very animated and beloved space, and there is a case to be made that very little needs to be done in order for it to fulfill the community's needs. But the honest examination of the park's assets, and our community's needs and aspirations, has revealed a few missing pieces. In many ways, this precious space between old growth forest and urban neighbourhood turns its back on both nature and culture.
If this park is to become the vital, engaging space that the community wants, and the space that this city needs in which to explore the vital human/nature connection, I can think of worse places to start than with the themes that have emerged from the Master Plan process thus far: the collective will to be good stewards of our natural areas, inclusiveness and accessibility that better connects people to the park and the park to surrounding neighbourhoods, and gathering places and programming that bring human culture into the park to engage the natural world through art and play.
A public information session is taking place this Thursday May 12, from 6:30pm to 9:30pm at the Temple Anshe Sholom at 215 Cline Ave N. in Westdale. The latest concept drawings will be presented, followed by a Q & A and the opportunity for discussions with the consulting landscape architects. All are welcome.
Mary Louise Pigott thanks Tys Theysmeyer of the RBG, Lawrence Stasiuk, Landscape Architect for the City of Hamilton, and Paul O'Hara of Blue Oak Native Landscapes for providing important background information for this article.