Corktown Common: Flood Protection and a Neighbourhood Park


General Design

Toronto, ON, Canada | Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates | Client: Waterfront Toronto in Partnership with Toronto Region Conservancy Authority (TRCA) and Infrastructure Ontario (IO)


Corktown Common is an urban park that establishes a model for integrating civic park design into urban flood protection. Below the surface of a biodiverse park replete with Ontario’s native flora is a 4-meter high clay substructure that reshapes the Don River’s floodplain, shielding Toronto’s post-industrial West Don Lands from potential inundation by shunting flood waters south toward the lake.

The riverside prairie portion of the park, with its minimal, passive programming, is designed to accept floodwater, whereas the west-facing side is designed to remain dry, with 9 higher acres of space programmed for recreational activities. As a reconstructed brownfield site and the first completed piece of the West Don Land urban plan, Corktown Common is a successful instance of landscape-driven development. Its entirely constructed nature has made a discarded outer edge of the city a desirable destination and has established a new benchmark for ecological diversity in Toronto’s parks.


A Brownfield with a Large Risk of Flooding
The park’s site is a relic of Toronto’s industrial past. As happened in other major Western cities, Toronto’s industrial production had faded by the late 20th century, and what was left at the future site of Corktown Common was a brownfield in desperate need of remediation. The site was hazardously exposed to Don River flooding, threatening to infiltrate up to 519 acres (210 hectares) of Toronto.

Building on High Ground
Primarily conceived of as a public works project to mitigate flooding, Corktown Common plays the additional role of desirable public destination. Resting atop and sloping down the sides of a constructed 4 x 750-meter earthen flood protection landform, the park has made this vital infrastructure a gathering place for a budding neighbourhood. The elongated barrier separates two ecologically and programmatically discrete sections of the park: the floodable and the protected. To the east, the landform is designed to hold back a 500-year flood, while the western portion primarily provides a simulacrum of Ontario’s native wildscape for the neighbourhood’s residents.

On the flood-protected side, a central lawn demarcates a separation between passive recreation (enjoying the constructed nature) and active (e.g., using a playground). Year round, there are opportunities for children and adults of all ages to enjoy the outdoors. A pavilion with a fireplace provides shelter and warmth in the coldest months. Densely planted perennials attract an array of butterflies and other pollinators in the spring and summer. The park also transforms unappealing industrial views—of the infrastructure-heavy corridor adjacent to the Don River, with its rail yards, high-tension lines, and Don Valley Parkway—into an engaging spectacle because this corridor is now being observed from high, detached vantage points.

A Regenerative Ecology
The park’s topography not only creates a flood barrier, it also creates various microclimatic plant zones that attract people and fauna throughout the year. Without the risk of inundation, these zones are growing and thriving, together developing a biodiverse ecosystem. Visitors weave in and out of meadows and marshes along curvilinear paths that cut through densely vegetated groves. Migratory birds can here find a green space to occupy within the urban hardscape. Corktown Common’s constructed nature lays the groundwork for the organic growth of an ever-more-complex and dense plant environment. The Toronto Park horticultural staff follows a hybridized management approach that balances organic maintenance of the park as a natural forested area with fidelity to the landscape’s specific spatial and programmatic intentions.

Water Conservation
Carefully calibrated grading redirects rainwater and city water used at the rubberized pad (where visitors play in water shooting up out of the pad) to the marsh, where it is bio-treated and redirected to be stored in a cistern for later irrigation. This movement of grey water into the marsh prevents eutrophication and algal blooms in the summertime. Water is both friend and foe at Corktown Common—while on one side flooding river water is obstructed from entry, on the other water is welcomed and provides a necessary element for an ecologically flourishing environment in a space previously devoid of life.

Urban Growth
The park was conceived of and constructed using a unique organizational model—commissioned and paid for by Waterfront Toronto, but maintained and ultimately owned by the city. The joint partnership was of great value to the design team, enabling them to experiment with transforming flood resistant infrastructure into an ecologically and culturally rich public space. Visitors now come in droves to the park to get a taste of Toronto’s new nature and 6,000 residential units are under construction at the park’s edge—the park has already spurred the rejuvenation of West Don Lands.

“A nice design. It’s the anchor of a new neighborhood that’s being constructed. The park is the first gesture. Where before there was nothing, this is now a nicely detailed, ecologically rich area.”

- 2016 Awards Jury



  • Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, Lead Designer
  • Emily Mueller de Celis
  • Chris Counts
  • Laura Solano, ASLA
  • Neil Budzinski
  • Jason Seibenmorgen