By Tracy Hanes

Inspired Landscape Architecture

The City of Markham takes the Burr Oak seriously. As the city’s official tree, its leaf and acorn appear on all park signs. Consequently, a large Burr Oak on a section of the former York Downs Golf & Country Club that’s being redeveloped into Union Village, a master-planned community by Minto Communities and Metropia, presented a unique landscape design opportunity.

NAK Design Strategies’ associate landscape architect Naz Hiyate and his team, working with the municipality and developers, decided to use the tree as the centrepiece of a park, where it would become a signature feature for the 412-acre development. 

Landscape design is a key component in establishing a development’s identity and creating a place where people want to live, work and play. With outdoor spaces and connections to nature important to homebuyers and municipalities increasingly concerned with sustainability, landscape architects and designers are key members of any development team. 

Landscape architect Jackie VanderVelde of Land Art Design, a firm that has worked with developers such as Daniels, Liberty, Minto Communities, Centrecourt and Fengate, says her studio is involved from the early planning stages. The developer has to show the municipality what’s going to be built, while the city wants to ensure that both the quality and size of the landscaped space are acceptable.

“If it’s a greenfield site, only part of it may have had a building or parking lot and there’s lots of extra space. Of if land sits undeveloped, it naturalizes and a habitat is created,” adds Le’Ann Seely, landscape architect and principal at Whitehouse Urban Design, a studio that works on new multi-residential projects and redevelopment properties throughout Ontario. “We can help navigate the process as to what can and cannot be preserved and help a builder understand that.” 

A municipality often wants an inventory of trees on a site, as there may be endangered species, says Seely. It may specify which trees can be removed and how many new ones have to be planted. 

VanderVelde is typically in Zoom meetings with 20 to 30 people as planning begins. “It has a domino effect. I might say ‘I want to do this,’ then the engineer says he’ll need to do this, then you have to mix in city approvals. There’s a great deal of coordination, and the consultants have to work together like a Swiss watch.” 

VanderVelde says the average time from when her studio gets involved to when residents move in is five years, with three years spent determining how all the pieces will fit. And what inspires a landscape design? It can be derived from a multitude of sources, she says: the site’s history, the project’s name or, in one case, Group of Seven paintings. 

“Landscape designers are constantly monitoring the design world,” VanderVelde says. “We try to bring that into landscape design without being too trendy.” 

The finished product must have a timeless quality so as to still be relevant in five, 10 and 20 years,” she says. “We try to create magic with everything we design, but pair it with reality, which is the budget.”


Finding an easy site to work with is becoming more difficult, however, with greenfield land becoming scarce in the 416 and 905 regions. “We’re developing further afield or redeveloping older neighbourhoods,” notes NAK’s Hiyate. 

That means looking for alternatives, such as Union Village, which involved a golf course redevelopment. The project’s landscape plan will incorporate some golf course elements such as woodlots, valleys and cart paths, the latter of which will become walkways. A creek will be preserved and a walkway created around an existing pond. Trails will provide connection between Union Village and surrounding neighbourhoods. The community park with the Burr Oak tree will be a major feature. 

Metropia’s and Minto Communities Union Village – Landscape Architecture by NAK Design

“When you design and build a new park, the trees are usually fairly smal

l and don’t provide shade,” says Hiyate. “The beauty of this tree is that it creates a space that’s identifiable, provides shade and is right in the middle of the park.” 

Hiyate says that while most parks are constructed by the city after residential development occurs, Minto is working with the city to construct it before the homes are completed. That benefits the community and it’s a great marketing tool, he notes. 


With high-rise sector development the dominant form in larger cities, developers look to landscape design to inject a bit of nature into the concrete jungle. 

“You’re seeing a need for more access to natural space, sunshine and shade, and soft surfaces outside,” says Whitehouse’s Seely. “The end user is more aware and will seek out condos that provide that. A lot of builders and developers know landscaped spaces add to the value of a project. There was the realization even pre-Covid that often people are willing to pay a premium to have that condo lifestyle where they can see and experience green without driving to a conservation area.”

In Mississauga’s City Centre district, VanderVelde and Land Art injected ‘green’ while adding an artistic element at Daniels’ Limelight Condos. Tall, thin, lime-green tree trunks are interspersed between walkways, mounding and rocks in a children’s playground faced by ground-level townhouse patios. The design creates a sense of the outdoors for kids who spend most of their times indoors. And people without children can still enjoy the space, as it doesn’t feel like it’s strictly a play area.

On the Limelight rooftop, residents can grow vegetables in geometric garden plots and use greenhouses with potting benches and wash stations. There are also gardens incorporated with outdoor rooftop amenities such as a fireplace lounge, dining space and TV lounge. On the ground level, long walkways are framed by waving grasses and shade trees. 

VanderVelde also created the landscape plan for Chaz condominiums in the heart of Toronto’s Yorkville. Despite its highly urbanized location, residents can experience a bit of nature and find serenity. A walled garden features wooden boardwalks, limestone walls, a weathering steel deer, several water walls, as well as an outdoor kitchen, dining and lounge areas. A rear garden room provides another intimate oasis, with lush plantings.

Some developers are redeveloping large sites that had other purposes. One example is Brightwater, a massive mixed-use community created by the Port Credit West Village Partners (Kilmer Group, Dream Unlimited Corp., FRAM + Slokker and DiamondCorp) on the 72-acre former Imperial Oil property in Mississauga’s Port Credit. The site, which required extensive remediation, will include 18 acres of open space, including five public parks, commercial and retail space, condos and townhomes. Adam Nicklin, co-founder and principal of Public Work, an urban design and landscape architecture studio, is involved in creating the vision for the outdoor spaces. 

“It has multiple districts and significant landscape elements within the overall plan,” says Nicklin. “When we start projects, we look at the context they sit in spatially and regionally, and how development has occurred over time.” 

Public Work worked with ecological, remediation, habitat and engineering specialists to design a series of connected parks, open spaces and streetscapes that will promote sustainable stormwater practices, habitat restoration and dynamic ecologies within a walkable, bikeable community. 

The Lake Ontario shoreline and the mouth of the Credit River on site been compressed, constrained and scarred from previous uses, says Nicklin. And dozens of creeks that used to flow from the Oak Ridges Moraine through the Greenbelt to Lake Ontario have been buried or shrunk by development. Nicklin says the goal is to re-establish an expanded shoreline deeper into the neighbourhood and to celebrate the flow of water back to the lake through a reimagined and re-naturalized shoreline park. Brightwater will feature a bioswale system (a drainage and stormwater design) throughout the development that follows Low Impact Design (LID) practices. Stones, soil and plants will filter and absorb stormwater. 

“It was brave to take it on this scale—for all streets to drain into the bioswale. It’s really exciting,” Nicklin says. “You will feel the presence of water, even when you don’t see it.”


Developers may hold a competition to select a project’s landscape architect, as in the case of Aquavista, a mixed-used residential project by Hines and Tridel completed in 2019. It’s part of Toronto’s master-planned Bayside Community and is a 12-storey tower LEED Platinum development with 340 condos, 72 affordable housing units, retail space and a large second-storey amenity space. Janet Rosenberg & Studio Inc. was awarded the landscape design work in a competition with three other North American landscape architects, as her studio’s vision most closely reflected the clients’ vision.

It was a collaborative process that included the clients, design architects, architect of record, Waterfront Toronto and the City of Toronto, with the landscape design work including streetscapes, a large amenity terrace with infinity pool and green roof.

Hines and Tridel’s Aquavista – Landscape design by Janet Rosenberg & Studio

Aquavista’s landscape design drew inspiration from the cascading contours of the building and terraces designed by architecture firm Arquitectonica. The design moved from the building towards the water’s edge, terminating with an infinity pool. It subtly referenced Toronto’s ravine system, winding from the elevated plateaus of the Oak Ridges Moraine south to Lake Ontario. Organic-shaped berms of lush native plantings frame spaces to sit and entertain. The original design concept evolved through the design, approval and construction process.

Condo dwellers have a beautiful and functional outdoor amenity terrace that celebrates the building’s proximity to the water’s edge. Elements such as the fire features extend outdoor use through the shoulder seasons, and planted berms create spaces sheltered from the wind. Rosenberg’s team wanted the landscape to be an inviting space where people could relax and entertain, and that maximized views to Lake Ontario, while being visually attractive and interesting when viewed from units above.


Seely and Whitehouse Urban Design are working on the landscape plan for the redevelopment of Bayside Centre, an old mall in Sarnia’s downtown core. An unused part will be demolished and a portion redeveloped into office space, with 140 to 160 retirement residences created in a new tower and townhouses. The site is owned by Seasons Retirement Communities and the office space has been leased by the County of Lambton.

“There is a big sea of surface parking lot, and the underground parking is being maintained,” says Seely. “There are unique challenges when there’s an existing slab. Elevations are fixed, so you have to tie into that. You have to consider stormwater management and that it’s being done properly.” 

The municipal offices will have surface parking and bus drop-off, yet the retirement residence portion will have more green and open space, a circuitous walking path and pedestrian-scale lighting. The goal for the residential side is to create a community landscape so people have no idea they are walking on a slab over a parking garage. Vegetation includes hardy sedum flowering plants. Trees will be smaller and placed in raised planters on top of where the columns are situated below or in mounded areas.

Seely said her team imagines they are temporarily disabled to help make their community designs as accessible as possible. “We always make sure there is some kind of continuous loop for a walking or running trail. It makes the community more interesting. In a seniors’ community, people still want to socialize, even if they might not be as active as others. It’s important to design spaces where they can be part of the activity without having to enter into it.”

That means there must be places for resting as well as moving—all within a seamless design, Seely notes. “It subconsciously feels like it all works together. You make sure spaces are safe and feel comfortable. You want trees, whether it’s private or public space, and lighting.”


Trees can be an encumbrance or a resource, notes Hiyate. In the case of Union Village’s Burr Oak, the century-old tree was healthy and on flat ground, which was a plus, as it wouldn’t survive a lot of grading. But that also limited what else could go in the park and dictated where a playground, other shade structures and green space could be placed.

Another issue is that trees don’t thrive on concrete. For Limelight, Daniels and its architects incorporated a ‘bathtub’ filled with soil into the underground parking structure—that portion features lower ceilings than the rest of the garage—to accommodate trees above. 

But learning what vegetation will survive best on city streets and on high-rise rooftops is an ongoing process, says VanderVelde. “When I started in the business, we used to put trees in planters that were 1m x 1m x 1m. Now trees need planters that are 5m x 6m x 1m. There’s a better understanding of what needs to be done.”

Land Art Design has provided residents at Daniels Corporation’s Limelight Condos with places to grow vegetables in geometric roofing garden plots.

While using native species is preferred, they aren’t always the best option, Seely says, as some may not do well in urban environments. On Toronto condo rooftops, VanderVelde chooses vegetation suited for two zones colder than on the ground. She’ll use plants that grow in Muskoka, as they are able to survive the cooler temperatures. 

But the biggest challenges are downtown Toronto projects, where traffic is congested and parking is scarce,” VanderVelde says. The city may require that a certain number of trees be planted along a project’s length, yet there may be gas lines that can’t be moved underground. “You have to negotiate with different departments. It’s a bigger challenge on small sites.”

And then there’s the consideration of climate change. Rainfalls are increasing and there’s the need to deal with all that stormwater. 

One answer is green roofs, VanderVelde says. “Five years ago, there was a minimum standard for green roofs, but now we’re increasing soil on the roof to hold more water and doing more planting to use up water. We’re all learning together.” 

More soil on the roof, of course, means more engineering to support the weight. As for the stormwater challenges, Seely works with a civil engineer on infill projects to figure out how to create features such as bioswales or rain gardens. “You need specifically sized stones and carefully selected vegetation,” she says. “A portion of the garden is stone only, overtop perforated pipe that creates a void that water can flow into when we have storm events. You have to use fast-draining soil and deeply rooted vegetation. The whole system lets water slowly percolate into the ground.” 

Sustainability measures will continue to ramp up as more cities implement minimum standards, and developers will be looking to landscape design to help achieve this. Hiyate says there will be more incorporation of LIDs and deeper consideration of how water is collected and recharged back into the system. “Municipalities and developers are trying to get aligned,” Hiyate notes, “as these are important issues for the public.

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