ERA Architects

Ontario Place and the value of cultural heritage sites

Opened in 1971, Ontario Place was created to be a hub for Torontonians to experience the waterfront and take part in entertainment activities, from the open-air amphitheatre and the Cinesphere, the world’s first permanent IMAX theatre, to the Children’s Village play area and exhibit space.

Ontario Place was the embodiment of the province’s economic and cultural prosperity of the time — a response to Montreal’s Expo67 four years earlier, and an example of the Modernist design principles of the day.

In the following decades, Ontario Place saw a decline in visitors and investment. In 2011, the province closed large portions of the site, and the disbanding of its governing board followed in 2018. The province has now made it known they’re seeking a long-term lease for the space, moving Ontario Place away from public governance to private ownership and development.  

World Monuments Fund is now calling for it to be saved, and importance as a site with heritage and cultural value to be recognized. 

Every two years, the Fund releases a list of cultural heritage sites around the world deemed as at-risk of being lost. This year after a successful campaign by a Ontario group, Ontario Place has joined 24 other sites on their 2020 World Monuments Watch list.

A view of Ontario Place over the water.

Heritage isn’t just exclusive to the oldest buildings in a city or a country, it can also pertain to places with an important cultural value to the experiences and histories of its community.

Many times, this kind of social importance is combined with a more traditional heritage value, and a site has design, historic and cultural significance. Ontario Place is one of these spaces.

In 2014, Ontario Place was added to the List of Provincial Heritage Properties. At the time, the province approved its statement of cultural value that detailed its significance.

“The site in its entirety — integrating innovative approaches to planning, landscape, architecture, engineering and educational programming — represents a bold visionary statement of its time realized at a scale and quality that earned international recognition and admiration,” reads part of the statement. “As an entertainment, educational and recreational centre serving the entire province, Ontario Place has attracted millions of visitors since its opening in 1971 and has remained a familiar and iconic landmark for many Ontarians and visitors.”

Ontario Place

How can Ontario Place continue to a valuable public space? The World Monuments Fund recognizes this in their write up on the site, outlining the vision of what Ontario Place can once again become.

“Through free and public access to the waterfront, Ontario Place can continue to foster interaction and exchange across population groups and fulfil the potential envisioned by its creators,” the site reads.

As an architecture firm rooted in work that connects heritage to urban design, city building and larger conversations of cultural values, we truly believe Ontario Place has the ability to once again, through investment, public engagement and design centred on community, become a thriving public space for Toronto – its residents and its visitors.

Read more on WMF’s statement on Ontario Place

Building for the community, with the community

Ridgeway workshop

As an architecture firm with values rooted in how we collectively shape and build better cities and their spaces, it’s important to us to engage deeply with the community on our projects.

While much of our work starts with assessments of existing buildings, observing their condition and advising site owners on how best to proceed with their conservation, many other projects begin with robust and integrated community engagement.

As city builders, we and our partners have the opportunity to transform underused spaces into places that better serve the community. Making the most impact requires filling a need, one that is identified by the community itself.  By taking cues from human-centred design principles, we can put the user, whether it be a resident of a tower retrofit or a visitor to a museum, at the centre of our planning and project development.

While human-centred design includes making sure the needs and behaviours of people are understood in order to make the most impact, it also ensures the community is part of the project’s development from the outset.

Opening day at the Ridgeway Community Courts in Mississauga

The transformation of an under-utilized parking lot and sidewalk boulevard into a vibrant multi-sport court and community space in Mississauga was first sparked by the user itself – a local group of youth wanting a space to play.

ERA was thrilled to come on board to help bring this project to reality, leading a collaborative design process with the community to create the Ridgeway Community Courts with support from the MLSE Foundation. This included leading a series of workshops with local youth to develop the identity and vision for the court, guiding the design development process along the way.

Having residents at the centre of this project has impacted more than just the physical space. With operations led by youth, the court has also brought about leadership and skill-building development for the community.

Two youth leaders at Ridgeway Community Courts.

Residents are also at the centre of our work in Ottawa with Stantec and client Canada Lands Company and the development of the Booth Street District Master Plan.

The Booth Street Complex includes seven buildings and 17 individual structures built between 1911 and 1952. Originally the site of the Canadian government’s mining research, the buildings include office spaces, research sites and laboratories. Its redevelopment will transform this area into a space that better serves the neighbourhood and Ottawa as a whole.

Arial view of Booth Street

Community engagement on the project was key and included the creation of a public advisory committee.  Before the start of the first committee meeting, ERA led a walking tour of the redevelopment site, providing participants an opportunity to review and discuss the site’s history, design features and heritage elements.

The feedback we received during successive meetings helped identify what was of value to the community. Among other things, residents identified the smokestack – a structure representing the area’s industrial past – as a visual landmark within the neighbourhood and an important attribute to the complex.

Stantec’s Molly Smith and ERA’s Victoria Angel lead a walking tour of the Booth Street area for Jane’s Walk.

Stantec’s Molly Smith and ERA’s Victoria Angel lead a walking tour of the Booth Street area for Jane’s Walk. Photo courtesy Stantec.

These projects put a spotlight on how putting people at the centre of the development process leads to a greater end result. Creating for the community, with the community sparks a collective impact to make our cities thrive.

Read more about the Booth Street redevelopment project.

Read more about Ridgeway Community Courts.