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From the Archives: Ontario Square and Canada Square at Harbourfront Centre

Oct 23, 2014

View of Canada Square looking towards Harbourfront Centre's Power Plant.

Let’s take a look back at a Waterfront Toronto project that helped transform a parking lot into a vibrant waterfront destination.

By Heather Glicksman

One of Toronto’s most popular cultural attractions in the heart of our city’s waterfront – Harbourfront Centre – receives millions of visitors every year. If you visited the area for the first time this past summer, you might be surprised to know that many of the beautiful public spaces surrounding the facility were once a large surface parking lot. These new public spaces – inspired by great European plazas – transformed an unsightly patch of asphalt into a series of striking waterfront landmarks. Before we could build them, the first thing we had to do was bury the parking lot. Once the underground garage was built, we were able to turn the asphalt parking lot into beautiful and functional open space for people – not cars.


On the left: Before - An aerial view of the surface parking lot at Harbourfront Centre before it was transformed into Ontario Square and Canada Square. On the right: After - An aerial view of Canada Square today - officially opened July 2013 (Image courtesy of Harbourfront Centre).

On the left: Before - View of the surface parking lot before it's transformation (Image capture: Sept 2007 ©2012 Google). On the right: After - The parking lot had been transformed into an extremely well used public space.

Designed by renowned landscape architects Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Canada Square and Ontario Square create spaces for people to gather. Their naturalized urban landscapes frame great views of Lake Ontario and Toronto’s skyline.

Image of Canada Square view to the water's edge

Canada Square's view to the water's edge.

Closest to Lake Ontario, Canada Square is paved in red granite and has 41 majestic metasequoia (dawn redwood) trees that create a vertical garden. New seating areas take advantage of a beautiful new lakefront view.

James Carpenter's public art piece, Light Cascade.

James Carpenter's public art piece, Light Cascade in Ontario Square - officially opened June 2013.

Ontario Square is a large public plaza facing Queens Quay. Its design is inspired by Ontario’s boreal forests; featuring more than 500 quaking aspen trees and Ontario forest ground cover. The stone paving emulates the ice floes in the harbour during the winter months. Ontario Square is designed to act as an informal gathering place, where school buses can drop off and pick up students from field trips and camp programs. The plaza also acts as a stage for Harbourfront Centre’s programming. You can see how these vibrant public spaces open up a whole range of new opportunities to enjoy the water’s edge in this video of the official opening of Canada Square on Canada’s birthday last summer.

Video of the official opening of Canada Square - Image shows festivities at Harbourfront Centre

Video featuring the official opening of Canada Square and highlighting the transformation of public spaces at Harbourfront Centre.

By moving the parking into a 300-stall underground garage, we were able to retain an important revenue stream for Harbourfront Centre programming and at the same time unlock about a third of Harbourfront Centre’s prime waterfront site to create new public spaces. This is a good example of how infrastructure and public space can work together to create engaging and functional urban environments. The garage also includes a distinctive piece of public art called Light Cascade, which was designed by award-winning architect and designer James Carpenter. It is comprised of a three-storey curtain wall of glass and mylar, rising 10 metres from the underground base of the garage and out to Ontario Square above.

Check out this photo gallery showing the dramatic change and revitalization at Harbourfront Centre.


post contributor

  • Heather Glicksman

    Heather is a community relations and issues specialist at Metrolinx. She previously worked at Waterfront Toronto as a Communications and Public Engagement Coordinator where she specialized in public consultations and writing online content. She has worked in the public sector and for a municipal government working to keep the public informed on hot topics. In her free time, Heather enjoyed exploring Toronto’s many festivals and activities.