Canada’s Signature Urban Parks

August 31, 2017

Jiya Benni


“Large parks are priceless, and those cities that do not have an effectively designed one will always be the poorer.” – James Corner

Signature parks are central to a city’s identity. Their size makes a statement that ‘this is a place for people.’ As Julia Czerniak says in her book Large Parks:Whatever their flaws, parks remain among the most reliable places we have for the unscripted interactions that oil the creaky machinery of democratic social life.”  

In short, large cities need large parks. And, while New York’s Central Park has captured the public’s imagination, Canada has its own incredible urban signature parks that help define their cities.

Three cities, three different large parks

Parc Mont-Royal in Montreal, Stanley Park in Vancouver and the National Capital Greenbelt in Ottawa are all large signature parks. The differences in origins, management models and characteristics between these parks highlight the different roles large parks can play in cities.

Montreal’s Parc Mont-Royal is managed by the City of Montreal, while Vancouver’s Stanley Park is managed by Canada’s only municipal Park Board, an independent group of elected Commissioners who oversees the city’s parks system. The National Capital Greenbelt in Ottawa is largely owned and overseen by the National Capital Commission (NCC), a federal Crown Corporation. Despite being in a big city, it’s not run by the municipality, and multiple landowners and tenants farm, do business and conduct research on different sections of the Greenbelt.


By Matias Garabedian from Montreal, Canada

By Matias Garabedian from Montreal, Canada


The Origins of Canada’s Large Parks

Parc Mont-Royal in Montreal was conceived under the leadership of Mayor Aldis Bernard, nicknamed the ‘Mayor of Parks’ for his role in the creation of Mont-Royal, Parc Lafontaine and Île Sainte-Hélène. The city hired Frederick Law Olmsted, one half of the design team behind New York City’s Central Park, to create a design that would democratize access to the mountain. Its natural features and man-made amenities  were intended to provide relief for workers and people from all walks of life, regardless of social class. Olmsted also wished to preserve the natural charm of the mountain. He designed a winding path down the mountain to allow people to discover the beauty of this natural space.

Vancouver’s Stanley Park was envisaged as a park that would protect coastal forest while also providing much-needed park space for the growing city.  The very first order of business for Vancouver’s first City Council was to request that the federal government lease the land to the City, which they did for the very reasonable sum of one dollar per year, allowing the City to move forward with creating the park.

Ottawa’s National Capital Greenbelt was proposed by Jacques Gréber, the man behind the Gréber plan, the official plan that set out the vision for modern Ottawa.  Although the Gréber plan is now widely criticized for championing expressways and removing rail from the downtown core, Gréber saw a central role for parks and green space, with the Greenbelt circling the whole city to control urban growth.  The federal government acquired the land for the Greenbelt as part of its larger postwar effort to make Ottawa a capital city worthy of the “future greatness of Canada.”

By InSapphoWeTrust from Los Angeles, California, USA (Stanley Park, Vancouver) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By InSapphoWeTrust from Los Angeles, California, USA (Stanley Park, Vancouver)


Management and Planning of Large Parks

The management and future visions of these parks reflect their origins. Parc Mont-Royal is managed by the City of Montreal in partnership with les amis de la montagne, a non-profit corporation founded in 1986 and dedicated to the conservation and enhancement of Mount Royal. Management of Parc Mont-Royal is guided by the Mount Royal Protection and Enhancement Plan

The Vancouver Park Board works with many partners, including the Stanley Park Ecology Society, to manage and plan for future of Stanley Park. As a top tourist destination as well as an essential green space for Vancouverites, Stanley Park’s managers and stewards are challenged to maintain its ecological integrity while ensuring that the park is vital and accessible for citizens and visitors. This challenge is mirrored at Mont-Royal, where large-scale public events and daily use draw over five million visitors every year. When a fragile urban forest is also the backyard for many urban dwellers, how you sustain both the park and the people?

Ottawa’s Greenbelt is the largest publicly-owned Greenbelt in the world. Its decisions are guided by the Greenbelt Master Plan. The first Master Plan established land-use strategies supporting recreational landscapes, agriculture, and natural spaces for the purpose of safeguarding these from urban sprawl. The most recent version of the Master Plan called for more leadership to create a stronger and well-loved Greenbelt.

The Greenbelt also features in the NCC’s Plan for Canada’s Capital 2017 – 2067, which aims to connect NCC-owned green spaces into the broader ecological network. Federal ownership of these lands will help in achieving much of these objectives, but much will depend on the partnerships that the NCC develops with other levels of government, the private sector and the general public.  


No One Formula

There is no single formula for creating or maintaining successful large urban parks. They come in all shapes and sizes, management approaches and visions.  But what is common among them could be what Anita Berrizbeitia writes in her essay in the book ‘Large Parks’  

“Successful large parks are the product of deliberate decisions that leave them flexible in terms of management, program, and use, and that they result from ‘equally conscious decisions that isolate, distill, and capture for the long term that which makes them unique.’”

This Sunday, the last in our series of Toronto Signature Park walks will take place at Earl Bales Park. We hope to see you there to learn more about what makes this North York park so unique.

To Dig Deeper, Visit:


Cover image credit: Sheldon Carvalho, Stanley Park – Sea Wall


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