Toronto’s newest park is turning an industrial landscape into a recreational hub

Located in Toronto’s Port Lands, Leslie Lookout Park will welcome visitors in June 2024, complete with a mini forest, lookout tower and a public beach

  • Published Oct 27, 2023
  • Updated Dec 08
  • 1,411 words
  • 6 minutes
Leslie Lookout Park will provide visitors with the perfect view of Toronto's skyline. (Photo: CCxA)
Expand Image

As Canada’s largest city, Toronto is well known for being a world leader in business, finance, technology and entertainment. And while top attractions like the CN Tower, Nathan Phillips Square and the Hockey Hall of Fame help to bring in more than 27.5 million visitors annually, the city’s green space is disappearing.

It is no secret that green spaces can promote mental health, mitigate the effects of pollution, provide habitat for different species and create places of refuge within the bustle of city life. But with Toronto’s “average greenness score” declining from about 62 per cent in 2018 to 52 per cent in 2022, things are not looking good for “Toronto the grey.” 

Native tree species, such as Kentucky coffee trees, hackberry and honey locusts, will be planted in the mini forest. (Photo: Madigan Cotterill/Can Geo)
Expand Image

Located about five kilometres southeast of Toronto’s downtown core is the Port Lands, an industrial and recreational neighbourhood changing how we think of “space.” With an area of about 880 acres, Toronto’s Port Lands provides a  significant opportunity for the city to commit to renewal. The development of Leslie Lookout is a key element of the plan.

This new park at 12 Leslie Street will green up Toronto’s east end with a public beach, lookout points and forested dunes. The 1.9-acre park is a natural refuge in an industrial landscape with a Canada Post logistics station on one side and a cement batching plant on the other. 

“We are trying to illustrate to the residents and all the users of the Port Lands that we can live, work and play, as many cities in Europe have done and continue to do, in the same area in the same geography,” says Vic Gupta, CEO of CreateTO, which manages the land. “We think this is an important use of space for people to be able to enjoy and appreciate the history of the Port Lands and enjoy a unique park in a unique location.”

The park will feature a public beach, giving visitors a place to enjoy the sun during the summer months. (Photo: CCxA)
Expand Image

Why the Port Lands?

Located at the end of a shipping channel, Leslie Lookout Park will have incredible views, not just of vessels coming in, but of Toronto’s skyline as well — perfect for sunrise and sunset. “This is maybe going to be one of the best neighbourhoods in Toronto because it’s close to the lake, it’s close to nature, which is spontaneously generating itself on the Leslie Spit,” says Marc Hallé, co-president and landscape architect for CCxA, the firm in charge of the park’s design. “Ideally, it would be nice if the Don Valley was connected with the shoreline of Lake Ontario, all the way down to Leslie Spit, a big migration destination. It’s probably the richest habitat on all the Great Lakes.”

The Port Lands are not going anywhere, explains Hallé, as Toronto is very much a “concrete canvas.” But Leslie Lookout’s great location will help to interlock green spaces and act as a stepping stone for habitat connectivity.

“It’s a bit of a novel approach for parks of this stature because it’s a highly visible park; most of the parks along the waterfront are highly designed and controlled,” says Heather Schibli, a landscape architect and ecologist for Dougan & Associates, an ecological consulting and design firm working with CCxA to develop the park.

What makes Leslie Lookout so special

One of Leslie Lookout Park’s main features will be a mini forest, one of the first for the City of Toronto. Containing nearly 5,000 plants representing 45  tree species, the mini forest will increase plant diversity and the overall health of the city’s forest. Taking cues from the Miyawaki method (a technique used to create dense forests with native plants), the mini forest will also act as a sound barrier around the park’s perimeter. 

The beginning of the mini forest with Toronto's skyline and public beach in the distance. (Photo: Madigan Cotterill/Can Geo)
Expand Image

What makes the mini forest unique, however, is that the forest is based on climate modelling from the federal government, which has predicted what Toronto’s waterfront will look like in the next 50 to 80 years. “It’s a really cool tool because you can put in where you are planting, and based on different models, it will tell you where the best places to source seeds for a future climate,” explains Schibli.

With the federal government’s suggestions in mind, Schibli, Hallé and their teams found that one of the best areas to collect seeds for Toronto right now is Point Pelee, located at the very southern tip of Ontario. “All the trees and shrubs being planted are native to Ontario, but really native to Point Pelee, Schibli explains.

The process, known as assisted migration, involves taking species grown within a zone that’s a little bit warmer than Toronto currently because climate modelling suggests the city is going to get warmer. Species are chosen to match future conditions, with the idea that they will inevitably “adapt” and become suited to those new conditions.

Some examples of trees that could be found in the area include Kentucky coffee trees, hackberry and honey locust. “It’s also really important to have some natural vegetation right along the lakeshore for those migratory birds and butterflies as they also need a place to rest,” says Schibli.

Placed in the centre of the park, the lookout tower will provide guests with superb views of Toronto's skyline. (Photo: CCxA)
Expand Image

The importance of relationships

When it comes to landscape contracting, Hallé says the key is to get a knowledgeable contractor. “Not all contractors are able to do everything.” He explains that some contractors are good at concrete, paving and infrastructure but not so great at planting. “We get frustrated because we put a lot of effort into a planting plan, just to watch it die or get trampled on, or salt kills it.”

Early in the process, Schibli and her team were brought on the project to help with the design and work with the ecologists and growers who were also recruited early on. With Schibli, the team was able to target an ecozone (Point Pelee) and replicate the ecology while also incorporating aspects of climate adaptation and assisted migration.

Kayanese, an Indigenous-owned and led native plant nursery run out of Six Nations of the Grand River, helped collect seeds and grow different species for the planting program. With their help, CCxA and Dougan & Associates could procure trees that were acclimatized and well cared for. 

A place for community

The construction site at Leslie Lookout Park is surrounded by a series of bright blue hoardings depicting the Great Anishinaabe Migration. Implemented in March 2023, the artwork, created by Indigenous artist and architectural designer Dani Kastelein-Longlade of Brook McIlroy, interprets the path of travel through the seven sites of the chi-bi-moo-day-win’, the Great Anishinaabe Migration.

Designed by Dani Kastelein-Longlade, the hoarding surrounding the park depicts the Great Anishinaabe Migration. (Photo: Madigan Cotterill/Can Geo)
Expand Image

“We know that this area is a very significantly important area for our friends and colleagues in the Indigenous community,” says Gupta. “It was really important for us as part of reconciliation and honouring the history of this area to have an important Indigenous placemaking link to this site.”

Welcoming all visitors in June 2024, the park is intended to act as a gathering space. A lookout tower is the main feature at the lookout point at the park’s centre. The tower will also have a drinking fountain and a bike repair station.

“I just want the public to appropriate the space, enjoy it, love it and take care of it,” says Hallé. “I am curious to see what kinds of activities are going to happen there.” One extreme he suggests is for the space to act as a location for an outdoor dance party complete with a DJ and loud music or perhaps a place for an outdoor movie screening. Another could be a home for First Nations ceremonies and gatherings. Hallé says that the public beach is designed to withstand intense use without the vegetation being impacted. Eventually, the hope is for the area to have a swimming pool floating in the spit (the lake water is not yet safe to swim in).

For now, Hallé says that the first step is to cut the ribbon. He is eager to see how residents embrace and use the space. “The neighbourhood is going to change,” he says. “It’s going to become a pretty exciting destination over the next decade, and we get to watch the park evolve.”


Are you passionate about Canadian geography?

You can support Canadian Geographic in 3 ways:

Related Content


The many benefits of the minuscule but mighty Miyawaki forests

Pioneered by a Japanese botanist, compact Miyawaki forests are beginning to replace backyard lawns on tiny plots around Canada

  • 438 words
  • 2 minutes


Planting a network of mini forests across Canada

Six new mini forests were planted in cities across Canada in 2023 as part of a national pilot project to combat biodiversity loss and create new green spaces in urban areas — and the work is just beginning

  • 758 words
  • 4 minutes
Andy McKinnon


Canada’s first national urban park

It’s an ambitious plan: take the traditional Parks Canada wilderness concept and plunk it in the country’s largest city. But can Toronto’s Rouge National Urban Park help balance city life with wildlife?

  • 3601 words
  • 15 minutes
Montréal is taking great strides to reinforce its image as the “most bike-friendly” city in North America


Clean commute

Canada's largest cities are paving the way for more eco-conscious commuting choices

  • 3352 words
  • 14 minutes