Don’t give up on downtown

The ethics of urban transformation, from a Christian landscape architect.

For more than a decade, Lynnette Postuma walked past a massive cinder block wall on her way to work in downtown Toronto. Expansive grey walls are a staple in urban transportation corridors, but Postuma began to dream of new possibilities. In 2017, she entered a competition to paint the 12,000 square foot space.

“The problem was, I knew nothing about paint,” confesses Postuma. “Originally I wondered if you could paint each and every cinder block a different color (adding a drop of yellow to blue for each cinder). Reality hit after I won the competition.”

During the first phase of this passion project, Postuma and her team used painter’s tape to painstakingly trace the shadows cast by trees, bushes and vines along the building.

“I wanted to use paint to monitor the growth of the vegetation over time,” explains Postuma. “It’s a blank wall, but there’s a lot of living things adjacent to it, living on it and with it. Nothing is a blank slate.”

The blue near the bottom mingles with the transportation corridor’s greenery, paying homage to the Mohawk name for the area Toron-ten meaning “the place where the trees grow over the water.”

Covering 14508 cinder blocks with 39 different shades of green and blue has made an undeniable impact on the neighbourhood. The Toronto Star calls it “one of the most impressive art works along the [West Toronto] rail path.”

Lynnette Postuma at Bayside West, Toronto.
Lynnette Postuma is a Principal of Landscape Architecture at O2 Planning Design.

Under the concrete

Redeeming forgotten urban spaces is a bit of a theme for Postuma. In her professional life, she is a landscape architect and was the project manager for The Bentway, an innovative redesign of the space beneath the Gardiner Expressway. This eight to ten lane highway severs Toronto from its waterfront.

“Much of the city turns its back to this big highway. It’s a giant underused area and tent city is a reality on certain parts of the site.” Postuma says the team worked closely with social organizations to address the needs of people experiencing homelessness in the area.

“If we’re going to redesign a space we want to know how people are currently using it, what their needs are and what’s missing in those places. Part of that site investigation is asking: Who are we talking to? Who aren’t we talking to?” Postuma has noticed improvements in this process over her nearly twenty-year career. Consultation with Indigenous communities now takes priority and municipal regulations are more stringent on accessibility.

“We have to make sure that when we have those meetings with communities that everyone can access them,” says Postuma. “Do they have childcare? Are they in the right language? Do we need to give transit tickets to people to attend? How do we help support the conversation before we even get to the conversation?”

Guelph civic square site.

Hospitable space

Postuma calls this process “making space democratic” and it continues past the initial community engagement phase. Ramps, hand railings, snow removal, high contrast colours, lighting, paving material, water drainage, benches, all of these design elements have an ethical dynamic in the realm of landscape architecture.

For one 45 year-old downtown Edmonton park, the actual grade (or elevation) of the terrain posed the biggest redesign challenge. “The design fostered a lot of negative activity,” explains Postuma. “How do we renew the park to allow better sight lines, to allow better access, to prevent dangerous ramps when it gets icy?”

Worth redeeming

Sometimes convincing people that urban spaces are worth redeeming is an uphill battle. Lorne Gunther, an Edmonton Sun columnist had sharp words in response to another downtown Edmonton park project proposed last spring. “Who is going to want to come from the suburbs to a small-ish downtown park when the park itself will make it harder to find a place to park downtown and there are better, bigger parks in nearly every suburb?”

But Postuma isn’t ready to give up on even the most challenging neighbourhoods.

“As landscape architects, we try to create healthy green systems within cities and I think that’s a hopeful response, a kingdom response,” says Postuma. “We seek to use creation wisely, looking at our materials and what we’re designing. We engage with social issues and try to be holistic in our thinking.”

Opening party.

Tracking change

After Postuma’s design work is done, each urban space takes on a life of its own. It’s been almost five years since she finished her Gradation mural. Some passersby take selfies while others leave graffiti.

“Super grumpy about these overnight additions,” writes Postuma in an Instagram post showing thick black letters scrawled over her work just six months after completion. “At least I have a lot of leftover paint.” But it’s always hard to match colour tones exactly and the patched areas inevitably add new gradients and texture.

The bigger shock came for Postuma this past September when construction crews removed every tree along her mural due to railway expansion. The painted outlines are now the only evidence that towering foliage ever existed there. The trees – the inspiration for the whole project – are gone.

“Leave the blank spaces so we can remember and push to plant new trees once all the work is done,” one fan of the mural commented on an Instagram post.

The meaning of Postuma’s work continues to evolve. She intended to mark “the perpetual but imperceptible and nearly unconscious process of green growth,” but her tree outlines now stand for much more. They are a memorial in celebration of the towering trees that once stood there.

“Colours of the natural world are changing because of climate change,” said Postuma near the end of our conversation. “But if we don’t stop long enough to notice, we’ll forget those colours ever existed.”

366 days of color

In 2020, Lynnette Postuma challenged herself to select a colour for each day of the year, based on daily photographs of her surroundings. Finding interesting photo subjects became a bit more challenging right around mid-March, but she persisted even through the bleakest pandemic days. She even documented her family’s move from Toronto to Calgary. Postuma now uses this colour catalogue to create unique customized scarves and pillows that represent family networks. Each family member’s colour is predetermined by their birthdate.

“It’s always fun to see how those colors jump out and sing or clash or have a little tension between them,” explains Postuma. Isn’t that the perfect metaphor for family dynamics? These creative products have become treasured keepsakes for many families.
Renee Prins gave both her mother, Marguerite Visscher and her mother-in-law, Pauline Prins scarves designed by Postuma.

“[When] we gave the scarf to mom Prins, she was moved to tears. She wore it constantly for the next four days during the birthday festivities,” recalls Prins. She says mom Visscher’s scarf was just as treasured. She took it with her when she moved into hospice care, where she displayed it proudly as a sign of her family’s love and support.
Lucy VanWyk, who’s mom will be 100 in June, also keeps her Timeline Scarf by her bedside. “[She] picks it up every evening and prays for each of her children and grandchildren,” says VanWyk.
Postuma feels blessed to help families share and remember their connections through art. Sometimes children and grandchildren will look at a scarf and notice names of people who passed away too early or places grandparents lived that bring up questions.
“It’s a poignant way to carry lost loved ones over the years, and still have your family close to your heart,” says Postuma.

If you’d like to learn more about Postuma’s @366daysofcolour or Colorography projects, visit lynnettepostuma.ca or colorography.com. 


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