Public places

Before and after: the power of public spaces to bring grey cities to life

Public space proves cities can be more than steel, concrete and smog. Here are 10 transformations that breathe new life into urban landscapes.

Published on April 15, 2024

before and after photo of evergreen brick works, larger image people walk around green spaces looking at pond

Public spaces bring so much more to cities than the gaps between buildings.


As home to music, art, food and culture, they infuse colour and vibrancy into our cities, making them more livable and attractive for visitors and locals alike.


Think of all the best cities you’ve ever visited. Public places are among the top reasons to go. Imagine New York City without Central Park; Istanbul without the Grand Bazaar; or Vancouver without Granville Island. Every great city is made up of great public spaces. They add colour to what can sometimes feel like a dull palette of buildings, streets and sidewalks.


Check out these ten before and after snapshots to see how public space transformations prove that our cities don’t have to be grey.


before and after photos showing school ground with trees and play structures


1. Irma Coulson Public School, Milton, Ont.

The Irma Coulson Public School became Canada’s first ever Climate Ready School in 2022. Evergreen, in partnership with Halton District School Board, transformed the traditional concrete school grounds, patchy grass fields, and old swing sets into a multi-use, natural outdoor play and learning environment that also serves the community outside of school hours.


before and after photo showing hammocks on boardwalk in front of water


2. Halifax Waterfront

The Halifax waterfront redevelopment revitalized the industrial area into a thriving cultural and recreational destination. New projects continue to add more public space and an expanded boardwalk for visitors and locals alike who enjoy spending time along the water’s edge.




3. The Bentway, Toronto

The Bentway is a linear public space located under the Gardiner Expressway — but it’s also much more: a vibrant cultural hub featuring art installations, recreational activities and community events.




4. The High Line, New York City

The High Line in New York City was originally built in the 1930s as an elevated railway line for freight trains. Abandoned for decades, it was repurposed into an elevated park, where visitors can walk through gardens, view art, experience a performance and find delicious food.




5. Kildonan Park, Winnipeg

This lighting art installation was part of a complete redesign and reconstruction of a pond and adjacent plaza in Winnipeg’s Kildonan Park. Artist Takashi Iwasaki and Nadi Design worked together to create Bokeh, which lights the pond’s skating area in the winter.




6. Evergreen Brick Works, Toronto

Back in 2010, Evergreen transformed a collection of deteriorating heritage buildings into a global showcase for green design. Today, these buildings make up Evergreen Brick Works, Canada’s first large-scale community environmental centre in the heart of Toronto. Naturally, we’re proud of this green oasis — the site and surrounding trails and ravines welcome more than 500,000 annual visitors to experience its public markets, participate in conferences and events, enjoy outdoor learning and nature play and explore public art.




7. Safe Flight Home subway station murals, North York, Ont.

Public art not only revitalizes public spaces but can also serve as an educational tool. The Safe Flight Home project used visual art decals to raise awareness about conservation efforts, prevent bird collisions and beautify transit stations for commuters. Don’t underestimate the power of sparking delight in people’s daily lives. Cities don’t have to look grey or feel grey.




8. Weaving Rainbow Mountain, Knoxville, Tennessee

It’s amazing what a little colour can do. Weaving Rainbow Mountain is a set of 43, 10-foot-wide steps, which draws high traffic from pedestrians walking between a park and college campus. Amidst a stretch of concrete, these steps inject bursts of vibrancy into the public realm. The steps also immediately became a hit on Instagram.




9. The Shipyards, North Vancouver, B.C.

What was once a hub of industry, the Shipyards District now stands as a vibrant mix of modern residential complexes, trendy cafes and recreational spaces. The Shipyard Commons, a re-construction of the historic Machine Shop, is a covered public space for year-round use, and home to a splash park in the summer and free outdoor skating in the winter.




10. Gathering Garden at this general store, East York, Ont.

A popular community hub in Toronto’s east side, Old’s Cool General Store teamed up with community non-profits to transform a section of their pavement into a gathering garden. The 750-square-foot garden is on a prominent street corner at the store’s entrance and includes over 132 trees, shrubs and perennials suitable for the site’s conditions while providing opportunities for wildlife habitats.


Support better public spaces


Why are we so determined to build better public spaces? Studies show that 30% of urban Canadians feel no sense of connection to their local community. But vibrant public places can serve as home bases for festivals, events and activities, and help make our cities more livable and attractive.


Our work with communities across Canada has created some of the most vibrant public places where people and nature thrive side by side. But we can’t do it alone. We need your support to build places that improve social connection, connect people to nature and bring grey cities to life. Donate today.

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