Contemplating Aga Khan Park

Originally published on Torontoist on May 26, 2015.

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“The garden has for many centuries served as a central element in Muslim culture,” the Aga Khan, spiritual leader of the Ismali community, noted at the official opening of his namesake park yesterday. “The holy Koran itself portrays the garden as a central symbol of a spiritual ideal—a place where human creativity and divine majesty are fused, where the ingenuity of humanity and the beauty of nature are productively connected. Gardens are a place where the ephemeral meets the eternal, and where the eternal meets the hand of man.”

Serving as the linking element between the Aga Khan Museum and Ismaili Centre buildings opened in September 2014 (and nominated as one of the year’s heroes by Torontoist), the Aga Khan Park is the ninth green space the religious leader’s cultural trust has built, joining parks in cities such as Cairo and Kabul.

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Lebanese landscape architect Vladimir Djurovic based the park’s design on traditional Islamic gardens he visited in India and Spain. The result is a 6.8-hectare site dominated by black reflecting pools that mirror the surrounding buildings. More than 20 species of plants have been incorporated into the garden or line its walkways.

Even with the buzz of heavy traffic on Eglinton Avenue and the Don Valley Parkway, the site has great potential to become a setting for the introspective. Beyond offering pause while visiting the grounds, we imagine it may provide weary commuters a chance to soothe their frayed nerves.

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During his speech at the opening ceremony, the Aga Khan touched upon the importance of green space in urban environments. “Too often in recent years,” he observed, “urban architecture—under pressure from urbanizing rural populations, greater human longevity, and shrinking budgets—has neglected the importance of open spaces in a healthy city landscape. We keep crowding more buildings into dense concentrations, while short-changing the enormous impact that well-designed open spaces—green spaces—can have on the quality of urban life.” His speech also touched on the importance of making cultural connections in a diverse city, and was laced with humour about the immigrant experience for Ismalis who settled in Canada.

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Also present was Premier Kathleen Wynne, who unveiled a ceremonial plaque with the Aga Khan. “The park brings its own unique style and its own atmosphere to this beautiful corner of the city,” she noted. “This is a true 21st-century space, one that’s steeped in history but that speaks to our modern vision of a global, inclusive, and peaceful society.”

Wynne announced the signing of an agreement where the Aga Khan’s agencies will collaborate with the Ontario government in establishing educational initiatives promoting diversity, pluralism, and tolerance. Proposed programs over a three-year period include seconding up to 10 teachers to Aga Khan Academies, granting post-secondary tuition waivers to 30 students from Kenya, India, and Mozambique, and running educational policy forums.

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Guided tours of the park will commence on June 2. Upcoming events include musical performances, film screenings, and, on July 5, a Pan Am Games torch relay stop.