One Small Hill of Sand: A meditation on scale
TEXT BY JOSH THORPE
I am an artist and writer, and I teach architecture students at the University of Toronto how to approach their written work. In student meetings we spend a lot of time looking at things that seem very simple, but which, given attention, quickly become complex. On certain days, after enough hours of this kind of looking, the mundane city I’m used to suddenly seems very strange. And it is.
A few months ago, I took a walk through Toronto’s Trinity Bellwoods Park, a big park in the west end. It has three baseball diamonds, six tennis courts, an outdoor hockey rink, a toboggan hill, a community centre, a playground, several vast greens, many treed and naturalized areas, and an off-leash area for dogs.
I was walking through the park, as I had many times before, and I became aware of something I’d pretty much ignored for years: a little hill of sand. It’s about 20 feet wide and six feet high (though sometimes much higher), and it sits in a little wooded area just north of the playground on the west side of the park.
It’s almost nothing. I mean, it’s just a lump of dirt, a nearly pure example of basic landscape typology: the convex landform. But even this simple hill is many things—a point of high ground, a landmark, a focal point, a lookout, a screen, a windbreak, a maker of microclimate, a kinetic sculpture that moves very, very slowly. I love how a simple form like this can shelter you from wind at grade, and moments later, when you climb to the crest, expose you, brutally, to the elements.
From a public realm perspective, this little hill is kind of huge. Children and their parents spend hours here. In fact, in good weather, if the hill is empty, which is rare, and a single kid shows up, many more immediately follow. They play tag and roly-poly, and they do cartwheels down the slopes. They build castles and dig moats, and fill the moats with water. And they stand on top and yell their hearts out and chuck sand in each other’s direction. I like to think of the thousands of grains of stowaway sand that are redistributed across the city inadvertently by these kids at the end of any summer’s day.
I talked to some local parents, and it isn’t just the kids who like this hill. The parents stand around with their coffees and chat, and you can feel it’s a calmer, softer space than the playground nearby. Often, they, too, get involved in the digging and sculpting. They bury each other in sand, and they make big forts out of sand and sticks. One family brings their pet turtle to the hill—no doubt in the hope that it will feel more at home. There’s even a cross-country running team that likes to train on the hill because when they compete every year, it’s on sand. (Let’s hope the runners and the turtle never meet.)
I called up the City and talked to the park supervisor, Peter White. He says this hill is a really important part of the park. And it’s almost effortless. It began as a tiny play area and just kind of grew over the years to the hill it is today, as leftover sand from other sites in Toronto was made available. Now that it has reached a certain mass, the most maintenance usually required is a little hilling-up once or twice a year with a BobCat. When they’re done reshaping, it can reach ten feet in height.
It’s unusual, this hill: it’s an incredibly simple landform; it’s relatively easy and inexpensive to produce and maintain; it’s relatively local and sustainable; and yet it produces such wonderfully complex effects. So, first, an appreciation: What a lovely hill. Second, an argument: Let’s have more little hills like this—in fact, more topography all around. We’ve filled in a lot of ravines, buried a lot of creeks, and flattened a lot of hills. How can we bring topography back into the vernacular of our cities? And in rural Ontario, as developers race to build townhouses on former farmsteads, is anyone thinking about the value of the cultural landscape and how topography plays a role?
Third, optimism: In a city growing so big and moving so fast, it’s a great relief to stumble on something as beautifully simple, and as deceptively complex, as this little hill of sand. I can’t wait to figure out what else I’ve been overlooking for years.
BIO/ JOSH THORPE HAS TWO JOBS: FREELANCE WRITER WORKING WITH ARCHITECTS; VISUAL ARTIST WORKING IN THE PUBLIC REALM.