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Reviewed by:
  • Landscape Architecture in Canada by Ron Williams
  • Catherine Annau
Ron Williams, Landscape Architecture in Canada (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2014), 672 pp. 354 images. Cased. $65. ISBN 978-0-7735-4206-8.

The world’s second-largest country by landmass, Canada is lauded for its majestic scenery and vast reserves of pristine nature. Canadians, however, have a very complicated relationship with the land. Given our seemingly endless winters, we largely huddle indoors in cities along the southern border, emerging in late spring, seeking canoes and cottages. We don’t often spend a lot of time reflecting on the impression we have made on the land, much less the successful design projects that have shaped both our urban and rural environments.

Ron Williams is about to change all that. In his sweeping magnum opus, Williams tells Canada’s ‘history of landscape architecture from a broad geographical and cultural perspective’ (p. 3). Beginning with a brief description of Canada’s prehistoric, physiographic regions, he then demonstrates how Canada’s landscape has been shaped by a succession of peoples, from Canada’s First Nations to the first Europeans, to today. We learn that much of what we have come think of as ‘natural’ or ‘untouched’ has, in fact, been altered and designed. From the fur trade, through industrialisation, the settlement of the west, increased urbanisation, and finally to today’s conservation and new urbanist movements, Williams’s narrative focuses on the profound interdependence between economic development and the natural world. He outlines how Native peoples, while exhibiting a deep respect for nature, never had an ‘attitude of nonintervention’ (p. 26). He cites their use of controlled forest fires to remove underbrush, which improved their ability to both hunt and travel. In the seventeenth century, the first European settlers transformed the Annapolis Valley by building a system of agricultural dikes. Between 1825 and 1850, the almost complete deforestation of Southern Ontario took place because a French blockade during the Napoleonic wars had provoked a demand for tall trees to be exported as masts for British ships and a burgeoning lumber industry ensued. Today, the impact of mega-projects like the Alberta Tar Sands threaten to alter Northern Alberta forever. With increasing urbanisation, Williams calls our attention to the blight imposed on towns and cities across the country by big box stores and strip malls, which all but [End Page 143] denude the urban environment of plant material. Against this narrative, he interweaves a prodigious number of magnificent, more conventional landscape architecture success stories, which will be familiar to most Canadians, including Toronto’s tiny, playful Sugar Beach, Vancouver’s exquisitely executed Japanese-themed Nitobe Garden, and New Brunswick’s immense Bouctouche dune stabilisation and recreation site.

Clearly a labour of love and many years in the making, Williams’s knowledge is breath-taking (the bibliography alone is 22 pages long with over 1,000 sources). The copious colour plates and maps take the reader on a journey spanning 500 years and 5,000 miles. Williams celebrates the romance of a great country from a hitherto unexplored perspective and showcases the intense creativity and profoundly beautiful work of our designers both past and present. Landscape Architecture in Canada is nothing short of brilliant. Williams has created both a beautiful coffee table book and an admirable work of scholarship. It is a must read for lovers of Canada no matter where they live.

Catherine Annau


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pp. 143-144
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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