Our shared environments come in all forms. From landscapes that address climate change (while welcoming cultural and social life) to a rich variety of parks, plazas and buildings — and even infrastructure projects — that engage the urban realm, the best public spaces are a celebration of community and collective spirit. While the scales, contexts and geographies vary, a commitment to nourish the communal good and promote civic equity unites Azure’s top 10 public spaces of 2023.

Our full list of favourite 2023 projects includes:

Top 10 of 2023: Our Favourite Public Spaces
PHOTO: Tom Harris

Tom Lee Park, Memphis, by Studio Gang with SCAPE

As Memphis writer Chris McCoy noted in his recent profile of the project, a visitor’s impression of Tom Lee Park will vary dramatically depending on their age, the time of day, and what direction they approach the revamped greenspace from. That’s by design. Re-envisioning 31 acres of the Mississippi riverfront, Studio Gang and Scape have established four distinct but harmonious zones that cater to the many different requests that the local community made during the project’s consultation sessions. As a result, children can now delight in the park’s charming custom playground equipment, which includes climbable river otter, sturgeon and salamander sculptures by Danish studio Monstrum. Adults can get their own recreational fix on a multi-use activity court splashed in a mural by artist James Little and covered by a glulam and steel shade structure. And those arriving at the end of a hot summer day can congregate at a glowing plaza that emits a refreshing mist. In other words, while experiences within the park may vary, enjoyment levels are bound to remain consistently high.

A person bikes past a wooden canopy structure with a jagged roofline at Tom Lee Park in Memphis.

PHOTO: Tom Harris

A child runs past a giant wooden lizard sculpture on a playground at Tom Lee Park in Memphis. In the foreground, a playground bridge with wooden steps covers the top half of the image.

PHOTO: Tom Harris

The park’s various attractions not only weave together into a unified whole, but also tie into their broader civic context. In the forested Community Batture, two sculptures — one a pre-existing statue by David Allan Clark, and the other a new commission by Theaster Gates that includes 32 stone chairs and one high throne — honour Tom Lee, a Memphis river work who once saved 32 people from a sinking steamship back in 1925. In a reference to more recent — and tragic — local history, the park’s Sunset Canopy is dedicated to Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man who was fatally beaten by Memphis police in January of this year. An avid photographer who loved documenting sunsets, Nichols is now remembered in a community space designed to showcase the beauty of nature — and the importance of humanity.

Top 10 of 2023: Our Favourite Public Spaces
PHOTO: Adrien Williams

Théâtre de Verdure, Montreal, by Lemay

Shakespeare’s masterpieces may be timeless, but the venues that they’re performed in occasionally require some rewrites to keep with the times. Built on a small island on one of the ponds in Montreal’s La Fontaine Park, the open-air Théâtre de Verdure hosted its first play back in 1956. Its popular outdoor performances became a fixture of summer in the city before the space eventually closed in 2014. A few years later, global design firm Lemay was cast to lead the open-air theatre’s revival.

Top 10 of 2023: Our Favourite Public Spaces

PHOTO: Adrien Williams

A person walks past the amphitheatre wood seating in front of La Fontaine Park's boxy Theatre de Verdure pavilion designed by Lemay.

PHOTO: Adrien Williams

As we wrote in our recent coverage of the project, the studio’s revamp successfully reimagines the stage as a performance venue by night and a large-scale geometric sculpture by day. By keeping the back of the boxy structure wide-open in between showtimes, its designers have introduced a dramatic frame that presents the surrounding landscape as a showstopping spectacle in its own right. Furthermore, the venue’s refreshed amphitheater seating (built with native Douglas fir) is now open year-round, introducing a perfect picnic spot reached via a curving new pedestrian pathway that borders the pond edge. And when it comes time for the real performances to begin, the new Théâtre de Verdure dazzles with a contemporary AV setup. Lights, sound, trees, action!

Top 10 of 2023: Our Favourite Public Spaces
PHOTO: Bruce Engel

Komera Leadership Center, Rwinkwavu District, by BE_Design

The whole place breathes. Inspired by local vernacular and elevated by its embrace of outdoor life, the Komera Leadership Center’s artfully weaves a multi-purpose public facility into the social fabric of the community. Combining a community centre with health, education, and mentorship programs for young women — as well as a variety of family development initiatives — the hub comprises a series of connected indoor-outdoor rooms, with a design that dissolves the boundaries between formal educational programming and daily life. Shaded benches and generous public porticos frame the facility, supporting informal daily interactions as well as civic uses.

Top 10 of 2023: Our Favourite Public Spaces

PHOTO: Bruce Engel

Top 10 of 2023: Our Favourite Public Spaces

PHOTO: Bruce Engel

Jointly based in New York and the Rwandan capital of Kigali, architects BE_Design drew on the sophisticated geometric forms and colour-blocked designs of local Imigongo art ( which is traditionally made by Rwandan women) to devise the building’s elegant angular roof forms and herringbone brick patterns. The designers also worked closely with community members to help shape the design and program, employing a local workforce with 40 per cent female representation, and providing on-site skills training. It’s intimate up close and — thanks to its dynamic sawtooth roof — iconic from afar.

Top 10 of 2023: Our Favourite Public Spaces
PHOTO: Mohammad Hassan Ettefagh

Jahad Metro Plaza, Tehran, by KA Architecture Studio

Many of us take the metro every day. We pass through those revolving doors, stomp down familiar steps, and follow a maze of anonymous underground hallways. But what if the metro station itself was itself a destination? As part of a widespread pedestrian-first urban renewal plan first initiated by Tehran in 1997 — which allocated 100 abandoned urban spaces across the city to be transformed into bustling plazas — local architecture firm KA Architecture Studio have reimagined what a transit station can be.

Top 10 of 2023: Our Favourite Public Spaces

PHOTO: Mohammad Hassan Ettefagh

Top 10 of 2023: Our Favourite Public Spaces

PHOTO: Mohammad Hassan Ettefagh

Transforming an unused plot of public land into a buzzing community space, the Jahad Metro Plaza is situated on Tehran’s oldest street. The station’s barrel-vaulted forms are made from 300,000 locally sourced, handmade bricks and create a collection of compelling curvatures that shield passerby from Tehran’s fierce rain and sun. The ample brick benches, stone steps, and paved plaza also create a home to markets, travelling musicians, and other festivities. With beautifully crafted honey-coloured bricks, pools of light and shadow, and open, breathable pathways, this vaulted metro station has become a local landmark — and an example for the world to follow.

Top 10 of 2023: Our Favourite Public Spaces
PHOTO: CCxA

Love Park, Toronto, by CCxA

With Claude Cormier’s death in September came a resounding sense of collective loss — for the inimitable man himself and for the joy he brought to public places. His landscapes, thankfully, remain and — under the guidance of his firm, CCxA — will continue to proliferate. 

Top 10 of 2023: Our Favourite Public Spaces

PHOTO: CCxA

Love Park, created by CCxA in collaboration with gh3* (which designed its lovely trellis pavilion), was like a parting gift to Toronto. Many years in the making, the oasis in the city’s waterfront neighbourhood was hotly anticipated. Shaped like a massive heart (how corny might it have been were it not for Cormier’s impeccable, witty sensibility?), its water feature anchors the 8,000-square-metre park, which is also home to 37 new trees. The fountain is framed by a 165-metre ribbon of public seating in bold red mosaic. At the heart of this heart: a Northern Catalpa tree on a circular dais, rising like a figure of reverence to the baby otter on a stone just beside it. Other cast-bronze critters — a bunny, an owl, a fox and more – can be spotted throughout the park, perhaps winking symbolically to the canines that surround Cormier’s majestically tiered fountain at nearby Berczy Park.

Top 10 of 2023: Our Favourite Public Spaces

PHOTO: CCxA

Such ebullience remains an exception in Toronto. It almost feels like a miracle that Cormier could make this city one of his two favourite playgrounds, alongside Montreal. As the firm’s project description aptly puts it, “Skylines of sameness are mushrooming around the world. Love Park in Toronto is a deliberate effort to break from the grid and assert an open space character that reinforces Toronto’s evolving landscape specificity, while introducing a unique signature that expresses the spirit of the city.”

Top 10 of 2023: Our Favourite Public Spaces
PHOTO: Jiří Kotal

Vltavská Underground Skatepark, Prague, by U/U Studio

Since 2014, Prague firm U/U Studio has carved out a niche crafting high-design skateparks that reinvigorate the urban realm. Its latest project, the Vltavska Underground, designed in collaboration with RE_PLACE, has done just that. Located in Prague 7, the subterranean skatepark transforms a formerly dreary transit underpass into a nightclub-inspired recreation space. After a much-needed deep cleaning and surface improvement, U/U Studio subdivided the long and narrow tunnel into programmatic zones and introduced low-maintenance materials like steel and concrete. 

Entrance to Vltavska Underground

PHOTO: Jiří Kotal

The publicly accessible amenities include a dance floor with a mirror and pole dancing poles, obstacles for skateboards, BMX and freestyle scooters, a bouldering wall, a public art gallery, and a relaxation area with swings that offer stunning city views. Pop-up bars and bistros will set up shop in the entrance, close to public transit, while across the street, a vibrant outdoor space is decked out with a basketball court, more skate ramps, and bench seating, all bathed in the same warm hues and geometric patterns.

Top 10 of 2023: Our Favourite Public Spaces

PHOTO: Jiří Kotal

If the activities themselves aren’t enough of a draw, the bold design is sure to pique interest even at street level: Red-painted railings and neon lights beckon the public underground. Covered in graffiti, the space intentionally embraces the grungy style that has long been associated with skate culture, while geometric red floor graphics and linear lights that recall the Vltava River that flows above inject a dynamic, modern sensibility. The purpose of the lights is two-fold: the well-lit space goes a long way in making people feel safe in a place that used to be avoided by pedestrians and cyclists. And, thanks to its underground locale, the skatepark remains accessible in any season or time of day. The resulting project is equal parts infrastructure, recreation and nightlife — and a lively new addition to the cityscape.

Top 10 of 2023: Our Favourite Public Spaces
PHOTO: Francis Fougere

Queen’s University Indigenous Gathering Space, Kingston, by Smoke Architecture

In many Indigenous teachings across Turtle Island, learning is inherently tied to land. On the south end of Queen’s University’s Tyndall Field in Kingston, Smoke Architecture’s Indigenous Gathering Space restores this relationship. Inspired by the wakaaigan, or teaching lodge, this birch bark-covered structure, which rests on a bentwood frame, is an outdoor classroom like no other. Open all year long, the space can be completely open to the elements or sheltered with rolling overhead doors. The four curved doorways face each of the four cardinal directions, and light pouring in connects sky to earth. In the centre of the room sits a fire pit where Indigenous and non-Indigenous students and teachers alike gather. 

Top 10 of 2023: Our Favourite Public Spaces

PHOTO: Francis Fougere

Top 10 of 2023: Our Favourite Public Spaces

PHOTO: Francis Fougere

Among the grasses that surround the structure, Toronto-based landscape architects Vertechs Design and the Indigenous-led SpruceLab collaborated to extend the learning space to the outdoors. Informal seating and teaching areas frame the structure, and Indigenous plantings have been incorporated into the existing landscape. Stepping inside, the smell of cedar is everywhere, and its beams are bent over the glulam frame enclosure. In a circular display of Anishinaabe design, it reconnects learning to the land.

Top 10 of 2023: Our Favourite Public Spaces
PHOTO: Sahar Coston – Hardy Esto

African Ancestors Memorial Garden, Charleston, by Hood Design Studio

Can a landscape bridge the chasm between past and present? Walter Hood’s Ancestors Memorial Garden at the International African American Museum in Charleston, South Carolina, confronts visitors with the site’s terrible legacy: It was one of the most active ports during the slave trade, a place where thousands of West Africans landed in North America to be sold into servitude. The garden, which envelops the ground surface around and through the elevated museum, recalls this history and honours the people who held tight to their culture despite their fate. As the architects explain (Hood designed the landscape with principal Paul Peters), “The landscape design weaves together three main components: water referring to the Atlantic Passage, gardens that are places of reflection and contain local plants brought via the African diaspora, and archaeological markings that are physical history embedded in the ground.”

IAAM shown from aerial view

PHOTO: Mike Habat

The water component is embodied in the Water’s Edge Fountain. This section of the paved plaza, free and open to the public and located beneath the building, is a shimmering surface when full; when drained, however, it reveals figural outlines arranged in a rigid grid to recall the 1788 Brookes slave ship, where bodies were packed in, end to end, for torturous travel across the ocean. The gardens, to the north of the museum, recall the “hush harbours” where enslaved Africans would meet away from their owners to share stories and keep their cultures alive; serpentine brick walls and sculptural seating in these respites invite calm and contemplation. The Warehouse Walk and its kneeling figures, however, pull you back into the visceral narrative of slavery; a procession of crouching cast-concrete figures hides in the shadows cast by a pair of black granite walls near the physical location of the wharf’s warehouse, where enslaved peoples were held before being sold.

Top 10 of 2023: Our Favourite Public Spaces

PHOTO: Mike Habat

With profoundly contextual symbolism, Walter Hood’s landscape at IAAM gives the past a powerful voice at a time when so many of our leaders would prefer to suppress it.

IJboulevard bike parking in Amsterdam
PHOTO: Ossip van Duivenbode

IJboulevard, Amsterdam, by VenhoevenCS

When it comes to cycling infrastructure, nowhere does it like Amsterdam. Case in point: the IJboulevard bike parking facility which opened in February. Designed by local firm VenhoevenCS architecture+urbanism, the lot holds 40,000 bicycles — and is a welcome addition in a city where bikes now outnumber residents. Its size alone is impressive, and yet, the firm took things one step further by placing the entire facility underwater, beneath the river IJ (part of a sustainability strategy that utilizes biohuts, wood, coconut mats and porous concrete between pile supports to mimic natural habitats where aquatic plants can thrive). This move landed the project the Schreuders Prize for innovation in underground construction.

IJboulevard bike parking

PHOTO: Ossip van Duivenbode

Located next to Amsterdam Central Station, the city’s busiest multi-modal transit hub, the IJboulevard encourages first- and last-mile transport. The former above-ground stalls were completely overrun, often inundated with abandoned bikes for months on end. By moving the stalls securely underground, the architects have reduced opportunities for theft that may have discouraged cyclists in the past, while returning 6,000 square meters of street-level space to the public realm. Now, the roof of the parking garage doubles as a riverside pedestrian boulevard that serves as a “new living room for the city,” complete with urban furniture.

Top 10 of 2023: Our Favourite Public Spaces

PHOTO: Ossip van Duivenbode

Visitors descend into the facility via natural stone entranceways that match the boulevard, blurring the boundary between indoors and out. Subterranean spaces have the potential to feel dark and cold, yet the IJboulevard is made warm and inviting with a slatted wood ceiling, subtle lighting and organic forms that help guide cyclists around, while natural light filters in via the large, glazed stairwells. The column-free interior feels open and airy, with clear sightlines that make for easy wayfinding — and assist in finding an open spot (green lights above the piers of bike racks indicate availability). By simplifying and improving the cycling experience, the IJboulevard not only serves as vital infrastructure but a public space with a clear sense of place.

Top 10 of 2023: Our Favourite Public Spaces
PHOTO: Prince Concepts.

Park(ING), Detroit, by D.I.R.T. Studio and Prince Concepts

It’s not often that a parking lot is featured in Azure — let alone celebrated as one of the year’s best projects. Indeed, as developer and Prince Concepts founder Philip Kafka notes, the manner in which American cities “deprioritized walkability in favour of cars” amounted to “a soul-crushing movement.” Yet, as its name suggests, Detroit’s Park(ING) is no ordinary lot. Designed by D.I.R.T. Studio founder Julie Bargmann with Prince Concepts‘ in-house landscape designer Andrew Schwartz, the 2,230-square-metre triangular lot accommodates 28 vehicles within a richly forested landscape of sumacs, junipers and native flowers.

At PARK(ing), vehicle spots are carefully integrated into a lush, permeable landscape. View from above.

PHOTO: Andrew Schwartz

The site’s 78 trees are paired with permeable pavers and granite ground covers, while the carefully sloped berms and porous surfaces absorb and channel rainwater and melting snow, alleviating the risk of flooding — a marked contrast to asphalt and concrete lots, which only exacerbate stormwater damage. While the car remains a daily necessity in Detroit (and across much of North America), the space acknowledges a lingering reality with a pragmatic yet poetic approach. “Let’s imagine that the whole thing is a crazy wild forest,” says Bargmann, “and then you take your eraser and put in as many cars as necessary.” If nothing else, it makes for the best parking lot in America.

PARK(ing) stakes a prominent place at the corner of 16th Street and Grand River Avenue. Aerial view of the parking lot and park.

PHOTO: Prince Concepts

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