Assiniboine Park in Winnipeg undergoes a rebirth with revamped zoo, green space

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WINNIPEG - Designed in the same vein as New York's Central Park, Assiniboine Park in Winnipeg is undergoing a major facelift — one that promises to maintain the park's English garden feel while offering new world-class attractions such as a polar bear conservation centre and a botanical garden complete with indoor waterfalls.

With its gentle, rolling lawns, small ponds and immaculate flower gardens, Assiniboine Park was designed from the start to be a quiet, charming green space that stands in stark contrast to Winnipeg's urban landscape. Situated just a 15-minute drive from downtown and surrounded by some of the city's most posh suburban homes, the 160-hectare park, complemented by an adjacent forest, can makes visitors feel as if they have stepped back in time.

Roadways are narrow, meandering between fields where people play soccer or cricket or lay down picnic blankets. The vistas are of large trees, duck ponds and open fields. A steam train traverses a small sight-seeing loop. Even the architecture of some of the buildings harkens back to the early 20th century. The Lyric Theatre, an outdoor stage, looks like something from the Vaudeville era.

"There is a combination of broad vistas which give you a sense of hope and openness, but then there are areas where there is activity ... and those are very carefully isolated from each other so that you don't have a conglomeration of mismatched things clumped together," says Margaret Redmond, president and CEO of the Assiniboine Park Conservancy.

The park was designed at the turn of the 20th century by landscape architect Frederick Todd, who had studied under and worked for Frederick Olmsted, the man who designed Central Park in New York and Mount Royal Park in Montreal. The park's green spaces and zoo proved an immediate hit with young and old alike. It became a favourite place for families looking to spend time together on weekends.

But over the ensuing decades, the park was often neglected. Wars, the Great Depression and the flood of 1950 that forced tens of thousands of Winnipeg residents from their homes left fewer municipal dollars for parks. Even in the 1980s and 1990s, cash for parks was scarce. The 34-hectare zoo and the indoor botanical garden were aging, and vast areas of the park were left undeveloped.

Things started to change in the 1990s with the development of a sculpture garden that now features more than 300 works by Leo Mol set amongst flowers of every hue. In 2008, the park was turned over to the conservancy, a non-profit group that immediately started raising funds for $200 million in renovations that are now well underway.

An old children's play area that was essentially a series of swings over gravel-covered ground has been replaced by a much larger Nature Playground, where slides, rope ladders and other items are incorporated into play structures shaped like trees or hills. A new Winnie-The-Pooh exhibit pays tribute to the bear made famous by British author A.A. Milne and Disney movies. Milne wrote his books after seeing a bear named Winnie at the London Zoo. The bear had been brought to England by Lieutenant Harry Coleburn of Winnipeg, who named the bear after his hometown.

A duck pond that sits near the centre of the park has been expanded. There are more covered picnic areas throughout the park and a new cafe that serves family-friendly meals.

But the biggest revamp is just now getting underway. The $60-million Journey to Churchill, set to open in 2014, will be a four-hectare site inside the Assiniboine Park Zoo dedicated to sub-arctic species including the polar bear. The exhibit will be constructed to look like the tundra in and around Churchill, Man. and will include glass-covered tunnels from which visitors will be able to see polar bears, seals and other creatures swim around and above them.

"From Day 1, the board and I knew that what we wanted to do here was not just fix up, but transform, the park," Redmond said.

"Terms like 'world-class', and 'wow factor' and 'unparalleled' — those were the repeating themes. Anything we build has to reflect that in some way."

The area already includes a recently built polar bear conservation centre, where researchers can share information about the arctic ecosystem, and where visitors can learn about research methods.

Other areas of the zoo are being transformed as well. What has, up to now, been a series of enclosures with little in the way of written information is being modernized into thematic exhibits. Toucan Ridge focuses on plants and animals from Central and South America, while a new enclosed butterfly garden allows people to walk amongst the colourful insects.

The indoor botanical garden is also being overhauled. The aging building is currently crowded with more than 8,000 flowers plants and trees. It makes for a dense forest that can overwhelm a visitor's eyes. Some $50-million has been set aside for a new display that could include an indoor waterfall and other scenery.

Redmond and her colleagues have planned to create top-notch attractions without eating into any of the lush, open green space that has attracted families for more than century to spend a lazy afternoon strolling among the gardens, flying a kite, or simply stretching out on a picnic blanket.

"It's not all about the attractions, it's also about having that beautiful moment of solitude, or your kids playing on a beautiful piece of lawn, or enjoying beautiful garden space, and we're very cognizant of that."


If you go:

_ Assiniboine Park is six kilometres from Winnipeg's airport and eight kilometres from the city's downtown hotels.

_ Municipal transit buses run from downtown to the park and back. A taxi ride will cost roughly $15, depending on traffic.

Organizations: Lyric Theatre, Assiniboine Park Conservancy, London Zoo Assiniboine Park Zoo

Geographic location: Winnipeg, Assiniboine Park, Central Park New York New York and Mount Royal Park Montreal Churchill England Central and South America

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