Almost as soon as the massive Gardiner Expressway was built in downtown Toronto, the debate began about taking it down. For now–unlike in some other cities that are starting to level urban highways–the expressway will stand. But the city has a new plan to reconnect the neighborhoods below it, turning unused space into a long park.
“This is a project that cuts through about seven different neighborhoods that are all in a way fragmented,” says Marc Ryan, co-founder of Public Work, a firm working on the design with urban designer Ken Greenberg. “They don’t see themselves as unified in any way.”
The highway caused that division. But the designers say that with some creativity, it can also serve as the framework to restitch the city.
“There’s a kind of surprising, raw beauty to the space,” Ryan says. “It rises to quite a height–it’s about five stories high along this section–and it feels like a kind of industrial cathedral in a way. There’s a sort of 21st-century way of looking at these remnants as something positive rather than something deteriorating.”
It’s a unique, light-filled space that currently gets no use. “The most interesting part of this structure is the part that no one usually ever notices,” says co-founder Adam Nicklin. “When we’re driving on top of it, you don’t see this massive support section. It frames these ‘rooms’ which never would have been built if it wasn’t already there.”
Each of the public “rooms” formed by the highway will become part of a network of public spaces for everything from farmers markets and concert venues (“the acoustic qualities are unbelievably good,” says Ryan), to summer camp. The designers will work with residents to decide how to use each part of the park. A long trail will connect each of the spaces and reconnect a network of bike paths across the rest of the city.
“It opens up a new kind of terrain that is a completely different kind of public space, public realm, that’s not necessarily the traditional park,” says Ryan. “It can be both connective tissue and a destination or place itself.”
Though the city was debating taking down the expressway as recently as last year, the designers say that there are a few advantages to leaving it up. “We’re leveraging what’s already there,” Ryan says. “The resourcefulness of working with what already exists is also a form of sustainable thinking.”
“This is a midcentury modern piece of infrastructure that will now serve an entirely different purpose that has nothing to do with the automobile era, and everything to do with vibrancy, culture, recreation, and embracing of our city’s public realm,” he says.
The first part of the park, temporarily called Under Gardiner, will be completed in 2017, using a $25 million donation from a Toronto couple.