City Building

Underneath it All: How Toronto’s Under Gardiner could be a global model to unlock forgotten spaces

By January 15, 2016 No Comments


These days, there is shared sense of possibility when it comes to Toronto’s public spaces. The city seems to be at a key moment when forgotten edge spaces and aging infrastructure are now being reimagined as exciting opportunities to create badly needed public and park space. High-profile projects like the West Toronto Railpath, the West Don Lands redevelopment, and the proposed Green Line are all notable examples of how Toronto is unlocking hidden assets and incorporating them into the city’s vibrant and emerging public realm.

Susan noted that New York’s High Line is so successful, every city wants one. But this could be the case for Toronto’s potential leadership in reclaiming the underused: every city will want an Under Gardiner.

The height of this momentum might just be Project: Under Gardiner, a bold proposal to transform a stretch of unloved and unimagined space beneath the Gardiner Expressway into a linear park, weaving passive areas and creative hubs into a series of “rooms” along a continuous stretch of public space that stitches together seven distinct neighbourhoods via a pedestrian and cycling park from Spadina to Strachan.

The Under Gardiner will stitch together seven distinct downtown neighbourhoods. Image Source: Project Under Gardiner

Getting Grounded

“Space under elevated infrastructure is more important than what’s on the upper deck, because it connects us,” says Susan Chin, Executive Director of New York City’s Design Trust for Public Space. The Design Trust’s latest undertaking, a multi-year feasibility study for transforming the spaces underneath NYC’s 700 miles of elevated bridges, highways, subway and rail lines into new parks and connected public spaces, is aptly named Under the Elevated.

Susan was here this week for a series of events organized by MASS LBP and the Ryerson City Building Institute. Just hours after arriving in Toronto on Tuesday, Susan joined a small group of 30 city builders for a walk beneath the Gardiner Expressway – on the coldest day of the year. Beginning at the beautiful new Fort York Visitor Centre, tucked beneath the Gardiner, the walkers weaved under the expressway’s bents to understand the scale of the space and hear about the vision. Actually inhabiting the space as pedestrians helped to bring some of these concepts to life – we could really imagine, even in the depths of winter, how a grand staircase, a skating rink, a dog park, and pedestrian and cycling infrastructure could fit into the space.

City builders on a walk along the soon-to-be Under Gardiner, January 2016

The next frontier for public space

Inspired by the possibilities presented on our walk, Susan presented to a group of 120 city builders at a public lecture event the next evening. Susan shared how she and the Design Trust foster creative solutions to enliven NYC’s public spaces – and build the cross-sectoral coalitions and political will to realize them.

As one of their marquee projects, Under the Elevated embraces “El Space” – beneath elevated transit infrastructure and expressways – as the next frontier of public space, connecting people and places better than the spaces atop (we can’t always argue for a High Line).

One of the key takeaways of Susan’s presentation was the critical importance of creating an authentic identity for any public space; there is no one-size-fits-all solution for the design of the public realm. Susan used Under the Elevated as an example of this identity shaping, in which the Design Trust set out to reclaim, redesign, and reconnect these “leftover” El Spaces – totalling an area four times the size of Central Park.

Susan’s team categorized and created graphic identities for the unique overpass typologies, and one central “L” graphic that could be reinterpreted and reused throughout the project. The Design Trust took seriously the need to understand and adapt to local conditions – whether that be the demographics of the area, the lighting and sonic environment, or the historic value of the space. The design of their pop-up projects listened to and reflected community needs, developing a community gateway and info board in Chinatown and a seating area that incorporated local music history in the Bronx.

As the Design Trust embarks on this next phase of the project, they have developed a range of possible uses for El Spaces according to different local conditions, and along with NYC’s Department of Transportation are committed to ensuring that these spaces embody the needs and aspirations of the communities they serve.

Susan Chin and Mark Ryan participate in a discussion on the future of spaces beneath our elevated infrastructure, moderated by Jane Farrow.

Investing in parkland reimagined

The Under Gardiner’s lead designers at Public Work have inspired a new public dialogue on how we think about and design spaces at the edges of our urban infrastructure. And the commitment of $25 million from long-time urban philanthropists Will and Judy Matthews to design the build the project – the largest donation of this kind for a park in Canada, ever – means that the Under Gardiner will actually be realized, and soon.

Interestingly, as the project has activated full support from the Mayor and the City (not surprising given the generous donation), it should prompt the City to dedicate resources into making it all happen. This brings to mind an excellent series of articles by John Lorinc in Spacing last year that revealed the unspent millions in parkland dedication funds collected from condo developers in the downtown core, mostly because there is no obvious available space in which to build a park (even if the city could afford the soaring land prices in the downtown). The Under Gardiner blows up this barrier and re-imagines how we can invest in parkland for our growing vertical neighbourhoods.

Leading the Under Revolution

As Torontonians reaffirm our commitment to our shared public spaces, a focus on building an identity unique to the community takes centre stage. The importance of this concept was echoed by Marc Ryan in his assertion that the Under Gardiner will be “diverse, multifunctional, permanently evolving, and only in Toronto”.

We’re excited to see the next evolution of the under revolution.