Marc Ryan of Public Work explains the Under Gardiner project.
On one of the coldest days in 2016, 40+ design professionals and community enthusiasts gathered bundled in parkas, hats, boots and scarves huddled at the “heart” of Toronto to hear about one of Toronto’s “hottest” projects, Under Gardiner. Historian David O’Hara and landscape architects Marc Ryan and Lauren Abrahams of Public Work introduced us to this highly publicized and pioneering project. They led us on a very brisk walk under the Frederick G. Gardiner Expressway, “the Gardiner” from Strachan Avenue to Bathhurst Street, bookending the historic Fort York site.
Much of the Gardiner rises five stories tall. There has been debate about tearing it down due to its high maintenance costs. This gargantuan six-lane wide structure stretches across Toronto’s Lake Ontario waterfront hovering over miles of underused space. Planner, and philanthropists Judy and Wil Matthews initiated the Under Gardiner project to reclaim those el-spaces with an unprecedented $25 million private gift to the city. Prompted by the Matthews’ investment, Mayor John Tory has since leveraged an additional private donation for a proposed skating rink near Bathhurst.
MASS LBP is a new kind of advisory firm that works with visionary governments and corporations to make better decisions. Principal and Founder Peter McLeod, Director of Participation and Learning Jane Farrow and Director of Business Development Chris Ellis made the connection between the Design Trust for Public Space’s Under the Elevated project and the Under Gardiner, and invited me to share our work in Toronto. MASS LBP has an approach similar to our own, but a slightly different mission focused on the democratic process shaping public policies that influence lives through increased citizen engagement. One of their latest debates has been about aging infrastructure in Toronto.
Torontonians were welcoming and eager to learn from Design Trust to inform their planning efforts to improve Toronto. Their deep interest in city building, rivaling Chicagoans, definitely surpasses New Yorkers. MASS LBP and Ryerson City Building Institute hosted a well-attended public lecture, Making it Happen, with Marc Ryan of Public Work and myself at Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute. Jane Farrow moderated a discussion after we highlighted the concepts and research behind Under Gardiner and Under the Elevated. To my surprise not only design professionals and students attended, but also the public. They were interested in what great potential opportunities there are for these sites and for increased citizen engagement. Energy from both the public and the public officials was palpable. The idea of connecting the city and el-spaces to the waterfront is catching fire.
On my whirlwind tour of Toronto, I also met with Waterfront Toronto about their master plan for the 2,000 acres from former New Yorker, Christopher Glaisek, Vice President, Planning & Design; and his team Andrew Hilton, Director of Communications and Marketing; Pina Mallozzi, Director of Design; and Rebecca Carbin, Public Art Program Manager. An essential part of their strategy has been building public realm improvements first
– waterfront parks and open spaces, i.e., Sugar Beach, Sherburne Common, Underpass Park and the West Don Lands, to jumpstart residential and commercial development, engaging world-renowned architects and landscape architects, such as Moshe Safdie, Arquitectonica, Urban Design Associates, Saucier + Perrotte Architects, and Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates. This has attracted premier projects, such as George Brown College of Applied Arts and Technology, one of the three top research colleges in Canada, which has also become an anchor in this development effort.
My visit overlapped the first state visit by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with Mayor Tory at City Hall, true Trudeaumania. Resonant with NYC, they too were talking about the need for critical investment in social/affordable housing and transit. The day after Trudeau’s visit, I spoke at Toronto City Hall Library. I was struck by how incredibly open and welcoming City Hall felt – no magnetometers or X-ray machines to get into the building, after walking through the vast plaza with its traditional commemorative sculptures, structures and sweeping ramps. Councilor Joe Cressy, whose district includes a section of the Gardiner introduced me. City Project Manager for Under Gardiner Pinelopi Gramatikopoulos led a conversation after my talk, Defining the Highs and Lows, as in creating the High Line park and the vision for spaces under elevated transportation infrastructure to the public and City officials from planning, parks and transportation departments.
For NYC’s Under the Elevated project, we’ve taken the approach from pop-up to pilot to permanent solutions for these spaces and to develop a comprehensive program in partnership with NYC Department of Transportation since 2013. Design Trust and its fellows developed strategies, tested methods and created a toolkit for use with various types of el-spaces. In the first phase of Under the Elevated, we created two “pop-up” installations, one in Chinatown and the other in the South Bronx to test lighting, information sharing, solar power, seating, masking noise, and elements not requiring attachment to elevated infrastructure.
Needless to say, I’m extremely envious of Toronto. They’re in the passing lane, heading to permanent for their Under Gardiner project. We’re still in the pilot phase for el-spaces to further develop our toolkit and maintenance strategies. In Sunset Park, we’re creating a safe and sustainable crossing or connector under the Gowanus Expressway, and in the Rockaways under the A train line, sustainable open spaces and connections to the community.
Later that day, I connected with the Toronto Food Policy Council about our Five Borough Farm project, strengthening and expanding urban agriculture, to familiarize them with the project and share our Farming Concrete Data Collection Toolkit. Over 300 urban farmers and gardeners in over 40 cities across the globe have signed on to use the online tool. Coincidentally the Council was just about to embark on creating their own data collection system. We’re optimistic that they will be able to adapt our Toolkit to their needs.
To my surprise not only design professionals and students attended, but also the public. They were interested in what great potential opportunities there are for these sites and for increased citizen engagement. Energy from both the public and the public officials was palpable. The idea of connecting the city and el-spaces to the waterfront is catching fire.