A popular recent addition to bicycling infrastructure in the west end of the city is a successful repurposing of a linear brownfield site: the West Toronto Railpath remediates disused industrial lands to reinforce a community.
With the retreat of heavy industry from the old city of Toronto, the rail transportation linkages that once fed these enterprises became surplus and fell into disuse. With the loss of their customers and the erosion of their commercial viability brought about by the expansion of highway infrastructure, a long process of abandonment began as railways pulled up deserted sidings. These graded strips of land, now freed from their steel tracks, became ideally suited for conversion into trail networks. Opened in 2009 and stretching 2.1km from Cariboo Avenue in the north to Dundas and Lansdowne in the south, the West Toronto Railpath is constructed on a former Canadian Pacific track which paralleled the GO Weston and Galt subdivisions into downtown Toronto. Serving to unify communities, create new recreation space and provide a new multi-use trail, the Railpath references the industrial character of the neighbourhoods through which it passes to maintain an authenticity of place.
Designed by a collaboration of Brown + Storey Architects with landscape architect Scott Torrance, planning for the project began in 2006. The desire to have the trail system tie into the existing character of the post-industrial neighbourhood was a guiding principle for the project. Working in a context that differed sharply from the manicured conditions of other spaces, the site presented the opportunity for residents to explore and appreciate the rough, functional aesthetic of a post-industrial area.
As such, it was essential for Scott Torrance that the repurposing of the former rail line maintain the character of the area. Informed by a respect for this "incredible and wild" part of the city, Torrance sought an appropriate response to the site that addressed its context and maintained its authenticity. As such, he and his project partners at Brown + Storey Architects set out to create a space that was functional, practical and unpolished, yet still beautiful. Eschewing the tightly manicured nature of similar linear parks, the materials employed in the project such as the Corten steel signage, acorn light standards and plain concrete pavers used in the plazas where streets intersect the trail, speak to this preference for the functional. Although often neglected in favour of more polished and elaborate materials, there is an overlooked beauty to a space that is simple, durable and honest. Not only does this speak to the area's heritage, but it makes for ease of maintenance.
Since both the lighting standards and the concrete chosen in the plazas are used by the city, they can easily be replaced. This helps ensure the continued integrity of the design through an ease of sourcing, but it also means that the project feels "part of the city, not apart from the city." Important too are the connections fostered within the communities that border the trail. Through the creation of public plazas, new gathering areas are produced where community bonds can be fostered. The path also adds new frontages where residential development can occur, helping to reuse abandoned brownfield sites.
Just as the materials chosen respect context, so does the choice of planting material. Informed by what Scott Torrance describes as "resilience ecology," there was a concerted effort to reinforce the local ecological conditions that surround the trail. As such, seeds from existing vegetation were gathered to augment the other native plant species brought in for softscaping. The result is a space that is dynamic, one where the composition of the plant materials will be allowed to evolve with the local conditions.
While both recreational users and bike commuters have embraced the railpath, the project has not gone unnoticed by the design community, having received the Certificate of Merit from the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada at the 2012 Urban Design Awards. The City of Toronto also awarded Scott Torrance with an Urban Design Award of Excellence in 2011.
Advocates are pushing for Phase II of the project which would see the trail extended south past Queen Street. That is still in the planning stages with the City and Metrolinx attempting to reconcile outstanding issues concerning possible conflict of land use between the Georgetown South Service Expansion and the Air Rail Link Project. We will keep our eye on progress along the railpath.
Urban Toronto would like to thank Scott Torrance for taking the time to discuss the project with us.