In 2015, philanthropists Judy and Wil Matthews walked into the Mayor's office with an idea. Joined by visionary urban designer Ken Greenberg, the trio presented the vision of a radically transformed urban environment. Spurred by the Mathews' $25 million donation, the 1.75-kilometre stretch of empty, overlooked land, was to become an urban park, knitting together some of the city's most rapidly growing and amenity-starved neighbourhoods with flexibly designed, community-oriented landscape architecture from Public Work. This weekend, that unlikely vision takes another step closer to reality. 

The Bentway, Public Work, Gensler, Ken Greenberg, City of TorontoThe Bentway's Strachan Gate opens to the public on August 25th.

Saturday, August 25, a block party will celebrate the opening of the new Strachan Gate at The Bentway's west end. From noon to 10 PM, the once-desolate stretch of land west of Strachan Avenue will come alive with games, workshops, roaming musical performances, dance workshops, an open-air arcade, a piñata, a costume party, a dance battle, and a gigantic giraffe. 

The Bentway, Public Work, Gensler, Ken Greenberg, City of TorontoDesigned by Gensler, a giant giraffe greets visitors.

Following this January's opening of the much-anticipated skate trail, the completion of the Strachan Gate marks the culmination of the Bentway's first phase. Designed by Public Work and Gensler with the City of Toronto and Waterfront Toronto as developers, the new public space expands with the addition of a cascading wooden staircase and open-air amphitheatre that now marks the Bentway's western terminus.

The Bentway, Public Work, Gensler, Ken Greenberg, City of TorontoThe amphitheatre marks the beginning of the trail.

Accommodating up to 250 people, the amphitheatre — which features artwork by Toronto's Alex McLeod — opens out to the trail. Flanked by Fort York's rolling green topography, the linear park stretches east beneath the grand bents for which the space is named. Looking out from the raised amphitheatre, the scale of it all is striking. From here, the space takes on the presence of a sort of cathedral; all those bents creating an outdoor room unlike any in the world. 

The Bentway, Public Work, Gensler, Ken Greenberg, City of TorontoUnder the bents.

Today, journalists got a preview of that space — and some of the fun. Tomorrow, the Toronto public gets the full deal. Although today's event offered only a glimpse of what's to come, there was already the hint of something special in the air. Maybe it was Rob Shostak and co., dressed up as yellow human bents in costumes of Shostak's design.

The Bentway, Public Work, Gensler, Ken Greenberg, City of TorontoRob Shostak (left) and The Bentways.

Set to headline tomorrow's parade, Shostak's costume epitomizes the playfulness and civic pride of the place. In its design and its nascent identity, the Bentway makes no apologies for its location. There is no timidity about the fact that we are standing beneath an elevated expressway, and even if the automobile infrastructure above is urbanistically misguided, the space below celebrates the unique presence of those concrete arches. With art and inscriptions of the area's unearthed history inscribed upon the restored bents, you are invited to look up and take it all in. It makes for an assertive space, the sort that Toronto still has too few of.

The Bentway, Public Work, Gensler, Ken Greenberg, City of TorontoLooking east from the Strachan Gate.

Then, there's the playfulness of it all. From Shostak's costume to the almost comically oversized giraffe that welcomes visitors, a sense of spontaneity and whimsy fills the space. That too, is unlike Toronto; or rather, it used to be.

The Bentway, Public Work, Gensler, Ken Greenberg, City of TorontoThe park slides into For York to the north, connecting some of Toronto's fastest-growing neighbourhoods.

Joining a new generation of public spaces like Berczy and Grange parks, The Bentway offers the flexible but assertive urban design that helps create a sense of place. As Public Work's Marc Ryan explained, the space is designed to foster a wide range of activities, allowing the public a sense of ownership. "It's a place in progress... leaving space for others to add their fingerprints." 

It also invites a sense of civic pride. Standing at the foot of the amphitheatre, I got the sense that all this couldn't be anywhere but here, anywhere but Toronto.  

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More information about Saurday's festivities is available via The Bentway's official website, linked here.

Photography by Stefan Novakovic.