Earlier today, the ambitious plan to create 10 acres of new public space underneath Toronto's Gardiner Expressway was officially announced, with a 1.75 kilometre stretch of empty land from just west of Strachan Avenue to Spadina set to be transformed. Made possible by an unprecedented private donation to Toronto's public realm of $25 million from Judy and Wil Matthews, the initiative—known for the time being as Under Gardiner—is expected to link surrounding neighbourhoods with extensive cultural programming and a new trail, becoming a vibrant destination and a living, breathing, community hub.

A rendering of the new trail and public area, image courtesy of PUBLIC Work

City of Toronto Mayor John Tory joined Waterfront Toronto CEO John Campbell, and City Councillors Mike Layton (Ward 19) and Joe Cressy (Ward 20) in celebrating the Matthews' philanthropy, and outlining the central tenets of the project. With a design team headed by the renowned city planner and urban designer Ken Greenberg—in partnership with Adam Nicklin and Marc Ryan of PUBLIC WORK—the project has been envisioned as a boldly democratic and highly interactive space, with variable programming grounded in community-led initiatives.

Ahead of the project's official unveiling, UrbanToronto met with Greenberg, Nicklin, and Ryan, to discuss the scope of the initiative, and to better understand how the project is expected to unfold over the coming months. Our discussion provided insight into the design principles that have guided the conceptual shape of the plan, and the new, empowered paradigm of city life—and urban planning—championed by the marquee project. 

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"Now a relic of the mid-20th century's automobile culture, Toronto's Gardiner Expressway was built to accommodate a bygone city, with the high-rise residential communities that now surround the ageing roadway a study in contrast to the industrial environment that, until relatively recently, characterized much of Toronto's waterfront," Greenberg tells us. While the expressway—now undergoing a comprehensive structural restoration—remains the same, "the city around it has changed," leaving behind large-scale infrastructure that has become increasingly out of sync with the neighbouring urban geography.

Judy and Wilmot Matthews' $25 million donation opened the door to a re-conceptualization of the area underneath the roughly 1.75 kilometre-long stretch of the Gardiner between just west of Strachan and Spadina. With Greenberg and PUBLIC WORK's Nicklin and Ryan having put together a conceptual design—the Matthews' generous donation is now being put to use to knit together a new, functional and democratic urban landscape from the disused space available (below), beginning with the 1.1 kilometres stretching east from Strachan.

A preliminary map of the public realm revitalization plans, image courtesy of PUBLIC WORK

"With the City of Toronto already contributing sizeable funds (currently estimated as $150 million) to restore the structural integrity of the expressway above, the opportunity to cost-effectively create a vital new public space," Nicklin explains, outlining the fortuitous circumstances that make such an impactful urban initiative possible at a relatively low cost.

"The cost of large-scale infrastructure projects like this one tends to be very high," Ryan adds, "but this is because most of the money is usually invisible, much like the mass of an iceberg. In this case, with the 'invisible' funds already being provided by the city, the $25 million donation can be used to maximum effect." Expected to be completed by October of 2016, the infrastructure upgrades currently underway along the western portion of the Gardiner allow for the Matthew's donation to have a transformative impact on the area.

Looking east from the Fort York Visitors Centre, image by Craig White

"With a great opportunity presenting itself, the goal now is to re-configurire automobile-based infrastructure to accommodate the changing physical environments of cities," Greenberg continues, describing the challenges of connecting the existing expressway with the sharp influx of new residential density that has transformed much of the urban core. In particular, the 1.75 kilometre stretch of the Gardiner now borders high-rise residential areas with a population of roughly 70,000 residents, evidencing not only population growth, but also a return to urban living following decades of suburban exodus. 

However, while urban density and high-rise construction has already re-made the physical shape of many Toronto neighbourhoods, much of the city's existing highway infrastructure was not designed with urban lifestyles in mind, catering more to commuters than area residents. This means that some recently built communities (such as Concord CityPlace and Liberty Village) sometimes lack the social fabric and sense of community that makes neighbourhoods great.

"When we surveyed Liberty Village residents, we found that many of them didn't know Fort York is basically right on their doorstep, because they feel so disconnected from it," Nicklin tells us, pointing to the geographic barrier currently posed by the expressway. In this regard the creation of trails and connections beneath the expressway should be significant in remedying the geographic isolation of some of Toronto's communities. 

Building on recent and ongoing projects such as the Fort York Visitors Centre—which defiantly faces out to a barren underpass, creating a pedestrian connection beneath the expressway—Mouth of the Creek Park, the Ontario Place Revitalization Project, Garrison Point, and the West Block Loblaws development, the new trail could create vital connections between increasingly vibrant pockets which are already improving city life.

A larger aerial context of the surrounding areas, image courtesy of PUBLIC WORK

"In the case of the Loblaws, for example, we've already been in contact with them setting up an outdoor, underpass market alongside their main store, and the reception has been very positive," Greenberg notes. With most stakeholder developers already having reacted positively to the project, a strong sense of optimism surrounds the initiative—even with a highly accelerated timeline that would see the project completed by 2017.

"I must also add that John Tory was immediately supportive of the project, and quick to see the area's possibilities," Greenberg notes, explaining that the City was willing to get behind the proposal from an early stage. "From there, Waterfront Toronto became the third partner for the project soon after, with John Campbell also becoming an enthusiastic supporter of our plan." 

Greenberg also explains that the cultural programming planned for the area would be flexible and easily accessible to smaller or new performing arts groups. "We want to create a sense of empowerment, where it's residents themselves who decide what the space will be about," Greenberg notes. This notion of civic empowerment is reflected in the 'Reclaim the Name' campaign, "which will see citizens themselves decide what the area will be called, and what it will represent," Ryan adds. 

"The empowered and highly flexible nature of the plan is meant to help residents feel a sense of ownership over their city," Nicklin tells us, "and helping people feel that the space around them is really theirs." Greenberg adds that the openness of the programming runs against the current of "a very risk-averse society," with fear and hesitancy often elements of Toronto's urban planning—and, more broadly, city life.

A rendering of a potential skating rink, image courtesy of PUBLIC WORK

"An interactive environment helps us feel empowered as residents," Greenberg notes, arguing that a liberated environment gives citizens a sense of control over their city, as well as a sense of community amongst themselves. In addition to sensitively curated cultural programming, preliminary renderings also suggest features such as a skating rink, an off-leash dog park, and an open air market may form part of the plan, which also promises to feature child and family-friendly amenities.

Broadly, the plan envisions a more 'active' and noisy western stretch of performing arts and street life to gradually lead to a more 'passive' and tranquil area to the east, sensitively maintaining a quiet ambiance for the residential areas that directly neighbour the Gardiner west of Spadina. 

"We also want to foster an awareness of the historical wealth of the area," Greenberg adds, suggesting that historical signing and programming will form an important part of the project. Greenberg explains that the Gardiner now stands over Lake Ontario's former bank, which later gave way to aboriginal culture and trails that preceded European conquest by centuries, while Fort York and the Gardiner now remain as very different—but perhaps equally evocative—relics of the 19th and 20th centuries. "Most of the history has been erased, however," Greenberg tells us, "and our aim is to restore it." 

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For the time being, the western stretch of the Gardiner remains a barren yet eerily majestic post-industrial landscape, currently inhabited by construction equipment. However, following this morning's announcement, held at the Fort York Visitor's Centre—which cuts an early path of urban and cultural vibrancy beneath the desolate expressway—it was hard not to imagine the possibilities already taking shape.

Looking west past the Fort York Visitors Centre, image by Craig White

What would you like to see happen in the area underneath the Gardiner Expressway that is set to be transformed? You can see more images of the initial plans including higher-resolution maps in the dataBase file linked below. You can read up on the already active discussion by choosing the link to the associated Forum thread, and get involved if you choose, or you can always leave your thoughts in the space provided on this page.

Related Companies:  City of Toronto, Greenberg Consultants, Kee Safety, Public Work, urbanMetrics inc., Waterfront Toronto