An unused space beneath a Toronto expressway is being transformed into an exciting new public park that includes an ice skating trail, gardens, art installations, picnic spaces, amphitheatre and boardwalk.
The Bentway Conservancy, a not-for-profit organisation, designer Ken Greenberg, and the Toronto landscape architecture firm Public Work, will be collaborating to develop the linear park called The Bentway that will encompass a stretch of land underneath the Gardiner Expressway – named for the columns (bents) that hold up the road infrastructure.
Built six decades ago, to many the expressway has felt like a rude interruption to the city. But now, the Bentway seeks to remedy that hostility by bringing Toronto to become a part of it, instead of resenting it.
"I think there's a real enthusiasm for looking at this urban infrastructure and changing it," Julian Sleath, CEO the Bentway Conservancy said. "Everyone is looking at these big infrastructure projects and trying to change our interpretation of them. They are here to stay, so let's celebrate them. Let's enjoy them. And let's use them to connect ourselves across our cities."
"My crazy plan is to change how we think of all 18 km of the Gardiner Expressway," Sleath continued. "That might take me a few years, but…I sincerely hope we will imagine the Gardiner in different parts in different ways."
Greenberg’s vision for the park was inspired back in 2011. As the people of Toronto moved into residences around the Fort York site, he was stimulated by an idea for a new park space for the people to relax and have fun. When it is completed, the park with be within a 10-minute walk for more than 70,000 surrounding residents.
His idea was the catalyst for other developers to collaborate and contribute to the park. Public Work, Ilana Altman, and the director of programming for the Bentway Conservancy, will collaborate to design and curate the park experience. The park will also receive maintenance support from the city.
While the park is still under construction, the ice-skating track was opened in early 2018. The path is 220 metres long and weaves in a figure-of-eight between the bents. The skating trail will stay open until March, when it will be turned into a track for pedestrians, cyclists and rollerbladers. When the park has finished construction, the skating trail will be surrounded by picturesque gardens, art installations, a boardwalk, and picnic spaces.
The Bentway Project aims to create a public space that features garden landscaping and parkland for residents who live in an area where they don’t have access to green spaces. Portions of the park will be hydrated through a drainage system that will channel water runoffs from the above expressway.
The Bentway aims to be more than just a parkland, but a public space that will include activities and events that will encouraged patronage and life to be brought to the disused area. Markets, festivals, exhibitions, performances and more will be held year-round in an amphitheatre designed to hold more than 500 people, and an open-air theatre that can accommodate over 250. The design of the park revolves around the unique construction of the space, and the various events will be held in the different “rooms” of the park. Sleath called the Bentway “the most amazing cathedral” that is “very light and airy”, the perfect place to create a public space for the people of Toronto.
A lighting installation was the feature of the opening event of the skating trail, which projected the skater’s shadows onto the pillars to be used for a video project. This was the first step to creating an interactive and dynamic public space experience and transforming the area into a place that breathes with life and vitality. In addition to this, the skating trail features live music, pop-up curling and weekly DJ parties. A breakdancing-on-skates show also acted as the star of the opening.
“It’s very Canadian,” said Sleath. "I think in the DNA of everybody is the desire to get out there in winter. And we thought, well, here's another reason not to hibernate, not to stay indoors, but to come out and celebrate all the great winter stuff that happens here in Toronto."
Major John Tory commended the city staff and designers for bringing the project into reality. "The fact that we are here, two years after this was talked about as a dream, is a testament to what can get done," he said.
After the trail has been fully completed, the Bentway will be developed to the full 1.7km under the expressway. An amphitheatre is set to open in the summer at the end which will host concerts, dance events and movie screenings.
“The city is getting very dense in terms of its population, which is a great thing for Toronto, but we also recognize that people need a new kind of backyard, a new kind of place to hang out and do stuff with friends and family," concluded Sleath. "We hope that, in the days to come and the years ahead, the Bentway becomes a very public space for everyone to enjoy."