In late 2015, Judy and Wil Matthews donated $25 million to a monumental rejuvenation of the space under the Gardiner Expressway between Strachan Avenue and Spadina.
The vision is one of a ‘softening’ of one of Toronto’s hardest boundaries, and integrating it into the local community as something much more inviting. Early renderings show bike trails, skating rinks, markets and playgrounds, but no final decisions have been made on the final vision.
With the size of the contribution, this project has the potential to set a new benchmark for creation of high quality public space in areas under urban highway. What is essential is to create something distinctly Toronto in the process.
And such is the fun part of urban design: the imagination stage. The part where we are left not just with a parcel of land, but also a set of problems to solve and questions to answer. A parcel of land, in reality, is merely the physical manifestation of the boundaries to our creativity. It represents the scarcity in the equation, but also necessitates creativity.
Here’s a few thoughts.
1. A Skateboarding Park
Toronto is a great skateboarding city, but weather can definitely hinder skating outdoors. While we still get our history-setting blasts of snow, rain and ice, the trend has been towards milder and drier weather, especially in winter..
With the popularity of Underpass Park’s skatepark on St. Lawrence Street, another skate park which offers an inclement weather refuge for Toronto skaters would be a welcome alternative for residents in the predominantly young-ish residents of Liberty Village.
Setting ambitions on a skate park on par with Burnside Park in Portland, Oregon, or FDR Park in Philadelphia is a great way to raise Toronto’s profile; a ‘must-see’ skate park is a great draw for skaters and photographers alike.
2. Basketball Courts
Toronto, and the GTA, has become a basketball hotbed since the Raptors came to town in the 1990’s, and high-quality outdoor courts are a welcome addition to just about any outdoor space. Like with skateboarding, the less extreme winters have offered more playable outdoor time to some of the more hardcore enthusiasts.
Currently, Underpass Park offers two half-courts for players, but no full-court options. Creating high-quality full courts could play host to Raptors practices and high school/university/college exhibition games.
3. Skating/Hockey Rinks
Some outdoor rinks in Toronto have been given a boost by Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment and Hockey Canada in the form of proper boards and actual zambonis. Rinks like Ramsden Park (Rosedale Station) and Regent Park have become prime outdoor hockey spots thanks to their above-average amenities for players, drawing people to rinks they might not have otherwise visited.
Making an all-season hockey space can create a large amount of regular use by Torontonians of all ages. Including a full-sized rink with lights and boards could see a rink which could play host to Leafs/Marlies practices, as well as various academic-athletic events; given the popularity of outdoor games in hockey of all levels currently, the interest would be there.
Further, in summertime, a ‘deck’ surface could be installed for roller/ball hockey, or even box lacrosse.
4. An Outdoor Fitness Centre
New York City is currently trying a number of outdoor fitness centre ideas, including a brand new one on South Street, by the South Street Seaport in Manhattan, in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge.
There are 12 exercise machines available: a cardio walker, a bench dip station, a double hip flexer, a body row, an elliptical machine, a double strider, a leg press, a chest press, a rowing machine, a chin-up bar station, and a double shoulder rotator; all are free to use for anyone interested in doing their daily workout by the river.
The machines are all hard-installed, specially-designed for use outdoors in an urban environment, offering low-income residents an alternative to pricey health club memberships.
Underpass Park offers a great template for athletic amenities, but it’s important to include other non-athletic elements, including some astonishing mural art which make Underpass Park such unique public space. It is the combination of high-quality public space and local culture which ultimately helps make this a favourite spot for local photography enthusiasts, meaning that visuals also circulate on social media (check out #underpasspark on Instagram to see some great shots by local photographers of the park).
Ultimately, what defines successful public space is reflectivity; the space doesn’t define an area so much as the area shapes the space. While many criticize the slew of condos running along Toronto’s waterfront as lacking a community feel, a public project like this offers a unique opportunity to engage local residents and create something for Torontonians, by Torontonians, intended to make a unique and fun use for what has – to now – been little more than a bunch of concrete and steel.