The First Good Year: The Bentway, Toronto, Ontario
It’s early December. From Fort York, the skyline unfolds in blurry outlines and dim lights behind a thick afternoon fog. The temperature hovers around zero—it’s one of those anonymous wintery days that descend on Toronto anywhere from October to April—and parts of downtown still seem asleep. But underneath the Gardiner Expressway, ice is being formed into a snaking 250-metre track; something is stirring.
Two weeks later, The Bentway skate trail opens for its second season, bringing fresh crowds to an outdoor gathering area that has been popular from day one. Part linear park, part event venue, and part public museum, The Bentway knits together the urban fabric beneath Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway, creating a vital and flexible space from the leftovers of the mid-century automobile infrastructure above.
Designed by Toronto’s Public Work, The Bentway is perhaps the most unusual public space in the city. Conceptualized by urban designer Ken Greenberg and made possible by a $25-million donation from philanthropists Judy and Wilmot Matthews in 2015, The Bentway in 2019 is an impressive work in progress.
Built on municipal land, the nascent public corridor has come to life quickly in a city hardly known for its bureaucratic efficiency. In late 2017—just over two years after the project was announced—ice skaters inaugurated the first phase, and last summer, an expanded series of public spaces to the west opened, including the Strachan Gate amphitheatre at the edge of Liberty Village. In the coming years, the linear space will continue to expand, eventually spanning the 1.75 kilometres between Strachan and Spadina.
Public Work’s full plan envisions some 55 outdoor rooms, each defined by a set of “bents”—the massive concrete highway supports for which the park is named. For now, the promenade from Strachan Avenue to Fort York Boulevard unfurls from an overlook to include a series of performance and event areas, waking paths, gardens and playgrounds. Overhead, the presence of the bents frames the park with an imposing roof. Viewed from the elevated Strachan Gate, The Bentway stretches forth like the nave of some grand concrete cathedral.
Through simple but contextually attuned interventions, one finds unexpected beauty beneath all that concrete mass. Pockets that are further from noisy traffic are programmed as quieter, landscaped retreats. Seating areas—whose moveable furnishings can make way for performances—are strategically positioned to take advantage of the best light. In rare moments, the sunshine pours down like honey, with warm shafts of light shining through the bents. Above, each of the bents is numbered, drawing the eye along the rhythmic concrete supports with a simple and powerful placemaking gesture.
Native plantings and a prominent wooden boardwalk are refreshingly earthy counterparts to the Gardiner’s hulking concrete supports. Many of the planters are made from weathering steel, creating aesthetic continuity with the Fort York Visitors Centre. The Bentway also offers improved pedestrian connections to Strachan Avenue and June Callwood Park. It will eventually link to the future West Block development and Mouth of Garrison Creek Trail.
The Bentway makes some more subtle connections to its surroundings, such as a narrow garden alongside the skate path that traces Lake Ontario’s former shoreline. The proximity of Fort York invites historical references, including a small garden named the American Invasion. Massive texts emblazoned across several of the concrete bents also recall the opening of the Grand Trunk Railway in 1856.
Across from Fort York, in much smaller script, a text of a different sort is printed on one of the pillars at eye level. It’s a quote from the late historian and civic activist Stephen Otto: “The Gardiner is an alien. It doesn’t belong where it is.”
Otto’s declaration invites one to look beyond a superficially pleasant catalogue of the past. Even while enjoying the space, one might pause to consider the troubled reality that makes it possible. The presence of an elevated expressway in downtown Toronto remains dispiritingly misguided, particularly when one contrasts the billions spent maintaining it with the $25-million donation that spurred the creation of a public pedestrian space below. What does that say about our civic priorities?
The space’s current set of public art installations pushes the cultural dialogue further. Curated by The Bentway Conservancy (a non-profit agency that manages the project’s programming) the exhibition If, But, What If? looks to both the past and the future. Wally Dion’s striking 8-Bit Wampum interprets the surrender of land by the Mississaugas of the New Credit to the British Crown, while Sans façon’s Iconic Site (#5) playfully teases out the contradictions of The Bentway’s own unconventional popularity. Spelling out the words “Iconic Site” in red neon, the work explores the tension of creating a landmark public space on a discarded scrap of urban land. For three nights in October, artist Daan Roosegaarde’s Waterlicht transformed the space with a strange and haunting beauty, immersing its 25,000 viewers in blue light and fog.
As a mostly linear space, The Bentway makes for a somewhat unconventional event and exhibition venue. And yet, in addition to its public art program, it has already played host to everything from concerts to yoga lessons, a beer garden, and a swimsuits-and-knickers polar bear skate. For any public space, relying on a constant stream of programming is an inherent risk. If the novelty wears off, or funding slows, a park or square can feel like an empty husk. But The Bentway is a good public space first, and an event venue second. Even with nothing going on, the place is enticing. It’s also necessary.
Situated at the nexus of several rapidly expanding downtown communities, The Bentway adjoins neighbourhoods including CityPlace, Liberty Village, and the Entertainment District—areas hemmed in by rail corridors. As these places gain in population density, their paucity of public space is keenly felt. The need for urban parkland in Toronto is becoming increasingly urgent. Meeting that need requires new ways of understanding the potential of infrastructural spaces. The type of leftover land that forms The Bentway will need to be found—in different forms—city-wide. In Scarborough, the planned 16-kilometre Meadoway aims to reclaim a power corridor, while the Rail Deck Park concept imagines a green space ambitiously built over a downtown rail corridor.
More immediately, The Bentway’s popularity evidences our hunger for public life. Its success is a paean to the importance of landscape architecture and urban design. Build something good, and people will come.
Stefan Novakovic is the Associate Editor of Canadian Architect. Photography by Nic Lehoux, unless otherwise indicated.