The Thin Green Line

TEXT Ian Chodikoff

As a society, we tend to praise the entrepreneurial spirit of those who demonstrate acumen in generating new ideas, persevering with them until completion. There may be even greater praise for those who can take an idea, allow it to gather momentum, and connect it with the zeitgeist of the day. Needless to say, turning ideas into reality takes relentless hard work and politicking to ensure that all the proverbial ducks are lined up in a row. A recent example of such an entrepreneurial and speculative endeavour is the “Green Ribbon.” Presented by architect Les Klein last June at an ideaCity conference, Klein’s proposal involves transforming a section of Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway that runs along the edge of Lake Ontario and across the city’s downtown core into an elevated swathe of green space for bicycles and pedestrians instead of cars. Spurred on by his well-received public presentation and a spate of media attention thereafter, he has been busy pitching the idea ever since, hoping to eventually see the Green Ribbon built. What makes his proposal so interesting to so many people is the fact that it incorporates several feel-good principles of sustainable design ranging from reducing the heat-island effect and offsetting carbon dioxide emissions, to generating renewable forms of electricity and mitigating the effects of the automobile in the city.

When Klein, principal of Quadrangle Architects, first presented the Green Ribbon, another elevated park had just been completed and opened to the public–the first section of Manhattan’s High Line. The High Line was built in the 1930s as part of a public-private infrastructure project and remained operational until 1980. Rising nearly 10 metres above grade, it removed freight trains from street level, thereby segregating two modes of transportation in the city. By 1999, a community-based non-profit group known as Friends of the High Line was formed to preserve and maintain the disused rail lines as an elevated public park. It wasn’t until 2001 when the visually arresting photographs of the High Line taken by Joel Sternfeld brought the neglected infrastructure into the public imagination. Sternfeld’s images of wild grasses growing on top of the old railway allowed politicians and citizens alike to appreciate the poetry and potential of such a place.

The High Line needed to be transformed into a magical and economically viable place. So, when James Corner Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro won the commission to transform the abandoned railway into an elevated urban park in 2004, the two firms needed to reformulate the vision for the 2.4-kilometre-long piece of infrastructure. Its success has been immediate and its transformation has proven to be an awe-inspiring addition to the city, altering visitors’ perspectives of the surrounding world. During its first six months in operation, the High Line has attracted nearly 2 million visitors.

Nevertheless, the High Line is not without criticism. There are numerous rules that visitors must obey, such as not walking in certain areas, sitting on railings or climbing on any part of the elevated structure. Due to the limited area of the pathways and the fragility of the new plantings, pets are not allowed either. Fittingly, a cartoon that appeared in The New Yorker last September depicted a number of dogs leashed to steel columns amidst garbage cans in the dark and dirty streets below, while their more fortunate owners enjoyed ice cream cones, drank Starbucks coffee, and otherwise experienced the city from a level of blissful detachment high above the city.

Undaunted by such criticism and inspired by the success of the High Line, Klein is convinced that Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway can be similarly transformed. He sees the potential for the Green Ribbon as a seven-kilometre-long urban park complete with cycling and pedestrian pathways, plantings, and both wind turbines and photovoltaic panels to generate enough electricity to power the lighting and electrical systems needed to sustain the park. He estimates that the park could be built for about half of the $1.2 to 1.8 billion needed to take down the expressway altogether. Some engineering and costing reports have been prepared to add legitimacy to Klein’s crusade, and he has been seeking out allies from both public and private sectors for additional support. If anything, it has given his firm, which was founded in 1986, a resurgent voice to speak about sustainable design issues on an urban level, providing inspiration for other architects like him to initiate new design opportunities in the public realm. CA