Under the Expressway: The Bentway

Anyone with an even passing familiarity with Toronto’s history knows that late 19th-century railways and post-war highways posed an existential threat to Fort York, rendering it physically isolated for decades. But in 2011, planner Ken Greenberg penned an essay in the Fife & Drum, a Friends of Fort York newsletter, arguing that it will (or could) become a kind of central park for the large cluster of condos going up all around it. “That was simply throwing out an idea,” he says.

Seven years later, one element of that vision—touted as the first phase of what will be a long-term implementation of urban animation—has come to fruition: The Bentway, a multi-purpose linear park snaking underneath the same elevated Gardiner Expressway that nearly obliterated the Fort many years earlier.The Bentway

Running in a double-S-shaped corridor abutting the Fort’s southern bulwark and its visitor centre by Patkau Architect and Kearns Mancini Architects (Canadian Architect, September 2014), The Bentway has sought to take advantage of the strange beauty of the space beneath the highway, the proximity to new high-rise neighbourhoods and the excess capacity in the “bents,” as the structures that hold up the roadway are known. Funded with a $25 million donation by Judy and Wilmot Matthews, the Bentway will be managed by a conservancy. Greenberg has served as the project planner.

While dense cities like Tokyo and London have reclaimed areas beneath elevated expressways for buildings and sports fields, the height of the Gardiner created not only a cathedral like space, but also provided buffer from highway noise and admitted afternoon sun. “It feels light and airy,” Greenberg says, noting that another Waterfront Toronto project, Underpass Park, offered a template for how the bridge supports could be leverage to animate a forlorn 
space (in the case of Underpass Park, the bents became dramatic canvases for public art).

In terms of architecture, Marc Ryan, a partner at Public Work, says the design was driven by several guiding principles: taking advantage of the anomalies and edge-condition of a rough space; deploying friction clamps and other elevated supports that will take advantage of the load-bearing capacity of the bents to suspend lighting, art, theatrical equipment and even a bike bridge; and allowing for flexibility. As Ryan says, the design and programming were developed in tandem, beginning with the 250-metre skate path that opened early in 2018. “The evolution,” is the exciting part,” he says. “We’ve tried to leave it open, and deliberately so.”

John Lorinc is a Toronto-based writer on urban affairs.