Walking the Line

TEXT Alex Bozikovic

Every so often a single project captures the zeitgeist of the design world, and for the past few years that role has belonged to the High Line. That rail line-turned-park in New York, designed by James Corner Field Operations, Diller Scofidio + Renfro and Piet Oudolf, shows a concern for old infrastructure; it brings together nature and urbanism in an irregular semi-planned manner; and through its preservation and its plantings, it digs for ecological sensitivity. And it is now one of the most popular places in New York.

But it’s a one-off: it springs from a unique urban condition and the presence of enlightened billionaire neighbours. What does landscape urbanism look like in a regular ungentrified cityscape? One provocative answer comes with the Green Line, an ideas competition for a strip of leftover land in Toronto–a five-kilometre corridor under a set of electricity transmission lines on the edge of downtown. It runs alongside a rail line and near light industry, unpretty artists’ lofts, and 1980s infill housing that seems dropped in from the suburbs. It is a remnant. It needs help. 

And local firm Workshop Architecture, whose office is a block away from the line, sees opportunity here. Principals Helena Grdadolnik and David Colussi identified the corridor as a contiguous area, and conducted the competition to solicit new ideas for it–not to be built, but purely as prods for new discussion. Given the current, unsuccessful mishmash of uses here (small parks, community gardens, parking lots), they believe that a big idea would be valuable. It would also form a prototype for a few other corridors across Toronto.

There are two winning proposals: one for a road crossing, won by Toronto’s Brown and Storey, and one for the area as a whole, designed by a student at ETH in Zurich, Gabriel Wulf. The Brown and Storey proposal addresses an awkward point where the Green Line and the grade-level railroad tracks cross a road underpass; they’ve solved this with an elevated platform, linked to adjacent plazas with a café and sandwiched between two bold, super-scaled façades. It is part infrastructure, part icon, part public space. The larger plan by Wulf is much more modest in its aspirations. It reimagines the corridor with a loosely organized array of community gardens and a few simple public spaces, artfully composed around a continuous cycle and pedestrian path. It is well conceived and would be relatively inexpensive to build. 

And yet even Wulf’s modest proposal is unlikely to happen. The corridor is owned by the Ontario power utility, with leases to the city and other parties. To address it as a whole would take political resolve and some funds. These are in short supply here, since Toronto–the post-1990s “megacity,” prosperous, huge, but short on public spending–does a minimal job of maintaining its parks. A few good new parks have been built in the past decade, including Claude Cormier’s Sugar Beach and the new Corktown Common led by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates. But those two are the products of government-led waterfront regeneration, funded by the proceeds of new development. In neighbourhoods where condos are not being built, including the largely working-class precincts near the Green Line, such projects begin at a disadvantage. 

In this context, the Green Line competition–which identifies a need and solicits realistic but bold solutions–offers a crucial ingredient: vision. This is what the current fashion for “tactical urbanism” is often missing. Activists can make quick impact by turning a parking space into a park. But permanent city-shifting change–like the kind delivered by the High Line–requires foresight and forethought. This is where enterprising designers can, like Grdadolnik and Colussi, make themselves invaluable, by asking the questions that nobody else is asking. CA

Alex Bozikovic is an editor at The Globe and Mail and a journalist and critic on design. He writes the blog nomeancity.net.

All of the competition entries may be viewed at www.greenlinetoronto.ca.