The Gardiner Expressway cuts through Toronto’s heart. Stretching 18 kilometres across the city’s downtown, the broad elevated expressway stakes a domineering presence on the central waterfront. Since its construction over 60 years ago, it has remained a locus of controversy, whether for inducing traffic and seemingly constant gridlock, or, increasingly, for the billions required to maintain the crumbling behemoth. More fundamentally, it severs the urban core from the lakefront: As the late historian and civic activist Stephen Otto put it, “The Gardiner is an alien. It doesn’t belong where it is.”
Today, Otto’s declaration is true as ever. In recent years, however, our relationship with the concrete behemoth has gradually evolved. At the turn of the millennium, a short section east of the Don River was demolished, setting the stage for the ongoing Port Lands redevelopment to become more integrated into the urban fabric. Meanwhile, a sprawling downtown on-ramp was recently rebuilt on a much more compact footprint, opening up the space that now hosts Claude Cormier’s instantly beloved Love Park. And in 2017, ice skaters inaugurated the first phase of The Bentway, an evolving linear park that’s repurposing more of the space under the expressway into a dynamic public hub. Since then, the park and venue has stretched its physical and cultural footprint, incorporating a wealth of exhibitions, installations and events. Designed by Public Work, a reimagined landscape is now gradually filling out the 1.75-kilometre stretch between the Exhibition GO Station and Spadina Avenue.
Over the last six years, The Bentway — one of the few parks in Canada operated as a Conservancy — has reinvented the remnants of infrastructure, transforming our relationship to the site in the process. What was once a liminal, lonely space under the expressway is becoming a hub of life. This week, The Bentway Conservancy published an ambitious public realm draft plan that re-imagines a much longer 6.5-kilometre stretch between Dufferin Street and the Don Valley Parkway. Like the linear park thus far, the vision (which targets a 2030 completion date) incorporates regenerative landscape design and Indigenous placekeeping strategies to knit together a series of landmark civic spaces.
Earlier this month, The Bentway also unveiled a modest temporary addition — though one that may be its most radical addition to date. Dubbed Staging Grounds, the project introduces new plantings and a durable temporary walkway (with ample bench seating) under a section of the Gardiner set to be rebuilt beginning in late 2025. Designed by an interdisciplinary team led by New York-based Tei Carpenter of Agency—Agency, and Reza Nik of Toronto’s SHEEEP, Staging Grounds also harnesses runoff water from the highway to nourish a series of oversized planters that sit on the river rocks below the expressway.
The planters feature diverse, flowering plant species such as Milkweed, Bloodrut, Groundnut, Agastache and Yarrow, while passive water filtration and retention helps to reduce the risk of local flooding. Isaac Crosby — also known as “Brother Nature” — a local Afro-Indigenous horticulturalist, helped select native plants that absorb pollutants like salt and heavy metals, while also helping to remediate excess water. Each of the planters is also individually calibrated according to hyper-local conditions, with the planting mix and positioning taking into account factors such as sunshine, rainfall and wind. Above the new greenery, downspouts in the same bright teal tone draw the eye up to the concrete structure, situating the expressway itself as a surprising site of nourishment and regeneration.
“It’s a privilege working with The Bentway on Staging Grounds to think creatively about the city’s infrastructure and to centre the design of water in the public’s daily experience,” says Carpenter. “We’re really excited to share this project with the city and to see how an underutilized part of our infrastructure can be actively and passively used throughout the year,” says Nik.
To create a more comfortable setting, an adjacent cluster of six-metre tall “art towers” also provide visual and acoustic buffers from Lake Shore Boulevard, which runs alongside the Staging Grounds site. A series of installations have been commissioned for the towers, beginning with local artist Logan MacDonald’s Fountain Monumental, which is now on the site. It depicts a revisionist, decolonial vision of the site’s history — one where the Gardiner was never built. Here, old growth pine and spruce trees meet urban fountains above a bed of water.
It’s a glimmer of the future too. Like the earlier phases of The Bentway — as well as the other striking temporary installations introduced this year — Staging Grounds transforms a remnant scrap of automobile infrastructure into a space that welcomes people and nature. But it does a little bit more. By transforming the leaky, polluted and dilapidated concrete into a source of life-giving water, the installation challenges the perceived dichotomy between infrastructure and nature. As hostile as the expressway is, its hulking concrete body cannot resist the rain forever. The Gardiner may not belong where it is, but even an alien eventually lives and breathes the language of the earth.
As a major expansion of Toronto’s linear park is announced, a new installation interrogates our relationship with infrastructure.