Mexico City is developing the vacant land under its elevated highways. Could Toronto follow its lead?
Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.
The Gardiner Expressway sucks. A city of Toronto’s size may need the cross-town highway, but anyone with a shred of civic pride has got to hope we can do better. It’s ugly, it’s obtrusive, and every once in a while, it sheds concrete as though it were dandruff. Perhaps worst of all, though, the Gardiner has created a shameful amount of wasted space. Check out this video of the maligned expressway’s underbelly, shot by some Popeye Doyle driving along Lake Shore Boulevard. Patches of scrub, long stretches of empty asphalt—the land in the shadow of the Gardiner is dark and desolate, and its potential has been squandered.
Toronto isn’t the only North American city to have grappled with how to manage the derelict space under its elevated highways. The greater Mexico City area, with a population of over 20 million and counting, is in perpetual need of more and better transportation infrastructure. But although elevated highways have been tapped as a space-efficient solution to the city’s world-class traffic congestion, they have also provided shelter for illegal parking operations, makeshift garbage dumps, and other fairly anti-social undertakings.
Enter Bajo Puentes (Spanish for “Under Bridges”), a City-managed program that unites the public and private sectors to develop the land under elevated roads into safe, accessible public space.
It’s a straightforward plan. The government charges private developers below-market rates to build on and maintain the land. In turn, the developers lease the rejuvenated spaces to government-approved businesses, on the condition that at least 50 per cent of the land be reserved for public use. A maximum of 30 per cent can be used for commercial development, and another 20 per cent is reserved for parking. So far, 24,000 square feet of grimy sub-highway land has been transformed into picnic areas, cafés, playgrounds, open-air gyms, and green space, without any government expense. What were once some of the most despised crevices of the city are now home to what the government is touting as “safe, well-lit places for peaceful coexistence.”
Not that all residents of Mexico City are necessarily welcome to peacefully coexist there. Before we get too carried away praising Mexican bureaucrats, note that much of the land under the city’s elevated highways has been a haven for the local homeless population—a phenomenon seen to some degree here in Toronto. Many of the squatters who’ll be displaced by the continued development of Bajo Puentes have already been driven from the streets of downtown Mexico City.
Accusations by human rights groups that Mexico is strong-arming the homeless out of urban centres in an act of social cleansing are a reminder that development should be socially, and not simply financially, responsible.
But if it could be accomplished without destroying or displacing needy communities, the development of land under the Gardiner would be a mighty good happening for Toronto. Underpass Park, with its basketball courts, playground, public art, and skatepark, is thriving under the Adelaide, Eastern Avenue, and Richmond overpasses. It seems only right to roll out a similar project under the expressway.
While the suggestion has been made by City officials that a stretch of the Gardiner east of Jarvis be demolished, the rest of it will likely be crumbling away for years to come. Turning the space under and around the Gardiner into something meaningful, accessible, and useful may not solve every problem caused by the elevated expressway, but it would be a fine bit of polish on an otherwise tarnished landmark.