Gardiner Party
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Gardiner Party

Rendering of the Green Ribbon showing new life both above and below the Gardiner Expressway. Image courtesy of Quadrangle Architects Limited.

Just weeks after City Hall’s executive committee approved yet another lengthy analysis of the future of the Gardiner Expressway, a notable design firm has introduced a fresh concept into the twenty-plus-year-old debate. At last week’s tenth annual ideaCity, Les Klein, founding partner of Quadrangle Architects, called for building a green roof on top of the roadway, complete with parkland, cafés, and bike paths stretching from Dufferin Street to the Don Valley Parkway. His proposal for the Gardiner, which was met with a standing ovation, demonstrated that thinking way outside the box might be the best way to move forward from this highly cyclical discussion.

For over twenty years, politicians and urban designers have debated the fate of the Gardiner Expressway. Various studies have analyzed, proposed, and re-analyzed various combinations of tearing down, tunnelling, ignoring, and rehabilitating the Gardiner. In 1990, the Royal Commission on the Future of the Toronto Waterfront first suggested the removal of the entire elevated Gardiner Expressway and replacing it with a network of tunnels and surface roads. In 2004, the Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Corporation issued a report to the City about possible options for the Gardiner, which was released to the public in September 2006 and continues to be discussed.
Accepting the reality that the expressway is not going anywhere in the near future, it is time to entertain proposals that develop and reprogram the Gardiner’s site, making the large-scale infrastructure inhabitable at a pedestrian scale. Klein’s Green Ribbon is not intended to be read as a set of instructions for construction, nor does it address every single issue that Torontonians have with the aging Gardiner. As Les Klein told Torontoist, “My goal is just to engender some rational debate about alternatives.”
There are several other design possibilities put forth in recent history that also celebrate the elevated expressway as an urban architectural object. Aside from the obvious options, a number of creative proposals can certainly perpetuate a conceptual discussion on the topic.

Rendering of the future Gardiner by John van Nostrand of regionalArchitects and Calvin Brook of BMI/Pace.

In 2003, The Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Corporation commissioned architects Jon Van Nostrand and Calvin Brook to examine the possibility of retaining the Gardiner Expressway. The result was The Gardiner Expressway Transformation study [PDF], which recommends incorporating the Gardiner into the urban fabric through a series of interventions that promote north–south permeability. The major recommendation is to realign Lake Shore Boulevard to provide space for new amenities, public spaces, outdoor markets, and recreation areas beneath and beside the expressway structure.
Brook—who has developed his ideas about the Gardiner since it was his thesis project at Harvard in 1985—and van Nostrand also envisioned significantly amping up the level of plant life. They suggested planting on the barriers that separate the expressway’s east and west lanes and introducing vines on the side rails of the Gardiner so that greenery eventually dominates the columns. The study also proposed a skating rink under the tall pillars at Bathurst Street, bike ramps rising over Parliament Street onto the railway viaduct, and introducing a colourful, landmark lighting installation to arch across the Gardiner and complement the CN Tower’s LED facelift.

Rendering of Chloe Li’s Vision of Mobility, from her University of Waterloo Master’s of Architecture thesis [PDF].

A handful of ambitious students have independently recognized this opportunity as one that requires a more radical solution as well. An example of such is a project proposed by Chloe Li, a former University of Waterloo student who wrote a Master’s thesis on the Gardiner, suggesting a responsive transit interface with integrated systems of mobility—featuring Jetson-looking transport pods for everyone. Yet another creative suggestion is the potential reappropriation of the Gardiner as an agricultural hub, as recently displayed at the Design Exchange’s Carrot City.

Rendering of the proposed Green Ribbon overtop of the Gardiner Expressway. Image courtesy of Quadrangle Architects Limited.

As Les Klein reminds us, “part of the beauty of conceptual ideas is that they are simple. Not simplistic and not simplified, but simple.” Simply put, this exercise “empowers people to think of things in other ways.” Certainly, most of the above proposals would benefit from some tweaking and editing, but together they present a strong argument: we should take seriously the benefits and opportunities that our beloved elevated transportation corridor provides this city and its designers.