Public Works: Walkable Waterfront a La Parisienne
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Public Works: Walkable Waterfront a La Parisienne

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

Photo by {a href=""}sevinnine{/a} from the {a href=""}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

Paris is a stroller’s paradise, home to gracious tree-lined boulevards long cherished by artists, lovers, and the Wehrmacht. However, areas along the iconic banks of the Seine river have been less than flaneur-friendly since 1967, when then-Prime Minister Georges Pompidou flanked them with expressways under the Rob Ford-ish slogan, “Paris must adapt to the car.”

But times have changed, and Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoë has announced the beginning of the “reconquest” of the banks of the Seine for pedestrians.

The plan will reintroduce walking to parts of the Paris riverfront currently reserved for automotive traffic. The first phase will take place next month, when the roadway along a one-kilometre stretch of the right bank will be narrowed and new traffic lights installed to make way for pedestrian corridors, boulangeries, and probably beret shops. In the spring of 2013, two and a half kilometres of the left bank will be rendered off-limits to cars, and Parisians will be treated to a new park, which will include floating gardens, a volleyball court, restaurants, and other pedestrian-friendly installations.

Toronto lacks the moving water of Seine-ish majesty, but we do have Lake Ontario. Our equivalent to riverside highways is the Gardiner Expressway, which like the Paris autoroutes has been standing between citizens and their waterfront since the car-crazy days of the 1960s.

The elevated portion of the road that cuts through downtown must have looked appealingly Jetsons-esque back then, and in any case, the waterfront was largely devoted to heavy industry. It was a lousy place to take the family on a day trip.

Regardless, people have been trying to figure out how to get rid of the Gardiner practically since the day it was built. As the lakeside has been developed for leisure and residential use, calls to do something about it have gotten louder.

Parts of the expressway have already been dealt with: in 2001, the eastern portion of the Gardiner from the DVP to Leslie was knocked down.

The need to find a solution for what remains may have to do with more than just aesthetics: chunks of concrete have been falling off the Gardiner with increasing frequency, posing risk to those driving or walking underneath. Structural engineers’ reassurances notwithstanding, nervous motorists may wonder if their commutes are going to be interrupted by a groan of crumbling concrete as the road under them collapses like a dying brontosaurus.

There have been a multitude of formal reports and informal ideas about what to do with the Gardiner. Burying all or part of it as proposed in a 1999 study, is sexy and high concept, but with the city and the province in fiscal crisis and the electorate in a constant roil over taxes, a multi-billion dollar, multi-year project isn’t happening right now.

Still more esoteric and unlikely is a 2006 proposal to replace much of the Gardiner with a 1.65 billion dollar viaduct. More practical and less costly is the idea of a “Great Street” that would see the Gardiner demolished from Spadina to the DVP and replaced with a University Avenue–style grand boulevard. While pedestrians would still have to find ways of getting across it, the new route would be more picturesque than the perpetual twilight under the current roadway.

Another idea is simply to gussy up the space under the elevated portions of the Gardiner, with markets and retail where possible. This would be relatively inexpensive, and broadly consistent with the Paris model. Done right, it would make the area more welcoming, and would give tourists and locals something to do on the way from Front Street to the lake (besides dodging panhandlers and falling masonry).

In a similar vein, an assessment by Waterfront Toronto, to be completed in 2013, may recommend leaving the structure intact, with the addition of a “green roof” over parts of it. This would essentially be an elevated park filled with plants.

Solutions that involve leaving the Gardiner standing are looking more and more reasonable. As the core waterfront area south of downtown becomes more built up with condos, retail, and people, the impact of Toronto’s most heavily traveled eyesore gets diminished anyway, and the “maintenance-only” option becomes more palatable. While it’s unlikely that the space under the concrete monoliths will ever be beautiful, it could one day be a tourist attraction in its own right.