2015 Hero: Judy and Wilmot Matthews
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2015 Hero: Judy and Wilmot Matthews

Nominated for: making a $25 million donation towards the redevelopment of the Gardiner area, and inspiring us all to do more for our city.

Torontoist is reflecting on 2015 by naming our Heroes and Villains—the people, places, things, and ideas that have had the most positive and negative impacts on the city over the past 12 months. Cast your ballot until midnight on January 7. At noon on January 8, we’ll reveal your choices for Toronto’s Superhero and Supervillain of the year.

The Gardiner debate has long been a contentious issue for the city. Much like how the expressway separates the downtown core from the waterfront, deciding what to do with the aging structure has fractured Torontonians into distinct teams of “keep it,” “demolish it,” or “reconstruct it.” And because these opinions are largely coloured by our choice of transportation and commute times, advocating for “your team” is often conflated with attacking someone else’s lifestyle.

But last month, an incredible act of generosity caused the pitchforks to be tossed aside, and an entire city looked at their surroundings with a new sense of possibility. Thanks to private donors Wilmot and Judy Matthews, the 10 acres stretching from Strachan to Spadina will soon be transformed into dozens of unique public spaces, featuring public art installations, informal sports courts, spaces for cultural programming, as well as a pedestrian and cycling trail and a “grand staircase” intended to act as a gathering place.

The project’s report to council pitched it as “one of the most significant donations ever made to the City of Toronto.” Even comment sections were glowing, a rarity for an urban planning decision. “It is an incredible and transformative gesture, and gesture doesn’t do justice to what this is,” gushed John Tory during the project’s announcement.

So who are these mysterious benefactors? Judy Matthews, an activist and urban planner, and her husband Wilmot, an investment banker, brought the idea (and the $25 million dollars to finance it) to the City in the hopes of inspiring others to rethink their urban environments. Their vision for the project is highly detailed, but a comprehensive public consultation will take place in order to ensure that the needs and interests of the 70,000 local residents are best met. And the ambitious project is not the couple’s first foray into civic philanthropy. They’ve made substantial contributions to the ROM, Royal Conservatory of Music, Luminato Festival, and Evergreen Brick Works.

“The city is struggling,” said Judy in a recent interview with the Globe and Mail. “They have so many needs to meet. If you recognize a need in the city and you have a capacity to fill that need, that’s part of the true meaning of being a citizen.”

Whether or not you’ve got $25 million lying around, the Matthews’ generosity can be an inspiration to us all. By dreaming big, ignoring perceived boundaries, planning carefully, and listening to one another, we can all make the city we want. No “teams” necessary.