The future of public space is now arriving—beneath a busy highway

A Sidewalk Talk Q&A with urban designer Ken Greenberg on Toronto's Bentway.

By Eric Jaffe

Bentway Skate Trail

An artist’s rendering of the Bentway Skate Trail looking east.
Image courtesy of The Flat Side of Design

In 2011, the urban designer Ken Greenberg had a vision for the future of Toronto public space in the least likely of places: directly beneath the elevated Gardiner Expressway that carries thousands of cars an hour through downtown. "It wasn't a park, it wasn't just a trail," says Greenberg of the concept now called the Bentway. "It was introducing something new into the gene pool of public spaces."

That unlikely vision will emerge on Saturday with the public opening of the project's first segment, the Bentway Skate Trail. When finished, the Bentway will stretch about a mile through seven emerging downtown neighborhoods, creating a new type of linear commons for the 70,000 or so area residents who might otherwise feel disconnected by the expressway. Its year-round program cycle will include art installations, musical performances, public markets, and other community-driven activities.

The Bentway demonstrates what's possible through close collaboration of public and private interests. Building on a $25 million (CAD) donation from the philanthropists Judy and Wilmot Matthews, the City of Toronto committed long-term support to programming, operation, and maintenance, which will be overseen by the newly formed Bentway Conservancy. Other partners include the landscape architecture firm Public Work, the waterfront revitalization agency Waterfront Toronto, and the local cultural organization Artscape.

Named for the columns and beams that hold up the highway deck—"bents" in engineering lingo—the Bentway represents a creative adaptation of overlooked urban infrastructure in the spirit of the Promenade Plantée in Paris or the High Line in New York (it's part of the High Line Network). "I think people are ready in cities now for these new experiences—for these found places that don't fall into the traditional lexicon of public spaces," says Greenberg.

Greenberg spoke to Sidewalk Talk about why he believes people will choose to spend their time beneath a busy highway—and what that means for the future of cities.

It was 2011 when you realized that there was this untapped potential under the Gardiner. Can you take me back to that realization, and why you think this space has so much promise?

I live in a part of the city which is just west of downtown. This was a former industrial area served by rail with major factories, warehousing, rail sidings, et cetera. And for all the reasons that we have seen this occur in other major North American cities, what was happening is little by little, over the prior decades, the industries were shutting down—revealing what I sometimes refer to as this great terrain of availability for adaptive reuse.

Surrounding this area, new neighborhoods were emerging on these former sites on the railway lines. These neighborhoods were forming around Fort York, this great national historic site with about 60 acres of land comprising the garrison, the military cemetery, and so on. And right next to it ran the elevated highway, and under the elevated highway was this amazing stretch of space with a roof five stories high—quite beautiful but absolutely empty.

Watching this happening, it just struck me that all the people who are moving into these neighborhoods had a lack of public space, and there was this green space sitting in the middle of all this, which was the national historic site. And so it just struck me that this had the potential to be what I called a new kind of Central Park for all these neighborhoods.

You say the Bentway is not a park or a trail, and you've described the project as "disrupting the notion of what public space is." Can you unpack what you mean by that?

When I say it's not one of those things, it's meaning it's not exclusively one of those things—it's much more. It's a kind of great multi-purpose civic living room.

We will have a whole range of programs with an annual budget for programming, operation, and maintenance somewhere between $3.5 and $4.5 million a year, partially funded by the city, partially funded through philanthropy, partially through sponsorships. And the idea is to have all manner of activities, serving the daily life needs of the over 70,000 people who are living mostly in high-rise buildings immediately surrounding this great civic living room, as well as people from the entire city.

So it's the ultimate kind of hybrid. I say sometimes this is the opportunity for Toronto—which is emerging as a very different kind of city, this extraordinarily heterogeneous city with the most diverse population in the world—to play back to itself what it is becoming. This is really meant to be on the one level a kind of giant R&D lab for the city in terms of the use of public space, so it would be constantly an opportunity to see and do and experience new things.

Part of what makes this project so vibrant is that you have these distinct "rooms." I think there's several dozen rooms that the space is going to be divided into. How do those rooms operate?

What's so interesting about the space is that there really is a play off the Gardiner Expressway—something that people love to hate—and seeing what my partners at Public Work call the strange beauty in the structure. Spatially it's really interesting. It's 14.5 meters high, or five stories. The deck is 24 meters wide. The spacing is about 18 meters between the bents, but they vary slightly, because of the curvature. So they form these notional rooms which can be used in all sorts of combinations. You can have the whole thing as one space for special events. You can also divide it up any number of ways for different permutations.

So in the early stages, when we were trying to figure out what would happen there, we put out a call to groups across the city in visual arts, performing arts, environment, recreation, community activities—all those different categories that we could think of. We had 120 groups who actually came and expressed an interest in being partners, and they produced 150 different ideas to consider, and the Bentway staff are now sifting through those ideas and other new ones, and many of them are actually happening.

But over time there's just an endless, almost an infinite number of possibilities of things that can happen in the space given its dimensions and extraordinary characteristics. We're in fact using it as a kind of very robust foundation or platform to interpret and do different things with as time goes on.

That kind of short-term turnaround also creates opportunities for the community to get more involved, I imagine.

Absolutely. I have an image in my head that I've had for a long time. There's a very famous French film called The Children of ParadiseLes Enfants du Paradis, and it's about a street in Paris. The crowds walk down the street, and there are people outside all of the theatres and establishments, where the actors actually come out and they do little bits of performance of things that would entice people to come inside. I've always seen the Bentway as a kind of "sampler" where you would come and get a taste of all kinds of things from groups who are doing things elsewhere.

One of the principles that the Bentway Conservancy board has adopted is that most happenings under the Gardiner in the Bentway would largely be free to the public. But it would connect people with things that they otherwise might never experience—whether it's forms of music or forms of theatre or are forms of visual art. For people who are not museum-goers, who are not gallery visitors, who are not going to go to the opera or to the symphony or to a jazz concert, this would be an opportunity to get a taste of all those kinds of things. The richness that the city has to offer.

And even though we talk about the Bentway in its own terms, when you combine it with the open spaces and facilities that Fort York has, it greatly amplifies the possibility to do joint programming around heritage, around indigenous history, around a whole variety of things that the fort has really developed a specialty in.

It seems pretty safe to assume that a lot of people will be hesitant to spend their time directly beneath a busy highway. How do you plan to overcome this type of initial skepticism?

We at the Bentway are part of a network of 19 projects across North America called the High Line Network, and we get together annually to compare best practices and experiences and so on. What all of these 19 projects have in common is they've occupied spaces that were previously derelict or overlooked or really not considered important, that have become obsolescent for one reason or another—mostly post-industrial uses, or rail lines no longer used, or the edges of waterways. So this is really part of a worldwide phenomenon of looking at cities through fresh eyes and seeing these new possibilities.

They also have another thing in common, which is whereas traditional public spaces in cities, in many cases, were discrete and bounded, these spaces typically tend to be linear. They tend to be about connections, and they tend to have many more spokes or arteries or veins that connect to them—linking them into the fabric of the city. So rather than being a single destination, they become parts of these new green networks weaving through the city. And it's the way people are using this city, leisure through movement, whether it's walking, cycling, inline-skating, simply navigating the city, perambulating the city, and exploring and discovering, and the Bentway very much falls into that pattern.

Is there a plan to make sure the benefits of the Bentway space remain accessible to the local community there in Toronto?

The programming is designed specifically so that a lot of it will be addressing the needs of the immediate community. We've set up a community advisory board. We've taken some lessons from [High Line co-founder] Robert Hammond and his colleagues, who are trying to do this now, after-the-fact. But we have a very strong community outreach and we really want people in the immediate neighborhood to feel a kind of proprietorship or connection with the Bentway, and we're nurturing that.

So we feel a responsibility right from the outset to make sure that this place feels like democratic public space, feels like it belongs to everybody and is kind of setting a pattern. And that goes with the obligation we've taken on for the City of Toronto, in terms of them allowing the conservancy to be the steward. But we have a responsibility, conversely, to ensure that this is truly public.

As you know, if you walk under the Gardiner today, it can be hard as a pedestrian to get across and either head into downtown or over to the water. Is part of the goal stitching the city back together?

It absolutely is. All along we're thinking very much of these perpendicular connections to the water. And now what's happened on our waterfront, on good days in the spring, summer, and early fall, it's absolutely jammed with people, and when they get to the toward the west end of Queens Quay, they have no place to go. And this will be the logical extension, so it becomes part of that connection along the water, but from the water into the neighborhoods adjoining the water.

So that's been very much on our minds, and it's really part of something that I'm very fascinated by, which is a changing reading of the city. Our mental maps of the city were defined a few decades ago, I think for most people, by the highways and traffic arteries. That's how they tended to think of how you navigated the city, to form their images of different places. And now supplementing that, and in some ways overtaking it, is a different reading of the city. And so the way people move on foot and on bicycle and in transit is going to eventually overtake their sense of the city moving in private automobiles.

You and I have talked often about the ways technology can help bring people together in public spaces—as you say, to enhance human connections. How do you think technology could play a role in doing that achieving those goals with the Bentway?

I think in many, many ways. Obviously, we have we have a Wi-Fi partner, so we'll have Wi-Fi access along the length of the Bentway—free public access [provided through Waterfront Toronto's partnership with Beanfield]. But I think the way in which the Bentway will use a whole array of social media platforms—is already doing so—to make people aware of what's happening. The way people will be navigating the city and seeing the Bentway as part of a series of destinations and knowing what's happening there and when it's happening will be very significant.

I think also, going back to the R&D aspect, a lot of the technology integrated with different art forms, there'll be an opportunity to explore those things in the Bentway—in terms of interpretation, the layers of history being revealed through technology, through things that we'll do on social media. So in a sense, it's really a chance to sort of see how the digital world and the actual physical tangible world can connect and interact.

For me, the thing we really are striving for—and I believe will happen—going back to this notion of the Bentway as a civic living room, is to really foster this sense of human interaction. What we sometimes refer to as the "third place," or the "third thing," that people who are very different in their daily life activities, who move in different circles, who have different backgrounds, different abilities, different incomes, different ethnic origins—all of those things that are characteristic of the city—that this will be a kind of common ground where people will congregate, will gather, will meet each other, will have serendipitous encounters, will discover new aspects of themselves and of their neighbors that they weren't aware of. And if that happens, that will be the greatest measure of success.

If the project does achieve the type of success you envision, how might it change the city, and particularly the way the city approaches public space in the future?

Toronto is becoming, right in front of our eyes, a really different kind of city. Out of the traces of the old city is emerging this new kind of city. It's much more dense, and compact, and walkable, and vertical, and connected, and overlapping, and interactive. And along with that, a very different kind of experience of sociability and social interaction.

I think the Bentway is going to be a uniquely Toronto expression of something that is happening worldwide with this return to cities and this new importance of life in public and public spaces. But it's going to take on a flavor or a taste or an accent that will be at its heart Torontonian.

This interview has been edited for length and lightly for clarity. Ken Greenberg has been a paid advisor to Sidewalk Labs since 2015.