People skating along a path located under an elevated highway, with condominiums in the background.

Image : Meandering under the imposing highway, the Bentway’s skate trail provides a welcome amenity in the winter months. Photo by Denise Militzer, courtesy of the Bentway Conservancy.

The Bentway

Location: Toronto
Date of Completion: 2018
Landscape Architect: PUBLIC WORK
Nominated by: Chris Glover, MPP (Spadina—Fort York)

Both a linear park and cultural institution, The Bentway's unique approach to placemaking has transformed a section of one of the city’s most divisive elements—the elevated Gardiner Expressway—into a welcoming space that reconnects neighbours and provides a new forum for social engagement.

Making the most of an underutilized (and controversial) space

The Bentway reimagines the space under one of the city’s most controversial infrastructure pieces. The Gardiner was built between 1955 and 1964 — a time when highways  were seen as key solutions to address issues of congestion and suburban connection to the urban core. It’s construction required the demolition of parkland, residences, and even a waterfront amusement park, and altered the relationship of the city to its waterfront. 

Even when it was first proposed, the Gardiner was controversial—the section under which the first phase of The Bentway is located was originally planned to go right over Fort York National Historic Site. It was only after heavy opposition from historical societies and a refusal to transfer the land by the City of Toronto that the section was moved south to its current location. More recently, the elevated portions of the Gardiner have received increased attention as maintenance costs have ballooned. The debate of whether to remove or replace this central elevated section has been ongoing since at least the 1990s and continues to this day. 

Left: Unused underside of elevated highway with soil on the ground. Right: Person running along path underneath elevated highway. Left: The site of the Bentway under construction. Photo by Sean Galbraith courtesy of the Bentway Conservancy. Right: The first completed phase of the Bentway, looking west. Photo by Nic Lehoux courtesy of the Bentway Conservancy
The Bentway recontextualizes this maligned elevated section by making use of the often overlooked underside of the expressway. Through the downtown, the Gardiner is elevated by a series of large, supportive concrete columns called bents. These bents serve as the main organizational device for the new linear park, defining a series of outdoor “rooms,” each with its own unique character, identity, and programming. The bents are also used to carry clamps, cables, power, and lighting, elements required to support the artistic, cultural, and recreational activities happening at their feet. The expressway’s deck also provides a continuous canopy which varies from more intimate settings to soaring 15-metre tall spaces, sheltering activities and users and making each of the outdoor rooms a unique experience. 

The Bentway is the second park in Toronto to utilize the space under the elevated highway, the first one being the 2013 Underpass Park designed by PFS Studio and The Planning Partnership which is located beneath the overpasses in Toronto’s West Don Lands neighbourhood. 

People skating on figure eight loop underneath elevated expressway.

A bird’s-eye view of the Bentway’s skating trail. Photo by Droneography courtesy of the Bentway Conservancy

Beyond architecture

Much of The Bentway’s success has been in no small part thanks to the robust year-round programming that has distinguished it from the very beginning—ensuring it is not only a beautiful public space, but an active one as well. 

The spaces under the Gardiner have been designed to support a wide variety of activities and events, and special attention was paid to ensure year-round vitality. The timber and green amphitheatres mark the western-end of the linear park, acting as a welcoming gateway and providing a perfect space for theatre, performances, and talks. Further east, a  220m figure-eight skate trail provides a family-friendly winter activity, complete with warming fire pits. The bents themselves are often used for the display of art pieces, and spaces are constantly being reimagined and repurposed for a variety of activities. 

Top-left: Large moon-like light sculpture hanging under an elevated highway. Top-right: Contemporary dancers perform under an elevated highway. Bottom-left: Skateboarder doing a trick. Bottom-right: Splash pad underneath an elevated highway, with children playing. Clockwise from left: A crowd gathered to see the Museum of the Moon, photo by Nicola Betts. “Derives”, a site-specific performance, photo by SeeWhatIcy Media. A skateboarder pulls a trick, photo by Denise Militzer. Kids play at the Bentway’s splash pad, photo by Nic Lehoux. All photos courtesy of the Bentway Conservancy

Activation and long-term vitality is the mission of a new not-for-profit organization — The Bentway Conservancy — simultaneously created with this new public space to maintain, operate, and program the site. The conservancy actively works to provide year-round artistic, cultural, and recreational activities and events, including public art installations, seasonal and special exhibitions, theatre and musical performances, festivals, marketplaces, and more. Their programming is critical to the success of the space and provides an important platform for artists and community organizations across the city. 

The combination of a conducive and flexible built environment, along with an organization to steer the programming, has quickly made The Bentway one of Toronto’s most cherished parks, and has become a role model for placemaking and space activation around the world.

The OAA would like to thank The Bentway Conservancy for their contributions to making this article possible.
This post forms part of our World Architecture Day Queen’s Park Picks 2020 series in which we asked Ontario’s Members of Provincial Parliament to nominate a prominent building, past or present, in their riding for a chance to learn more about it. Check out the rest of the series to learn more about great buildings across the province! 

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