Highways for Habitats #27: Gardiner Expressway, Toronto

Transportation planning is tough.  Roads have to serve a number of (sometimes competing) purposes.  Roads whose primary purpose is moving people and goods quickly through a community often have a detrimental effect on the communities they bisect (see: the history of freeways in Detroit).  Take state trunk lines for example, which you can recognize because they’re usually twice as wide to cross as the other roads in a neighborhood, and, of course, highways and interstates.  We’re currently running a series of posts featuring creative solutions from around the globe to make these roads – roads that must run through communities – also work to serve those communities.  Check out more about our inspiration here.

As our inspiration post notes, Michigan is currently in the midst of a major highway debate, and we are not alone.  In other towns and cities across the country and world, similar conversations are taking place about the future of our road systems and our neighborhoods.

“In our haste to develop we designed a specialized society, separating the elements of the city: New housing went in one place, business offices and shopping and schools someplace else. We could connect them all with highways, since we had decided that everyone would have a car.”

–Robert Fulford, The National Post

Between 1955 and 1966, the elevated Gardiner Expressway was built along Toronto’s Lake Ontario waterfront to connect the city to the western suburbs. The eastern-most 0.8 miles of the Gardiner were intended to further connect the expressway to the industrial waterfront, but as industry departed, the intended connector became more of a barrier.  Between 2000 and 2002, that portion was demolished, on time and under budget. Traffic now uses Lake Shore Boulevard, which ran directly underneath the Gardiner East; despite fears, there have been no significant traffic increases.

The successful and well-received removal of the Gardiner East led to increased support for removal of the entire Gardiner Expressway.  The Gardiner is showing its age: with maintenance costs running around $12 million annually, a 0.2km portion that might be unsafe for driving by 2018.  Pieces of concrete, large enough to cause considerable damage, started falling from the Gardiner in the summer of 2012.

In January 2013 Toronto’s City Council decided to restart an environmental assessment – begun and put on hold in 2010 – on the future of the expressway.  Though plans to repair to crumbling infrastructure move forward, and construction has begun on one section, to many it seems backwards to invest in the repair of a freeway that might be torn down.

In 2010 the Waterfront Toronto and the City of Toronto launched an initiative to gather design concepts for the Gardiner, focused on either improving, replacing, or removing the expressway. Their June 2013 Public Meeting details the needs for immediate repairs, a traffic analysis, and the four core principles to be achieved by the solution: removing barriers, building a network of spectacular waterfront parks and public spaces, promoting a clean and green environment, and creating dynamic and diverse new communities.  The six concepts from international design teams were presented, and public input was gathered.  The city and Waterfront Toronto aim to have a solution by March 2014.

To those Toronto residents who want to see the expressway removed entirely, the most exciting motivator is the potential to reconnect Toronto with its waterfront.  As we’ve seen time and again, in cities like Paris and St. Louis, major highways were built along waterfronts in the mid-1900s, and today, in efforts to reconnect cities to their waterfronts, those highways are being downsized, covered over, or removed.


Photo from Lindsay Reul as lakerlkr8 on flickr.com