A Layered History
The Gardiner Expressway was one of many urban expressway projects that became popular throughout North America in the post-war era. But there is more context to consider. This page invites you to learn more about the history of the land and the possibilities for its future.
Context & Histories
Prior to first contact and subsequent colonization, Toronto’s waterfront was an important junction for Indigenous peoples. The complex cultures and economies of the peoples who lived here, along with their relationships to the land and each other, ensured that a variety of different languages, stories, beliefs, and traditions would remain relevant to the lands now occupied by the Gardiner Expressway.
The lands of the historic shoreline between what is now Dufferin St and Don River are covered by Treaty 13, signed with the Mississaugas of the Credit in 1805. The Gardiner Expressway is located on the treaty lands of the Mississaugas of the Credit and the traditional territory of the Huron-Wendat, the Haudenosaunee, the Métis, and many other Indigenous nations.
As a major port for trade and in pursuit of growth and development, infill projects by private industries would begin to fill Toronto’s shoreline and push back into the lake by the 1850’s. With waterways, wetlands habitats, dense vegetation, and ecological highways having been paved over, these vital elements of a resilient ecosystem have been long forgotten in today’s landscape. In considering the future of our place on these shores, we must incorporate Indigenous knowledge systems; how can the Under Gardiner provide opportunities for ongoing education, place-keeping, and consultation?
Learn more about the Indigenous History of Toronto via First Story.
The Gardiner Expressway was one of many urban expressway projects that became popular throughout North America in the post-war era. Planning and design considerations for what would eventually become the Gardiner Expressway began in the late 1940s. By 1947, an initial proposal was put forward to construct a waterfront expressway along the industrial rail corridor between the Humber and Don River, and construction of the elevated portion of the expressway began in earnest in 1955. The structure was built in segments, and the first planned route of the expressway would later be modified to preserve the Fort York National Historic Site.
Since the completion of the Gardiner Expressway, the evolution of the surrounding area and context has also been dramatic. The transformation of former rail yards, into dense high-rise neighbourhoods is itself a testament to the triumph of the city. Yet elements of this piece of infrastructure, now cut through waterfront communities as if the surrounding land was still predominantly industrial. Stacked above a six-lane high-speed arterial, Lake Shore Blvd is now surrounded by towers, iconic cultural destinations, and Toronto’s blossoming waterfront. As the front door to one of the biggest cities in Canada, it is time to invest in the public realm below the highway deck to respond to the optimism and promise of Toronto today.
The Under Gardiner Public Realm Plan is not about repurposing a defunct or derelict piece of infrastructure. The Gardiner Expressway is, and will remain, an active transportation system. Any effort to increase public space, active transportation, cultural programming, or recreation uses under the Gardiner Expressway must take into consideration traffic and safety; rain and stormwater management; lighting and acoustics – conditions that create an unpleasant environment for pedestrians and others.
The vertical communities that hug the expressway all rely on the public realm for local outdoor recreation and amenity. The necessity of a well-designed, and accessible network of parks and public realm for all those who live, work and play in the surrounding areas is vital to support thriving communities.
The Under Gardiner also has the potential to become a significant cultural corridor connecting a number of cultural institutions and recreational destinations, including BMO Field, Exhibition Place, the Wellington Destructor, the Scotiabank Arena, CN Tower, Rogers Centre, Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada, Harbourfront Centre, Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, and the Distillery District. The Under Gardiner PRP presents an opportunity to strengthen the connections between, and access to, these destinations while enhancing the public realm as a cultural destination in its own right.
As Toronto renews its public art procurement strategy, the Under Gardiner is a highly visible and prominent platform to deliver on the 10-year vision for creativity and community everywhere, enhancing the impact of the City’s public art programs for the benefit of residents and visitors.
Equity and Compassion
We must also recognize there are many who have turned to the space below the Gardiner Expressway as a place of refuge and shelter. In the face of dire circumstances, people have created informal networks of self-reliance and mutual aid in these spaces. In contemplating the past, present, and future of the Gardiner Expressway we must face the harsh reality that despite the wealth and prosperity of our city, growth has been uneven. If we are committed to a just and equitable society, we must understand the needs and aspirations of all our fellow citizens and learn from this critical community.
As we look toward the future, the Under Gardiner Public Realm Plan is committed to addressing the pressures and priorities of the city today, creating equitable access to an inclusive public realm, re-engaging Lake Ontario as a vibrant part of the city, supporting a new form of civic engagement and programming, addressing the climate crises, and creating a new positive identity for the Gardiner Expressway.
Toronto will undoubtedly remain a primary destination for investment and intensification. Provincial population modelling projects that the Greater Toronto Area will increase by more than 40% by 2046, approaching a projected population of nearly 10 million. If the City of Toronto is to accommodate this increased density, we must make the most of the available public space. As the remaining available properties along the Under Gardiner are developed, the public realm is under increased strain. As neighbourhoods intensify there is more volume and demand for transportation and road infrastructure, and increased competition for amenities and social infrastructure. The need to accommodate an ever-increasing diversity of users and needs means that we must seek out the most effective use of available resources.
The risks associated with the impacts of climate change, locally by way of more extreme weather events, and internationally due to climate displacement will only further exacerbate the challenges and underscore the need to plan for resilience. Toronto’s 2040 Net Zero Strategy commits to one of the most ambitious climate action plans in North America, setting the stage for greener constructions and building standards, greener vehicles, a greener transit system, and a cleaner, greener city overall. In recommitting to the Gardiner Expressway and an integrated public realm, the City of Toronto is in the position to set a new baseline that supports ongoing prosperity, stewardship, and resilience through new forms of productive infrastructure.
The site of the Gardiner Expressway has a long, storied history. There are multiple perspectives to unravel. Explore past and present perspectives across the decades by sifting through this photographic record. Drawing on documentation from the City of Toronto Archive and Toronto Public Library, the Under Gardiner Archival Photo Map is an interactive resource anchored by and around the elevated expressway.
Images can be filtered chronologically, using the slider on the left and sorted by themes using the tags on the right hand side.
Under Gardiner PRP Background Report
The Background Report is the culmination of Phase 1 of the Under Gardiner Public Realm Plan. By establishing the context and core principles, the Background Report provides the basis upon which future phases, identification of opportunities and constraints, public engagement, design recommendations, and proposed implementation strategies will be grounded.
Active Learning and Experimentation
Testing innovative thinking can help demonstrate possibilities for the Gardiner Expressway.
Torontonians have already experienced, enjoyed, and learned from pilot projects such as Active Streets TO, the King Street Transit Priority Corridor, and the Lake Shore East Public Realm Plan. Short-term urban interventions like these build knowledge and momentum towards new uses and possibilities for urban infrastructure.
For the past four years, The Bentway has shown that spaces below the Gardiner Expressway can be a creative amenity, a site for experimentation, and a shared space for the city at large. The Under Gardiner Public Realm Plan will use demonstration projects to test the recommendations of the public realm plan through real-time prototypes. These demonstration projects are touchpoints and opportunities for public feedback and engagement.
Building on the success of the 2019 Rees Street Waterfront ReConnect project, The Bentway, in partnership with the City of Toronto, Waterfront BIA, and Toronto Downtown West BIA, launched the next phase of Waterfront ReConnect in 2021 for under the Gardiner Expressway, along Lake Shore Blvd, at both York St and Simcoe St.
This initiative will realize temporary installations, proposed by some of Canada’s most innovative design professionals, to improve accessibility and civic engagement at key Gardiner intersections.
Waterfront ReConnect is an example of working with local stakeholders, residents, and City officials to explore public realm and mobility improvements along the length of the Gardiner Expressway.
Learn more about Waterfront ReConnect here.
Adaptive Artifacts: Weather Stations is the first phase of a larger project. A series of sculptural elements have been placed under the Gardiner Expressway to collect environmental data and inform future Under Gardiner development. People are invited, through an accompanying website and smartphone app, to provide feedback about their physical experience in public space. They can also review anonymized data to better understand environmental phenomena under the Gardiner Expressway.
Adaptive Artifacts investigates how natural systems, technology, and specialized fabrication processes can work together to create spaces that are more adaptive, responsive, and resilient.
Learn more about Adaptive Artifacts here.
HEAR US: Reconstructions of Home
In partnership with SKETCH Working Arts and The Bentway, artist Ryan Weaver creates a soundscape of stories and recollections from homeless community members as the backbone to understanding the hidden histories of Toronto’s homeless culture.
This project intends to archive and amplify the voices of those experiencing homelessness and contribute to changes and development in our city. The stories collected as part of this installation will inform the further development of the public realm under the Gardiner Expressway.
Learn more about HEAR US: Reconstructions of Home here.
In 2018, CITE transformed The Bentway’s Phase 1 site into a destination to hone skateboarding skills while participating in cultural practices that situated the act of skateboarding within the broader context of urban place-making.
The heart of the program was an art installation and pop-up skate park titled Semblance, designed by Build for Bokma. CITE spoke to the simultaneous accessibility and inaccessibility of urban spaces, to the significance of the Under Gardiner spaces for the skateboard community, to the reclamation of the city by marginalized groups and counter-cultures, and to the potential for functional and inclusive city-building through creative collaboration.
Learn more about CITE here.
Related Resources, Plans, and Policies
Since 2013, The City of Toronto has been advancing plans to rehabilitate, realign and reinvest in the Gardiner Expressway. A Strategic Rehabilitation Plan was developed following an Environmental Assessment of the Gardiner Expressway East, and critical work is needed now and in the future to ensure a state of good repair across the elevated corridor. Taking place in phases, this work is set to conclude in 2031.
Investment in the deck rehabilitation presents a unique opportunity to engage in public realm improvements. Notably, The Bentway Phase 1 site was the first major project to be completed below a section of rehabilitated Gardiner.
Learn more about the Gardiner Expressway Rehabilitation plan.
Vision Zero is a road and traffic campaign that aims to eliminate fatalities and serious injuries on city streets. What began in 2016 with short-term improvements, was relaunched as version 2.0 in 2019 with a targeted stance to implement the most effective road safety actions: reducing speed limits, improving street geometry along with education and physical upgrades to the street network itself.
Learn more about Vision Zero.
The Downtown Parks and Public Realm Plan guides the development of an expanded, improved, connected, and accessible network of high-quality parks and public spaces for people and promotes healthier, diverse natural systems to support a growing Downtown.
Learn more about the Downtown Parks and Public Realm Plan.
To help address needs in one of the most challenging areas beneath the F.G. Gardiner Expressway, the City of Toronto and Waterfront Toronto completed a Public Realm Phasing and Implementation Plan for Lake Shore Blvd E from Jarvis St to Logan Ave. This Plan was submitted to and acknowledged by the Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks in July 2020.
Over time, this Plan will create improved connectivity to the waterfront, including safer intersections and trails for cyclists and pedestrians, new linear planted landscapes, enhanced sidewalks, and opportunities for public art.
Learn more about the Lake Shore East Public Realm Plan here.