In Toronto, highway infrastructure turns into urban ecology laboratory

An unused site under the Gardiner Expressway becomes a hybrid public space also designed as a filtration and water retention infrastructure.

Design team led by Tei Carpenter – cofounder and director of New York-based Agency-Agency – and local artist Reza Nik, has transformed an abandoned Toronto site into a living laboratory that educates visitors about urban ecology and stormwater management.

Bentway Staging Grounds is envisioned as a test for a new kind of public infrastructure capable of blending art and education, public space and experimentation, repositioning the unused space under the Gardiner Expressway as a site of environmental regeneration.

Agency-Agency, SHEEEP, Bentway Staging Grounds, Toronto, Canada, 2024. Photo Samuel Engelking

In addition to serving as the neighborhood’s public space, the installation is designed as an infrastructure capable of collecting runoff water from the highway above and harnessing it to irrigate large planters in the space below. The planters host native flowering plant species such as milkweed, agastacea and yarrow. Water filtration and retention help reduce the risk of local flooding and prevent contaminants from polluting the metropolis’ gray water, while fostering an ecological environment.

Three large-scale scaffolding towers serve as landscaped buffers and new landmarks along Lake Shore Boulevard, showcasing a rotating program of public art that responds to the site’s unique conditions, while a network of elevated ramps and walkways allows visitors to delve into the space as an extension of Canoe Landing Park to the north

The project restores the historic, pre-industrial condition of the site as a wetland on the shores of Lake Ontario that supported an ecosystem of freshwater plants and animals, birds, insects, and fish. Lessons learned from the testing of these experimental gardens will inform both future redevelopment of this site and continued opportunities along the Gardiner Expressway corridor, which is 6.5 km long in all.

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