The Bentway promised Toronto a lot–and it’s delivering

When The Bentway (then Project: Under Gardiner) was announced back in the fall of 2015, people seemed to have one of two reactions.

The first was excitement about the idea of a new public space underneath the elevated Gardiner Expressway, energizing an area that had largely been just dirt before. The second was grumbling about who would want to hang out underneath a dark, loud expressway and joking about pieces of concrete falling onto people’s heads from above (the deck was fully rehabilitated last year by the City, so these jokes are now very tired, by the way).

When The Bentway was announced there was a lot of grand language about reinventing public space, providing an ever-evolving space for culture, and creating a place that was uniquely Toronto. We at Park People led walks for Waterfront Toronto, the organization heading up the planning and engagement process, taking over 200 people in and around the space to gather ideas and hopes and concerns. People had a lot they wanted the space to be.

It was a lot to live up to and I admit, as I watched the construction take place, I wondered how people would embrace it when it was finished.

Well, The Bentway has been partially open for months and just started its summer programming in earnest this past Sunday with the first of its weekly Sunday Socials—and I can tell you no one I saw was grumbling.

Who wants to hang out under an expressway? Turns out a lot of people, actually.

On this hot, sunny Sunday people—and, let’s be real, dogs—were chilling out in the shade from the massive roof overhead (the expressway), sipping tall cans of beer and listening to local musicians play on a bicycle powered sound system. Lights were strung above long communal wooden tables and loungers (they looked appealing, but alas, were all occupied). In between the live music, I could hear grinding from the skateboarders using the just completed pop-up skatepark (up until August 12).

The space has a unique, unvarnished cool-factor quality that you don’t often find in other new public spaces in Toronto where polish and high-design is the name of the game. We should strive for high-quality spaces, to be sure, but there’s something lovely and wonderful about the concrete and sand and raw wood and general half-built quality of The Bentway right now—it is a public space under an expressway after all. I’m sure some of that will change with time as the space continues to be built out (a new performance area near Strachan is set to open later in the summer), but I hope it remains a place that feels a bit unpolished.

It’s even…green. Things are growing underneath the Gardiner. So much for dark and gloomy. This section of the Gardiner is five-storeys high.

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I admit I hadn’t visited The Bentway much during the winter except for a few quick moments to see if people were actually there enjoying the linear skating rink that had opened in December (they were). I’m not a cold weather kind of guy, having only laced up skates once in the last 10+ years. But it’s great to see a space that is being programmed so thoughtfully in both summer and winter—something that we don’t often see in Toronto. It’s likely due to the model, new to Toronto, of a separate non-profit set up to program and operate the space: The Bentway Conservancy.

If they have hot spiked cider you might see me there in January. Until then, I’ll be back on future Sundays. Silent disco next week, anyone?

You can check out the full schedule of Sunday Social events here.

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