Underpass Park is a highly imaginative public space in a rather unexpected place. Located beneath a complex of existing highway overpasses in Toronto’s downtown, an otherwise forgotten and derelict remnant has been transformed into an active public park providing diverse recreational and social opportunities while connecting new and existing local neighborhoods and nearby parks. This unique public space is part of Waterfront Toronto’s revitalization efforts of the celebrated new West Don Lands neighborhood. It serves to link Corktown Common, River Square and the neighborhoods of both sides of the overpass complex through the provision of safe and animated public realm design. At a time when urban open-space resources continue to dwindle, and city populations and densities increase, taking advantage of unexpected opportunities, such as the underbelly of an overpass, has proven to be both visionary and essential for the overall health and vibrancy of this area of the city.
It is not often that one considers what lies below the elevated transportation networks that crisscross through many North American cities. These spaces are often forgotten and derelict, contributing little to no value to the communities within which they are found.
As part of Waterfront Toronto’s extensive revitalization efforts of former industrial lands into the new West Don Lands neighborhood, an opportunity was seized to take an incidental, neglected space located below the Eastern Ave, Richmond, and Adelaide Street overpasses, and to transform it from a liability into a community asset. The existing conditions on site were those commonly found in these forgotten spaces. Largely ignored or avoided by the general public, the existing site was forlorn and even dangerous space used for informal parking, illegal activities and little else. The 2.5 acre (1.05 hectare) park now serves as one of two key parks in the new community, linking Corktown Common, River Square and the two main development areas of the neighborhood - that are bisected by the overpasses- into a lively and complete community in Toronto’s eastern downtown.
Completely transformed, the success of the project nonetheless lay in the recognition of the latent potential found in the existing supporting structure, its repetitious - almost hypnotic – grid of heavy columns and beams and the varied pockets of open space that resulted from the road geometries above. The spatial framework and programming choices for Underpass Park was inspired by the rooms created by all of this relic- like transportation infrastructure. Essentially serving as “free for the taking” massive weather protection, the ceilings of the overpasses now invite year-round use and animation and allow activities such as basketball, roller hockey, and skateboarding to happen day and night and during inclement weather, something very familiar to Torontonians.
Previously a brownfield site dominated by the heavy grey concrete structures, densely planted areas along the edges and in the voids between the overpasses have transformed the site from grey to green. Plants were selected for their ruggedness and ability to withstand harsh urban conditions while providing a layer of fine texture and ephemerality to the site.
While much of the space was left open for circulation and flexible activities, a carefully composed layer of multi-functional ribbon-like wall structures were added to help define various activity zones, provide seating and to direct movement throughout the site. The wood-topped bench components of the under lit walls offer a warm counterpoint to the hard and heavy lines of the existing infrastructure. The playful vertical and horizontal undulations of the ribbon walls add visual interest and play opportunities while the associated tall grasses and regional landscape choices provide hints of “wild” within a strictly urban setting. A layer of fanciful children’s play elements are speckled throughout and contribute to the transformation of the space through color, form, and program.
One of the most significant transformative strategies was the element of light which plays both an artistic and functional role at the park. Existing column archways are uplit in bright, imaginative colors that help to reinvent the space at night, drawing attention to its depth and repetitive makeup, providing an animated night experience and aiding in wayfinding and a sense of safety. Various in-ground LED lights add another dimension of illumination and are programmed to create ever-changing visual interest.
A public art layer was integrated into the underside of the structure to interact with the lighting scheme and to reduce the oppressive character of the heavy structures above. A portion of the overpass ceiling is now adorned with a reflective public art piece, Mirage, created by Paul Raff Studio. This mirrored artwork dramatically brightens the covered spaces, adding to the interplay of natural light during the day and becoming its own piece of magic at night when the park lighting scheme is fully employed.
Life under the overpass
Through its multi-dimensional programming, flexible framework, and bold transformative gestures of light and public art, Underpass Park has proven itself as a unique public space that serves not only as a safe and beautiful community connection, but as a recreational destination for the city. Both community amenity and urban stage set, the park has also found itself being used as a venue and backdrop for numerous artistic endeavors including spontaneous performances, skateboarding events, dance routines, music videos, and fanciful commercials.
Graffiti is celebrated and encouraged on the existing pillars, creating a unique and vibrant informal urban gallery. This initiative, to have a variety of artists contribute their talents to brighten the space, was spearheaded by a group of organizations—including StreetARToronto, Mural Routes, the Corktown Residents and Business Association, and Friends of the Pan Am Path. The resulting gallery of bright colors and diversity of styles defines the park as a truly collaborative community space that encourages user participation and fosters ownership in the transformation of this public space.
Underpass Park is an important example of how a left over space can be transformed and knit back into the urban fabric of a city in a manner that positively contributes to a city’s open space network. In addition to the wide variety of community uses already noted above, the simple sight of parents and their children enjoying the delight of this park on a daily basis is certainly one important measure of its worth. As urban densities continue to increase and more conventional public spaces become exceedingly unavailable for new parks, it is critical that landscape architects look at unwanted and overlooked places and extract their potential to become vibrant and valuable components of our public realm.
The Planning Partnership
Product Sources: SOILS
Product Sources: HARDSCAPE
Product Sources: LIGHTING
Product Sources: FURNITURE
Product Sources: FENCES/GATES/WALLS
Product Sources: IRRIGATION
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