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Rush hour traffic heading west on the Gardiner Expressway Nov 10, 2010. (Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)
Rush hour traffic heading west on the Gardiner Expressway Nov 10, 2010. (Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)

KEVIN KEANE

Why big business should turn a Toronto highway into a green ribbon Add to ...

The Gardiner Green Ribbon is a seven kilometre-long strip of parkland proposed by Quadrangle Architects to perch atop the elevated part of the Gardiner Expressway in downtown Toronto. A sort of ‘green roof for the Gardiner’, the project is estimated to cost roughly $800-million. It would be worth every penny – and more.

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From the factory loft conversions of Liberty Village in the west, to the Distillery District and St. Lawrence Market in the east, the proposed elevated park snakes through what are surely the most densely populated areas of Toronto (CityPlace, South Core, etc), home to growing numbers of residents, businesses and tourist attractions.

This means that a variety of people will be passing through, from condo-dwellers to commuting professionals to visitors from around the world.

This is a trend that will continue for the foreseeable future, with increased capacity scheduled for Union Station, infrastructural improvements for the waterfront, and increased commercial and residential growth to come along this important corridor, not to mention the Pan-Am games to be headquartered in the east Bayfront.

Growing numbers of people pose both opportunities and challenges. Populations create markets and audiences. They also create congestion and resource strain. The Gardiner Green Ribbon seeks to address the challenges with a bold and innovative solution. Businesses should get involved to capitalize on this solution, and seize the market and audience opportunity.

They would be investing in their employees and communities, and in doing so, be investing in their own brand and business success.

Here’s how:

Investing in the Gardiner Green Ribbon has implication for attracting talent, retaining talent, and maximizing the performance of talent.

More and more people are choosing to call downtown their home. They snap up the condos along the Gardiner corridor to avoid the long commutes to work characteristic of suburban living. They value proximity to urban amenities.

TELUS, Coca Cola and others have recognized this shift, and, to attract this talent, have moved their offices into the core. On Feb. 25, Sun Life Financial announced that it would take up residence at One York Street in 2017, joining a complex that includes two 60-plus-storey condo buildings that will rub up against the Gardiner.

But the mad rush of development in the downtown core has brought with it unprecedented congestion and very little open green space to enjoy. Take a walk down Bremner Boulevard – home to CI Financial, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, MLSE and TELUS at one end, and CityPlace at the other – and you’ll see scant green space. Apart from the Roundhouse Park and Canoe Landing – hardly bastions of calm and tranquility in a chaotic ‘neighbourhood’ anchored by the CN Tower, Ripley’s aquarium and the Rogers Centre – there’s literally no other park land.

This should trouble businesses. For if they’re drawing talent from nearby, and nearby is a jungle of glass, steel and concrete, talent is at a greater risk of burnout. Recent research has revealed both the extent to which people’s mental health suffers as a result of a lack of access to green space, and the degree to which green space improves cognition, focus and mood. For information workers who live and work downtown in these areas booming along the Gardiner, this is a huge risk. For their employers, this is a huge risk.

Nearby companies advise investors on where to put their money: (CI Financial, RBC); consult corporations on where to place their big bets (PwC); and bring the city its daily news (Toronto Star). It’s in their best interests to ensure that they’re creating the best work and living environment for their talent, the people that give these businesses their competitive edge.

And for this reason, involvement in the Gardiner Green Ribbon would be a massive talent magnet and talent retainer. For it wouldn’t just be about investing in parkland and sustainable transit that improves the living and working environments of talented young workers. It’s about businesses and brands in the talent market making a statement that they are investors in big, bold ideas; that they value vision and bravery; that they covet innovative solutions to seemingly intractable problems.

This brings us to a second key benefit – marketing.

People talk about big, bold ideas. People share big, bold ideas. People become empowered by big, bold ideas. Imagine the activation potential – in non-marketing speak, the ‘hey, look what we’re doing, isn’t it cool?’ – of the Gardiner Green Ribbon.

The storytelling avenues a brand could explore are bountiful: mental and physical health improvement, community investment and cultivation, building cities for the future, encouraging radical and innovative problem solving.

For some brands, the synergy is more obvious – “The Future is Friendly” (TELUS – 200 metres from the Gardiner), or “Open Happiness” (Coca Cola – 600 metres from the Gardiner).

And though it’s a physical investment in Toronto, the appeal of the storyline is universal – bold ideas are borderless. And as more humans are moving into cities and facing the same problems that the Gardiner Green Ribbon would solve for Toronto, it’s a shared experience of sorts.

Critically for brands, communication is also borderless. Content can be created, distributed, accessed and enjoyed by virtually everyone thanks to the ubiquity of smart phones and the Web. With over 3.5 million international visitors to the city in 2012 (the last full year for which data is available), and roughly half of the city’s population having been born outside of Canada, the audience for this content is truly global. “Hey Shanghai/Mumbai/Sao Paulo/New York/London – look what Toronto’s done!” Like New York’s High Line, the Gardiner Green Ribbon would be a boon for tourism and the development of surrounding areas.

Count the talent attraction, retention and productivity-enhancing outcomes detailed above, plus a high degree of goodwill generated in their neighbourhoods and beyond (important for brand trust and protection), and the economic benefits to brand and business are plenty.

Of course, this isn’t – and nor should it be – the exclusive responsibility or opportunity for businesses and brands. An initiative like this has many stakeholders and partners that require engagement – smaller local businesses, residents, and tourism bodies all stand to benefit from action, and lose from non-action.

What’s required is a thoughtful and inclusive collaboration between government, the private sector and the public. Most importantly, like the Gardiner Green Ribbon itself, it requires a willingness to think big, bold and innovative.

Kevin Keane is a co-founder of Brainsights, Toronto-based a neuromarketing and communication consultancy

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