Summer is a perfect time for paper dreams. It's also ideal for getting down on your hands and knees, not to garden like a madman, but to redesign entire swaths of a city - maybe by sticking a large map onto a four-by-eight sheet of plywood and routering over all the ugly commercial strips and tedious condominium towers, before nailing rhubarb leaves along the waterfront to designate more green space. This is satisfying and necessary work. Without it, a city becomes merely a fact of urbanity rather than something that wavers deliciously between fact and fantasy.
Two events, one in New York, the other in Toronto, converged last month to keep the citizen's mind from drying out and growing brittle.
The High Line Sky Park was opened to the public last month on the Lower West Side of Manhattan. To call it wildly successful would be an understatement. More than 100,000 visitors walked the High Line in its first week; last weekend, another 45,000 converged on the elevated park, site of a former freight railroad.
In Toronto, Les Klein, principal of Quadrangle Architects, did something accomplished middle-aged architects rarely do. He floated an audacious idea: Hoist a green park over the Gardiner Expressway, so that cyclists and pedestrians would be able to travel for seven blissfully uninterrupted kilometres above the city.
Don't dismiss the Green Ribbon as a piece of blue-sky dreaming just because it's summertime. In fact, given the right kind of civic leadership, it could be a mighty reinvention of a doomed piece of civic infrastructure.
"Linear, elevated green landscapes are amazing because they offer such unusual perspectives of the city," says James Corner, whose firm, Field Operations, acted as lead landscape designers of New York's High Line with architecture consultants Diller, Scofidio + Renfro.
The $86-million (U.S.) phase one - which runs from Gansevoort Street in the Meatpacking District to West 20th Street - is to be followed next year with the phase-two opening of another 10-block stretch; and then a projected phase three, which would end at 34th Street. "The High Line is unbelievably social, with people strolling, sitting, relaxing," says Corner. "I don't think we knew the degree to which there would be so much joy for people walking together on the promenade."
So, given the love-in happening at Manhattan's park in the sky, none of us should be surprised by the standing ovation Klein received after presenting his Green Ribbon last month at the IdeaCity forum in Toronto. Or that he has received interested calls from city councillors and private-sector companies curious to know of sponsorship opportunities to help with the estimated $500-million cost of building a structure of monumental steel columns, covering it with concrete decking and then installing a hearty landscape with intelligent irrigation.
It could be that now's the time to admit there's a far more compelling way to handle the Gardiner than merely tearing it down; the political vogue may be to dismantle Toronto's biggest piece of urban infrastructure, but it's a decision that may come to be regretted 20 years from now. Still, while Klein's Green Ribbon deserves a standing ovation for its guts, there are some serious issues to be considered. Corner, whose firm is also designing the sprawling Lake Ontario Park in eastern Toronto, can think of three:
1. Access would be difficult. Climbing six to 10 storeys just to access the Green Ribbon would hard work, especially if one were carrying a bicycle. Specially designed elevators for bikes are included in the proposal, but they could easily become oversubscribed. There are already long waits at the High Line's access stairs, and no bikes are allowed.
2. The Toronto climate is harsh. The Green Ribbon is located way up high and is exposed to all the elements that come with being built next to a Great Lake. The High Line features a four-season landscape that morphs from brightly coloured wildflowers in summer to sculptural trees and grasses allowed to grow long in winter. But can a Green Ribbon landscape at twice the height survive the extremely harsh conditions up there, and so provide sustained aesthetic impact through all four seasons?
3. Road maintenance. Klein argues that by covering the Gardiner with the Green Ribbon, the millions spent annually on highway upkeep would be nearly eliminated. That's only partly true, says Corner, who notes that any road suffers contraction and expansion during the winter, whether or not it's covered.
These are still early days for the Green Ribbon, but the idea is enticing enough to warrant some serious design consideration (and, perhaps, massaging). Once considered a loathsome idea, elevated promenades have taken on new cachet in an increasingly urbanized world. In the east end of Paris, on an abandoned 19th-century railway viaduct, the Promenade Plantée is a lyrical way to walk for 4.5 glorious kilometres amid cherry trees, rose bushes and wisteria. And in a section running beneath the former railway line, a brick viaduct has been converted into Le Viaduc des Arts, a series of galleries and craft studios elegantly framed behind a total of 64 arches. We're allowed to enjoy the city as the Italian futurists had once imagined it, with people zooming through, experiencing it from all heights.
That certainly requires a brain adjustment. Elevating public life above a city's streets was given a suffocatingly bad rap by the ham-fisted, enclosed corridors that kept people away from the elements - and the deserted streets below - in cities such as Edmonton, Calgary and Winnipeg. The more we become urbanized, the more our expectations are increased for a multilayered, unpredictable way to experience urban life. We've learned from the mistakes of the past and want to move on.
While scorn was heaped on the original High Line (built in the 1930s to help move sides of beef and other goods through Manhattan's Meatpacking District) and its hulking steel structure, nature was working its magic on top: Grasses flourished between the tracks; apple trees produced fruit. Still, by the 1980s, its time to come crumbling down had come - what's considered progress by one generation is often seen as a sham to the next - and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani signed demolition orders.
How times change. A group of citizens - mostly artists, architects and entrepreneurs - held on to a new vision, eventually signing on supporters as wide-ranging as Ethan Hawke and Hillary Clinton. The Friends of the High Line convinced many in the city's administration (most importantly Mayor Michael Bloomberg) to endorse its complete reinvention. Already, at Washington Street and West 13th, the stunning Standard boutique hotel, by Polshek Partnership for hotelier André Balazs, has gracefully aligned itself to the High Line.
There's also a High Line beer being concocted in a brewery underneath the park in the sky, and a High Line restaurant.
The West Side is starting to spin a rebranding around the park. Besides that, seven acres of greenery provide welcome lungs to a residential neighbourhood that had been hurting for strolling space.
Will Toronto ever get that far? Klein's Green Ribbon concept is worth serious consideration. "I think it's a provocative idea," Corner says. "But I think there needs to be a lot of thought about its realism. And its success isn't guaranteed just because it's green."