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Bentway Staging Grounds is a temporary installation which includes artwork by Logan MacDonald.Samuel Engelking/The Bentway

Plants are drinking the water from the Gardiner Expressway. On a rainy fall day in downtown Toronto, pipes are channelling runoff water from the elevated highway down into steel planters painted teal and filled with indigenous shrubs. And the plants are, mostly, thriving.

This experimental garden is part of Staging Grounds, a temporary installation at the Bentway – the public space and arts organization located underneath the Gardiner. “We hope everyone can see the potential of under-utilized spaces like this,” said one of its creators, local architect and artist Reza Nik of SHEEEP, at the opening event a few weeks ago. “There is a lot of space in this city; the challenge is how to rethink it, change some of the variables and see what we can achieve.”

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It unlocks an expanded public realm and programming opportunity for the CityPlace and Fort York neighbourhood.Samuel Engelking/The Bentway

This is what Toronto’s public space needs: inventive designers working on places that serve many needs. Those qualities have been specialties of the Bentway. Now it is growing. Staging Grounds expands the organization’s reach into a new 20,000-square-foot area east of Spadina Avenue, and it is collaborating with the city on plans to rethink 6.5 kilometres of the expressway.

That is welcome. Since it opened in 2018, this unique organization has shown what can happen in overlooked urban space. It’s always been a rich stew of happenings, from skating lessons to hip-hop performances. Catalyzed by a $25-million donation from local philanthropists Judy and Wilmot Matthews, the Bentway took a space under the highway and turned it into a “hybrid infrastructure” of public plaza, performance venue, and cycling and pedestrian path.

Urban designer Ken Greenberg and the landscape architects PUBLIC WORK made something out of nothing, and a new Bentway organization has run events and programs. Almost 200,000 people have visited so far this year.

Staging Grounds (created by SHEEEP with the New York studio Agency–Agency and horticulturalist Brother Nature) reflects the Bentway’s characteristic mix of art and urbanism.

Here, “landscape increases the softness of the Gardiner, its resiliency, its ability to sustain flooding,” explained Ilana Altman, co-executive director of the Bentway Conservancy. “And it’s an acoustic buffer to the neighbouring roads. Landscape is infrastructure.” That is, she said, “very much in line with what we do.”

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The project transforms a vacant space below the Gardiner Expressway into a living laboratory.Samuel Engelking/The Bentway

Staging Grounds expands the organization’s reach by 20,000 square feet. Now the organization – which is an independent not-for-profit – is collaborating with city staff to plan a wider swath of public space.

On Oct. 11, the city committed approximately $800,000 to the Bentway in support of design and public engagement for an area including the Staging Grounds site. (This money comes out of community benefits contributions made by private building projects in the area.)

The Under Gardiner Public Realm Plan, completed this year, is a set of strategies that can apply to a 6.5-kilometre stretch of the expressway, from Dufferin Street to the Don Valley Parkway.

“It offers a guide that will shape the future investment along the corridor,” says co-executive director Dave Carey, “whether it’s the Bentway, the city or developers building next door.” This encompasses nuts and bolts such as signs for navigation and lighting; public washrooms and drinking fountains. But it also contemplates new sites for public art, performance, or new retail and artist-studio space. Not to mention plantings that absorb the rainwater draining from the highway.

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Staging Grounds responds to the dynamic conditions of the site and educates visitors about urban ecology and stormwater management.Mila Bright Zlatanovic/The Bentway

The Gardiner zone could feel like “a gateway to the lakefront,” Altman suggests, rather than a barrier. Existing sites such as Harbourfront and the new Love Park all become easier to reach and easier to see as a unified whole. The neighbourhoods around them – which are home to tens of thousands of residents – take on a new character.

Sadly, this sort of creative planning is hard work for governments. It means cutting across bureaucratic lines – transportation, parks, culture. Plus there is Exhibition Place, the giant and underperforming city-run site, right next door. The Bentway organization is helping bring these different city departments to the table.

The city should continue that work and learn from it. Great public spaces are multifaceted. They are changeable; they are designed for and by all sorts of people, even emerging artists such as Nik.

New voices, a mix of activities; nimble thinking; this is how you build a vibrant city. It is not how the city works now, in general, but it should be: Toronto should be a place where green shoots pop up in unlikely places.

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