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Demolishing eastern Gardiner best option for public health: report

The eastern portion of the Gardiner Expressway (seen from Villiers St. to the south) is key to development plans the city of Toronto has for the area around the mouth of the Don River where the former Lever Brothers plant sits.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Taking down the eastern Gardiner is the better option for public health, according to a report adding a new angle to the heated debate over the highway's future.

The report comes from Toronto Public Health and was released Monday, only weeks before city council is to consider what to do with the stretch of aging expressway in the eastern downtown.

Council can vote to replace the elevated Gardiner east of Jarvis Street with a street-level boulevard, at a long-term cost of $461-million, or rebuild it largely the same as it is now, the so-called "hybrid option," for $919-million over the long term. Keeping the highway elevated will save a few minutes for a small number of drivers, according to city data, while taking it down frees up more land for development.

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Earlier this month, Councillor Joe Mihevc, chair of the city's board of health, asked Public Health to take another look at the Gardiner East's environmental assessment by viewing it through "a health lens."

The new report found the removal option has better health-related impacts, when looking at a variety of criteria related to transportation and infrastructure, urban design, the environment and economics.

"Walkability, exercise, closeness to green space – all those things impact on people's health," Mr. Mihevc said Monday, after the report was released. "That's what good long-term planning is really about, and that's what good long-term public health is about, making communities that work. And those are ones that create health."

This is the second time in days that senior city staff have raised concerns about keeping this stretch of the Gardiner as an elevated highway. On Friday, chief planner Jen Keesmaat said the best option was to take down the highway. And now medical officer of health David McKeown is urging council to "consider the findings" of this new report when making its decision.

Mayor John Tory has argued for keeping the Gardiner as an elevated roadway. There was no official reaction from his office Monday on the health report.

The report undermined two of the main arguments against removing the elevated roadway: that the boulevard would be dangerous for pedestrians and that traffic delays would cause more pollution, resulting in an unhealthy local environment. Instead, Toronto Public Health found that removing the Gardiner East would be better for people walking in the area, and that the additional traffic delay "is not expected to have an impact on health."

What to do with the eastern Gardiner is the biggest decision to face this council, a crucial and expensive choice that will shape that part of the city for decades. The issue is set to come to council at its mid-June meeting, though there are hints that some politicians could seek to defer the decision.

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According to Public Health, removing the highway scored better on eight of the 11 criteria it studied: pedestrian movements, road safety, planning objectives, urban realm, built form, social and health impacts, natural and environmental impacts and local employment.

Keeping the Gardiner East as an elevated highway came out on top in only one criterion: global and regional competitiveness. The concern is that a longer commute could make the downtown less attractive, which could hurt employment and prosperity, undermining health. On two criteria – transit availability and cycling infrastructure – it was a toss-up between removing the highway and the rebuild option known as the hybrid.

"The way cities are built shapes the lives and health of the people who live in them," the report notes. "The remove alternative is expected to provide more health benefits overall and fewer adverse health impacts compared to the hybrid alternative."

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