Underpass Park

29 Lower River Street, Toronto, ON M5A 1M6, Canada

What started this project: 

Nearly 200 years ago, in the area in Ontario, Canada, now known as the West Don Lands - just to the east of downtown Toronto, where the Don River meets the city’s Inner Harbor - town leaders hoped to build a large city park. Instead, the area was sold to private interests to subsidize the construction of York General Hospital. These interests used the land for distilling, manufacturing, and for meat processing, a trend that continued until the later part of the twentieth century. This land, losing value as an industrial space, faced significant challenges for redevelopment. First, it was deeply polluted from the decades of contaminating uses. Secondly, it rested within the flood plain and faced significant dangers during storm events. These challenges have looked more and less attainable over the past three decades, depending on the state of the Toronto housing market. In the late 1980s when the city faced a shortage of subsidized housing, the area was rebranded as Ataratiri and included a new planned community of 14,000 housing units. This plan collapsed after failing to attract private capital, and, over the intervening years, the site was the focus of numerous plans and ideas. The transformative moment occurred when the Waterfront Toronto agency was formed to steer the development of the city’s waterfront. This multilevel governmental agency had the resources and clout to push ideas into reality. The area further benefited from a booming housing market in the early aughts, and even more so, from the selection of Toronto as the site of the 2015 Pan American Games. This area of the waterfront attracted enough capital to merit the necessary infrastructural improvements to mitigate environment challenges – contamination and flooding – and to create the parks and streets that would support a vital city neighborhood. Additionally, the area faced complex and dynamic social circumstances. As was the case of many British colonial cities, the eastern half was predominantly industrial; many of its residents were working class and many faced economic hardships. The area also welcomed a great number of migrants from around the world, mostly focused in the Regent Park neighborhood, and included ethnicities from the Caribbean, China, and Southeast Asia. As changes to this part of the city unfolded rapidly, efforts to preserve this diversity and create structures of social support were important.


One of the discrete projects in this larger neighborhood and waterfront redevelopment involved the creation of a new park. Eastern Avenue, at its juncture with the Don Valley Parkway, sails over the neighborhood at Lower River Street in a massive highway viaduct. This thoroughfare severs the existing and growing neighborhoods to the north from the emerging development site just to the south. Officials and residents alike were concerned that this necessary piece of infrastructure would split the neighborhood and make the development less successful. Or, worse, it could create hierarchies in this new space, cutting off residents from amenities and building unnecessary enclaves. Therefore, the primary goal was to enliven this dark, concrete space as a connector of places. Secondly, every organization, department, and community group that worked on the project wanted it, tucked underneath a highway, to reflect the beautiful nuances of the neighborhood, its people, and its history. Instead of it feeling like an industrial afterthought, the community wanted this place to feel human and relatable.


In this instance, the arts-based strategy involved a traditional and community-led public art plan. Because the “park” would never be a fully green space, the art itself had to communicate that this was a place for people to gather, recreate and socialize. It had to make people feel welcome and make the environment dynamic. This process was driven by a deep level of community engagement, steered through the leadership of the Corktown Residents and Business Association, as well as other groups such as the Friends of the Pan Am Path. This group steered the design team toward solutions that were focused on people, life, culture, and programming. A public art process was supported by the local arts commission and included broad community buy-in. The resulting artworks serve to add character to the formerly infrastructural space and to convey the sense of identity of the people in the surrounding neighborhoods. A signature piece is Mirage, by Paul Raff Studio, a suspended cluster of reflective panels that magnify daytime sunlight and animate the nighttime LED lighting under the bridge structure. The work helps to mask the concrete undercarriage of the highway and suggests movement throughout the space. A sanctioned graffiti event, led by StreetARToronto, a collective of artists focused on using public space for social and economic benefits, painted murals on the concrete columns that support the highway. A later section of this graffiti was completed by the artists Troy Lovegates, aka “Other,” and Labrona in 2016. It includes one individual, observed and photographed in the neighborhood, painted on each column as if holding up the highway alone. These diverse caricatures communicate that it’s the people that make a city, that hold it up, and that makes it a place.


Underpass Park has been a success in every way. It has received numerous awards for its thoughtful and restrained design. Although these are important, most of the people involved with the project would cite its level of use by the community as the most cherished outcome of the park project. Skateboarders gleefully olly on custom-built ledges, basketball players have their own courts, and innovative kids’ play equipment adds design and flare. As the first Canadian park under a highway underpass, Underpass Park has spurred other cities to look at underused spaces for sites to create active new public spaces that can serve the community. The depth of the community engagement and the public art process also created secondary, unexpected outcomes in the city. The project, couched within much larger initiatives along the waterfront and in and around downtown, was a jewel to the city, thanks in large part to the culture of the place. Many city, province, and federal government agencies and officials worked together for the first time and in efficient ways, thanks to this common goal. Art helped to create cultural bridges not only among residents of West Don and Regents Park, but also among these officials, designers, and politicians.