In praise of the Bentway
The Bentway, a new skating trail under the elevated highway that will stretch from Strachan Ave. to Bathurst St., is a little thing that accomplishes a great deal.
It makes an attraction of what has long been a dead zone between two lively parts of Toronto and it provides a bit of space for breathing and play in a condo-cramped downtown increasingly dominated by glass and concrete. It is a modest but valuable reminder of the power of public spaces to transform a city.
The park is named for the bents that bear the weight of the highway overhead, but Bentway also describes the rink itself. Its path appropriately takes the shape of a figure eight, or an infinity sign if you prefer – a symbol of expansiveness in the claustrophobic core.
Opened to the public on Saturday, the rink represents the first phase of a 1.1-kilometre park paid for in large part by a $25-million gift from philanthropist Judy Matthews and her husband, Wilmot. The purpose of the gift, Matthews says, was to create a space that “encourages people to connect outdoors,” especially in the cold months. “It’s an important part of Canadian culture.”
That idea may sound quaint, but there is a robust body of evidence that well-run public parks do just that, building a sense of community and encouraging outdoor physical activity, particularly among the young. That’s especially important during the winter, when the atomizing (and atrophying) impulse to hole up is strongest.
As the downtown core has become denser, the dearth of parks has emerged as a policy challenge, which so far the city has been slow to address. A promising plan to build a massive so-called rail deck park has been put off till sometime past 2019, its future threatened by its daunting price-tag.
Municipal officials have long argued that until the city’s fiscal policy catches up to its ambitions, policymakers ought to focus on more modest projects, turning derelict and underused spaces into small but lively public parks. Clearly private money isn’t the long-term answer. But the welcome gift of the Bentway provides proof of concept.
The park’s architect, Ken Greenberg, once wrote in the Star that city planners should aim to turn Toronto into “a humane and equitable city known not just for its ability to absorb people from around the globe but for its quality of life for all its citizens.” The Bentway is a small reminder that density need not come at the cost of community or relegate everyone to their own little box, high above the street.
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