Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Dichotomy of the Don Valley & Reflections on Urban Highways

A few days ago, I rode my bike along Bloor and over the Don Valley Parkway (DVP), a wide highway that threads through the green of the Don Valley. What struck me most about my view of the highway from the pedestrian/bicycle bridge, was the marked dichotomy between the two uses of the Don Valley -- one as smooth-paved high volume six lane highway, and the other as green parkland and river.

It was the stark physical representation of past planning decisions, laid out with two visions: one a fast-flowing mechanized stream of cars, trucks and motocycles, and the other a slow-flowing stream of water through a green valley. I wonder what the area would look like if the highway was absent? It's a shame that Toronto's widest streets and highways (Lake Shore Blvd, Gardiner Expressway, the DVP) are placed exactly in the spots that severe Torontonians connection to things like the Don Valley River or Lake Ontario. It seems easy in this city to forget that water lies so close.

Originally Woodbine Avenue, the DVP fully opened in 1966 and was conceived as part of a network of highways for Toronto including the constructed Gardiner Expressway that snakes along Toronto's waterfront, and the much opposed (thank you, Jane Jacobs) and never-built Spadina Expressway that would have literally chopped Toronto in two. This was all during the era of Robert Moses, the highway builder who loved to carve cities up with ribbons of asphalt. In fact, there is an entire book written by Roberta Brandes Gratz, The Battle for Gotham, that chronicles the "fight" between Jacobs and Moses.

Lying on the grass at Riverdale Park there are three things that are noticeable. One is the fantastic view of downtown Toronto (a rare sight it seems in a city that is so flat). The second is the broad, sloping grass of the park (I will have to remember to come sledding here in winter). And the third is the constant hum and buzz of the DVP, which is noticeable just at the bottom of the park (although not in this picture).

Projects to revamp the natural side of the Don Valley, including the Don Mouth Naturalization and Port Lands Flood Project are currently under way in the city in an effort to reestablish some of the natural environment of the Don Valley that has been affected by the DVP and other waterfront developments.

In the case of the Gardiner Expressway, Waterfront Toronto has been studying options on what to do with the ugly, elevated highway, including options, as they say, of "removal, replacement, enhancement, or maintaining the status quo." Parts of the Gardiner were already removed in 2001 and 2003. Their study also include the previously mentioned Lake Shore Blvd. To me, a boulevard is meant to evoke the kind of street you'd like to stroll along, especially one with the moniker 'lake shore"; however, the actual street is a daunting, multi-lane barren strip of pavement between the city and the lake.

Other cities that went urban highway crazy during the Moses years are also wondering what to do with them. San Francisco demolished the elevated Embarcadero in the early 90s, effectively reconnecting the waterfront with the rest of the city, while Boston spent billions of dollars to bury their urban freeway underground, a construction project nicknamed The Big Dig, which has opened up a long, corridor through the city to be developed.

On the other side of things, there are city's like Vancouver, which opposed highways bisecting their city and now don't have the expensive job of demolishing or re-routing them. Vancouver did, however, start the process of building the highway with the demolishing of the black neighbourhood of Hogan's Alley and subsequent construction of the elevated Dunsmuir Viaduct -- and there is even talk in city hall about demolishing that.

But back to the pedestrian/bicycle bridge overlooking the Don Valley River and the Don Valley Parkway. It is quite humbling to peer over the edge at the cars, which seem to appear from nowhere as if they have been shot out of a cannon below the bridge. Of course, if you turn around you can see where they come from: kilometres of highway. If you close your eyes you can imagine the sound as a rushing river of rapids. But when you open them again you realize the real river is tranquil and silent and just over to the side, behind that highway fence.

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