As a kid, one of my favorite parks was Freeway Park, a maze-like modernist expanse of concrete planters, winding ramps and water features that snakes its way up from Downtown Seattle to my grandmother’s apartment building at the top of First Hill.

A mysterious and at times iffy* place (my wanderings were never without an adult chaperone and never took place at night) filled with nooks and crannies and abrupt dead ends with a magnificently gloomy moss-covered Brutalist fountain towering about it all, Freeway Park was a far cry from the suburban swing set- and monkey bars-equipped parks that I was used to. It was a park for adults and I loved it.

The name of Freeway Park gets its name from the fact that Interstate 5 passes directly beneath it. A park built placed over a freeway like a massive lid, basically. From this new kind of concrete jungle complete with waterfalls, manmade canyon and overgrown foliage, I could hear the roar of cars, a reassuring white noise, but they were completely out of sight. It blew my mind.

And,in 1976 when the first phase of the 5.5-acre park opened, the minds of urban planners were also left blown — and inspired by the innovative terraced park, the first park built over a freeway with interstate air rights in an effort to “heal the scar” left by Seattle’s neighborhood-severing infrastructure.

Freeway Park, SeattleThe fountain at Freeway Park, Seattle, the first public space to be built as a cap over a freeway. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Since then, a modest handful of other freeway-blanketing parks have been proposed or completed including Dallas’ Klyde Warren Park. And then there’s the Rose F. Kennedy Greenaway, constructed as part of Boston’s Big Dig, a herculean public works nightmare that involved moving the elevated Central Artery into an underground tunnel covered at street level by public green space.

So what about freeways, specifically elevated freeways, that can’t possibly be capped? Can the unloved and overlooked spaces located beneath these roadways be transformed into public space?

Toronto may soon find out.

The recently unveiled Project: Under Gardiner imagines the many possibilities— a “1.75 km stretch of possibilities,” to be exact — hidden away underneath an elevated eastern section of Toronto's Gardiner Expressway. Given that it’s a space-reclaiming linear park project built around — in this case, under — existing infrastructure, High Line comparisons are obvious. However, it’s more a kindred spirit to the Design Trust for Public Space’s Under the Elevated initiative, which looks to transform neglected parcels of land beneath elevated roadways and subway lines in New York City into cultural and recreational oases.

Gardiner Expressway, TorontoAn elevated stretch of Toronto's Gardiner Expressway, not too far from the proposed site of a new linear park that would be tucked away under the roadway's concrete columns. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

In recent years, various replacement proposals — some more starry-eyed than others — offering various expressway replacement options for the existing elevated section of the aging and in-need-of repair Gardiner Expressway have come and gone. Much like Boston’s Dig, some propose moving traffic into underground tunnels and topping the whole thing with a fancy new park. Another proposal envisioned replacing the elevated expressway with a multi-modal cantilever bridge.

More recently, city lawmakers rejected a development-encouraging “hybrid” scheme that would see the expressway partially replaced with a surface boulevard. Citing gridlock concerns, Councilors voted that the expressway remain intact despite the fact that it sheds concrete and ridiculously expensive to maintain.

Embracing the reality that the hulking concrete eyesore is sticking around, Project: Under Gardiner makes the best of bad situation by dramatically revamping a neglected, uninviting space beneath a 1-mile section of the expressway spanning from Strachan Avenue to Spadina Avenue along the Lake Ontario waterfront.

A rendering of Project: Under Gardiner, a linear park initiative that envisions cultural space tucked underneath a stretch of Toronto expressway.If you can't tear it down ... ice skate underneath it. (Rendering: © PUBLIC WORK)

Described as a “continuous passageway” where “creativity overlaps with everyday life,” the proposal is less a straightforward park and more a series of sheltered outdoor “civic rooms” all linked by a neighborhood-connecting “urban trail” that’s open to both pedestrians and cyclists. Neatly framed and divided by the expressway’s existing concrete columns and beams, there’d be 55 rooms in total, each dedicated to different cultural programming. For example, some rooms would house a farmers market while others would be home to community gardens and event spaces.

With its emphasis on cultural programming and unifying neighborhoods, Project: Under Gardiner is similar to the 606, a nifty and newly opened linear park — excuse, “alternative transportation corridor” — in Chicago situated largely atop the old Bloomingdale elevated railway line. It’s also like Washington, D.C.’s 11th Street Bridge Park project in this regard.

Reads a recent press release:

Project: Under Gardiner envisions a dynamic new public space that creates connections between some of Toronto's newest and most dense neighbourhoods, including Liberty Village, Niagara, Fort York Neighbourhood, CityPlace, Bathurst Quay and Wellington Place. The project will knit these communities together with innovative programmable spaces that will showcase Toronto's unique cultural and related offerings – music, food, theatre, visual arts, education and civics, dance, sports and recreation.

Philanthropists Wil and Judy Matthews are footing the $25 million (roughly $19 million U.S. dollars) bill.

The City of Toronto, working in partnership with Waterfront Toronto, would construct the linear park using the donated funds provided, of course, that Toronto City Council ultimately decides to accept the money, which they likely will.

Project: Under Gardiner begins with a new kind of philanthropic partnership — a collaborative model — that is brought to life through active public participation in designing and shaping a new public space. The passion and financial assistance of a major donor is joining with the City and Waterfront Toronto to plan and build new infrastructure, and to showcase a new model of city building for Toronto.

If given the go-ahead, construction on the park, designed by Toronto-based architecture firm PUBLIC WORK in collaboration with Ken Greenburg, could commence as soon as next year. The completion date is slated for 2017.

A rendering of Project: Under Gardiner, a linear park proposalA large-scale reclamation project, Project: Under Gardiner would span 10 acres and link seven Toronto neighborhoods. (Rendering: © PUBLIC WORK)

As reported by the Globe and Mail, it’s not yet clear who exactly would run the park although a newly created nonprofit group would likely fill that role when needed.

“What excites us is thinking about not just building a space, but creating a place with a variety of activities for all kinds of people where they can gather and feel a sense of community and belonging,” remarks Judy Matthews, an activist and urban planner. “We are making this donation to all of you — the neighbours, people in the GTA and all our visitors. If we can help create a warm welcoming place where you can come to meet a friend, to walk, to cycle, to play, to eat a variety of street foods, watch a performance, listen to music or buy fresh vegetables at a market — we will be thrilled.”

Toronto Mayor John Tory is, expectedly, grateful for the generosity. He refers to Project: Under Gardiner as a project that will “help bridge the divide between our city and our waterfront with creativity, beauty and vision.”

A rendering of Project: Under Gardiner, a linear park initiative that envisions cultural space tucked underneath a stretch of Toronto expressway.Toronto's new linear park has been described as a massive "outdoor living room" for visitors and the over 70,000 area residents alike. (Rendering: © PUBLIC WORK)

Philanthropy-driven park-creation is somewhat novel in Canada, with most big money donations going to other causes. Some believe that the project sets a positive precedent that could pave the way for further privately funded public spaces in Toronto and beyond. Others are more skeptical, believing that often parks backed by wealthy residents who live or own real estate in the area can divert resources and attention away from other areas perhaps more in desperate need of a makeover.

It’s a legitimate concern, but as the Globe and Mail’s Alex Bozikovick points out, not necessarily the case with Project: Under Gardiner, an “entirely self-less” proposal with no real estate interests involved on the Matthews’ end. It's also a project that will receive a new, proper name following a "name that park" public engagement campaign that begins in December. Residents with ideas are encouraged to think of something "uniquely Torontonian."

Judy Matthews explains: “The city is struggling. They have so many needs to meet. If you recognize a need in the city and you have a capacity to fill that need, that’s part of the true meaning of being a citizen."

Alaska Way Viaduct, SeattleTo be replaced with a tunnel and a massive urban park, Seattle's Alaskan Way Viaduct will not be missed. (Photo: Joe Wolf/flickr)

It’s difficult not to return to Seattle, not to Freeway Park but to the Alaskan Way Viaduct, a similarly falling-apart elevated highway that sustained significant structural damage during the 2001 Nisqually Earthquake. Unlike the elevated section of the Gardiner Expressway, the terrifying-to-drive-on double-deck Alaskan Way Viaduct, which carries State Route 99 along the Elliot Bay waterfront at the foot of downtown, will not stay put. Some day, when Bertha — the world's mightiest tunneling machine — gets her act together, work will resume on the creation of a bored tunnel to replace the viaduct.

And there are, of course, big plans — and not without drama — in store for when the viaduct eventually does come down. Designed by James Corner Field Operations of High Line fame, the Waterfront Seattle project is already billing itself as one of the largest sustainable developments in the United States

And the vision itself is indeed mighty large: 26 blocks of new parkland complete with a pedestrian promenade and dedicated bike trail, public piers, a new seawall and Puget Sound-friendly design features including stormwater-filtering bioswales, a habitat beach and light-penetrating surfaces that encourage salmon migration. Also: a floating barge swimming pool.

Rendering of Waterfront Seattle park projectGoodbye Alaskan Way Viaduct, hello bike paths. (Rendering: James Corner Field Operations)

It’s an ambitious and exciting vision that’s not entirely too dissimilar to what some Torontonians envisioned the area around a demolished Gardiner Expressway would look like. Project: Under Gardiner will do its best to connect communities and foster cultural activity ... even with a hulking, 60-year old elevated freeway in the way.

* For the same reasons (the meandering paths, overgrown vegetation and seclusion) I loved Seattle's Freeway Park as a kid, so did criminals. In the words of Mike Evans, a specialist in crime prevention in environmental design and founder of the Freeway Park Association: "It's a triumph as a garden, but a disaster from a crime-prevention point of view."

While the park, described as "one of the most compelling treatises on post-War landscape architecture that survives today," has always had an unsavory side, increased drug-related crimes and the 2002 murder of a homeless woman in broad daylight in a public bathroom led to the implementation plan of an "activation plan" that involved a number of design-related tweaks including better lighting and more manicured vegetation. There's better sightlines, less trees and more security. While not completely without problems, Freeway Park today has largely been reformed and revived by the city.

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.