Philanthropy-driven urban development – The Bentway in Toronto & more

Just a short time after being elected mayor of Toronto, Canada, John Tory received a visit from Judy and Wilmot Matthews. They wanted to give the city a 25-million-dollar gift. But it wasn’t a blank check.

Activist and urban planner Judy Matthews had a fully developed vision that she wanted to implement in her city, namely the redevelopment of a 1.75-kilometer stretch of desolate land below an elevated expressway. This concrete and dirt environment is now set to become “The Bentway” – a bustling community gathering place, with parks, bike paths, event venues and more.

Our cities, our future – Urbanization, a trend which shows no signs of abating, will remarkably change the way we live, work, and interact in our communities.

Published on 02.11.2016

A community space under the Gardiner Expressway

Originally known as “Project Under Gardiner”, the venture was recently dubbed “The Bentway” by Toronto citizens in an online voting campaign. The name refers to the architectural term for the support structures underneath the expressway, called “bents”.

The Bentway will link seven inner-city neighborhoods, providing more than 70,000 residents with space to socialize, pursue physical recreation and participate in cultural events. Both Torontonians and visitors will soon enjoy the planned venues for farmer’s markets, children’s gardens, performances and exhibitions.

“This elevated expressway should never have been built in the first place, but now that we have it, why not turn it into wonderful park with a roof? The Bentway isn’t just another High Line wannabe, but a linear park that will tie together a part of the city that is exploding with development and revitalization, built on what has been a toxic industrial wasteland since it was created out of landfill 150 years ago.”

Lloyd Alter, Design Editor, www.treehugger.com


What benefits people benefits the city

In addition to better connecting locals with one another, the project also offers the potential for improving local health by encouraging outdoor sports. In addition to offering the requisite space for group sports, The Bentway will create new links between 10 major pedestrian and cycling routes. It will even keep people active in the cold months of the year, with an ice skating rink and a 1.7-kilometer skating trail.

As globalization expert Parag Khanna mentioned in a previous article, it is crucial that cities ensure ample public space. These spaces foster the creativity and entrepreneurial spirit that helps cities thrive. The Bentway, therefore, is not just another “nice to have” for citizens – it could also be a substantial boon to the local economy.

Put your money where your heart is

There are many worthy causes deserving of support. But rather than look abroad, you can usually find worthy causes right at home, in your own city. It’s something that “urban angel” Judy Matthews has been doing for a long time.

True, donating to local projects is nothing new. Think of how often charitable acts benefit the areas of education, parks and recreation, hospitals and social services, libraries, local heritage sites and youth organizations.

But despite this long history of urban beneficence, what really sets The Bentway apart from past philanthropic deeds is that it is a massive donation that will transform a large urban area, rather than one specific structure or park.

“As cities densify, we begin to view lost or underutilized spaces in new ways. [The Bentway] is a visionary approach to celebrating and inhabiting a spectacular, dramatic space, stitching together a series of existing areas…”

Jennifer Keesmaat, City of Toronto Chief Planner

More urban philanthropy

Donations have long been welcomed by city governments, cultural institutions and social programs. The mayor of Calgary was certainly happy when a family donated 2 million CA$ to help redevelop a park. And the Archdiocese of New York was rapturous when an anonymous, 20 million US$ donation saved Saint Brigid’s Church from the wrecking ball.

If you feel like there’s nothing you can do, remember what Prince once said: “You don’t have to be rich.”

Obviously, these good deeds are well beyond the financial means of ordinary mortals like us. Still, there are many local programs that accept even small donations or voluntary service. Look into it. You can even encourage your company to contribute to local causes as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility or Corporate Service.

As global urbanization marches on, we hope to see more projects like The Bentway or What Works Cities come to life through the financial backing of well-intentioned and deep-pocketed people and organizations.


Wintertime at Fort York Boulevard. © PUBLIC WORK