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A forgotten finger of land now an important Toronto public space

While much of the city wasn't paying attention, something incredible grew alongside the west end's dirty auto body shops, squat industrial buildings, warehouses and factories. Something snake-like, and with a rough charm that seduces young and old alike; something so long, it begins a few blocks north of Dupont Street and winds past Wallace Avenue, mighty Bloor Street West and, after a total of 2.1 kilometres, finally curls around to rest at Dundas Street West.

The West Toronto Railpath is more than a bike trail: it's an after-dinner stroller's paradise, a wildlife sanctuary, a "resilience ecology," an art piece, and, lastly, a weaving of residential neighbourhoods into a forgotten finger of land that once contained a narrow-gauge railway line.

Because of all that, this linear park may be the most important public space the city has created in the past decade.

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"We set up a topography of things along here and tried to create a system," says architect James Brown of Brown + Storey Architects, who, with Scott Torrance Landscape Architect, began developing the WTR in 2006. "There's something rough and beautiful about integrating into these industrial spaces. You could easily do a high-end landscape project that would be out of whack with what's here – trying to find that match is a real interesting thing."

Starting at a wide plaza that's cheek by jowl with the auto body shops along tiny Cariboo Avenue at the path's north end, interest comes in many forms due to the "three characters" of the corridor the team was given to work with, explains Mr. Torrance. To Dupont, much of the path backs onto residential Osler Street – which recently added a row of new townhomes – then, once over the Dupont bridge, hulking industrial buildings, such as the former Viceroy Rubber Plant, push right up against the path; south of Bloor, vistas open up and birdsong multiplies.

Even more interesting are the subtle ways the team orients path users: Even where east-west streets are unable to physically intersect, the hardscape changes from the usual dark asphalt to bright white sidewalk; where streets do connect, they're celebrated. Such is the case at Ruskin Avenue, where a wide, welcoming plaza has been created near the beautiful red brick 1920 hydro substation designed by city architect Robert McCallum. Here, residents now gather under bright new streetlights to discuss topics great and small.

There are both manufactured and manipulated great and small items along the railpath. For instance, in the manufactured category are tall markers that identify intersections with three-letter codes – "CAR" for Cariboo, "DUP" for Dupont, "BLR" for Bloor and the like – fashioned from tough, rusty-orange Cor-Ten steel. Smartly anticipating the graffiti that would surely follow their installation, the team used voids for the letters to ensure visibility. Other custom-fabricated pieces are the geometric, Cor-Ten bollards that prevent cars from entering the path, sturdy benches, light standards that accept standard "cobra" fixtures, and a series of large, metal sculptures by John Dickson. These, offers Mr. Brown, are the path's "punctuation marks." The manufactured shape of the path is notable, too, he adds, because of how it widens, narrows, twists and turns and, by doing so, sets up "a little bit of seduction.

"The other trails that we've seen are a straight line, right to the end."

As for the manipulated items, these, of course, were the natural elements, although great care was taken to ensure the railpath didn't come out looking like a "manicured park," says Mr. Torrance. Once Canadian Pacific had removed the unused tracks and contaminated soil, the team moved in to catalogue native plants and collect their seeds. Large trees – even "weed trees" – were mapped and preserved where possible.

After regrading and paving was complete, an "extremely dry, sandy soil" was brought in to match what existed; this, explains Mr. Torrance, not only makes for a low maintenance park, it discourages big, non-native plants from taking root. Collected seeds were replanted and compatible species were introduced provided they wouldn't grow too tall.

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In the two summers the path has been open (it was completed in October, 2009), things have grown well despite a few over-zealous parks department lawn-cutters. "If we'd put something back that wasn't as wild, we'd lose a major ecological corridor," says Mr. Torrance. "All these plants attract butterflies, insects, bees … you can get a wild, native, natural experience here."

To help non-locals clue into that experience, the formerly drab railway bridges that cross Dupont and Bloor have been painted bright saffron; inspiration came from Central Park's 2005 installation The Gates by artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude. "It was really a way to say 'This is part of the public space now,'" says Mr. Torrance. "We really wanted to draw attention to this thing."

Judging from the joggers, walkers, baby strollers, bikes and the impromptu art affixed to the chain-link fence here and there, it's safe to say the immediate neighbourhood has indeed taken notice of the West Toronto Railpath. To get even greater numbers to pay attention, the city needs to build Phase Two, which would see the path extend south to Strachan Avenue.

"We'd love to do it," finishes Mr. Brown.

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About the Author

Dave LeBlanc was born in Toronto and wouldn't have it any other way. At age 8, he remembers jumping for joy when both the CN Tower opened and Toronto finally snatched Montreal's crown to become the biggest city in Canada; he's been an architecture lover and Toronto advocate ever since.He attended Ryerson for Radio-Television Arts and York University for English. More

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