A tale of two bridges: the Wallace Avenue Footbridge and the Humber Bay Arch Pedestrian-Bicycle Bridge remind us that public infrastructure is so much more than fixing potholes. When done right public infrastructure can inspire, bring people together, promote safety, remind us of our past, serve our public and private needs, and even be artistic creations.
In 2018 I had the honour of running for Council in Ward 4, Parkdale – High Park. In the all candidates’ meeting in Parkdale, I gave our campaign brochure to a voter in the audience, who asked me about our platform. My focus was on improving public infrastructure, I replied. The voter asked further, but what are you doing for the community? My reply was that public infrastructure is for the community, such as affordable public housing buildings. Yet, the voter did not seem persuaded.
Unfortunately, many voters see public infrastructure as banal day-to-day fixing of potholes and not something that particularly helps the community. However, infrastructure can be something exciting and even visionary when it serves our public and private needs. A great example I can think of is the Prince Edward Viaduct, which during its construction in 1916 already contained a lower deck for a future subway thanks to the vision of its designer Edmund W. Burke and R. C. Harris the Commissioner of Public Works in Toronto. The lower deck ended up saving millions of dollars 50 years later when the Bloor – Danforth subway was open in 1966. Years ago, when I studied engineering at U of T while living in Scarborough, I would take the subway from Kennedy to St. George to go to class and I would admire this bridge while crossing it after Broadview station, which inspired me just before going to my first morning engineering class. For an interesting novel based on the construction of the Prince Edward Viaduct I highly recommend Michael Ondaatje’s, In the Skin of a Lion: https://www.torontopubliclibrary.ca/detail.jsp?Entt=RDM2906451&R=2906451
This magnificent book tells us about the anarchists, dreamers, engineers, immigrants, and workers who envisioned and built modern T.O. during the early years of the 20th century. We could use some of that same spirit of the past to solve today’s challenges. Just to name a few challenges, for a world-class city, we lack public washrooms, sidewalks, apartment building standards, public transit options, safe crosswalks, flood prevention and mitigation systems, and a modern effective electrical grid. The lack of adequate public infrastructure has consequences: people cannot find washrooms, an ice storm results in a major blackout, stormwater sewers fill beyond capacity resulting in rapid flooding (flooding is a problem in just about every underpass in Parkdale – High Park), pedestrians forced to jaywalk due to no crosswalk or sidewalk get hit by cars, and 1,500 apartment residents find themselves without a home after a failure in the building’s electrical system causes a major fire. If these stories sound familiar it is because all of them occurred here in T.O.; here is one: https://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2020/03/02/residents-of-650-parliament-finally-allowed-back-home-this-morning-18-months-after-a-fire-forced-them-out.html
Yet, we can do better, and we have done better. For example, there are two fascinating pedestrian bridges in Parkdale – High Park, which are not as large as the Prince Edward Viaduct, yet serve our public and private needs very well. The Wallace Avenue Footbridge located North of Bloor and Dundas has been connecting people on both sides of the track since it was built in 1907. If you enjoy walking, jogging, or cycling the West Toronto Rail Path you have seen it several times. This pedestrian bridge encourages walking. A couple of years ago, I went to friend’s BBQ who lives in Symington Ave. I took the bus to get there since I knew there would be plenty of Sangria my favourite drink. After the party, it was easy for me to walk safely to my condo near High Park by simply crossing over the Wallace Avenue Footbridge. We sometimes take public infrastructure for granted, but that night I did not since it allowed me to completely forget about driving. For more information on the Wallace Avenue Foot Bridge please read: https://historicbridges.org/bridges/browser/?bridgebrowser=ontario/wallaceavenue/
The other amazing pedestrian bridge in Parkdale – High Park is the iconic Humber Bay Arch Bridge which is a pedestrian-bicycle bridge and part of the Martin Goodman Trail. It is not just a feat of engineering it is also a work of art with design elements inspired by the indigenous history of the Humber River. During the pandemic one of my few escapes has been to rent a bicycle from Bike Share, cycle to the lake and cross this spectacular bridge. Often the indigenous inspiration in this bridge reminds me of what is happening today with the discovery of unmarked gravesites in residential “schools”. Now more than ever we need to acknowledge, respect, and learn about the indigenous history of this land. So, the Humber Bay Arch Bridge at the mouth of the Humber can be a small reminder that this land was taken away forcibly, there was a genocide which we cannot ignore, and reconciliation and justice are a must. So, this Canada day perhaps instead of a celebration it is a time for reflection. For more information on the Humber Bay Arch Bridge please read:
Public infrastructure can inspire, bring people together, promote safety, remind us of our past, serve our public and private needs, and even be artistic creations just like the pedestrian bridges of Parkdale – High Park.
Update: an excellent comment was sent to me recently about this post, which is that public infrastructure must be accessible. This is an area where the Wallace Avenue Footbridge falls short. So, perhaps it is time to refurbish this bridge by adding elevators to it or build a new accessible bridge or tunnel in the West Toronto Rail Path.