Judy Matthews and her husband have given $25 million to turn a stretch of derelict land under the Gardiner into a vibrant park
She’s been called both “bulldog” and “urban angel.” When Judy Matthews (BA 1978 TRIN) gets tough about transforming Toronto, the results appear heaven-sent. An urban planner, activist and fundraiser, Matthews – along with husband Wilmot (BA 1958 TRIN) – has been a driving force behind such philanthropic projects as the Evergreen Brick Works, ArtScape and the beautification of St. George Street. Recently, the couple donated $25 million to transform a 1.75-kilometre stretch underneath the Gardiner Expressway into a linear park. Matthews recently spoke with Cynthia Macdonald.
A park running below an expressway – sounds like a novel concept!
Because of the growing population in cities, there’s no land available for parks. More and more, cities are finding neglected, vacant spaces and reimagining them. Has it been done before? Yes, in Miami, San Francisco and Washington, as well as Toronto. New York’s just identified 700 miles of “under-elevated” space that can be developed. It’s a whole new spatial ecosystem, and we’re just figuring out how to use it.
Urban spaces can either draw people together or divide them. What elements make the former happen?
You need spaces with sun and places with shade, as well as wind protection. Also, places to sit are very important. Food is always a wonderful thing, and a real connector. These spaces don’t have to be green. Many great gathering places are more hard-edged and urban, but can still be welcoming. So this project, which is still to be named by the public, will have all those elements and, in addition, will have some fabulous programming. We want to hear from surrounding communities about how they would like to use this space and what they would like to find there. There are over 70,000 residents in the area, and this will be their living room.
You’re involved in so many aspects of urban renewal – donating, fundraising, design and consultation. What have you learned along the way?
I’ve learned it’s crucial to have an ongoing advisory group to these types of projects, to ensure that the same high standards are maintained after the initial work is done. And it’s important to have a clear completion date in mind. This seems to sharpen people’s focus and sense of purpose. With St. George Street, we said it would take a year, and it did. The Gardiner project is on a much bigger scale, but by July 1st 2017 – Canada’s 150th birthday – we want it to be substantially complete.
Watch: An overview of the Under Gardiner project