The recipient of the prestigious Toronto Urban Design Award of Excellence in 2011 (PDF), the West Toronto Railpath is one of the city’s best hidden gems. Located off the typical Toronto tourist track, I biked over to the railpath as quickly as I could to get a glimpse before the sun went down.
On the–uphill!–way there, I passed by a few abandoned, graffti-covered buildings and other rusted industrial remains. And as the shadows grew longer, I wondered if I was better off visiting the railpath the next morning instead. Thankfully, the only thing to fear was missing the entrance–the Dundas St. entrance to the railpath is an easy-to-miss, sharp downhill left turn; even near sundown, the trail was still busy with joggers, skaters and cyclists.
Designed by Scott Torrance Landscape Architect, the West Toronto Railpath (WTR) is the successful transformation of an abandoned railway into a vibrant, multi-use linear public park that connects Cariboo Avenue to Dundas St. Inspired by the “wonderful wild quality” of the existing area, Torrance sought to preserve this “rare experience in Toronto” by creating accessibility into the wild landscape.
Constructed in 1800, these once-bustling railways fell into disrepair and disuse after the 1960s. Plants took over the abandoned tracks, seeding an incredible array of wildlife that flourished between the tracks. When the site was finally selected for development, the designers and community collaborated to preserve the area’s spirit of “urban wilderness” by creating a gorgeous sanctuary that balances recreational activity with the surrounding ecosystem.
Snaking through various neighborhoods with a multi-use path, this rails-to-trails project references the site’s history with a series of site-specific wayfinding signs created by local Toronto artist John Dickson. Three years later, these once-pristine signs are now tagged with overlapping layers of graffiti.
Only the first phase has been completed so far; the community-based group Friends of West Toronto Railpath is currently working on expanding the railpath length from 1.3 km to 6.5 km, with an estimated completion date of 2016. Once completed, WTR will connect the Toronto neighborhoods to the downtown core, providing a safe and sustainable transportation corridor for over 250,000 Toronto residents.
The West Toronto Railpath has a special place in my heart. Its rough, urban look reminds me of Baltimore and its overgrown grasses give it a sense of character that is missed in other carefully manicured parks like the High Line. But since I visited towards the end of summer–and on a drought-plagued year–I likely missed out on a lot of color and blooms, which would have made for an even more spectacular visit.
One word of advice? If you travel here by bike, hop off and explore the path by foot. At 1.3 km, this trail is too short to be enjoyed on two wheels.