BY GARY MAY
Freeways have an annoying habit of slicing many Ontario municipalities down the middle and wrecking man’s heartfelt dreams of having them function as cohesive units. The City of Pickering is wagering that a dramatic new pedestrian structure over Highway 401 will bridge the gap. The walkway will not only link north and south, it’s designed to breathe new life into the city core and bolster Pickering’s credentials as a sustainable community.
By day, the fully enclosed walkway — which will accommodate pedestrians and cyclists — will be an eye-catching 250-metre-long structure visible to the thousands of drivers who will pass under it on their way into and out of Toronto daily. Once night falls, the structure will be turned into a luminous beacon, lit by energy-efficient LED lights, its metallic, mesh-like “skin” seeming to be nearly fluid.
For motorists whose current image of Pickering could well be the unflattering commercial strip along Brock Road that links highways 401 and 407, the bridge should be a welcome and attractive addition to the landscape just outside Canada’s largest city.
With construction well under way, the bridge is expected to open in September. Coming during Pickering’s bicentennial year, the bridge will also figuratively link the municipality’s past with its future.
The as-yet unnamed structure also stands as a symbol to Pickering’s “gateway” status — gateway to Toronto to the west and Durham Region to the east. Psychologically, it marks a significant milestone in the city’s bid to further improve its status as a sustainable community.
Pickering a model for sustainability
Pickering was the first municipality in Ontario to establish an Office of Sustainability, created to make the city more sustainable environmentally, socially and economically, in partnership with residents, community groups and businesses.
The city of 95,000 was recognized two years ago by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities for its sustainability campaign, which has become a model for others. But what precisely is a sustainable community and what makes Pickering a leader?
Sustainability is about bringing the environment together with other key issues that affect our daily lives. It goes beyond ecological issues to include people and their institutions and communities. In concrete terms, it means, for example, considering municipal purchases not just as a cost in dollars, but in how they affect the environment and what they contribute to society and the quality of life.
Carried forward from that point, it entails making better decisions, decisions that could result in using less water, disposing of less waste, buying more locally produced food, using more renewable energy, reducing crime, increasing local employment, planting more trees, improving health care and ensuring the populace is happier.
Seems a tall order for a simple bridge, doesn’t it? But consider this: A traditional bridge is designed to move traffic, and if there’s any allowance for cyclists and pedestrians, it’s likely to be nothing more than a narrow strip along one side. It’s hardly an invitation to step out of the family car and take a morning constitutional.
Walking, cycling encouraged
There’s nothing ordinary about this bridge. It was designed with people — not cars — in mind. Significantly, it will connect Pickering’s waterfront with its growing downtown core. Its existence will encourage residents to walk or bicycle more.
Next to the bridge will be a GO station and ample parking, the Town Centre and a new LEED-Silver certified office tower, which will use fewer natural resources to operate. This will act as an incentive for people to take rapid transit into Toronto, and perhaps to even live closer to the Pickering city core, where services can be delivered in a more cost-effective manner. That means fewer car trips need be taken. Beyond this hub, the municipality is nurturing a city with pedestrian- and bike-friendly streets, better public transit, mixed-use development, sustainable building and design and protecting cultural heritage and archeological resources.
In other words, Pickering is working hard to show the world it’s more than a suburban wasteland of retail and commercial strips and energy- and resource-wasting mega-homes.
Mayor Dave Ryan believes the bridge and adjacent office tower will kickstart the transformation of Pickering’s downtown. He said the bridge plan has been around since 1996, but with the more recent announcement of funds from the senior governments and Metrolinx, the agency established to improve and co-ordinate public transit in the Golden Horseshoe, the idea is becoming a reality.
Ryan believes the bridge and office tower will come to be known as the most visible examples of sustainability in Ontario, and will encourage more people to live in the area. He pointed to the 470-unit San Francisco By the Bay condo project planned for the waterfront, which will be just a seven-minute walk to the bridge. In addition, another condo development two blocks from the bridge will eventually add 300 more units, he said.
“As we look forward,” Ryan told MyNewWaterfrontHome.com, “we see more intensification in the downtown.” He said there are attempts to entice a hotel to the core area and there are plans for an arts centre and more downtown condos.
Ontario has designated Pickering’s downtown an Urban Growth Centre in its Places to Grow program, and is encouraging population and job growth intensification in the existing core area. It is hoped the new office tower and bridge will be major catalysts for additional redevelopment and downtown intensification.
“As a municipality, we’ve embraced sustainability,” said Ryan. “We consider sustainability in every one of our municipal plans.” For example, every municipal report must contain a sustainability commitment section.
200th birthday celebrations all year long
Pickering has already committed considerable resources to improving its waterfront for public use, including the creation of Millennium Square, the Esplanade and marina docking facilities. The bridge development is designed to make this waterfront development more accessible to a greater proportion of the city’s population.
As for this year’s bicentennial, the city is promoting it as “a celebration 200 years in the making.” One of the early events of the year was the re-creation of the first Pickering Township council meeting held in 1811. Rather than concentrate all efforts on a single big splash, said Ryan, the year will be peppered with multiple and ongoing events.
Those include guided outings in Rouge Park throughout the year, a May 28 Artfest on the Esplanade, heritage demonstrations that offer a glimpse into life and commerce from a bygone era, events at Pickering Village heritage park that include theatrical performances and children’s entertainment, and the Oct. 1-2 Doors Open event that will welcome residents and visitors to a variety of the city’s heritage and cultural sites. The July 1 extravaganza will include Music by the Bay in Millennium Square, and there will also be musical events throughout the summer at that waterfront location.
A lot has happened in the past 200 years. For example, at about the same time as that first council meeting, Maj.-Gen. Isaac Brock was preparing to defend Upper Canada from American invaders, and David Thompson was approaching the Pacific Ocean as a surveyor and explorer for the Hudson’s Bay Company. This year’s celebrations will help Pickering residents reflect on how things have changed for them and what the future holds.
As for that bridge: Has anyone considered a name? Not yet, says city communications spokesman Mark Guinto. The bridge is being constructed in a partnership between GO Transit and Metrolinx. Maybe they’d care to sponsor a naming contest.
MyNewWaterfrontHome.com — April 2011