On Toronto’s Bentway, Staging Grounds, by Agency—Agency and SHEEEP, repurposes infrastructure as an educational garden

Make It Drain

On Toronto’s Bentway, Staging Grounds, by Agency—Agency and SHEEEP, repurposes infrastructure as an educational garden

Staging Grounds, by Agency—Agency and SHEEEP installs a new drainage system and native vegetation underneath the Gardiner Expressway. (Samuel Engelking)

The Bentway, a stretch of land underneath Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway, has served as a place of renewed activation since it was recently revamped. Regularly staged exhibitions and opportunities for placemaking and recreation are a mainstay at the formerly underutilized site that strives to reconnect Toronto to the shores of Lake Ontario. Its latest activation couples walkways and benches with a newly engineered drainage system designed to feed native vegetation planted on the site.

Staging Grounds, led by Tei Carpenter of New York–based Agency—Agency and Reza Nik of Toronto firm SHEEEP, inserted meandering pathways above a bed of river rocks at the intersection of Dan Leckie Way and Lake Shore Boulevard. Blue drainage pipes and filtration chambers fixed to the “bents”—the steel-reinforced concrete column-and-beam structures supporting the roadway from which the linear park gets its moniker—water the collection of plants sprouting from the circular garden beds situated at various points along the walkway.

Walkways take visitors through the installation (Samuel Engelking)

“It’s a privilege working with The Bentway on Staging Grounds to think creatively about the city’s infrastructure and to center the design of water in the public’s daily experience,” Carpenter shared in a statement.

Milkweed, wild geranium, and yarrow, and other native plants were chosen by Isaac Crosby, a local Afro-Indigenous (Ojibwe) horticultural expert. The plants absorb pollutants such as salt and metals to reduce the need for additional watering, while others recall the site’s history as a wetlands ecosystem.

All of the plants are native to the area and inserted in circular gardens (Samuel Engelking)

“At Bentway Staging Grounds, we’re both unlocking a new temporary public space under the Expressway, and discovering new strategies for water filtration and planting that could one day be applied across its length,” added Ilana Altman, co-director of The Bentway.

Working with Buro Happold, the design team refashioned the downspout drains of the roadway to divert the rainwater runoff into filtration chambers to water the plants. Bright, yellow-colored signage placed in front of the garden beds and at various points along the blue walkway informs passersby of the project, how it works, and the site’s history. The branding for the displays was by Neil Donnelly Studio.

The previously underutilized 20,000-square-foot swath of land also houses 20-foot-tall “art towers” designed by Toronto artist Logan MacDonald. While Fountain Monumental is visual in form, the towers also double as a means of sound absorption, drowning out nearby traffic noises. MacDonald’s work also references the history of the site by proposing AI-designed depictions of what Lake Ontario could have looked like had it been preserved differently.

Through the installation visitors learn about the site’s history and how the drainage system works with the local plants (Samuel Engelking)

Staging Grounds follows other activations happening at The Bentway. Most recently a reimagining of the roadway’s construction equipment that outfitted dressed googly eyes and colorful wrappings.

Renovations are currently underway to repair the Gardiner Expressway. Staging Grounds will be on view through late 2025 when construction is planned to take place on that section of the roadway. Following its dismantlement, all of the installation’s components will be given a second life.