Inside PATH, the 30km network of walkways, tunnels and malls beneath Toronto

Oooh, shiny: a map of the PATH network. Image: Samuel Horti.

Since moving to Toronto nine months ago, I’ve found serendipity hard to come by. I’m only here for two years, so if I’m going out to eat, or grab a coffee, or meet a friend, I’ll look up endless lists of the ten best restaurants or pubs in the area, trying to make sure no trip is wasted. I plan my journey door-to-door using local transport app My TTC, leave my flat so that I’ll arrive at the bus stop just as it pulls up, and, when I hop off again, I walk the route I’ve memorised, head down.

But Toronto’s PATH system – a network of tunnels and walkways beneath the city’s Downtown – remains an enigma. It stretches for 30km in total, and each section is like a mini shopping centre, with restaurants and shops piling in from all sides. I never fail to get lost when I dip in, losing all sense of direction in its many food courts and courtyards, most of which look the same.

An extract from the official PATH map. Click to expand.

The hundreds of thousands of dollars the city spent this year on a new “wayfinding system” – basically signs and maps – haven’t helped me much, but that’s probably because I’m happy to ignore any guidance and just wander. The independent hole-in-the-wall coffee shop or the one-man tailor’s you can find in some of its passages would be unremarkable above ground, but there’s something pleasing about coming across them in this confined space, not knowing they’re there until you turn the corner.

I know that can’t last. Learning how to navigate it will be useful in summer, when its air-conditioning calls people down from the streets above, and after a wrong turn made me late to meet a friend last month, I decided it was time to get my bearings. I set aside a day to plod its tunnels and get a feel for what sort of place it really is.

Two minutes in, I’m lost. I start at Union Station, to the south of Downtown, with the aim of swinging past the Hockey Hall of Fame to the east on the way to Commerce Court. On the map it’s a straight-line path that shoots directly from the station, but I can’t find it after 10 minutes of searching. (It later turns out that it’s unhelpfully through a door marked ‘Exit’.)

Instead I walk up the PATH’s centre, towards the Toronto-Dominion Centre. To the left is a passage to the Fairmont Royal York hotel, one of the fanciest in the city. The Royal Family stay there when they visit. It’s one of the oldest parts of the PATH system, built in 1927 after the hotel sprung up, and at that time there were just a handful of tunnels under the city, the first built in 1900. The downtown grid wasn’t filled out until the 1970s and 1980s, and it’s still expanding today: in 2011 local government revealed plans that would see the PATH’s footprint double in size long-term.

Not two minutes from the hotel, a long escalator runs down to a food court, adjoining a doctor’s and dentist’s surgery. The network, I find as I walk around, is full of offshoots that don’t tell you where they’re leading, presumably untouched by the new “wayfinding system”. The only way to find out is to explore, and I’m rewarded by, on separate occasions, an art studio, a chaplaincy, and a shoe-shine stand.

The presence of a doctor’s surgery, one of many in the PATH, might seem surprising, but it makes sense when you consider the hundreds of thousands of people that pass through here every day. Most of the city’s largest office buildings link into the PATH, as do the subway stops in the downtown core. That means that, in the cold winters (and it was a real whiteout this year), a lot of people don’t even venture outside. They drive to a station, get on the subway or train, and don’t get off public transport until they’re in the PATH. They walk undercover to their building lobbies, go straight up to their office, and only appear again for lunch, which they buy in one of the many food courts below.

Because those people never leave, they attract foot clinics and gyms, opticians and pharmacies, dry cleaners and newsagents. Nobody can say that the PATH has a neighbourhood feel, but the presence of businesses you might expect on high streets makes it at least more interesting than most shopping centres I’ve been to. And it has a few more major points of interest along the way, too: I walk to the western extreme and take a long escalator up to the CBC broadcast studios, where Will and Kate are smiling on a big screen with their new baby, and a few people watch from the comfy chairs in the lofty atrium.

 

And then there’s the food, which you can’t get away from. Smoothie shops, upmarket wine bars, dine-in pubs, donut stalls, Scandinavian bakeries, bubble tea counters – they’re all here. Most of the places are forgettable chains like Jimmy the Greek or Tim Hortons, but there are enough quality shops to make coming down here for lunch a worthwhile trip on its own.

A lot of it is down to the active management of landlord Oxford Properties: in 2015, for example, it tempted one of the top patisseries in the city, Nadège, to open a branch here, despite PATH not having previously been on the retailer’s radar. Gourmet grocer McEwan, which is packed when I visit, opened in the same year as the second branch of the store from celebrity chef Mark McEwan. The PATH also links into Assembly Chef’s Hall, a new venture that houses smaller versions of some of the city’s most celebrated restaurants like Khao San Road (Thai, and delicious) and Cherry Street Barbeque. In other words, you can get much better food here than you can in a regular shopping centre.

For the most part, the PATH is a sterile place of polished white marble and bright lights, but it’s just about makeshift enough to avoid being completely dull. There are sections where you have to ride an escalator down to a walkway with wooden boards on either side, only to ride another up again thirty seconds later. Later on, I have to cross the bottom floor of a multi-storey car park to stay in the network, and at another junction I’m forced to pop my head above ground to circumvent a closed section.

I work my way from the west to the north, under the Eaton Centre, the largest mall in Toronto. It feels like an extension of what’s above, with luggage shops adjoining tourist traps selling bottles of maple syrup. My legs ache, and the prospect of getting stuck behind a group of slow shoppers makes me turn back south, and head for home. I get lost again when I try to find the Bay Adelaide Centre – but this time the “wayfinding system” saves me with an interactive map that tells me where I need to go, and even directs me to a coffee shop I’ve been meaning to try.


At the end of my walk, I’m staring at another map, trying to figure out how to get back to Union Station. “Do you want some help there, sir?” a security guard asks. Very helpful, but I really don’t. I’m sure the PATH will lose some of its charm as I spend more time here, and for the thousands of people that pad under the streets of Toronto every day it probably seems as familiar as their front room.

I know I should take the time to learn the best routes before summer sets in, but for now it remains an indecipherable rabbit warren. And that’s just the way I like it.

All images author provided by the author.

 
 
 
 

Green roofs improve cities – so why don’t all buildings have them?

The green roof at the Kennedy Centre, Washington DC. Image: Getty.

Rooftops covered with grass, vegetable gardens and lush foliage are now a common sight in many cities around the world. More and more private companies and city authorities are investing in green roofs, drawn to their wide-ranging benefits which include savings on energy costs, mitigating the risk from floods, creating habitats for urban wildlife, tackling air pollution and urban heat and even producing food.

A recent report in the UK suggested that the green roof market there is expanding at a rate of 17 per cent each year. The world’s largest rooftop farm will open in Paris in 2020, superseding similar schemes in New York City and Chicago. Stuttgart, in Germany, is thought of as “the green roof capital of Europe”, while Singapore is even installing green roofs on buses.

These increasingly radical urban designs can help cities adapt to the monumental challenges they face, such as access to resources and a lack of green space due to development. But buy-in from city authorities, businesses and other institutions is crucial to ensuring their success – as is research investigating different options to suit the variety of rooftop spaces found in cities.

A growing trend

The UK is relatively new to developing green roofs, and governments and institutions are playing a major role in spreading the practice. London is home to much of the UK’s green roof market, mainly due to forward-thinking policies such as the 2008 London Plan, which paved the way to more than double the area of green roofs in the capital.

Although London has led the way, there are now “living labs” at the Universities of Sheffield and Salford which are helping to establish the precedent elsewhere. The IGNITION project – led by the Greater Manchester Combined Authority – involves the development of a living lab at the University of Salford, with the aim of uncovering ways to convince developers and investors to adopt green roofs.

Ongoing research is showcasing how green roofs can integrate with living walls and sustainable drainage systems on the ground, such as street trees, to better manage water and make the built environment more sustainable.

Research is also demonstrating the social value of green roofs. Doctors are increasingly prescribing time spent gardening outdoors for patients dealiong with anxiety and depression. And research has found that access to even the most basic green spaces can provide a better quality of life for dementia sufferers and help prevent obesity.

An edible roof at Fenway Park, stadium of the Boston Red Sox. Image: Michael Hardman/author provided.

In North America, green roofs have become mainstream, with a wide array of expansive, accessible and food-producing roofs installed in buildings. Again, city leaders and authorities have helped push the movement forward – only recently, San Francisco created a policy requiring new buildings to have green roofs. Toronto has policies dating from the 1990s, encouraging the development of urban farms on rooftops.

These countries also benefit from having newer buildings, which make it easier to install green roofs. Being able to store and distribute water right across the rooftop is crucial to maintaining the plants on any green roof – especially on “edible roofs” which farm fruit and vegetables. And it’s much easier to create this capacity in newer buildings, which can typically hold greater weight, than retro-fit old ones. Having a stronger roof also makes it easier to grow a greater variety of plants, since the soil can be deeper.


The new normal?

For green roofs to become the norm for new developments, there needs to be buy-in from public authorities and private actors. Those responsible for maintaining buildings may have to acquire new skills, such as landscaping, and in some cases volunteers may be needed to help out. Other considerations include installing drainage paths, meeting health and safety requirements and perhaps allowing access for the public, as well as planning restrictions and disruption from regular ativities in and around the buildings during installation.

To convince investors and developers that installing green roofs is worthwhile, economic arguments are still the most important. The term “natural capital” has been developed to explain the economic value of nature; for example, measuring the money saved by installing natural solutions to protect against flood damage, adapt to climate change or help people lead healthier and happier lives.

As the expertise about green roofs grows, official standards have been developed to ensure that they are designed, built and maintained properly, and function well. Improvements in the science and technology underpinning green roof development have also led to new variations on the concept.

For example, “blue roofs” increase the capacity of buildings to hold water over longer periods of time, rather than drain away quickly – crucial in times of heavier rainfall. There are also combinations of green roofs with solar panels, and “brown roofs” which are wilder in nature and maximise biodiversity.

If the trend continues, it could create new jobs and a more vibrant and sustainable local food economy – alongside many other benefits. There are still barriers to overcome, but the evidence so far indicates that green roofs have the potential to transform cities and help them function sustainably long into the future. The success stories need to be studied and replicated elsewhere, to make green, blue, brown and food-producing roofs the norm in cities around the world.

Michael Hardman, Senior Lecturer in Urban Geography, University of Salford and Nick Davies, Research Fellow, University of Salford.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.