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How to Name a Public Space that Belongs to the People

May 3, 2016

Project: Under Gardiner’s #ReclaimTheName campaign billboard in the Spacing Store, as seen from Richmond Street. (Photo credit: Marc Losier)

Project: Under Gardiner’s #ReclaimTheName campaign billboard in the Spacing Store, as seen from Richmond Street. (Photo credit: Marc Losier)

By Christina Bagatavicius and Sabrina Richard, Bespoke Collective

For generations, the Gardiner Expressway has been a physical and mental barrier between Toronto and its waterfront. What does it mean to reclaim the space under such a highly contested piece of infrastructure and give it a fresh start? Since last fall, Bespoke Collective has been working on the communications and naming campaign for Project: Under Gardiner, (which is its placeholder name). Given that this new public space will soon belong to the people of Toronto, we believed that the name needed to come through a citywide collaboration. The naming campaign became an invitation to tell a new story about the Gardiner—one filled with hope and possibility. 

Those of us who know this city are aware of the solid track record that our public has for coming up with memorable names for national icons—from Labatt’s 1976 campaign Name the Team (Go Jays!) through to one of the city’s most beloved names, the SkyDome. History shows that Torontonians have a certain knack for the art of naming. We were confident in Toronto’s creative spirit and ability come up with a name that will last.

Of course, our task came with some complexities that you don’t have naming a sports team or a stadium. For instance, how do you begin to engage the public in naming a new space that does not yet exist and cannot be personally experienced? These were some of the questions we explored. The underside of the Gardiner Expressway is at best a forgotten space and at worst conjures up negative connotations around elevated expressways, traffic and noise. While the vision for Project: Under Gardiner is inspiring, it was not yet supported by a developed design. Along the way to planning this naming campaign there was also the cautionary tale of Boaty McBoatface and how a naming process with the best intentions can go horribly wrong.

Learn more about the evolving design for Project: Under Gardiner in this video and provide your feedback online.

To be successful this needed to be a different kind of naming campaign—one that was welcoming, informed, fun and grounded in community collaboration on a citywide scale. We were not looking to amass the greatest quantity of suggestions, instead we wanted to support engaged, relevant and thoughtful suggestions. We believed that to get at strong names, the public needed an inside look into the project. We created a naming toolkit that included local and international trends in the naming of public spaces, idea generation tactics and we also shared baseline guidelines into the art of naming (in a past life one of us spent time in branding). We also felt that unpacking the possibilities of this project was crucial and so we shared preliminary plans, the site’s deep history, its architectural character, and vision. This was all pulled together in an easy to follow do-it-yourself toolkit that the public could use to host their own naming parties.

While the toolkit was a great online resource, when you invite Toronto to join you in a citywide brainstorm, you have to put your money where your mouth is. We facilitated a series of naming brainstorms that reached everyone from preschoolers to seniors. The next thing we knew we were crawling under lunch tables with throngs of elementary school children asking them to imagine what underneath public spaces feel like. We connected with a wonderfully passionate group of historians—led by Steve Otto—who shared a wealth of information about the site’s history. There was a lively naming brainstorm session at Fort York Library, and we debated the connotations of ‘under’ and ‘below’ with the folks at CSI Regent Park. One of our favourite brainstorm parties was with a lovely group of seniors who regularly meet together and know how to throw a tea party. Even the Mayor, John Tory, got involved and hung out with local teens as we riffed on the symbolic power of the 6ix and learned about “the L” (shorthand for Lakeshore Boulevard). By the end of the month we had 884 name suggestions.  There was a genuine appetite to get involved and willingness to rewrite the story about the Gardiner. 

Mayor Tory joins the after-school youth group at Waterfront Neighbourhood Centre for a brainstorming session.

Mayor John Tory joined the after-school youth group at Waterfront Neighbourhood Centre for a brainstorming session.

Of the longlist of names, what was most surprising was that 815 of them were unique. Luckily we had planned ahead and enlisted the help of 12 amazing Torontonians who are engaged in public space, reflect the diversity of our city, know its history, and have made important contributions in the arts and culture.  Most importantly each one of them were known for getting amazing things done – which was key because we locked them in a room for 3 hours to whittle down the list.

The jury found four stand outs that we love, and here is why:

The Canopy

An anonymous, and poetic soul, explained their suggestion with the following rationale:

“Dreamers long for a full moon and a Canopy of stars.  This new project will include green space, shelter from the elements, an important place where people and arts coexist, yet with the stars and moon visible from either side. "Meet me under the Canopy!"


The Bentway

Architecture lovers wanted to pay tribute to the unique column and beam structure that would create this new park space, known as ‘bents’, and dubbed the project, “The Bentway”.


Gathering Place

A number of the names submitted drew on the rich history of the site, which led the jury to shortlist the “Gathering Place” a name that references the important indigenous history that took place on this very site. We learned the original meaning of Toronton in Huron is a meeting or gathering space for the first peoples.


The Artery

A group of wonderfully engaged urbanites threw a DIY naming brainstorm party and came up with the name “The Artery”.  We loved the many meaning embedded in this name – the ARTery, the pulse, the connection, and the liveliness implied.


Whatever name Torontonians choose, this space wants to belong to the people who live here. These names reveal a desire to be forward-looking and to move past the contested history of Frederick Gardiner and his expressway. The shortlist contains a richness of stories that the public wants to share about this site and our city.

At the same time, we also know that the name that gets chosen is just a starting point. There will be room to evolve, grow and be shaped by new memories and future histories. So please continue to be involved in this citywide collaboration and vote for the name you love the most!


Christina Bagatavicius and Sabrina Richard are co-founders of Bespoke Collective, a creative firm who are passionate about activating contemporary culture in new ways. They are constantly exploring how to engage communities through culture and  they have been tasked with facilitating this citywide naming process for Project: Under Gardiner.

Find them on Twitter at: @bespoke_is
Visit their website at: www.bespokecollective.ca