GSR Spotlight: Conestoga Parkway

Post by Scott, Grace Schmidt Room of Local History staff

If you have visited our Central Library recently, you may have noticed a display on Level 2 about the planning and construction of the Conestoga Parkway, which was completed in 1969. When the cities of Waterloo and Kitchener joined together with the Department of Highways in 1965 to start work on the K-W Expressway, it was believed that a four lane controlled access highway would resolve internal traffic issues that were growing in both cities. Eventually, a committee agreed that the expressway should be named the Conestoga Parkway, to reflect the region’s pioneer roots.

While the project was originally estimated to cost $24 million, by 1969 the final cost was estimated to be in excess of $40 million. Included in this cost was the purchase of property upon which the expressway was to be built, which included houses, apartment buildings, vacant lots, businesses and industrial land. The Central Library display shares some history and photos of what was lost, as well as some perspectives from the era.

The purpose of this display is to highlight the impact the Conestoga Parkway has had on the city. To make way for it, approximately 400 properties were purchased along the route. While some buildings were moved to new locations, even as far away as New Hamburg, many were demolished, which resulted in the loss of many homes. The impact on some neighbourhoods was significant. For example, very little remains of Edna Street. Photographs of a number of homes lost there are featured in the Central Library display.

Inspiration for the display came from examples of urban expressways around the world which have been recently reimagined as green spaces, active transportation corridors and even housing. You can learn about a number of examples here. In Shanghai, even a former airport was converted into a new public park.    

It is refreshing to see this creation of welcoming public spaces in such seemingly unlikely locations. Historically, urban expressways have imposed many costs on communities. In addition to their significant impact on the climate, they are a major source of local pollution. People who live within 500 metres from highways face higher exposure to air pollutants, which is “associated with a wide range of adverse health outcomes, including increased risk of respiratory diseases such as asthma, birth and developmental concerns, cancer, and cardiovascular and respiratory mortality.”

They have also created physical barriers, dividing neighbourhoods and communities. In a number of American cities, the construction of urban expressways has even demolished historically Black neighbourhoods or segregated them from the rest of the city.

Locally, the construction of the Conestoga Parkway created a significant barrier for many, as there are few opportunities to cross. Most of the relatively few crossings that exist are busy routes and remain both unsafe and unpleasant for pedestrians and cyclists. However, there are plans for more dedicated active transportation crossings, such as a proposed connection between Chandler Drive and Avalon Place.

Another opportunity involves the reimagining of adjacent spaces. In 2018, the City of Toronto opened the Bentway, a new public space underneath the Gardiner Expressway, where events and activities are offered year-round. There are some interesting neglected spaces around the Conestoga Parkway, which have the potential to become equally excellent public spaces.

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