The Charles H. Hiscott Bridge, commonly known as the Overlea Bridge, is used by many students on their way to and from MGCI and Valley Park Middle School. On 15 November 2020, the CBC published an article outlining concerns about the lack of pedestrian space on the bridge titled “Thorncliffe Park parents want Overlea Bridge ‘reimagined’ so kids can physically distance” . This article caught the attention of Vice Principal Ms. Sawh, who shared it with Mr. Langford., who was teaching a Grade 12 technological design course at the time. Mr. Langford introduced the article to his class and they decided to create potential designs to improve the bridge. Thus, the Overlea Bridge Project was born.
“What I didn’t expect,” said Mr. Langford, “was that the students themselves were so familiar with the bridge and all of its many shortcomings. They delivered to me a whole laundry list of all the things that needed to be changed about the bridge,. And then they went about designing their new bridge with all the new features included. And it was wonderful. It was really wonderful. It’s probably the most engaged class that I’ve ever had a class in my career.”
The biggest issues on this “laundry list” are the lack of pedestrian space and the low railings on the bridge and . The overcrowding on thea bridge was a concern even before the pandemic. “Parents, for many years now, have been complaining to the city about the inadequacy of the bridge for handling pedestrian traffic that it has to handle at school dismissal times,” said Mr. Langford. If someone is using a stroller or a wheelchair, it is difficult for others to walk past them. The walkways are only one and a half metres wide, making it impossible to maintain physical distancing during busy times of day. Both Thorncliffe Park and Flemingdon Park have been identified as COVID-19 hotspots, and each have over eight hundred active cases per 100 000 people at the time of writing .
Many students feel unsafe or uneasy when crossing the bridge because of the low railings. Zanib Zakia, one of the students working on the project, described her first experience crossing the bridge as “freaky”. “I remember in middle school I was just rushing to get off the bridge,” she said. Mr. Langford noted that parents have previously lobbied for higher railings to prevent both accidental falls from the bridge, as well as suicides. The stu-dent designs incorporate suicide barriers, which have been shown to reduce suicides by 93% .
Mr. Langford mentioned that there many Thorncliffe Park parents pay for private school buses to take their children to school, “[Those school buses] are not paid for by the TDSB, the parents of those children are paying out of pocket for those school buses, strictly because they see the bridge as not being safe to send their children across. When I heard that, I was absolutely gobsmacked. That speaks volumes about how unsafe they feel the bridge is.”
Other issues are poor lighting and poor drainage on the bridge. On rainy or snowy days, pedestrians are often splashed by cars despite a concrete barrier between the road and the sidewalk. The class was tasked with redesigning the deck of the bridge to ad-dress these issues, which included widening the deck to create more space for pedestrians and cyclists. Because the road isn’t wide enough for a bike lane, cyclists often have to walk across the bridge to avoid riding in the same lane as cars. After sketching out their designs, the students created three-dimensional models using Google Sketchup.
The next steps were to try and convince City Council to make changes to the bridge. Speaking about the political aspects of the project, Mr. Langford said, “When I assigned it in November, I told them it was for real. I told them this is not just playing school, make-believe thing. This is an actual design for an actual bridge, and you are actually going to present it to the City Councillors. At the end of January, I switched the naming of it from be-ing a project to being a campaign. Because it’s no longer a class project, it’s now a campaign to try and nudge the city into some kind of action, preferably in the short term.”
In early February, Mr. Langford and his students had a meeting with several of the politicians that represent the areas near MGCI to present their designs and talk about the issues regarding the bridge. Present were City Councillors Jaye Robin-son and Denzil Minnan-Wong, who represent Don Valley West and Don Valley East respectively, as well as Member of Provincial Parliament Kathleen Wynne and Member of Parliament Rob Oliphant. At the time, they were impressed with the presentation, but did not promise any action. Rob Oliphant met with the students a second time to give them more information on how to go about speaking with Toronto City Council in the future.
Although the tech design course ended in February, Zanib and her classmate Tehreem Arif have continued working on the campaign. When asked why she wanted to be involved, Zanib said, “I feel a deep connection to the bridge. I’ve been using it all my life so that’s why I felt like there was a need to address the issues on the bridge. I feel like not a lot of people have addressed it so far and being a member of this community it would be a great way for me to give back to my community.”
On 23 March 2021, a group of staff, students, and parents attended a meeting of Toronto’s Infrastructure and Environment Committee (IEC). This group included Zanib, as well as Grade 11 student Hafeez Alavi, who had been creating and distributing pamphlets with suggested changes to the bridge even before the current project came into being. It also included Ms. Cordova, who works for the TDSB and has been an integral member of the campaign. The Overlea Bridge was not specifically on the meeting agenda, but the group made a deputation regarding ActiveTO, a project started to create more bike lanes and cycling paths throughout the city in response to the pandemic. Overlea Blvd was one of ten corridors identified as a potential location for added bike lanes. The other nine other locations have had bike lanes constructed, but the Overlea Blvd location is still under consideration. The members representing the Overlea Bridge Campaign asked the IEC to move the project from consideration to public consultation.
Although no action was taken at the time, the general manager of Toronto Transportation Services (TTS), Barbara Gray, attended the meeting and was interested in the project and said that they were willing to work with the Overlea Bridge Campaign committee. Mr. Langford and Ms. Cordova met with the TTS on 13 April 2021 and discussed possible changes to the bridge.
There are currently plans in place to rebuild the bridge in 2026. However, the committee hopes that temporary changes can be implemented in the meantime, such as creating higher barriers.
“They’re holding public consultations for the design of the rebuild starting in June, so we want to have a strong presence there. It’s good that we’ve raised awareness in the community so that people will sort of have [it] on their radar” said Mr. Langford.
Many staff members have also gotten involved with the campaign including Ms. Woodley, Ms. Ammar, Ms. Carey, and Mr. Seenath. Ms. Roberge created a survey which asks about people’s experiences and usage of the bridge. They received over three hundred responses and were able to present the results at their February meeting with the neighbourhood’s politicians. The survey can be found and completed here: https://survey123.arcgis.com/share/efdb0dac4ce74e13aab09dfd5223985f.
Ms. Yoganathan organized a story-writing contest called “Overlea Bridge—Our Stories” which was open to students from grades 1-12. Students were asked to write about how the bridge is a part of their life, how improved safety would impact the community, or an unforgettable moment on the bridge. With the help of Ms. Sarojkumaran, Zanib and Tehreem are raising awareness for the campaign through an Instagram account. They also plan to feature the stories from the writing contest through this platform.
In addition the committee also held a logo contest and is currently working on creating t-shirts and buttons for its members. As well, the logo will be featured on a banner which will be displayed outside of MGCI, to raise more awareness about the bridge. Mr. Langford hopes to hold an event to celebrate the winners of the story-writing contest and unveil the banner. However, due to the ongoing lockdown, it is undecided whether this can take place in person. The committee is continuing to work with the TTS about what can be done to improve the bridge. They are also looking for more opportunities to speak with Toronto City Council or the IEC to push for improvements to the bridge in the near future.
If you would like to contribute to the campaign, Mr. Langford is looking for students to help design a website, he and can be contacted by email at [email protected] on.ca. He also encourages students to call their city councillor if they want to see changes to the Overlea Bridge. If you want to stay engaged with the campaign, you can follow them on Instagram (@ overleabridge) or on Twitter (@ BridgeOverlea).