A Moment for Council to Build the Waterfront Toronto Deserves

Originally posted to Torontoist.com, 29 May 2015

By removing the Gardiner and building a better vision for the waterfront, Toronto has the rare opportunity to learn from its historic mistakes, writes Jennifer Bonnell.

Photo by mooncall2012 from the Torontoist Flickr Pool
Photo by mooncall2012 from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

On June 10, Toronto City Council will decide the future of portion of the Gardiner Expressway east of Jarvis Street. Two options are before Council: to remove the expressway from Jarvis eastward and replace it with an at-grade boulevard; or to reconstruct the existing elevated expressway, and add an additional on-ramp. As observers of this process have noted, this is a “one hundred year decision”: its outcome will determine planning possibilities, and ultimately the relationship between the city and its eastern waterfront, for the next century.

This decision comes at a time when cities around the world are reconnecting with and revitalizing their formerly industrial waterfronts. Toronto has the opportunity to do the same.

When I teach my students about the history of urban environments, we talk about the ways that landscapes are not inevitable, but rather the products of an accumulation of decisions and historical circumstances. These decisions to act—or not to act, as is often the case—have lasting effects, and shape the city we live in today.

The history of political and planning decisions that have shaped the landscape of the Lower Don Lands is a case in point. In 1906, in an effort to prioritize early 20th century industry, City Council voted to straighten and divert the mouth of the Don River south into Keating Channel rather than maintain its more gentle, curving alignment into the harbour. Council’s decision created the dysfunctional configuration that we still live with—and pay for—today. Each year, civic agencies spend upwards of $500,000 dredging the sediments that accumulate in the river mouth’s awkward right angle turn. One hundred years later, we are still struggling with the constraints posed by the Keating Channel landscape. Waterfront Toronto’s current plans to reroute and naturalize the Don River mouth, for example, are in part an effort to rectify the effects of decisions made a century ago.

The 1906 decision reflected broader public perceptions of the Lower Don Lands as a space apart, a receiving ground for the city’s wastes and a fitting site for its most noxious industries. From the 1850s on, tanneries, slaughterhouses, and oil refineries took advantage of the river valley’s location at the eastern edge of the nineteenth-century city. Council decisions in the 1880s to straighten the lower river and fill its surrounding wetlands further solidified its function as a site for industry and a sink for wastes.

Photo by twurdemann from the Torontoist Flickr Pool
Photo by twurdemann from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Much the same can be said for the waterfront: like the Lower Don, Torontonians have long treated the city’s waterfront as a kind of collective “back yard”: a place to put things considered unsightly or dangerous. In the early 19th century, both the Lower Don and the eastern waterfront served as sites for gunpowder storage; later, they were used to store flammable materials like coal and lumber out of range of the homes or businesses of early Toronto residents.

For both the Don and the waterfront, these historical land uses laid the foundations for future developments. The completion of the Grand Trunk rail line across the waterfront in the 1850s (considered, at the time, the best use for a “waste space”) established the waterfront as an east-west transportation corridor, and set the stage for the construction of the Gardiner Expressway 100 years later. In the valley, high-speed roadways followed railways in much the same way. In both cases, the resulting transportation corridors cemented public expectations for the valley and the waterfront as low-value spaces in the city’s geography. And they prioritized certain types of uses—rail and automobile movement—over others, including more personal interaction with the waterfront.

Photo by ~evidence~ from the Torontoist Flickr Pool
Photo by ~evidence~ from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Opportunities have presented themselves to think differently about and re-shape these places. In 1991, for example, The Task Force to Bring Back the Don forwarded a vision to naturalize and redevelop the languishing industrial lands surrounding the mouth of the Don River. At the heart of the Task Force proposal was enhanced public access to the Lower Don Lands. Providing greater access to nature in the city, the Task Force believed, would create greater support for its protection and restoration–if residents had a closer connection to the Don and waterfront, the thinking went, they would appreciate its value and potential. But the maze of rail lines, road crossings and expressway overpasses around the river mouth greatly constrained options for redevelopment. Today, Waterfront Toronto has taken up aspects of the 1991 Task Force vision in its plans to redevelop the river mouth, but the obstacles the agency faces to complete these plans–the physical and mental barriers that prevent the City from realizing a vision that breaks with its past–are formidable.

Alternative visions have their moments, but if we do not learn from our history and appreciate our opportunities, then the occasion can be easily squandered. “One-hundred year decisions” require foresight and imagination equal to the magnitude of the decision, and as the history of the Lower Don Lands demonstrates, these choices are extremely difficult to reverse.

Toronto is faced with one of these moments now. We have an opportunity to choose an alternative vision for the future of the city and the waterfront, one that prioritizes public access and imaginative development options over outdated and costly transportation infrastructure. With the removal of the eastern portion of the Gardiner, we can re-imagine the waterfront not as a corridor for movement east-west, but as a place with as yet unknown value for the city’s future.

Photo by AshtonPal from the Torontoist Flickr Pool
Photo by AshtonPal from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Jennifer Bonnell teaches history at McMaster University. She is also the author of the 2014 book Reclaiming the Don, a history of the Don River Valley and its relationship with the evolving city of Toronto in the 19th and 20th centuries.