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The Lower Don Greenway: Enhancing Toronto’s Urban Watershed

Most world-class cities have iconic features that set them apart. Often it’s expressed in stunning architecture, such as Sydney’s Opera House or Mumbai’s Taj Mahal Hotel.

A city’s natural spaces can be just as distinguishing. There is plenty to see in New York City, for example, but a stroll through Central Park is a must for any tourist, not to mention a cherished retreat for those who make their home in busy Manhattan.

Toronto’s claim to fame is surely its ravine system—the largest of any urban centre in the world. Weaving together multiple neighbourhoods, these ravine landscapes connect both rich and poor, urban and suburban. “The ravines are to Toronto like what the canals are to Venice, hills are to San Francisco and the Thames River is to London,” wrote Robert Fulford in the Accidental City. “They are the heart of the City’s emotional geography, and understanding Toronto requires an understanding of the ravines.”

Strategically located near the city’s port lands, the Don River Valley features approximately 36,000 hectares of green space, and is an essential artery in Toronto’s ravine system. But more than a century of heavy industrialization left the valley’s landscape degraded and polluted. Although rail lines and expressways bring thousands of Torontonians through the valley every day, public access remains limited, and the region’s natural features have often gone underappreciated. This is particularly true for the Lower Don—the last six kilometres of the watershed that bisects Toronto East from Toronto West, and empties into Lake Ontario.

Over the last two decades, efforts to re-naturalize the Lower Don and revitalize it to its full potential have been gaining steam. The Task Force to Bring Back the Don, a citizens’ group sponsored by the City of Toronto, spearheaded the original campaign to clean up the Lower Don watershed, and since then a much larger collection of government agencies, citizen groups and non-profits have pitched in to expand the effort.

In 2010, Evergreen Brick Works opened to the public after a ten-year project to reclaim the Don Valley Brick Works, an industrial heritage site located at the heart of the valley. The century-old factory had produced the bricks that built Toronto, but when it closed down in the late 1980s, all that was left was a damaged ecosystem, crumbling buildings and contaminated soil.

Evergreen, a charity based in Toronto, worked collaboratively with a long list of partners to bring this adaptive-reuse project to life—especially the City of Toronto and the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA), who had earlier converted the site’s quarry into a natural area and park. Today, Evergreen Brick Works is a dynamic venue for exploring ideas and leading-edge green technologies, and a vibrant public space where visitors can engage in a broad suite of hands-on environmental programming. It is also an international showcase for green design and urban innovation, which is why Evergreen Brick Works has been chosen as a key partner for the next Meeting of the Minds event in 2013.

Spurred by the momentum of Evergreen Brick Works, and also driven by forces behind waterfront development plans and planning for the 2015 Pan Am Games, the Lower Don is emerging as a strategic asset for Toronto.

The surrounding area has attracted thousands of new residents in the last five years—part of a high-rise construction boom fueled by rapid population growth across the city. This trend toward higher density is sure to continue, with more than 70,000 people expected to arrive to new waterfront neighbourhoods surrounding the Lower Don. There has never been a better time to make the Don a natural destination for residents and visitors.

As part of its CityWorks initiative, Evergreen is looking to seize this historic opportunity to improve the area even further. With its key partners, the City of Toronto and the TRCA, Evergreen is engaging other stakeholders and communities in the Lower Don in an effort to enhance access and connections throughout the region. The project will involve an extensive public-engagement process, and will complement the City’s master plan for development throughout the Lower Don region.

By linking sites along the corridor with the waterfront and adding iconic art installations, the Lower Don Greenway will connect Evergreen Brick Works with other heritage hot-spots, such as the Distillery District and the recently revitalized Regent Park and Riverdale Farm. The greenway project will transform the Lower Don into a prime destination in the city; a place to celebrate, admire and appreciate the ecological significance of Toronto’s ravine network.

In other cities around the world similar projects are underway and proving to be a great success. From the High Line in Manhattan’s West Side to Vancouver’s extensive Greenway Network, cities are revitalizing previously underappreciated spaces and reconnecting the natural and the built environment—all while driving tourism dollars, neighbourhood gentrification and tax revenues.

Expanding and enhancing the Lower Don Greenway would act as a catalyst—driving awareness of Toronto’s ravine network, engaging people and communities within the natural landscapes of their city.

David Stonehouse

About the Author : David StonehouseAn urban planner, David Stonehouse was instrumental in Toronto’s early efforts to revitalize the Don Valley—coordinating of the Task Force to Bring Back the Don in the 1990s, and then supervising the sustainable design, planning and construction of Evergreen Brick Works. He has been an advisor on many other urban restoration projects around the world, including Cuba, Bolivia, the United Kingdom and the United States.View all posts by David Stonehouse

  1. John Lehnert
    John LehnertOctober 16,12

    It’s too easy, sometimes, to embrace a false dichotomy between urban space and wild space. I like how this effort has integrated a natural experience into city living, while also preserving–and revitalizing–the built environment that exists within the green areas. As they say in permaculture: look at the edges. The places where urban and wild are intermingled is where the city is often the most vital and alive.

    Expanding on the examples, provide, we’re seeing more urban/wild intersections succeed: the daylighting of a stream through downtown Seoul; the advancement of green roof projects in cities like Chicago; the re-opening of bayous in Houston. This network of ravines reminds me in particular of Glen Canyon in San Francisco: surrounded by housing, when you’re in the middle of the canyon, you can scarcely see anything man-made. We need more places like that–in every city.

  2. Jessie Feller
    Jessie FellerOctober 17,12

    David,

    Thanks for this blog entry. It helps me understand Toronto’s urban history and future much more as we start to think about Meeting of the Minds 2013 in Toronto. In particular, I’m starting to think about what we want to discuss both in the conference and showcase during the pre-conference tours.

    A few follow-up questions about the Valley. What kind of transportation are they planning to accommodate the building of condos and the influx of residents? Do the rail lines already provide enough capacity? Are the residential developments being built alongside the transit corridors to provide transit-oriented development? When does the master plan process end?

    This is an exciting time in Toronto and I’m eager to come see it with my own eyes. It reminds me of our own project here in SF with Crissy Field but on a much larger scale. Very exciting indeed!

    Jessie Feller
    Managing Director, Meeting of the Minds

  3. David Stonehouse
    David StonehouseNovember 15,12

    Jessie:

    Sorry for the delayed response. The transportation planning work related to intensification in our downtown is excellent – done by the City of Toronto, Waterfront Toronto and other agencies. Numerous consultants (local and international) have been engaged. That said, Toronto is falling behind on transportation infrastructure because of an ongoing political debate about how to fund expanded transit. Senior levels of government haven’t been providing enough support and there is a reluctance to puruse road tolls or congestion charges. So the city is intensifying and making better use of existing infrastructure – but we really need additional bus, streetcar, LRV and subway lines to make things work.

    Re: your question about the Lower Don Greenway master plan, the City of Toronto and TRCA have just kicked things off. They hope to conclude the study by April or May of 2013.

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