2005 10 25
Toronto Unbuilt: The Waterfront Revisited
The waterfront is an example of the unbuilt history that shapes this city. We forget that Toronto's harbour was once a much larger body of water.
Front Street was exactly that: Its docks fronted a provincial town clinging to life on the edge of the Canadian wild.
An urban explorer can find a glimpse of the former water's edge by visiting the west side of the St. Lawrence Market. From Front Street, the pavement plunges south about six metres to the level where wooden ships once stacked their cargo on to Toronto's wharves. The escarpment, so noticeable next to the market, disappears west of Union Station.
Over 150 years Torontonians moved their waterfront hundreds of metres south to what became the Toronto Islands. In the process, we buried the largest part of our protective, natural harbour. This infill process was so pervasive that it is a surprise to learn the now-landlocked Gooderham & Worts complex once sat at the water's edge.
Why did the city move millions of tonnes of earth so far south? In the mid-19th century, Torontonians chose to beautify what had increasingly become an embarrassment to the city. The docklands were dark with pollution, and the town's rapidly growing population -- then about 30,000-strong -- yearned for a European-style boulevard along the water's edge.
In an effort to show the world a successful colonial city with a grand waterfront promenade, Toronto built the first esplanade in 1856. It was a success. An early local historian, Henry Scadding, wrote that the esplanade ''has done for Toronto what the Thames embankment has done for London.''
In a city cut off from the waterfront by the Gardiner Expressway, Scadding's proud civic amenity is barely imaginable today.
What happened to the esplanade? Later in the 19th century, new and massively disruptive technologies called railroads overran the flat infill lands. Because of the railways the first esplanade was unbuilt, severing the waterfront from the city. For more than 100 years, the harbour languished as a desolate adjunct to Canada's much larger nation-building railway needs.
It is a new century. Toronto's last generation of planners and architects -- people like Ken Greenberg and Joe Berridge -- slowly peeled away the necklace of steel that denied us a waterfront. Their wilful planning choices, in the face of many divergent social and economic forces, created new opportunities for enlightened development.
First, SkyDome replaced vacant switching yards. Then the massive Concord-Adex condominium development, patterned after the successful Concord-Pacific project in Vancouver, began building over the last of the unused railway lands. As a result, thousands of people are moving into Toronto's core and they want access to a 21st-century equivalent of the esplanade.
Politicians are listening to their voices. Leaders on all levels have realized that today's cities live or die through the participation of an innovative and creative population. These highly skilled, modern nomads will not live just anywhere, though. They are attracted to cities with the social, cultural and economic assets that, collectively, make life interesting.
Think of their macroeconomic force as a kind of ecotourism turned inside out. The people who will sustain the city can literally work anywhere in the world -- and many do. They are vocation, culture and life tourists. The city needs to attract and retain them if City Hall's ''Creative City'' plans are to be successful.
In order to accommodate Torontonians' recreational needs, new waterfront schemes are being launched with a fervour that would have impressed our 19th-century forefathers. Last week Mayor David Miller announced part of a $70-million plan to build a continuous lakeside promenade from Marilyn Bell Park in the west to the Yonge Street slip.
What form will a new waterfront take? The era of building grand boulevards by the water has passed the city by. Their colonial rigidity is no longer right for today's Toronto.
However Canadian designers ultimately choose to give the waterfront its modern form, they will answer the same question we asked 150 years ago: How does a great city celebrate the water and harbour that first gave it life?
Photo by Peter J. Thompson, National Post
[email this story] Posted by R Ouellette on 10/25 at 04:21 AM
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