n a turbulent river, currents form around obstacles like logs and boulders and jet off in different directions, at different speeds. 

They criss-cross over one another, here and there, like strands in a chaotic braid. 

Since the late 1800s, Toronto’s lower Don River and the pace of urban development in the city’s east end have interacted like turbulent streams, clashing, spinning off and never quite aligning. 

Looking north up the Don River from Lakeshore Boulevard. Photo by Ian Willms

The pressures of urbanization and industrialization squeezed the river into an artificially straight channel and turned its mouth into a choked, concrete-lined waterway. 

Not to be contained, the river finds its way out and into the streets and structures of the city’s Port Lands and South Riverdale areas, which are plagued by intermittent, low-level floods after storms. In the event that a “regulatory storm” hits the area, 290 hectares of land east of the city’s core are at risk of major flooding from the Don River watershed. 

Another casualty was Ashbridges Bay Marsh, the delta through which the river once flowed into Lake Ontario. Once the largest marsh in the Great Lakes, this delta stretches five square kilometres from the west side of Ashbridges Bay to what is now Leslie Street. In addition to providing habitats for a wide range of migratory birds and other aquatic life, deltas like Ashbridges Bay Marsh have another important function: flood mitigation. They act like sponges, with the ability to absorb flood waters from both the rivers that flow through them and the bodies of water they drain into. They also filter the water, reducing the amount of upstream pollution that flows out into a larger body of water.

Over a period of decades in the 1800s, Ashbridges Bay Marsh became heavily polluted by wastewater from industries farther up the river. At the turn of the 20th Century, it was infilled to become the industrial area known today as the Port Lands. 

Looking west toward downtown from the mouth of the Keating Channel. Photo by Ian Willms

Once a meandering river, the lower three kilometres of the Don were straightened to become the linear Don Narrows, ending with an abrupt 90-degree turn at the bottom. Here the concrete-lined Keating Channel carries its water the final kilometre into Lake Ontario. 

These interventions were made in the name of achieving transportation efficiency along the Don Valley, creating additional land for port, industry and other urban development and eliminating a marsh so polluted it was considered a public health hazard. 

Now, the City of Toronto and the provincial and federal governments are trying to align these currents and correct the damage that was done for the sake of development. The catch is that the project to restore the Port Lands is largely driven by the development opportunities it will create.

To achieve their aims, they’ll build a new river mouth, a river valley and an island as part of the $1.25-billion Don Mouth Naturalization and Port Lands Flood Protection Project (DMNP). 

“The Port Lands project is one in itself. It is completely unique,” says Herb Sweeney, principal at Michael Van Valkenburg Associates (MVVA), the U.S.-based landscape design firm contracted to design and deliver the DMNP. Although a project like this would ordinarily be led by an engineering firm, MVVA’s design concept won the contract in the Lower Don Lands Design Competition of 2007. So, Sweeney’s team leads the project with support from hydrologists, ecologists, engineers and flood modellers. 

“There is not another project like this in the world that’s providing and addressing all of the challenging aspects that this project has to, from the environmental issues of brownfield conditions, [to] addressing flood conveyance, [to] how we’re creating additional habitat, and thinking forward many years to the future development,” says Sweeney.

“This city is blessed with poor infrastructure decisions,” says Floyd Ruskin. He’s worked to protect, restore and revitalize the Don Valley for more than 30 years as a volunteer with Toronto Nature Stewards, and a former member of conservation and stewardship group Don’t Mess With the Don.

“The Keating Channel was a poor infrastructure decision, but even before that, the filling in of one of the largest freshwater marshes in North America…that started a 115-year process of utilizing land and destroying it.”

Looking east toward the future Canoe Cove at Promontory Park. Photo by Ian Willms

As a result, more than 240 hectares of land in Toronto’s east end are now vulnerable to stormwater flooding because the river can’t empty into Lake Ontario quickly enough when heavy rains come. On top of that, Ruskin says, the river mouth is ecologically dysfunctional and the Port Lands are a contaminated, derelict brownfield unsuitable for housing or recreation.

According to Sweeney, the Don River Naturalization and Flood Protection Project will attempt to repair the worst of the damage done to the bottom kilometre of the river. Workers have excavated 1.5 million cubic metres of contaminated Port Lands soil — enough, Sweeney says, to fill the Rogers Centre to its roof – in the process of carving out a new river valley. That valley will begin at the east end of Keating Channel — where Lakeshore Boulevard passes over the Don River – meander through the Port Lands and drain into Lake Ontario via the new river mouth, a naturalized Polson Slip.

“By creating that new naturalized river channel, we’ve created a secondary outlet for river conveyance,” says Sweeney. “So when you have a really large storm event, not only can the water go and make a 90 degree turn out into the Keating Channel, but by adding the secondary outlet, we have additional flood plains, so additional volume for flood waters and conveyance out into the river channel.”

Looking northwest at the current mouth of the Don River, where it takes a 90 degree turn into the Keating Channel. Photo by Ian Willms

The river valley will help alleviate the flooding in the area in general, but especially in the event of a storm on the scale of the worst Toronto has ever seen: what the province calls the “regulatory storm.” Toronto’s regulatory storm is based on Hurricane Hazel, which dumped more than 280 mm of rain over the city’s west end in 1954. That storm killed 81 people and left 7,472 homeless. Flooding along the Humber River and nearby creeks swept away houses and destroyed or damaged 20 bridges.  With climate change leading to more extreme weather events worldwide, the likelihood of another regulatory storm hitting the city feels higher each year. If a storm of that scale were to take place over the Don, the volume of water flowing out into Lake Ontario would equal two thirds of the flow of Niagara Falls.

In addition to helping that water move swiftly out of the city and into the lake, the new river valley will provide 12 hectares of parkland, four hectares of land-based habitat and 13 hectares each of aquatic habitat and wetland habitat. 

When the valley is flooded in late 2024, the existing land between it and the Keating Channel will be cut off from the lakeshore to form a new island, known as Villiers Island. Once the risk of flooding is alleviated, the new parks and paths are open and new stormwater and transportation infrastructure are in place, the island will eventually be developed into a 22-hectare waterfront community. By 2040, according to the Villiers Island Precinct Plan, this community will be complete with housing for up to 10,700 people, a community centre, a school, retail and mixed-use buildings.

Looking southeast across the new Cherry Street bridge. The bridge and street are now open to traffic. Photo by Ian WIllms

Development-Driven Solutions To Development-Driven Mistakes

Ironically, it is the promise of this development that likely motivated the municipal, provincial and federal governments to commit roughly $400 million each to the project after decades of consultation and assessment. 

Chris Glaisek’s work revolves, in part, around this bargain. Glaisek is chief planning and design officer at Waterfront Toronto, an agency formed in 2001 to address issues along Toronto’s waterfront and funded by all three levels of government. It is in charge of overseeing the Don Mouth Naturalization and Port Lands Flood Protection Project, and ran the 2007 competition that awarded the contract for the project to MVVA. 

Glaisek and his colleagues at Waterfront Toronto worked for more than a decade to secure funding for the project. He says it would have been hard to justify a project of its scale just to let nature reclaim the area.

“The project helps pay for itself, so it helps justify the big investment in flood protection,” Glaisek says.

“The project probably would have happened eventually, but the governments would have had to figure out how to justify the expenditure without the revenue were there not the potential for new development out here.”

Workers along the future banks of the Don River. Photo by Ian Willms

Glaisek says the project also satisfies the city’s official policy to redevelop the Port Lands, as well as the province’s policy to intensify the downtown core, “which is all part and parcel of trying to protect the Greenbelt and foster growth by downtown intensification.” 

Of course, this is the same Greenbelt that the Ford government is determined to carve into with the new Highway 413, which would pave over 400 acres of the Greenbelt and over 2,000 acres of farmland, and cut through 85 waterways.

But even a dedicated conservationist like Ruskin perceives the tradeoff as unavoidable: the project of correcting the damage of past intensification could not have moved forward as effectively without the promise of future intensification. 

“I definitely don’t side with developers, but is it a necessary evil? Yes, 100 per cent,” he said. “But we can do it better, and that would be my hope for the future, is that we pay attention.”

John Wilson is well-versed in the tension between protecting vulnerable ecosystems while accommodating a growing human population. He has spent decades of his career leading citizen advisory groups established to liaise with the city on issues concerning the Don River and its watershed. Given the pressures of population growth in the city and the need to slow the spread of suburban sprawl into the Greenbelt, Wilson believes everyone working on the project is doing the best they know how to do and he is satisfied that a “really fulsome, robust conversation with a whole lot of people” has taken place.

The challenge, he says, is “making a city that is conducive to three million people living here, but making it so that it might still be liveable in another 100 years as the climate’s changing and as the population continues to grow.”

Truckloads of dirt being moved in the early morning hours. Photo by Ian Willms

Will It Hold Up?

With development driving another major river transformation, the question remains: Will hydrologists, ecologists and landscape architects be busy 100 years from now undoing the work done in this decade? 

Because the project is unique, it’s difficult to compare it to anything else other than the previous development-driven interventions along the Don River and in the Port Lands. 

Glaisek concedes that development is driving these changes, but does not view the project as a repetition of century-old mistakes. He points out that the dominant value system at the time the Don River was channelized and its marshland filled, was the need to control nature. This time, he sees a different value system emerging that is guided by learning from nature and working with its processes. 

“It’s a completely different application of engineering,” he says. “Engineering [back then] was used to control and constrain nature. The engineering we’re doing is about unlocking nature and sustaining natural processes while flood protecting.”

To that end, he hopes the combined efforts of hydrologists, ecologists, flood modellers and landscape architects can integrate the flows of the river and of urban development into one harmonious stream. 

Workers from QM Environmental putting a fabric membrane along the future Don River valley. Photo by Ian Willms

“Will it function as perfectly as a completely unconstrained river? I don’t know. I don’t think anyone could really answer that,” Glaisek says. “Time will tell if this really works, but the value system here has been about restoring natural processes to the river.”

The people with the longest standing relationship to the river are the region’s Indigenous communities, some of whom called its lower area by the Anishnaabemowin place name Waasayishkodenayosh — meaning “burning bright point” — before European settlers colonized the area and named it the Don River. 

“In our belief system, the river is a spirit. It has its own energy and you should always be careful of how you treat the river. It’s deserving of your respect,” says Chief Stacey Laforme of Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation (MCFN). “It’s hard to go back to what should be once you’ve already changed [it] so much.”

The Port Lands, like the rest of Toronto, are situated on the traditional territory of the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishnabeg, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat peoples. Because MCFN is the treaty nation for Toronto, its members have worked closely with Waterfront Toronto on the DMNP since 2015. 

Looking west above Lakeshore Boulevard from the now closed portion of the Gardiner Expressway. Photo by Ian Willms

As director of MCFN’s department of consultation and accommodation, Mark LaForme has been personally involved with this work. 

“This was one of the first Waterfront Toronto projects we were involved in, and it’s something they very much engaged with us on,” he says. “We had a lot of input into what it is they were doing, particularly with the mouth of the Don and the Port Lands and the whole redevelopment of that area.”

 He stands behind the final design of the project, and highlights the value of creating a space where people can enjoy a closer relationship with the water. But, like Chief Laforme, he thinks the project falls short of fully reversing the damage done by industrialization in the 19th and 20th centuries. 

“When this project is finished, you’ll see it’s going to be absolutely beautiful, but it’s not going to undo all the harm that was done,” he says. “It would take generations to do that, but it’s a good step in the right direction that’s for sure.”

In attempting to create a climate solution on a scale never seen before, all the minds that came together on the DMNP settled on a delicate balance of compromises: they will give the Don a new valley without surrendering the Port Lands; they will give the river back its meandering course, but decide what the course will be; they will return habitat to the birds, fish and amphibians, but reserve space for ever more humans; they will use industry to attempt to rebuild what industry once destroyed.

The original project in 1886 to modify the Don River came under the “Don Improvement Act.” Today, that project is considered “a poor infrastructure decision,” and significant resources have been allotted to un-“improve” the river. We call these more modern interventions “naturalization,” but it will take another several generations to know if the blunders of the past have been redressed or just re-named.

As Wilson says, “You can’t undo the tank farms that used to be there or the saw mills that used to be on the river, or the Don Valley Parkway. You have to try to take the risk of making a bold statement and if you do it wrong, then in another 50 years somebody else can try their hand at making it better.”

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Oct 18, 2022
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