urbanite take

A Chicagoan opines on land use, transportation and the walkable city

Over the distillery and through the ravines: Toronto, part two

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Last week, I wrote about the purposefully built environment of Toronto: its transit, its unique suburban downtowns and its pedestrian facilities. This week I thought I’d turn to another facet of Toronto’s landscape: its natural facilities and adaptive reuse.

Milkman’s Run, part of Toronto’s ravine system

City in a garden
This is one of Chicago’s slogans: urbs in horto, to be exact. But I think it’s a slogan more appropriate to Toronto, as it’s literally a city set in a system of wild gardens. A system of lushly forested ravines snakes through the city, offering a respite from brick, stone and concrete. I had only the fortune of hiking a very small portion of the trail, the Milkman’s Run from Rosedale to the Evergreen Brick Works, on my last day in Toronto, but even that small taste of the Canadian city’s trail system left me with a wonderful impression.

Signage to the trail was not too conspicuous, but following the directions provided by the Brick Works web site was very easy. Within minutes of starting down the ravine trail, I felt the city melt away, though I never really lost sight of another person in the distance (which, I hasten to add, is a Good Thing: one of the classic weaknesses of urban open space is a lack of other eyes to keep it safe). The hike to the Evergreen Brick Works was an easy twenty minutes; a small portion of the trail runs by the Don Valley Parkway, but the highway’s presence didn’t feel oppressive. The entire trail was green and leafy, and my only regret is that I had not came later in the season when I am sure the fall color would have been gorgeous.

Toronto’s ravines seem to be a relatively under-appreciated urban resource. Better signposting in the city to the system, more intense focus on the system as one of Toronto’s key attractions, and improved wayfinding within the ravines themselves would go a long way toward raising their profile. Chicago has a park boulevard system that theoretically form a ring penetrating well into the heart of the city, but many parts of that system are little more than green, irregularly-maintained medians of high-speed arterials. Toronto’s lucky to possess an already intact system of trails and paths in a natural setting, isolated from vehicles but not from the city as it winds its way through the different neighborhoods — it should take full advantage of these.

By contrast, Toronto’s lakefront is the subject of more attention, fewer accolades and much more mixed reception than its system of ravines. Like Chicago — and most, if not all, Great Lakes cities — Toronto’s waterfront came of age in an industrial era, and like nearly all of these settlements the most valuable use for this land was for polluting, productive and profitable industrial uses. And like Chicago, Toronto has rail lines and highways running right along the lakeshore, as this was the logical right-of-way when built. Unlike Chicago, though, Toronto’s expressways in particular are more disruptive — it’s great fun to drive the elevated Gardiner Expressway and weave among the condos, but crossing over or under it is more akin to walking under Louisville’s Interstate 64 than Chicago’s grade-level Lake Shore Drive. And Toronto, as far as I can tell, didn’t have an Aaron Montgomery Ward, who fought tenaciously to keep Chicago’s lakefront open and free.

The point of this isn’t to say that Toronto’s lakefront is point-blank inferior to Chicago’s, though — it’s just to say that a different set of historical circumstances has led to the differing results seen today. I don’t know enough about the history of the lakefront and current efforts to comment knowledgeably about the efforts to beautify the lakefront, but Toronto shouldn’t beat itself up needlessly that its lakefront isn’t quite there yet. It’s got a pretty damn good system of ravines to supplement it in the meantime.

The Distillery District

Reduce, reuse, recycle
The city’s postindustrial and Great Lakes heritage shows up in the repurposed buildings and districts scattered throughout the city. On our walk down Queen Street West, my friend and I passed both a Candy Factory Lofts and a Chocolate Factory Lofts. One can only imagine what the first residents must have smelled upon moving in!

Two of the larger complete reused entities I saw were the city’s Distillery District and the Evergreen Brick Works. Toronto’s Distillery District used to be just that, a distillery, and has now been redeveloped to house such enterprises as high-end chocolate stores and an Ontario microbrewery. The Evergreen Brick Works were perhaps my favorite “attraction” in the city — they used to supply the city with brick and mortar, but after the quarry dried up in the 1980s, the entire complex was repurposed and now serves as a municipal park and community center.

Neither of these developments are unique to Toronto — the Distillery District reminds me strongly of Milwaukee’s Third Ward, another formerly industrial neighborhood now home to trendy shops and eateries, and to a lesser extent Soho in New York. The Evergreen Brick Works are more distinctive, but the reuse of old industrial structures as parkland isn’t new either — the High Line and soon-to-be Bloomingdale Trail show that. But these two developments, and in particular the Brick Works, are exemplars of adaptive reuse — the latter in particular does a good job of balancing its new role as a park with its history as a quarry and industrial site.

Evergreen Brick Works

Toronto was a wonderful place for a weekend, particularly for a visitor from Chicago. It was a city with just enough similarities to my current town that I was able to understand its foundation — I immediately felt at home with the regular street grid; with the TTC’s system of subways supplemented by long, straight bus lines; with the industrial reuse of buildings; and with the “wall of condos” along the lakefront. But its richly remarkable differences I felt as well — the smooth clang of streetcars along the streets; a gorgeous system of ravines; intensely dense suburban development; and, in comparison, a lack of a huge swath of economically deprived territory.

I’ve still got a lot to understand about Toronto. But I think it’s a city in which lots of the current movements of North American urbanism, and in particular “cold city” urbanism, are in evidence. And even if you don’t care that much about urbanism (in which case, why are you reading this?) it’s definitely worth a visit. I’ll be back.

Written by Andrew ACG

September 27, 2012 at 8:00 am

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