“What have I gotten myself into,” I thought? Here I was, walking towards the end of Toronto and right into Lake Ontario! Smokestacks of factories were off in the distance as I walked down Leslie Street, finally coming upon a sign indicating Tommy Thompson Park, as well as another one stating that there was no public access outside of weekends and holidays. And so began a journey into one of the most surreal parks I have ever experienced…
The Leslie Street Spit
The view ahead was of a park like any other. Trees, biking and hiking trails and Lake Ontario, right there in front me. It wasn’t until I traversed further in that the Spit’s true nature became obvious… It started with small hints. A large concrete block sitting amongst plants. Crushed bricks with weeds growing out of them. And then it hit me… I was standing on a dump!
Yes, the Leslie Street Spit, as the park is colloquially called, was made of fragments of Toronto’s building boom over the past 60 years or so and it still grows today, stretching some 5km or 3.1 miles into Lake Ontario! But what’s more is that this landfill was quickly being taken over by nature! As the dumping grew newer, the plants grew sparser, though the amazing array of birds that had moved in didn’t seem to care much!
I couldn’t believe what was before my eyes. A “beach” made of brick bits that were now inhabited, not by humans but by what had to have been several hundred seagulls squawking away. Circling around some of the ponds that have been left in the middle of the oddly shaped piece of land, I saw swans swimming away and even some wild Canadian Geese fluttering right towards me to looks for food!
Here I was, feeling like I was in the middle of the wilderness yet I was still smack dab in the middle of Toronto! I could see downtown, with the CN Tower rising above the buildings whose predecessors may have been right under my feet. And I could see Toronto Island and the planes landing at Toronto City Airport. It was a wonderful and unusual car free paradise that just left my head spinning!
But the Spit wasn’t the only fantastic example of Urban Renewal that Toronto seemed to have going for it…
Evergreen Brick Works
Don Valley Brick Works, the factory that made some of the very bricks that reside in the Spit (as well as the bricks that built Toronto) closed down in the 1980’s, laying vacant for years and leaving behind a huge plot of land with a decaying quarry and structures of the manufacturing era of yesteryear.
That all changed though when the quarry was filled in with landfill from construction downtown and turned into a lovely park and wetland. Christened the Weston Family Quarry Garden when it opened in 1997, a number of animals now call the park home and light hiking and biking trails spur out through the park and surrounding network of ravines that go all over Toronto! And trust me, you’d never even realize that this was once a large hole in the ground as the restoration efforts turned out fantastically well!
But work continued on the abandoned structures, led by a Canadian non-profit called Evergreen and in 2010, Evergreen Brick Works was born, offering Torontonians an environmental community center and a showcase for sustainable development that fits well into the organization’s mission of bringing nature to Canada’s cities.
Now those structures house loads of programs, including programs that introduce low-income children to gardening, a weekly farmers’ markets, a biking program and playgrounds made of natural materials. They’ve even turned the Kilns, the long tunnels where bricks were baked, into a very cool exhibit space, which, when I visited, showcased the future of sustainable development and public transit options.
I was able to experience their bike rental program, as I was led on a tour along one of those ravine trails that leads all the way to the classy Distillery District and on to downtown! What a great way to commute without ever really having to share the road with cars!
And for an urban renewal geek like me, being in Toronto was like being a kid in a candy store! Both Evergreen Brick Works and the Leslie Street Spit were not only really cool but totally ingenious ideas, both of which offered the people of Toronto fantastic opportunities to escape their urban world!
Watch out world, as Toronto is quickly becoming a premiere destination for ecotourism!
Disclosure: Though Evergreen Brick Works hosted me on a complimentary bike ride and tour of their facilities, all opinions expressed here are my own.