Unexpected Toronto: Urban Renewal with a Green Eye

“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…

Leslie Street Spit

The sign “welcoming” people to the Leslie Street Spit

The Leslie Street Spit

Leslie Street Spit

Looks like an ordinary park, right?

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!

Leslie Street Spit

As I went further, it started to look less ordinary…

Leslie Street Spit

And then there was the HUGE collection of bricks along this “beach”

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!

Leslie Street Spit

This bird seemed to be well at home

Leslie Street Spit

All those little white specks out there are squawking seagulls!

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!

Leslie Street Spit

These Canadian Geese flew right towards me!

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!

Leslie Street Spit

Looking back at downtown Toronto

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.

Smokestack

An old Don Valley Brick Works smokestack

Don Valley Brick Works Ad

An old ad for Don Valley Brick Works

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!

Weston Quarry Garden

This used to be a big hole in the ground! Hard to believe, right?

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.

Evergreen Brick Works

Some of the community space at Evergreen Brick Works

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.

Kiln

Inside one of the kilns! The exhibits ran in the rows between the kilns!

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!

Sculpture

Part of a really cool sculpture depicting Toronto’s system of waterways

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. 

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6 Responses to Unexpected Toronto: Urban Renewal with a Green Eye

  1. Sandra Foyt June 10, 2013 at 9:58 am #

    I continue to be amazed by how much nature is found in urban Toronto. On my last day in Toronto, we found a wildlife sanctuary only a paddle away from the convention center. And this urban renewal is simply amazing!

    • Aaron June 15, 2013 at 7:05 pm #

      Me too! I love cities that have great access to the outdoors and I dare say that Toronto may even trump NYC in this regard!

  2. Jeremy Branham June 12, 2013 at 5:30 pm #

    You definitely go to see a different side of the area. I love nature and enjoyed my escape to Niagara. I wish I had more time to see Toronto away from the urban areas. Love what they are doing to make this area more beautiful. Even the island there in Toronto is a great urban escape.

    • Aaron June 15, 2013 at 7:09 pm #

      Haha that’s my aim, isn’t it? To see a different side of things! But I have to agree. I also love what they’re doing to bring nature into an urban environment, even in such unconventional ways such as these. And yes! The island where the party was at was a great little refuge!

  3. Erik June 14, 2013 at 9:16 am #

    I was surprised with Toronto’s diversity. It certainly offers all a city of it’s size is expected to, but there is also a lot more to it than that- and you’ve found a nice example of the recreational opportunities offered. I didn’t have time to explore these on the TBEX visit, and that sounds like a good reason to go back, right?

    • Aaron June 15, 2013 at 7:16 pm #

      I agree! I’d visited Toronto before, though for a very brief 30 hours or so and gotten a little taste of the diversity. This time I feel like I was able to really dive into it, thanks in large part to having local connections, like the days I spent CouchSurfing in Leslieville before TBEX and some local sdvice from Lorenzo (belizeadventure) and Natalie (nearafar). I’m already feeling like I should go back and explore more…and it’s really not all that far of a trip from NYC! Sounds like you should maybe do the same!

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