Canada Great Outdoors

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.

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.

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!

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. 


By Aaron

Hey there! I'm Aaron and this is my travel site, where I document my adventures to all corners of the world. My love for travel started at the ripe old age of four, when a midlife crisis uprooted my family to Ecuador for five years. Since then, I've been to countries on 4 different continents. When I'm not blissfully on the road, I reside in New York City, where I become the ultimate travel junkie and spend my days dreaming up my next great adventure! Read More...

6 replies on “Unexpected Toronto: Urban Renewal with a Green Eye”

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!

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.

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!

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?

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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