Reshaping Toronto's Waterfront
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Reshaping Toronto’s Waterfront

Photo of Sugar Beach by Dan Cronin from the Torontoist Flickr Pool

Sugar Beach, which opened last summer as part of Waterfront Toronto’s plan to reconnect Toronto to Lake Ontario, encapsulates a lot of the complexities and contradictions embedded in Toronto’s waterfront. The uber-designed urban park, complete with white sand and playful pink umbrellas, acts as the perfect symbol of the post-industrial waterfront, while Redpath Sugar, a still-working refinery directly adjacent, represents the waterfront’s industrial past.
With the future addition of thousands of new residents to the area, some are wondering about how all of these elements are going to fit together. How will new waterfront condo-dwellers enjoy a 24-hour working refinery nearby?
That is exactly why we thought Sugar Beach the perfect place to begin reading Reshaping Toronto’s Waterfront, a new book published by University of Toronto Press and edited by Gene Desfor and Jennefer Laidley. This collection of essays, written by academics from York University, University of Toronto, and the University of Waterloo, details the history and evolution of Toronto’s waterfront, from industrial and transportation port of its past to its continuing post-industrial metamorphosis as Toronto’s new “blue edge.”

Toronto has had an ambivalent, complex relationship with its waterfront right from the start. First seen as a military and transportation resource, it soon transformed into aheadache as silt carried down the Don River meant that constant dredging had to be done to keep the area open for ships. Our Lake Ontario shoreline has also been used at various times for shipbuilding, electricity generation, and as a dump for human and animal waste. Waterfront spaces—like those around the Lower Don River, for instance—were viewed as important connections for goods, Tenlay Conway writes in her essay, while simultaneously alienating portions of the growing city that were located eastward.
One of the most fascinating essays in the collection is Paul S.B. Jackson’s account of how fear of disease (in particular cholera) led to a fear of waterfront areas, and how this fear was leveraged and used to promote the filling of Ashbridge’s Bay for industrial purposes, as laid out in the 1912 Waterfront Development Plan. This essay perfectly highlights the book’s central theme of the constitutive relationship between nature and society: how society shapes nature, but also how nature shapes society.
The second part of the book deals with the difficulties we’ve had in lifting the waterfront out of its industrial past and (spurred on by the 1996 Olympic bid) placing it firmly in the post-industrial future, where words like livability and sustainability rule the day. Whether the topic is the remediation of toxic sites or the bureaucratic struggles in developing an area where the federal, provincial, and municipal governments all have a hand in the pot, what is clear from the post-industrial waterfront era is that, while the uses for the area have changed, Toronto’s ambivalent attitude to its shorelines remains. It is seen as a place of potential, but also one of vast difficulties.
The final essay in the book, written by Gene Desfor and Jennifer Bonnell, ties everything together in comparing the current project of re-naturalizing the mouth of the Don River to the changes made to the river during the late 19th century. What’s interesting here is how nature is constructed in relation to capitalism—whether through manipulating and destroying natural ecosystems in order to facilitate industrial development, or manipulating and restoring natural ecosystems to facilitate the development of mixed-use neighbourhoods and urban parks. We continually view waterfront spaces as both natural ecosystems, but also as sites of lucrative investment.
Reshaping Toronto’s Waterfront perfectly captures the rich history of how Toronto has been shaped by—and has shaped—its waterfront, and how this relationship lives on in the post-industrial age through the reframing of the waterfront as a place of nature, but also of leisure, residence, and business. Though put out by a university press and written by academics, the book remains easy to read and absent of academic jargon. And, while it may not be the usual candidate for a “beach read,” our hunch was right: the book is best read in the environment within which it describes—namely Toronto’s complex and ever-evolving waterfront.

CORRECTION: June 19, 10:49 AM We originally attributed the final essay in the book to co-author Jennifer Laidley; it is actually Jennifer Bonnell. The review has been amended to reflect this.