Public Works: From Industrial Junk to Wildlife Watcher's Dream
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Public Works: From Industrial Junk to Wildlife Watcher’s Dream

Can an oil rig-turned-Malaysian diving platform inspire the renovation of the Eastern Avenue Bridge?

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

Photo by PLTam, from the Torontoist Flickr pool

Photo by PLTam, from the Torontoist Flickr pool.

In the sea just off Malaysian Borneo, there’s an oil rig that has experienced a biblical-grade redemption, transforming from an environmental threat into a nature-lovers’ hot spot. Originally part of the Petronas Oil Corporation’s drilling operations, the rig was sold in 1988 to a Malaysian man who then had it towed to the Celebes Sea, near Sipadan Island, a Malaysian national park and nature preserve. Now the rig is Seaventures Dive Resort, a family-owned hotel and base for adventurers on scuba or snorkel missions to see coral, shark, barracuda, sea turtles, and thousands more species of marine life.

Seaventures Dive Rig is a prime example of high-quality industrial infrastructure being repurposed to bring humans closer to nature. It’s a strategy that’s been adopted on land, too. But the turnaround of structures on or near water presents a particularly useful source of inspiration for Toronto. Perched at the edge of a Great Lake, intersected by strong rivers, our city has not always been good to its waterways or the lands around them. But our use of waterside space is getting better all the time—even considering the demise of Captain John’s Harbour Boat Restaurant, God rest its sole.

There’s the ongoing, much-tinkered-with project to rejuvenate and reinvent the Port Lands as a mixed-use community. But there are smaller-scale waterside structures that could be repurposed, too. The Old Eastern Avenue Bridge has been out of commission since 1964, but remains in place over the Don River as a hard-to-reach foot and bike path. The concrete arch that runs alongside it houses Enbridge gas pipes. But couldn’t it be a wildlife watcher’s paradise? A prime location from which to spot the herons scanning for fish, the salmon migrating up from Lake Ontario, or the turtles paddling the Don? An ideal spot from which to look up at the red-tailed hawks and peregrine falcons circling above the DVP?

The Don River is moving slowly but surely along the path to good health—and while the section of river that flows under the trusses of Eastern Avenue Bridge might not be the best, life is returning to the lower Don. Re-naturalization projects like the Charles Sauriol Conservation Reserve Trail have carved out space for Torontonians to get up close to the revitalized Don to the north. But an investment in a nature lookout to the south would be an investment in the Don’s continued improvement, and provide Torontonians with an opportunity to watch that process firsthand.

CORRECTION: April 22, 2014, 5:40 PM This post originally stated that Enbridge no longer uses the concrete bridge over the Don; in fact, the company still uses it to carry a major gas main.