Road to Congress: Waterfront plans hailed by York researcher

From May 27 to June 3, York University will host over 8,000 delegates to the 75th Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences (formerly the Learneds). In the run-up to Congress, one of the biggest academic events ever held at York (see YFile Feb. 2), YFile is profiling researchers whose focus is in the humanities and social sciences. Today the spotlight is on Faculty of Environmental Studies professor Gene Desfor, who heads a team of researchers involved in a three-year, SSHRC-funded project, Changing Urban Waterfronts.

How is Toronto’s past influencing the construction of new spaces on the waterfront – both social and natural spaces? This is an area of study that Gene Desfor, a York Faculty of Environmental Studies professor, is examining, and it ties in neatly with the latest plans for the West Don Lands which were recently announced.

 Above: A graphic showing the lower Don and West Don regeneration concept plan

“The Ashbridges Bay marsh, just to the south of what is now being called the West Don Lands, was filled in as the centerpiece of Toronto’s 1912 waterfront plan,” explains Desfor. “This plan changed the face of the waterfront and was intended to provide the basis for establishing modern industry in the city – industry that is no longer there.

“Now, nearly 100 years later, 32 hectares near the mouth of the Don River are being developed for residential, commercial and recreational uses.”

On March 27, federal, provincial and city politicians, with representatives of the Toronto Waterfront Regeneration Corporation (TWRC), symbolically razed an old, cement-block warehouse near King Street and Bayview Avenue as they announced the beginning of a community of 5,800 new homes, a recreation centre, a school and a large park on a flood-protection berm. Soon, several other empty factories and derelict buildings will be demolished as part of this waterfront redevelopment.

Right: Toronto’s waterfront represented in an artist’s pen and ink drawing

“My interest in the Toronto waterfront goes back over 25 years,” says Desfor. “During that time, I’ve seen lots of plans for developing the waterfront, lots of program and lots of excitement.

“This time, however, I think TWRC’s plan for the West Don Lands will go ahead. Three levels of government have joined forces and made a major effort to involve citizens in the area, in fine-tuning the plans. This project is in accord with tendencies in the global economy, and its designers see it contributing to Toronto’s competitiveness among world cities.”

Desfor, pointing out that his research project has a considerable historical dimension, says his research team is trying to understand the ways that relations between nature and society have influenced the development of Toronto’s waterfront during the past 100 years. For instance, the current West Don Lands project is being billed as a sustainable community – that is, a community that presupposes certain relations between people and the environment.

Left: The symbolic razing of an old, cement block warehouse

“Our interest in the research project focuses on understanding the political pressures that made it possible for industrial activity, for example, to happen on the waterfront at the beginning of the 20th century.

“We know about some of the relations between people and nature that led to the Ashbridge’s Bay Marsh to be filled in between 1912 and 1925: People wanted to get rid of the ‘unsightly, a so-called cesspool and evil’ area, which many thought partly responsible for a cholera outbreak; and we know residents wanted Toronto to be a modern place with industry. Some business interests wanted to promote shipping activity so as to better compete with the railroads that seemed to have a stranglehold on trade in the city,” says Desfor.

“Now, less than 100 years later, the city is re-creating marshland and re-naturalizing the mouth of the Don River…. We have a different notion of the importance of nature than what we used to have.”

In general, the research project uses the ideas of “social nature” and “political ecology” to study Toronto’s waterfront as a space where the social and the natural are constantly remaking one another, says Desfor. “That is, urban waterfronts are always both social and natural, and need to be studies as such.”

During the first year of the project, Desfor’s efforts were directed at the eastern section of Toronto’s waterfront, specifically, the mouth of the Don River, the portlands and Leslie Street spit.

“I remember when the Harbourfront development was the talk of the town,” he recalls. “There have been enormous changes there in the last 25 years, but now the waterfront battle has moved to east of Yonge Street.”

Desfor predicts there will be struggles during the next quarter century over what else should happen to potentially valuable waterfront land. That is one of the reasons why he is interested in starting an international network of urban waterfront researchers, who will study waterfront developments in Europe and other parts of North America.

Right: Toronto’s current waterfront

Places like Chicago, Boston, Baltimore and Copenhagen, for instance, have all experienced recent waves of waterfront development because of “de-industrialization” and “economic restructuring”, where big industries are moving out of the heart of the city. “In addition, technological changes – for instance containerization of shipping – have meant certain cities are no longer major ports,” says Desfor.

“And now it is likely, with the Toronto Waterfront Regeneration Corporation’s involvement, we will see significant changes to Toronto’s waterfront. Some of these changes have already begun.”

There are seven members of Desfor’s research team, including himself and two others at York: Michael Moir, head of Archives & Special Collections; and Gail Fraser, FES professor. Susannah Bunce and Jennefer Laidley, FES PhD students, have also been centrally involved in the project since its inception.

This article was written by former YFile editor Cathy Carlyle, now a freelance writer and contributor to YFile.