New book dives into history of Toronto’s waterfront

Toronto’s waterfront is a constant source of controversy and change, and so for those who insist on studying it, there is always something new to investigate, says York Professor Emeritus Gene Desfor, a senior scholar in the Faculty of Environmental Studies. His new book, Reshaping Toronto’s Waterfront, will launch on Monday.

The launch will take place June 20, as part of the Parler Fort speaker series at Fort York in the Blue Barracks, 250 Fort York Rd., Toronto. The doors will open at 7pm and the launch will start at 7:30pm. Reshaping torontos waterfront coverWayne Reeves, chief curator, City of Toronto, museum services, will moderate a panel discussion with some of the contributors.

The book came out of a Social Science & Humanities Research Council of Canada-funded project led by Desfor on changing urban waterfronts. Reshaping Toronto’s Waterfront (University of Toronto Press, 2011), co-edited by Desfor and Jennefer Laidley (MES ’06), features a host of York-connected contributors, and is a follow-up to Transforming Urban Waterfronts: Fixity and Flow (Routledge, 2010), which Desfor and Laidley co-edited, along with Quentin Stevens and Dirk Schubert.

Reshaping Toronto’s Waterfront is a history of Toronto’s waterfront over the last 150 years, focusing on two main periods – forging an industrial waterfront, which looks at how the waterfront was shaped in the late 19th-century and early 20th-century, and the shaping of the post-industrial waterfront after the Second World War up to 2009. In doing so, it analyzes how and why problem spaces on the waterfront have become opportunity spaces.

“The authors from a variety of disciplines take a socio-ecological approach to understanding and analyzing the waterfront,” says Desfor. “We look at how the waterfront was shaped and the process that produced these new urban spaces.”

Gene DesforLeft: Gene Desfor

Large-scale development is once again putting Toronto’s waterfront at the leading edge of change. As in other cities around the world, policy-makers, planners and developers are envisioning the waterfront as a space of promise and a prime location for massive investments. Currently, the waterfront is being marketed as a crucial territorial wedge for economic ascendancy in globally competitive urban areas.

The industrial waterfront period included the straightening of the Don River, the filling-in of Ashbridge’s Bay and much of the central waterfront. During the post-industrial phase, waterfront development has been characterized by de-industrialization, the production of mixed-use neighbourhoods, such as the West Don Lands, and plans to naturalize the mouth of the Don River.

“We focus on the intertwining of the ‘natural’ and ‘social’, both physical forms and institutional arrangements that came together to define and produce change. In the late 19th-century and early 20th-century, people spoke about the improvement of nature and we contrast that with sustainability, the current conceptualization of relationships between nature and society.”

Other themes in the book include the governance of waterfront development, relationships between the economy and waterfront development, and the ways public health concerns have influenced development projects. Changes on the waterfront have been greatly influenced by the urban economy, for example, whether Toronto is dominated by an industrial or a post-industrial economy has had a major influence on waterfront development. At the same time, the waterfront supports the establishment of these economies.

Similarly, concerns about public health have also played a significant role in shaping the waterfront. The filling-in of Ashbridge’s Bay and marsh was completed with the idea of ridding the city of cholera and other infectious diseases that people believed emanated from the marsh.

Reshaping Toronto’s Waterfront is a resource for understanding the waterfront as a dynamic space that is neither fully tamed nor wholly uncontrolled.

The book’s contributors include: Paul Jackson (BA ’02, MES ’05), Richard Anderson (MA ’84, PhD ’92) who teaches in the Department of Geography, Susannah Bunce (MES ’99, PhD ’08), Hon Lu (MES ’02), Michael Moir, University archivist and head archivist & special collections at York’s Scott Library, and Christopher Sanderson (MA ’03).

For more information about the launch, contact Brian MacLean at