Date Posted: 28/07/16

The West Don Lands, recently rebranded as the Canary District, is an area that has been prone to change. Bordered by the Don River, King Street East, Parliament Street and the rail line adjacent to the Gardiner Expressway, the area is undeniably an up-and-coming neighbourhood. Like many neighbourhoods in the city’s core, the West Don Lands has experienced change to both its natural landscape and built environment, but on a scale and over a period of time not seen by most. The area began as a thriving wetland and marsh before being developed into a hub of industry in the 19th century, which declined with the fall of rail transportation. Over the past decade, the area hasbeen reinvented as the Athletes’ Village for the Toronto 2015 Pan Am & Parapan American Games,and revitalized into an emerging urban community.

The industrialization of this former wetland began with the straightening, widening, and deepeningof the lower Don River in the late 19th century. The provincial Don Improvement Act (1886) sought to improve unsanitary water conditions, create an accessible waterway for large vessels, accommodate rail traffic into the city, and establish land for industrial purposes. By 1891, the lower River was noticeably straightened from Winchester Street south to the Grand Trunk Railway Bridge, adjacent to Eastern Avenue. Although the project fulfilled neither its promise of bringing shipping to the Don River nor its pledge of improved sanitation, it did make available more river valley land.

In drastically altering the natural heritage of the Don River, Toronto saw opportunities to further industrialize: distilleries, tanneries, oil refineries, packing plants, piggeries, and soap factories were thriving in the area. With booming industry and limited space, the Toronto Harbour Commission established the Toronto Waterfront Development Plan to further develop the port lands. The Plan, which took nearly two decades to complete, began in 1913 and involved the creation of 800 hectares of solid land and deep water. To accomplish this, the majority of Ashbridge’s Bay Marsh and the central harbour were filled, which inevitably resulted in the destruction of one of the largest wetlands on Lake Ontario. Today, only a small portion of the Marsh remains — near Leslie Street in the Beaches.

Efforts to revitalize the heavily polluted lands have been a long time coming. Since 2005, a 3three-part revitalization plan has been underway. Known as the West Don Lands Precinct Plan, it is slated to transform the derelict district into a thriving urban neighbourhood. The first phase of development included the opening of the Underpass Park in 2012, the first ever park built under an overpass in Toronto, which demonstrated how neglected urban spaces can serve as a valuable public amenity. Similarly, the 7.3-hectare Corktown Common Park serves the budding neighbourhood, while simultaneously serving as a berm designed to protect eastern downtown from flooding.

Whether you still call it the “West Don Lands” or have welcomed it as the “Canary District,” the new urban community serves a few reminders of the city’s industrial heritage.

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