Toronto Waterfront

Toronto, Canada

Submitted by: Andrea Winkler

Development led by private investment threatens to turn Toronto's great waterfront into a tourist spectacle worthy of the Hall of Shame.

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Why It Doesn't Work

Spadina Quay, located at the foot of Spadina, a major avenue in Toronto, is the nucleus of a community grown on the waterfront. Located in this area are a number of living spaces in low-rise buildings with a neighbouring playground and ballpark, an interpretive Music Garden, a community garden for children, and the Harbourfront Centre, which is host to many festivals and events throughout the year.

Though only a small patch of the entire Toronto waterfront, this chain of public spaces creates a ‘sense of place’ and cohesion. The area is a fantastic place for people to gather and enjoy the lakefront.

But unfortunately, while many of these public spaces are developed, they are being overshadowed by initiatives led by private investment that are turning waterfront regeneration into profit-making schemes.

Across the street from the community centre and Wetlands Park that are described below, there is a billboard erected over a vacant lot that touts the new condo development as ‘California style living.’ This is in sharp contrast to the supposed pride in local identity.

Private development has resulted in a barrier of condo high-rises, which blocks the view of the water from the rest of Toronto and creates a psychological barrier for the general public. While the stores and amenities that are being installed on the first floor of these developments increases mixed-use of the area, chain stores and franchise establishments detract from any sort of local character.

The CNE and Ontario Place sites to the west are situated on an expanse of ground that holds a number of exhibition and large-scale event pavilions, including the Governors House, Medieval Times, and an outdoor amphitheatre. This area is mainly accessible by, and designed for, the car. Venues are housed in unsightly concrete blocks and the grounds are predominantly large tracts of parking lot.

The WindShare wind turbine stands lonely amongst the expanse of parking lots and concrete buildings. This is a powerful symbol of the local Green Power movement in Toronto. However, its relegation to the edge of the exhibition grounds marginalizes its magnitude and function in creating an identity for Toronto.

Waterfront re-development initiatives that have the potential to create great public spaces are marginalized by poor design and vision cooptation by private investment, which has these public spaces falling under the shadow of high-rise buildings and parking lots. There is still much more to be done in the re-development of Toronto’s waterfront, the hope is that designing great public spaces will take precedence in these plans.

What Puts Toronto Waterfront in the Hall of Shame?

This area is accessible by transit with the Queen’s Quay streetcar rumbling past at regular intervals. People bike, walk their dogs, and stroll along with their children.

The nearby school and community centre and low-rise buildings bring a diverse group of people, and the easy access by transit brings a great number of the public from downtown and surrounding areas. The larger attraction of Harbourfront Centre festivals in the summer draws visitors to investigate and become reacquainted with the waterfront area.

During a summer's day, the waterfront attracts a number of people, visitors and locals alike. Festivals and patches of public spaces bring people to the cool respite of the water. Many people sit on the shaded benches near the playground and look out over the water to Toronto Island. Bathurst Quay Community centre and school at the eastern edge are nestled into the Malting Silos, a reminder of Toronto’s industrial past. However, the patchwork development of the area (a new boardwalk attempts to reconcile this) detracts from a unified sense of place- it creates a sense of visitor attraction as opposed to a lived space. Gaping contruction sites with temporary showrooms further disrupts the space.

There are plenty of activites in this area, other than just enjoying the view of the lakefront. The playground next to the residential building features a maze, a sand area, swings, and a small ballpark.

The Music Garden is a calming interpretive garden, where for $5 one can stroll through the grounds listening to the sounds of Yo-Yo Ma (without the music it is free).

Just east of the garden is a combination of a children’s garden with composting and small organic herb plot and The Spadina Quay Wetland. The centrepiece of the .35 hectares of wetland is a birdhouse sculpture- a miniature replica of the Toronto landscape at the beginning of the 20th century.

The Harbourfront Centre, located just to the east, is perhaps the most well known development on the waterfront and the largest draw of visitors. The Harbourfront Centre hosts a number of festivals throughout the summer that pack people into the area. Attractions include many types of ethnic food, kiosks selling wares, and a dance stage that features performances that are as diverse as the festivals themselves.

Public spaces like the wetlands, encourage a mix of people and conversation with strangers as people discuss the number of baby ducklings wading by. The patios are packed with people taking in the scenery. However the general up-scale nature of the dining amenities does not represent the diverse nature of Toronto. The many free outdoor festivals at Harbourfront Centre attract diverse crowds includng Beats, Breaks and Culture, Masala! Mehndi! Masti!, T.O. Twang and All Over the Map to name just a few.

History & Background

The tract of land along the 25 kilometres of Lake Ontario has become prime real estate in the process of urban densification, renewal and development. Industrial infrastructure that lines the shore now houses cultural venues like Harbourfront Centre and the Power Plant, a community centre and contemporary art gallery. While there have been some creative and innovative efforts in creating public spaces that truly assert a local identity. Private investment-led development threatens to turn the waterfront into a tourist spectacle; already this investment-led strategy has resulted in a curtain of high-rise condos that visually and psychologically cut the waterfront off from the rest of the city.

Contact Info:

Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Corporation: 416-214-1344

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