Discussing Waterfronts – Toronto

Waterfront Toronto: urban playground meets aquatic habitat

What does it really take to build a booming public waterfront? According to Project for Public Spaces a successful waterfront needs 10 qualities to flourish. Does this mean that if these former ports do indeed lack certain assets, they will not develop into booming public spaces? Or are some qualities maybe more important than others for long term sustainable waterfront development?

In a series of three blogs we are discussing the waterfronts in Barcelona, the harbour front in Rotterdam and the Waterfront in Toronto. From Barcelona Harbourfront and coastal area we learned that a strong community vision advocating local character, promoting historic identity and safeguarding accessibility are important for long term success. This vision however can be lost easily or be encouraged through good management. Rotterdam understood that every neighbourhood had its own atmospere and they looked and listened well in order to make things work in future projects.

What can we say about these qualities when looking at Toronto’s waterfront?

Toronto is located beside Lake Ontario. The first Great Lake from the St. Lawrence River, which has always been used as a way of transport, changed Toronto from a small trading camp into the vibrant metropole it is today.

Toronto waterfront 1830

Since much of the city’s major trade has been by boat, having manufacturing facilities adjacent to the waterfront was also good for business. Factories on the lakeshore allowed supplies to be easily received and finished products to be effectively transported. However, by the 1830s and ‘40s, the lack of available land along the waterfront severely limited the growth of the shipping and industrial and railway infrastructure.


In the 1850s, a massive campaign of lake-filling was undertaken to expand the shore land south to the Esplanade. For the next hundred years, the shore was extended farther and farther south.


The original shoreline was north of today’s rail corridor, and Front Street was built along the edge of the shoreline.


The filling continued until the 1950s when the modern shoreline was achieved.


Not a desirable place to live

After the Second World War, Toronto’s relationship with its waterfront changed. With industry concentrated along the waterfront, the downtown core became undesirable as a place to live because of the factories, traffic and pollution.

For decades, the wealthy moved from the industrial urban areas to the cleaner suburbs.Toronto residents moved out of the citycentre to the outlying areas. However, since many of the jobs were still in downtown industrial areas, major roads and highways were needed to enable people to commute. In the 1950s the Gardiner Expressway was built, cutting the people off from the lake.

The construction of the Gardiner Express Highway

Toronto one of the last cities to redevelop its waterfront

From the 1970’s onwards an urban revolution was changing the world, and cities started to rediscover their waterfronts as Project for Public Spaces describes in ’10 qualities of a great waterfront destination’. These  newly developed waterfronts attracted more residents, more employers, more jobs and more visitors.

Toronto however was one of the last major waterfront cities to redevelop its waterfront. Besides Harbourfront Centre and Queen’s Quay Terminal, not a lot of major redevelopment had taken place.

Was this due to the lack of most of those 10 qualities, that the Toronto waterfront stayed underdeveloped? Various reasons, among which the negative image of the Toronto waterfront characterized by predominately industrial and transport land uses, might have accumulated to its underdevelopment. But one important reason in particular seems to have held back redevelopment during those early years: the lack of good management with a coherent community vision.


Actually, up until 1999 the redevelopment of the waterfront might have been envisaged with no community vision at all. As the city was thinking in a way that only would economically benefit the short term and not – like the city council in Barcelona (Spain) – use the opportunity of the olympic games and rebuild the whole waterfront area for the use of future generations.

Toronto had plans for the 1996 Olympics to locate all kinds of facilities along the waterfront. However Toronto lost its bid due to the lack of variety in these facilities either planned or already there. The waterfront again remained unchanged, except for some commercial condominium development.

Finally in 1999 a task force was created to develop a business plan and make recommendations for developing the waterfront as part of Toronto’s offer to host the this time 2008 Summer Olympics .They stated that the need for the redevelopment of Toronto’s waterfront was so strong that, regardless the Olympics, the waterfront renewal should take place anyway.

On this statement the three-levels of government jointly provided funding for the Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Corporation (TWRC), responsible for the $17 billion, 30-year waterfront revitalization project

Allthough detailed and expensive plans of environmentally sound development were written down in recommendations, still again few – if any – were carried out. It was not up until 2003 when the provincial government enacted the Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Corporation Act and created a permanent independent organization to oversee and lead the renewal of Toronto’s waterfront, that things finally starting moving forward.

Now called Waterfront Toronto its funding model leverages the public capital by working with private development partners who buy the land for development, and the money earned is used to further fund public infrastructure. To date, Waterfront Toronto has finalized three private sector development partnership agreements that will result in $1.3 billion of private sector development on Toronto’s waterfront.

From non coherent to unity

The area of the Toronto waterfront renewal is roughly divided into three precincts: West Don Land, East Bayfront and the Portlands. Priority projects at Mimico, Port Union and Union Station are also part of the plan. It is a long-term plan for environmental improvements, economic activity and overall enhancement of quality of life through development of a designated waterfront area (DWA).

Plans are to build predominantly low-rise developments, with a waterfront opened up to public uses, including recreation. The Don River, diverted into a channel is slated to become ‘naturalized’ with more natural river banks and a more natural appearance.

Realizing the potential of these approximately 800 hectares (2000 acres) of land is a priority of Toronto City Council. Toronto’s growth is being directed away from natural environment to (former industrial) areas that can contribute to significant change. The plan is to bring the waterfront lands in the heart of the city back into use, via sustainable, compact growth serviced by transit and pedestrian and cycling routes.

The first new waterfront communities are a fact in East Bayfront and West Don Lands, where athletes and officials were housed in an athletes’ Village as part of the 2015 Pan/Parapan American Games.

Central Waterfront

In 2006, Waterfront Toronto began the process of revitalizing the central waterfront area. First they had to develop a long-term vision for the central waterfront’s public space around buildings such as sidewalks, streets, promenades and parks. To do that, Waterfront Toronto launched the Central Waterfront Innovative Design Competition in 2006 so they could harvest fresh ideas for how to transform the area into an innovative waterfront.

The competition was won by a team led by West 8, a landscape architecture and urban design firm from Rotterdam in joint venture with DTAH (du Toit Allsopp Hillier), a Toronto architecture, landscape architecture and urban design firm. The plan aims to provide an inovative face for the central waterfront. The design includes a wide promenade along the water and extensive green space. Bridges and WaveDecks rising from the boardwalk and spanning the ends of the slips will provide continuous public access to the lakeshore.

In the scheme, the southern half of Queens Quay will be turned into a pedestrian walkway which the landscape architect envisions will become Toronto’s version of the La Rambla, Barcelona’s pedestrian route. The proposal also emphasizes the need for stronger north–south connections between the harbour and the downtown core. With the execution of these plans Toronto surely meets one of the qualities for a great waterfront destination: access made easy by boat, bike and foot.

Simcoe WaveDeckAccording to Waterfront Toronto, planning the Central Waterfront is a collaborative process that will continue throughout the project – even during construction. Since the Innovative Design Competition in 2006, Waterfront Toronto has worked closely with community stakeholder groups, landowners and the general public.

Although initial plans were to build predominantly low-rise development, with a collaborative project like this with different stakeholders and landowners, it must have been difficult to implement. Especially at the Central Waterfront the low-rise development seems to have been sacrificed for high-rise buildings. This might have had something to do with the delay during the first phase of the project – initially planned to be completed in 2008.

Due to the lack of funding, in 2008 no work had been undertaken, but private developers began construction of a condominium complex at the foot of Yonge Street and TEDCO (Toronto Economic Development Corporation) started construction of Corus Quay, the Toronto headquarters of media company Corus Entertainment. Originally named First Waterfront Place, Corus Quay is an eight-storey commercial office tower located on the waterfront site. Funding for the project came from TEDCO’s equity, city loans and a $12.5 million contribution from the city contributed via Waterfront Toronto.

At the moment 3 WaveDecks are finished: Rees WaveDeck, Simcoe WaveDeck and Spadina WaveDeck

East Bay

The East Bayfront property was used primarily as a marine freight transfer facility under the Toronto Harbour Commission, and by Canadian Pacific Express and Transport Ltd. and others.The evolution of downtown Toronto and changes in the goods movement industry has meant that the area no longer functions as a busy industrial port.Today, approximately 70% of the East Bayfront precinct land area is in public ownership.

And despite the fact that in this waterfront area high rise buildings are present in large numbers, the water itself still draws enough attention. PPS mentions the fact that high-rise towers that lack any public uses on the ground floor are noticeably out of place along rivers, lakes and ocean fronts. They state that they usually create a wall that physically and psychologically cuts off the waterfront from surrounding neighbourhoods.

The East Bay area’s bounderies are set from Lower Jarvis Street to Parliament Street, Lake Shore Boulevard to Lake Ontario. Life in East Bayfront will be defined by the lake and the parks and public spaces surrounding it. Two signature parks, Sherbourne Common and Canada’s Sugar Beach, and a kilometre-long continuous Water’s Edge Promenade and Boardwalk make up a quarter of the community. Considering the design of the towers, and the distance between them, it’s likely that people will not experience this neighboorhood as being cut of from the waterfront.

East Bayfront

Although most of the historical buildings are replaced by new flexible design projects, policy makers hope that, just like the Poble Nou area in Barcelona, East Bayfront will be an intelligent community that will attract pre-eminent organizations from knowledge and creative-based industries, supported by state-of-the-art technological infrastructure. In this, the local identity is showcased creating a unique sense of place.

The Monde development located north of Queens Quay, just east of Sherbourne Common is the first private sector development in East Bayfront. Monde is a mixed-use development featuring residential, retail, office/employment and institutional uses.

The largest development parcel situated in the heart of East Bayfront waterfront district is Bayside.This vibrant, mixed-use waterfront community will contain more than two million square feet of residential, office, retail and cultural uses.


West Don lands

Up untill the 90’s the Don lands was not a desirable neighbourhood to live or set up a business – the area, bordered by the Don River, King Street, Parliament Street and the Gardiner Expressway – is 80 hectares and a former industrial district. The area was heavily polluted and deteriorated and much of the land was left abandoned as it required expensive clean-up before it could be used for residential or employment purposes. Another factor against conversion to other uses was that the lands were floodplains and as such could not be the site of residences.

Due to political and economic reasons it was not up untill 2007 before any development could occur. In that year the building of Corktown Common’s, a flood protection landform, was started. The landform was necessary before any other development of the West Don Lands could occur. The plan was envisaged to take 12 years to develop.

This changed in 2009, when it was announced that the West Don Lands would be the home of the athlete’s village for the 2015 Pan American Games.The Corktown Common park was completed in 2013. It serves as open space, recreational space and a flood barrier for the development. Also, the area’s first affordable housing development is being constructed by Toronto Community Housing. The development provides affordable rental housing for families and seniors. Allthough according to PPS one of the qualities to a booming waterfront is that limits are placed on residential development, these community houses can actually help enliven the waterfront neighboorhood, making it urban and people focused.


Besides the Corktown Commonpark, the Underpass Park, an urban space located beneath a series of overpasses, opened in summer 2012. The former industrial area is now a community that is family friendly, environmentally sustainable and designed for living. Especially in the design of the Underpass Park they cleverly made use of the iconic building already in situ, adapting it to serve a variety of functions, but mainly to help establish a convivial setting for social interaction. The graffiti on the pillars serves as public art and is a great magnet for people of all ages to come together.

The Portlands

The Portlands is a man-made area created by infilling what was once the largest wetland on the Great Lakes. Beginning in the 1880s, the area was gradually filled in to make more land available for industry and shipping. Much of Toronto’s waterfront was constructed by filling in parts Lake Ontario with materials that are considered contaminated by current standards. Waterfront Toronto and the City of Toronto began work in October 2011 to create a development and implementation plan for the Port Lands.

Waterfront Toronto has landscaped and enhanced key streets and intersections, and added cycling trails as part of a greening of the area. Recreational facilities have also been improved. In 2004, Waterfront Toronto completed landscape improvements and restoration of Cherry Beach, one of Toronto’s most popular beaches located along southern shore of Lake Ontario in the western end of the Port Lands.

Lake Ontario Park redevelopment project

A future initiative will be the development of Lake Ontario Park. It will transform the southern portion of the Port Lands into part of a massive new park. Lake Ontario Park will be an urban wilderness and recreational park that will define Toronto’s relationship with the waterfront. The area is currently made up of a collection of disparate pieces. The vision for the park is to collect all of these sites into one coherent look and feel and provide a wide variety of experiences, amenities and uses including an urban wilderness, water sports, recreation and culture. One can easily imagine that activities can go on round-the-clock and throughout the year, also one of the 10 qualities of a great waterfront destination according to PPS.

Collaborative process leads to coherent look and feel

Allthough redevelopment of the waterfront of Toronto took much longer than initially was planned for, also much longer than any city with a industrial waterfront past, after different parties finally agreed on how to take on these redevelopment plans, it seems that the waterfront Toronto plan is going to be one of the most inspiring redevelopment plans of the last decade.

Schermafdruk 2016-02-14 20.22.35

Not everything is finished yet, but the impressive short time in which 3 big waterfront areas have been developed from industrial zone to three different areas with diverse mixture of uses but still keeping a coherent look and feel, is very promising. When we look at the list for a flourishing waterfront by, actually many of the qualities are present in the waterfront areas of Toronto.

But the most important Toronto lesson is that good management that maintains community vision was key factor for its success. For this point was lost for a long time up until 1999. After this date it became very clear to the cooperating parties that without unity the dream of a flourishing waterfront could never be realized.

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Blog by: Melanie Vrauwdeunt - City Works' staff writer, writes about city lifestyle and urban issues. Her daily life she devides her time between her work at the University of Amsterdam, writing, catching up on her reading, delivering content for numerous lifestyle websites and her frequent travels.