The Port Lands hosts a range of industries, integral to the city's functionality, cement operations that supply downtown development projects, and road salt storage.
Industry also includes film studios and related businesses, music and art studios, entertainment facilities, aggregate and cement operations, municipal and private waste facilities, a natural gas-powered hydro plant, Toronto Hydro, Toronto Transit Commission, Canada Post, soil remediation operations, and a food-fuel-feed flaxseed plant.
Industry has a troubled past in the Port Lands. The once vast wetland at the mouth of the Don River was slowly converted into industrial land starting in the 1880's, filled in with sewer sludge, ash and refuse. Industries like oil storage tank farms further contaminated the land.
Standards and practices have improved; a recent amendment can be seen along the shipping channel where the salt piles have been covered to minimize salt contamination of the adjacent land and waterways.
There are other signs of improvement: the Portlands Energy Centre is establishing a Carolinian forest, and hosts a University of Toronto researcher's bee colonies, and the new TTC Barns is installing an environmentally friendly stormwater management pond and bird-friendly windows.
The district is considered brownfields, in need of remediation before development can begin. Remediation includes soil capping that allows for construction on the surface. The Pinewood Toronto Film Studios sit on such a site. Soil and groundwater monitoring is evident on vacant land where vertical tubes jut out of the ground, a sign that more development is to come.
Industry has slowly relocated outside of Toronto's centre, but still has a strong presence here. Parkland and recreational facilities are located in and around these large scale industries, creating this environment's unique dynamics.
Natural forces are unstoppable. Flora and fauna push through every crack and crevice as they persistently claim the landscape. Weather and water erode the surfaces they encounter, and soil and seeds disperse far and wide. Industry and recreation have to deal with the destructive incursions, even as they use these same forces to their benefit.
The Port Lands offers public access to the waterfront, where we find evidence of its human constructed past. Cherry Beach is pebbly underfoot, sand and stones are interspersed with well-tumbled pieces of glass and brick.
Human intervention is even more obvious along the shoreline to the east, which is shored up by concrete slabs. The natural force of erosion reveals their rebar skeletons. They are slippery with algae and zebra mussels.
East of the Beach is a naturalized area with abundant goldenrod and milkweed, and tangles of fruit trees, red osier dogwoods and wild roses. Willows and maples grow along the waterfront, masking the shoreline from the road.
Resident animals include hundreds of bird species, rodents and rabbits, coyotes, deer, fish and insects. Invasive species like zebra mussels and fire ants have also arrived.
The natural elements thrive here on their own, their symbiotic relationships providing each other with nutrition and habitat.
This landscape will not be allowed to return to a wild state, it is too valuable. But there is good news even as plans for residential development have been announced: the mouth of the Don River will be amended as planners move to integrate municipal and development needs with the landscape's natural flows. It is a sign of our changing relationship with our environment.
The Don River project exemplifies the dynamic give and take between the competing interests of nature, recreation and industry as they negotiate ever-evolving relationships.
Come see the grand views from the roads, bridges and trails that reveal dramatic contrasts: flat land punctuated by monumental pyramids, cement dusted roads sit next to long shipping channels, circling hawks and uniformed cyclists move through the landscape that's made up of naturalized parkland and towering chimney stacks.
Recreation makes use of what nature has to offer, and the Port Lands offers a variety of options that attract recreational users of all types. There are quiet places for solitary pursuits, and more social spaces for those who prefer to interact with others.
Recreation includes sports, and other types of physical engagement with land and water. Popular Port Lands activities are cycling, rollerblading, walking, swimming, beachcombing, boating, fishing, windsurfing, kiteboarding, soccer, gardening, and dog walking.
While most of the recreational pursuits blend into the landscape, a stark contrast is found at the Cherry Beach Sports Fields where the land is hidden under unnatural astroturf. This fake grass is comically peppered with rabbit droppings.
The Royal Canadian Yacht Club is situated next to working docks, and a marina is moored on the peninsula spit that forms the Outer Harbour. Small sailing and windsurfing clubs are tucked in next to the naturalized waterfront east of Cherry Beach. Their gates and fences restrict public access to a section of the southern shore, but they offer their members a community, and a way to engage with the water rather than viewing it from the shore.
The Martin Goodman Trail is a mixed-use path that winds through the district. It provides safe passage to those who prefer to travel without feeling endangered by the industrial traffic. Not everyone prefers the safer route: serious cyclists train on the roads, preferring to endure the company of mammoth trucks rather than riding cautiously along the winding Trail where they must be alert for wandering pedestrians and startled wildlife.
The Port Lands district is wild and industrial, intimate and awe-inspiring.
Its dynamic character is shaped by the forces of industry, nature, and recreation that share the landscape.