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How Toronto is reconnecting with its waterfront

People lounge at Sugar Beach. YONGE STREET/Tanja Tiziana

Somehow, somewhere along the way, Torontonians lost their connection with Lake Ontario.

Maybe it was the Gardiner Expressway, that car-logged eyesore running parallel to the shoreline. Or the industrialization of the waterfront brought by the creeping port system in Toronto’s teenaged years.

Either way, the people of this city fell out of touch with the water dancing across the 55-kilometre shoreline. And with that disconnect, for a brief time, they forgot it was there.

But that’s changing rapidly, as a swath of beautification and accessibility initiatives are inspiring Torontonians to get back down to the lake.

“I think we’re at a very exciting juncture in the history of the Toronto waterfront,” says M. Jane Fairburn, author of Along the Shore—Rediscovering Toronto’s Waterfront Heritage. “We have reinvigoration and reconnection to waterfront communities that were previously cut-off from the lake, but we also have new communities developing and many clean beaches.”

Over the next 30-35 years, 40,000 residential units are planned for construction along the waterfront from Dufferin to the eastern Beaches, according to Waterfront Toronto, the public advocacy organization that is leading the waterfront revitalization project.

A quick perusal of Waterfront Toronto’s website shows a hopeful and futuristic shoreline punctuated with green spaces and sustainably minded neighbourhoods. There’s the planned Lake Ontario Park, running 37 kilometres along the outer harbour shoreline and extending from Cherry Beach to Ashbridges Bay with connections to the Eastern Beaches and Tommy Thompson Park near the Leslie Spit.

Then there’s the West Don Lands community being developed between Parliament Street and the Don River, and bordered by King Street and the rail corridor. Portions of it will be used as an Athletes’ Village during the Toronto 2015 Pan/Parapan American Games.

The proposed East Bayfront Community—from Lower Jarvis Street to Parliament Street, Lake Shore Boulevard to Lake Ontario—is in a sense already on the go with the Sherbourne Common park, Sugar Beach, the Corus Quay and George Brown College’s Centre for Health Sciences up and running.

“Sugar beach is an example of a wonderful creative use of space there,” says Fairburn. “Those parks are needed where areas of the shoreline [were] industrialized, which was necessary at the time.”

It’s hard not to get excited, watching Waterfront Toronto’s videos with computer-generated people walking dogs on computer-generated boardwalks while lazy sailboats meander by.

After all, Toronto is a distinctly waterfront-based city.

Tanis Rideout, a Toronto writer and author of poetry collection Arguments with the Lake, thinks the shared waterfront should matter to everyone.

“We’re drawn to water. It’s a communal resource—not just for the fish or to drink—but because there’s something both calming and celebratory about using our lakefronts,” says Rideout, who was named Poet Laureate of Lake Ontario by conservationist non-profit Lake Ontario Waterkeeper in 2006. “It should be easy to get to the lake, sit by the lake, jump in the lake! There are certainly places in Toronto where that’s true, and I think the city is taking steps to help that—the revitalization of Harbourfront for one.”

Sure, with revitalization efforts come rerouted pedestrians and traffic cone-littered roadways, but Rideout is “hopeful that it will result in a much more beautiful experience down there once it’s done.”

The key to reconnecting lies in incorporating the lake within these developments—not annexing it.

“I think it’s easy to allow the problems associated with water and waterfronts—pollution, development, etc.—to not belong to us when we can’t even see the water. It makes it impossible to take possession of it, ownership of it,” says Rideout. “If we allow industry and government to say we can’t even sit by it then we tend to think of it as not being ours—so I do think these parks allow us to regain our connection with the lake.”

Beyond the hard hats and development plans, some groups are taking a different approach to bringing people back to the beach.

Mark Mattson, president of Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, points to the Swim Guide his organization developed—a handy little smart phone app that identifies which of Toronto’s 11 beaches is open, safe to swim, and when it was last tested.

“Governments have had this information for decades, but unfortunately they just slap it on the website irregularly or put it in a yearly report on the beaches of Toronto,” says Mattson. “This guide takes that info and makes it simple to access, easy and fun.”

Toronto’s beaches from Marie Curtis Park in the west to Rouge Beach in the east also subscribe to the international Blue Flag program and its stringent standards. A beach must be safe for swimming 80 per cent of the time to score a blue flag. The city’s beaches are usually safe 90 per cent of the time, unless there’s a heavy rainstorm much like the flooding seen in July.

If water samples measure above 100 parts E. coli per 100 ml of water, says Mattson, it is classified not safe for swimming. The national standard is 200.

“Bacteria only live in the environment for a short amount of time. Once it’s in the water, it (usually) dies,” says Mattson. “If a beach is closed, it’s because a big flushing or something has occurred and is happening on a consistent basis.”

He points to the beaches at Sunnyside where the Humber River flows into the lake.

“It’s tough to keep clean, particularly this time of year with so much storm water coming out there,” says Mattson. “It’d (probably) cost more than a million dollars to fix that, they might have to actually go up there and fix some of the pipes to redirect some of the sewage.”

Although some beaches in Toronto have a long way to go—Mattson’s doubtful he’ll ever see swimming or fishing in the harbourfront in his lifetime—the waterfront has seen a big improvement in the past decade.

Even having the ability to hang out by the water, like Rideout says, involves a lot of behind the scenes efforts.

Nancy Gaffney, waterfront specialist for the Toronto Regional Conservationist Authority (TRCA), chuckles when she explains some of the absurd but necessary efforts taken to keep the beaches enjoyable for people.

“Often before the first beachgoers arrive, we’re out there chasing geese off with dogs until people get settled,” says Gaffney. Then there’s the goose round up where the TRCA loads thousands of geese into vans and ushers them off to a sanctuary in London. Without much prodding, “they all just clamber up the ramp like they’re going to a smorgasbord,” says Gaffney.

It does keep the beach cleaner and more inviting.

“It’s not just water quality that’s important, it’s the experience. We want to make that beach experience as pleasurable as possible,” she adds. “Not everyone has the opportunity to go north to a cottage so this is their weekend escape.”

This article first appeared on Yonge Street.