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Along the Don, River Valley Park will line the river with kilometres of meandering bike paths, elaborate playgrounds and a variety of landscapes.Waterfront Toronto

The water had not yet arrived, but the way across was already there. In Toronto’s Port Lands recently, I walked through a vast trench where the Don River will one day flow underneath the Commissioners Street Bridge.

The bridge’s two sections – smooth arcs of white steel with accents of persimmon orange – stretched above an expanse of muck, boulders and somebody’s white pickup. The whole assembly was, for the moment, low enough to the ground that someone could bang their hard-hatted head on it.

Which I did. “The river will be 200 metres wide at this location,” David Kusturin, an executive with the public agency Waterfront Toronto, shouted over the beeping of a bulldozer as I rubbed my temple. “And up there,” he said, pointing, “in the fullness of time, you’ll have retail, you’ll have patios, you’ll have room for development.”

That future, and the flow of the river, will come quite soon. By 2023 the Port Lands Flood Protection Project will completely re-engineer the Don’s mouth, protecting 240 hectares on the doorstep of downtown Toronto, and opening a huge area for new building.

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Wide perspective of the Port Lands project in Toronto with the old Hearn Generating Station in the background on Nov. 3.Patrick Dell/The Globe and Mail

To get there, workers led by EllisDon are moving 1.4 million cubic metres of soil and placing boulders and logs in a precisely designed pattern to manage the flow of the river and the health of the species that will occupy it. They are installing three new bridges (designed by the English architects Grimshaw, with engineers Entuitive). They are building roads, moving hydro infrastructure, relocating falcons. (Falcons? “If they set up shop in a building we need to demolish,” Mr. Kusturin said, “that wreaks havoc with the schedule.”)

The project is a massive work of environmental engineering, city planning and landscape architecture, a $1.25-billion effort overseen by Waterfront Toronto. It has received relatively little attention so far. One reason is that the work to date is largely “pushing dirt around,” as Mr. Kusturin put it. Another is that the Don River has been so diminished and overwhelmed by human activity, highways, bridges and rail lines.

“People don’t even realize there’s a river there,” said Christopher Glaisek, chief planning and design officer for Waterfront Toronto. “It’s so crisscrossed with infrastructure, it’s difficult even to see it.” But the Don “is a significant river,” he added. “It’s one of the two rivers that shaped Toronto. And now it will be the site of urban intensification, right up against a thriving ecosystem.”

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Earth moving equipment with the new Commissioners Street Bridge in the background at Toronto’s Port Lands.Patrick Dell/The Globe and Mail

By “urban intensification,” Mr. Glaisek means a new neighbourhood that will be known as Villiers Island. This 35-hectare zone, located in the midst of what is now a mostly barren industrial area in the Port Lands, will be surrounded by the lake and the new shape of the river.

Currently, the Don runs south toward Lake Ontario, but takes a sharp right turn into the Keating Channel, a narrow concrete-lined passage that was engineered in 1910. At that time, the Toronto Harbour Commission landfilled a huge wetland to create a port and industrial zone that has been, for most of a century, badly underused. The river became very volatile; when the Don floods its banks, which it often does, its waters threaten a large area of Toronto.

Governments have known for decades that this is a problem, but have bickered for decades over a solution. In 2007, Waterfront Toronto, jointly owned by the governments of Toronto, Ontario and Canada, created a design competition to address the mouth of the river.

The winning team was led not by engineers but by landscape architects, the prominent American firm Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA). “We coloured outside the lines,” said MMVA’s Herb Sweeny, “by looking at what the river wanted to be. And it wanted the opportunity to meander” – to wander back and forth, changing its course over time – “as part of a major wetland.”

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At some point in 2023, the Don will start to move under the bridges, past the parks and down to the promontory.The Globe and Mail

The MVVA design, which is being built largely as its creators envisioned, will let the river do its thing. It will maintain the Keating Channel, which runs west into the lake, but the plan adds a north-south spillway – a “relief valve for the river” in times of flood, as Mr. Sweeney explains it. And then there’s the design’s biggest addition: a new “naturalized” mouth for the river. This is where I banged my head. It will run to the west, cut through the middle of the Port Lands and empty into the lake, flanked by parks with billion-dollar skyline views.

On a map, this appears straightforward: one strong vertical line that peters out at the bottom, a horizontal stripe and a broad line sashaying right to left. But the scale of the construction is gargantuan. Villiers Island is comparable in size to downtown Toronto’s Financial District. “It’s really hard to describe how much effort went into this,” Mr. Glaisek said. “The things that people identify as landscape architecture – it goes way deeper than that.”

The Villiers Island neighbourhood will be 10 blocks of European-style midrise buildings. The plan calls for 4,865 homes and 2,900 jobs, along with cultural facilities and eventually a school. Mr. Glaisek said the redeveloped area will present “a very powerful wall of midrise buildings,” which he compared to New York’s Central Park West. The details of this plan are now being finalized by city staff. In November, city councillors called for an increased proportion of subsidized housing.

If some details of the neighbourhood remain uncertain, its basic shape is clear. So is the design of the open space around it. This will include a total 80 hectares of parkland, all designed by MVVA. Along the Don, River Valley Park will line the river with kilometres of meandering bike paths, elaborate playgrounds and a variety of landscapes. “You will be able to move down from the street into a formally designed park space,” Mr. Glaisek said, “and then a more naturalized zone of levees and boardwalks and the river itself.” Wetlands along the river will bring back indigenous species of plants and, in turn, animals.

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David Kusturin, Chief Project Officer for Waterfront Toronto, looks over the edge of the new Cherry Street Bridge North at Toronto’s Port Lands project.Patrick Dell/The Globe and Mail

The end of the journey will be Promontory Park, overlooking the downtown skyline. Here Waterfront Toronto hopes to create a “destination playground,” funded by philanthropy, that will draw children and their parents from across the region. Early drawings featured a playground with a giant pink beaver. The beaver may not show up, Mr. Sweeney explained, but there will be a “layering of activity” here that will draw people. “It will be one of Toronto’s largest contiguous open spaces and one of the city’s most significant,” he said.

Here, human-made elements and natural ones will collide. When I visited the site with Mr. Kusturin, we looked at Promontory Park’s landmark: a 300-tonne crane, installed in 1961, that will tower over the wetlands, forest and lawns as a totem of the area’s industrial past. There will also be space for Indigenous ceremonial practice, an art walk and barbecues.

But the big draw could be a chance to get in the water. For now, the Don River doesn’t come to this point, and neither does Lake Ontario: As I saw on my visit with Mr. Kusturin, builders have constructed a thick reinforced-concrete wall that keeps the lake’s water back. At some point in 2023, the Don will start to move under the bridges, past the parks and down to the promontory. Builders will very slowly start to pull that wall apart, and the river will flow through.

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