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city river revival

The Don River is seen from the Leaside Bridge in Toronto, Ontario July 8, 2011.Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Biking down the Don River Trail, John Wilson rarely has two hands on the handlebars. The 16-year veteran and former chair of the Task Force to Bring Back the Don is pointing left and right at dozens of naturalization projects the group has spearheaded since 1989.

He seems routinely familiar with every bend in the trail, but just below the Bloor Street Viaduct he stops at the sight of a man, shovel in hand, scraping silt off the edge of the paved trail.

The man gives his name as Steve, and says he lives in the Taylor Creek area and rides the trail to work downtown. On days off from his job in the film industry he sometimes straps a shovel on his bike and does trail maintenance.

Steve explains the trail gets gradually narrower when regular floods leave silt on it. He says it can get unsafe, considering the huge increase in bike and foot traffic he's seen in 10 years riding the trail.

"A Bobcat [tractor]would make a short job of this," says Steve, looking at 50 metres of scraped silt and uprooted grass. "But at least I won't have to go to the gym today."

Riding away, Mr. Wilson says he is of two minds about Steve's work. On one hand, he is thrilled. "It was always the goal of the task force to connect people to this river and valley," he says. On the other hand, he wonders why it's not a city worker wielding the shovel.

But Mr. Wilson is no longer in a good position to lobby city hall for trail improvements. He is the task force's former chair because the body no longer exists. Even though the volunteer members funded themselves through donations and only asked the city for some staff support and an occasional empty meeting room, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford declined to re-establish it this year.

The Don's past is as gritty as any other urban river. After being used by industrialists who saw it as a resource, it was ignored by politicians who considered it a civic liability. Despite winning dubious honours for its levels of pollution, the Don has shown itself to be resilient. And, with an engaged public, it is among those urban rivers turning the corner.

Looking back on 22 years of rehabilitating the Don, Mr. Wilson calls the task force a "wonderful success story." But the ending has yet to be written. Ontario's Ministry of the Environment is reviewing an environmental assessment for a Waterfront Toronto proposal that would re-naturalize the mouth of the Don through a redeveloped western Portlands. The plan is ambitious, and would mark the river's ultimate redemption, but if a volunteer task force is too much for the city to get behind, what chance does a transformative redevelopment have?

Just south of the viaduct, Mr. Wilson points out Chester Springs Marsh, a three-hectare site the task force created in 1996. The site was once one of the Don Valley's countless garbage dumps, and then a parking lot for utility trucks. Four years after excavation and planting, an Environment Canada survey found the wetland had more nesting marsh birds than the Great Lakes' average.

But if nature is going to bounce back fully, it has a long way to go.

Dr. Henry Scadding, who was the first student enrolled at Upper Canada College before becoming a folklorist and clergyman, wrote about catching 20 salmon in one hour at his farm in what is now Riverdale Park in the 1830s.

This state of nature wouldn't last, though. Jennifer Bonnell is a post-doctoral fellow in history at the University of Guelph and author of the forthcoming book Reclaiming Toronto's Don River Valley: an Environmental History of an Urban Wasteland. Dr. Bonnell says when the last Don River salmon was speared in 1896, the river was already choking on dozens of mills and suffocating from sawdust and human effluent. Deforestation reduced rainwater absorption in the watershed, lowering the water table and rendering many of the mills useless at the same time that more noxious industries moved in.

Effluent from the many slaughterhouses, tanneries and soap factories turned the Ashbridges Bay estuary, one of the largest wetlands on the Great Lakes, into a potential source of typhus and cholera, Dr. Bonnell says. It had to go, and in 1912, it was filled in to create the Portlands. The Don was forced into a right-angle turn to enter Lake Ontario through the concrete Keating Channel.

Over the next 30 years petrochemical refineries lit up the Don – most notably in 1931 when the slick river caught fire and flames damaged the Eastern Avenue Bridge.

By the 1950s, according to Dr. Bonnell, shipping and economic forces were moving heavier industry off the Lower Don. Then came the Don Valley Parkway.

"Twenty-five years ago you had to climb fences to get here," says Mr. Wilson, pointing to the hard-won public river access the task force gained between Lake Ontario and Pottery Road.

Mr. Wilson bikes past the staircases the task force lobbied for at Riverdale Park and Queen Street, arriving at a pedestrian wormhole under the railway that will link the river to the new Don River Park, a sculpted flood barrier that now protects the West Donlands precinct that Waterfront Toronto is building around the Distillery District.

Carp push around plastic water bottles behind booms that keep a city's flotsam out of the lake, while Mr. Wilson looks south from the channel and imagines a new mouth for the Don. The river would cut through 125 hectares of urban renewal, including 53 hectares of parks and public spaces among mixed-use neighbourhoods for 25,000 people.

"How is it possible that such a spectacular moment in such a spectacular city even exists?" asks project architect Michael Van Valkenburgh, arguing that the views, green space, and proximity to the lake will make for some of the most valuable commercial and residential real estate in the city.

Before that value is unlocked, there has to be billions in public and private investment to open the flood-friendly mouth. Waterfront Toronto must have its priorities funded by three levels of government each year, and the lowest level is currently searching for savings of $20-million here and there as part of a municipal core service review.

However, there is increasing force pushing the Don out of its industrial confines.

"Every community meeting on the proposal had 200 people come out," says Mr. Van Valkenburgh. "It was exciting to work with people who were so passionate."

Special to the Globe and Mail