Art / Cycling

Firing Up Green Space: Eco-Transformation of Brick Works. Don River Valley, Toronto

Storage shed turned into an information-bus shelter for Toronto Transit bus stop at Brickworks, just off the Don Valley Parkway. Toronto 2009. Photo by J. Chong

Storage shed turned into an information-bus shelter for Toronto Transit bus stop at Brickworks, just off the Don Valley Parkway. Toronto 2011. Photo by J. Chong

It was strange for me to reach the Brick Works by car. Over a decade ago, I used to cycle daily near this area, between home and work, through the Don River Valley ravine park system when I worked up near the Thorncliffe Plaza area.

Several times when we lived in Toronto, we would cycle hesitantly into the derelict Brick Works area that languished among scrub, weeds, graffiti, wire bundles and half crumbling buildings.

In reclaimed pond area by former brickmaking site, blue heron pokes around near walking trail. Toronto 2009. Photo by J. Chong

In reclaimed pond area by former brickmaking site, blue heron pokes around near walking trail. Toronto 2011. Photo by J. Chong

From Brickmaking to Environmental Education Centre
Now I was keen to drop by this abandoned quarry brickmaking factory site nestled in the valley woods. I knew it had been transformed into an active environmental educational complex with public space for community events, art, cycling repair skills, weekend farmers’ market, garden shop and restaurant. They even cater to public and private events. While we were there, a group of students were learning rope-rappelling while trussed up in their safety harnesses.

This year during my Toronto visit, one of my sisters offered to drive and see it herself since she drove by daily to get to work between North York and downtown Toronto. She still wasn’t familiar with the correct road turn-off from the Bayview extension onto the bike path. I was no help either because after moving away from Toronto 13 years ago, I had forgotten my cycling path navigational points among the snarl of roads by Bayview near the Don Valley Parkway.

Looking towards Brick Works complex. Tepee is part of environmental education site area. Don River Valley, Toronto 2011. Photo by J. Chong

Looking towards Brick Works complex. Tepee is part of environmental education site area. Don River Valley, Toronto 2011. Photo by J. Chong

Site Location Encourages Cycling, Transit, Hiking
By the front entrance, there’s a stop for a Toronto Transit bus from the Broadview subway station. The bus shelter is a cute open green shed, fashioned out of recycled materials in front of the nursery garden shop.

Any car driver learns quickly that driving isn’t going to be the only option. In addition to the requisite bike racks for cyclists from the Don Valley bike path park system, there were 2 demonstration battery recharger stations for an electric car and 2 stalls for a car share.

Right by the bike racks, there is roof covered open space that is occupied by a Saturday farmers’ market during warmer seasons. The first time the organizers hesitantly opened the market in May 2010, the market (and parking lot) was overwhelmed by thousands of curious visitors. Clearly the message was not to get there by car if you could avoid it.

Rusty patina suits this recycled steel art of running shoes. Brick Works, Don River Valley. Toronto 2011. Photo by J. Chong

Rusty patina suits this recycled steel art of running shoes. Brick Works, Don River Valley. Toronto 2011. Photo by J. Chong

The Brick Works is operated by the non-profit organization, Evergreen, which supports some other projects. It was previously bounced around in its stewardship by City of Toronto and prior to that, private firms, including TorValley, a private developer that wanted to build condos in this green valley oases! That idea was nixed by horrified nearby residents and environmentalists.

Toronto’s Historic Red Bricked Buildings Hail from These Kilns
At peak production in 1907, Brick Works was pumping out 100,000 bricks daily which marked it the most productive brick factory kiln in North America. It took several days to bake the red bricks. The kiln operations provided Toronto, the bricks to rebuild the city after the 1904 Great Fire. Red bricked buildings in downtown historic Toronto and Rosedale can be attributed to the Brick Works. The kilns had been fired up since 1890.

Brick Works site used to make red bricks featured in many of Toronto's historic buildiings that still stand today. Osgoode Hall, Ontario Legislative Building, some of University of Toronto buildings, etc. 2011. Photo by J. Chong

Brick Works site used to make red bricks featured in many of Toronto’s historic buildiings that still stand today. Osgoode Hall, Ontario Legislative Building, some of University of Toronto buildings, etc. 2011. Photo by J. Chong

Brick Works provided Toronto the red bricks featured in its key historic buildings.

Today, visitors can stroll along several aisles of semi-ghostly kilns adorned with some art graffiti and  inner rail conveyor belts and cat-walks for hauling bricks through the production line. Here and there, are pieces of art work hung on the walls.

Fanciful Outdoor Art with Recycled Materials
While winding through the complex in the sun, we discovered some  permanent art installations fashioned from recycled metal bars and other materials burnished to a terra cotta-rust patina. Near the front of the Brick Works complex, was fabulous wall metal fountain art work where it was literally a wall-map journey of twisted metal rails filled with sprouting green cover plants.

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Running water rivulets fed the living pathways of plants –-  a graceful paean to our urban greenways and other precious nooks and crannies of public green space.   Another favourite was the gigantic pair of running shoes with untied shoelaces near the start of some walking trails.

Baby turtle triplets basking on log in pond created by flooding part of the quarry. Brick Works, Toronto 2011. Photo by J. Chong

Baby turtle triplets basking on log in pond created by flooding part of the quarry. Brick Works, Toronto 2011. Photo by J. Chong

The quarry area has been rejuvenated with flooded ponds, natural grasses, cattails and connected walkways.  We saw  baby black turtle triplets sunning lazily on a log while below the muddy waters, adult red-tailed green turtles peeped occasionally to the surface.

Only 8 metres away from a gaggle of chattering schoolchildren and their teacher, a blue heron bird, unruffled by the noise, stalked calmly for fish on its little man-made island.

Here one forgot that one of Toronto’s busiest expressways, the Don Valley was whirring with harried drivers from downtown only 10 km. south of this languid green space destination.  When I return, I’m cycling back with more time to explore the hiking trails and to hang  out to be placid as a turtle on a log.

Further Reading:
Chapman, Sasha.  Wild Thing: The Story Behind the Brick Works.  In Toronto Life, Aug. 25, 2010.

Evergreen. Brick Works web site.

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14 thoughts on “Firing Up Green Space: Eco-Transformation of Brick Works. Don River Valley, Toronto

    • You’re right, I like to touch upon a bit of history where appropriate. In today’s world of replacing the old with new along with distractions of each new shiny thing, we forget.

      The Don River Valley is part of Toronto’s flood plain. After Hurricane Hazel in early 1950’s, the valley ravine area was turned into a conservation/park area. No homes allowed to be built. Unlike Calgary.. But that Toronto developer decades did try to launch a proposal as noted in blog post.

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  1. Hi Jean,
    I love the idea of reclaiming sites like this one and I really enjoyed this reclamation project tour, along with the images that brought the text alive. I trust you had a lovely summer vacation with your siblings and are back to peddling through Calgary.

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    • Thanks for dropping by, timethief. The flood that occurred in Toronto this past July, part of the water submerged abit of the car expressway near by, Don Valley Parkway. I don’t know if this particular site was affected. It is located in a green belt that runs through the centre of Toronto, but buried in a ravine valley. Their park system has been there for decades. Yes, some good time spent with my family recently.

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  2. Jean, thank you for sharing such a wonderful space! I especially loved the metal sculpture of the shoes with the plants behind providing the color :-) I love seeing spaces turning green. We have a botanical garden being built here in Pgh. at the site of a strip mining area and another large urban space being restored as part of our watershed system in the area. It CAN happen, and can be so beautiful and inspiring. Thanks again for sharing. I would also love to hang out with those turtles :-)

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    • That’s great that your city transformed that dead piece of land. Abandoned mining areas are interesting areas if handled properly for environmental remediation before planting anything. Some beautiful gardens from old quarries, that have been created in the Northwest coast… famous Butchart Gardens in Victoria B.C. and Queen Elizabeth Gardens in Vancouver BC (latter is free by the way). Both are surrounded by views of mountains in a distance.

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  3. Great post about this reclaimed area, its photos give such a lovely visual tour!
    In Shanghai, old building structures are disappearing everyday, replaced by new shiny things, whether you like it or not. Gone with them is also the history.
    I particularly love the picture of the turtles, reminds me of Hong Kong, where you can see tons of turtles sunbathing on logs like that.

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    • It’s sad that Shanghai is blind in its quest to show its modern face to the world. It is strange with other Asian bloggers who have been educated overseas in Europe or North America, but now they live in Asia, they tell me underneath the modern veneer, another culture resides. Maybe it’s true within our generation but not in younger?

      I know you’ve tried to showcase these historic areas in your blog.

      If we could have a lovely simple life like the turtles. We do, for short periods of time.

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  4. Beautiful and very interesting place Jean! Thanks for sharing. Great pictures too. I particularly love the graffiti art and the turtles. This is really a great transformation and an amazing green space.

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  5. Lovely post, Jean. Your posts always seem to have a leisurely, lyrical quality, and this one is certainly no exception. You’re also a natural historian, and and excellent photographer.

    Have you ever thought about putting together a book? Something along the lines of “Hidden Canada” or “Canada’s Best-Kept Secrets” or “Canada By Bicycle And Camera”?

    I’m sure it’s not a totally unique idea, but you have a lot of wonderful material. Just a thought. Keep pedaling and clicking that shutter!! : )

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    • I appreciate your compliment and unexpected in ways I never really thought of. I guess I tend to focus more on cultural history and its people. It’s the personal stories that have the greatest meaning and longevity for generations to come. Well, as for exploring Canada historically by bike, etc.: I was a volunteer blogger for Tourism Vancouver’s blog and did write from the perspective of discovering Vancouver by bike. So stuff, like public mosaic art was highlighted that is more easily noticeable from a bike.

      Thank you for your ideas! As for the leisurely pace of my posts, I sometimes might have to ratchet up the pace for some of other readers. You’ll see later more on tour de my world in upcoming blog posts. :)

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  6. Oh, Jean, this is such a fascinating and wonderful post! My partner Sara and I lived in Haiti for a year after the 2010 earthquake, where there was some interesting reclamation work being done, as you might imagine. I also love to make art from recycled materials. Quite frankly this is one of those posts that I think should be Freshly Pressed. Well done. And how have I missed your blog until now? My loss!

    Hugs from Ecuador,
    Kathy

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    • Will/have you featured your artwork on your blog? It would be interesting to read of the reclamation work in Haiti if you have such photos available. Thanks for dropping by in your whirlwind life. Clearly Ecudour is agreeing with you and your partner.

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