Nature Grows in the Cracks of the Cement

Evergreen Brick Works — a premier eco-urban destination in Toronto — stakes out a place for nature in the city.

| Spring 2016

I recently moved from the Ontario countryside, where my neighbors were beavers, deer, cows and corn fields, to the sprawling city of Toronto, a metropolis of more than 6 million people. I like many things about living in the city — the selection of farm, fresh organic produce is much better at the supermarkets here than it is out in the country — but I do miss the feeling of walking out my back door into the wilderness.

But I am lucky. In Toronto, there are slivers of nature everywhere. The city is surrounded by greenbelt on one side, where development is limited and farms and forests abound, and the vast expanse of Lake Ontario on the other. In between are what locals call ‘the ravines’—steep river and stream valleys where development has been excluded and wildlife flourishes. Toronto’s ravines are where nature lovers in the city go to play. Shortly after I moved here, I discovered a remarkable community center in the belly of the Don River ravine.

The Evergreen Brick Works is an otherworldly sanctuary where urban meets ecological and intertwines with it in a beautiful way. Located just a couple miles from the downtown area, thousands of Torontonians flock to the Brick Works each week to attend its bustling farmers’ market, study the natural history of the area, learn holistic gardening techniques, enjoy a meal from locally-sourced ingredients, shop for artisanal crafts, or just take a quiet walk in the woods. As its reputation has grown, the Brick Works has grown from a local hang-out to one of Toronto’s top tourist destinations, drawing in casual visitors who might otherwise hit the shops and bars downtown and inspiring them about the mysteries of the natural world that are all around, even in the city.

In 1882, just as the city of Toronto was growing from a rustic outpost into a full-blown city, a farmer who worked the fertile soils of the Don River floodplain was digging fence posts when he had an epiphany: the rock hard clay underneath all that topsoil might be perfect for making bricks, which the growing city desperately needed. His hunch was right, and by the end of the decade, he’d abandoned farming and opened the Don Valley Brick Works, a quarry and brick-making factory.

The bricks from the Don Valley were top-notch, and much of Toronto’s 20th-century skyline was built from them. The early 20th-century was a time of rapid industrialization in Toronto, which was paralleled by a cataclysmic decline in the health of local ecosystems. The Don River became flanked with factories and was essentially dead in a biological sense by 1940s, a casualty of the egregious pollution that was so common during that period in history.

In the 1950s, however, the first winds of change began to blow in Toronto. They actually blew quite violently. In 1954, Toronto was ravaged by Hurricane Hazel (one of the few hurricanes in recorded history that has ever veered so far inland in North America), resulting in catastrophic floods in all the city’s ravines. Eighty-one people lost their lives, and the property damage was so extensive that the city did not permit homes and businesses to be rebuilt in the floodplain afterwards. The province ended up buying the vast majority of ravine land and put it into the hands of the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, which was formed in the wake of the flooding. The idea was to steward the ravines as natural areas and preserve them in perpetuity.

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