History repeats itself

We're all too aware of the misuse of our waterfront — and of the many, many unrealised plans to re-imagine it as a green, public, and natural connection between city and lake. Less well known is that these plans are as old as the city itself.

Standing at Bay and Front streets, with the financial towers looming above the commuter-crowded sidewalks and rows of taxis, it is difficult to imagine that this spot was the original shoreline of Lake Ontario. Yet it was the natural beauty of this site that inspired the province's first lieutenant governor, John Graves Simcoe, some 200 years ago, to declare that any new town development must preserve the waterfront as a place for the enjoyment of nature and collective gathering. Looking south from there today at the rail embankment, Gardiner Expressway, and hectares of industrial infill, it is clear that we have strayed from his vision.

According to Toronto historian Stephen Otto, Simcoe began implementing his vision of a public waterfront almost immediately after his arrival in 1793 by setting aside for public purposes its "bookends": the Garrison reserve to the west and the King's Park to the east between Berkeley Street and the Don River. Twenty-five years later, in July, 1818, the land connecting these open spaces, a strip from Front Street south to the lake, was made into a public trust to protect it from development.

The trustees were empowered by an Order-in-Council from Samuel Smith, Administrator of the Province of Upper Canada, "to hold…for the benefit of the inhabitants of the Town of York and for a Public Walk or Mall in front of the said town, and to permit and allow appropriations, dispositions, alterations and improvements to be made