New plan actually improves the Port Lands

Last week, Waterfront Toronto released a revision of the plans for the Port Lands (pictured below). The revision was part of the “Port Lands Acceleration Initiative”, which was the compromise given to Doug Ford when his original ideas for completely changing the Port Lands plans was rejected by city council. The revision also responded to complaints by existing industries using the port that their role had not been taken into account in the initial plans.

While they may not be as spectacular, in terms of making the Port Lands development a viable addition to urban Toronto the new plans (PDF) are actually an  improvement over the old ones.

I’ve visited a few other former waterfront industrial areas that have been redeveloped and urbanized (in Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Paris), and there are potential pitfalls to this kind of project. All of these areas were well-planned, attractive and exhibited impressive architecture. But they all felt isolated and were very quiet — not so much expansions of the city, more very nice new bedroom communities (with a few quiet offices thrown in).

The previous plans for the Port Lands (below) looked like they migh suffer the same fate – three quite isolated sets of buildings, with no obvious draw to attract large numbers of people to these new spaces, or keep them lively at all times of the day, other than parks.

One of the issues often overlooked in current ideas of redevelopment in dense “nodes” is that no community actually thrives just on its own. The parts of the city that are most lively thrive not only have a lot of local activity, but also draw from neighbouring areas and from across the city (and in turn send people to neighbouring areas).

The new plans for the Port Lands address this problem in a few ways.

Better concentration of people

Instead of three nodes, the new plans concentrate the new urban areas on the Port Lands into two larger sections, providing a more focused concentration of people more likely to create viable communities. These sections are, as well, intended to include commercial as well as residential buildings, which would help support a more full-day life cycle.

As well, the two urban sections are closer together, meaning that it is more likely people will walk or cycle between them and they will support each other better.

Setting aside space for attractions

For the Port Lands to thrive, they have to draw people from all over the city at all times of the week and all through the year. The waterfront trails with a nice view of downtown will draw some people during the summer, but they won’t be enough, and neither will the Port Lands population alone. While Doug Ford’s suggestions inspired mockery, he wasn’t completely wrong in sensing instinctively that the Port Lands needed attractions.

The new plan sets aside two spaces for these kinds of attractions. There are all kinds of possibilities, some more appealing than others, but it should not be difficult to find something for prime waterfront locations. (For example, Cricket Canada is looking for a waterfront location for a stadium — that could be a way to help the Port Lands embrace Toronto’s diversity).

Accepting industrial uses

The new plan accepts and takes into account the current industry and port uses of the Port Lands.

Toronto needs jobs, of all kinds. The number of jobs within the city has not been expanding, even as its population grows. It has, especially, been losing industrial jobs. So it’s important to preserve the ones that want to stay in the city. The Port Lands are the last part of central Toronto where it’s still viable to have industry — that’s not something to throw away lightly.

As well, ports are valuable, and can’t easily be replaced. Toronto owes its location to the presence of the inner harbour as a good port. While it is no longer a major port, the activity that does take place there is still valuable (2 million tonnes of cargo, mostly salt and building materials) and, if lost, there’s nowhere else on Toronto’s waterfront that port facilities could move to.

Ports are also environmentally helpful. Ships use less fuel per ton of cargo than trucks or rail. All the cement shipped into the Lafarge cement works would otherwise have to be carried into Toronto in a lot of trucks, clogging highways and polluting the air. It’s even possible, if fuel costs continue to rise, that shipping of additional types goods might make something of a comeback — and we will need a working port to take advantage of that.

The planning for the Port Lands has taken a long time and political effort, but it’s been worth it to create plans that have a better chance of succeeding.

photo by Peter Pelisek


  1. To me, it looks closer to zoning, an outdated method.

  2. The old one looks like it takes walking and cycling into account with lots of desire lines marked and possibly even extra bridges. Does the new plan not provide that sort of infrastructure?

  3. If you look at the full PDF, yes, there are diagrams that show desire lines and pedestrian/bike infrastructure in the new plan. I’d agree that the new plan could use another pedestrian/cycle bridge or two between the parks along the new river mouth.

  4. Dylan, your point about a more connected community is good, but your article ignores the fact that this is a modest portion of the Port Lands. It’s just the mouth of the Don. The community there will be cut off from the rest of the city by Lakeshore Blvd, the Gardiner, unless more is torn down, and the railway, which is elevated quite high here. (The West Don Lands development helps, but it will be cut off from the Port Lands by the same barriers.) And at its back it will have the vast stretches of the rest of the Port Lands — a largely barren area the size of the whole of downtown Toronto. The Don Mouth is such a small development that putting in a second pedestrian-cum-bike bridge is almost absurd.

    The problem is that Waterfront Toronto’s mandate is to plan the piecemeal development of the Port Lands, with the mouth of the Don being the first piece. It will be donkey’s years before the whole area is developed, if at all. Apparently, the province finds the place still too useful for heavy industry (the new gas plant; the proposed new cement plant) to allow a more bold development, and developers are too worried that extensive housing here would depress the prices they charge. It’s too bad, because a rapid development of the whole area could put a good dent in the relentless sprawl of the outer suburbs.

  5. While I agree entirely with the necessity to preserve employment lands in Toronto for the reasons you’ve stated, I wonder if there’s not a case for moving Lafarge’s cement mixing operation elsewhere in the Portlands, simply because the prevailing winds are from the west or north-west, which will blow all the fine particulate matter right towards the planned residential/commercial areas.

    Also, there’s considerable heavy traffic on the roads to/from the cement plant: is that factored into the planning? (But I’m uncertain where else in the portlands the necessary accessible wharf & industrial space might be, and how to connect it to the land transportation network without even more disruption of future planned commercial/residential areas.)

    In my opinion, preserving the wharfs in the new plans is a clear double commercial/aesthetic win. Getting rid of the Redpath sugar refinery would be a blow to commercial activity, and what’s a port without *real* ships active or tied up? Or a variety of interesting industrial buildings?

  6. I just love how the Ford Regime implies that in some way this is “their” doing – in fact, the obstructionist Fords have had exactly nothing to do with this long term plan. It’s a testament to the strength and vision of this program that it survived the Ferris wheels and shopping malls of His Nibs limited vision. It’s also a nod to Council that they shut down Ford when he raised the spectre of monorails a la Ogdenville and Springfield. Nope, our hapless mayor Quimby can try as he might, but he’s had nothing to do with the MVVA proposal. This work will carry on long after Ford is gone and forgotten.

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