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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Rivers below

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Thousands of years old and buried alive, their ghosts are awakened with the advent of spring. Foundations creak and floorboards rot as the undead bleed into the basements of homes and buildings beneath our city. Such is the wrath of the rivers and creeks our forefathers poisoned with garbage and smothered in concrete.

Throughout the Greater Toronto Area, networks of buried waterways continue their stifled flow. Many were the progeny of glaciers and lived for tens of thousands of years before 19th century industrialization polluted their currents and rendered them hazardous or obstacles to development. But recent interest in our entombed waterways has been garnered for a number of reasons: they may assist in reducing overflows in our archaic and inadequate sewer system, they destroy property as they swell each spring, and they are markers of Toronto's heritage. We now know that attempting to destroy components of an ecosystem is typically not a good idea — not for the flora and fauna that live there, and not for the humans who are a part of these systems.

Taddle Creek is one of the most famous buried waterways, and the only one that flowed right through the heart of downtown Toronto. The Taddle, ironically, played a significant role in the early settlement of the area as it provided drinking water and a transportation route for both aboriginal residents and early European pioneers. But in the booming 1800s, two main concerns contributed to its demise. Firstly, as the borders of the city stretched northwards, the creek was seen as little more than a babbling nuisance that was preventing the construction of a ground transportation system. Secondly, as both industry and the population in the area were expanding, so was the garbage they created, and much of it found its way into the Taddle. Unfortunately, many people were still using the creek as their source for drinking water, and hundreds of residents died of cholera and typhus. Taddle Creek was buried over the course of a number of years, and its final vestiges were covered in 1886.

Garrison Creek, which is estimated to be over 12,000 years old, met a similar end. By the early 1900s, it was so contaminated and its watershed (the land area that drains into the creek) was so densely settled that a sewer system was created in its reaches to protect the health of residents. But it too was eventually buried, reflecting its last beams of sunlight in the 1920s.

And there are many others. Some can be seen in channelized pieces, maintaining a degraded existence in the city's sewers. Others are only envisioned with the help of a powerful imagination. Russell Creek, Castle Frank Brook, Cudmore Creek, Mud Creek, Yellow Creek, the Market Streams, and more, have paths marked with heritage sites and the phantom structures of mills and mansions that are no longer part of our cityscape.

But beyond the history, there are other reasons to look to our buried waters. We are beginning to acknowledge the bigger picture when it comes to ecology, especially because we now know that ruined habitats don't slip away silently. Urbanization has not only chopped down thousands of trees, suffocated rivers, and displaced (and killed off) species, it has also led to "urban runoff." Rainwater is no longer filtered through the natural sieve of plantcover and soil before hitting the streams; it instead runs directly into our waterways from sidewalks and streets, picking up all kinds of pollutants like pesticides and garbage and motor oil en route. Eventually, the refuse enters the source of our drinking water, simultaneously destroying whatever natural habitats still thrive on the existence of Toronto's streams — whether buried or visible.

Fortunately, just about every creek and river in the Greater Toronto Area has a cheering squad composed of residents, biologists, elected officials, and urban planners. The waterways that remain visible have task forces dedicated to their rejuvenation and protection (like The Black Creek Conservation Project, The Humber Alliance, and the Etobicoke and Mimico Creek Watersheds Task Force, Bring Back The Don), and the buried ones have small armies dedicated to their memory or resurrection (North Toronto Green Community, the University of Toronto Taddle Creek Project, and numerous committees devoted to Garrison Creek). Report cards have been written, grades assigned, and committees struck to implement the detailed steps that need to be taken to protect the city's waterways. And though many of our lost rivers may never be unearthed, our efforts to understand what lies beneath may help us to better plan for what lies ahead.

Toronto Archives photo: series 376, file 2, item 19