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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Toronto’s other underground scene

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The thought of sewers and storm drains tends to bring to mind dark, damp places that provide necessary functions we're grateful for, but would rather not ponder on too long. But what remain obscure bowels to us are places of wonder to Michael Cook, who, along with a handful of other storm drain enthusiasts, chronicles his subterranean expeditions into the urban underground on

His first storm drain exploration was four years ago in Burlington, and he recalls "the experience of being underground in a dark, wet environment was really, really exciting." As with most urban explorers, part of the excitement has to do with going where few others do, regardless of official permission. Since then, Cook has taken numerous treks into city drains, and his curiosity for these concealed spaces has seen him "chart a completely different relationship with the landscape because it breaks the city out of the regulated, socially constructed meanings and places that we live with everyday."

One example Cook gives is of a drain in North York that was built over a succession of periods as the development swelled. The area is part light industrial and part residential, and Cook says each section of this drain is reflective of the character of what's on top.

"I can't travel through that area of the city without reflecting on that," he says, noting that each section of the drain was built differently at various points in time. "It also leads you to be more aware of features of the landscape, such as ravines and remnants of former creeks that are now buried. That gamut of information still sits encoded in the landscape around us."

Of course, this type of (sub)urban discovery isn't for everyone. Cook says it's wet, dirty, and there are some risks involved, like running into tunnels where there's a lack of oxygen, toxic hydrogen sulfide, or other dangerous gases, although Cook says these are detectable hazards and the risk is low. He stresses that there's a meditative quality to this. Anyone looking to get involved has to be able to appreciate long periods of walking through water in the dark.

Cook says that for all the stretches of pipe that have proven featureless, other discoveries balance out the bland with bold.

"Certainly the most spectacular, visceral, over the top system in Toronto is what the city would call the Spadina Storm Trunk Sewer, which is what we refer to as the Park Drive Drain," he says. Cook describes an intricate system that runs from Rosedale up across the city before it fans out into a neighbourhood immediately south of Eglinton West subway station. Here, a sequence of four two-storey waterfalls is followed by a set of six shorter falls that drop water down, reflecting the elevation change in the landscape. At the base of each waterfall is a large plunge pool and pollutant trap that allows solids suspended in the water a chance to settle into the bottom of the pool before the water continues down the pipe.

"To get over (the falls) you have to go over a series of catwalks and it's all just really amazing and it's also an endurance test because of how long it is and all the climbing you have to do and that sort of thing," Cook explains.

Talking to him, you might get the sense that Cook's academic background would extend into civil engineering or architecture, but his understanding of the urban underground comes from immersing himself in these systems and doing some research of his own along the way. Cook explains that the sanitary sewer lines were often built along creek ravines and river valleys because the grade of land is naturally suited for water flow. They often still follow the same topology as they always did.

"These drains, they are part of a watershed. And it's a watershed that existed before we built this city and it's a watershed that's going to continue to exist no matter how we restructure it, damage it, or completely change it," Cook says. "(The water's) still going the same direction, it still ends up in the same place, and eventually, or ultimately, if the city or civilization breaks down, that tunnel will eventually break down as well and this watershed will resume its previous course above the ground. And so when you're in the drain, you're very truly a part of the watershed for the time that you spend down there."