Addressing a city’s modern challenges by tapping into its history

As the importance of cities to society’s overall social, economic, and environmental health becomes increasingly evident, organizations throughout the world are developing innovative ways to address urban-scale issues. One Toronto facility, the Evergreen Brick Works, presents a particularly interesting case study of a physical space dedicated to tackling a broad spectrum of its city’s challenges.

Located just northeast of downtown, the site started life in 1889 as the Don Valley Brick Works. The company eventually became one of Canada’s most prolific brick makers, its products still visible in buildings large and small across the nation.

By the 1980s, however, the quarry had run dry, leading to the company’s closure. The land was sold to a development company interested in building condos, but vocal outcry from community groups concerned about the ecological and cultural consequences of developing a historic site in a hazardous floodplain stopped the project.

The City of Toronto and the Toronto Region Conservation Authority, backed by the provincial government, ultimately acquired the brownfield property. In the following years, the quarry was filled in and a wetland and meadow habitat created as part of a municipal strategy to restore the Don River watershed. The buildings sat empty for almost two decades, attracting graffiti artists and partiers as they slowly decayed.

The site then caught the eye of Evergreen, a Canadian nonprofit focused on making cities more sustainable through community engagement. “To get people more engaged as environmental stewards, they have to experience nature where they live,” Evergreen’s Stewart Chisholm told me on a recent visit to the site. “We’re 80% urbanized as a citizenry, so it makes the most sense for people to experience nature where they live, without leaving the city. But then as a consequence they’ll develop a greater appreciation for the polar bears and the rainforests and things that are sort of more abstract.”

Around 2002, the group approached the Toronto government with the idea of opening a native plant nursery in a few of the buildings. The city was interested, but challenged Evergreen to broaden its vision and incorporate ideas for educating the public about the site’s geological and historical significance and making use of all existing structures. The project ultimately morphed into a proposal for a multifaceted community environmental center.

After an eight-year process of negotiating with the city, raising millions of dollars, finding partners and supporters, and developing creative green building solutions that deliberately kept the site as close as possible to its original condition (graffiti and all), Evergreen opened the Brick Works in the fall of 2010. It is expected to earn LEED Platinum certification.

The site’s new architecture was carefully integrated into its surroundings

Today, the facility is home to a wide variety of educational, recreational, and community activities, from free public ice skating, a bike repair clinic (which doubles as a job-training program), and nature hikes to a community-supported agriculture program and critically acclaimed café. Various for- and nonprofit organizations with complementary missions (e.g., a hiking boot company) rent office space in the main building.

Chimney Court, which gives children a place to get their hands dirty and learn about agriculture during the growing season

In a city that prides itself on its diversity but struggles with spatial segregation and socioeconomic inequalities, the Brick Works makes a concerted effort to serve a wide spectrum of Torontonians. Schoolchildren from disadvantaged neighborhoods grow vegetables in gardens next to classrooms where seniors socialize in cooking classes and event spaces hosting weddings and corporate functions. Public talks and exhibitions about a range of issues related to urbanism and sustainability draw visitors from around the city. A popular destination within the city within months of opening, the center receives an estimated 200,000 guests per year.

Brick Works market

Evergreen also taps into some of the city’s more unique environmental challenges and opportunities. One of Toronto’s most interesting physical features is its urban ravine system, one of the world’s largest. Formed over millennia as rivers and creeks formed by melting glaciers wore through the region’s soft clay soils, many of the city’s ravines have filled in for development or used as garbage dumps, while the creeks running through them have been buried beneath the streets. These interventions have led to water-management challenges tied to the loss of natural watersheds. Brick Works uses its location in the Don Valley, the city’s largest ravine, to educate the public about the system, and is currently talking with the city government about ways to promote it as a unique tourist attraction: an urban wilderness in the heart of North America’s fourth-largest city.

One of several brick furnaces left intact in what now serves as a large exhibition space

“We’re really interested in showing how this place can be shown as a model of what can be done,” Chisholm said. “Certainly we don’t have the answers about what Cincinnati or Pittsburgh should be doing with their brownfields, but we’re just trying to provide an inspirational example of how a space can be regenerated.”

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