Lost Rivers, Green Alleys and Public Art: Reshaping Toronto’s Relationship with Water through Laneways

Written by Alexander Furneaux

 Image: Garrison Creek Relief Sewer; CREDIT Michael Cook

Image: Garrison Creek Relief Sewer; CREDIT Michael Cook

Toronto is a city shaped by its passages, the most obvious of which are the rivers and creeks transecting the city as they travel south from the Oak Ridges Moraine to Lake Ontario. As environmental historians have documented, Toronto’s topography has been altered continuously by natural forces such as the advance and retreat of glaciers, as well as by humans throughout the entire history of this region’s habitation. As we continue to modify our environment to suit our needs, elements of the city’s physical and cultural landscapes are often forgotten or lost.

Beginning in the early 19th century and reaching its height in the late 19th and early 20th century, Toronto began systematically channelizing, covering and filling many of its rivers and creeks, largely erasing them from the landscape. In the face of a growing city, ravines were seen as topographical barriers to expansion requiring erasure to accommodate the city’s road network and urban fabric — although we now know that these spaces serve important ecological functions not performed by the subterranean network of sewers that replaced them. Covering Toronto’s rivers and creeks allowed for a new network to take its place, a network of streets and laneways that came to dominate the urban fabric of Old Toronto, East York and many of the inner suburbs.

Toronto is privileged to have access to one of the largest reserves of fresh water on the planet, with little immediate risk of water scarcity.

This means that apart from during severe weather events, water in Toronto can go easily unnoticed – out of sight in underground channels and largely out of mind. Reintroducing water into the collective memory of Torontonians presents the opportunity to assert the historic path of waterways in the city. As Liz Forsberg and Georgia Ydreos discuss in their chapter of the anthology HTO: Toronto’s Water from Lake Iroquois to Lost Rivers to Low Flow Toilets, public art — whether installations or participatory acts — represents an important means of accomplishing this.

 Image - Listening to water flowing underground during a Human River walk; CREDIT Human River

Image - Listening to water flowing underground during a Human River walk; CREDIT Human River

As Forsberg and Ydreos document, numerous public art projects tying into Toronto’s water histories engage residents in an often-overlooked but integral element of Toronto’s natural infrastructure. Events such as the Human River, in which participants dressed in blue walk the path of lost creeks, help forge connections with forgotten paths, while plays such as Clay and Paper Theatre’s The Ballad of Garrison Creek pay tribute to the histories of foundational waterways. Similarly, art installations such as “King’s Buried Treasure” — a street mural honouring the thirteen creeks that once crossed King street — helps evoke a connection to place by exposing passersby to elements of the city’s historical landscape and its ecological connections. These artistic expressions provide a useful starting point for instigating discussion and exposing residents to issues related to water management that can serve to develop more infrastructurally impactful modifications to the landscape of our city, such as green infrastructure.   

In many areas laneways help trace segments of the path of these forgotten waterways, both artistically, as noted above, and hydrologically.

Laneways serve as giant, open-air street art galleries, and cover more than a million square meters of space in impermeable concrete and asphalt surfaces — an area more than two thirds the size of High Park. Both laneways and ravines — through policies such as the Toronto Ravine Strategy, Green Streets Guidelines and Complete Streets Guidelines — are receiving increased attention in our city as part of our ecological and water management infrastructure. Some of these policies are helping to introduce green infrastructure to improve surface permeability and stormwater management, reducing the stormwater runoff that flows from large concrete and asphalt surfaces into our combined storm-sanitary sewer system, rivers and Lake Ontario. Green infrastructure interventions in laneways, such as the Laneway Puncture Demonstration Project’s strategic introduction of permeable paving, allows water to penetrate the soil rather than flowing into storm drains. Applied at the scale of Toronto’s more than 300 linear kilometres of laneways, this presents a tremendous opportunity for increasing Toronto’s water resilience.

 Image - Laneway Puncture; CREDIT The Laneway Project

Image - Laneway Puncture; CREDIT The Laneway Project

A thoughtful pairing of art and green infrastructure in our laneways might help Torontonians rediscover the hydrological layer of our city’s fabric and advocate for infrastructure that respects the flow of water.

The City of Baltimore provides a useful case study of how such a relationship might unfold. Baltimore’s Waterfront Partnership is a strong advocate for a healthy waterfront, something they believe begins with how they manage the water that enters the harbour from rivers, streams and sewers. As part of their management strategy, they have been actively involved in creative projects that raise awareness about the importance of a healthy water system. These creative projects have included laneway art installations depicting the destination of water runoff from laneway drains. In doing so, they forge a connection between where the water enters and exits the municipal water system. Helping promote this knowledge amongst citizens has been integral to the Waterfront Partnership’s public engagement strategy and has subsequently helped drive the adoption of green infrastructure such as permeable pavers in many city laneways by helping communities understand their relationship with water, and the need for better infrastructure to manage it. Toronto’s laneways could have a similar role in spurring green infrastructure investments across the city with the goal of better managing our storm water, while also being thoughtfully linked to the landscape through art initiatives celebrating water’s importance.

 [Image - Baltimore Blue Alley; CREDIT  Green Alley Baltimore

[Image - Baltimore Blue Alley; CREDIT Green Alley Baltimore

Whether it is something as simple as a documentation of where a river or creek passed or something as complex as recounting stories associated with a particular historic site along the watercourse, laneways provide one potentially impactful place to highlight this important element of Toronto’s landscape. Commissioning laneway art that celebrates and reveals water’s importance provides a tremendous opportunity to increase knowledge about ecological resiliency in urban water systems, while inspiring advocacy for better, greener infrastructure to manage these complex natural cycles; laneways might then become catalysts for the development of a widespread network of green infrastructure that reduces stormwater runoff and improves green space connectivity across the city.

Ariana CancelliComment