Nature Grows in the Cracks of the Cement

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After years of neglect, there was literally a forest growing in the cracks of the Brick Works as it crumbled and decayed. Rather than remove all the native vegetation, the architects chose to preserve bits and pieces of it throughout the site when it was re-developed.
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The Evergreen Brick Works is an urban environmental center built on the grounds of an old brick factory just outside of downtown Toronto. The site includes a park with reclaimed wetlands at the bottom of the former brick quarry.
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Black and watermelon radishes form a contrasting display at the stand of Marvelous Edibles Farm at the Evergreen Brick Works farmers market.
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Black Creek Community Farm is run by a non-profit organization which supports low income communities in Toronto through food and farming education, using urban agriculture as an economic development tool.

I recently moved from the Ontario countryside, where my neighbors were beavers, deer, cows and corn fields, to the sprawling city of Toronto, a metropolis of more than 6 million people. I like many things about living in the city — the selection of farm, fresh organic produce is much better at the supermarkets here than it is out in the country — but I do miss the feeling of walking out my back door into the wilderness.

But I am lucky. In Toronto, there are slivers of nature everywhere. The city is surrounded by greenbelt on one side, where development is limited and farms and forests abound, and the vast expanse of Lake Ontario on the other. In between are what locals call ‘the ravines’—steep river and stream valleys where development has been excluded and wildlife flourishes. Toronto’s ravines are where nature lovers in the city go to play. Shortly after I moved here, I discovered a remarkable community center in the belly of the Don River ravine.

The Evergreen Brick Works is an otherworldly sanctuary where urban meets ecological and intertwines with it in a beautiful way. Located just a couple miles from the downtown area, thousands of Torontonians flock to the Brick Works each week to attend its bustling farmers’ market, study the natural history of the area, learn holistic gardening techniques, enjoy a meal from locally-sourced ingredients, shop for artisanal crafts, or just take a quiet walk in the woods. As its reputation has grown, the Brick Works has grown from a local hang-out to one of Toronto’s top tourist destinations, drawing in casual visitors who might otherwise hit the shops and bars downtown and inspiring them about the mysteries of the natural world that are all around, even in the city.

In 1882, just as the city of Toronto was growing from a rustic outpost into a full-blown city, a farmer who worked the fertile soils of the Don River floodplain was digging fence posts when he had an epiphany: the rock hard clay underneath all that topsoil might be perfect for making bricks, which the growing city desperately needed. His hunch was right, and by the end of the decade, he’d abandoned farming and opened the Don Valley Brick Works, a quarry and brick-making factory.

The bricks from the Don Valley were top-notch, and much of Toronto’s 20th-century skyline was built from them. The early 20th-century was a time of rapid industrialization in Toronto, which was paralleled by a cataclysmic decline in the health of local ecosystems. The Don River became flanked with factories and was essentially dead in a biological sense by 1940s, a casualty of the egregious pollution that was so common during that period in history.

In the 1950s, however, the first winds of change began to blow in Toronto. They actually blew quite violently. In 1954, Toronto was ravaged by Hurricane Hazel (one of the few hurricanes in recorded history that has ever veered so far inland in North America), resulting in catastrophic floods in all the city’s ravines. Eighty-one people lost their lives, and the property damage was so extensive that the city did not permit homes and businesses to be rebuilt in the floodplain afterwards. The province ended up buying the vast majority of ravine land and put it into the hands of the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, which was formed in the wake of the flooding. The idea was to steward the ravines as natural areas and preserve them in perpetuity.

Because the Brick Works survived the flooding, it was grandfathered into the new conservation area and was allowed to continue operation for another 30 years. Finally, in 1984 it closed its doors; the modern building industry moved away from natural products such as clay bricks, and the business was no longer viable.

The City of Toronto expropriated the abandoned factory, but the site lay fallow for many years. Trees grew inside the dilapidated buildings where the roofs caved in, and the pools of water left in the bottom of the old quarry grew verdant with aquatic plants, which in turn provided habitat for a rich array of wildlife. The Brick Works became a refuge for Toronto’s homeless population and was legendary among the city’s “urban explorers” (people that like to explore off-limits places in cities, such as sewer tunnels and abandoned buildings). The spooky old buildings hosted underground rave parties; the walls became covered in graffiti. And then the history of the Brick Works again swerved in a new direction: Torontonians decided to reclaim their natural heritage.

Clean up efforts began in the 1990s. Trash was hauled out, and toxic substances, leftovers from the days of industry, were removed from the soil and water. Most importantly, the community got involved. Invasive species were removed and native flora was planted. Evergreen, a non-profit environmental education group focused on improving the quality of life in urban areas, took leadership in the restoration process. After a decade-long process of fundraising, community organizing and negotiating with local government agencies, Evergreen began a massive renovation of the site to convert the dilapidated building into safe, useful spaces and to establish a plethora of programs designed to engage urbanites with the natural world growing up in the cracks of the cement all around them.

Today, the place is a beehive of activity in all four seasons. Children arrive in droves with their parents or on school field trips to play in the children’s garden, where they learn to grow and harvest food, build ‘cob’ (earthen) structures with the local clay and get creative with craft projects made from the reeds and willows growing on-site. There are rainwater and greywater recycling systems to observe, ‘green roofs’ and solar panels on some of the buildings that serve as demonstration projects and ‘living walls’ that purify the air indoors with plant life. Everything from yoga classes and poetry readings, to art installations and natural history displays can be found in the indoor studio spaces at Evergreen. The 40-acre site is a unique cultivated ecosystem where a series of boardwalks move visitors through the wetlands in the former quarry and connects with Toronto’s extensive system of nature trails.

On recent visits to the Brick Works, I’ve seen baby ducks paddling behind their mothers, turtles lounging on a tiny island in the wetlands and hawks circling overhead. In addition to the colorful ‘human wildlife’, the surrounding ravines teem with beavers, red fox, coyote, deer, raccoons, and other critters. I even saw Atlantic salmon spawning in one of Toronto’s urban rivers just a five-minute bike ride from my house! I thought I was leaving nature behind when I moved to the city, but in some ways I feel like I’m more surrounded by it than ever.

Brian Barth is a writer, gardener and amateur woodworker living in Toronto, Ontario.

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