Like most major cities around the world, Toronto is located beside a major body of water. Throughout history, cities have been founded at the intersections of transportation routes, or at points where goods needed to shift from one mode of transportation to another. For centuries, water – oceans, lakes and rivers – has provided an important means of transport.
Toronto’s location on Lake Ontario, the first Great Lake from the St. Lawrence River, has been instrumental over the course of the city’s history. Long before Europeans came to the area, Toronto was home to Aboriginal Peoples who utilized Toronto as the start of a shortcut from the lower to upper Great Lakes.
While the French knew about the Toronto passage from the early 1600s and had occasionally set up trading camps along it, it was not until the 1720s that they maintained a permanent presence in Toronto. In 1720, the French built a small trading post on the Humber River on the south end of the passage. In 1750, they began building Fort Rouille, a modest trading post on the Lake Ontario shoreline, just east of the Humber.
After the American Revolution, Toronto gained importance as a site to expand the fur trade and as a settlement. The British, concerned about threats from the United States, decided that Toronto would be an ideal site for a naval base. Governor John James Simcoe believed the area’s defensible harbour would allow his forces to control Lake Ontario, and the Toronto passage would enable the movement of supplies and troops to the upper lakes if the Americans gained control of Lake Erie. The construction on Fort York started in 1793 and is now considered the birth of urban Toronto.
Starting with maps of the area from 1668.
Since much of the city’s major trade has historically been by boat, having manufacturing facilities adjacent to the waterfront made good business sense. Factories on the lakeshore allowed supplies to be easily received and finished products to be effectively transported. However, by the 1830s and ‘40s, the lack of available land along the waterfront severely limited the growth of the shipping and industrial and railway infrastructure.
In the 1850s, a massive campaign of lake-filling was undertaken to expand the shore land south to the Esplanade. For the next hundred years, the shore was extended farther and farther south. The original shoreline was north of today’s rail corridor, and Front Street was built along the edge of the shoreline. The filling continued until the 1950s when the modern shoreline was achieved.
After the Second World War, Toronto’s relationship with its waterfront changed. With industry concentrated along the waterfront, the downtown core became undesirable as a place to live.
For decades, the wealthy moved from the industrial urban areas to the cleaner suburbs.
As cars became more accessible to more people, Toronto residents moved out of the downtown core to the outlying areas. However, since many of the jobs were still in downtown industrial areas, major roads and highways were needed to enable people to commute.
At the time, highways were built as rings around cities. For most cities located beside water, a portion of that ring was built on or near the waterfront. Toronto was no different, and in the 1950s the Gardiner Expressway was built, effectively cutting the people off from the lake.
In the 1970s, a sort of Urban Revolution was changing the world, and cities started to rediscover their waterfronts. Major cities around the world not only redeveloped their waterfronts, they used their regeneration projects to catapult themselves onto the world stage. Their newly developed waterfronts attracted more residents, more employers, more jobs and more visitors.
Toronto is one of the last major waterfront cities to redevelop its waterfront. Over the years, there have been many individuals with good intentions and ideas about what to do with Toronto’s waterfront. Task forces have been struck and numerous studies published, but not a lot of major redevelopment has taken place. Exceptions are Harbourfront Centre, Queen’s Quay Terminal and the area around them; they’re the result of one effort to redevelop the area in the early 1970s.
In 1999, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, Premier Mike Harris and Mayor Mel Lastman announced the formation of a task force to develop a business plan and make recommendations for developing the waterfront as part of Toronto’s bid to host the 2008 Summer Olympics.
Chaired by businessman Robert Fung, the task force determined that waterfront revitalization was necessary, that it was “an almost unprecedented development opportunity” and would have “a major, positive economic impact on the City, the region and the country.”
The task force said that the revitalization was not merely a public megaproject but rather “an integrated partial solution to the environmental, transportation, infrastructure, housing, economic and tourism challenges confronting the City.”
The task force also stated that the need and business case for the redevelopment of Toronto’s waterfront was so strong that irrespective of the Olympic bid waterfront renewal should happen.
After the 2008 Olympics were awarded to Beijing, the three orders of government pledged their support to the revitalization of Toronto’s lakefront.
In November 2001, the three levels of government established Waterfront Toronto (then known as the Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Corporation) to oversee all aspects of the planning and development of Toronto’s central waterfront.
The corporation’s Board of Directors began meeting in February 2002. In March, a small group of core staff was hired and an office set up. In April, the corporation hired a program manager, the Toronto Waterfront Joint Venture, to oversee implementation of waterfront projects. In December 2002, the government of Ontario passed the Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Corporation Act, the legislation which gives the corporation permanent status.
John W. Campbell joined the corporation as president and CEO in April 2003. In May of the same year, the provincial government enacted the Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Corporation Act, creating a permanent independent organization to oversee and lead the renewal of Toronto’s waterfront.