Jennifer Bonnell. Reclaiming the Don: An Environmental History of Toronto's Don River Valley. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014. 316 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4426-1225-9.
Reviewed by Travis Cook (Arizona State University)
Published on H-Environment (February, 2016)
Commissioned by Dolly Jørgensen (University of Stavanger)
Reclaiming the Don
Along Toronto’s major waterway in the 1870s the pungent odor of industry filled the air as “the last native salmon on the Don was reputedly speared with a pitchfork” (p. 33). Jennifer Bonnell uses this anecdote in her book Reclaiming the Don to show the large-scale ecological changes in Toronto's Don River that followed European settlement. The Don River now meanders through Toronto before it spills into northern Lake Ontario. Too shallow for major riparian traffic and too small for large-scale power generation, the Don, Bonnell argues, primarily maintained local significance. Indeed, the Don and surrounding valley shaped and were shaped by Canada’s most populated city, which currently displays the signs of these mutually constitutive processes. Throughout the city’s two-hundred-year history, colonial officials, industrialists, social outcasts, conservationists, and city planners all advanced their own visions for the waterway and valley. These actors projected historically contingent development plans informed by political, social, technological, and economic circumstance, described by Bonnell as "imagined futures" (p. xx). Many of these urban imaginations were foiled, as Bonnell artfully demonstrates, by the dynamic ecosystem of the river and valley that formed the metropolis we know today.
Those familiar with the works of Ari Kelman, Joel Tarr, and Mathew Gandy will appreciate Bonnell’s addition to North American urban environmental history. Throughout her monograph, Bonnell seamlessly weaves together narrative sources with visual representations of imagined futures that include urban planning proposals, maps, and virtual models. With this approach she brings to life the visions that have radically altered the city and its environment. She rightly observes that the unique characteristics of the Don River and the valley that surrounds it prevented the types of intensive development that occurred on other larger rivers throughout North America. Because of this, local actors were the primary drivers of changes to the waterway and surrounding valley. This history creates a distinctive regional example for Bonnell to explore a city that was formed around its most central geographic feature.
Bonnell divides her study into a three-stage progression as the Don River Valley moved from urban center to periphery and back to center in the visions of urban planners. In the first stage, from the 1790s to the mid-nineteenth century, the river and valley were seen as central to the city’s development. Lieutenant-Governor John Grave Simcoe originally located the town of York, later renamed Toronto, near the mouth of the Don River in the 1790s. His vision placed the Don at the center of town and wealthy elites soon built homes and civic buildings along the banks of the river. The area’s newcomers saw the Don River Valley as a useful source for agricultural land, lumber, and clay. As the riverbanks were exploited, reduced forest cover and an overall depletion of natural resources reshaped the environment. Flooding, droughts, and diseases spread by mosquitos also plagued those who settled near the river’s edge. These changes to the land and the wetlands’s unpredictability altered the perceived value of the river and surrounding valley. Ultimately, by the mid-nineteenth century, it no longer attracted the admiration of Toronto’s planners.
The next stage of development, beginning in the middle of the nineteenth century and carrying through the next hundred years, set the Don on the periphery of the growing city. Once marginalized in the imagined futures of city planners, a new era of development brought different actors to the waterway and surrounding land. Aided by rail transportation in the 1850s, tanneries, milling operations, powder magazines, breweries, and oil refineries all grew and dominated the land once conceived as central to Toronto’s urban core. These industries used the river to dump wastes that combined with sewage from the city to make the Don a heavily contaminated river. Bonnell demonstrates that this pollution, coupled with flooding and transportation issues, encouraged reformers to reshape the waterway. The Don Improvement Plan of the 1880s included a number of initiatives that sought to address these matters through straightening and dredging the river. When dredged to increase depth for transportation vessels, the straightened river would also allow logjams and ice to flow freely through the river and waste to move swiftly into Lake Ontario. Far from a foregone conclusion, Bonnell outlines various ecological limits and competing aims for developing the river that doomed the improvement plan and failed to make “the river into something it wasn’t” (p. 71).
Eighty years after the Don Improvement Plan, the final shift in the river’s perceived relation to the city returned the valley to the center. In 1966, Toronto’s metropolitan government constructed the Don Valley Parkway (DVP) through the relatively underdeveloped lands adjacent to the river. Though conservationists tried to protect the green space along Don, it now serves as a backdrop for one of Toronto’s main transportation arteries. Bonnell aptly notes that through the construction of the DVP, the valley shifted from “polluted periphery of the nineteenth century to a vital transportation corridor in the centre of a larger metropolitan region” (p. 139). Bonnell’s study of this stage concludes with the recent Lower Don Lands plan that aims to remove industrial ruins in order to promote mixed residential and park use.
One of Bonnell’s greatest insights involves her description of the Don River Valley as a borderland. In this context, Bonnell uses borderland as a “term that refers not only to an area ‘near the edge,’ but also to a place where things overlap” (p. xxvi). This overlap meant that the lands along the Don River were used for more than just industrial development and transportation. In the waning decades of the nineteenth century this urban borderland also housed a reformatory, jail, and industrial farm. Bonnell appropriately claims that by this time the Don River Valley had become a “site of moral and physical rehabilitation” (p. 81). In addition, criminals avoiding the law, Roma travelers, and Depression-era homeless often camped on the relatively underdeveloped urban fringe near the banks of the Don during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. These settlements provided a refuge for populations that were marginalized by “powerful groups in the urban centre” (p. 112). Bonnell's nuanced description of the overlapping functions of the urban borderland demonstrates that the Don River Valley was (and is still) not simply an area for production, transportation, and a repository for social outcasts, but provided a space for alternative social organization as well.
Bonnell resists making claims of national or international consequence. However, her study raises a number of questions for those setting out on similar historical surveys of urban areas along waterways. Does reimagining borderlands in an urban context provide a new frontier for environmental historians? Would considering cities in less developed parts of North America and the world give radically different results? Finally, how does a story about a small river in Toronto provide an example of the challenges and potentials of managing urban waterways in other cities? The answers to these questions will be as diverse as the people who ponder them, but if the results approach the high quality of Bonnell’s study, the field will be in great shape.
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Travis Cook. Review of Bonnell, Jennifer, Reclaiming the Don: An Environmental History of Toronto's Don River Valley.
H-Environment, H-Net Reviews.
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