Brick by Brick

Reporter, September 2012

Evergreen Brick Works is many things – a farmers’ market, a wildlife reserve, a summer camp – but mostly it’s a metaphor. Founded in 1889 as the Don Valley Pressed Brick Works Company, the Brick Works produced, for nearly a century, the bricks that built Toronto, where it is located, as well as key parts of Montréal, Ottawa and Winnipeg. Today, with the quarry exhausted and the brick machines retired, the 41-acre site has re-emerged as a pre-eminent producer – not of things this time but of the ideas that will shape the sustainable cities of the future. What’s more is that the success of the Brick Works as a testing ground for world-changing ideas – about architecture, ecology, community and more – has made the site a potent symbol of what cities can achieve.

Evergreen Brick Works, which is perhaps best described as the world’s most ecologically minded community centre, launched in its current form in 2010; its influence might not match that of its previous incarnation quite yet. The history of the Brick Works began in the 1880s, when William Taylor, who owned a paper mill on the site, struck clay. A turning point arrived on April 19, 1904, when a fire erupted in a factory at Bay and Wellington Streets and quickly spread, ultimately destroying more than 100 downtown Toronto buildings. Following the fire, wood was abandoned in favour of brick, and production at the Brick Works skyrocketed. At its peak, the site produced more than 43 million bricks per year.

In 1984, with the quarry nearly bereft of clay and shale, production ceased. The site was sold to Torvalley Associates, housing developers who were apparently not discouraged by the fact that the Brick Works, which sits alongside the lower Don River, is in a flood plain. Fortunately, the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority nixed the development, and the site’s regeneration began. The quarry was filled in with debris from the construction of Scotia Plaza, and a wetland was created to restore parts of Mud Creek, an adjacent tributary. The animals – snapping turtles, belted kingfishers, green herons, red-winged blackbirds – soon arrived. Before long, the people followed, too.

Geoff Cape was already engaged with what he calls “restoring the ecology of the urban landscape” when the site came onto his radar. Cape is the executive director and co-founder of Evergreen, the charity that manages the Brick Works site. “Around 2000, we began to explore the idea of the site as a campus focused on sustainable cities, and a gateway to nature,” he says. Evergreen began ramping up, forming a range of strategic partnerships – with patrons like Robin and David Young, and with organizations like Outward Bound, the Institute without Boundaries and, recently, Cisco – to help realize its vision. “One of the biggest pieces that has allowed us to be successful is an open and flexible approach to collaboration,” says Cape.

It’s worked: The site attracted 300,000-plus visitors last year, with as many as 2,000 coming on Saturdays for Toronto’s largest farmers’ market. In addition to standard items like heirloom tomatoes, handmade cheeses and local, organic chicken, the market offers herbal skin-care products, smallbatch caramels, Thai crafts and more. Live music and face painting give the market a street-party atmosphere. Marina Queirolo, Evergreen’s food program manager, calls the market an antidote to “nature deficit disorder.” She says, “By interacting with farmers, city dwellers re-connect to the land.”

With its education programs, Evergreen takes a very direct approach to reconnecting people with nature: It starts school tours not in the parking lot but at the Castle Frank subway station, a 30-minute hike away, so the kids see the context of the site. The children’s programming is based in Chimney Court, an eco-playground, complete with a wood fort-building section.

Education extends to adults, too: Bike Works hosts a range of cycling-related classes, and Garden Groups offer volunteers the privilege of weeding and planting the site. Jen Knox, a publicist, gardens here on Tuesdays. “My boyfriend and I don’t have any outdoor space at our condo,” she says. “It’s so refreshing to escape the city and come to this little pocket of nature.”

Community engagement is key, but Evergreen has grander ambitions, too. Recently, it launched CityWorks, which, Cape says, “will function as an international centre for sustainable cities.” To execute CityWorks, Evergreen has teamed up with partners like the World Bank and the World Economic Forum.

One of CityWorks’s current projects is “MOVE,” an exhibition that looks at sustainable urban transportation, from “Ordinary Bicycle,” an 1877 penny farthing, to “PAT,” a mobility concept vehicle that might rule our roads in 2040. A corridor is lined with mock subway ads promoting community engagement, and a station in the corner challenges kids to build barns with wood pieces. “There just aren’t exhibitions like this anywhere else in the world,” says Cape.

As Evergreen’s global aspirations take shape, it’s still the day-to-day interactions that sustain the organization and, Cape says, that provide the deepest gratification. “I went to the site one night recently and there was a 300-person birthday event. A bit further away, I saw families sitting around the wood-burning pizza oven in the children’s area. Around the corner people were gathered for a bike repair program. I said, ‘It’s 10 on a weeknight. You’d think it would be quiet.’ I had gone to pick some things up, and I wound up having pizza with the party guests. I felt proud,” he says. “It was just one of those moments.”

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