American Society of Landscape Architects ASLA 2008 Professional Awards
ASLA Home  | ASLA Honors and Awards  |  Call for Entries  |  Awards Jury  | Awards Press Release  |  News Room & Publications

<< back to main page

This project is the result of a winning entry in a 2007 international design competition for Toronto's Port Lands. The 280 acre site is within walking distance of downtown Toronto, and affords spectacular views of the city. (Photo: MVVA)
Ashbridges Bay 1800, Keating Channel 1922, Don Valley 1954. (Photo: MVVA)
Port Lands Estuary 2032
This proposal began with relocating the river to where it wants to be. This preliminary gesture creatively challeged, developed, re-positioned site boundries established by the competition, and let the river break out of the box. (Photo: MVVA)
Toronto's Green Spaces and Grid. (Photo: MVVA)
The social program is as important asthe ecological one. Diverse Landscapes types provide outdoor opportunities for a broad range of users. (Photo: MVVA)
Flood flows are complex and multi-dimensional. A hydrodynamic model was developed to evaluate the design's flow characteristics, and to perdict velocities and sediment transport capacity. The model demonstrated the design's effectiveness at conveying floodwaters, remaining stable under extreme flow events, and substainably transporting sediment. (Photo: MVVA)
The Don River presents a hydrological and ecological challenge. While its regular flow is minimal, it is also an urban waterway with a large watershed that must withstand extrerme flood events. (Photo: MVVA)
Situated on the Toronto Waterfront, the lower Don Lands link into the Great Lakes Aquatic ecosystem and the Atlantic Migratory Flyway. (Photo: MVVA)


Port Lands Estuary: Reinventing the Don River as an Agent of Urbanism, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc., Landscape Architects, New York, New York
client: Waterfront Toronto

"Ecological and sustainable strategies drive the program, which is a fresh approach to urban design. The landscape architect has created images that convey a compelling story to convince the public and the authorities to make something happen. Sweeping and powerful."

— 2008 Professional Awards Jury Comments

PROJECT STATEMENT: The Port Lands Estuary proposal heralds a new relationship between the urban and the natural. Developed by an integrated team of designers, engineers, and ecologists, the plan introduces urban development, native ecologies, and public infrastructure to 280 acres of Toronto's post-industrial Port Lands. This planning framework for a vibrant new mixed-use riverfront and lakefront neighborhood is developed through a landscape-based approach that unifies the goals of ecological restoration and urban design with potentially transformative effects.

PROJECT NARRATIVE: Major world cities such as Toronto are in transition, needing to re-integrate strategically important post-industrial landscapes while reframing their interactions with the natural environment. The Port Lands Estuary proposal is unique among these efforts by virtue of its size, scope, and complexity. In this proposal, the engine of transformative urbanism is a radical repositioning of natural systems and attendant landscapes, transportation networks, and urban environments. The imperative of sustainable flood control leads to relocating the river mouth and a renewed recognition of the functional and experiential benefits of river ecology makes it the symbolic and literal center around which new neighborhoods can be constructed.

This master plan unites innovative design approaches from landscape architecture and urban design with innovative scientific approaches to natural reclamation at the scale of the city and the region. Within this plan to recycle 280 acres of Toronto's waterfront, the Port Lands Estuary proposal fuses the client's major programmatic initiatives into a single framework that will simultaneously make the site more natural (with the potential for new site ecologies based on the size and complexity of the river mouth landscape) and more urban (with the development of a green mixed-use district and its integration into an evolving network of infrastructure and re-connection). Both the urban and the natural elements of the landscape introduce complex new systems to the site that will evolve over the course of many years, creating interim conditions, each interesting in its own right, which give form, focus, and character to the development of the neighborhood.

Project Goals: A New Neighborhood, a New Relationship with the River
The site is located on a former wetland (the largest on the Great Lakes) created by the Lower Don River as it emptied into Lake Ontario but filled in the early 20th century. Existing conditions include an abundance of impermeable surface, a river diverted into a canal, rail lines and an elevated highway that create a barrier between the Port Lands and the remainder of the city. Devoid of natural features, public infrastructure, and neighborhood amenities, the site is fundamentally incapable of supporting new urban growth. Building on initiatives that were being undertaken elsewhere along the waterfront, the client, a public redevelopment agency formed by the federal, provincial, and municipal governments, sought to transform the site into new mixed-use neighborhoods that would meet strategic development goals while demonstrating a new attitude toward the river and the harbor through the creation of a naturalized mouth to the currently channelized and abused Don River.

Our plan results from the winning solution of an intensive eight-week design competition with an international team of designers, engineers, and ecologists, headed by the landscape architects. Our Port Lands Estuary proposal applies an evolutionary approach rooted in ecological principles to the emergence of new neighborhoods. The plan draws extensively on the varied site histories, ecologies, surrounding context, and potentials for future use. Employing an integrated landscape-based methodology of city building developed in close collaboration with a diverse client group, the plan reaches across disciplinary lines to link the client's goals of introducing urban development, native ecologies, and public infrastructure to an obsolescent industrial site in order to transform it into a vibrant new sustainable community for Toronto. 

Understanding the Site, Transforming the Site: The Intersection of Design and Science
Because of decades of wetland filling, the original mouth of the Don River is no longer adjacent to Lake Ontario. The current mouth of the Don River is an artificial remnant of an era of city building in which a land filled industrial port was considered the highest priority, although the Depression and changes in marine technology frustrated that goal. In addition, major transportation corridors had created a vacuum between the struggling industrial port and historic and newly emerging city neighborhoods on the other side of major rail and highway barriers. Reflecting a vastly different set of values, the competition sought an integrated solution that would provide a new naturalized mouth to the river serving the environmental needs of the river and the lake, remediate contaminated sites, provide flood control for a large area of downtown Toronto, and forge a compelling new identity for a Lower Don Lands neighborhood. Given the unprecedented opportunity to transform the city's relationship to the river, the planning team approached the commission with two initial questions: “Where does the mouth of the Don River want to be?” and “What form can the river give to the new neighborhoods it traverses?”

The overall framework for the new neighborhood is supported by the detailed information provided and the intense analysis undertaken by the landscape architect team leaders, urban designers, architects, river hydrologists, regional ecologists, microecologists, climate engineers, bridge engineers, traffic and transportation engineers, and civil and marine engineers. The team used these combined resources to explore issues of infrastructure, recreated nature, neighborhood identity, and urban environments in a series of rapid and integrated iterations rooted in the scientific realities of the project's environmental ambitions and constraints. The analysis of hydrology and flood control was used to understand how the landscape needed to function in both flooded and non-flooded conditions. An examination of how to employ the river's sediment deposits inspired plans to improve the river's function by dredging, while also providing the project with inexpensive materials for establishing a new topography on the flat and featureless man-made port landscape. Ecological analysis was paired with an understanding of microclimate as a means of creating new habitat for plants and animals alongside new recreational opportunities that would support a new urban life on the site.

Repositioning the River
A significant part of the urban analysis included understanding how the origins of Toronto's two dominant park typologies - rectilinear parks shaped by the urban grid and irregular parks shaped by the topography of the extensive ravines - might be used as precedents for the kind of urban/park relationship that was going to be established in the Lower Don Lands neighborhood. Instead of creating naturalized banks along the straight course of the existing channel connecting the Don River with the lake, as was originally suggested in the project brief, the Port Lands Estuary proposal keeps the Keating Channel as an urban artifact and neighborhood amenity and creates a new mouth for the river that flows logically from the upstream source, bypassing the abrupt right turn created by the channel. A large new meandering riverfront park becomes the centerpiece of a new mixed-use neighborhood.

The team's relocation of the mouth of the "new" Don River estuary makes it highly visible from other points around Toronto Harbor, reasserting the river's lost presence in the city and allowing it to become a new symbol of the revitalization of the Lower Don Lands as a whole. The shifting of the river's mouth also creates a highly desired setting for new urban development, reinforced by stronger links to the existing and emerging new neighborhoods north of the tracks, as well as associated development elsewhere along the Don. In this way, naturalizing the mouth of the river not only creates a richer site ecology, but also has powerful positive impacts on the urban form of the Lower Don Lands, adding kilometers of park front and waterfront property, as well as a sustainable “urban estuary” of great richness and complexity on multiple and mutually reinforcing levels: spatial, ecological, functional, economic, and social.

Transforming the Site and the City
Within this unique setting, the Port Lands Estuary proposal envisions the sequential development of a series of distinct neighborhoods with a range of block patterns and building typologies on sites formed by the river and the harbor. The team's goal was to enhance the qualities of exciting new kinds of places to live, work, shop, recreate, and visit in Toronto, where city, parkland, estuary, the preservation of key historic artifacts including historic silos, and an active recreational harbor all contribute to unique neighborhood identities, each with the complete DNA of a vibrant city: a mix of life-cycle housing, commercial, cultural, and work spaces, public realms, parkland, and access to water.

In the vision for the park at the heart of this urban estuary, the social program was recognized as important as the ecological one. As proposed, the landscape will teem with activity: active sports in the four regulation-size fields, informal pickup games, kite-flying on the mound overlooking the Inner Harbor, jogging and in-line skating on the trails, and bird-watching, strolling, and contemplation along the more secluded paths. Within each neighborhood, the proposal envisions multiple opportunities for social interaction on broad tree-lined sidewalks, in cafés, in the squares, and during games on the play fields that are tucked in throughout the park. Rock climbing, markets, festivals, and restaurants will energize the impressive colonnade under an elevated expressway that had previously cut the site off from the city, providing a memorable backdrop for a new expression of urban life.

The plan is broad in its vision as a framework with the capacity to evolve, but also very specific in its attention to the quality of the public realm. Individual neighborhoods are discussed in detail with particular attention paid to views within the district and beyond, the provision of social infrastructure - schools, daycare, community centers, local shopping and amenities, and the way that the new development will interact with the site's industrial history. The plan is anchored by a holistically conceived three-dimensional public realm in which buildings and open spaces are partners of equal importance in safeguarding the quality of the environment by ensuring adequate solar exposure and wind protection, and circulation networks that favor pedestrians and cyclists. By mandating built-form that meets stringent environmental standards, the plan will ensure a green civic-minded architecture through solicitations to developers in keeping with the broad environmental and sustainability goals adopted by the client and the City.

An Urban Estuary
The Port Lands Estuary proposal describes a new type of neighborhood for Toronto, one that is designed to interact with the river and the lake in a dynamic and balanced relationship – an urban estuary. Integrating the contributions of design, engineering, environmental specialists and economic advisors, the proposal stakes out an integrated approach to reclaiming 280 acres of abandoned port lands in the heart of the city. An extensive and intensive permitting process is now taking place and construction of the new river and associated parkland-ecologies is anticipated in 2010.


Team Leader and Landscape Architect:
Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc., Landscape Architects
New York, NY

MVVA Project Team:
Michael Van Valkenburgh
Matt Urbanski
Anita Berrizbeitia
Chris Counts
Gullivar Shepard
Sarah Siegel
Liz Silver
John Cearley
Rachel Gleeson
Yoshi Mishima
Killian Obrien
Erik Prince
Michael Smith
Angela Wu
Jonathan Zack

Behnisch Architects
Stuttgart, Germany

Climate Engineer:
Stuttgart, Germany

Regional Ecologist:
Applied Ecological Services
Brodhead, WI

River Hydrologist:
Limno-Tech, Inc.
Ann Arbor, MI

Traffic & Transportation Engineer:
Toronto, ON

Bridge Engineer:
RFR Engineering
Paris, FR

Sustainability Consultant:
Carpenter Norris Consulting
New York, NY

Urban Designer:
Greenberg Consultants, Inc.
Toronto, ON

Urban Planner:
Marshall Macklin Monaghan
Toronto, ON

Urban Planner:
GHK International Consulting
Toronto, ON

Consulting Landscape Architect:
Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg
Vancouver, BC

Great Eastern Ecology
New York, NY

Civil & Marine Engineer:
Whitby, ON



There are no simular examples of river mouth and coastal marsh restoration on the Great Lakes. The project presents a unique opportunity for Toronto to take the lead in positively transforming the regional ecology through restoration. (Photo: MVVA)
The site is a critical link between city and harbour. Our proposal provides multiple connections to the surrounding neighbourhoods, exisiting and proposed, and to the harbour on all sides. (Photo: MVVA)
A new light rail spine travels along major green boulevards linked to existing streets. A new family of bridges carry these streets across the Don. Smaller neighbourhood streets are interwoven with regional trails, bicycle lanes, and a green network. (Photo: MVVA)
The liberated Don would not divide the new city from the exisiting city as previous plans indicated. The Keating Channel, an artifact of the site's industrial heritage, is preserved and becomes the centre of a new neighbourhood. (Photo: MVVA)
Each neighbourhood will have the complete DNA of a vibrant city: a mix of life-cycle housing, commercial, cultural, and work spaces, public relations, parkland, and access to water. (Photo: MVVA)
(Photo: MVVA)
This Proposal suggests a new type of city, one that interacts with the lake and river in a dynamic and balanced relationship —and urban estuary. (Photo: MVVA)
Port Lands Estuary_Plan, Toronto, Canada.
(Photo: MVVA)
ASLA Home  | ASLA Honors and Awards  |  Call for Entries  |  Awards Jury  | Awards Press Release  |  News Room & Publications