Imagined Futures and Unintended Consequences: An Environmental History of Toronto's Don River Valley
Author(s)Bonnell, Jennifer Leigh
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AbstractThis dissertation explores human interactions with Toronto’s Don River Valley from the late eighteenth century to the present, focusing on the period of intense urbanization and industrialization between 1880 and 1940. Its concentration on the urban fringe generates new perspectives on the social and environmental consequences of urban development. From its position on the margins, the Don performed vital functions for the urban economy as a provider of raw materials and a sink for wastes. Insights derived from the intersections between social and environmental history are at the heart of this project. The dissertation begins by documenting the industrial history of the river and its transformation from a central provider in the lives of early Toronto residents to a polluted periphery in the latter half of the nineteenth century. An analysis of the valley’s related function as a repository for human “undesirables” reveals connections between the processes that identified certain individuals as deficient “others” and similar imperatives at work in classifying difficult or unpredictable environments as “waste spaces.” Efforts to “reclaim” and improve the river are the subject of the remaining chapters. A series of initiatives between 1870 and 1930 aimed at reconfiguring the lower Don as an efficient corridor for transportation and industrial development reveal in their shortcomings and unintended consequences a failure to accommodate dynamic and often unpredictable ecological processes. Reclamations of a different kind are explored in the conservation movement of the twentieth century, through which the valley emerges as a valuable public amenity. The dissertation concludes by investigating how the valley’s history informs current plans to “renaturalize” the river mouth. Throughout, the Don functions as an autonomous and causal force in the city’s history. On this small river on the urban fringe, nature and society worked in mutually constitutive ways to shape and reshape the metropolis.