Building for Resiliency in a Floodplain
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More than 50 years ago Hurricane Hazel blasted across the Atlantic region, causing hundreds of fatalities in Haiti, the United States, and Canada. It had an unprecedented reach in my hometown of Toronto. To date, it was the city’s worst natural disaster, with the greatest destruction from flooding.
This example in Toronto is not an isolated incident, each year we see weather-related disasters gravely impacting cities around the world. With climate change fast becoming one of the most critical challenges facing cities, these severe weather events will only continue to affect our ecosystems, economies, and communities.
Cities around the world are declaring climate emergencies and embarking on resiliency plans. Here in Canada, cities like Montreal, Toronto, Calgary, and Vancouver have recently launched resiliency strategies, which have brought together experts from across sectors to understand and plan for stresses in a more holistic way. If there is a flood, yes, we need to respond to the influx of water, but will we have plans in place to deal with the economic and social impacts?
A decade ago, we embarked on a bold project to transform an abandoned urban 42 acre industrial site into Evergreen Brick Works, a thriving community hub and example of adaptive reuse, on a floodplain.
They said we couldn’t do it.
Experimentation is Key to Accelerating Innovation
Hurricane Hazel resulted in efforts to protect and regulate lands and water flow, which restricted new development in floodplains. Toronto is built on a massive ravine system which flows into Lake Ontario, and these efforts aimed to allow rivers to flow naturally and to reduce flood risk to people and property.
The task of building a large-scale community environmental centre on an area restricted from new development was only part of the challenge. Developing on an industrial site posed other complications: adhering to industrial heritage requirements, addressing soil contamination and convincing lease-holders (municipal government and conservation authority) to grant access to a not-for-profit with no real estate experience. It was critical to bring together a unique team of development and construction experts, architectural partners and funders willing to take the risk.
The site’s restrictions offered new opportunities to advance innovative approaches in how we build buildings.
Knowing that flooding is inevitable, we moved forward with developing the Brick Works site by testing new green design features that would mitigate risk and withstand most rain events. Stormwater management ponds collect water from the central parking lot; greenways and other hard surfaces filter sediment in the water before it’s released into the Don River. We also built out the site with wet flood-proofing, which allows water to flow in and out of buildings instead of preventing it from entering. A raised floor made of Cupolex allows water, moisture, and gases to escape from beneath the floor. Elevators default to the second floor, and mechanical systems are located above the projected water level from even the most severe flood. These measures are meant to minimize damage rather than stop the flood, and they were successfully put to the test during spring floods in 2012 and again in 2013.
Fast forward to today where we have expanded on the original ideas with the creation of the TD Future Cities Centre, an international hub for urban innovation related to low-carbon, climate-ready cities. For the first time ever, we analyzed the GHG emissions associated with the construction process with an end goal of carbon neutrality. The process to analyze the full life-cycle of the project is very difficult and time consuming but the outcome will be groundbreaking in setting a new standard for future buildings.
Aligning with Unlikely Partners to Invest in Green and Blue Infrastructure
While cities build for density and become increasingly congested, we must make bold investments in public spaces, and places for green (trees, fields, forest, etc.) and blue (rivers, wetlands, floodplains, etc.) infrastructure.
For 30 years, Evergreen has been deeply involved with ecological restoration and conservation projects in cities across the country. Most notably we have worked in Toronto’s 45,000 acre ravine system, the largest urban ravine system in the world. It touches virtually every community and is connected to the world’s largest green belt, with over two million acres of protected lands.
While the ravines are sometimes forgotten and buried under a growing population and layers of urban development, this ecological system of green and blue infrastructure features, plays an important role in residents’ quality of life and the city’s resilience. Our city’s built space has its foundation in the ravines, rooted in a wild landscape of dramatic geography and forest that been scarred by industry.
In recent years, the ravines have slowly remerged in our city’s awareness thanks to innovative partnerships and dedicated restoration efforts.
We have seen firsthand the success of a shared working model when community leaders come together. In our case, Evergreen, the City of Toronto, the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, private donors, and a very strong network of community organizations who are deeply passionate about this globally unique green space.
Five years ago, Evergreen launched a campaign to create the Don River Valley Park, a ‘super park’ encompassing a 480-acre green space that connects Evergreen Brick Works to Lake Ontario. The project has led to significant trail improvements, new gateways, bridges, signage, and a unique public art program, all while working to restore and protect ecosystems. More than that, this “first mile” project has catalyzed a much larger commitment to a 45,000 acre city-wide ravine strategy that is currently taking shape between government, organizations like Evergreen, and private partners.
Over the years we have learned that complex challenges require unique partnerships, and by working together we can develop innovative solutions to make our cities more livable, green, and prosperous for all to thrive. Whether it’s restoring Toronto’s vast network of ravines as the city’s backyard, rebuilding unused rail corridors as linear parks in New York, or reshaping Singapore’s skyline with ‘Supertrees’ at its Gardens at the Bay, these projects demonstrate how natural and built assets can be a place for everyone. And this kind of collaborative investment in green and blue infrastructure is essential in creating low carbon flourishing cities of the future.
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This article was originally published on September 8, 2020.
Update for April 20, 2021:
After the murder of George Floyd we wrote this article as a kind of blueprint, a beginning to a new way of working with equitable resilience in our cities and beyond. Now, as the trial of Derek Chauvin comes to a guilty verdict in Minneapolis and the whole country reflects on the legacy of that verdict, we have to remember another senseless murder – another young Black man, Daunte Wright, at the hands of law enforcement, just miles from the courthouse. Again, Minneapolis is all of us. We have protested, we have voted. We stood up, we spoke out, we have raged about the anti-Black racism. We have seen people come together, we can feel a shift in this country. But there is so much more to do. No equity, no resilience.
-Ron & Stewart
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