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Case studies

Evergreen Brick Works

The Evergreen Brick Works, an education centre and small business workspace in Toronto’s downtown, has:

  • Regenerated an old industrial site for community use
  • Used the arts to engage citizens in matters of environmental sustainability
  • Supported a local community of producers and innovators related to sustainability and cities.

The Evergreen Brick Works is Canada’s first large-scale community environmental centre. The development of the centre involved the adaptation and reuse of a former brick-making factory, the Don Valley Brick Works, through a partnership between the City of Toronto, the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority and Evergreen, a charity whose mission is to create greener, more sustainable cities. The repurposed Brick Works act as a hub for Evergreen’s work exploring green ideas and technologies, and as an educational venue where the public can engage in and learn about environmental activities. Located in the Don Valley, which is about four miles northeast of Toronto’s waterfront and financial district, the site consists of 16 buildings, including a 4,181 square metre educational and administrative building along with a 16.5 hectare park and natural heritage area created from the quarry that supplied the clay for the Brick Works - developed in the mid-1990s. The park contains high quality wetland, forest and meadow habitats, as well as an exposed slope that shows 185,000 years of geological history. The park is maintained by the City of Toronto and it connects to the many ravines and trails of the Lower Don.

Besides providing a base for Evergreen – a new Centre for Green Cities – the Brick Works have an extensive public programme, which draws people to the tranquil Don River Valley and pursues Evergreen’s mission to galvanise the public towards more sustainable ways of living. On site there are exhibitions and educational facilities, as well as workspaces for social enterprises operating in the green tech sector, and conferencing facilities. In terms of events, a weekly farmers’ market and other activities celebrate and promote local food. There are many events primarily for children, as well as a conference programme developing ideas around future or green, cities. All activities combine ecology, design, technology and the arts in a hands-on, multi-sensory, educational experience. The environmental and urban ecology programming together with the farmers’ market, event and community uses has resulted in attendance figures exceeding 400,000 annually.

Brick Works’ popularity has been reflected in a number of awards, including the 2008 Holcim (North America) Award, a top 10 ranking by National Geographic in its 2009 Geotourism Challenge, and a runner-up place for Best Public Space in Canada from the Canadian institute of Planners.

So how did this radical revisioning of a disused factory come about?

The Don Valley Brick Works closed in the 1980s and remained derelict for some years afterwards. However they represent an important aspect of Toronto’s industrial and social history, having made many of the bricks that built the city. Established in the 19th century, the Brick Works boomed after the fire of 1904, when the need for non-combustible building materials was recognised. After closure, the site was intended for a new housing development, and plans were drawn up by a developer. But the site is in the Don Valley flood plain, which gets up to 4 metres of water during hurricanes and flash floods; ultimately the city decided that housing was an inappropriate use. The redeveloped Brick Works has been wet flood proofed and a site evacuation plan is in place.

While the City pondered an alternative future for the site, Evergreen had begun ‘greening’ some former industrial areas outside Toronto. They proposed the creative reuse of the Brick Works buildings, which, in accordance with sustainability principles, were to be adapted rather than pulled down. A number of green technologies are also showcased on the refurbished site. The development took seven years, but by the end of 2010 the Evergreen Brick Works Project was largely complete and commenced operation, including education programs, land stewardship programs, farmers’ market and the construction of a visitor centre.

Brick Works’ success and popularity stems from its open and inclusive approach to working with community partners, and its use of arts to galvanise interest in the site. From 2009 they began to run ‘sun-ripened Saturdays’, a celebration of local food, gardening and Eco-arts.Evergreen promote a highly creative approach to encouraging environmentally friendly behaviour; their projects explore how to sustain our cities in healthy, economically viable, socially responsible, environmentally nourishing and creative ways. Cultural inclusion and diversity also drive the city’s cultural policy. Accordingly, the Brick Works is now a place where the whole community, from students to seniors, can explore what it means to live green.

The City of Toronto helped facilitate or enable the development of Evergreen Brick Works in a number of ways. It negotiated a lease with Evergreen for the former factory buildings (12 acres) at nominal rent. The City implemented a program of soil and groundwater remediation, and it also provided Evergreen with a $55.6 million (US) capital loan guarantee so that construction financing could be secured. The City of Toronto is a programming partner at the site and it is working to improve trails and way finding to the site.

Finally, the City of Toronto administration recognises that long-term, sustainable development of the cultural sector will be best achieved through innovative public-private partnerships that include both places and spaces. The adaptive reuse of industrial heritage buildings like the Evergreen Brick Works is a good example of such a partnership.