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Creating a Vision for the Future of Toronto’s Iconic Ship Channel

Aug 15, 2014

View of Toronto's Ship Channel, looking west toward downtown.

There is a unique power inherent in water and Toronto’s Ship Channel District offers the opportunity to engage with that power.

By Brenda Webster and Ciara McKeown

Collaborative and original thinking permeated a two-day design charrette at Pinewood Studios last month. Creative sparks flew as a group of about fifty entrepreneurs, residents, designers and community advocates gathered to begin work on the vision for the future of Toronto’s iconic Ship Channel.

The Ship Channel is an important part of our working port and a very unique feature. At 2.8 kilometres long and 700 metres wide, the Ship Channel is a massive and dominant body of water that presents an immense opportunity for reinvention as a vibrant new district. Creating a spectacular water’s edge will draw Torontonians and visitors to this district for the adventure and for the great theatre of watching massive ships navigate their way in and out of the Toronto’s inner harbour.

The City of Toronto, in partnership with Waterfront Toronto and the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, hosted the two-day Ship Channel Charrette as part of ongoing public consultation on the Port Lands. It was designed to give participants an opportunity to roll up their sleeves and share ideas about the possibilities for the Ship Channel District. The purpose was to imagine the possibilities for elevating this historic piece of infrastructure into a major local feature.  

Last month's design charrette began with a boat tour of the Shipping Channel.

The design charrette began with a boat tour, allowing participants to experience the Ship Channel up close and in the context of the larger Port Lands and Toronto’s harbour.

Many were experiencing the Ship Channel for the first time and its size, the opportunity it presents and its economic importance came to life when viewed from this vantage point. Being on the water also provided a unique perspective that fed people’s imaginations and allowed everyone to understand its magnitude and presence in the area.

With a focus on good design as the unifying thread, the group broke into smaller teams and moved through eight design work stations over the course of two days. The exercise was designed to elicit a wide range of ideas and concepts to create a vision for this vast, underutilized area. Eleven thematic vision boards lined the room providing images to inspire the participants.

A bridge across the Ship Channel.Salt piles in the Port Lands.

More salt piles in the Port Lands.Industrial buildings in the Port Lands, viewed from the Ship Channel.

Touring the Port Lands by boat offered the charrette participants a sense of the immensity of these industrial lands and the Ship Channel itself.

The images told stories about their specific locations around the world and heightened people’s awareness of the nature, infrastructure and industry depicted in each image. As the charrette unfolded the vision boards evolved into a collection of the group’s aspirations for the Ship Channel District. Common themes that emerged included “celebrating the water,” possible temporary uses and activations, and the industrial heritage of the area.

‘Positive friction’ – a term coined by the planning team to describe the interesting contradictions and massive potential of the area – became the mantra among many as a way to consider the juxtaposition of industrial alongside intimate, and economic alongside ecology. There was no shortage of ideas, and the energy and enthusiasm in the room was contagious. Water, a dominant feature in the area, was often at the heart of each new idea.

The mix of people in attendance – from residents to designers, activists to land owners – offered diverse perspectives which made for rich discussions and interesting storytelling. The phrase ‘the one and only Port Lands’ was heard many times over the course of the two days. It captured people’s sentiment about the Port Lands and gave recognition to its uniqueness and importance to the City.  Everyone agreed that the Port Lands must continue to be an environment where creativity and experimentation flourishes.

Vision board assembled by Ship Channel design charrette participants.


Inspiring images and ideas where assembled into vision boards that helped capture the creative energy in the room.

By the end of the second day something amazing happened. There was consensus amongst participants that reimagining the Ship Channel and creating a vision for the area is no easy task, but with its amazing features, endless possibilities and the collective energy, enthusiasm and dedication of everyone involved, this would indeed be a very special place that draws people to the area.

The next public meeting on the Port Lands will take place later this yearSubscribe to our newsletter to receive updates by email.

Want to get involved in the revitalization of the Port Lands? Visit portlandsconsultation.ca for materials on all of the initiatives underway in the area. A summary and full report from the design charrette will be available in the coming months.