Brickworks Evergreen – Urban Ecology

Photo setting the scene of the brickworks, found on the City of Toronto Website.

Yesterday I was on the discussion panel for a quick chat after the screening of two films; “Second Nature”, and “Brick by Brick”. I say quick, because ultimately I may have said two things, which is extraordinarily rare for me. But I did make a couple of connections that will hopefully lead to some interesting opportunities.

The second movie; “Brick by Brick” traced the history and inception of the Brickworks in Toronto by Evergreen, a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing nature into the city. I was aware of the project, but now that I am equipped with more information, I recognize how important and valuable this project is.

Integrating nature into the industrial

From the EBW Blog: This fallen cottonwood tree bears evidence of what may be lurking in the ponds of the Weston Family Quarry Garden. Photo: Andrew Simpson. Co-habitation? Wonder how they'll ultimately feel about the Beaver munching on their freshly installed trees?

The Brickworks is on the site where the Toronto Brick Company excavated the clay for an unimaginable quantity of bricks that literally built Toronto. Unfortunately in the 100 years of producing bricks it also left enormous damage on the local habitat, polluting the waterways and creating a deep scar across the ravine.

Evergreen, run by an energetic and articulate Geoff Cape, has taken over the site and through a herculean effort is regenerating the landscape while creating a farmer’s market, educational facilities, LEED Platinum office space, and urban park.

True Urban Ecology

There are two points I would like to make; the first is that there are no walls surrounding the site. This is not Central Park in New York, where the park is physically and mentally separated from the rest of the urban surroundings. While there are manicured pockets of specific growth, usually edible gardens, for the most part the Evergreen Brickworks integrates directly into the ravine system. In fact, it is almost possible to drive past without fully recognize the value of what has been created, because it simply “fits”. I think this is superbly important to recognize and celebrate, as it begins to truly put the concept of co-habitation in context. While it currently is being told through the story of food, I’m going to follow up with Geoff and see if he wishes to expand the story of nature’s integration as one of imagination and inspiration as well.

Urban Ecological Succession

The second point covers the concept of ecosystem succession. This is basic concept of how ecosystems increase in complexity, diversity and efficiency of nutrient flows over time via successional growth stages.

There are great high school learning modules that explain ecosystem succession. Click the image above to find a good introductory explanation.

The deep lesson of ecosystem succession is that each layer of growth creates conditions conducive to the next generation of growth. “Weeds” like dandelions are critical to capturing nutrients quickly and creating a layer of protection for the seeds of slower growing trees to ultimately burst through the tiny canopy. I think this warrants a full post in the future, but for the moment I want to put the Brickworks into context. More heavy reading is available here.

Architecture makes a lot of weeds

For the most part the urban landscape is dominated by human made weeds. They are inefficient, use resources poorly, and are not designed for the long term. The problem of our engineered landscape is that the embedded energy, cost of production and physical permanence does not match our short sighted design perspective. The dandelion breaks down creating a biomass, while the cheap shoddy condominium tower lasts and lasts and lasts.

Evergreen Brickworks reflects maturing growth

Evergreen could have razed the site to the ground and started fresh. But there was human, cultural history that had weight, and offered a story to future generations. The more difficult, and more expensive path that they chose was to regenerate the architecture along with the nature. In other words Geoff Cape was ready to act as the next stage of growth within the urban ecosystem succession. This is the deep story that I take from this project and the deep, deep value this story represents to evolving cities.

A design path such as this will take time, and require a complex network of complimentary relationships (a whole post could be dedicated to Evergreen’s business strategy and integrated private/public partnership model) but ultimately these projects will allow our cities to mature and integrate nature back into the cold landscapes we have created.

Please take some time to visit their website, if you’re in Toronto get down and have a look at the physical site, all the while thinking of the long view;

What does this project really represent above and beyond a clever farmer’s market and green office in the middle of a ravine?

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