It's been a beautiful Fall in Toronto. This season, which like Spring often feels like an all-too-brief transition between the real seasons of cold and heat, has actually given us a serious dose of satisfying weather this year, with an abundance of autumnal drama in the trees. So, what better Fall has there been for a bike ride?

If you're a member of the Urban Land Institute, a recent highlight was the bike ride along Lake Ontario and up the Humber River two Saturdays ago. Part of the #CityResolve events that challenge Torontonians to get to know the city better and make it a better place, Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat cycled along some of our waterside recreational trails with a couple dozen ULI Toronto members, stopping at various points to talk about City plans for the future, while enjoying what we have already.

Outside the Amsterdam Brew Pub, image courtesy of ULI TorontoOutside the Amsterdam Brew Pub, image courtesy of ULI Toronto

At 11 AM on November 5, ride participants assembled outside the Amsterdam Brew Pub on Toronto Harbour before making a short ride along the Waterfront Trail to Eireann Quay. It was at this first stop just east of Little Norway Park where Keesmaat spoke about the new precinct plan being created for the Bathurst Quay Neighbourhood.

Community consultations—including open houses and information sessions—have been held at the Harbourfront Community Centre and Waterfront School since the end of 2014. The Bathurst Quay neighbourhood is dealing with the effects of increased traffic related to Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport, far more bicycle traffic on the Waterfront Trail, and increasing population in the surrounding neighbourhoods. Discussions have produced recommendations for the public realm, pedestrian and cycling connections, park facilities, and transportation improvements, especially in regards to Lake Shore Boulevard intersections and access issues to the Airport. The neighbourhood hopes a way can be devised to manage airport parking and traffic offsite, while they are also interested in accommodating possible future aquatic facility.

The future of the Canada Malting Silos is another question that looms over a long-term vision for the Bathurst Quay Community. The City is now planning to hold a design competition for the heritage site, broad enough in scope to look for creative ideas to integrate the adjacent school and community centre, along with Ireland Park. The competition winner would likely need a refined proposal for the silos, and potential public/private sector partners for revitalization.

At Toronto Inukshuk Park, beside Ontario Place, image courtesy of ULI TorontoAt Toronto Inukshuk Park, beside Ontario Place, image courtesy of ULI Toronto

The next stop was at Toronto Inukshuk Park, just past Coronation Park and near the east end of Ontario Place, where Keesmaat spoke of a future vision of the Ontario Place lands as a year-round, vibrant waterfront destination without residential development on the site. Recent improvements to Toronto’s waterfront have been creating a more walkable, bikeable city with improved paths, laneways and sidewalks, and new development here should build upon those connections. Harbourfront has benefitted significantly from the Queens Quay rebuild, and current projects like the Fort York Pedestrian and Cycle Bridge and the Under Gardiner project should work similar wonders for Liberty Village, King West, Fort York, and CityPlace residents.

ULI Bike Ride, The Waterfront Trail beside Humber Bay, image by Craig WhiteThe Waterfront Trail beside Humber Bay, image by Craig White

The group then rounded Humber Bay on the Waterfront trail, next pausing on the Etobicoke side of the Humber Bay Arch Bridge, a local landmark since it opened in 1994. The Montgomery Sisam Architects-designed bridge was joined by the Sheldon Lookout in 1999, a landscaped point with monolithic boulders that juts out into the bay and provides great news of the waterfront and Downtown skyline on the east horizon, and Humber Bay Shores to the west. The bridge and lookout—early successes in improving Toronto's connection to the water—are thronged by people now whenever the weather is good.

ULI Bike Ride, At the Humber Pedestrian and Bike Bridge, image by Craig WhiteAt the Humber Pedestrian and Bike Bridge, image by Craig White

It is at this point where the Humber Trail starts. Weaving around the Sheldon Lookout, it runs under the Lake Shore, Gardiner, and Queensway bridges before emerging beside the Humber Marshes on the north side. To the west of the marshes here is the Humber Sewage Treatment Plant, hidden behind a tall, graffitied, concrete wall. One suspects that the plant, vital infrastructure for the City, would have been designed more sensitively in regards to its face towards the river had it been built in this decade, but the narrow passage past it nevertheless provides a vital link between the river trail and the waterfront. 

ULI Bike Ride, At the Oculus on the Humber Trail, image by Craig WhiteStopping at the Oculus on the Humber Trail, image by Craig White

The Oculus is one of the more surprising sights along the Humber. Built in 1959 by the City as a washroom facility for park users, its space age Modernist design by architect Alan Crossley is still readily apparent despite years of ambivalent treatment that has left it in a deteriorated condition. A proposal earlier this year to take down the shuttered stone structure and cover the visor's poles with fieldstone was halted after the Ontario Architectural Conservancy of Ontario and several publications (including UrbanToronto) mounted a campaign to save and restore the unique structure. We should learn in 2017 what the City's Parks department proposes.

ULI Toronto Riding through Etienne Brule Park, image by Craig WhiteRiding through Etienne Brule Park, image by Craig White

The group continued north on the Humber Trail through several distinctly varied landscapes. A few hundred meres west of the Oculus, the trail emerges from the park (parts of the Humber Marshes are too wild for any development, even a bike trail) and follows Stephen Drive on bike lanes, then in shared traffic past the development site of Backyard Condos.

The Stonegate neighbourhood, built out in the late 1950s and early 60s and cited in John Sewell's The Shape of the City as a model of higher density development for its time, is mostly low and mid-rise rental apartment buildings which are now showing their age a bit. Formerly centred on a suburban shopping plaza with a vast surface parking lot, the Vandyk-built development brings reinvestment into the neighbourhood in the form of new condominiums, a renewed community health centre, new shops including a food co-operative, and an emphasis on the public realm through extensive landscaping and a centrally located POPS—a Privately Owned Publicly accessible Space—which will act as a park and playground for the neighbourhood.

Toronto's mid-century suburbs are now starting to get the kind of attention from the development industry that will revitalize them, similar to how Toronto's older areas have become increasingly fun and more liveable while getting denser.

ULI Bike Ride, North of the Dundas Bridge in Lambton Park, image by Craig WhiteNorth of the Dundas Bridge in Lambton Park, image by Craig White

After turning onto Riverwood Parkway briefly, the Humber Trail then plunges back into the city's ravine park system for a long, winding distance north. Pockets of flat parkland used for playing fields and picnicking are bordered by tree-lined streams and natural regeneration areas… put-ins for canoes, kayaks, and powerboats make the river course accessible… a yacht club maintains a privileged presence at a bend. The trail navigates up and down valley sides, passes under the subway at Old Mill station and past the eponymous inn, then crosses Toronto's most scenic stone arch bridge at Old Mill Road and into another stretch of steeply sided, heavily treed valley. North of the Dundas Street bridge, the trail crosses the river again, using the abutments of a long removed rail bridge, before passing under the CP line that carries GO Trains to Milton.

ULI Bike Ride, Crossing the Humber to Lambton Woods, image by Craig WhiteCrossing the Humber to Lambton Woods, image by Craig White

The trial then passes through the gorgeous Lambton Woods, then skirts James Gardens on one side before the City-run Scarlett Woods Golf Course appears across the river. The trail then rises to cross Eglinton at grade (the City needs to figure out a route that avoids this narrow, congested section, then drops back into the valley and into Raymore Park, named after the the ill-fated street where 14 homes and 35 people were washed away on the night of October 15, 1954 when Hurricane Hazel battered Toronto. Toronto's ravine park system is a result of that natural disaster which killed a total of 81 people in southern Ontario. Today, reservoirs upstream and no more building in the floodplain mean little chance that a similar catastrophe could occur here again. In the years since, the extensive parkland and trail system has made better use of the valley lands. 

The group ended the trip at the GO Weston station and a nearby greek restaurant, the locally popular P & M Restaurant for lunch, where participants heard about the Weston 2021 Revitalization Strategy. An innovative partnership between Artscape, the City of Toronto, and private developer the Rockport Group with Woodbourne Capital, the idea was championed by local City Councillor Frances Nunziata. The strategy includes a new Weston Community Cultural Hub dedicated to local indoor and outdoor programming. It is part of a larger development by Rockport who is adding 350 new rental homes to site, to be completed by 2018.

ULI Bike Ride, Lunch at the P & M Restaurant, Weston, image from ULI TorontoLunch at the P & M Restaurant, Weston, image courtesy of ULI Toronto

ULI had a hand in helping shape the Weston 2021 Revitalization Strategy, and created a technical assistance program in 2011 to provide advice on the City-wide initiative, and feasibility for design charrettes for the Village. As a result, plans for the John Street Revitalization, Community Arts Centre, GO/Metrolinx Station Master Plan, and the John St Bridge were all positively impacted. An international ULI redevelopment competition selected Old Weston Village for a revitalization grant: the John Street Revitalization/Streetscape Plan was grated $23,750 from the ULI's Urban Innovation Fund, which grew to over $75,000 when matched by partner organizations to kick start urban renewal of Village.

UrbanToronto will look more at what is coming for Weston in the future, but one tangible benefit from the 2012 ULI grant that came in handy at this event were five bike ring parking stalls put in at Weston GO Station.

At the Weston GO and UPX Station, image courtesy of ULI TorontoAt the Weston GO and UPX Station, image courtesy of ULI Toronto

Monika Rau of the ULI noted that Jennifer Keesmaat was in no rush and took the time to speak to each and every individual on the tour. The group was impressed by Keesmaat’s overall vision for the city and waterfront, and appreciated her support for and focus on creating lasting mixed-use communities and public spaces.

The weather for the ride was perfect for introducing some of the participants to the Waterfront Trail, and many to the landscapes of the Humber Valley. It underscored for many that cycling doesn't have to be limited to the summer months, encouraging those like admitted fair weather cyclist Keesmaat to cycle further into the colder months, a #CityResolve resolution. The trip showed any doubt-stricken participants that cooler weather cycling is not only doable, it's downright enjoyable.

If tours like this appeal, membership in the Toronto ULI might be right for you. You can consider the benefits of becoming a ULI member on their website.