The four sleek and stylish steel bridges in Toronto’s Port Lands are perhaps the most innovative and arresting architectural pieces to adorn the waterfront in decades. More than just connecting land over water, the bridges are signature design statements representing the future potential of this once-ignored wasteland, thanks in large part to the design inspiration and engineering expertise of the design team, Entuitive, Grimshaw Architects and SBP. Entuitive, an engineering consulting firm, is the prime design consultant and a key player in enabling the larger flood protection and community building aspects of this project. 

Steel bridges coming into Toronto’s Port Lands, image courtesy of Entuitive

“This project was really amazing as the bridges are so different than anyone had seen before,” says Entuitive engineer Misha Vickar, who along with fellow engineer Navan Chawla joined the project team in 2018. “The uniqueness made it a learning experience for everyone involved and we feel the design aspect and modelling can be applied to bridges elsewhere.”

While it may seem the bridges appeared overnight, it was actually back in 2017 when Waterfront Toronto began its procurement process, which caught the eye of Entuitive for a number of reasons.

Bridge installation underway, image courtesy of Entuitive

“Our company does a lot of high-end architectural buildings and structures and this was a project where Waterfront Toronto wanted to build signature bridges out in the Port Lands to try and transform that area,” says Michael Meschino, Principal at Entuitive. “The signature quality aspect attracted us as did the transformational aspect. It’s wonderful to be a part of a project that actually transforms the city, so it was something we were very excited to pursue.” 

The mandate from Waterfront Toronto was to design three bridges to accommodate both vehicles and transit with one of them being a signature bridge. But what Entuitive ended up delivering was four signature bridges on three sites, and within the original budget.

Entuitive team picture with newly arrived bridge, image courtesy of Entuitive

“These bridges will connect Toronto with its bright and promising future, advancing our goal of making our waterfront one of the world’s very best,” says George Zegarac, Waterfront Toronto CEO. “The future Villiers Island will be one of the most exciting places to live and work in Canada, with new parks and access to Lake Ontario.” 

The Cherry Street North bridges are two single-span, side-by-side bridges each of 57 metres in length that replace the old Cherry Street lift bridge. One bridge is for road traffic and the other for public transit. The Cherry Street South bridge, at 111 metres in length, has three spans crossing a newly created extension of the Don River. The longest of the bridges is the Commissioners Street bridge at 153 metres. The Commissioners Street bridge has four spans and also crosses the new river extension.

Cherry Street South bridge being transported, image courtesy of Entuitive

“Waterfront Toronto’s Port Lands Flood Protection project involves creating a new mouth for the Don River by extending it through the Port Lands and providing two additional outlets for the river into the lake,” explains Zegarac. “The new river extension, as well as measures like widening and deepening the river north of Lake Shore Boulevard, will eliminate the bottleneck of waters at the south end of the Don River which currently results in a risk of flooding. The entire project includes not only the bridges but also the new roadways and unlocking land for future development, residential, retail and community uses, as well as 25 hectares of publicly accessible green space.”

A project of this magnitude has many players and taking a collaborative approach was key to its success. As the prime consultants delivering complicated civil engineering work, Entuitive worked alongside Waterfront Toronto, the City of Toronto, the TTC, Ports Toronto, Parks Canada and the Conservation Authority to ensure successful project delivery. “Along with WSP, Jacobs and MMVA, Entuitive is one of four main consultants on the flood protection project,” says Meschino. “We’re all part of the broader project. We never saw this as just a bridge project, but rather as the flood prevention project.”

Bridges will provide a means of transport, but also reduce flooding, image courtesy of Entuitive

What was once forgotten lands of discarded, rusting chemical bins and scrap metal used sometimes for sketchy scenes in bad movies will one day be a thriving area of commercial businesses, residential units, parkland and — what has been missing for so long — engaged urban living in the Port Lands.

“When we started this project, we looked at the history of the area,” says Meschino. “Originally, Indigenous peoples fished at the river mouth, then the area was infilled to create an industrial port for the city. At the outset of the project, Waterfront Toronto briefed us on their ambitious vision for the future development of this area, which changed our thinking and concepts. Aesthetics and the elegance of form in the curvature of the spans were very important, and what we have today is exactly what we hoped to achieve when we were developing the concepts. The use of a sophisticated shell structure for the bridges was key to achieving Waterfront Toronto’s vision for a complete and sustainable community. Entuitive used the latest computer technology in designing the bridges, which appear today entirely different than the original concepts.”

Unique design of the bridges, image courtesy of Entuitive

“There were many design challenges,” says engineer Navan Chawla. “We used geometric 3D software to do parametric modelling and computational design so we could simplify the project while still achieving the signature aesthetic appearance.”

Building anything around water presents certain environmental and engineering challenges and Entuitive brought its decades of design and engineering expertise to the fore to ensure the bridges were not only sleek and stylish, but as solid as the bedrock they sit on.

“Ground conditions in the Port Lands are very poor,” says Entuitive Senior Associate Johnathan Werner. “There is very weak soil so we had to ground the bridges down to shale bedrock and complete a seismic analysis. Since the bridges are formed from curved steel plates with open sections, we completed extensive analysis with respect to buckling of the members.”

Bridges had to be grounded down to shale bedrock, image courtesy of Entuitive

The bridges themselves were fabricated in Halifax and, as has been documented here on UrbanToronto, shipped by barge to Toronto on a journey along the St Lawrence Seaway that took each approximately a week, depending upon the weather. The width of the bridges was limited by the size of the barges and the width of the St. Lawrence Seaway locks. The longest of the bridges, the Commissioners Street bridge at 153 metres long, had to be shipped on two separate barges. 

Intricate, innovative and exacting design and engineering science by Entuitive brought these bridges to life, by developing and maintaining the vision of the project to ensure its designs worked in practice. They are now features of the Toronto waterfront and signature statements of the new and long-overdue era beginning in the Port Lands.

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