The 2009 incarnation of Human River, assembled at the south end of Bickford Park. Photo by Trevor Ydreos, from humanriver.ca

Thinking about the meaning of the Human River walk, on a year without one

Michael Cook

Archival Material:

For the last five years, people in Toronto have been coming together on a cool Sunday in October to dress in blue and trace the former path of the Garrison Creek, sometimes on foot, sometimes on bicycle. Human River was an initiative of the Toronto Public Space Committee (TPSC) in consultation with Lost Rivers, and was the product of the hard work of organizers like Dave Meslin, Erin Wood and Georgia Ydreos (along with others who I don't know). This is the first October since the event's inception that there was no Human River, and I think it's worth taking the time to think about the walk and what it means for the city.

My first experience with Human River was in 2008, when the event included an exhibition of my photographs at the Blue Barracks at Fort York, a stone's throw from the old mouth of the creek. Last year, I was able to take part in the walk itself, passing from Christie Pits down through parks and intersections, ravine fragments and willow stands, and all the west-end neighbourhoods in between.

Human River has always been about more than simply remembering the creek. If that was the only intention, then the metal lettering that the city has installed on various curbs and sidewalks to memorialize the creek's former course would surely suffice. Instead, Human River — and all the other activism, theatre, art and educational efforts that have taken place around the Garrison and other creeks in Toronto — all these interventions have sought to actively reconnect with a watershed that isn't dead, that isn't simply history. Our urban watersheds are alive, flowing beneath our feet, and they are intimately connected with our daily lives even though we usually ignore them.

"It's awesome seeing people get excited about spaces they've been through a hundred times," says Erin Wood, a TPSC member and Human River organizer. Or as Erin told a reporter from the Liberty Gleaner back in 2005 at the first event, "It gives people an idea of what could be; [the city] doesn't just have to be concrete everywhere."

Human River has been a repudiation of a hundred and thirty years of sewerage policy in Toronto, of engineering decisions and institutional attitudes that have shut us off from our residential waste streams and the waterways that carry them. Every time people get together for Human River, or for other creek walks organized by Lost Rivers or as part of the Jane's Walks, they put the lie to the institutional belief that Toronto residents don't care and don't need to know about where their sewage goes (and not just where it ends up at the Humber or Ashbridges treatment plants, but how it gets there). People want these experiences, they want to remake the connections between their daily lives and the ecologies that make them possible.

Even if there was no Human River this year, other Torontonians were still taking an active interest in their local waterways. At Annette Junior Public School, just north of High Park, the students and teachers decided to build an art installation in honour of Wendigo Creek, which is buried beneath their school playground and the neighbourhood of attractive houses that surrounds it (the creek reemerges in the northwest corner of High Park). Last fall, Lost Rivers and an NGO called RiverSides launched a new series of walks and workshops under the banner 'Thirsty City', making plain the connection between our watersheds, sewersheds, and our access to fresh water. The most recent of these walks, "Toilet to Tap," took place in the Beaches in April.

My own arrest this past spring after a trip into the Garrison sewer system precipitated a stream of e-mails from all sorts of people expressing their support and thanks. Many remembered visiting storm sewers as children, growing up in Rexdale, Willowdale, Lawrence Heights, Scarborough, and various suburbs further afield. Whatever our backgrounds, as people we desire contact with our watersheds, and we want the opportunity to interact with, understand, and imagine alternatives for urban waste streams whose challenges have been hidden away (except when they're flooding our basements) and left to experts to solve for far too long.

All of this is in spite of a civic politics and culture in Toronto that, swayed by the glitter of development dollars, has focused its 'water' efforts entirely on the city's central shoreline with Lake Ontario. In our city's obsession with remaking the waterfront, we have again forgotten about the upstream watersheds that create that lakefront and that dictate the health and quality of the water and ecosystems on its foreshore. More than that, our local creeks and rivers — and by extension the modern sewers that feed or have replaced them — are much more closely connected with the quality of life in our neighbourhoods than a lake that in some corners of the city is almost twenty kilometres away. These connections were not lost on the Royal Commission on the Future of Toronto's Waterfront (1988-1992), but the lessons and recommendations of that inquiry have since fallen by the wayside as condos and showcase parks became the order of the day (my recent review of Waterfront Toronto's new Sherbourne Common park has more to say on this subject).

I hope that we will see Human River rise again in the future, and I hope that more of Toronto's communities will take up the challenge of celebrating and reconnecting with their local watersheds. As Georgia Ydreos, a Human River organizer, told me, "There are river celebrations and water celebrations outside of Toronto, but nothing here." If you would like to be a part of a conversation about how we might do more to encourage local, community-oriented watershed efforts and to tie them together, please drop me an e-mail.

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Michael Cook is available to speak to your organization about infrastructure history, lost creeks, current conditions, and opportunities for change in our management of and communication about urban watersheds, and to work with teams proposing or implementing such change. Get in touch.