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  • Reclaiming the Don: An Environmental History of Toronto’s Don River Valley by Jennifer L. Bonnell
  • Jason Hall
Reclaiming the Don: An Environmental History of Toronto’s Don River Valley, by Jennifer L. Bonnell. Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2014. xxx, 277 pp. $65.00 Cdn (cloth), $29.95 Cdn (paper).

Jennifer Bonnell’s Reclaiming the Don is a captivating history of a tiny river valley’s intimate connection to the development of Toronto from the 1790s to the present. Organized around successive visions and plans for the Don, as well as the natural, political, and social forces that influenced them, the book explores the interplay of these different “imagined futures” as a dynamic process of historical change with profound consequences for the watershed and city. Bonnell’s study reveals a key historical pattern. For elites, the river shifted from a central feature of a colonial town to a marginalized and disease-ridden industrial sewer and then to a celebrated corridor of metropolitan development and parkland. These pendulum swings between a landscape of opportunity and a waste space reveal the complexity of our material and cultural relationships with rivers over time and help to explain the intricately layered history of Canada’s largest urban landscape and one of its most polluted waterways. Moreover, Bonnell’s skillful investigation of how the Don has been many things to many people offers insight into the changing nature of urban pollution and shifting environmental values across two centuries.

The book’s first two chapters discuss the river as an Aboriginal portage route, a source of fertile soils, clay, and mechanical energy for settlers, as well as a waste sink and railbed for a rapidly industrializing city. Chapter three examines the Don Improvement Project, a large scale attempt to re-engineer the river with the competing goals of riverine flood control, harbour transportation, human health, and the expansion of urban space. Bonnell’s fourth chapter explores the transient cultures and liminal spaces [End Page 597] that emerged around the river in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The remaining three chapters focus on conservationist Charles Sauriol’s efforts to preserve the Don and the theatrical protests of a burgeoning Canadian environmental movement; the development of a metropolitan parkway through the river valley; and the city’s latest plan to redesign the Don’s mouth. Throughout the book, Bonnell demonstrates her skill as a gifted storyteller by combining case studies of key events, social groups, and modernization projects, with biography and landscape analysis, in an engaging and cohesive narrative. Moreover, the maps, engineering plans, and photographs accompanying the text help readers visualize the Don’s history and geography.

The links Bonnell forges between marginal environments and social outcasts are an invaluable contribution to Canadian history. Captivating discussions of unemployed vagrants warming themselves on brick kilns, murderous outlaw bush gangs, and lively Roma encampments, help recover a past that has been buried alongside many of the Don’s tributaries. Indeed, they challenge readers to reconsider urban waste spaces as productive and nurturing environments that marginalized people sometimes seek to maintain. These discussions are an excellent complement to the literature on the displacement of rural settlers and Aboriginal peoples by modernization and river improvement projects.

Reclaiming the Don offers a fascinating look at how people have attempted to adapt their lives and city to the river’s dynamic character over two centuries. Floods supplied nutrients to crops and destroyed homes. Shallow flows and sedimentation limited navigation and waste disposal, increasing the Don’s role as a vector for disease while also providing soil for new development. The waterway’s gentle gradient, bends, and steep hillsides, affected the course of railways and roads. The book’s final case study examines how contemporary planners are mobilizing historical memory and ecological knowledge learned from past planning to re-develop the river’s mouth for flood control, park space, and habitat. Bonnell argues that the new plan to alter the waterway from a landscape of production, transportation, and isolated nature, to one centred on consuming and experiencing recreated nature, offers useful insight into the changing urban economy. As well, it highlights a critical shift in local ideas about the...


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pp. 597-599
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