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Toronto's Evergreen Brick Works Is A National Geographic Top 10 Geotourism Destination

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Brickworks 1Evergreen has been helping people create and sustain outdoor spaces in urban communities across Canada since 1991. But the national charity now has a groundbreaking central hub to help spread its environmental message while engaging citizens in informative, interesting and recreational ways.

Toronto's Evergreen Brick Works officially opened in September and, while construction and revitalization will continue at the 16-hectare site nestled in a ravine west of the Don River just off Bayview Avenue, it's off to a strong start in supporting the not-for-profit organization's mission to make cities more livable by bringing communities and nature together for the benefit of both.

"Cities are where we consume a vast quantity of resources and do the vast majority of our polluting," says Evergreen executive director Geoff Cape. "If we can change actions and behaviours in cities, that's where we can address the heart of the environmental crisis we face globally.

"Designing cities is a piece of that and designing nature into the fabric of cities is a big piece of that, and the Brick Works is a facility where we can share best practices and showcase examples of what's possible."

"Evergreen Brick Works is a place where connections are made and where ideas are cooked up to be applied somewhere else," is how Evergreen Brick Works public relations manager Anthony Westenberg describes the role of this unique project.

Brickworks 2Evergreen Brick Works was the home of a huge brick-making facility that at peak capacity produced more than 40 million bricks a year that helped build much of Toronto from its establishment in 1889 until production stopped in 1984. Aside from restoring the site's quarry to a natural area and tree and wildflower meadow-planting, it largely remained dormant until 2002 when Evergreen's proposal to redevelop it was approved by the City of Toronto. Evergreen was awarded a 21-year lease for the land owned by the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority for the grand sum of two dollars per year.

The federal government contributed $20 million to the cause, the provincial government chipped in $10 million, and the Michael Young Family Foundation donated $3 million in seed money to help push things along. A capital campaign to raise $55 million is about $7 million short of its goal, but fundraising efforts are continuing.

"I'd always thought that the Brick Works was an incredible building that somebody had to do something with," says David Young, who administers the foundation named after his late brother. "I expected less when I donated the money than what they've been able to achieve."

There were 16 buildings on the site and only one was demolished, while a five-storey office complex dubbed the Centre for Green Cities was added. The new building adheres to the highest standard within the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification scale and is being used by Evergreen and other like-minded organizations and companies. All of the office space has been leased for full market rates and Cape says that interest in the building is well beyond what it can accommodate. The centre also includes a green roof, two classrooms, a large kitchen and a series of event and meeting spaces.

"In large part, the magic of the heritage buildings is what helped inspire the whole project," says Cape of the existing structures that have been adapted. "Taking old buildings and applying green design to them has been very challenging, but I think it will be very inspiring for people."

These structures are now being used for a welcome centre, indoor gardens, a retail garden centre, a native plant demonstration space, bicycle repair workshops, an atrium, a gallery, geology exhibits, a reception space, facilities to host programs that connect children and youth with nature in the city, a weekly farmer's market that attracted as many as 5,000 people on Saturdays this past summer, and a skating trail that's scheduled to open on Dec. 18. In keeping with the sustainable design integrated throughout the site, the waste heat from the skating trail's refrigeration system will be directed to the adjacent café building.

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The most dramatic space is the 4,700-square-metre building that houses three long tunnel kilns and six single-track drying tunnels where bricks were once produced. It features art installations and a rock climbing tower and ropes course administered by Outward Bound Canada. It can be rented out for a variety of events and functions.

"There's a very important business plan in place that suggests that the project will be self-sustaining once it's in play," says Cape. "There's parking revenue, event revenue, the restaurant and all these pieces that should support the base level of programming and operations of the site."

Those who prefer the outdoors have a lot to take advantage of at the Brick Works, too. The scenic Don Valley Brick Works Park features ponds, boardwalks and wooded paths to bike and hike on that connect to a network of other trails.

"The site itself has more than exceeded my expectations," says Evergreen chair George Dark, a landscape architect and former chair of the Toronto Parks Foundation. "It has a remarkable interplay of buildings and non-buildings, landscape and heritage. The site can provide a lot of fun for people, especially children. The city is going to find it quite wonderful and enjoyable."

Evergreen Brick Works holds year-round workshops on topics related to nature, the environment, animals, insects, food, eco-gardening and sustainability, as well as weekly hour-long do-it-yourself workshops featuring demonstrations by Evergreen staff on small home projects involving green design, sustainable gardening solutions and simple home construction. Yoga classes, bike workshops, and gardening and stewardship group meetings are held frequently. There are also occasional multi-session forums that cost money to take part in activities and hear experts talk about specific issues related to Evergreen's mandate.

Brickworks 4"We expect somewhere north of 400,000 visitors a year to explore the great ideas that will be on display through various exhibits and speakers' series that showcase ideas that have been embedded in this project," says Cape. "This can also be a venue where people can come and share their thinking about what's happening in other parts of the community and other parts of the world. It's a place where people will come to look for ideas."

There are also a number of programs for children, including: the Nature Nut Club, which meets monthly and offers educational activities for kids aged seven to 12; eco-craft-making and storytelling sessions every Saturday morning; and week-long camps that promote hands-on experiences with nature.

Evergreen Brick Works has launched full-day school programs for grades three to five, half-day programs for grades six to 10 and site tours for grades 11 and 12. Classes are held indoors and outdoors and include access to food gardens, a greenhouse, an outdoor oven, a campfire pit, an amphitheatre, a children's construction centre and a network of trails and small gathering spaces.

In addition to Evergreen's paid staff and guest speakers, a network of volunteers also help to enrich visits to the Brick Works. Several volunteer opportunities are available and openings can be viewed on Evergreen's website at http://www.evergreen.ca/en/get-involved/volunteer/opportunities.sn.

Evergreen Brick Works is accessible by foot, bicycle, car and a free shuttle bus that runs to and from a parkette just north of the Broadview subway station. The 28A Davisville bus services the Brick Works from 7:30 a.m. to 3:15 p.m. on Saturdays. There are 368 paid parking spots (an all-day pass costs six dollars), from which the proceeds go towards the Brick Works' educational programs, and 260 bike racks.

Brickworks 5The site also acts as a gateway into Toronto's unique but often overlooked ravine system and the Don River watershed that Evergreen has played a part in revitalizing.

"The restoration that's gone on so far is fantastic and much of it has been successful, but I think we're about to take the whole idea to another level where the ravine system will become a celebrated asset of the city and not this hidden and somewhat forgotten landscape," says Cape. "If we can re-expose it and get people's imaginations going about what's possible down here, it might completely reinvigorate the whole city and get everybody in the city thinking about Toronto differently."

Evergreen Brick Works doesn't have much of a marketing budget and is largely relying on media coverage, its website (http://ebw.evergreen.ca/), public relations and word of mouth to get the message out about everything it has to offer. It's still early, but Young is confident that people will appreciate the Brick Works and its environment once they experience it.

"In 10 or 15 years, Toronto will wake up and realize what it's got. It's a draw to the ravine system of Toronto, which a lot of people don't know is there. It's also an incredible building in the countryside not far from Yonge and Bloor. It's a unique proposition that doesn't exist anywhere else in the world.

"Toronto has a lack of self-confidence that it's getting over as a young city growing up. If this was in London or Paris, it would be one of the most famous ravine systems in the world and the Brick Works would be one of the most famous buildings. But because it's in Toronto, we haven't figured that out. But we will."

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National Geographic has already recognized Evergreen Brick Works as one of the world's top 10 geotourism destinations because of its ability to close the divide between nature and urban life.

While the Brick Works has justifiably been receiving a lot of attention of late, Cape and Dark want to make sure that Evergreen's other endeavours aren't forgotten. Project funding, planting events, workshops, training and greening resources for school grounds, community and public spaces and private properties are among the programs it offers nationwide.

"Evergreen's work has been in creating ideas and contributing resources to community projects in literally thousands of communities across the country," says Cape. "What we're doing at the Brick Works pales in comparison to the importance of what's happening on the ground out there."

"We've been increasing the size and capacity of the whole organization," says Dark. "There's been an exponential growth factor nationally. Issues related to the Brick Works are one thing, but the core program of the organization has been growing significantly while we've been making the Brick Works happen."

You can see more of Steve McLean's photos of the Evergreen Brick Works at http://stevemclean.blogspot.com/2010/11/look-at-evergreen-brick-works-i-wrote.html.

Samaritanmag.com is an online magazine covering the good deeds of individuals, charities and businesses.

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