Graffiti covered brick buildings aren’t usually teeming with native plants, wetlands, and wildlife, unless they are long abandoned artifacts of the past, decaying from neglect. Evergreen Brick Works in Toronto, however, is a compelling example of how industrial and biological environments can coexist in ways other than abandonment. Once a brick factory and then a brownfield, Brick Works is now a cutting edge adaptive reuse project led by the not-for-profit Evergreen. Their mission is to create more livable cities through innovative green design and social enterprise, and this was remarkably apparent during our short visit.
Our group picked up maps at the LEED certified visitor center, which had self-guided tours for art, ecology, geology, graffiti, heritage, and sustainability. While we purposefully started out on a graffiti tour, we quickly devolved into wandering in wonderment. We walked outside and found ourselves standing at the foot of a three-story factory wall that was draped in mosses, vines and epiphyte-looking plants dripping with water, likely percolating from the last rainfall. The concrete sidewalks and brick walls elicited urban expectations that were immediately challenged by the verdant landscape that lied between. We explored further and discovered two wetlands that were nested in the middle of the industrial complex; these wetlands were situated perfectly to prevent flooding by capturing the water that runs off the nearby parking lots and buildings. These sustainable systems are even more impressive when you consider the social infrastructure that supports them. Evergreen Brick Works boasts a farmers market, a guided tour, a local foods café, office space, special events, and a native garden playground for kids.
Within a postindustrial landscape, Evergreen Brick Works is an impressive show of sustainable design, but it accomplishes something much more: poetic biodiversity. It is poetic because the brick-building backdrop seems contradictory to the lush greenery and flitting birds, creating an intensity of expression characteristic of poetry. Perhaps this is my own case of biophilia; however, I prefer to think of it as a testimony to a new kind of city, one that builds biodiversity rather than destroys it. After all, sustainable design is an empty endeavor if it fails to incorporate living systems that sustain us, lest we make nature a continually fleeting idea. Do cities and biodiversity have to be mutually exclusive? Evergreen Brick Works suggests not. And it is with this inspiration that I return to my studies at Taubman, asking, “What can planners can do about it?”