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Book ReviewsComptes rendus

Jennifer L. Bonnell. Reclaiming the Don: An Environmental History of Toronto’s Don River Valley. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014. Pp. 277. Illustrations, photographs, maps. ISBN 9781442643840

  • Peter Anderson

…plus d’informations

  • Peter Anderson
    PhD student, Department of Geography, Queen’s University

Couverture de Volume 43, numéro 2, spring 2015, p. 5-67, Urban History Review

Corps de l’article

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Cities form at the intersection of human activity and the natural world. In his Nature’s Metropolis, William Cronon argues against the idea that cities form after rural settlements reach a certain density. Rather, successful North American cities, such as Chicago, provide the necessary conditions for the growth of a resource-based economy in the surrounding countryside. The city and its hinterland are in many ways mutually constitutive. In Reclaiming the Don Jennifer Bonnell looks closely at one part of Toronto’s hinterland, the Don River and its valley, to understand how people have thought about Toronto and its relationship to the natural world since the arrival of Loyalist refugees and the first lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada, John Graves Simcoe, in the early 1790s to the present day.

Bonnell examines how Europeans resettled the valley by physically changing the landscape and by exerting imaginative control over what kinds of futures were possible for the river, the valley, and the various humans and non-humans who made their homes there. These imagined futures were indicative of the ways the tripartite river–valley–city relationship was constituted at different times by different people, even, and perhaps especially, when plans were not realized or when multiple imaginings worked at cross-purposes to each other. For example, neither the conservation vision of Charles Sauriol (chapter 6) nor the push to build a parkway through the valley (chapter 7) was fully realized, and today the Don valley contains of mixture of both visions. Nonetheless, both open windows to particular ways of seeing the city, river, and valley after the Second World War.

Although her attention is largely on Euro-Canadian agents, Bonnell does mention Indigenous communities when they fell within the gaze of colonial actors. In her discussion of Simcoe’s magisterial gaze, Bonnell shows how the colonists’ Lockean imagination of orderly farms along the Don River and in its valley necessitated the destruction of the biophysical basis of Indigenous societies in the region. As the city developed and these communities were dispossessed, however, they fall out of the book’s narrative. Nonetheless Bonnell’s choice to describe the growth of Toronto as a “re”-settlement throughout the book is a subtle reminder that European settlers were not the first to occupy and develop the territory we now call Toronto.

The conflict between material form and cultural imaginations lies at the core of the book’s seven chapters. Although not formally divided into sections, the middle five chapters form two natural groupings. Chapters 2, 3, and 4 respectively examine the histories of industry, pollution, and marginal human occupation of the river valley during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Chapters 5 and 6 turn to the later twentieth century’s conservation movement and the debates around the construction of the Don Valley Parkway. Framing these discussions, the first chapter looks at the early colonial period, while the final chapter explores to present-day and future imaginings of the river and its valley.

Bonnell describes the Don as a borderland, “a place where things overlap, an indeterminate area between two conditions or categories that is difficult to define because it contains features of both” (xxvi). While this definition is rich and fits the hybrid portrait she draws, urban historians may wonder why it was used instead of the more specific urban fringe. Although both terms describe liminal places, and borderland allows a degree of imaginative control, borderland usually evokes political divisions, while urban fringe refers specifically to those urban-rural borderlands that are neither wholly city nor entirely country. Fringes are often sites of industry, slums, dumps, and transportation links, features that define Bonnell’s Don valley. But the Don River and its valley are more than the sum of their land-uses. Borderland provides metaphorical and theoretical weight to Bonnell’s fruitful decision to focus not just on the border between city and river, but between industry and pollution, wilderness and civilization, and memory and imagination.

Reclaiming the Don adds another excellent volume to the growing ranks of Canadian urban environmental histories, including Sean Kheraj’s Inventing Stanley Park, Stéphane Castonguay and Michèle Dagnais’s Metropolitan Natures, and Stephen Bocking’s 2005 special issue of Urban History Review, among others.