Port Lands Flood Protections and Enabling Infrastructure (PLFPEI)

Toronto, Ontario

Photo Credit: Sidewalk Labs


Initial Research by: Zoe Goldman

Edited by: Samantha Miller & Nicole Brekelmans

Case study compiled in 2018



Project: Port Lands Flood Protection and Enabling Infrastructure 

Type of Urban StrategyWater, Sustainable Design 

Type of ProjectFlood Protection / Sustainable Community 

Location: Toronto, Ontario 

Date Designed/Planned: 2007

Construction Completed:  2023

Designer: Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Waterfront Toronto


The Port Lands Flood Protection and Enabling Infrastructure Project (PLFPEI) utilizes innovative green infrastructure that eliminates the flood risk to the area, while simultaneously strengthening the Don River’s habitats and biodiversity. Designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates with Waterfront Toronto, the project provides the Port Lands with the necessary municipal infrastructure to support future residential and commercial development. 


The project enables Toronto to create sustainable, mixed-use communities on previously unavailable land, and reconnect the city to its waterfront. Through the use of resilient city infrastructure, Toronto has the opportunity to create a new global model for sustainable city building and connecting urban communities to the natural environment.



The Port Lands finds itself within walking distance to downtown Toronto, located only 1.5 km south-east from the CBD. The area has seen tremendous amounts of change, transforming from the Ashbridges Bay Marsh to an industrial port, to its current state as an underdeveloped brownfield site at risk of flooding (Webb, 2016).


The Port Lands are located only 1.5 km from downtown Toronto. The Port Lands offer huge potential for job creation, investment, growth and reducing urban sprawl, however, they are currently an underutilized brownfield site. The 325-hectare Port Lands are currently at risk of flooding and cannot be developed until necessary flood protection work is completed.

The area was once the largest natural wetland in all of Lake Ontario, known as the Ashbridges Bay Marsh. The Port Lands began developing in the early 1900s to provide space for the city’s industrial growth. In 1912, the Board of Toronto Harbour Commission completed a plan to transform the Ashbridges Bay Marsh, and in 1914 the Don River was redirected into a 90-degree turn, through the concrete-lined Keating Channel and the surrounding wetlands were infilled. This sharp redirection of the Don River conflicts with the waterway’s natural movement, a major factor contributing to the area’s flood risk.


Efforts towards re-naturalizing the mouth of the Don River has been in the works for over 20 years. The roots of the project can be traced back to 1989, with the establishment of the “Bring Back the Don Task Force.” This group showed early concern for the issues concerning the Don River and raised awareness for it by writing articles, published books and sponsoring restoration projects (Harrison, 2018).

The creation of Waterfront Toronto in 2001 brought greater attention to the Port Lands. Waterfront Toronto placed a high priority on creating a proposal to provide flood protection plan and develop the Port Lands, however, due to the complex challenges of the area, an extensive planning process was required in order to bring all elements into a larger master vision. The Don Mouth Naturalization and Port Lands Flood Protection Project Environmental Assessment (DMNP EA) began in 2006 and sets the guidelines for the entire project, including its design (Shenker, 2017).

In 2007, Waterfront Toronto launched an International Design Competition, looking for a master plan that proposed an integrated solution for naturalization, flood protection, infrastructure and land use potential of the area. The competition’s goal was to “obtain a bold and comprehensive concept design and a unifying vision to guide revitalization of the Port Lands and the surrounding area, merge the natural and urban fabric, and establish an iconic identity for the Don River that accommodates habitat restoration and crucial flood protection” (Waterfront Toronto, 2016). Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates “Port Land Estuary” submission was chosen as the winning entry. The “Port Lands Estuary” produced a “spectacular vision” for the area by integrating natural and urban elements using urban placemaking. Moreover, the design provided the most cost-effective solution to the Don River’s problems, as well as maximized the amount of developable land. This design has evolved in the process and continues to form the basis of the project (Waterfront Toronto, 2016).

In 2008, a variety of crucial planning documents were produced through an integrated planning process that allowed the site to be designed as a whole, and integrate the numerous EA’s required for the project. The Lower Don Lands Master Plan Class EA (LDL MP EA) was completed, which outlines the necessary transportation and servicing infrastructure to support future development. Additionally, the Master Plan for Transportation, Water/Wastewater and Storm Water Management were completed, and the design began for the Keating Channel Precinct Plan and the Villiers Islands Neighborhoods (Waterfront Toronto, 2018).

Waterfront Toronto, Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA), the City of Toronto and the Toronto Port Lands Company (TPLC) have spent the past 10 years developing and refining the plan. The project will provide flood protection for the Port Lands and surrounding areas, and simultaneously protecting the government from costs associated with flood damage. The project will also trigger economic development, by allowing over 290-hectares of land to be developed (Waterfront Toronto, 2016). The Port Lands Flood Protection and Enabling Infrastructure Project (PLFPEI) is targeted to be completed in late 2023 (Harrison, 2018).

The Port Lands Framework Plan provides a 50+ year vision for the area, that only becomes possible once the flood protection infrastructure is complete.


The project’s main goal is to provide flood protection infrastructure that is integrated with nature and public open spaces in order to enable future development of the Port Lands and surrounding areas.

The project goals are widespread, but focus on creating and enhancing environmental, social and economic benefits for the City of Toronto, including:

· Mitigate the risk of flooding in a key part of Toronto through building strategic infrastructure

· Reduce the financial risk to governments relating to flood damage

· Manage existing soil, groundwater and water contaminants from past industrial uses

· Contribute to a healthier Lake Ontario – providing important ecological systems, creation of new terrestrial and aquatic habitat connections

· Enable the development of the Port Lands for future creation of sustainable communities that will serve Toronto’s growth

· Contribute to the local, regional and national economy by creating jobs and economic value through investment in construction, residential and commercial development

· Deliver long-term tax revenues to all levels of government

· Continue to revitalize Toronto’s waterfront by extending the continuity of high-quality public space throughout the waterfront for enjoyment of residents and visitors

(Waterfront Toronto, 2016)


The design and development approach for the PLFPEI Project outlines 21 essential project components, which are divided among 4 categories – Parks, Roads and Municipal Infrastructure, Bridges, Earthwork and Flood Protection (Waterfront Toronto, PLFPEI Due Diligence Report, 2016).

Earthwork and Flood Protection:

The project proposes three outlets for the Don River, one main mouth and two alternative paths. The mouth of the Don River will be re-direct south, creating an additional outlet for the river that carves out a new island (Villiers Island) between it and the Keating Channel. The naturalized mouth of the Don River will form a soft turn, as opposed to the existing 90-degree turn. In order to create the new naturalized river valley and Don Greenway, an extensive amount of earthwork is required. The earthwork will be carried out in a four-stages and includes approximately 1.5 million cubic metres of soil excavation, 1.1 million cubic meters of earth fill and 0.45 million cubic metres of gravel, rock and other materials. Approximately 80% of the soil from the river valley will be reused (following treatment), therefore only needing to import a small amount of soil. Each waterway is lined with functional wetlands that provide additional flood protection during a regulatory storm event. The wetlands will enhance the river’s habitats and biodiversity, while also providing beautiful public spaces.


The project will provide over 16 hectares of parkland above the flood line in the new river valley system, including Promontory Park, Villiers Park and River Park North and South. The parks will accommodate a wide range of programming, including both passive and active recreation. Each park is programmed differently, based on site-specific attributes including access, views from the islands and proposed topography. The proposed trail system will provide a link between the Don Valley Trail System, the Don Greenway and the Martin Goodman Trail, and serve as a “green gateway” to the Port Lands. The system will be predominately comprised of multi-use trails for pedestrians and cyclists, however, in areas closer to the flood line, raised boardwalk crossings will be used.

Roads and Municipal Infrastructure:

The project will provide necessary municipal infrastructure, (water mains, wastewater, and stormwater sewers) that will support future development of the Port Lands. Major roadways such as Commissioners Street East and Don Roadway North will be reconstructed to align with the area’s new configuration.


The project proposes three new bridges – Basin Street Bridge, Cherry Street Bridge, Commissioners Street Bridge – and modifications to the existing Lake Shore Road and Rail Bridge. Construction for the Port Lands Flood Protection and Enabling Infrastructure Project is expected to begin in the summer of 2018.


Waterfront Toronto. “Port Lands Flood Protection and Enabling Infrastructure: Due Diligence Report.” The Port Lands. October 20, 2016. https://portlandsto.ca/wp-content/uploads/due_diligence_report_october_20_2016_1.pdf

Cameron, Peter. “Over $1B announced for Toronto Port Lands flood protection project.” Global News. June 28, 2017.


Waterfront Toronto. “Presentation to the Toronto Film, Television and Digital Media Board: Port Lands Flood Protection and Enabling Infrastructure.” City of Toronto. December 19, 2017.


City of Toronto, Waterfront Toronto. “Port Lands Planning Framework.” Waterfront Toronto. September 2017. https://www.waterfrontoronto.ca/nbe/wcm/connect/waterfront/97811a5f-e98b-4216-a84c-df454f876065/Port%20Lands%20Planning%20Framework_AODA%20-%20reduced.pdf?MOD=AJPERES&CONVERT_TO=url&CACHEID=97811a5f-e98b-4216-a84c-df454f876065

Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Corporation. “Toronto’s Lower Don Lands Innovative Design Competition: Competition Brief.” Waterfront Toronto. February 9, 2007.



The project will provide the Port Lands and surrounding areas with:

· 2 new outlets for the Don River

· Over 1000 m of new river channel (river valley and greenway)

· 29 hectares of naturalized green area in the river valley

· 13 hectares of coastal wetlands

· 14 hectares of aquatic habitat

· 4 hectares of terrestrial habitat

· 16 acres of parkland (Promontory Park, River Park North and South)

· New roads, bridges, services


The new naturalized Don River Valley provides flood protection for 290-hectares of land, new parks, roads, bridges and infrastructure, allowing an area the size of downtown Toronto to be revitalized and developed (Shenker, 2017). Future communities of the Port Lands (Villiers island, Polson Quay, South River, Film Studio District) could accommodate housing for 18,000-25,000 people and commercial space for 25,000-30,000 jobs (Waterfront Toronto, 2016).

Economic benefit related to future development unlocked by the project (Waterfront Toronto, 2016):

· $4 billion in value added to the Canadian economy

· 41,100 persons years employment

· $1.5 billion in revenues to 3 orders of government

The project showcases the range of opportunities that result from strategic infrastructure and ecological thinking – creating a global model for sustainable city building and climate-positive strategies.


The $1.25 billion project will be funded by all three levels of government, in which the federal government will provide $384 million, while Ontario and the City of Toronto will contribute over $400 million each (Cameron, 2017). The total cost includes both hard (construction) and soft costs (design, engineering, approvals), taxes, and a 30% contingency to address the project risks (Waterfront Toronto, 2016).


The biggest challenge of the project is providing flood protection for the Port Lands and surrounding areas. The Don River only has one outlet where it flows into the concrete-lined Keating Channel at a harsh 90-degree turn. During an extreme weather event, water from the Don River would pour over its east banks and the Keating Channel therefore flooding the surrounding lands and neighbourhoods (Shenker, 2017). The Port Lands and surrounding areas cannot be revitalized and developed until this flood risk is eliminated. Additionally, the Port Lands suffer from contaminated soil and groundwater, as a result of the area’s past industrial uses.

The Port Lands Flood Protection and Enabling Infrastructure Project (PLFPEI) addresses these challenges by re-routing and naturalizing the mouth of the Don River, creating additional outlets for the river, and restoring vital wetlands. This green infrastructure will eliminate the flood risk for 290-hectares of land, allowing for future revitalization and development.


As downtown Toronto continues to expand, the city must find a way to handle such growth in a sustainable way. The Port Lands located 1.5 km south-east of downtown, offers Toronto the opportunity to continue growing, however, the area is isolated from the rest of Toronto, lacks sufficient infrastructure and has contaminated soil and groundwater (Waterfront Toronto, 2018). Most importantly, areas south-east of Toronto’s downtown are currently at risk of flooding during a regulatory storm event, including part of the Port Lands, South Riverdale, Leslieville, South of Eastern Avenue, and the First Gulf/Unilever development site (Waterfront Toronto, 2016).

The Port Lands Flood Protection and Enabling Infrastructure Project (PLFPEI) is one of the biggest infrastructure projects in Toronto’s history. Through the re-naturalization of Don River mouth and addition of municipal infrastructure, 290-hectares of land previously at risk of flooding, are now available for development. The project takes a sustainable approach to city building, incorporating innovative green infrastructure and resilient strategies, and enhancing biodiversity in the Don River Watershed.


The project’s massive scale and complex nature required collaboration amongst many designers, engineers and ecological experts. Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA) were the design lead, and landscape architects for the project and have been involved for over 10 years, continuing to evolve their original “Port Lands Estuary” design to align with the project’s current objectives.

MVVA was responsible for all flood protection measures, as well as, all park and wetland design, integrating urban and natural elements and creating connections to the urban context (Harrison, 2018). The main feature of MVVA’s design is the creation of a new, naturalized mouth for the Don River. This re-direction of the river mouth creates an entirely new river valley system, that is surrounded by wetlands, parks, green space and trails.

MVVA worked alongside LimnoTech (Hydrology/Geomorphology) and Inter-Fluve (Ecology) to produce:

· Site grading plan

· Geomorphology and slope armouring design

· Wetland design

· Flow control weir design parameter

· Design of other flood protection features

· Design of park program areas

(Waterfront Toronto, 2016)