Toronto’s newest stormwater system is breathtaking.

Housed in the pavilion basement at Sherbourne Common, a new park in the city’s rapidly developing East Bayfront area, the treatment facility cleans collected storm and lake water with ultraviolet (UV) light. The treated water is then sent underground to the north side of the park where it is released through three nine-metre-high art sculpture towers. The water flows from the tops of the towers down metal mesh veils and into a 240-metre-long water channel, or urban river, where it then flows into Lake Ontario.

Artist Jill Anholt’s Light Showers water towers are lit at night; as people move over the bridge of the water channel, motion sensors trigger shifting light patterns in the water as it falls from the sculptures. The mesh veils of the art sculptures are designed to capture water in the winter to form unique ice patterns.

Regardless of its attractiveness, the system and others like it have elicited some blowback from critics, especially in a time when many municipalities are worried about growing infrastructure deficits. Are the extra features necessary? Anholt’s sculptures don’t contain UV lamps and play only a minor role in the treatment process—they provide further aeration and act as a conduit to bring treated water to raised pools.

While some people may criticize Waterfront Toronto’s choice, others believe the art is a worthwhile investment. Waterfront Toronto chair Mark Wilson sees it as a catalyst for the further development of the East Bayfront neighbourhood. “The park has already helped us attract private and public sector partners who are working with us to transform this former industrial area into a dynamic new community,” he says. The City plans to recover the cost for the art feature—$1.9 million—through development fees as part of Waterfront Toronto’s public art strategy.

Others argue that making infrastructure visible is important to public understanding. During last April’s Out of Water: Sustaining Development in Arid Climates conference at the University of Toronto. (seeIn the Eye of the Beholder,” a blog post at, one audience member said water infrastructure is often designed to blend with the environment. “Often, we don’t even know it’s there—but is that a good thing?” she asked. Maybe it’s important, she posited, that we see, recognize, and feel comfortable with the mechanisms that allow us to maintain the lives we’re accustomed to living and, at a basic level, survive.

During a presentation at the Ecocity World Summit this August in Montreal, Concordia University graduate student Cecilia Chen discussed the importance of mapping the flows of streams and aquifers beneath and around urban spaces to increase awareness that cities are, in some ways, nothing more than watersheds. Water’s role  in an urban ecosystem, she said, goes unrecognized because it travels underground and out of sight. It’s only when a storm drain overflows and what she calls “hybrid water” becomes visible that awareness increases.

James Roche, director, parks design and construction for Waterfront Toronto, isn’t interested in separating infrastructure, landscape, and public space. “There’s more to gain from combining these fields,” he says. Roche says we ignore water’s important, though background, role in commerce and cities. “It changes how we live on a daily basis. The Sherbourne Common design helps to bring water back into the public realm.”

Following in the tradition of projects such as Stephen Holl Architects’ Whitney Water Treatment Plant in New Haven, Connecticut—a long, stainless steel building built in an inverse-raindrop shape—and Hervé Descottes’ breathtaking lighting design for the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant in Brooklyn, New York, Sherbourne Common serves as a reminder of the role water plays in our lives.

Kerry Freek is the editor of Water Canada.


  1. My only concern is the open Urban River flowing back to the Lake. What are people going to be throwing into that river that will go directly to the Lake? If you create something that draws people you will invariably get garbage as well.


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