Dreaming Big

Defining and shaping our shoreline has been the subject of passionate debate for over 150 years. The city of Toronto is a waterfront city.

Initially, the natural harbour gave the town a means to grow and sustain itself, and indeed, our city’s waterfront has always been a place of industry and commerce. But our connection to the water is ever-present. Even at its founding, the natural beauty of the water was evident in the sketches and journals of Toronto’s earliest settlers, and spoke to a unique relationship between the people and the shore – our desire to experience the water and connect with the natural world.

Numerous visions have been created for our water’s edge, and in these we see a constant interplay between industry and leisure.  Many of these proposals were never realized, however, the ideas and the public debate they stirred linger in today’s discussions.  These ideas emerge again and again, and reveal a set of principles that underpin our contemporary aspirations for this socially, culturally and economically vital place. The waterfront always has been and ever will be our city’s greatest asset.

At the core of this conversation are fundamental questions about city-building in the 21st century: How do we continue to grow without destroying the natural environment that sustains us? How do we create a waterfront that satisfies our collective desire to live in the natural world? How do we develop a holistic approach to development that balances the human imperative with economic prosperity? How do we safeguard the waterfront for future generations?

This exhibition is organized into three case studies of the evolving vision of our urban lakefront: Queens Quay Boulevard, the Port Lands and the Gardiner Expressway. Historical images are displayed alongside some of the “big dreams”, and are punctuated with headlines that reflect the ongoing dialogue about our relationship to the waterfront.  What emerges is a sense of the magnitude and the importance of this public conversation that Torontonians have been having for nearly two centuries.


Toronto Public Library and Waterfront Toronto