life’s engine, green leaves

nature meets the city grid in toronto’s evergreen brick works, where a social entrepreneur & an artist re-imagine a landscape of possibility

michael h. reichmann

“We construct cities in two ways: with concrete and with imagination,” writes urban scribe Robert Fulford. Craftspeople, planners, labourers and architects build the physical city with their hands. Our artists, writers and mystics build the symbols and metaphors of our imagination, and bring them into the realm of memory, mystery and possibility. Artists imagine a place where narrative and landscape inspire one another and provide us a place to live. “But before the real city could be seen it had to be imagined,” writes Michael Ondaatje.

Ferruccio Sardella is thinking about the skin of a building. An artist and illustrator, he is part of an urban design team for Toronto’s Evergreen Brick Works project. He is imagining how artists can create an outdoor gallery that will shift an old industrial building from a utilitarian container into a living, breathing expression of place and aspiration. Sardella’s role, he explains, “is to ensure that spirit comes through architecture.”

“Rather than art being a layer on top of a building, we are embedding art into the whole project,” says Geoff Cape, Evergreen’s founder and executive director. Cape, too, is an artist. His palette is distinct and complex; it involves people and places. His artistry comes from a deeply visionary, entrepreneurial source and manifests through “imagining, then evolving the creative concept through to some sort of reality.”

Evergreen, which he began in 1991 after graduating from university, has evolved from a Toronto-based tree-planting initiative into a national organization that holds a bold and nuanced vision for how cities and ecology can live together and sustain each other.

Evergreen Brick Works offers Cape a canvas on which to re-imagine urban design where human relationships, wilderness and art come together in meaningful ways to build the foundation for sustainable cities. His artistry is in inventing new ways for surprising collaborations and a kind of civic alchemy to emerge. New partnerships with government, corporations, citizens and foundations to support the project, and the Farm to Fork celebration with local producers, artists, chefs and consumers, bring individuals who might not meet in daily life together in a shared landscape of possibility, hope and sustainability.

An illustrator and a social entrepreneur are perhaps unlikely collaborators for city-building. Geoff Cape and Ferruccio Sardella are part of a growing consciousness that is taking on visionary leadership to nurture the spirit of our important places. They are asking, “What is the role of the artist in creating landscapes and relationships that sustain?”


Evergreen Brick Works is about how we as citizens and as a society engage with and learn from nature. The site itself is at the juncture of Toronto’s ordered city grid and the ravines that cut through it, at the place where nature and culture meet.

Wildly ambitious, with a budget of over $55 million, Evergreen Brick Works is transforming a former industrial site into a national centre for green cities. Part urban, part rural, in the heart of the city, these derelict heritage buildings will become a year-round learning centre, a destination “to celebrate nature, culture and community” that can adapt and grow to meet new urban challenges.

Already its farmers’ market and children’s programming are drawing in urban and rural families, becoming a hub of activity and exchange. Still in its infancy, Evergreen Brick Works attracted over 40,000 people its first season in 2007, transforming the abandoned site with a market, live music, food, celebrations and ceremonies, Hatha Yoga classes, nature walks, eco-workshops and more.

In the coming months, Evergreen Brick Works will become a showcase for green building design. It will also house a demonstration garden, a native plant nursery, ceramics and artisan workshops, programming for youth leadership and outdoor education, and offices for social organizations, including Evergreen.

The historic Don Valley Brick Works rests in the gut of a crevassed wound carved by the hand of industry. The Brick Works was one of Canada’s preeminent brickyards, in use from 1889 to 1984, and largely responsible for rebuilding Toronto in its characteristic red and yellow brick after the Great Fire of 1904. They are a cluster of rectangular industrial buildings, linked by footpaths, tucked between the Don Valley Parkway that moves over 100,000 cars each day and a wetlands that hosts turtles, deer, reptiles, fish, a great blue heron and a beaver.

Today the Brick Works stands at the precipice of a new narrative for the city. Evergreen is revitalizing these industrial heritage buildings into a meeting and learning space, a place to connect people and nature in meaningful ways. Through this they are also enhancing our ecological literacy by re-introducing people to the medicinal and sacred uses of native plants and the importance of bees and butterflies to the urban outdoors.

For Cape, the fundamental question inspiring the work at Evergreen Brick Works is, “What nourishes people in life?”


To enter the cool shade of Toronto’s ravines is to peel back the skin of our city-selves. A different set of rules lives here — ancient, dark, forgotten — beneath the corridors of concrete. “To go down into them is to go down into sleep, away from the conscious electrified life of the houses,” writes Margaret Atwood.

Even though I have visited the Brick Works several times over the last two years, witnessing its evolution, I had never entered into the lush mystery of the ravines in which it sits. They have been in my sight for years, but as something to pass by in the car, to read about in literature. I’d never known where or how to enter this space. I needed an introduction, so one day in April my friends took me into the foot, canoe and bicycle paths and we disappeared into the Don Valley.

It completely changed my perception of Toronto. I saw a wild, uncivilized, hidden side to the city.

The ravines of Toronto are storied places, where the past and the future live in both the physical world and the realm of imagination. An enchanted space — shadowy, green, gurgling, wet, full of promise and possibility. The ravines dig into time itself, reveal the city’s geological and human past.

Here, rivertime collides with human history as the city grid imposes itself on the curvaceous spine of the natural landscape. The city lives in this tension between the poetry of its irregular patterns and shorelines and the industrial, utilitarian psyche that built the colonial and postcolonial city. I walk into this tension and find myself walking at a different pace, breathing in the green sunlight, flush with discovery.


Remembering, re-imagining and re-visualizing a space is an act of faith. Connecting to “place” is a deeply nourishing, essential act. It is necessary not only for the sustainability of urban and wild spaces, but for our own sustainability as a species.

“Indigenous cultures, older cultures, have a great grasp and much better understanding of their relationship with the earth. It is Western civilization and our consumption culture that has moved to a heavy orientation to fixing all of our values on consumerism, dismissing the more spiritual dimension of our relationship to the land,” says Cape.

He acknowledges a growing sense of urgency about the state of the planet and our future on it. “There is a concept of ‘nature deficit disorder,’” he explains. “It’s a phenomenon that suggests that humans on a fundamental level require a connection to nature in order to be whole or to be sustained.”

Evergreen Brick Works is a project that responds to a deep human desire to find meaning in and from our immediate surroundings, to find a sense of wholeness from which we are disconnected in the fractured reality of our contemporary lives. It invites us to come together to explore and to engage: with our food and those who produce it, with the land and its history and ecology, with our buildings and crafts and art, and with each other.

“How do we create outlets for nourishing people on a day-to-day basis within the context of city life?” asks Cape. “How do we change our orientation to a bigger idea that fundamentally addresses our culture as a civilization? You only get at that by pulling people into a functioning working relationship with nature where there is respect built and a relationship built, and that’s where you get change.”

“Our philosophical basis,” says Cape, “is to move society through a value change that comes with interacting with nature in a fundamentally different way.”


Evergreen Brick Works offers us a visual language and many intangible entry points to engage in the fundamental issues of our day — how we feed ourselves, how we relate to our environments and to one another.

The site offers many avenues of discovery and engagement, and ways of grounding people in a sense of place. Sardella has been designing the paths between the buildings by embedding them with images of sea shells and fish bones to reference Toronto’s prehistoric ecology and geology. They invite walkers to experience space by asking them to interact with the flow of time and place and history. To not simply observe, but to be in the narrative of place through discovery.

Says Sardella, “The subject matter here is sustainability, and art brings out its emotional qualities. Art changes the way you look at and engage with space.”

Geoff Cape and Ferruccio Sardella have a unique creative collaboration. They have worked together for nearly twenty years, sparking each other’s imaginations and forging this innovative language of city-building, this art of sustainability. They are inspired by history, lineage and the potential that creativity can bring into the future of our living places: Cape himself comes from a family of city-builders — from the construction and real estate industry, and bringing Sardella in full-time to Evergreen Brick Works was inspired by the artists of another city, Barcelona.

“Seeing the art embedded in the fabric of the city and how artists like Gaudi formed its look and feel, and the confidence they had in bringing art into the buildings in such an explicit way gave me the courage to think we could do that with Ferruccio,” says Cape.

Cape and Sardella also honour the wide diversity of people who are enlivening this project with energy, resources, ideas and commitment. Together, they are inspiring large-scale urban sustainability work with a sense of joy and experimentation and infusing it with an artistic and ecological language.

Cape speaks of the playful, collaborative ethos that Evergreen brings to all its work, and uses ecological metaphors to explain. Much like the ecosystems they work with, they believe that growth means a commitment to adapt and change in order to create what is being called for in the world.

“This is not the way things are traditionally done,” muses Sardella. “The role of art at Evergreen Brick Works is to bring voice to the spirit of a place that holds sustainability as a core value. This project is redefining me as an artist. I am working on larger scales and it is no longer just about pursuing my individual artistic practice. I am facilitating a stewardship of community expression.”

Sustainability is so often thought of in relation to a set of conditions external to us, “problems” that we have to “fix,” so we create projects that offer “solutions.” Ferruccio Sardella offers that, “Perhaps, with art, we can move beyond the extremes of bad and good ways of working with sustainability into a space between opinions. It is a link. With art, we can hover between these two states, which allows us to enter into more meaningful, less judgemental dialogue.”


There is a lookout point on the Brick Works site that offers a breathtaking panorama of time and place. Standing atop a cracked hill, we can see Ferruccio’s narrative paths weave to meet the curving natural paths of the wetlands. With arms outstretched, one can reach a hand toward the city’s downtown core. The other hand can reach back in time pointing to the layers and centuries of geological history embedded in the rock face of the hill.

It is a point of choice. With hands reaching in both directions, one can stand still and observe or take a step.

This juncture of ravine and city is deeply symbolic. This meeting place, a collision of conflicting forces — mercantile and aesthetic, utilitarian and beautiful, artificial and organic. The grid ideology has cut us off from a vital source, from our essential geography.

I sense around me the flows that surround this site — cars, river, creeks, bicycles, airplanes, people, birds — and notice that slim section of the Don River that was “straightened” to fit between the Don Valley parkway, the CPR train track, the gas line. We attempt to control or contradict these natural rhythms, times, tides. Why build structures and systems that move against the flow of the place on which we stand?

I feel the raw potential of this place, and how the Evergreen Brick Works project can make a difference in the way a city thinks and feels and acts. It has already shifted my own perceptions and experience of place and I am only a visitor to this city. I am excited to explore the Don River by canoe, to return for the farmers’ market on a weekend with my parents, to sit in the green shade of the ravine and write. How can this sink into the pattern of my life?

I’m reminded of the Sufi mystic, Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee: “We need to take responsibility for ourselves as one living, interdependent whole.” He talks of a shift from our own spiritual or material welfare to realizing we have to make a step. This beautiful luminous being which is the world needs our help — materially, ecologically, spiritually. How do we shift from being focused on our own inner work and make the connection to an emerging collective consciousness?

“Oneness is a basic mystical experience,” he says, the individual experiencing the universe as one dynamic whole. “What if this was a collective experience — the whole of humanity taking a step toward a different level of consciousness and awareness?”

The shift that is needed is toward a worldview that is tied to the earth and that connects people to a physical place through ritual, reciprocity, stewardship. What is possible, what is necessary to nurture and sustain ourselves and the earth? What is the wise action or state of being that is necessary — individually and collectively?

As with any project of this scale, there are criticisms and complexities, unanswered questions and buildings still to be restored, yet it is already radiating a presence that is generating curiosity and engagement from others who also believe in the potential to change the culture of our cities and our relationship with nature.

“Other communities across Canada are asking us to think about or offer recommendations on what they can do with their old industrial sites or forgotten properties. There is a certain element of hope that is expressed in the project that I think people are really drawn to,” says Cape.

“It’s not just about the ecological restoration. It has a really powerful spin-off effect, if not core effect, in bringing communities together and orienting people around what is important.”


The artist enters our experience and creates space for idealism, intimacy and depth. Geoff Cape and Ferruccio Sardella are ushering in a subtle transformation, like a craftsmanship that works with found materials to slowly create something unique, rather than the usual assembly-line building production. They are working with trust and intuition. Immersed in a creative process, they trust the power of imagination and their faith in connecting to a place and to people to bring something new to life.

And they are asking us to engage in a way of being that comes from listening to our source. That place where our wisdom resides. To listen deeply first, and then to act and create and manifest. To do this well, it is essential for us to connect to that other source, the ravine, our liquid past, to be nourished by it and to nourish it in return.

Our ravine self meets our city self, and an invitation opens to a new space. 

above photo by Bernice Gardner: The quarry in 1920. Thirty years earlier, William Taylor was digging holes on this site when he discovered clay that would later build some of the most important landmarks in Toronto.

above photo by Michael H. Reichmann: The Brick Works Park is 11.5 hectares and includes wild flower meadows, four kilometres of trails and wetlands that provide habitat for amphibians, reptiles, birds and insects.

“The role of art at Evergreen Brick Works is to bring voice to the spirit of a place that holds sustainability as a core value. This project is no longer just about pursuing my individual artistic practice. I am facilitating a stewardship of community expression.”

Remembering, re-imagining and re-visualizing a space is an act of faith. Connecting to “place” is a deeply nourishing, essential act. It is necessary not only for the sustainability of urban and wild spaces, but for our own sustainability as a species.

Thank you to Paul Gifford, Karen Nasmith, Laurel Fortin, Annie MacLeod and Karen Messer for their invaluable help in co-creating this piece.

Vanessa Reid is the executive publisher at ascent magazine. She found herself writing this article quite unexpectedly and is amazed at how this writing process mirrored the values of its content. It ignited a team of people into a new kind of creative collaboration, asked us to take some risks and led us to tell a story we hadn’t originally planned.

Copyright ©2007 ascent magazine, first Canadian yoga magazine, yoga for an inspired life