Highway to Nowhere: The Don Valley Parkway and the Development of Toronto’s North-East

Congestion on the DVP. Source: Wikipedia

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Map of the Don Valley Parkway, 1955
Figure 1, Map of the Don Valley Parkway, 1955

by Jennifer Bonnell.

This is the second of a series of articles on the history of Toronto’s suburban environments. NiCHE is publishing this series to provide some context for participants of the 2014 Canadian History and Environment Summer School at York University. The theme of this year’s CHESS is “Suburbia and Environmental History.” 

When it was completed in 1966, Toronto’s Don Valley Parkway became Toronto’s second and final urban expressway. The Municipality of Metropolitan Toronto’s proposed network of three additional expressways (the Spadina, Crosstown, and Scarborough expressways) would be lost to a combination of public opposition, weakened political will, and shifting planning priorities.

In establishing their rationale for the project, the Metropolitan Toronto Planning Board  identified the valley itself as one of the city’s most formidable obstacles to efficient vehicle movement. North of Bloor Street, none of the region’s major east-west thoroughfares crossed the valley, including St. Clair, Eglinton, and Lawrence Avenues, forcing vehicles to reroute north or south to navigate around valley topography.

Plans for the parkway prepared in October 1955 recommended an alignment along the east bank of the Lower Don River from the proposed Lakeshore Expressway north to the intersection with Don Mills Road. From here, the parkway would continue along the river’s east branch, rising out of the valley to occupy the tableland north of Lawrence Avenue and continuing along the former Woodbine Avenue right-of-way north to Highway 401 (Figure 1).

What was significant about this alignment is that it mobilized the valley corridor as a driver of future growth. It was intended to address anticipated, rather than existing, congestion. Unlike earlier Don Roadway plans, which had routed the roadway north and west to accommodate existing development (such as Leaside), Metro’s preferred alignment took a different path, extending north and east into what was, in 1955, mostly undeveloped farmland.[i] (Figure 2) As DVP project engineer Murray Douglas recalled in a March 1992 interview in the Toronto Daily Star, “we wondered where the traffic was going to come from, literally. Once you got past Don Mills Rd. [at the city’s north-eastern edge], where were you going? There was nowhere to go, there was no development up there.’ A “road to nowhere,” the parkway plans epitomized the aspirational outlook of Toronto in this period: not yet a “great city,” it was a place in the process of becoming.

Figure 2, 1932 Plan of the Don Valley
Figure 2, 1932 Plan of the Don Valley

For Municipality of Metropolitan Toronto Chair Frederick Gardiner, the DVP was not simply a corridor for efficient traffic movement, it was a catalyst and an enabler of suburban growth. As it reached into the blank spaces of Metro’s land use maps, it would create the conditions for new private development along its length. Just as the road attracted development, development would pull the road.

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Figure 3, “Don Mills is Easy to Reach!”

That developers stood to benefit enormously from the construction of the parkway is evident in the text of their advertisements for prospective developments. Foremost among these within the history of the DVP was E.P. Taylor’s Don Mills Development Company (DMDC). Holders of over 2000 acres of farmland around the intersection of Don Mills Road and Lawrence Avenue East, DMDC presented their vision for a planned community of residential, commercial, and industrial sub-districts in September 1953. Already reaping Metro investments in the 1955-56 extension of Eglinton Avenue over the east and west Don valleys, the DMDC used future road construction to promote the convenience of their holdings. “Don Mills is easy to reach from any direction,” a September 15, 1955 ad read in the Toronto Daily Star, “and it will be even easier to get to when new roads are finished…. The proposed Don Valley Parkway will cut in half the present driving time of 25 minutes to downtown Toronto.” (Figure 3)

Developers also shaped the alignment of the road. When the DMDC presented their development plans to the Metro council in September 1953, the Metro Roads Committee was in the midst of reviewing several proposed alignments for the DVP, including a route running northerly and easterly from Keating Street to connect with Don Mills Road.[ii] This alignment would run a six-lane highway through the heart of DMDC’s proposed development at Don Mills. DMDC’s offer of a swath of land running north-easterly from Don Mills Road to Woodbine Avenue forestalled this eventuality. In the fall of 1954, the Metro Planning Board formally abandoned the Don Mills alignment, proposing as an alternative the Woodbine Avenue right-of-way to the east.

But Metro’s relationship with developers can best be understood as a symbiotic one. Gardiner’s belief in the role of private sector development as a fundamental driver of urban growth saw him balance a willingness to accommodate business interests with a desire to see his visions for modern infrastructure implemented. While developers profitted undeniably from the road’s completion, Metro also stood to gain, as land donations and realignments emerging from consultations with developers resulted at times in considerable construction savings. Visible in these negotiations is the degree to which the parkway was a malleable construct subject to adjustments in both the alignment of the route, and the character of the future roadway. Places like Don Mills and infrastructure developments like the DVP were inextricably linked, and mutually supporting.

Today, the DVP is the only north-south expressway leading into Toronto’s downtown—a role, as Gardiner and his engineers would remind us, that the parkway was never designed to support. Always intended to function as part of a larger transportation network, including the never-realized Scarborough, Crosstown, and Spadina Expressways, and a closely-linked system of public transportation, the DVP’s chronic traffic congestion (inspiring drivers to nickname it the “Don Valley Parking Lot”) was entirely predictable. By the time the parkway was completed in 1966, it was already the continent’s busiest artery during peak traffic periods. Traffic volumes exceeded capacity by the early 1980s, and by 2001, the DVP carried 160,000 vehicles a day on a roadway designed to carry 60,000.[iii]

For Toronto-area readers, the next time you find yourself in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the DVP, think of it not as a curse, perhaps, but a fragment of a larger system never realized. More fundamentally, the DVP and the valley that supported it enabled the north-eastern expansion of the city. As DVP project engineer Murray Douglas observed in a 1992 interview, “People love to hate the Parkway… but Metro would not have developed nearly to the extent that it has if that hadn’t have been available. You can’t imagine the city without that road….”[iv]

[i] Plans for a roadway through the Don Valley first appear in 1914. Several subsequent plans were proposed, and subsequently abandoned, in the 1930s, culminating in the U-shaped recreational parkway through the Don and Humber Valleys proposed as part of the Toronto City Planning Board (CPB)’s 1943 Master Plan for the City of Toronto and Environs.

[ii] Appendix A, 102, Metro Council Minutes, 1953.

[iii] Hall, Joseph. “DVP: The Scenic Highway We Love to Hate Turns 25.” The Toronto Daily Star, March 7, 1992.

[iv] Hall, “DVP.”




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Jennifer Bonnell

Associate Professor at York University
Jennifer Bonnell is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at York University. She is the author of Reclaiming the Don: An Environmental History of Toronto's Don River Valley (University of Toronto Press, 2014) and Stewards of Splendour: A History of Wildlife and People in British Columbia (Royal BC Museum, 2023). She is co-editor with Sean Kheraj of Traces of the Animal Past: Methodological Challenges in Animal History (University of Calgary Press, 2022) and with Marcel Fortin of Historical GIS Research in Canada (University of Calgary Press, 2014). She is currently working on an environmental history of beekeeping and environmental change in the Great Lakes Region in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

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