Guelph: A river runs through it?

June 25, 2009


The Guelph Mercury, 6/24/2009

It doesn’t take a muggy day in June to show you people are drawn to rivers.

Run a river through a city (or a city around a river), and citizens will naturally saddle up next to it, watching the water roll on, soaking up the sight of something doing what it’s been doing for thousands of years. Rivers, you say? It turns out Guelph is blessed with two of them, though you wouldn’t always know it.

There’s the Speed River, once a source of fish and power for the flour and saw mills that dotted early Guelph, and a big reason John Galt chose to establish a village here over 180 years ago. And there’s the Eramosa River, which babbles through farmland to the east and joins up with the Speed in the heart of Guelph.

But this is also a city whose developers and businesspeople long ago turned their backs to our rivers. On park space, we’re lucky that’s not the case — we’ve got Riverside, Goldie Mills, Royal City and York Road parks, among others, which hug these waterways.

Rivers can be more than just places to stick a park. When it comes to our human-made spaces, we long ago turned away from the water that runs through our city and faced that other vein of commerce, the road. The most commercialized stretch of real estate along Guelph’s rivers, the plaza at the corner of Wellington and Gordon streets, faces out to parking lots and busy avenues. To the river that runs through its backyard, it offers dumpsters and a littered alley.

Through downtown, much of the prime riverfront property is either inaccessible or unappealing, reserved for weedy train tracks, the backs of buildings and the rail cars of the under-used municipal railway. Private property, including the Homewood grounds, hides even more of the river from the public eye.

Away from the core, the river is also often hidden from the public. Along the western stretches, the Speed River is bordered by heavy industry and a limestone quarry. To the east, the Eramosa runs through private property, a golf course, and past factories.

Imagine, for a moment, a section of Guelph where you could walk along a boulevard by the river, with shops that face out to the water, not away from it. Maybe if more citizens saw our rivers as more than just naturalized areas to drive past, they’d respect them more. If we saw ourselves as more of a river city, we wouldn’t need annual river cleanup projects.

OK, that might be a stretch, but you see where I’m going.

The city has considered what the rivers mean for urban planning before. Guelph does have a River Systems Management Plan, though it was written in 1993. Back then, people were also talking about “bringing downtown to the river.” Many of the respondents to a study at the time said they weren’t even aware there was a river that ran through the core.

And it seems not much has changed since, with the pleasant exception of the River Run Centre, which was designed to at least acknowledge the river’s presence.

Living with a river in your backyard is about more than just protecting it from chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. It’s about more than just parks, too. Rivers are part of our city’s backbone, and can be a bigger part of our urban landscape.

Since John Galt slapped down his stake on the banks of the Speed River in 1827, we have bent and altered our rivers around the city’s development in countless ways. Maybe it’s time we let our rivers alter us a bit, too.

Greg Mercer is a Guelph-based freelance writer. His column appears Wednesdays. He can be reached at

2 Responses to Guelph: A river runs through it?

  1. Chuck Miller on June 26, 2009 at 10:01 am

    I read your article and agree with you 100 percent, infact I own the Arena Bar & Grill and would certainly build a patio on the river and clean up the garbage area. I would wonder how many hoops I would have to jump through to get approval.
    Chuck Miller

  2. Dave Sills on June 30, 2009 at 7:50 pm

    I was very happy to see Greg Mercer’s piece “City has lost sight of its
    waterways” in the June 24 Mercury. Mercer hits the nail on the head when
    he says that our cherished rivers “should be a bigger part of our urban
    landscape”. The city should be doing all that it can to ensure that our
    rivers are always front and centre, not hidden behind plazas and concrete.

    I was particularly disappointed with the recent reconstruction of two of
    Guelph’s major bridges, one over the Eramosa River on Victoria Road and
    another over the Speed River on Eramosa Road. In both cases, metal rails
    were replaced by concrete walls, cutting off the view of the river as
    vehicles pass over these bridges. “Out of sight, out of mind” – not a
    good thing in a community where water resources are so important.

    I hope that when the next bridge projects come up, the city is much more
    careful about how our river views are treated. In fact, why not do more
    to celebrate our rivers by creating unique bridges that enhance our
    ability to keep in touch with their daily and seasonal rhythms?

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