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The art & science of surveying traces urban history

Surveying is both the science of accurate land measurement and the art of expertly interpreting physical evidence and historical property records to arrive at a professional opinion regarding the boundaries of a parcel of land.

Early survey maps are important historical documents – and often works of art in their own right. Painstakingly hand drawn, they provide a birds-eye view at a moment in time of individual properties that form the fabric of our rural and urban landscapes.

Surveyors originally recorded measurements taken in the field and sketched their observations in bound notebooks before drawing the final plan on linen or vellum. If a duplicate was needed, a tracing could be prepared. Surveyors kept copies of the plans they created, building up rich depositories of records that tell the story of community growth and development, piece by piece.

The archives of Unwin Murphy & Esten (UME), one of the oldest surveying companies in Canada, include plans dating back to 1795. Now yellowed with age, these plans chronicle the settlement of Upper Canada and the emergence of the City of Toronto and the surrounding region. The synthesis of art and practical purpose of a plan is well illustrated on this plan of subdivision of a lot on Toronto Island, registered on April 6, 1876 as plan D238. Note the calligraphic flourishes and the washes of colour that illustrate the roads and the blue-bordered shoreline of Lake Ontario:


The following image is a colourized lithograph of a residential subdivision plan for the northwest corner of Eglinton Avenue and Yonge Street, circa 1888. It was probably prepared for the sales office and included sales literature that would not normally appear on the typical survey plan. Note that three lots along Yonge Street had already been sold.

Today, the residential nature of Belle-vue Estate has given way to towering skyscrapers, just as calligraphy on survey plans has given way to machine lettering for greater accuracy and clarity. Yonge Street is awash in a new wave of redevelopment and surveyors continue to play an essential role, mapping the boundaries of the parcels of land upon which the ever-changing cityscape is built.