Why Toronto's urban river valleys make a difference in community building.
June 21, 2016
A group of 20 or so residents, mostly women, mostly newcomers, scribble down notes in between examining tiny white and purple flowers along the Betty Sutherland trail. “Dame’s Rocket,” they note, identifying the flower. “Invasive. Weed. Attracts the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly.”
Folks from the Fairview Residents Action Group (FRAG) are here along the East Don River where they’re training to become nature walk leaders themselves. “When I first came to Toronto from California and Colorado, I felt very disconnected from this new landscape,” says Anna Hill who coordinates the nature walk program. “Once I discovered the ravines and started appreciating the unique features of Toronto’s ecosystems, I started to feel very connected to my new home,” she adds. “Understanding that basic concept of the landscape—that you’re in a landscape of water and these watersheds are always running into Lake Ontario—that offers the big picture of where you are. That has been so meaningful to me, and I wanted to share that experience by helping other people connect with urban nature.”
Nearly 20 per cent of Toronto’s land area is covered by urban river valleys, many of which, as Hill points out, have been damaged by the wrong kind of human use. And while nature walk groups like this one help create a sense of stewardship for the ravines, residents need government support when it comes to valuing and protecting these lands.
On May 10, the Ontario government made strides towards that much-needed protection by proposing updates to the Greenbelt Plan, along with three other provincial growth plans. The Greenbelt, a nearly two million acre swath of land encompassing the GTHA, offers the highest protection available for the remaining agricultural land and natural heritage systems in the region. Widely supported by residents, with nine out of 10 Ontarians recognizing the Greenbelt as essential for supporting smart growth, the Ontario’s Greenbelt is the largest in the world and serves as a model in curbing a bygone era of unmitigated sprawl.
Among the changes proposed by the Province is a plan to grow the Greenbelt to include 21 urban river valleys across the Greater Golden Horseshoe, four of which—the Humber River, the Don River, and Morningside and Etobicoke Creeks—flow through Toronto. The announcement follows recommendations from community members, city planners, ecologists, and advocacy groups who have long demanded that Greenbelt safeguards extend to the expansive ravine systems that course through the region.
“This announcement—extending the Greenbelt into the ravines—this is really a big deal,” says author and urban designer Ken Greenberg. “It’s not just a change in policy, it’s a change in perception—a change in the way we think about the city.”
For most of the city’s history, Toronto’s urban river valleys were seen as inconveniences—forces of nature needing to be conquered in the name of urbanization. For the past 150 years, ravines and wetlands have often been paved over to build parking lots, highways, and towers. We set up sewage systems, factories and mills along their shores, dumping our unfiltered waste into their waters. “In the early 20th century, Toronto Harbour Commission filled in the largest wetland on the Great Lakes to create the portlands,” Greenberg recounts. “They referred to it as draining a swamp.” By the early 1950s, most of Toronto’s urban river valleys were polluted to the point of condemnation. Many original species were phased out, and the thought of recreating in their surrounding greenspaces was repulsive.
Tried as we could, the ravines could not be tamed, and our efforts to do proved devastating in some cases. In 1954, Hurricane Hazel hit the city, bringing calamitous floods—destruction that could have been largely avoided had the river valleys been protected. “Their vulnerability was particularly revealed at the time of the hurricane,” says Greenberg.
Three years later, the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) was formed with flood control being its primary mandate. Today, the TRCA owns 40,000 acres of land, including most of Toronto’s river valley lands, and spearheads myriad restoration initiatives, species monitoring programs, and social events linked to the ravines, like their annual Paddle the Don.
Since the TRCA’s inception, Toronto is slowly coming to terms with, and even starting to embrace, its identity as a ravine city. Now often described as the region’s inverted mountain range, or the veins of the city, urban river valleys are widely considered Toronto’s most distinguishing natural feature—certainly its most valuable green asset. The ravines function as a draining system that runs from the Oak Ridges Moraine in the Greenbelt all the way down to Lake Ontario; the rivers flowing from watersheds to the north, through the city and into Lake Ontario are part of the vital hydrological systems that clean our water, provide flood protection, and connect us to our landscape. Canada has 20 per cent of the world’s fresh water supply, and an Environics poll shows Ontarians believe the Greenbelt’s most important function is protecting clean water for us now and in the future.
“But very, very important, in terms of human use, the ravines are a magnificent and extensive park system which is only now being appreciated,” says Greenberg. “We’re gaining a new appreciation of living in a bioregion—an understanding of our vulnerability to nature and our need to work with nature,” he adds. “All of the sudden the ravines are coming into a very sharp focus.”
For some groups, like FRAG, the ravines offer spaces to build connections with each other and their natural landscape. For other communities, like Birchmount Eglinton East, it’s about refuge, changing perspectives, and healing. “Because our community has had a lot of experience with violence, it shows the community in a different light,” says Laura Hammond, the coordinator of the Birchmount Community Action Council and leads youth nature walks and gardening programs in the neighbourhood.
This newfound appreciation of the ravines is thanks, in part, to TRCA, along with other organizations like the Toronto Environmental Alliance (TEA). In 2009, TEA approached Toronto City Council asking to grow the Greenbelt into the city’s river systems. “By then it was obvious that people really liked the Greenbelt,” says Franz Hartmann, executive director of TEA. “It had become a brand that people associate with something useful, something that needs protecting. And having our urban river valleys part of that meant they too would be viewed as an important pieces of infrastructure.”
At first, the City was keen to make the ravines part of the Greenbelt Plan, but there was no existing mechanism to allow it. In 2011, Council asked the Province to update the plan, and two years later, the Province responded with the Urban River Valleys (URV) designation, which allowed municipalities to request that publicly owned ravine lands be part of the Greenbelt.
While the creation of the URV designation signalled the Province recognized the importance of ravines, it wasn’t enough. Each municipality still had to apply to the Province to have their portion of the river valley protected under the Greenbelt policy, a piecemeal process that continued to ignore one of the ravines’ biggest strengths: rivers and water systems flow through all of our communities and have tremendous potential to connect people across the region through our natural heritage.
Ravines don’t end at municipal boundaries; rivers don’t stop flowing where York Region meets Toronto. Yet up until now, geography is what determined who made policies around ravines and what those policies were. “You need a higher order of government looking after this,” says Hartmann, who became convinced of this while sitting on the advisory committee for the City’s ravine strategy, which is set to be drafted this summer. “At the beginning of the process, we were focusing on the ravines that are in the city of Toronto, literally in the geographical boundary,” he says. “I get that you’re a municipality and you don’t have jurisdiction over the river once it crosses the city limits, but that struck me. Watersheds don’t know jurisdictional lines, but here we are developing policy that demarcates these very important boundaries,” Hartmann continues. “By having the Greenbelt extend along these rivers, it’s essentially saying, ‘you’re now all part of the same thing.’”
When the Greenbelt Plan, and three other growth plans, came under review in January 2015, TEA and other advocacy groups pushed the Ontario government to use its power to designate all urban ravines as part of the Greenbelt without requiring municipalities to apply. Their request was answered in last month’s announcement to protect 21 urban river valleys—a victory more than seven years in the making.
As Hartmann points out, greenbelting Toronto’s ravines won’t immediately change how we protect these spaces. “The provincial designation is more encouraging than forceful. The key thing is getting people to understand that these river systems are part of a larger ecosystem and a larger community,” says Hartmann. “The Greenbelt Plan raises the standard of care municipalities should strive together to achieve.” In the meantime, the TRCA has jurisdiction over these lands by way of the Conservation Authorities Act, and most would agree that the organization has a sturdy handle on protecting our ravines.
“Toronto’s ravine system connects us to the land and to each other,” says Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation CEO Burkhard Mausberg. “As we cross over the Don on our morning commute or walk along the Humber on a Saturday afternoon, we’re enjoying a protected landscape that runs not only through our city, but through the countryside where our neighbours are working the land and growing the food we eat. The Greenbelt is a protected system that ensures smart growth for our future that is sustainable and ecologically sound, and now we extend that protection into our city and become a part of that legacy.”
Back on the Betty Sutherland trail, the wind carries the faint sweet smell of black locust flower, intensifying as the sun gets low in the sky. “They become more fragrant in the evening to attract insects to the trees,” explains Nancy Dengler, a veteran botanist and tonight’s walk leader from Toronto Field Naturalists. It’s two weeks until the training program ends, but already group members have started organizing their own walks. “I take friends to a ravine every weekend,” says one woman. And Amy Guo leads regular hikes across the GTA in English, Cantonese, and Mandarin. The group has over 500 members and each hike, which are sometimes 20-plus kilometres, brings out about 50 residents. “We talk about the plants and the history of the ravines,” says Guo. “There’s so much to see and learn. I love it,” she says. “I love when people come with me and we discover the ravines together. One thing I’ve discovered is that so many of the trails and rivers are connected. It takes time to figure it out, but it’s always there—that connection.”
This article is brought to you by Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation