Tree Strategy: Saving the Intersection of our City and Nature
I get an odd sense of pleasure when I go places where I don’t fit in. Such was the case when I attended Ward 8 Councillor Mike Colle’s “Save Our Ravines” Town Hall after an invite came through my own neighbourhood community, which happens to be in his constituency.
When I’m in situations, where I’m a bit of a misfit, three things usually happen. First, I deliberate about going (I like to push out of my comfort zone so I usually decide to go). Second, friends and colleagues try to discourage me from going…”You know you’ll be in a room full of anti-development folks, don’t you?” (I shrug my shoulders and get curious). Third, sometimes people get confused and wonder why I’m there, if they learn what I do (as did the couple seated beside me – no, I’m not friends with Mike Colle, and no, I don’t study ravines, I am here to learn).
I went in part, because as a developer what we do takes place in a context that must consider the natural environment. We build on a shared canvas and paint an evolving picture of our skyline on a background that includes nature. Toronto was carved out of a vast ravine system which still covers 11,000 hectares of land, accounting for 17 per cent of the city. Today, there’s an urgent need for us to better understand our natural habitat so we can work better together.
Ravines are defined as dynamic systems, subject to the influence of many things including climate change and intensification of adjacent tablelands. There are many stakeholder groups with an interest in their well-being—government, institutions (schools, hospitals), landowners, utilities, public and private etc. For this reason, we all need to be better educated about them.
The Town Hall discussion gave me an opportunity to better understand urban forestry and ravines. By sharing the objectives behind Toronto’s Ravine Strategy (to guide policy, investment and stewardship for ravines to guide future use) and the five guiding principles (protect, invest, connect, partner, celebrate) Councillor Colle enabled those in the room to find common ground.
When you hear our ravines described as being “what canals are to Venice, what hills are to San Francisco, and what the Thames is to London,” as described by Robert Fulford in Accidental City, The Transformation of Toronto (and the lovely man who sat beside me) you can’t help but feel ‘Toronto proud’. You can’t help but want to support a shared asset in our community. This is a cause you want to rally behind.
How Did We Get Here?
There was also some “not-so-nice” discussion about developers and quite a bit of animosity from the crowd. It started subtly with familiar and worthy topics, like setbacks and shadow impact. But it quickly generated more hostility and even applause. One woman who lives near Kimbark Coldstream Ravine wondered how it was even possible that houses were developed on the periphery of ravines. She passionately declared that she’d rather see a Norway Maple near a ravine setting than a new development. The lesser of two evils I suppose, from her perspective.
I could argue that density adds a form of conservation. New York City is an example of what some consider the greenest city in the world. But arguing is not productive, nor was it the point of the evening. The presenter gracefully steered the conversation back to preserving our forestry and ravines as the current mission.
In response to the heated question of how we in fact got here, it seems when we know better we do better. We used to have a benign approach to ravine and forestry management, believing if we didn’t interfere, things would take care of themselves. This proved not to be the case.
It’s hard to argue with a study conducted by the University of Toronto Forestry Faculty that reflects on the last 40 years and shows our ravines are in long-term ecological decline. And so, we’re trying to do better. We’re making significant efforts to run interference. Eighteen out of 80 ESA’s (Environmentally Significant Areas) which are home to a variety of plants and animals including rare and endangered species, now have management programs to preserve their environmentally significant qualities. With a lot more to come to the 4,500 hectares of publicly owned ravine land. But can we move fast enough? That seemed to be the concern of the audience.
Catherine Berka from The Toronto Ravine Revitalization study team recommended a model that mirrors New York. “To make forestry a resource on a par with other cultural amenities is the NYC goal,” she said. “It would be mind-blowing if we could do the same. We have more than double the amount of natural area so a $500 million commitment would be a good start.”
A Green Role for Developers
The audience asked where their dollars could be spent to have the most impact. Councillor Colle said we need to be bold and advocate that the city spend as much money green infrastructure as we currently spend on hard infrastructure. Because, it’s our ravines that help us weather severe 100 year storms (which we now face almost every five years).They prevent flooding that could reach catastrophic levels.
After the Town Hall, I introduced myself to Councillor Colle and noted “there’s likely not many developers in the room – but I represented one of them.” He smiled and said, “we NEED more of them here,” and thanked me for coming.
I am optimistic that we can find a way to address intensification while balancing stewardship and protection with public ravine access. The solution can’t and shouldn’t come from one source. But, if developers do play a part, why not revisit things? For example, Section 37 of the City of Toronto Planning Act authorizes municipalities to grant height and density increases to developments in exchange for contributions toward community benefits. Why not use them in part to preserve the natural playgrounds—the ravines and forest we already have, instead of going towards creating new parks, (that I’m not certain we even study how and if they’re used). Studies show that parks resembling our natural environment have more benefits and get more use than artificial ones.
I agree with Councillor Mike Colle that we currently have all the right ingredients to put power and momentum behind this. We have the educational findings, the urgency of an environment that is screaming for us to pay attention, the threat of climate change and finally, a growing corporate and individual awareness that has created a passionate group of people who truly care about leaving the world better than they found it.
If you live in Toronto you can’t help but encounter ravines as they are the intersection of nature and our city. We all likely have some form of connection to them. For me this includes taking my dog for a run at the off leash park in Blythwood Ravine, going on a hike with my son who thrives and learns better in the outdoors than within the walls of a classroom, and walking in the ravine across the street from my office to disconnect and think for 30 minutes during a busy work day.
I do want to help ensure our ravine system stays strong and healthy. This includes implementing the Toronto Ravine Strategy which supports a natural, connected sanctuary and encourages the health and well-being of our city and our people.
And if that doesn’t get you – perhaps the most poignant reminder that we need to protect our forests is the relationship they have to sports… ask yourself if we truly want to be a city that’s represented by the MAPLE LEAFS and the BLUE JAYS. Because if we don’t take care of this, the next generations might have to rely on their imaginations …I think one prehistoric reference is enough – after all, we’re already home to the the RAPTORS.
Images Source: Toronto Ravine Strategy