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Ravines a defining aspect of Toronto


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Apr 8, 2008
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From Saturday's Globe and Mail
Published Friday, Apr. 01, 2011

Unlike the mighty Rocky Mountains accenting Calgary or the majestic ocean lapping Victoria, one of Toronto’s greatest natural assets lies largely hidden from view. Toronto is home to the biggest network of ravines of any city in the world. They carve through much of the metropolis, providing 10,500 hectares of wilderness escape and stunning backdrops for coveted homes. Ravines are where children discover frogs and poke mud with broken branches. They’re where birds peck at trees and creeks gush over rocks. And where urbanites can lose themselves for hours.

The extent of Toronto’s ravine network is unusual, but it doesn’t define the city in the way the mountains define Calgary or the ocean does Victoria. Philanthropist and green entrepreneur Geoff Cape thinks it’s time to change that. He wants Toronto to celebrate its ravines and promote them as a destination for residents and tourists, like New York’s Central Park.

“This could be the thing that Toronto really becomes known for internationally,” says Mr. Cape, who conceived and championed the Evergreen Brick Works restoration project in the Don Valley Ravine. “Every smart city in the world is trying to figure out how to develop a green strategy and a sustainability strategy. Ours is embedded in our landscape. It’s here. We just need to pay attention to it.”

Why should Toronto focus on its ravines?

The ravines of Toronto are unique in the world. No other city has such an elaborate, such an extensive network of natural spaces. It’s the defining aspect of Toronto. We have great hospitals, great cultural institutions, great universities, but so does New York, London, Chicago, Milan, Beijing. What we do have categorically unique is the ravine system. It’s an asset for everyone. It doesn’t distinguish between rich and poor and cultural diversity. It’s available to all of us and it weaves virtually every neighbourhood, every community together, because it’s physically so extensive. It connects us all.

Aside from the size of the network, what else makes Toronto’s ravines special?

It reminds us we’re Canadian. It’s such a rugged landscape in the middle of the city. It ties us back to who we are as a country and where we come from as a country. It’s filled full of quiet areas of peace and solitude at one end of the spectrum and bustling areas with kids and farmers’ markets and recreational activities at the other end of the spectrum. It has something for everyone.

You grew up with a ravine as your playground. Did it surprise you to learn many Torontonians have never visited a ravine?

Not really. It’s an asset that’s been under-recognized by our community. It’s been underutilized by the community of Toronto. It’s out of sight and out of mind. For those who know about it, it’s incredibly special. And the opportunity, the big idea, is to shine a light on it, to celebrate the ravines in the coming decade and turn them into the massive asset that they really are. Ravines should be developed as our keystone asset in our marketing, drawing tourists and giving the citizens of Toronto something to be proud about.

How does the city go about doing that?

In some respects, the project here at Evergreen Brick Works is a starting point for that, where we build a gateway. Another opportunity is to work with the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority and the City of Toronto parks department to develop a ravine strategy. We could celebrate access points to ravines with these unique artist-inspired gateways. We could improve signage, lighting, trail connections and pathways.

Do you feel a willingness exists to create a ravine strategy?

I think there is. There are enough forces beginning to come into play around that. The Toronto Economic Development, people at the city’s parks department, the head of the conservation authority all like this idea. And it’s not our idea. This is an idea that’s been in play for a while. We’re just putting a little more of a fire under the idea to get it really boiling.

Some people say the Rockies define the essence of Calgary and its residents. How do ravines define Torontonians?

They define the city, because we’re the only city with it. How do they reflect who we are? I don’t think we’re there yet, and I think that’s where we have an opportunity to build that. We could be a city that is defined and defines itself more by our ravine system, which would be the softer side of Toronto. We’ll always have the urban edge, and that’s a strong part of what Toronto is all about, but this becomes the counterpoint. We are about banks and money and King and Bay streets, of course. But we’re also about the ravine system and about this kind of balance. Or at least we could be, if we put our minds to it.

I do feel this is an overlooked resource for our city and region.
As a kid, and later as a teen, G. Ross Lord park was our hangout. We caught frogs, climbed trees, walked along the storm sewers (from the ravine all the way to Bathurst on a couple occasions).
When my kids were young we went on "Jungle Walks" tramping through the bush and brush picking flowers, thistles and cat-tails throughout the Don Ravine system.

We have for many years visited Todmorden and the brickworks and love what they have been doing to the site.

I don't know if we can have a site to rival the Rockies but for urban adventurers and tourists there may be opportunity to create something special.

What would you like to see done with Toronto ravines?
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I'd love to see all the through traffic and rail pulled from the ravines and set (or buried) elsewhere.

This would still allow emergency access, and trails could be kept and improved.
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Reading some of the reader commentary on this issue I on the one hand empathize with the romantic ideal of some who just want these ravines to remain underdeveloped and hidden. On the other hand when using them I'm always struck how badly the main walking and bike trails are maintained in areas. I would like to see them in much better shape with better continuity and signage that tells you where you are and how far it is to the next major destination.
I don't work for the City; but have been 'involved' with restoration of the natural heritage in Toronto for many years now.

Obviously, that's my first priority, to undo, where possible, the mess made by engineers in the 1960's who layed down trunk sewers. above ground and/or the water table in most cases, and then filled in the bottoms of ravines, damaging or eliminating many bogs/swamps/wetlands in the process.

That said, this is the real world. Trunk sewers are not coming out, nor are railways, nor is the DVP is the forseeable future.

Some compromise must be abided (its the Canadian way!) :D

Beyond restoration work (a dozen new wetlands, invasive species removed and extensive reforestation)....

I'd like to see the bike trail system completed, where this does not compromise key ecologically sensitive sites.

A short list of trail projects in valleys might include:

- Humber Trail Gap(s)
- East Don from 'The Forks' to Milne Hollow (Don Mills to Lawrence)
- West Don from Hogs Hollow to Earl Bales (just south of York Mills up to Sheppard)
- Highland Creek (Morningside Park to Progress Ave, just east of McCowan)
- Wilket Creek Trail connection (Edwards Gardens north to Winfield/Banbury Park)
- Etobicoke Creek, continuous trail from the Lake to Centennial Pakr

+ hiking only trails (dirt, not for bikes)

- Rouge Valley from roughly the Zoo, to Steeles, then beyond
- Small's Creek ravine (the little ravine north of Gerrard, east of Coxwell)


After that, I'd like to see many park entrance/exits upgrades, particularly those to Taylor Creek Park as most are dirt, un-even, and don't even have signage identifying that you can enter the ravine that way (though locals know)

Additional accesses should also be created to

- The Lower Don - (Dundas Bridge)
- Central Don - an exit from the main trail somewhere near the Millwood bridge. (there are stairs from the sewage plant, but the main trail is on the other side of the river...
- North Humber (main streets, Kipling, Islington etc. (as opposed to exits to little side streets)


Without introducing too much clutter, a few more signs could be added:

- maps at all entrances/exits)
- historical signage (old Cdn Northern Rlwy route, a host of old Scouts camps, recognition of other significant history/natural features


Don't add:

Lots of amenities (fountains/washrooms etc.) willy nilly

Do Add:

A few strategic amenities, preferably in adjacent tableland parks, so more people can enjoy the ravines, but no new damage is done.
Thanks Northern Light. The ravines of Toronto are indeed a hidden resource and right under our feet. In the 90's we " discovered " the Oak Ridges Moraign north of Toronto, and then saw it all the way east to the Trent, and then we saw the linkeages north, and south to Lake Ontario and the Waterfront Trail. The natural and historical heritage features in these systems affords Toronto the opportunity to take the idea of public spaces to another level. The very idea of a public realm in Toronto seems to be getting a little more attention these days. If Toronto ever punches into the top tier of " global " cities, an attractive and memorable " public face " will be a strong reason for it.
While I'm definitely in favour of all or most of Northern Light's improvements, I don't really see the need for a Dundas staircase and I think it would be difficult to do cheaply without cutting into the narrow path space there. Given the stairs at Queen and Riverdale Park, and the soon-to-be-enabled connection from Riverdale Park through the new hospital to Gerrard, a dedicated bike path/lane from the hospital bikepath to the Queen bridge along the ravine bank would be much more useful and less costly.
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If you've been through them, you'd see lots of things dumped there, from shopping carts to old beds. Then again, the bed I saw last year could have been some hobo's home but the point is, that place could use a good clean up. Last summer I saw all kinds of trash down there when I went for a walk.

It could use a few washrooms too. My friend had an emergency last time we were down there and could not wait to get to an exit. Yep, he took a crap right there near the river and it was quite messy but like I said, it was an emergency. OY! (not a good memory but I wish I had my video camera with me lol)

The key thesis in the article is the danger posed by invasive species, primarily Norway Maple.

Its not wrong to say that Norway Maple has come to dominate the Toronto forest canopy; and in so doing has reduced biodiversity not only among trees, but understorey plants, and thus insects/birds and wildlife more broadly.

Norways, in the GTA more broadly represent about 15% of canopy, and growing, which is the 2nd most after Cedars.

But they are aggressive and out-compete most natives, so this is on pace to be more of an issue with time, not less.

The suggestion that most forests are un-touched by man is a bit of a miss......but a whole separate conversation.


From there, there is a cursory discussion as to what to do about this problem.

Any kind of active management ultimately means removing Norway Maple from our forests (and likely other species as well).

'Logging', will, understandably not be popular in some quarters.

There are other choices, though they all feature downsides.

Trees can be killed and left standing (for a time) but they will, eventually rot and fall over. There is a question of whether or not that type of management would work as well as removal (definitely not as quickly)
and whether or not any increase in liability would exist if a tree that had been killed fell on someone.

There's also the not small matter of how much active management and restoration would cost.

We're talking maybe 1.5 Billion over the next 20 years or so (75M per year). Its a manageable number, though a huge task.