Planning for Toronto's Ravine Strategy
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Planning for Toronto’s Ravine Strategy

Photo by Ben Roffelsen Photography from the Torontoist Flickr Pool

Photo by Ben Roffelsen Photography from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

“The physical soul of the city” needs a stronger vision to guide its protection and development, said Toronto Mayor John Tory of the city’s extensive network of ravines.

Speaking at Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat’s roundtable on a ravine strategy, Tory said the ravines are Toronto’s greatest natural treasure. But their importance often flies below the radar, leaving ravines subject to a hodgepodge of municipal bylaws and regulations with no comprehensive strategy to guide them.

That’s where Keesmaat, and a ravine strategy first proposed in July, comes in.

The charismatic chief planner has tackled large planning issues at her roundtable series before, including how to enhance the public realm and what to do about Toronto’s suburbs. Planning for design excellence is on the docket for future roundtable meetings.

Toronto’s ravine system, like other big issues, should be planned with insight from government, developers, community and business interests, Keesmaat told a hundred attendees Thursday evening at city hall. With population growth, new development, and the dangers of climate change, strengthening how we protect our ravines is more important than ever.

Almost 20 per cent of the city’s total land is made up of ravines. Seen from above, these 11,000 hectares (40 per cent of which are privately owned) of snaking greenways trace the subtle but iconic rivers and creeks that moulded Toronto’s topography.

You know their names—Don, Humber, Rouge. But what you may not know is the wide array of uses we’ve found for Toronto’s ravines. Yes, the Don Valley Parkway, but also residential, commercial, and industrial development. Beside the waterways, trees, and hundreds of species of birds, fish, and insects that call them home, we’ve constructed trails and parking lots; laid gas pipelines and rail ties; landscaped golf courses; erected huge metal towers to carry our electricity; built hospitals and schools; and buried our dead.

The veins of the city—another metaphor Tory used to describe the city’s ravines—work overtime to keep up with the uses we’ve found for them.

Challenges to ravines

The 2013 flood that dumped 126 millimetres of rain in less than 24 hours (the most ever recorded in a single day in Toronto’s history) was a wake-up call, said Faisal Moola, Ontario director general with the David Suzuki Foundation. Our aging infrastructure, climate change and the importance of ravines to siphon off damaging flood waters all emerged in the aftermath in a stark light.

Having buried our city under impermeable concrete, Moola said, the 2013 flood reminded us that the ecosystem services offered by river valleys for flood protection alone are tremendous. Corktown Common, for example, the parkland built at the mouth of the Don River, acts as a berm to ensure water remains in the park rather than flooding downtown.

Prioritizing ecosystem services ahead of commercial or recreational uses is challenging, said Janie Romoff, general manager of Toronto’s Parks, Forestry, and Recreation department. How do we include everyone while balancing ravine uses with sustainable development, she asked. Achieving consensus among such different users is the largest trial facing the ravines. “It’s a complicated system,” Romoff said.

During her presentation, Romoff highlighted dozens of individual concerns that are currently governed by a host of players. Flood control, stormwater management, bylaw enforcement— responsibility for these and other issues are split between her group, the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority and the city’s water and transportation departments. Throw in public utilities, private landowners, other levels of government and institutions like hospitals and balancing competing needs in a strategy for the city’s ravines is daunting.

Suggestions from the panel

“We live in a Fort Knox of ecological wealth,” Moola told the crowd. Ravines, often surrounded by development and concrete, act as vital habitat for trees that create oxygen, absorb our pollution, filter our drinking water and store our harmful greenhouse gas emissions. Throw in pollinators and this, Moola said, is the true wealth Toronto possesses. The ecology of the ravines must be front and centre in planning their future.

Sabina Ali, a Thorncliffe Park community activist, told the roundtable that increasing access to ravines is crucial if the city wants residents to use them. Many people refuse to enter ravines for fear of what goes on there, but this anxiety can be overcome through greater education in schools, Ali said. Get children involved and engaged (as they’ve done at RV Burgess Park in Thorncliffe Park) and they’ll bring parents and grandparents along.

Geoff Cape, CEO of Evergreen, hinted that Toronto may be on the cutting edge of ravine protection. Chicago, New York, Atlanta, and other American cities are building or expanding their existing network of linear green pathways. And since Toronto already has the most extensive network of greenspaces in the world in our ravine system, Cape said, we must invest further in enhancing and protecting them. If this doesn’t set Toronto apart as a unique and incredible place to live, Cape argued, nothing will.

Getting it Right

Not everyone on the panel was enamoured with the direction Toronto has taken with its ravines. Andy Chisholm, advisory director with investment bank Goldman Sachs, told Keesmaat he often wonders why Torontonians put up with too few access points to such a mediocre ravine trail system. Would other cities accept this?

Chisholm worried the changes made to boosting the ravine system to date have been incremental and ineffective. It’s part of a larger trend towards “satisfactory underperformance,” Chisholm said—doing just enough to keep the ravines adequate but not enough to make them great.

It doesn’t have to be this way, he said, and the ravine strategy is good opportunity to get it right. The city can’t afford to slow down, but it needs to aim higher, Chisholm said, and lean on private funds to accomplish goals where appropriate. “What does it say about us as a city if we don’t get this right?” Chisholm asked.

Let’s not find out, Toronto. Parks, Forestry, and Recreation expect to present a draft ravine strategy to Keesmaat and Mayor Tory by May 2016.