Balancing Access with Conservation in the Scarborough Bluffs
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Balancing Access with Conservation in the Scarborough Bluffs

In the Scarborough Bluffs, where the ecology is both stunning and sensitive, striking a balance between conservation and access is tricky, but necessary, if we want everyone—not just a select few—to be able to enjoy them.

At 12:15 p.m. on June 20, 2016, Toronto Fire Services received a call from a young woman stranded with two of her friends on the steep cliff face of the Scarborough Bluffs. The three had followed a narrow path, likely cleared by deer, from Rosetta McClain Gardens down to the beach on the shores of Lake Ontario in Toronto’s east end. As they descended towards the lake—the sun high in the sky and the heat soaring past 30 degrees—the brush thickened, concealing the increasingly steep path. Unable to climb back up the Bluffs or safely descend, it began sinking in that they were trapped. It took 30 emergency respondents, with help from helicopter cameras and cell tower signals, to locate and rescue the women.

The incident is not uncommon. Between 2011 and 2015, there were 142 emergency response incidents in the Scarborough Bluffs vicinity. Many calls come from people trying the get to the beach from the headlands, ignoring warning signs of the unstable cliffs below. While the Bluffs are arguably Toronto’s most impressive geological feature, there are a number of barriers, including the lack of safe access, that prevent Torontonians from enjoying them.

That’s why the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) has proposed a plan called the Scarborough Waterfront Project.

“More and more people are coming to the bluffs, but they aren’t figuring out how to access it properly,” says Nancy Gaffney, head of watershed programs at the TRCA. “Property owners tell us they pull people out [from] behind their property all the time who got lost trying to get to the beach.”

The waterfront project would see a system of trails and greenspaces built along the 11-kilometre stretch from Bluffer’s Park to East Point Park. The development would focus on controlling erosion, and promoting access along the headlands and beaches of the Bluffs, particularly in areas that are difficult to access or completely off limits to the public. “Now they’ll be able to get to the water’s edge safely for a majority of the 11 kilometres,” says Gaffney. Creating more access trails from the top of the Bluffs to the waterfront would also help diffuse over-crowding in parts of the beach that are currently accessible (like Bluffer’s Park), and allow everyone, including those with mobility challenges, to enjoy what’s now only available to a select few residents.

The initiative, currently under environmental assessment, has proceeded in the face of intense criticism, namely from local property owners reluctant to sell the portions of their land the TRCA would need to acquire in order to develop trails and make public access legal in areas currently deemed private property. Many locals are also intent on preserving the Bluffs just as they are. Opponents of the project commonly argue that the TRCA is responsible for conserving natural habitats—which it is—and that meddling with the headlands and beaches of the Bluffs goes against that mandate.

Gaffney says that striking a balance between conservation and access is tricky, but possible. Certainly, she says, it’s necessary. “It’s not an either-or scenario,” says Gaffney. “That’s really the intent of our project; to make sure people from all over Toronto feel welcome to move through here in a way that minimizes the impact on the natural environment. At the same time, there are many opportunities for us to create new habitats.”

For example, at East Point Beach—the most contentious segment of the project because of plans to widen and “harden” the shoreline with cobblestone—the TRCA is improving the habitat for American eel, emerald shiner, and Atlantic salmon, among other species that are already using other areas of the shoreline. “A typical beach profile doesn’t provide much habitat for the fish,” Gaffney notes. “This new system enhances the aquatic habitat tremendously by providing foraging and hiding areas. The fish like those little spaces provided by the rocks and the water interface with the cobble.”

The Scarborough Bluffs are less than three kilometres from the Kingston Galloway/Orton Park community. But Janet Fitzsimmons, manager of resident leadership strategies at the East Scarborough Storefront, a community centre in the neighbourhood, says it’s uncommon for local residents to visit the Bluffs. The reason? Getting to the nearest entry point requires two bus transfers and 30 minutes of walking—over an hour trip total, each way. “The neighbourhood where we’re located and the residents we work with suffer from a lot of access problems,” says Fitzsimmons, whose work involves helping residents gain more influence over decisions that affect their communities.

Fitzsimmons notes that limited access to things like green space and recreation programs is linked to a slew of negative outcomes. “I think people get very disconnected,” she says. “They get disconnected from the natural environment, and I think they also wind up isolated. If you don’t have safe places that are easily accessible to spend your free time and connect with your neighbours, how do you feel a sense of belonging in your community?”

It’s a concern that’s backed up by a number of studies that tie access to green space with improved physical and mental health. A 2012 study, for example, from the University College London and the Lancet Commission on Healthy Cities examined dense urban areas, including Toronto, and residents’ exposure to greenspace. In Toronto, type 2 diabetes rates were lower in areas with plenty of green space. Another study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders found that spending time in green space has a calming effect on people with clinical depression, and can promote better attention and short-term memory.

But not everyone has access to green space, and low-income residents are disproportionately disconnected from these natural reprieves. In 2013, Statistics Canada confirmed that the likelihood of living near green space increases with household income. And the 2012 study referenced above also found that low-income and elderly residents had less access to green space than younger, more wealthy Torontonians.

That’s one of the reasons MPP Mitzie Hunter has been a big supporter of the Scarborough Waterfront Project. “It’s so critical to the health of our community that we have access to green space, especially natural green space like the waterfront,” says Hunter, who represents the socio-economically diverse riding of Scarborough-Guildwood, just north of the Bluffs. “Communities are safer, people learn more, and they’re more physically active when there’s public access to our natural features,” she says. “And this works best when it’s provided equitably to everyone—not a select few.”

While the concept of improved access is a popular one, the reality is that moving more people through the Bluffs does have the potential to impact the habitats and species that call the landscape home. For that reason, the TRCA has built into the waterfront plan ways to protect existing habitats and promote new ones. “By guiding people along the trail system, we can redirect them from scampering up and down the Bluffs,” says Nancy Gaffney. “It keeps them out of the natural areas we’re trying to preserve.”

Looking towards Pickering from the edge of Scarborough Bluffs, an industrial park panorama fills your sight line. Rounding the corner westward at East Point Park, the block of generation stations is behind you and all you can see is shoreline, grassy ridges, and dramatic cliffs, some 90 degrees steep and as many metres tall.

For Mitzie Hunter, that’s exactly why the waterfront project is so important—it’s a way to give everyone that experience now reserved for few. “It’s all about taking the beauty of this wonderful feature in Scarborough and making it accessible to the whole community.”

This article is brought to you by Toronto and Region Conservation.