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Pan Am Path: An Update on our Legacy

Toronto hosted the Pan Am and Parapan Am Games in 2015. Along with hosting such a large sporting event, Toronto invested in several facilities to host the games, to be reused for community benefit afterwards.

There was also one “legacy project” to pay tribute to the games. The Pan Am Path was a proposed 84-kilometre continuous off-road multi-use trail to connect the city, from the northwest Etobicoke, through downtown, to southeast Scarborough. Much of it was along existing trails, but there were a few gaps that needed to be completed:

  1. East Highland – Orton Park Road to Morningside Park
  2. Don Valley – Forks of the Don to Eglinton Avenue
  3. Waterfront – Stadium Road Park to Sherbourne Common
  4. Humber Marshes – Riverwood Parkway to South Humber Park
  5. Weston – Crawford Jones Memorial to Cruickshank Park
Courtesy City of Toronto
Courtesy Friends of the Pan Am Path

So as a legacy to a significant event that happened in the summer of 2015, these projects should be done almost 4 years later…right?

1. East Highland

This segment would connect from the Forks of Highland Creek to an existing trail where Ellesmere Avenue crosses the East Highland Creek. The current detour is following the existing multi-use trail along West Highland Creek south, and Orton Park Road back north to the Gatineau Hydro Corridor.

The City of Toronto’s project site for this connection says that planning did start with the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority back in 2014, with construction starting last year, and completion in 2020. However, I walked the East Highland Creek back in July, and the only construction I saw was old construction accesses from previous creek remediation work. That said, I was able to reach out to the city and confirm that construction will start this year, and it is still anticipated to be done by next year.

2. Don Valley

This segment would connect an existing trail along the Gatineau Hydro Corridor, down the East Don River to the Forks of the Don. The current detour is along various streets to Taylor Massey Creek, and along that ravine.

The East Don Trail and connection to the Gatineau Hydro Corridor was another project planned through a city-conservation authority partnership back in 2016. Construction started in September last year, and is ongoing for Phases 1. This completes this connection for the Pan Am Path, despite leaving an unfunded gap along the East Don Trail north to Wigmore Park.

3. Waterfront

This connection was missing when the Pan Am Path was first announced, but was well under construction, and was completed in June 2015, one month prior to the opening of the games.

The path was created out of Waterfront Toronto’s revitalization of Queens Quay. The former 4-lane industrial boulevard with a streetcar saw itself cut down to 2 lanes, 1 in each direction north of the streetcar right-of-way, and the former eastbound lanes reclaimed as a dedicated cycling trail and wide pedestrian promenade. For a progressive dense community that was forced into amalgamation and dominated by suburban conservative politics, it was a breath of fresh air. It also made a track record for Waterfront Toronto, the tri-governmental agency that made it happen.

4. Humber Marshes

This is a connection I am not very clear on; the gap exists between King’s Mill Park and South Humber Park, requiring users to travel via Riverwood Parkway and Stephen Drive.

However, where exactly you would place a dedicated trail connection is a mystery to me, as welcome as it would be. This is akin to the TRCA’s proposal to extend a trail through the bottom reach of the Rouge River; it’s entirely a wide river channel with wetlands, and the adjacent tableland is taken up by private residential housing. Creating a path would be tricky and expensive, so this might be one acceptable on-street connection.

5. Weston

This segment would make the Humber River Trail continuous by making a connection between Memorial Park and Cruickshank Park, going under the GO Transit Kitchener line. The current detour up the St Phillips Steps, and along Weston Road.

I have seen no indication of this moving forward, and it’s extremely disappointing. Metrolinx recently completed work here to widen the rail bridge over the Humber River, and while other trail projects have taken advantage of old constructions accesses, nothing seems to have been left behind in this case. For extra irony, it is in the old Ward 11, where local councillor Frances Nunziata hosted a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the path back in 2014.

Other Gaps

Besides the 5 main connections identified, there are still some other gaps that should be addressed to ensure the Pan Am Path is a legacy to be proud of.

Military Trail

This gap requiring use of a sidewalk on Military Trail to cross Highland Creek, and a looparound back under the road could simply use a dedicated bridge to create a more direct route.

Missing Meadoway Segments

While these could be considered in the pipeline, there are segments of trail along the future Gatineau Meadoway that will need to be finished. I have previously written at length about the work that should be done in the corridor.

Old Mill

While dedicated space along the driveway into King’s Mill Park may be a bit of nitpicking, it has always driven me crazy that trail users must face off with vehicles on the skinny Old Mill Road bridge. A dedicated connection should be made, as I suggested in my analysis of TRCA’s Trail Strategy.

Eglinton

It may be of lower priority, but an opportunity exists to improve the trail in the vicinity of Eglinton Avenue. Two additional river crossings grade-separate the trail from Eglinton, and avoid the steep climb around Humber Creek.

Final Notes

As with any trails in Toronto, I place a lot of emphasis on ensuring that off street connections are minimized, and grade separations are created where required. Completing the identified connections and filling the other gaps will mostly address both these elements.

One aspect of the Pan Am Path that I cannot knock on is the branding and wayfinding. The city, in partnership with Friends of the Pan Am Path, have made an excellent website with helpful and informative resources, great navigational signs and maps, and a distinct logo.

At the same time, the branding, wayfinding, and general fanfare for the Pan Am Path feels like a bot of a slap in the face when not all of the larger capital improvements have been completed. Almost four years after the games, I feel the legacy should almost be complete.

Perhaps I am impatient; at least 1/5 of the identified connections is complete, and another 2 will be on the way. But the lack of plans for the remaining 2 really fits with a theme of what feels like a second-class treatment of active transportation in this city; lack of maintenance, lack of building, and lack of progress. Perhaps Toronto’s legacy is talking big, and not following through.

Golf: The Scourge of Ravines

Let me make it very clear: I don’t like golf. It’s nothing to do with the game itself, but for the fact that it is a land hog, exclusive to one sport and restricted to private members, with no space afforded to the general public (full disclosure, I don’t play typical golf, but a derivative: disc golf). In the Greater Toronto Area, a number of golf courses were established and have taken hold in ravines. This creates a problem in two parts: it fractures the natural corridors of our city.

The first part is obvious: golf courses, with their sprawling greens, are heavily managed to allow for a good game. This fragments the surrounding ecosystem, loads rivers with fertilizer, and foregoes the ecosystem benefits of having that land covered in natural vegetation.

The second part is that, because golf courses are mostly restricted to club member access, they create major gaps in Toronto’s active transportation network. They hog the banks of rivers and creeks, which are often conduits for high-quality hiking and biking trails. This is detrimental to the broader regional network, and in fact, the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) recently released a draft Regional Trail Strategy that is directly or indirectly impacted by at least a dozen of them. They can also be barriers to access from and between local streets and neighbourhoods, making them less walkable and cyclable.

When food and beverage contracts at two city-owned golf courses expired in November 2017, the city noted that golf participation rates and revenues have been declining, and that some city-owned courses struggled to break even. This triggered the question of whether the city should be owning golf courses at all. My opinion: absolutely not. A city government has no business owning land that is restricted to a single activity and charging fees for access, let alone putting public resources towards them.

So this spurred me to look at the 7 city-owned golf courses, as well as 12 private courses, to see how much of a barrier they are in these respects, and rank them in terms of parkland and active transportation criteria. Below are the top 7 courses (3 public, 4 private) that could improve Toronto’s ravines and trail systems.

Public Courses

1. Don Valley

Don Valley Golf Course occupies over 2 kilometres of the West Don River, from the northwest corner of Yonge and Wilson, under the 401 to the southeast corner of Earl Bales Park. It also covers over 47 hectares of land, making it the second largest of the public golf courses.

This course is notable for being steps from a subway station, and within reach of high density populations at Sheppard-Yonge, giving it significant potential as an active transportation corridor. Multi-use trails stretch along most of the West Don to the northwest, all the way into Vaughan. Converting this course into parkland would create a direct pedestrian and cycling access from a number of residences in the Wilson Heights, Armour Heights, Lansing and southwest Willowdale neighbourhoods to Yonge Street and the subway.

It would also create an opportunity to fill a dangerous sidewalk gap along Yonge. Currently, if you are travelling north from Wilson on the west side of Yonge, the sidewalk suddenly ends 200 metres north of William Carson Crescent, forcing you to backtrack, or try to jaywalk across 6 lanes of traffic on Yonge plus an offramp from the 401. It’s a dangerous proposition, and coming southbound is marginally better, with one formal onramp crossing and a pedestrian bridge over Yonge. A full-on trail bypass is a solution that could be facilitated, in part, by opening up the golf course to the public.

2. Royal Woodbine

Royal Woodbine Golf Club is a very long a stretched out course, covering about 3.5 kilometres of Mimico Creek. This course is notable for being in what I refer to as the “Pearson Triangle”, an area bounded by the 401, 427 and the GO Transit Kitchener line. This area has almost no parks in it; with the exception of some land south of Disco Road and north of the 409, the only open space you’ll find will be isolated patches along hydro corridors.

It’s hard to argue for park space in an area with no residents, low rise commercial buildings, and airplanes screaming into and out of Pearson. But remember that this is about naturalizing a stretch of Mimico Creek, and also providing an active transportation link. That has benefits for the environment, as well as workers and customers who don’t have a car.

The success of this stretch also depends on addressing barriers to travel north and south of the course. The 401/427 interchange, immediately to the south of the course, represents a huge barrier the Pearson Triangle and a fairly contiguous creek-side trail south of Eglinton Avenue. There are no sidewalks or trails west of Carlingview Drive either. So even if Royal Woodbine could be converted with trails included, it would be considered quite isolated in the broader network, and this knocks it out of the top spot in the ranking.

3. Dentonia Park

Dentonia Park is along a short 400 metre stretch of Taylor Massey Creek. It is also the smallest of all Toronto golf courses by a long shot: 13.7 hectares, with the next course coming in at over 20 hectares.

This course is small, but its location is critical. It’s the only break in an otherwise continuous, grade-separated, high quality, 13.5 kilometre natural active transportation corridor from Warden Subway Station all the way to Lake Ontario. By opening this course up and creating a grade-separated crossing of Victoria Park Avenue, you could commute by bike without encountering any cars outside of the first and last mile. It would be a #bikeTO fantasy come true.

Private

1. Oakdale

Oakdale Golf and Country Club covers 1,300 metres of Black Creek, which is mostly concentrated in the south part of the course. It is also the largest course in Toronto, covering 88.7 hectares.

Oakdale is a barrier to continuous trail access along Black Creek, and opening it up connect Downsview Dells and Chalkfarm Park. The TRCA has proposed a creative solution to the golf club’s presence by proposing a trail corridor that follows Heathrow Creek to Jane and Wilson, and then redirects users to the Humber River valley. I have provided feedback on the latter part of TRCA’s proposal.

However, this is not an optimal routing, as it still requires climbing out of the Black Creek ravine, and it diverts users away from existing parkland in Chalkfarm Park. This golf course could contribute towards a complete trail network from York University to Jane and Wilson, and has the potential to add significant natural lands to the Black Creek watershed and the broader Downsview community.

2. Donalda

The Donalda Club spreads over 3.25 km of the East Don River, 800 metres of Deerlick Creek, as well as a total of nearly 500 metres of at least three other minor streams. It is the second largest course in Toronto, covering 77.2 hectares.

Donalda is actually the one course to my knowledge that allows some limited access: you can cross between the end of Three Valleys Drive and Chipping Road via a short walkway across the course. However, the owners make it very clear that straying left or right is trespassing on private property.

The result is detrimental to the trail network. Existing adjacent trails along the East Don Trail currently end north of Lawrence Avenue East and east of Don Mills Road, creating a gap in what will otherwise be a continuous trail from the city’s north boundary to the lake (once the trail between Wynford Drive and the Forks of the Don is completed). There are also three potential connections to existing local trails along Deerlick Creek and two other unnamed tributaries. Opening up this course would make a significant improvement to local and regional trail systems.

3. Islington

Islington Golf Club spreads over 1.8 km of Mimico Creek. It is a medium-sized course relative to others within Toronto, covering 51.2 hectares.

The Islington Golf Club creates a gap in the trail network along Mimico Creek. Trail users must currently divert via Kipling Avenue, Burnhamthorpe Road and Dundas Street West to get between the trail segments. It’s not the worst detour in the city, but it’s enough. Closing this gap could contribute towards a continuous trail between Eglinton and Bloor, and perhaps further north to the Pearson Triangle (see Royal Woodbine above) and further south if existing segments were stitched together.

4. Markland Wood

Markland Wood Golf Club spreads over 2.75 km of Etobicoke Creek. It is also a medium-sized course relative to others within Toronto, covering 46.0 hectares.

Markland Wood creates a gap in the trail network along Etobicoke Creek. While “Tributary 4” provides an alternative parallel route, it can feel tight and confined relative to the open valley of the main creek. Closing this gap could make a continuous trail from Dixie Road (north of Courtneypark Drive) to Dundas Street, and all the way to Lake Ontario once the gap between Dundas and the Queensway is addressed. Again, this is something the TRCA has proposed, and I have presented a counterproposal on.

Conclusion

These seven courses received a score of 3 in at least three categories of evaluation. The evaluation of all courses, the evaluation criteria, and a map of the courses are posted below. Do you agree with the ranking? Are there criteria that were missed or require more weight? Let me know what you think in the comments.

#metroscapes 2018 in Review

2018 marks the first full year of #metroscapes, a brand I launched in November 2017 to organize the hundreds of kilometres of hiking I had done in Toronto, and to represent their theme: the exploration of where natural and built environments collide. And with this new brand, I started upping my game. I started planning my walks, making them less of aimless wandering and more of discoveries of natural systems and built corridors. I started pulling from additional resources, such as the City of Toronto’s mapping service and historic aerial photographs. I migrated this website to a new platform to expand beyond walks, and have dedicated pages for projects such as #shorelineTO, #neighbourhoodsTO and Toronto’s Trail Network. And although this website now shifts some focus away from blogging, I still use it, with a new practice of using it to comment on public documents such as the City of Toronto Parkland Strategy and the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority’s Trail Strategy for the Greater Toronto Region.

So it’s been a good year. I am extremely satisfied with how things have shaken out. The entire experience feels richer, easier to share and keep updated, as well as resourceful for fellow Torontonians, expats, and other followers.

So with that, I decided to conduct another year-in-review, similar to what I did for 2017 (it appears that blog post didn’t survive the migration, perhaps a retroactive rewrite is in order). I will go over the stats, the neighbourhoods and watersheds covered, and highlight my favourite shots from the year.

Statistics

2018 was the year that I surpassed what I had walked (and tweeted and recorded) in the prior 21 months.

  • Over 40 walks, I travelled 557 kilometres (km), the equivalent of driving from Toronto to Montreal.
  • The average walk was 13.9 km, about the same distance along Yonge Street from Sheppard Avenue to the lake.
  • The longest walk was 23.2 km (May 5), or almost the distance between Kipling and Warden subway stations.
  • There was lots of variation month-to-month as well; one walk early in August (when I usually take vacation, but was expecting my child this year), and 100 km over 7 walks in February.

Neighbourhoods

There were 166 neighbourhoods covered in 2018, 143 of them which were truly walked through, up from 120 and 80 last year, respectively. Good broad coverage of the city, and Scarborough in particular was blanketed pretty well. Walks in Toronto-East York mostly avoided the downtown core, sticking to East York, the shoreline, and west end. 6 walks went beyond the City of Toronto borders, 3 of them in the Pearson airport area.

Watersheds

Last year, I covered all watersheds except for Mimico Creek. I was able to rectify that this year, covering all watersheds in Toronto.

  • I covered most of the first-order rivers and creeks of the 7 main watersheds, with the exceptions of the East Humber and the Rouge River.
  • 20 second-order or lower streams were followed, ranging from major tributaries such as Black Creek or Taylor Massey Creek, to small semi-lost tributaries such as Vyner Creek or Silver Creek.
  • 7 lost rivers were traced. Two drain straight to Lake Ontario, one was a tributary of Mimico Creek, two were Lower Don tributaries, and two were tributaries of West Highland Creek’s Dorset Branch.

Looking to 2019 and Beyond

It’s been nearly three years since I started tracing and tweeting Metroscapes walks, and that has resulted in over 1,000 km of walks in total. That also means I’ve covered many of the neighbourhoods and watercourses in Toronto. That doesn’t mean I am in short supply of places to see. As I mentioned at the top, I have been planning my walks, and that means there is plenty of goals set for 2019:

  • Three major watercourses: Upper West Don, the Lower Humber, and the Rouge River.
  • Major destinations: The Islands and the Leslie Spit.
  • Numerous tributaries of the Humber, Don and Highland.
  • Exploring the edges of Toronto’s highways and railways.

If I was still able to walk every weekend, I could probably achieve all the walks I’d like in 2019. However, I need to prioritize: I’m now a father with limited free time, and 2019 may be my last year in Toronto.

But this will not be the end of Metroscapes. In fact, it will be an opportunity to expand the brand to the next city/region I call home, and to other cities as well. Stay tuned, and keep exploring your local metroscapes.

Public Review: A Regional Trail Strategy for Toronto

The Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) has released a draft of the Trail Strategy for the Greater Toronto Region (Trail Strategy). As someone who has accumulated over 1,000 kilometres of hiking experience across Toronto, I wanted feedback based on these experiences, specific to the proposed regional trail network within the City of Toronto, and limited portions of York Region south of Highway 407.

I am in agreement with many parts of this proposed regional trail system. However, there are some parts that I feel could be changed to enhance the trail experience, and align better with the Trail Strategy’s vision. Without being privy to the decision-making and perhaps some key considerations, and keeping in mind that this is a regional network for the entire region, I’ll highlight some key issues I believe need to be addressed in a final Trail Strategy:

  • Creating a crosstown trail corridor within greenspace;
  • Extending the Scarborough Waterfront Project west;
  • Travelling further down Black Creek;
  • Sticking to the Etobicoke Creek river valleys;
  • Considering 3 alternative trail connections;
  • Recognizing 5 representations in the map; and,
  • Addressing 3 remaining gaps in the network.

Crosstown Corridor

I wholeheartedly disagree with the Trail Strategy’s reliance on the Bloor Street / Danforth Avenue bike lanes as a major east-west corridor for the regional trail network, between the Scarborough Heights Park area to the west boundary of the Etobicoke Creek watershed. While I fully support and agree that a) bike lanes on Bloor Street / Danforth Avenue are necessary, and b) the Trail Strategy must integrate with it, I do not agree that the TRCA should formally rely on it as a major crosstown corridor for its network. I believe it conflicts with the Trail Strategy’s vision of making a trail network within greenspace.

I think a great alternative corridor exists, using 8 kilometres of existing Valley trail in the Don watershed, and is an opportunity to create nearly 20 kilometres of Corridor trail and associated greenspace. The alternative corridor is as follows:

  • A new trail from the existing access ramp between Scarborough Heights Park and Rosetta McClain Gardens, and Warden Woods, partially using existing parkland and a former railway spur;
  • Using the existing trail network along Taylor / Massey Creek and the Lower Don River to Crothers Woods;
  • A new trail adjacent to Canadian Pacific Railway’s North Toronto subdivision to Davenport Road;
  • A new trail along the “Green Line” park system proposed by Park People to Metrolinx’s Newmarket subdivision (aka the GO Transit Barrie Line);
  • A new trail or existing trails along a hydro transmission corridor to Etobicoke Creek.

This alternative corridor is located within greenspace, congruent with the vision of the Trail Strategy, and ensures that the trail experience is richer and safer for active transportation users. It also connects users more directly to two of the destinations identified in the Trail Strategy: the Forks of the Don, and the Humber Parklands.

Scarborough Waterfront West

The TRCA is currently working to implement the Scarborough Waterfront Project, which will protect the Scarborough bluffs from erosion, enhance natural habitat, and create a new continuous waterfront trail from East Point Park to Bluffers Park. The Trail Strategy includes this, and then proposes to direct users up Brimley Road (a significant and relatively steep grade), and continue east via the existing ‘trail’, which is actually a zig-zagging patchwork of local streets and fractured trail segments at the top of the bluffs. Once again, I believe it conflicts with the Trail Strategy’s vision of making a trail network within greenspace.

It’s lost on me why the TRCA would not propose extending its Scarborough Waterfront Project further east. The TRCA, to my knowledge, owns title to all of this stretch of the waterfront with one exception (The Toronto Hunt). Implementing this would create a continuous trail along over 85% of Toronto’s waterfront, from the Rouge River, through Scarborough and the downtown, to Mimico Waterfront Park in Etobicoke. It would also reduce the distance travelled between Bluffers Park and the RC Harris Water Treatment Plant by over 30%, and eliminate any significant grade changes.

Black Creek

The Trail Strategy has identified Black Creek and its parklands as both a trail corridor and a destination. It also proposes extending the existing trail system south from Downsview Dells Park, using Giovanni Caboto and Heathrow Parks. While it does not utilize the rich and natural west part of Downsview Dells Park, I think this is a great and creative solution to get around the barrier presented by the Oakdale Golf and Country Club.

However, the Trail Strategy then proposes to redirect users into the Humber Valley system via Highway 401 and/or Wilson Avenue. I do not agree with this redirection, as I believe there is ample opportunity to continue the trail further south along Black Creek, at least to Weston Road. This would align better with the Trail Strategy’s vision of making a trail network within greenspace, and would facilitate direct connections with the West Toronto Railpath North and the Eglinton Avenue Trail.

Etobicoke Creek

It is unfortunate that the Markland Wood Golf Club is a barrier to a continuous trail along Etobicoke Creek, from Eglinton Avenue to the lake. The Trail Strategy suggests overcoming this barrier by creating a
Corridor trail along a nearby utility corridor.

It is a worthy proposal, but wish that a Valley trail through an alternative corridor could be considered. My suggested approach is continuing to follow Etobicoke Creek north to Dundas, within lands mostly owned by the TRCA already. Once this trail reaches Neilson PArk, a trail already exists along Etobicoke Creek’s “Tributary 4” to Burnhamthorpe Road. A minor detour along Burnhamthorpe Road would link trail users back to the Etobicoke Creek Trail. Another alternative corridor could be along Little Etobicoke Creek to the west.

Alternate Connections

There are some trails that I mostly agree with, but would implore TRCA to consider alternative ways of connecting them to the broader network.

Leaside South

The Leaside Spur Trail is (technically) a dead end at its southern tip, in behind 1121-1123 Leslie Street. The TRCA has proposed connecting it by directing users to and along Leslie Street, and down the vehicular entrance to Wilket Creek Park. An alternative connection is already proposed as part of the redevelopment of the former Celestica site (known as Wynford Green): over a bridge over the Canadian Pacific Railway’s Belleville subdivision, and along the access road from Eglinton Avenue into the West Don River Valley. The TRCA should work with the developers to advance this connection.

Rendering by TACT Architecture, Rezoning Application for Wynford Green (16 236387 NNY 26 OZ).
Highway 401/427

The Highway 401/427 interchange is a major barrier to pedestrian and cyclist movement between the Pearson Airport area and west end neighbourhoods in Toronto.  While the Finch Meadoway is a great opportunity to improve this connectivity, I don’t feel that continuing in a straight northeast/southwest line, from the Richview Transformer Station to the Matheson Boulevard/Eglinton Avenue intersection, would achieve that goal. Instead, I would propose a path that follows Mimico Creek, and connects directly with the West Deane Trail, as an alternative.

Leaside North

The Trail Strategy illustrates an existing ‘trail’ from the top of the Leaside Spur at York Mills Road. This is actually a series of sidewalks along York Mills Road, Lesmill Road, Valleybrook Drive and Duncan Mill Road. A true trail connection could be forged here by continuing the Leaside Spur Trail north to Leslie Street and Woodsworth Greenbelt, and forging a new path through Moatfield Farm Park to the Betty Sutherland Trail. In the future, this trail could be optimized in conjunction with minor daylighting improvements to Vyner Creek.

Map Misrepresentations

Twyn Rivers

While the Trail Strategy illustrates a continuous trail along the Rouge River in the Twyn Rivers area, two small but critical improvements are required: a dedicated active transportation bridge across Little Rouge Creek (as opposed to forcing users into vehicular traffic along the heritage bridge), as well as a dedicated or grade-separated crossing of Twyn Rivers Drive. The lack of proper crossings is an ongoing hazard to trail users.

Weston North Humber Connection

The Trail Strategy illustrates an existing trail between Crawford-Jones Memorial Park and Cruickshank Park along the Humber River. This trail, although recognized in many plans, still has not been built. Implementing this connection would avoid a steep detour along Weston Road.

Morningside Park to Ellesmere Road

The Trail Strategy illustrates an existing trail from Morningside Park north to the Gatineau Meadoway. This trail actually does not exist, except underneath the Ellesmere Road bridge. There is plenty of opportunity to use a former construction access that exists in this stretch, and it would greatly improve connectivity within the broader Highland Creek trail system.

West Don at Leslie

The Trail Strategy illustrates an existing trail following the West Don River, north of Steeles Avenue along Leslie Street. There is no dedicated infrastructure along here. A dedicated trail following the West Don, and facilitating a grade-separated crossing of Steeles Avenue, would be preferable.

Old Mill

The Trail Strategy illustrates the Lower Humber as being continuous through the Old Mill area. However, trail users must cross a narrow heritage bridge shared with vehicular traffic, and then use a vehicular access into the park. A dedicated crossing and space along the access road would be preferable.

Remaining Gaps

Finally, there are some gaps in the Trail Strategy that have been overlooked or misrepresented, which I feel need to be addressed.

North Scarborough

While the Trail Strategy provides plenty of north-south links across Toronto, there is a notable gap in north Scarborough, between the Warden Meadoway and the Rouge Valley. I think the TRCA should consider is a regional trail corridor can be established somewhere inbetween, at least from the Finch Meadoway to the Gatineau Meadoway. I would suggest following East Highland Creek, but any corridor should achieve the goal of of connecting to Scarborough Town Centre.

West Humber to Mimico Connection

I have lamented for years about the lack of a proper link between the West Humber River and Mimico Creek. Such a link has a two fold purpose, in conjunction with the alternate 401/427 crossing suggested above:

  1. Improving connectivity for residents travelling between areas north of Rexdale Boulevard and south of Eglinton Avenue.
  2. Creating an active transportation corridor that links to key destinations such as Pearson airport, its surrounding employment lands. and Woodbine Racetrack.

The Trail Strategy illustrates a trail along Airport Road to Pearson Airport. I think a link between the Humber River and Mimico Creek would provide a better connection through greenspace, with the potential to make local connections along less busy streets.

Finch Meadoway at G Ross Lord Dam, Metrolinx Uxbridge Subdivision

The Trail Strategy illustrates the Finch Meadoway Trail detouring from the hydro corridor in two spots: G Ross Lord Dam and Metrolinx’s Uxbridge Subdivision (aka the Stouffville GO Line). In both of these instances, the TRCA should work on more direct grade-separated connections within the corridor.

Conclusion

All of the suggestions above are framed against the Trail Strategy’s vision:
making a trail network within greenspace. But it’s more than that: it’s about making it a high-quality network that is maximized within greenspace. This means opting for connections that reduce diversions, unnecessary winding, and steep grades. It also means sticking to corridors that are as thickly vegetated as possible, grade separated from roads and railways, whereever possible. It’s making a trail network that is convenient, attractive, lush, rich, natural, and safe.

Public Review: Building a Better Toronto Park System

Taking a look at Toronto’s Parkland Strategy and making a great park system.

Toronto is in the midst of drafting its 20 year Parkland Strategy, a first since the city’s amalgamation.

One big driver for this is the fact that parkland acquisition has not kept pace with population growth over the past 10 years, leading to a decline in the average park area per person. That’s the math, but in real terms it means that our existing parks have to keep accommodating more people and are becoming more crowded.

park graph 1
Courtesy City of Toronto: Parkland Strategy Phase I Report Primer

The other driver for this is the continued inequality of how parkland is distributed throughout the city. In addition to general inequality between the community council areas, there are particular neighbourhoods and districts with severe deficiencies, with almost no parkland within a walkable distance.

Toronto Parkland Supply
Courtesy City of Toronto: Parkland Strategy Phase 1 Report

So the city is currently drafting the Parkland Strategy with this in mind, and sculpting it around four key themes:

  • Expand: Creating and aquiring new parkland
  • Connect: Bridging gaps between existing parks
  • Improve: Reimagining the use of parks and open spaces
  • Share: Programming parks and allowing multiple uses

I attended the #TOparks talk at City Hall held at the end of May, and was able to ask a question. But I wanted to come back, recollect my thoughts, and provide structured comments on what the Parkland Strategy should look like. Below are my four key recommendations.

Parks as a Transportation System

The theme of connecting in the Parkland Strategy talks a lot about ensuring there is access.  Definitely important; if you want to enjoy a park, you need to get to and from it, as well as around within it. And to be clear, we’re talking about access by foot, bike, or other active transport. But I can’t help but feel like this has a ceiling to it. We need to elevate this from accessing parks for parks sake, and realize that parks can be a transportation system; A and B may be outside of a park, but you want to get between those points through the parks.

Screw the sidewalk. Walk, bike or whatever to/from work, home, a friends house, a community centre, or a restaurant in nature. Fresh oxygen > nitrous oxides. Birds singing > tires roaring.

c2c11-img_20170923_125738-02

All parks, regardless of their intended primary function (nature preservation, recreation, cultural hub, utility conveyance) need to have active transportation as a foundational component, mandatory and integrated. Not as an afterthought, not as a low-priority accommodation around other features.

It needs to be set as priority one, providing the shortest desired path for where people need to go. It needs to be done in a high-quality fashion too. Wide enough to accommodate all users, and in a way that is convenient, safe, assigning priority and reducing conflicts. This means building bridges, underpasses, other appropriate crossings, and reducing grades, much like I highlighted in my piece about The Meadoway.

I’m not just talking about new parks, or parks in the process of enhancement either. There are a whole slew of parks and open spaces that already exist, but do not allow for active transportation access. I would know, after all of my travels. There’s lots of low-hanging fruit, such as utility corridors (besides the Meadoway) without formal trails, corridors without bridges across small streams or railways, and spaces that are simply overgrown and need some mowing and/or tree trimming. While hard and complex infrastructure may take a few years to plan, design, fund and build, there are lots of cheap quick wins that can be implemented within a year or two max.

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The city’s parks and transportation departments need to work together to recognize that the active transportation network is an essential city service, and for more than recreation. This means park plans need to be meshed with other transportation plans, and work together when links in the active transportation network can be achieved.

Parks as a Stormwater Management System

Much of our park system is built off of the ravines, and the various tributaries of our 6 main rivers. It’s obvious by looking at a map of the city’s parks, and seeing the corridors that generally align northwest to southeast.

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Courtesy City of Toronto: Parkland Strategy Phase 1 Report

However, some existing parks with open watercourses are at risk, and it is playing out in ravines across the city right now. Our built city has lots of paved surfaces, which means when it rains, there’s lots of water runoff that suddenly needs to go somewhere instead of soaking into the ground where it fell. Many paved surfaces direct this runoff into a drain, which connects to a sewer, which outlets into a nearby creek or river. And that style of stormwater management creates an unnatural, sudden, fast rush in water during and after a storm.

We’ve gotten better with our modern development, creating more porous surfaces to control the water on site, or at least direct it into some kind of management facility like a grassy ditch, a wetland, and/or an engineered pond. But it’s still not in place for many areas of the city developed after the war, when managing stormwater wasn’t mandatory. The impact: streambanks that erode and take trees, trails and anything else in the way with it, in addition to poor water quality.

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If we want to protect our existing parkland, we can do so while creating new parkland at the same time. New stormwater management facilities often require a chunk of land (again, examples being ponds and wetlands), so making it parkland while we’re at it only makes sense, especially if it connects directly into the ravine we’re trying to protect and enhance. Problem, meet opportunity.

On a related thread, there has been a lot of awareness in Toronto about our lost rivers, natural ravines and tributaries that were buried and placed into sewers due to pollution, or to allow development. There has also been talk about potentially daylighting these creeks in the parkland and open space where they still exist, and restoring ravines where they do not. Taking these measures is, just like the engineered stormwater management mentioned above, a great way to enhance our existing parkland, expand our park system, and create corridor connections over time.

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The thing with restoring a lost river is that it would be a long and complicated task. This leads me to my next point.

Parks as a Well Planned System

Lots of new or revitalized parks are isolated leaps at solving problems and capitalizing on random opportunities when they present themselves. Rail Deck Park emerged out of dire parkland needs downtown and the existence of the Union Station Railway Corridor. Downsview Park resulted from the decommissioning of a Canadian Forces Base. The Leslie Street Spit became Tommy Thompson Park after it was no longer needed as a ship harbour.

There are other examples, but the main point here is there is no particular method. Someone brings an idea to the table, and if it is popular, convenient, meets objectives, and we have enough money, we go for it. It hardly seems like they are stitched together by a broader purpose. We just take what we can get.

The one notable exception, of course, being the waterfront revitalization led by Waterfront Toronto. That is driven a long-term vision to open the waterfront back up for public enjoyment, and create new development opportunity. It’s a broader vision and purpose that is earmarked for a specific area.

Looking at other systems, we have examples of transportation systems guided by long-term plans. Metrolinx has its regional transportation plan that sets out specific rapid transit projects to be undertaken in the next 25 years. The city has a 10 year cycling plan to add cycling infrastructure to certain streets and parklands, bridging gaps in a broader grid and meeting cycling demands.

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The 15- and 25-year plans from The Big Move, the former Regional Transportation Plan for the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area. Courtesy Metrolinx.

The Parkland Strategy is supposed to be a 20 year plan. The vision, objectives, priorities, and principles that are being discussed to date sound like a great core to the document. But I feel that without specific schedules or operating plans, it will continue to only be a vision document with no path to get there, and we will keep acquiring parkland in a random, fractured, opportunistic manner.

The Parkland Strategy needs to be complemented by specific capital/operating plans. I am generally proposing two, one short-term and one long-term, but different numbers, purposes and timelines will work:

5-year Plan

  • A Capital and Operations Plan for projects to be led by the city in the short- and medium-term, or by other governments where agreements are already struck.
    • Improvements or changes to existing parks
    • Acquisition, guidance and negotiation through development planning, and planning of other city capital works.
  • Considers funds required in both capitals and operating budgets
  • Considers policy changes that need to be made
  • New plans every 5 years; 4 plans within the 20-year lifetime of the strategy

20-year Plan

  • A broad stroke document that highlight the areas where connections, expansions or improvements to the park system should occur
    • Zoning changes, and areas to be redeveloped
    • Major, multi-year capital projects with interactions with multiple stakeholders
  • A road map for complex projects requiring significant planning and design work
  • A concrete plan to acquire smaller pieces for assembly over the long-term
  • Updated with changes during 5-year plan drafting, reviewed every 20 years

This approach will ensure that all governments and stakeholders have common, concrete lists and maps of projects to guide their actions, and that the public has a clear document to information and accountability. It eliminates the risk of the strategy’s generalized vision being interpreted in different ways, and executed in a haphazard, opportunistic way. The park system can be expanded, improved and connected over the long-term.

This is particularly relevant for components that need years or decades to be built, small pieces at a time. Daylighting and restoration of ravines is a good example of this; the only way we can achieve this is to assemble pieces of land acquired over the long-term, slowly unwinding the urban fabric built around them. We need a well-defined document to guide us.

Parks as a Well Governed System

The thing with effective park system planning is that there are various parks and open spaces, involving multiple stakeholders with differing ownership, rights, roles and responsibilities. Some of these are laid out in the table below:

Table

Administration of the parks system needs to be a broader, multi-governmental agency to ensure all players are brought to the table, silos are broken, and parks are created / improved / enhanced in a multi-disciplinary and effective manner. This is what makes Waterfront Toronto extremely effective: it is an agency representing all three levels of government, and is the primary authority for coordinating the waterfront revitalization. If we truly want a cohesive, well planned and well managed parks system, we need to consider bringing a similar governance structure for the city’s park system.

The added benefit to this is money. Having adequate money for a park project can be a difficult thing, as Rail Deck Park has shown us. We have to rely heavily on money from growth and new development (section 37 funds, development charges, developer contributions) which can contribute to the park space inequality mentioned up front, and when it isn’t enough, convincing politicians to allocate additional money is a hard sell.

By bringing other agencies on board with the park planning process, parkland can receive funding through other budget brackets and funds. Funding earmarked for new or improved water / wastewater / stormwater systems, active transportation paths, electrical transmission equipment, watershed management and/or nature conservation can all be leveraged to bring down the total bill of creating / improving parks, if that work is integrated into parkland. It also garners more political support if it checks multiple boxes.


The first common theme to all of this is creating a Parkland Strategy that is multi-disciplinary exercise. A park system is more than vegetated open space to unwind and play in. There are critical services that occur in them, to manage stormwater, to transport people, to deliver power, and act as social community spaces. Expanding and improving our parks sounds like an uphill task, but I’m convinced that more effort needs to go towards better integration of these other components that are normally seen as secondary.

It’s second common theme here is a long-term, continual improvement. A great park system will not be built in a day, let alone the lifespan of this 20 year strategy. Everybody has to work together towards the same goals, and not diverge due to interpretation. And those goals have to be consistent over time.

If the Parkland Strategy is going to be successful, it must be a team effort with a single vision. If we get that right, we can achieve a great park system for Toronto.

Public Review: An Examination of the Meadoway

Expanding on a Twitter thread I wrote back in April 2018, I took a look at The Meadoway, a project by the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, in partnership with the City of Toronto and The W. Garfield Weston Foundation.  The project is a reimagination of the 16 kilometre Gatineau Hydro Corridor, which is a provincial hydro line between the Bermondsey substation in Thorncliffe Park northeast to the city border in Rouge Park.  As the name suggests, the corridor would be converted from the manicured grass that exists in many sections into a meadow habitat, and would also include a multi-use path to support cycling and walking.

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Courtesy of The Meadoway

I took a look at the proposal and did some exploring of The Meadoway myself.  Below is an interactive map you can use to follow along through this analysis.

Build Bridges, Not Barriers

Naturally, with all the walking I do, I have quite a few thoughts about road, rail and ravine crossings; the 3 Rs.  I’ve walked my fair share of uility corridors (Sept. 2016, Feb. 2017, Feb. 5 and 10, 2018), and have experienced first hand what works, what doesn’t, and what sucks when you got nothing at all.

R number one is roads.  All road crossings on the existing trail segments are at-grade, and generally take one of two forms: an unprotected crosswalk (but sometimes with raised and/or textured pavement), or a traffic light.  The former is used primarily on smaller, two-lane local roads with little traffic, and the latter is used for all other locations where traffic is heavier.  Either a dedicated mid-block traffic light is set up to allow pedestrians and cyclists to cross, or the trail is purposefully directed to an existing road intersection where traffic lights and crosswalks already exist.

In my opinion, unprotected crossings are sufficient on quiet, local, 2-lane roads with 30 km/h speed limits, as long as they are scaled appropriately; textured pavement and signs at a minimum, using raised bumps and pavement markings and giving right-of-way to pedestrians and cyclists as the road or trail traffic increases.  When it comes to arterial roads, a high quality trail should stop using at-grade crossings, and give increasing priority to trail users.

It’s hard to argue against using existing traffic signals and crosswalks where a utility corridor already meets an intersection. But from my experience, mid-block crossings that use traffic signals are problematic. All of these traffic signals are not programmed to be responsive to and give priority to trail users during the day; instead, they are programmed to sync with an existing time plan that controls other traffic signals and vehicular traffic flow in the area. This means a trail users could push a “beg button” and wait a couple minutes for the signal to change. This does not give any priority to trail users, and it creates risks of trail users jaywalking into traffic, or vehicles ignoring the signal. It begs the question: what kind of city are we designing that we are making trail users “beg” to cross at all?

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I would argue Toronto’s famous yellow crosswalks would be more appropriate for some crossings where traffic isn’t too heavy along the trail or the road, and vehicular speed limits are lower, as it safely gives on-demand priority to trail users, and allows vehicles to proceed as soon as the trail user has finished crossing. It strikes a balance. However, as soon as traffic or speed limits increase, I’d argue that grade separated crossings should be required. The city is generally anemic to this, however; they are much more expensive due to potential utility conflicts and accessibility requirements, are disruptive during construction overall, and require an unreasonably high bar of risk.

If we’re going to create a high quality multi-use trails in the Meadoway, and frankly anywhere else in the city, we have to stop cheaping out on our infrastructure like this, and start putting greater value on trail users’ time, experience, and safety. But with a total budget of $85 million (for everything; naturalization and infrastructure), I’m not entirely confident that it is enough to cover the 8 arterial road crossings (Eglinton, Victoria Park, Kennedy, Midland, Scarborough Golf Club, Ellesmere, Neilson, Morningside) that currently have no infrastructure. And it sure doesn’t address the 4 existing mid-block crossings on arterial roads (Markham, Bellamy, Warden, Pharmacy) that currently use traffic signals.

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That’s roads. The second of the 3 Rs of trail crossings is railways, and the only rail crossing along the Meadoway is the corridor with the TTC’s Line 3 and GO Transit’s Stouffville Line. As it stands now, getting across the corridor (between Kennedy and Midland) requires a trail user to detour south through Jack Goodlad Park, and use an existing pedestrian bridge between Mooregate and Tara Avenues. This doubles the required travelling distance (900 to 1,800 metres) and takes trail users away from the meadow, requiring a meander through an adjacent neighbourhood. It might be attractive to use this existing infrastructure and save more money, but this bridge is fairly skinny and does not deliver a good user experience. Once again, if the Meadoway’s goals are to deliver an attractive alternative transportation corridor that stays with the natural environment, a new crossing is required.

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The third of the 3 Rs of trails crossings is ravines. One of the Meadoway goals is creating east-west linkages between the ravines of Scarborough. This will involve crossing 3 major ravines: East Highland Creek, one of its tributaries, and West Highland Creek. The latter is already completed, and is done quite well in my opinion, interconnecting with the other existing north-south trails. However, the other two are quite steep and have considerable erosion issues.

A multi-use path winding down a slope makes sense if you’re trying to get to a connecting north-south trail within a ravine, if/when they exist, so this is definitely a benefit of taking that as a main approach. The drawback is increased distance, stemming from the fact that as ravine slopes increase in grade, you usually need longer switchbacks to accommodate users, particularly those living with a disability. It’s absolutely necessary, it just lengthens the distance if you’re just following the Meadoway. But including a bridge structure is an opportunity to reducing that distance for those going through, and also to provide an opportunity for stunning views. This should be considered for the three major ravines the Meadoway will go through.

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Over the Line

As with any project, you have to set a scope.  While I completely understand the reason for doing this, I’m kind of left wishing that we could go beyond the scope in two specific instances.  One has to do with missing links in the broader trail system that the Meadoway should connect to. The other is the east and west limits applied to the Gatineau Hydro Corridor itself.

The Meadoway aims to be an east-west link between north-south oriented ravines and parklands that have trails. But some ravines and other parklands do not have these connections.  These are illustrated and listed below:

  1. In the west, the East Don Trail is currently non-existent between Concorde Place and the Forks of the Don. However, the city is currently planning its implementation and connection to the Meadoway, and construction is set to begin this year.
  2. A north-south utility corridor between Ashtonbee Reservoir Park and the north end of the city is mostly accessible to the public, but does not have a formal trail or well-defined footpath to follow.
  3. A footpath exists adjacent to Massey Creek, but it is not formal, and does not exist south of Bertrand Avenue.
  4. A formal trail exists along the Scarborough RT corridor between Kennedy Station and the bridge mentioned above, adjacent to John Goodlad Park. There is no connection north into the bounds of the Meadoway corridor, or to Lawrence Avenue.
  5. There is a trail network along the Dorset Branch of West Highland Creek up until Brimley Road, and then there is not trail further west to its intersection with the Meadoway.
  6. A collection of footpaths exist around the East Highland Creek area, but there are no formal connections south to the Highland Forks, or north to Centennial College and other parklands.
  7. There are no paths along Ellesmere Ravine, and similar to the ravine to the west, no formal connections south to the Highland Forks.
  8. The Meadoway is pretty much established east of Conlins Road, but not paths exist in the adjacent assorted parklands.

Building these connections is critical to linking more neighbourhoods to the Meadoway, and it meshes with the goal of allowing greater travel without leaving the natural environment.

The other scope limitation is along the hydro corridor itself.  While the Meadoway’s scope ends at the East Don River and Meadowvale Road, the hydro corridor continues beyond these bounds, and not including these end pieces creates some missing links too.

In the west, the Gatineau Hydro Corridor continues to Thorncliffe Park, where the transmission lines connects to Hydro One’s Leaside Transformer Station at 1080 Millwood Road. Extending the Meadoway west would create a great opportunity to better connect the neighbourhoods of Leaside, Thorncliffe Park, Flemingdon Park, and Bermondsey, which are currently fractured by the Don Valleys and the Parkway. In the east, the Gatineau Hydro Corridor continues into Rouge National Urban Park.  Extending the Meadoway east to the city border could provide a critical connection to the park, over the Rouge River to two existing north-south trails, and the future Beare Road Park.

A First Phase

The Meadoway’s vision is amazing, and it will be an incredible improvement to a considerable stretch of Toronto. I have my criticisms, but these aren’t really directed at the project’s lead, the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority. It’s more so towards their partner, the City of Toronto. This will be a natural corridor that links ravines, so that part of the project is covered. What needs improvement is the hard infrastructure: the trail, it’s crossings, and its connections. That should be the city’s responsibility, financially, and from the standpoint of creating recreational opportunities and building a transportation network.

If anything, the Meadoway project’s current scope should be considered a first phase. The second phase should be led by the city, with the goal of considerably improving the trail within the corridor, as well as connecting the broader trail network and the city as a whole.

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