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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.

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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.

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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.

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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The West Water Border

Etobicoke Creek is part of Toronto’s west boundary. Tucked away at the edge of the city, it can be easy to forget or dismiss. I took the effort to get out there in what was an unusually hot September day; it was already above 30 degrees by 11AM.

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js Getting off the TTC at Sherman Mall, I headed down Sherway Drive, which leads down into the ravine. The road was strange and abandoned, I was fairly surprised this was a link into a trail network, and it was in a bit of a dilapitated state. Online documents suggest this part of the trail, the ‘Sherway Link,’ is undergoing improvements soon. Eventually, the beat-up road gave way to a gravel trail and a field, in view of the QEW / Gardiner / 427 interchange. The city’s maps label this parcel of land (145 Sherway Drive) as general ‘open space’ with no name.

 

To continue south, I had to go under the Queen Elizabeth Way, named not after Elizabeth II, but after the Queen Mother, wife of King George VI. Overpasses are something that have been interesting to me as of late, but I didn’t think the ‘Middle Road’ would be anything special. I clearly wasn’t thinking it through.

It was something to behold, with the concrete arches and bleached rocks over and adjacent to calm glassy water. The colour of the graffiti tags and green stains on the concrete added something else to it. If it weren’t for the roar and thudding of highway traffic above, it would be a serene hangout.

History time. This was originally built by Ontario’s then-Department of Highways, as ‘The Middle Road’ in the 1930s (the Ministry of Transportation is still the Ministry of Highways in some sense, even 80 years later). Apparently the Minister and Deputy Minister of the day were inspired by German autobahn design, and wanted to bring it to Ontario. They ordered the Middle Road to be designed to these kind of standards, and it opened between Toronto and Burlington in 1937.

According to Cameron Bevers, who publishes a photographic history of the QEW at thekingshighway.ca, the Etobicoke Creek overpass was built in 1932 to carry a four-lane undivided highway, and it is the oldest structure on the QEW. The structure was widened in 1953 to accommodate two additional traffic lanes along with a centre highway median, and widened again in 1967 for six lanes. The apparent design difference should be noted on either side of this bridge for the ramps to and from the 427. These appear to be more of the style of bents you would find along the Gardiner or DVP, and these were completed in the 60s with the six-lane widening. I encourage you to check out more of Cameron’s website for more cool pictures and information, and hat tip to Twitter user “Not Lost” (@EdgeOfSaturn) for pointing me to this information.

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js Continuing south, you enter Etobicoke Valley Park. There was some kind of instream infrastructure along the way, and there was a clear beaten path on either side, providing a bit of a risky ad-hoc crossing between Toronto and Mississauga.

I also came across this snake. A contact of mine believes it is a northern watersnake.

Into the middle of the park, south of Horner Avenue, the trees get thick and you approach the inside of a significant meander in the creek. It’s here that you see some of the watercourses work over thousands of years, as it carved through deposited till and into the shale beneath. I get excited whenever I run into plentiful shale rocks beside water; it’s an excellent opportunity to skip rocks.

 

 

Further south, I was also quite intrigued by the amount of armourstone laid in the creek valley as an erosion protection measure. It came up to breastbone height in some places, and with the steep valley wall on the other side, it felt like you were walking through some lush jungle gauntlet.

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js Now digging into Torornto archives for this post, I came upon this very intriguing plan for part of the former Village of Long Branch, which proposed a number of houses up to and over Etobicoke Creek. Whether or not this was completed in full is unclear, but at least some of it was. In 1954, there was reported carnage from Hurricane Hazel causing flooding at the mouth of the creek, including the losss of over 40 homes and 6 deaths. Another 147 cottages at the mouth were declared unfit for habitation after the flooding when sanitation facilities broke down. As with many other areas throughout Toronto and the greater area, dwellings were removed from the floodplain, and the area was turned into parkland. The park was dedicated to longtime village Reeve Marie Curtis in 1959.

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js Marie Curtis now has a lovely boardwalk and beach. I knew it was going to be hot, but previous experiences of swimming in Lake Ontario had been frigid. Nonetheless, I brought my swimming shorts with me, and I’m glad I did. The water was perfect. I saw other tweets that day of people complaining that it was too warm; clearly, they have not swam in Lake Erie, like I often did as a teenager growing up in southwestern Ontario. Conquering Lake Ontario was quite the accomplishment in late September, I thought, considering it was generally a colder lake in some spots. It definitely fit with a narrative by Shawn Micallef at that time, that the common thought of summer ending after Labour Day was a myth that needed dispelling, so I had to give him a shout out.

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js I also saw this tweet a couple days later. No wonder it was warm.

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js I proceeded along Etobicoke’s lakeshore from here, but that is a whole other can of worms. I’ll save that for a post on another day.

Exploring Metroscapes: Announcing a Change in Direction

Greetings!

Metroscapes has historically been a bit of a personal soapbox of mine, a place to vent about transit and other city issues. The posts were usually fueled by concerns or frustrations over Toronto issues. So the content was usually negative, sometimes repetitive, and as of late, sporatic.
However, I have been doing a lot of storytelling through my Twitter feed as of late. It is now a regular hobby of mine to spend my Saturdays exploring corners of Toronto (and sometimes a bit beyond the border) that I haven’t been yet. These usually involve Toronto’s ravines and the infrastructure within, across and under them, but it can also bleed into the concrete jungle, or get deep into the thickest of the intact natural areas.
It has actually been an enlightening exercise. I have much greater clarity about my passions in life, and what I want to do with my life: simply put, I like wandering around, exploring natural and built environments, and the intersections between them.
I am a nomad with a passion for exploring Toronto’s metroscapes.
With that in mind, I have been sharing these experiences on Twitter, through threads of tweets and pictures. But my tweet-stories can be limiting through the 140 (or now, 280) character limit, the battery life of my phone, and how much I don’t get around to tweeting. They can also be hard to find after a while, if you can’t remember key words or names.

The solution: I will be making future blog posts about my weekend adventures or common features between them. I will expand on what I see and do, doing additional research on some items, taking action on issues I come across, and sharing more of the pictures I take along the way.

I will be doing this for past walks, and going forward. Looking forward to sharing my metroscape adventures with you.

Trev