Two Rivers, Three Reaches

As alluded to in my previous blog post, GIS is enabling me to create new projects and types of analysis. One of the first new projects, which I am publishing today, is “Riverbanks“. This is an analysis of the ownership and public access to each side of a major river.

This has been a long term goal of mine ever since I moved out of Toronto and expanded Metroscapes to the Tri-Cities. I wanted to expand my first (and probably still best) project, #shorelineTO. It’s the closest analogue.

And the first city I am doing this project for is Guelph, as it is currently the smallest Metroscapes city. This makes it a good place to practice or learn GIS skills, form some standards, problem solve, and then scale up.

Problem one: the coastline paradox. The “length” of a shoreline (or frankly, any other geographic feature you can measure) wmill vary with how much detail or generalization you use. I used less cartographic generalizarion in Toronto because it has ‘longer’ points of shoreline (e.g. peninsulas) that (arguably) increase public space.

Graphic illustrating the coastline paradox.
Courtesy Wikimedia user Tveness

But it does not work the same way or at the same scale on a river. Toronto’s peninsula parkland can stretch out from the mainland for hundreds of metres, whereas Guelph’s two rivers are maybe 20 metres wide. 3 kilometres of public shoreline over a 16 hectare area is not the same as 170m of riverbank in a 0.16 hectare tailwater. There’s just not as much benefit.

So I needed some other way to measure a river. I used river polygons downloaded for free from the conservation authority and generated a centreline within it with GIS. Then I broke up the banks and the river centreline using parcel data to create somewhat precise segments. Creating these and obtaining their lengths is relatively quick work thanks to tracing tools and table functions in GIS. Then I joined two tables to connect a bank segment to a corresponding centreline segment.

After much slicing and dicing, and adding in metadata, I created the Guelph Riverbanks project. You can now see what stretches of river (i.e. a characterization of both banks) have public access, and a breakdown of each bank in terms of a category.

Throughout my research in putting this together, I came across a couple interesting backstories that may bring more of Guelph’s riverbanks into the public realm.

Dolime Quarry

For some time, there has been a big divot missing out of Guelph’s west perimeter. This is the Dolime Quarry, a limestone pit bounded by the Speed River, College Avenue and Highway 6. Opened in mid 1850s, this was a major source of building material for many of Guelph’s historical structures, but it technically operated within neighbouring Guelph-Eramosa Township .

In 2002, the City began investigations and raising concerns about the quarry’s impact on local groundwater, the City’s drinking water source. A few years later, evidence emerged that it was a significant threat, and with that, the City successfully appealed a provincial water taking permit needed to operate the quarry in 2014.

The City and the quarry owner then negotiated an agreement to convert the quarry into a residential area over the next few years. A ministerial zoning order to implement the agreement was granted on December 6, 2021, and as of New Years Day 2022, the quarry was annexed to become part of the City of Guelph.

I’m less interested in this becoming a residential neighbourhood, and more interested in it becoming a publicly accessible riverbank and an enhanced riverine valley area. An environmental impact assessment will be done to create a baseline inventory and help set the minimum bounds for protection. I’m hopeful that this will create a fantastic strip of parkland for people and nature.

Sources: City of Guelph, Guelph Historical Society

Niska Lands

I stumbled upon and gathered much of this information thanks to newspaper articles by Cameron Shelley.
You can find more details here at his website: guelphpostcards.blogspot.com

In 1948, Horace Mack purchased patch of land north of Niska Road and east of the Speed River, municipally know as 308 Niska Road. Mack had a passion for birds, waterfowl in particular, and it was here he set up the Niska Waterfowl Sanctuary.

He passed away in 1959, and after a decade of operations, it was facing financial trouble. So naturally, the Ontario Waterfowl Research Foundation purchased the land in 1961 and turned it into the Kortright Waterfowl Park. It became popular both as a park and a research centre. But as popular as it was, the Foundation still couldn’t keep the place afloat, and went looking for buyers in 1975.

At that point, the Grand River Conservation Authority came into the picture. One may think it was all for conservation purposes, but in reality, the authority already held lands in the area for a potential dam (which would require a large headphone in behind it). They purchased the land in 1975, securing 47 hectares in addition to the 17 hectares they already owned around it for this potential future dam. In the meantime, they leased it back to the Niska Wildlife Foundation to operate the park.

Courtesy GRCA

But nothing ever came of the conservation authority’s original plans. After completing an updated water management study using updated hydraulics, the idea for a dam at Niska was ditched. The Kortright Waterfowl Park continued operations, but facing decreased attendance and mounting bills, the park closed for good in 2005, and the Foundation’s lease was terminated in 2015.

Over the past few years since, the conservation authority has picked away at removing buildings, infrastructure and other remnants of the park that once was. The debris and disrepair makes it hazardous, and so it remains closed to the public. Also during this time, the city was reviewing their land use planning, and some of the eastern portions of its Niska Lands were marked for potential new residential development.

This triggered an appeal by a member of the public, and resulted in a settlement between the conservation authority, the city and the appelant in March 2018. As part of the settlement, the lands must have a management plan with public input (which includes a dedicated webpage to provide updates), and which may include a trail system along the east bank of the Speed River and the lower reach of Hanlon Creek.

2021 Metroscapes in Review

Another pandemic year has passed. This marked a year of knowing more about the virus, getting vaccinated, loosening restrictions with precautions in place, and tightening back up due to variants.

As for exploring metroscapes, it was yet another year of doing less than I hoped, but still accomplishing a lot. It was my second full year hailing out of the Tri-Cities as my home base. It also marked a year of expanding to a fourth city, and completing walks in all four cities.

With that, let’s do another year-in-review, and go over the ground that was covered in 2021.

Projects and Posts

2021 marked an expansion to a fourth city: Guelph. It’s the smallest city of the bunch so far, coming in at a quarter of the size of the Tri-Cities. But it’s where I spent my undergrad, and it’s growing. In fact, it just annexed 90 hectares as of New Year’s Day. With the expansion, I was able to roll out a walk page and project pages for hydro corridors, watersheds and neighbourhoods.

I also did an analysis of potential parkland in Toronto, following the defeat of the Rail Deck Park proposal. I’m still think there was a $2 billion commitment made to building parkland in downtown Toronto. There’s tons of opportunities on both public and private lands, and you very well may get way more and/or parkland for your buck.

Walk Statistics

I saw a decline in activity from last year. This year was less restricted by the virus and more so by commitments (and exhaustion from them) at home and work.

  • Over 16 walks, I covered 303 km, about the driving distance between Fort Erie and Brighton. That’s down 130 km from 2020.
  • The average walk was 18.9 km, up 3.5 km from 2020. This is twice the walking distance along the Speed River in Guelph, between Edinburgh Road and Guelph Dam.
  • The longest walk was August 2, when I hiked 24.0 km along Toronto’s lower bluffs and small ravines. It may have been more as I’m not sure that accounts for vertical elevation.

Walk Highlights

I got to Toronto and checked a big to-do off my list: Scarborough’s lower bluffs and small ravines. The beaches and armourstone shoreline were something to behold, as was the infamous cliffs at Buffers Park. While there’s room for improvement, these are hidden gems of Toronto’s waterfront that may get more accessible in the future.

I completed my first walks in Hamilton to see some waterfalls. My first walk along Stoney / Battlefield Creeks wasn’t fruitful, as it was during the spring drought that delivered a fraction of the expected rainfall to southern Ontario. I made up for it by visiting Albion Falls and the cascades of Red Hill Creek, which were actually flowing after a wetter late summer and early fall.

I traced the entire Speed River within Guelph’s urban boundary, from Niska Road in the southwest to Guelph Dam in the northeast. I knew many of the local trails from my previous days living here and visiting occasionally, but I had less experience along the south reaches. This was a very high quality ravine and I am hoping for expanded public access along there in the future.

Back home in the Tri-Cities, I completed almost all there is to complete. After paralleling the north and west parts of the Conestoga Parkway, walking along some more hydro corridors, and tracing some smaller watercourses, I only have 3 or so walk plans left for the KW and Cambridge area.

Looking Forward to 2022

As highlighted in my recent blog post, I completed a course in GIS, and am actively working to convert all existing metroscapes data to a vector shapefile format. This will be the driving change to this website and any other analysis in 2022.

I may continue to be constrained by family life for a little while. But I’m hoping to get some more walks in soon. Cheers to more walking, defeating COVID, and a more balanced life in 2022.

Climbing to the Next Level

In 2014, I moved to Toronto, and I needed something to fill up my time on the weekend. I started taking walks. Lots of them, one or two every weekend. I even started tweeting about them and adding pictures.

Then on February 15, 2015, this website was launched as a clunky Blogger site. It was a place to rant about the days in Rob Ford’s Toronto, but I also added a page to track / organize some walks I had taken with a half-decent Twitter thread. It was a start.

Something happened in the latter half of 2017. I took a walk along Etobicoke’s shoreline, and noticed how public access along it was very fragmented. I wondered how it compared to other parts of Toronto, like downtown, the Port Lands and Scarborough.

So I started doing something new. I mapped it out (manually), and input the data into some spreadsheets to do some analysis. I was able to demonstrate, through hard numbers, that Etobicoke’s shoreline was vastly more fragmented, and with more of it in private exclusion, compared to other parts of the city.

Blogger was not really up to the task of handling all of this new information; it wasn’t capable of embedding the pictures, maps and spreadsheets like I wanted to, or if it was, it was going to be very difficult for me to figure out how to code it. I needed a user-friendly and proper web platform.

So I did a migration 3.5 years ago, making it into something different entirely. In addition to my walks, I made a space for analysis and information about the subject matter of my walks: shorelines, watersheds, neighbourhoods, corridors.

Up until this point, it’s all been from hand-drawn digital maps I did myself, either through my own observations and/or cross-referencing other sources. It was painstaking work, but I was happy with the result.

But I knew it could be better.

These days, the most powerful maps come from a Geographic Information System (GIS), which contain multiple layers of large datasets of points, lines, and shapes and the metadata attached to them. Naturally, I was attracted to this, with the detail and the wealth of open-source data that governments offer these days, which would enable me to refine my maps. But it felt like a huge leap.

So I enrolled in and recently completed an introductory course at [X] University to secure myself some of the fundamentals. It was an eye-opener; not only was I going to make detailed maps, but I could complete a higher level of analysis. I can now draw on more sources of information, crunch out new data, and visualize it way more efficiently than I could ever achieve with hand-drawn maps and spreadsheet data entry.

How many people are a five-minute walk from publicly accessible shoreline? What proportion of ravine lands are in private ownership? Which segments of railways and highways pose the greatest barrier based in an index of population and walking distance? These are questions that I could tackle in GIS.

So I find myself at the cusp of a similar spot I was in 3 years ago, looking at my current mapping data and thinking “how did I settle for this?”

With that, you can expect changes in 2022. I started recompiling my existing data into more detailed GIS shapefiles (though I had a bit of a setback). This will unlock new projects and new analysis. It’s exciting to be on this path towards the next level of analyzing local metroscapes. And perhaps, finding a new way to spread pride in them. Thanks to everyone who’s stuck with me over these few years.

Keep trekkin’ on.

Localscapes

My walks usually take a couple hours to get to and from, and take a few hours to do. It’s a whole day engagement. As a father with a full-time job, that means it’s tricky to balance that with spending time with family or doing other domestic tasks.

So instead of making the big trip, I’m often enjoying metroscapes that are local and smaller scale, and usually ground where I have trodden many times before.

The local playground is a good escape on weekday evenings. It’s a place to burn some crazy energy, and shake off the work day. It’s also a place to reflect on where you’re at in life, and what is a priority.

If you’re lucky enough, there are neat local features like a watercourse or woodlot to check out. These are places to be adventurous and interact; watching leaves go over a waterfall or what insects are in a log are super exciting and educational activities.

Conservation areas are sometimes a little more far flung from home, but offer a prolonged escape. These are opportunities for meaningful bonding over a picnic, or just giving your partner a break.

A riverbank can also be a spot for discovery and play, and connecting with nature. Fish, bugs and frogs are a chance to learn and marvel, and rock skipping is just plain fun.


Sometimes running the same old ground over and over can get boring. This should drive you to think creatively, peruse a map, and check out the other little parks and open spaces you haven’t been to before. Other times, a breath of fresh air is all that’s needed, even if it’s somewhere familiar. That said, a little one can help you explore different elements of the same space and look at things from a different perspective.

So don’t ever write your local parks and open spaces off, and don’t settle for the same old spot. Get out there, recharge, take a different perspective, and find a special hidden space.

Guelph: An Island Under Change

Growing up in southwestern Ontario as a kid, and eventually as a teenager without a drivers licence, I didn’t get around a lot. Then that began to change as I applied to university, and started consider where I was going to live and study for 4+ years. I got three acceptance offers, and was weighing them all.

Then I went to tour the campus and the city of Guelph. After one visit, I was set on it. I fell in love.

So as I expand to a fourth city in the Metroscapes universe, I am strolling in a bit with rose-coloured glasses. Yet at the same time, after exploring other cities, it’s gone from the big town where I began my independent life to something that feels small and isolated.

Toronto, Hamilton and the Tri-Cities (at least my scope of walking an analysis) cover 634, 323 and 320 square kilometres, respectively. Guelph comes in at a fraction of that, 88 square kilometres or urban area all surrounded by rural lands. On top of that, the watersheds are getting downscaled too. Toronto has 6 major rivers and creeks draining to a great lake. The Tri-Cities has one major river, the Grand River, and some notable tributaries. Guelph is intersected by the Speed River, which is actually a tributary of the Grand.

Nonetheless, I’ll do what I do, even at these smaller scales. I’ll cover the city on foot. I’ll delineate some neighbourhoods. I’ll break down the subwatersheds. I’ll highlight the hydro corridor (yes, singular).

I’ll also be exploring a changing city. It’s estimated to have grown up to 20% since I first moved there over a decade ago. The last greenfield area in the south end is slated for development. The City is planning to annex a quarry pit to convert it to housing. The downtown has been building up with a new transit hub and relaxed height restrictions.

So I’ll be going down memory lane a bit, but I’ll be covering the city with a new scope, and I’ll be bound to run into a few surprises.

Rail Deck Park: Priorities and Principles

A big decision dropped from the Land Planning Appeal Tribunal (LPAT, formerly the Ontario Municipal Board) this week. It is a key part of an ongoing saga over the Rail Deck Park, which is exactly what it sounds like: a park decked over a railway, in the heart of western downtown Toronto.

More specifically, it’s two competing visions for a deck over 7.5 hectares of airspace above railways tracks northwest of the SkyDome: one by the City (herein referred to as Rail Deck Park) where pretty much all of it is parkland, and one by a private developer called CRAFT (the Over Rail Corridor Area Project, herein referred to as ORCA Project) where one third of the site is mixed-use development, and the remainder is parkland.

Top: Rail Deck Park (Courtesy City of Toronto)
Bottom: ORCA Project (via the LPAT Decision)

From what I’ve seen in the hours that have passed since the news dropped, this LPAT decision has divided those watching the saga unfold. Some are upset and disappointed Rail Deck Park is headed for the trash can. Others are seeing this as still being a win, with a sizable park still in the mix.

I’m in the latter camp, and I want to dive deep into why. It’s not a matter of settling for less, in my view, but being more efficient with parkland acquisition.

Background

This park is proposed over a western part of the Union Station Railway Corridor, a large conduit for trains between Union Station and major destinations to the west, including Pearson Airport, the southwest and northwest GTA, Wellington / Waterloo, Niagara, and the rest of southwestern Ontario. It is a shadow of the freight rail yards that once were, it is the artery to the busiest transportation hub in Canada.

Before (1950) and After (2018). Courtesy City of Toronto
Before (1975) and After (2015). Before image by Ken Bowes

It is also home to the North Bathurst Yard, where GO Transit trains assigned to make rush hour trips into (AM) and out of (PM) Union are stored during the late morning / early afternoon. It’s important too, as such yard space in downtown is a premium, and it’d be hard to find similar space without running trains further away. That could mean more operator time and energy (diesel or electricity) spent, and possibly conflict with other train movements.

Such a vital corridor needs to be protected through construction and maintenance. It’s also huge: 7.5 hectares (not including the existing park strips on the south side). This means building a deck of any sort will be a costly engineering and design challenge. But being on top of this conduit for so many people provides an incentive to develop.

The Central Park Problem

This rail corridor is a large void in the downtown core, smack in the middle of CityPlace and The Well, two major developments that have brought almost 10,000 residential units and a million square feet of office space to the area. On top of that and other recent growth in the area (e.g. Liberty Village and Ordnance Triangle), another 140,000-180,000 units are projected to arrive in the downtown core in the next 20 years. The void presents a major barrier to movement between the north and south sides. The Pente de Luz pedestrian bridge, situated between Bathurst and Spadina, has improved things. More broadly though, it’s also in one of the most park-deficient areas of the city per-capita.

This is what has brought things to a head on this site: should the City take on making all of the space parkland through Rail Deck Park, or allow the CRAFT Development to use some of that space for mixed-use buildings in exchange for sharing the costs?

Illustration of downtown park need. Courtesy of the City of Toronto

It comes down to priorities, and for the most part, it’s been framed as a choice between the need / value of that additional parkland, versus the costs to the City.

Obviously, the City believed making 100% parkland was needed, but Rail Deck Park seemed to be rushed to get ahead of the ORCA Project. A cynical person may buy into the rumor that this was pushed to be John Tory’s political legacy.

That aside, my background is in economics, so I always look at issues in our natural and built environments with an ‘opportunity cost’ lens: if we put time and money towards one thing, what do we lose by not putting that towards other things?

Costs

To fully consider the cost of parkland, you need to look at the money you have to spend, in addition how much a park will cost. You also need to consider two categories of costs: capital (building) costs, and operation / maintenance costs.

In 2015, a Spacing magazine piece estimated the the parkland funds for 3 of the former major downtown wards was around $140 million, which has likely grown with 5 additional years of development and inflation. Mind you, 100% of those funds don’t have to go to the park, as money could potentially be cobbled together from other general City revenue, development charges on future developments, and/or funds from the provincial / federal government.

And that additional money will be needed. Early capital cost estimates for Rail Deck Park done in 2017 were around $1.7 billion, which dwarfs the fund. That’s a huge outlay of money for one park. In fairness, that’s in the rough ballpark of buying land for parks in downtown Toronto, which was estimated up to $115 million per hectare. But this does not capture operation and maintenance costs or any liability for a deck over a rail corridor.

Via the LPAT Decision

With some of the parkland taken away through the ORCA Project, we’re still left with 4.9 hectares (65%) of net new parkland. A great share of the fixed capital costs could mostly be borne by CRAFT, with ownership of the park conveyed to the City. Isn’t this an efficient outcome, obtaining all that parkland at a fraction of the cost?

The opportunity cost here, according to the City and other proponents of Rail Deck Park, is that you’re never going to really get an opportunity to make such a large contiguous park in downtown Toronto ever again. I can understand some folks would place a high value on that and say the cost is worth it. But is that statement actually true?

Possible Parks

It bugs me that the City’s framing of this as a “now or never” opportunity has gone relatively unchallenged.

First off: what about the rest of the rail corridor? I imagine that some air rights have already been sold off elsewhere, such as at CIBC Square (which is already becoming a small rail deck park) and around the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. But what about outside of that? East of Union Station? Bathurst to Strachan? What if we tore down parts of the East Gardiner? Linked up with the future East Harbour transit hub? These are undoubtedly opportunities that offer the same proximity and, stitched together, could theoretically add over 30 additional hectares of rail deck parkland stretching along the 5 kilometre corridor.

Going a bit outside of that proximity, there are also some other major sites we should be looking at.

  • Exhibition Place and Ontario Place are flexible spots due to vast surface parking lots, but the opportunity cost here is inactive dead space for much of the year. This could easily be parkland, and there could be steps taken to keep it flexible for events like The Ex, indy races and other fairs.
  • Matt Elliott recently made the case for shutting down Billy Bishop Airport. I agree, and much of my support for closure is because a) we should be working to transition more short-distance flights to improved and more sustainable rail service, and b) it’s a huge opportunity to create more housing, additional parkland, and/or improved access to the Toronto Islands as a whole.
  • The downtown mainland is all built on landfill. We could theoretically continue to build out. I understand boating is a big part of the harbour’s history, but outside of the public ferry, it’s fairly exclusive to those who can afford to own, maintain and dock a boat, or shell out to take part in a cruise. I believe infilling of some of the harbour, accommodating limited boats in the core shore, and shifting the rest of the activity out is a fair goal to pursue.

These three opportunities alone account for anywhere between 13 and 130 hectares of potential parkland. And altogether, with the additional rail decking, this is 170 hectares pf potential parkland. It represents over 20 times the land available for Rail Deck Park, and over 60 times the land area sacrificed in the ORCA Project.

As sweet of a dream that is, it’s only a conceptual exercise, and I’m not proposing each or all of these proposals becoming parkland. I’m merely illustrating a point: if you have almost $2 billion you’re willing to spend on a large continuous piece of parkland for downtown Toronto residents, there’s tons of opportunities on both public and private lands, and you very well may get way more and/or parkland for your buck.

Function, Quality and Benefit

I emphasize better: some of the opportunities above are on solid ground, possibly making better quality parkland. A Rail Deck Park will be a sort of artificial elevated strip of fill. This introduces a challenge of managing the health of the soil and terrestrial vegetation, protecting it against contamination and over-/under-saturation while ensuring it’s not impacting the deck structure or the tracks below.

This could be challenging and expensive to manage on a large scale, at least relative to parkland on solid natural ground.

Also consider the potential ecological benefits on the other large sites listed above. Taking away parking lots from Ontario Place and The Ex provide more opportunity for rainfall infiltration and reduce urban heat island effects. Converting the airport into parkland could compensate for recent island shoreline erosion and eliminate impacts from noise and deicing. Infilling the harbour could create a softer shoreline and possible aquatic habitat enhancements.

And all sites can provide stable, rich ground for trees and other vegetation. Overall, it just seems like you have an opportunity to manage richer, more passive parkland.

Looking Forward

The last key point in all this is it isn’t over. This was a rejection of the City’s attempt to block a development proposal at one of the highest levels of planning. CRAFT still has a long road to go down, from the still broad strokes of height and massing, to the fine details of grading and fees.

The City will have to give up 2.6 hectares a park here, but can still gain another 4.9 hectares. They can now embark on negotiating with CRAFT to realize their vision for the site to the extent possible, and negotiate on the share of any costs (with additional opportunity to provide extra development potential for cash-in-lieu). Make ’em pay.

But don’t stop there. As far as I’m concerned, the City publicly committed almost $2 billion worth of parkland to downtown Toronto residents and workers. They should stick with that commitment. Take the balance of whats left over from any deal with CRAFT, and put it towards other sites. I’ve provided some examples.

There’s always opportunities to make our parks and public spaces bigger and better. You just need the courage to keep pursuing them.

#metroscapes 2020 in review

2020 was garbage. Most annual reflections will have that message. It caused me stress in my professional and personal life, but looking back, I didn’t do too bad in terms of exploring the local metroscapes.

This was my first full calendar year living in the Tri-Cities, and adjusting to the shift. It was my opportunity to explore new places and get familiar with my new home base. But it was also a time to reflect and build upon the change it had brought about to my website. This was no longer a Toronto-centric hobby. This was exploring the intersections between natural and built environments in multiple cities.

Thanks to COVID-19, I didn’t get to explore The Hammer or tie up loose ends in Toronto as much as I had hoped. The first and second waves kept me close to home, avoiding non-essential trips on public transit and at other indoor settings in other cities. But I had a couple of worthy trips, and lots of analysis to go with.

So let’s do another year-in-review, review the ground I was able to cover in this pandemic year, and look forward to what 2021 will bring.

New Projects and Posts

Let’s start off with the new projects I launched this year. There were a few that came with settling into the Tri-Cities’, and launching into a third city.

After four months in the Tri-Cities, I was able to get my head around the urban fabric. I was able to nail down the layout of its neighbourhoods, and delineate the way of the watersheds. Unlike Toronto, the Tri-Cities still has greenfield areas, and drains to a large river instead of a shoreline, so having a better grasp on the lay of the land was helpful.

Then COVID-19 happened. As we began getting our heads around how it spread and the precautions we had to take, it really highlighted the importance of public space. This spoke to my philosophy on the freedom to roam along waterways, shorelines and utility corridors in our urban centres, and how we should be doing more to connect the missing links.

I then expanded to Hamilton in the summer. I discovered quickly that I needed to scope my area of analysis to account for its amalgamation. I was then able to complete project analysis for its shoreline and hydro corridors.

Lastly, I capped off a project I had been picking away at for two years: Crossing the Line, an analysis of Toronto’s freeways and railways. After experiencing these barriers first hand over 7 years and 1,400 kilometres, it’s nice to finally quantify it. I hope this will be a great resource for years to come.

Walk Statistics

I pretty much matched my activity from last year. Moving cities was something that held me back in 2019, so that’s why COVID didn’t cause me to do less in 2020.

  • Over 27 walks, I covered 414 km, about the driving distance between Niagara Falls and Kingston. That’s 1 more walk and only 7 km more than 2019.
  • The average walk was 15.4 km, virtually the same as 2018. This is the same distance as walking between Conestoga Mall and Mill Stations in KW.
  • The longest walk was October 12, coming in at 24.8 km. This was following the Grand River from Highway 7 to the literal northeast corner of the city.

Walk Highlights

Normally, this is where I highlight the neighbourhoods and watersheds I covered and compare back to the previous year. But this is becoming less relevant as I shift towards multiple cities. Instead, I will highlight some of my notable walks.

One big personal achievement was climbing Pinnacle Hill. It’s a pretty uninteresting drumlin at the 401 and Homer Watson, but it is prominent enough, rising 50 metres from Conestoga College Boulevard. I had noticed it every time my dad was driving us towards Toronto, and I always wanted to check it out, so it was fulfilling a tiny childhood dream.

I also finished walking the entirety of the Grand River. I finished the first leg through Cambridge in October 2019. In 2020, I did the next leg to Highway 7 in Kitchener, and then the last stretch from there to the northeast corner of Waterloo. This makes for a total of 60km of walking along the trunk of the watershed.

When I expanded into Hamilton, I was able to tackle one of its signature trails, a former rail line that slinks down the Escarpment. I hadn’t had much luck coordinating walks with peak fall colours in previous years, but it worked out pretty well this time.

One of the first things I noticed after moving to Cambridge is the Portugese Swamp, a complex of wetlands bisected by Can-Amera Parkway on the east side. Me and my kid were able to check them out first hand back in November, it was pretty neat.

Lastly, a big milestone was the first phase of the new East Don Trail. This was very significant to me not only because it was a major new multi-use trail in a ravine. The East Don Trail is near my old stomping grounds as a child, and was a place I’d go to often to ride my bike. So more childhood feels.

Looking to 2021

Moving to the Tri-Cities was a big shift, and adding Hamilton to the mix was another step in that direction. While I’ve reflected on the change a couple times, I’ve had some additional insight as of late.

It was a shock to realize I’m starting to run thin on plans for the Tri-Cities. After doing over 100 walks in Toronto, I did not expect to run into this problem so soon. Part of this is the area, as Toronto is twice the size of the Tri-Cities, and over 15% of the latter is still greenfields.

But it’s also history, density and growth. It makes for a different urban fabric. In older, denser and faster growing cities, utility corridors are well traversed albeit crowded on all sides, and a lack of stormwater management means more runoff that collects in numerous tributaries. This can make the public realm more granular and unique. By comparison, the Tri-Cities has plenty of wide open green spaces, generally larger and more intact. In between, the sweeping single-detached neighbourhoods with significantly more infiltration and stormwater management have less infrastructure and drainage corridors fracturing them.

It’s better from an ecological and flooding perspective. But it’s not the same for my walks.

I’ve been looking at expanding to other cities, all while coming to this realization. With this in mind, while I look to cities close to my home base, I will also be looking for the more fine-grained metroscapes.

Crossing the Line

This blog post was originally published in December 2020. It has been migrated to a standalone project, which includes other information about Toronto’s railways / highways, as well as similar analysis in other cities. You can start by navigating here.

If you’re a regular follower of mine, you know what I do: I explore metroscapes. That’s the sexy tagline, anyway. When I was in Toronto, a more contexual explanation was that I explored many waterways and green spaces, trying to tell a story, trying to see how far I could go in a continuous path, and highlight where I got interrupted.

This involved some of the better known ravines and stretches of shoreline. But it also involved less trodden paths: smaller tributaries, lost rivers, and hydro corridors. If there was a barrier to doing this, it was usually one of four things: private residences, golf courses, highways or railways. Private property was discussed in, and the inspiration for, my project exploring Toronto’s shoreline. I’ve also written about golf courses, specifically the ones owned by the City.

Now it’s time to address the latter two.

The Legacy of Our Transportation System

Railways and highways can be huge barriers. They are long, linear corridors that cut through a city, often dividing it by severing roads and communities. For railways, this is a legacy of building before the city became dense and built out. For highways, this is a legacy of autocentric planning.

In most cases, it created long uncrossable walls, literally or figuratively. Local roads provide many of the spots to overcome this, and there are a few bridges or tunnels dedicated to those on foot or using pedal power. However, there are parts of the city where it’s a long way between these crossings. It’s not a big deal in a car, and maybe less so on a bike, but it could add many minutes to a one-way trip on foot. This makes neighbourhoods less walkable and can hold them back from their fullest potential.

Many of these railways and highways are not going away anytime soon, and while the pandemic has fuelled much discussion about adequate walking and cycling space on the city’s streets, I feel like this aspect gets forgotten. There should be an effort by the city to build bridges and tunnels across these facilities, better connecting neighbourhoods and decreasing walk and cycle times.

Some Stats

  • There are 7 highway corridors in the city, running a total length of 101 kilometres and covering 1,535 hectares (including interchanges).
  • There are 12 railway corridors, with a couple owned by Canadian Pacific Railway, and the rest owned by Metrolinx (GO Transit). They run a total length of 186 kilometres and cover 615 hectares, not including yards (which are another 227 hectares).
  • There were a total of 307 “segments” analyzed. 187 were railways, 97 were freeways, and 20 were combined/parallel
  • The median distance between crossings was about 800 metres. This was larger for highways (969 metres highway vs. 745 metres for railways).

Ranking

I tried to come up with a way to rank all 291 segments in a systematic way, giving weight to:

  • Length (duh);¹ ²
  • Land use;³ and,
  • Feasibility to create a crossing.⁴
  1. Anything that was less than 240 metres (5 minute walking distance from midpoint to midpoint) was discounted.
  2. Average walking speed is often cited as 5 km/h, However, this may be considered quite fast. City of Toronto Standard Operating Procedures for signal timing cite a speed of 1.0 m/s (3.6 km/h) for able-bodied pedestrians, and 0.8 m/s (2.9 km/h) for areas where a significant number of pedestrians use assistive devices. The latter speed was used in the length scoring.
  3. Scoring was ranked (in descending order): Residential or mid- to high-density office, parkland, commercial, industrial. This was a rough estimate based on satellite imagery, and where a mix of uses was present, the two dominant uses on both sides was recorded.
  4. Feasibility was judged by whether public land (a park) or rights-of way (e.g. a road or road allowance) was available on either side of the corridor. Scoring was assigned to whether or not this was present on both, one or neither side.

The result is not perfect, of course. It doesn’t account for residential or employment density, socioeconomic needs, the road or trail network leading from the crossing, or the costs / length of a crossing itself. Not to mention that some may find it inappropriately appropriately weighted. But like anything on this site, it’s more of a conversation starter than a definitive conclusion. Anyone can download the data themselves, create their own formulation, and come to their own conclusions.

For now, I have taken this and featured 6 collections of segments (with 1 or more segments in the top 20), and listed 14 more individual segments to make a top 20.


Featured Collectives

1. West Canyon

It’s kind of funny to see this on here, because I identified the 401 / 427 interchange as an issue area long ago. It was #2 in my ranking of public golf courses that should be converted to parkland.

However, this analysis makes it clear that the issue extends further south. The segments of the 427 between Dixon Road and Rathburn Road are 1.85 kilometres on average, which can add up to 30-40 minutes to a trip. This can discourage active transportation in the adjacent neighbourhoods of Renforth-West Mall, Markham Wood, Eatonville, Eringate-Centennial, West Deane, Princess Gardens, Willowridge, Richview Park, Martin Grove Gardens and Richmond Gardens.

One notable opportunity towards the north end is to extend the Mimico Creek Trail throught the interchange, and perhaps convert the city-owned Royal Woodbine Golf Club to parkland one day. Further south, plenty of opportunity exists to establish crossings between The West Mall and The East Mall.


2. Highland Creek Wedge

From the far west side to the east side. This one didn’t stick out to me until I took a walk following Adam’s and Smalls Creeks in May 2018. Both the 401 and Highway 2A (a stub of the planned East Gardiner) act to box in the Highland Creek neighbourhood from adjacent Port Union and Rouge Hill. Though it only involves three segments, the two 401 segments are 1,280 and 1,720 metres long (21-27 and 29-36 minutes), and Highway 2A is 2,420 metres long (40-50 minutes).

There are easy opportunities to establish some crossings by joining the dead ends of Meadowvale Road (2A), Centennial Road (2A) and Morrish Road / Sudbury Hall Drive (401). There’s also parklands to link to, namely Dean Park and the corridors / headwaters of Adam’s and Smalls Creeks.


3. Lower Don Valley

This should not be surprising. Establishing connections across this segment of the Don River valley has been a big part of Toronto’s history. Many 19th century crossings existed and many bridges seen today are second or third replacements, but photogenic monuments from the 1921 old Don Mills Road bridge to the 1918 Prince Edward Viaduct live on.

East-west crossings of the valley east of downtown are now plentiful, with the 5 bridges from Eastern Avenue to the Riverdale Park Bridge averaging 325 metres. But north of here, the gaps are 1.15 km (19-24 minutes) on average. But this also exposes a major flaw in my methodology, in that it does not account for the lateral gap across a corridor. To say the lack of corridor crossings has an impact on neighbourhood walkability would be a huge stretch, as some parts of the ravine stretch 400 to 800 metres across, at minimum.

That said, I’ve left it up here because it does impact connections to and within the parkland. Though there are large feasibility, cost, ecological and natural hazard aspects to creating new connections into the Don Valley, it’s a conversation worth having. The pandemic should have made that clear.


4. North York Wall

I’ve known the 401 to be a wall in this area, but it wasn’t until doing this project that I realized how many significant barriers all clump together here. Overall, there are and one railway segment, and taking out , they average 1.83 kilometres long (30-38 minutes walking). This acts like a huge wall between over 20 neighbourhoods in the former cities of North York and York.

There are plenty of roadways to act as abutting links. In addition, some green pathways could be forged by restoring some lost (buried) creeks, including Meadow (Keele to Dufferin), Yellow and/or Mud (401/Allen interchange), Wilket (Yonge to Bayview), and Vyner (Bayview to Leslie). Converting another golf course to parkland (Don Valley, #1 in my ranking of public golf courses) would greatly improve the stretch between Avenue Road and Yonge Street.


7. Warden Greenway

Yet another seemingly no-brainer of a connection I identified in my many walks, and it’s great to see the numbers backing it up. These are two segments that are west of Warden Avenue, one being Canadian Pacific’s Belleville Subdivision and the other being the 401. Both are around 1,275 metres (21-27 minutes).

What’s notable about these two segments, and the reason they rank so high, is because there is one easy opportunity to link them via the Warden Hydro Corridor, which runs up through both of them. This is not just a typical hydro corridor however, as it appears to no longer be in use. It presents a huge reforestation and trail opportunity, and crossing these corridor segments could be part of it. It has even been proposed to re-align Taylor Massey Creek through this corridor to improve its health.


8. East Danforth – Beaches

This one flew under the radar for me. I had noticed the parallel alleys and the lack of grade-separated connections over the cross streets, but not the significance of the distances between. This railway corridor is part of GO Transit’s Lakeshore East Line, and VIA Rail’s route between Toronto and Ottawa/Montreal. The four segments in question are between Coxwell and Warden Avenues. The average distance between streets here is just over 1 kilometre, or 18-22 minutes.

There are a few adjacent dead ends or parallel roadways to make a connection. However, one significant opportunity is the Small’s Creek Ravine, which is one of a couple small East York creeks that have not been buried yet. Parkland flanks both sides, separated by the railway berm. However, recent Metrolinx expansion work has failed to establish this as a bridge that it should be.


The Rest of the Top 20

#5: Mimico Split

Corridor:
Termini:

Distance:
Land Use:

Connection:

Oakville Subdivision
Royal York Rd / Park Lawn Rd
1,480 m
Residential / Residential
Grand Ave / Manchester Parks

#6: East Beach

Corridor:
Termini:
Distance:
Land Use:

Connection:

Kingston Subdivision
Chesterton Shores / Rouge River
1,740 m
Residential / Park
Starspray Boulevard

#9: North Malvern

Corridor:
Termini:
Distance:
Land Use:

Connections:

Belleville Subdivision
Tapscott Rd / Morningside Ave
613 m & 1,170 m
Residential / Residential
Horseley Hill Park & Maidenhair Ln

#10: Finch Hydro

Corridors:

Termini:
Distance:
Land Use:

Connection:

Bala Subdivision & Highway 404
Finch Ave E / McNicoll Ave
1,110 m & 878 m
Residential / Residential
Finch Hydro Corridor

#11: Highland – Malvern

Corridor:
Termini:
Distance:
Land Use:

Connection:

Highway 401
Progress Ave / Neilson Rd
1,590 m
Residential / Commercial
East Highland Creek – Malvern Branch

#12: Lambton Lead

Corridor:
Termini:
Distance:
Land Use:

Connections:

Galt Subdivision
Humber River / Jane St
1,150 m & 629 m
Residential / Residential
Lambton Arena & St Clair Ave W / Dundas St W

#13: Brookhaven – Mt Dennis

Corridors:

Termini:
Distance:
Land Use:

Connection:

Weston & Mactier Subdivisions
Jane St / Ray Ave
837 m
Residential / Residential
Touchstone Dr / Cobalt St

#14: Upper Liberty

Corridor:
Termini:
Distance:
Land Use:

Connection*:

Weston Subdivision
Queen St W / Strachan Ave
755 m & 637 m
Residential / Residential
Joe Shuster Way / Sudbury St

* Note: The segment from King St W to Strachan Ave will be addressed by the completion of the King-Liberty Pedestrian/Cycle Bridge.

#15: Parkwoods – Don Mills

Corridor:
Termini:
Distance:
Land Use:

Connection:

Don Valley Parkway
East Don Trail / York Mills Rd
723 m
Residential / Residential
Deerlick Creek Tributary

#16: Corktown Corner

Corridors:
Termini:
Distance:
Land Use:

Connection:

Don Valley Parkway & USRC
Cherry St / Eastern Ave
665 m & 707 m
Residential / Office
Bayview Ave

#17: East Queensway

Corridor:
Termini:
Distance:
Land Use:

Connection:

Gardiner Expressway
Royal York Rd / Grand Ave
672 m
Residential / Residential
Wesley St

#18: West Toronto Diamond

Corridors:

Termini:
Distance:
Land Use:

Connection:

Weston, Mactier, Galt and North Toronto Subdivisions
Cherry St / Eastern Ave
647 m & 592 m
Residential / Commercial
Old Weston Rd / Miller & Lindner St

#19: The Malls

Corridor:
Termini:
Distance:
Land Use:

Connection:

Galt Subdivision
The East Mall / The West Mall
1,780 m
Commercial / Commercial
Norris Glen Rd / Index Rd

#20: East Point Edge

Corridor:
Termini:
Distance:
Land Use:

Connection:

Kingston Subdivision
Manse Rd / Beechgrove Dr
1,680 m
Industrial / Park
Chemical Ct


Data Portal

Data Table: Web | CSV | TSV | PDF

Mapping: KML | KMZ

Hamilton: Intersection of Metroscapes and Rural Areas

Last week, I began expanding the Metroscapes website to a third city: Hamilton. I had long had my eye on exploring Hamilton, based on a few adventures out there with a friend that used to live there, and knowing there was unique urban fabric.

Hamilton sits at the west tip of Lake Ontario, providing a long shoreline to explore. After doing a series on the Toronto shoreline, I was naturally drawn to expand it, something I cannot do in the Tri-City. A sandbar, the industrial heritage and the continued operation of Hamilton Harbour makes for some interesting flux points. There’s your typical suite of rail lines and hydro corridors.

There’s also the fact it is a city of over a half-million, with the Niagara Escarpment running right through it. This makes for more vistas, public space, infrastructure challenges and waterfalls.

However, one thing I did not account for on launching in Hamilton: its amalgamation.

Prior to 2001, Hamilton was 144 square kilometres, somewhat bounded by the harbour, the 403, a line between Rymal Road / Twenty Road, and Centennial Road. As part of the same “Common Sense Revolution” that abolished Metropolitan Toronto, Hamilton swallowed its five neighbours: Ancaster, Dundas, Flamborough, Glanbrook, and Stoney Creek. This made the area of the “city” balloon to 1,150 square kilometres, or 8 times its size.

The thing with amalgamation: while Hamilton was mostly a built-up urban area in 2001, its neighbours were not. Even post-amalgamation, the urbanized part of Hamilton hasn’t spread like wildfire. Lands within the urban boundary still only account for 260 square kilometres (22.6%).

Up until this point, this hasn’t been an issue for me. The city limits of Toronto and most of the Tri-City are urbanized, making for obvious intersections between natural and built environments. But did I want to explore all the way out in Hamilton’s rural areas?

No. That’s not really what I’m interested in. Obviously, there’s no intersections with a built environment, and rural lands are challenging to explore given their vastness and lack of public space.

So going forward, I have delineated a rough area where my walks and analysis will be bounded to, measuring about 330 square kilometres. It encompasses Hamilton, Dundas, Greensville (part of Flamborough), eastern Ancaster, northwestern Glanbrook, and north/western Stoney Creek. It’s mostly guided by the urban boundary, but also includes the escarpment and some other features. They are not strict boundaries either. It just provides some guidance on where I will focus my time and interest.

So I hope you enjoy. The walk page is up, and I currently have two projects cobbled together: shoreline ownership and hydro corridors. You can look forward to more analysis of neighbourhoods, railways, and an inventory of the city’s waterfalls in the future.

But as always, use this work as inspiration, and go explore your local metroscapes for yourself.

Parks and Pandemics: The Need for Open Space Laid Bare

I started walking around Toronto over 6 years ago, well before I started this site. As I started covering more of the city, I had a vision for what a top-tier trail system could look like, using and connecting the city’s ravines, utility corridors, shoreline and other open spaces. And I was groundtruthing how many of these links didn’t exist.

So 2 years ago, I made a map. This map was my vision, and an atlas of problems and opportunities for Toronto’s trail system.

Toronto’s existing (green), planned (yellow) and missing (red) trails.

Urban experts will tell you all the benefits of having a high-quality and fully-integrated trail network. It encourages more active transportation use, reduces emissions, improves cardiovascular health, etc.. Any well-planned major urban centre should have something like this.

For me, it was a little more philosophical. I am a believer in establishing the right to roam in our urban centres, especially when it comes to our waterways, shorelines and utility corridors. I believe that the best trips are point-to-point, and not doubling back the way you came. I believe networks should exist to encourage residents and visitors alike to go beyond the known, and explore new places.

But overall, generally, it provides more open space for people in a large, noisy, bustling city. That’s a good thing. And it’s critical on a normal day.

Leave it a pandemic to show us how critical it is.

The spread of COVID-19 and the need to protect the vulnerable is putting pressure on local parks. Playgrounds, dog parks and anything else involving touching or close proximity is closed. The remaining space is what’s left for dense populations to enjoy themselves while practicing physical distancing.

This is where large parks and corridors are a benefit. This is where a narrow and disconnected system is a risk.

At the time of writing, it’s been 18 days since the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic, and 12 days since Ontario ordered a shutdown. It seems like many people are doing well to self-isolate and physically distance themselves (with a few idiots amplified by isolated people posting and sharing on social media). As the weeks of continued shutdown continue, I worry about people getting cabin fever and open spaces becoming crowded, fueling a second wave.

But I hope anyone who can’t find enough space in their local ‘hoods can find some inspiration, and go explore other less-trodden paths. I also hope, once we get through this, that we do not forget this lesson and make better open space networks. For the normal days, and if we’re unlucky, the next pandemic.