2022 Metroscapes in Review

…better late than never?

I’m just getting around to a year in review. It’s the sort of thing you’re supposed to have done on or close to New Years Day. But honestly, I haven’t been too motivated to go over what I accomplished in 2022, because it was my least productive year to date in terms of walking. Between two deaths and a birth, raising a young family, effectively getting my previous roof yanked out from over us, and staff shortages / extra workload in my professional life, I didn’t have as much time or energy left at the end of the day.

Nonetheless, here’s a recap.


In 2022, I only got out for 7 walks totalling 116 kilometres, or 16.6 km per walk. This is the lowest annual total yet. Despite this, I was able to push my all-time walk odometer over 2,250 km, which is a nice milestone.

I was able to make three of them within Guelph, expanding my footprint there. This included walking along the Eramosa, a second trip along the Speed, and tracing the City’s lone hydro corridor.

A couple more trips were made to Hamilton. This allowed me to take a journey through a hydro corridor climbing up the escarpment, and follow some shoreline into Cootes Paradise.

Lastly, I also made two more trips back to Toronto. One was a long re-do of a midtown hydro corridor, and the other was a trip up the Rouge River (which was cut short due to illness).



So one of the biggest projects of the year was migrating all of my walks from Twitter onto this website. This was a long outstanding item on my to-do list, and it took 8 months to (mostly) complete, but I did it.

I was prompted to do this by the bird site being taken over by its new owner. Things haven’t catastrophically collapsed, they may be crumbling in the back end. Regardless, it’s still a great thing to secure your work on a domain you control. I also now have the benefit of being able to easily pull any of the almost 6,000 active walk pictures into different pages (such as those above, or these below), to make for richer content.


I converted three more projects into GIS: Guelph watersheds, Toronto hydro corridors, and the Toronto shoreline. Maybe it shouldn’t, but it always surprises me how close my hand-drawn data was to more precise GIS lengths and areas.

New Project: Riverbank

One big change was realizing a goal I had set out to do ever since Metroscapes became a multi-city project: transplanting my shoreline project series to something similar in city flung away from the Great Lakes. That’s where the Riverbanks project comes into play. I can now break down the ownership of each bank, and the overall reach, of major rivers within a city.

Open data portal

Another big achievement was taking all of my project data, and providing it as open data. I have no desire to be a sole keeper of all this information, nor profess that everything I do is right, nor claim I’m doing all there is to be done for cities I cover at the time of writing.

So I’ve made my project data open for download. I hope it’s useful, and can help someone else in their own analysis.

Blog Posts

In the process of migrating my walks, I got a better recollection of how I got here; how walking and sharing on social media used to be sparse and disjointed, and grew into full documentation of certain features. The big spark for that transition was when I took a walk and documented the upper reaches of Yellow Creek.

The engagement I got on that was significant, so much so that it made me re-evaluate how I was doing my walks and what I was doing with that first-hand knowledge. It was half a year later that I relaunched this website into something resembling what it is today.

Looking Ahead

I usually have some grand plans to muse about, but writing this over two months late tells you where I’m at. I’m still too busy to make big promises. That’s not to say I don’t have plans, I always have plans, I have a long list with little time to finish many items right now.

So, let’s just catch up in 9 months and see what’s what.

Migration II: The Final Plea

As I said in a previous post, I have been migrating the bread and butter of my hobby from social media to this website. It’s still a work in progress, but it’s going. And until this point, when I talk about social media, I’ve made references to ‘the bird site’ to avoid engaging with a bunch of billionaire’s fanatics.

I’m going to stop being coy. It’s Twitter. And it’s going to shit.

I’m also not making this post to navel gaze. What I’ve been doing is salvaging 6+ years of something I’ve poured much time and energy into. And I’m really worried there’s other major content creators on Twitter who are not saving their work, and letting it circle the drain.

Whether it’s large disorganized layoffs, minor back-end hiccups piling up, or breaking the ability to log in, there’s lots of signs that the site is at a real risk of failure. Even if it doesn’t happen and Twitter is rescued from the brink, it’s easy and important to save your work.

I did this in a Twitter thread already, but I’ve now made this blog post as a last appeal to content creators like me to save your Twitter data, and give you a quick rundown of what a backed-up data archive looks like.

1. Downloading the Archive

You can archive every tweet, and the accompanying media (photos and videos) into a tidy zipped folder. On a desktop, the first step is to go into settings, and find “Download an archive of your data” under Your Account. After confirming it’s you, you can then request your archive. It can take up to 24 hours to process. You’ll get a notification when it’s ready.

2. Opening Your Archive

After downloading your archive, unzip the folder. This leaves you with three items:

  1. Assets; mostly back-end stuff like icons, fonts, emojis, scripts, etc.
  2. Data: This contains all of your pictures and video.
  3. Your archive.html; this opens your twitter archive in a browser, with all the info pulled from this offline archive.

Now here’s one huge shortcoming with a Twitter archive: you can’t actually view a thread. The first tweet will be under “Tweets”, but any subsequent tweets in the thread are standalone tweet “Replies”. If you can find the first tweet, and all of the subsequent tweets in the thread followed in short order, it won’t be a huge deal. The workaround is: a) Sort by oldest first, b) Use date filter, from the date of the thread. An example below is one of my walk threads.

But if you have a thread sporadically assembled over days, weeks, months…it may be a little more difficult. If someone knows of or makes a fix for this, please let me know. It’s not a big problem for me personally, but it’d be handy.

A last note: like any other important data, don’t save it in one spot. Back your archive up in the cloud, and/or on external hard drives.

3. Working with your Data

Now that you have your content downloaded, you can re-organize it for your needs. The default has a long weird name. From the archive, all you gotta do right-click, “Save picture as…”, rename it, and save it in a folder so that it makes sense to you. For me, that means organizing by date, for example, and numbering them in chronological order.

From here, you can now easily refer back to it, or re-share it on another social media platform, or host it on your own website. Here is an example of a Twitter thread migrated from the bird site to my own page. It is now in my domain, and as a bonus, I’m able to fix typos, add extra content, and link to other stuff. I was able to assemble all this from my offline archive.

So I hope this post is useful. If you’re a content creator like me, I hope it encourages you to a) not let all your hard work go to waste, and b) consider redeploying it for your audience to enjoy. Even if you don’t consider yourself a content creator, it’s fun to look back on your past tweets.

Yellow Creek and the Spark

5 years ago this weekend, I did back-to-back Metroscapes walks tracing Toronto’s Yellow Creek west of Yonge Street to its former headwaters, and east of Yonge to its confluence with the Don.

I had recently been inspired by content by Helen Mills and Lost Rivers Toronto, and decided to explore a (mostly) lost river myself. While I had been walking across Toronto since I got there in 2014, and some of my earliest walk threads date back to April 2016, this was different. Instead of a random aimless saunter, and short details or quips of what I saw (true to the Shawn Micallef style of the time), these walks had an aim and purpose, a consistent theme. And the descriptions were factual and more thorough, akin to a documentary format.

This was the foundation that this website was built upon. It took months more of exploring Toronto’s lost rivers, shoreline, railways and utility corridors for that focus and style to precipitate and solidify, and it was another year before I migrated to a platform that let me expand my city-scale analyses.

But as I’ve progressed through my migration efforts, I realized these two walks were a major milestone. I got a ton of engagement compared to prior walks, a lot of comments and appreciation of my threaded storytelling of Yellow Creek’s path. This was a bit of an epiphany, an inspiration to do what I do today.

So here’s a toast to a 5-year anniversary of that moment, that spark. All from a couple spring afternoons following an urbanized minor tributary of the Don River.

Explore the walks that started it all.


There’s no doubt that Metroscapes was born out of a social media following. When I get some more time, I hope to continue sharing my adventures on social media.

But in today’s digital age, I can’t rely on social media platforms to retain the integrity of my years of work. That’s why I’ve been working to back stuff up and host it here, on a domain I can control. Aside from securing my work, this should have some side benefits such as greater cross-posting of content between pages.

I have started creating new pages to re-document my walks. I have also deleted Instagram and am starting up a new Picture of the Day page in its place.

It’s a work in process, so it’ll be some time yet before you see links change and more content populated. Keep browsing as you were.


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, the Toronto Shoreline. 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 in 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 investigating 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.


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 covering the city with a new scope. 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.


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?


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.