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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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
Anything that was less than 240 metres (5 minute walking distance from midpoint to midpoint) was discounted.
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 km/h for able-bodied pedestrians, and 0.8 km/h for areas where a significant number of pedestrians use assistive devices. The latter speed was used in the length scoring.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Disclaimer: This piece is a data analysis and open discussion regarding Lake Ontario levels. The conclusions are not definitive and are editorial in nature. The matters before the Supreme Court of the State of New York are unproven and may be tested in court through rigorous argument, expert testimony, and applicable law.
Significant unregulated flow into Lake Ontario from Lake Erie;
Significant unregulated flow into the St Lawrence from the Ottawa River; and,
Restricted outflow from Lake Ontario to compensate for the Ottawa River.
It was the coming together of a bunch of factors. There was so much water rushing into the system, and not enough capacity going out, that it filled like a clogged bathtub. New York State, however, thinks that more could have been done. They’re suing the IJC, the bi-national agency in charge of operating Lake Ontario’s outflows at Moses-Saunders Dam near Cornwall.
So I’ve decided to pick up from my previous post, and look at some of the claims.
The Records and the Damage Done
As I wrote previously, Lake Ontario hit a new record monthly average lake height of 75.91 metres (Note 1) last June. That’s 10 cm above the previous record set in June 2017, 15 cm above the record set in 1952, and 1.15 metres above average (Note 2). So in 2017 and 2019, these record high levels caused flooding and erosion on both sides of the lake, including a whack of property damage on upstate New York’s shoreline.
This damage is not just because the lake is generally high. There’s also:
Lake surge (or wind set-up), which is a significant tilting of the lake due to wind (see diagram below); and,
Waves, which are self-explanatory.
On top of lake levels being a half-metre above average levels, surges and waves can add well over an additional metre of height to the water, and that’s a powerful force to be reckoned with, causing devastating flooding and erosion during a single storm.
“In the event of extremely high water levels in Lake Ontario, the IJC’s Dam operation protocol requires the Commission to operate the Dam to provide ‘all possible’ flooding relief to riparian property owners along Lake Ontario upstream of the Dam, subject only to protecting owners downstream of the Dam. During the severe flooding in 2017 and 2019…the IJC chose not to implement its flood relief protocol, which required the Commission to increase outflows through the Dam to the maximum extent possible.”
I don’t know about you, but it seems to me NY State undercut that second sentence with the first one.
The IJC’s ‘Dam operation protocol’ is called Plan 2014, and in a nutshell, when Lake Ontario reaches a certain height, the IJC is able to take certain actions to provide relief to Lake Ontario. This upper trigger varies every “quarter-month” or 7-8 days. Looking at last year’s data, it is true the dam wasn’t opened to full capacity when it reached the upper trigger; between May 7 and June 21, 2019. But again, providing “all possible” protection to Lake Ontario shoreline property upstream of the Dam is subject to protecting downstream properties on the St. Lawrence.
Opening up the Taps
Ignoring the downstream, what difference would it have made to open the dam to max capacity? Would it have been significant? If New York says not opening it up was negligent and the IJC says there was just too much bloody water, this is a good hypothetical scenario to test that.
Under Plan 2014, Lake Ontario would have hit the Upper Limit Trigger on May 7, when it surpassed 75.53 metres. Now, it would have fallen below that the very next day, as the trigger increased to 75.56, and the lake level was 75.55. But I’m going to ignore that. I’m also going to ignore the fact that, in this hypothetical situation, the hypothetical lake level resulting from max outflow bounces above and below the Plan 2014 trigger.
Let’s just assume that, on May 7, 2019, the IJC ignored all downstream impacts and opened up the Moses-Saunders Dam to its max capacity of 10,400 cubic metres a second. What difference would it have made?
31 centimetres, or a standard school ruler. That’s how much lower it would have been between June 21 and August 21, when the dam was opened to max capacity anyway, and less so from May 7 to June 21. The lake would have still been 55 cm above average, and it’s insignificant relative to surge and waves (Note 3).
Remember this is a scenario that would have devastated Montreal, which was already grappling with floodwaters, as well as other communities along the St Lawrence downstream of the dam.
What Arguments Hold Water
The theoretical scenario above illustrates a simple fact: there was a lot of water in the system. There’s no way to control how much water comes into Lake Ontario, from Lake Erie and all of the rivers and creeks on both sides of the border. This theoretical scenario also ignores other considerations the IJC has to make, such as potential downstream impacts, ice, hydroelectric plant equipment, and shipping / navigation.
This is consistent with the IJC’s position. From my viewpoint, New York State has a tough case in front of them. As a start, they have to prove that a) opening up the dam to its fullest extent would have made a significant enough difference to the property damages they faced, and b) it would not have significantly impacted downstream communities.
In the face of that challenging argument, it’s hard to see why New York State has gone through the trouble of this lawsuit. Giving them the benefit of doubt, perhaps they do have convincing data to show that extra discharge at the dam would have made a difference. Being really cynical, perhaps they don’t care how downstream communities in Quebec are impacted (the dam is about where the New York border turns east from the river).
But I think it’s political, and I say that with respect.
Paragraph 74 of the lawsuit argues the IJC was negligent because “Among other things, the IJC…chose to prioritize commercial shipping interests over riparian property owners.” That would have been crazy to say back in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when marine shipping was still a major way of transporting goods. But in the 21st century when we have other means to move goods by road, rail and air, I think it’s a fair question to ask if accommodating ships during critical lake conditions is reasonable.
Maybe that still wouldn’t make a huge difference, but it’s a difference nonetheless. And perhaps that’s one reason amongst others to step back, look at the bigger picture, and have a political discussion about how to manage flooding and flows in the Great Lakes basin.
That discussion should also include how New York manages it’s shoreline development. The best way to avoid a flooding or erosion hazard is to avoiding or mitigating the damage before development occurs. How much damage could have been prevented has been the burning question for me.
Note 2: Averages are for 1917-2016 (100 years). The annual lake average was 74.76 m. Monthly averages are different and vary month-to-month.
Note 3: This is a calculation based upon a surface area of 18,960 km². The difference between the max outflow from the Moses-Saunders Dam and the last outflow change for the dam was applied for each day (i.e. outflow in M3/s, multiplied by 86,400 seconds in a day), for a total volume of discharge for that day. This was then calculated as a height (volume ÷ area), and subtracted from the previous day height. The actual height change that occurred that day was also subtracted to account for inflows and evapotranspiration.
It’s been half a year since I picked up from Toronto, the big city, and moved to the more affordable pastures of Kitchener-Waterloo-Cambridge (“the Tri-Cities”). I’ve covered less than a tenth of what I walked in the T dot, but it’s given me enough time and distance to reflect on how these two regions differ, how the metroscapes have changed.
Toronto was founded as the Town of York in 1793, and has since been a focal point for development as the capital of Ontario, and an economic epicenter of the country. Waterloo County (the predecessor to the Regional Municipality of Waterloo) was settled around the same time, but Kitchener served as the administrative a rural seat for the area. It would be the mid 19th century before they became towns, and the 20th before they were cities.
As such, Toronto has deeper rooted intersections between the natural and built environments. This time piece is critical; the natural environment gets a lot more protection and attention in development planning than it ever did. New development is mostly prohibited where there are wetlands, waterways, floodplains and valley slopes, mostly to protect people or their property from flooding and erosion. But Ontario’s regulatory regime only became strong in the wake of Hurricane Hazel and it’s devastating effects in 1954. Even then, it was mostly focused on waterways and floodplains until encompassing valley slopes and wetlands towards the turn of the century.
This has created a swath of legacy development in Toronto, where houses and commercial/industrial operations had either buried and filled in ravines, or significantly encroached on them before regulation in place. The Tri-Cities on the other hand were more rural in character for some time, took longer to develop, and did so at a lower density and scale. This left more relatively more natural areas intact or unadulterated, at least until more robust protection of ravines was in place.
That’s development. Then there’s infrastructure, which is given more priority and leeway to encroach into or near natural areas. It’s still shaped by the same increasing environmental standards over time, but depending on how important that infrastructure is and how much demand there is for it, there may be more money available to make it happen. Toronto’s capital status and greater population and larger economy put it under greater pressure to provide sufficient roadways, highways, subways, railways; ways across and through natural areas. That hasn’t occurred to the same intensity in the Tri-Cities, but it’s there.
The key is that this infrastructure happened earlier in history, and at a larger scale. Massive infrastructure filled in ravines, or led to the complete burial of creeks. By today’s standards, it’s either not worth the cost of the infrastructure required to cross a natural area, or it’s avoided altogether.
Each metroscape also has one major difference: land availability.
There are historic shots of mid to upper parts of Toronto on either side of Yonge Street that seem unreal; the city was still quite rural in the mid-20th century. But by the 70’s and 80’s, new development was punching up to the city’s north border along Steeles Avenue.
Walking in the Tri-Cities in 2020, there are still plenty of rolling farmer fields and freshly carved woodlots on the frontier of development. There are approximately 47 km² of land that are considered “greenfields” within the current urban boundary. This is ignoring development outside of KWC proper, in places like Breslau, the Stockyards, and Mannheim, and it’s entirely possible that these borders could change with annexation. The pressure will only continue to grow as the Tri-Cities grow, and more people like me flock from the GTA in search of more affordable housing.
So the effects are obvious to me when I go exploring the respective metroscapes. Toronto has more natural spaces that have been covered up, constrained, engineered, fractured and/or half restored. This can often make them more interesting; they may be mysterious from an aerial perspective, and hold more surprises when explored in person. Add this to the fact that Toronto has a lake shore and the Tri-Cities does not, and there’s a clear difference in variety.
These unique metroscapes exist in the Tri-Cities too, but significantly modified natural spaces are fewer and farther between. It’s a bit of a double edged sword. Finding an unadultered natural refuge in the Tri-Cities is easier to do than in Toronto. Yet when you find it in a choked, noisy, concrete jungle, that’s what makes it more remarkable and more special. And when you find spaces that are modified to some degree by the built environment, it gives them character, and makes them unique.
This doesn’t make my walks in the Tri-Cities less interesting. There is a moment during every walk, something that raises an eyebrow and makes you smirk. It’s a snapshot that sticks with you, and it adds to your self-constructed image of the city.
That’s why I urge my readers and followers to go beyond living vicariously through me. Go explore these places yourself. Find your moment. My role is to be a guide and inspiration for where to start.
2019 marked a milestone in exploring local metroscapes. 2018 was the first full year under the new brand, and when my walk planning was starting to get really organized. So this past year was about covering as much ground as I could; I was in the groove, but I had the inkling that this may be my last year in Toronto. I tried to cover off all that I could, but it’s hard being a father and working full time.
I did not top 2018’s total walking distance, but considering everything going on in my life, I still covered a good amount of ground.
Over 26 walks, I covered 407 kilometres (321 km Toronto / 86 km KWC), a little longer than driving between Niagara Falls and Kingston. This is a decrease of 150 km from 2018.
The average walk was 15.6 km, an increase of 1.7 km from 2018. This is the same distance as walking between Keele and Main Street subway stations in Toronto, or between Conestoga Mall and Mill Stations in KW.
The longest walk was the last one of the year (December 7), coming in at 23.7 km. This was following the proposed ION Stage 2 route, which is longer than the actual route because of the detours.
Most months were an average of 30 km total, the outliers being March (57 km) and June (77 km).
There were 118 Toronto neighbourhoods covered in 2019, 84 of them which were truly walked through, down from 166 and 143 last year, respectively. Half decent coverage of the city, especially Etobicoke and west Toronto-East York North York was a bit of a void. 2 walks went beyond the City of Toronto borders, 3 of them in the Pearson airport area.
As for the tri-city, in which I completed a neighbourhood project for, I covered 41 neighbourhoods, 32 which were truly walked through. Many of them are concentrated along the regional north-south spine, as this happened to be the features I explored. 1 walk went beyond the borders of the tri-cities, when following the Grand’s west bank technically took me through North Dumfries.
Note: A watersheds project for Kitchener – Waterloo – Cambridge is still in progress, so this only reflects watersheds for Toronto walks. This section will be updated once KWC Watersheds is completed.
Last year, I was able to cover all 7 watersheds in Toronto. This year, I technically walked through all of them again, but fewer of my walks traced watercourses.
I covered 9 first-order rivers and creeks of 4 main watersheds (Lower / West Etobicoke, Lower / West / East Humber, Lower / West / East Don, East Highland).
10 second-order or lower streams were followed (Black, Lavender and 4 tributaries, Mud, Curran Hall, West Hill and tributary).
1 lost river was traced: Russel Creek, which drained straight into Lake Ontario.
Looking ahead to 2020
2020 will be a big year for exploring the metroscapes of the tri-city. I have lots of opportunities to go beyond the spine I’ve covered so far, and hit the far reaches of each city. In total, I have almost 500 km of walk plans. This includes:
16 in riverine systems
6 in hydro corridors
3 along rail corridors
2 along highways
In addition to that, I still have some unfinished business in Toronto, so I may fire down to the T Dot a couple times to try and cover more ground. This includes checking out some new stuff, such as Garrison Crossing and the new East Don Trail.
Aside from the walks, I have a lot of project work to do as well, and for starters I will finish and publish KWC neighbourhoods. I also have to get my head around KWC watersheds; it’s a bit of a different beast from Toronto, as it will be a number of subwatersheds of the Grand River.
I also hope to figure out a better mapping solution. I have been using Google My Maps as a primary tool, and MapHub for posting and sharing screenshots (since it’s open source). They’re free, which is the primary reason I’ve used them, but both are becoming limited in the scale and capacity I want to use them. I may move to a GIS tool if I have the time and energy amongst the rest of life’s demands.
My suggestion for Scarborough Waterfront West has been adopted;
The future Leaside South connection has been illustrated;
The Weston North Humber Connection gap was recognized; and,
The Finch Hydro Corridor trail will be kept within the corridor across the Metrolinx Uxbridge Subdivision.
It definitely feels good that I was able to lean on my walking experience and create some change in a major planning document. This will help create continuous trails along the waterfront, Humber River and Finch Hydro Corridors. Furthermore, some of the things I raised were (relatively) small scale details that I’m not too worked about.
That said, I am a bit disappointed that three of my large scale suggestions were not taken up.
The Crosstown Southwest corridor is the biggest disappointment for me, and is somewhat baffling. It is a natural corridor that would be richer than the bike lanes on Bloor. Furthermore, the middle part between Davenport and St Clair is a formally recognized project by the city, and there is about a kilometre and a half of existing trail west of that. I thought filling in the gap in the Stockyards area and continuing the line past Rockcliffe Boulevard to Etobicoke Creek was a good idea.
A trail through Black Creek Ravine also seems like a relatively feasible project, as pretty much all of the approximately 6 kilometre trail would be on existing, publicly owned parkland and open space. The only exception would be a half-kilometre stretch under the Highway 400 / Jane Street interchange, which is still public land, making access negotiable.
North Scarborough has this ginournous gap in north-south connectivity. Once again, there are existing segments of trail and most of the ravine is intact. It may be constrained in spots where wetlands are present and a meander belt is protected for, but I think a link to Scarborough Centre should be worth the effort.
Progress is slow and steady sometimes, and the fate of these potential trails is not sealed. So I will take this as a win, and I hope Torontonians will continue pushing for a better trail network.