Greenline: Expanding the Meadoway Treatment to Toronto’s Hydro Transmission System

Note: This was initially published on May 2, 2019. It was updated on June 10, 2019 to add one corridor, extend another, and update total statistics.

On April 11, 2018, the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, in partnership with the City of Toronto and The W. Garfield Weston Foundation, launched a new park project called The Meadoway. The project would reimagine 16 kilometre Gatineau Hydro Corridor, which is a provincial hydro line between the Bermondsey substation in Thorncliffe Park northeast to the city border in Rouge Park.  As the name suggests, the corridor would be converted from the manicured grass that exists in many sections into a meadow habitat, and would also include a multi-use path to support cycling and walking.

The Meadoway in blue, with additional portions of the Gatineau Corridor on each end in purple. Intersecting parkland is in green.

This is an ingenious idea to take this corridor from a 20th century bare infrastructure landbase, and partly return it back to nature while providing Torontonians an active transportation corridor to cycle and play in. I can’t believe we made it to 2019 without doing this, and part of my public review of the Meadoway actually laments that the east and west limits fall short.

But it’s also not brand new. Nearly 80 out of 265 hectares (30%) of the Meadoway had already received a meadow habitat treatment, and nearly 10 kilometres of trail were already built. Part of this was the Scarborough Centre Butterfly Trail project, a 3.5 km stretch between Thomson Memorial Park and Scarborough Golf Club Road, which was also granted money by the W. Garfield Weston Foundation. The Meadoway is merely scaling this idea up.

But it got me to thinking: why aren’t we doing this city-wide? How many other hydro corridors are there, with potential to add new natural habitat and trail systems? Some of the distribution system has been buried underground, but much of it remains as open wide corridors of grass, pylons and line.

Courtesy of Hydro One

The Meadoway is 15.6 km long, but when you include the two end bits of the Gatineau Hydro Corridor, it ends up being 21.1 km long. Aside from that, there are 10 other active hydro corridors and 2 former hydro corridors in the city. These stretch a total length of 165 km (5 times as long as the Gardiner and the Don Valley Parkway put together) and covering and area of 1,400 hectares (equal to an area bounded by Queen, Parliament, Bloor and Roncesvalles).

That’s a significant amount of landmass, and the Meadoway Project along the Gatineau Hydro Corridor will naturalize a good chunk of it (10% of the length and 20% of the area). Expanding what I call “the Meadoway treatment” could go a long way towards adding to Toronto’s natural ecosystems and active transportation network. Below is a short profile of each corridor.

Royal Railside

  • Length: 9.8 km
  • Area: 41.0 ha
  • Average Width: 42 m

This corridor initially stretched from the 427 to the Don River. This sent it over the “South Parkdale” neighbourhood, and parallel to the former railway lands to the Don River. With the construction of the Gardiner Expressway and redevelopment of the railway lands, the middle of the corridor was buried between the Queensway / South Kingsway interchange and Sherbourne Street. South Parkdale was also demolished in the process.

Toronto Public Library via Spacing
University of Toronto Library

The west leg is a mix of grass, industrial/commercial scrub lands with encroaching parking lots and vegetated ravine. The east leg is basically an extension of the Union Station Rail Corridor. The corridor crosses 17 roads (11 arterial, 5 local, 1 expressway onramp) and 1 rail line. A Meadoway treatment to the west leg would augment 2 ravines (Mimico Creek, Lower Humber River), and make for a new trail system along Mimico Creek. A Meadoway treatment to the east leg would enrich the void between the Gardiner and Union Station Rail Corridor.

Etobicoke Spine

  • Length: 15.4 km
  • Area: 126.3 ha
  • Average Width: 82 m

This corridor starts at North Queen Street, and continues north and northwest to the 401/427 interchange, and then north again parallel to Highway 27. South of the 401, it is mostly bi-secting low-density residential neighbourhoods. North of the 401 is mostly light industrial/commercial.

Most of the corridor is grass, with intermittent encroachments by adjacent homes and businesses. There are trees sparsely dotted along the corridor which have been trimmed away from the lines (it’s noted that south of the 401, the trees seem less trimmed away from the eastern pylons, which are rusty; perhaps they are unused). The only significant patches of vegetation occur in the three ravine crossings (Etobicoke Creek, West Humber River, Albion Creek), and a small patch of overgrowth between Bethridge Road and Rexdale Boulevard. The corridor crosses 32 roads (12 arterial, 20 local), 2 expressways, and 2 rail lines.

A Meadoway treatment to this corridor would augment 3 ravines (Etobicoke Creek, West Humber River, and Albion Creek), and connect to 3 existing trail systems (West Humber, Etobicoke Creek, Mimico). Potential future improvement areas include the headwater for Berry Creek, minor tributaries of Albion Creek, the 401/427 interchange, as well as the Crosstown West corridor (see next section below).

Humber-Pearson

  • Length: 13.4 km
  • Area: 151 ha
  • Average Width: 113 m

This corridor starts at Etobicoke Creek south of Eglinton Avenue, and goes northeast through the 401/427 interchange, Rexdale, and the forks of the Humber River to Finch Avenue. The adjacent lands are parkland and open space southwest of the 401/427, commmercial / industrial lands to Rexdale Boulevard, and residential or ravine lands the rest of the way. Most of the corridor is grass except where it crosses the Humber Valley, and where a couple parking lots and industrial yards encroach into the space. The corridor crosses 25 roads (12 arterial, 7 local, 6 access), 4 expressways, and 2 rail lines.

A Meadoway treatment to this corridor would augment 6 ravines and their respective trail systems (Etobicoke Creek, Tributary 4, Mimico Creek, West and East Humber River, Berry Creek). A major improvement area, as alluded to above, would be Mimico Creek and where it crosses the 401/427 interchange. I have written before about how the Royal Woodbine Golf Club should be the #2 candidate for converting city-owned golf courses into public parkland, and how extending this connection across the Humber-Pearson Corridor could serve a broader regional trail network.

Finch

  • Length: 37.8 km
  • Area: 497.0 ha
  • Average Width: 131 m

As the name suggests, this corridor runs north of and parallel to Finch Avenue, between Highway 400 and the city’s eastern border. Much of the adjacent lands are residential, with the exception of commercial / industrial sectors in York University Heights, Steeles, Milliken and Armdale.

Most of the corridor is grass except where it crosses ravines, and a marshy patch west of Morningside. A few parking lots are located in the corridor, as well as the York University Busway, the G. Ross Lord Dam reservoir, at least two critcket pitches, seven soccer fields and two community gardens.
The corridor crosses 45 roads (19 arterial, 26 local), 2 expressways, and 4 rail lines.

A Meadoway treatment to this corridor would augment the Rouge National Urban Park and 6 other ravines (Black Creek, West Don River, Newtonbrook Creek, East Don River, West Highland Creek, Morningside Creek), and connect to 4 existing trail systems (Black Creek, West Don River, East Don River, West Highland Creek). Potential future improvement areas include the upper reaches of the East Highland Creek’s West, East and Malvern Branches.

Crosstown West

  • Length: 14.8 km
  • Area: 42.4 ha
  • Average Width: 29 m

This corridor goes across the city to the west. It starts at Etobicoke Creek near the Queensway, where it has two parallel legs west of North Queen Street, with a third leg around The West Mall. From here, it parallels the GO Transit Milton Line until the Humber River, heads due east to the GO Transit Barrie line, jaunts southeast to Canadian Pacific’s east-west mainline, and then parallels that to the Bridgman Transformer at Davenport Road and Macpherson Avenue.

The corridor is a mix of grass, parking lots, recreation parks or industrial yards. Lavender Creek also parallels the corridor between Weston and Symes Roads. The corridor crosses 44 roads (23 arterial, 21 local), 1 expressway, and 5 rail lines.

Between the Wiltshire Transformer Station and Davenport Road, the corridor is a proposed park and trail known as the Green Line, which was part of a design competition. Realizing this vision would at least bring a continuous trail to this 5 km segment of the corridor, hopefully grade separated from most of the arterial roads along the way. I also proposed making this corridor into a trail connection across Toronto in the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority’s Draft Trail Strategy. This would be in lieu of relying on bike lanes along Bloor and Danforth, and keep active transportation users in the natural system.

A Meadoway treatment to this corridor would augment Lavender Creek, as well as 3 other ravines and their existing trail systems (Etobicoke Creek, Mimico Creek, Humber River). Potential future improvement areas include the buried portion of Lavender Creek around Weston Road, connections to the Etobicoke Spine and Mindtown Corridors, as well as the proposed trail along the GO Transit’s Davenport Grade Separation project.

Midtown

  • Length: 6.8 km
  • Area: 12.9 ha
  • Average Width: 19 m

This corridor continues east from where the Crosstown West Corridor left off at the Bridgman Transformer Station, following the Canadian Pacific east-west mainline until reaching the Leaside Transmission Station at Millwood and Overlea. There are actually two legs to this corridor: the first is mostly north of the rail corridor, and buried in a tunnel between Yonge and Bayview Heights Drive; and the second remains above ground south of the rail corridor, but has been eliminated between the Bridgman Transformer Station and a substation east of Yonge. The corridor is mostly squeezed beside railway tracks before spreading out into Crothers Woods, and only crosses 6 arterial roads and 1 rail line.

Archival photos show the south leg of the Midtown Corridor used to run south of the Canadian Pacific Railway’s North Toronto Station to Yonge Street (see bottom right) and parallel to Malborough Avenue until joining the rail corridor again. Courtesy City of Toronto Archives.

Establishing active transportation uses would be a challenge as the corridor is not very wide, and has multiple private properties and the rail corridor itself encroaching onto it. However, there would be great opportunities to maintain a connected corridor for active transportation users between Yonge and Bayview, as ample publicly owned space should exist adjacent to Shaftesbury Avenue, Carstowe Road and the Old Bridle Path.

Scarboro-Oakridge

  • Length: 6.4 km
  • Area: 22.6 ha
  • Average Width: 35 m

This corridor intersects the Gatineau Hydro Corridor south of Lawrence Avenue and east of Kennedy Road. From here, it parallels TTC Lines 3 and 2 south to Victoria Park station. Aside from where it’s flanked by transit infrastructure, much of the adjacent lands are residential. Warden Woods parallels the corridor between Warden and Pharmacy Avenues, and some former railway lands intersect the corridor between Birchmount and Kennedy Roads. Most of the corridor is grass except where it crosses ravines. The corridor crosses 10 roads (6 arterial, 4 local), 1 subway line and 1 rail line.

A Meadoway treatment to this corridor would augment Warden Woods and 3 other ravines (Taylor-Massey Creek x2, unnamed Taylor-Massey Creek tributary), connect to an existing trail system along Taylor-Massey Creek at St Clair Ravine Park, and connect to the future trail along the Gatineau Hydro Corridor . Potential future improvement areas include additional connections under TTC Line 2 to Warden Woods, through Firvalley Woods, under the rail spur between Farlinger Ravine and Eglinton Ravine Park, and around Kennedy Station and the local road network there.

Taylor Creek

  • Length: 5.3 km
  • Area: 17.5 ha
  • Average Width: 33 m

This corridor goes northwest from Victoria Park station (where it links to the Scarboro-Oakride Corridor), and paralles Taylor-Massey Creek and the Lower Don River until the Leaside Bridge, where it links up with the Lower Don Corridor. The corridor crosses 6 roads (3 arterial, 2 local, 1 access), 1 expressway, and 1 rail line, as well as passes beneath another two road bridges.

This corridor is already naturalized with significant woody vegetation west of the corner between Lumsden Avenue and Eastdale Avenue, although it is kept trimmed in the immediate vicinity of the power lines by Hydro One. East of this corner, some parking lots are within the corridor, and it is flanked by some hi-rise towers. Meadoway treatments to this corridor would only be required in a couple localized spots, mostly in Crescent Town. The corridor has an existing trail for most of its length, although new crossings between Coxwell Ravine Park and the north side of the rail line east of the Leaside Bridge would be welcome.

Lower Don

  • Length: 7.6 km
  • Area: 18.5 ha
  • Average Width: 24 m

This corridor goes south from the Leaside Transmission Station at Millwood and Overlea, following the Lower Don River to the Keating Channel, where it takes a couple turns in the Port Lands to reach the Shipping Channel opposite The Hearn and the Portlands Energy Centre. The corridor crosses 10 roads (1 arterial x4 + 3 additional arterial, 1 local, 5 bridges), 2 expressways and 2 expressway offramps, as well as 3 rail lines (one of them x3).

This corridor is already naturalized with significant woody vegetation north of River Street, and parallels the existing Lower Don River Trail. South of this point, the corridor abuts roads and rails, and at one point stands in the middle of Commissioners Road. Therefore, opportunities for Meadoway treatments are limited. However, there are plans by Waterfront Toronto to create a stormwater channel under the hydro towers along Commissioners Street, which is an interesting use of limited space.

Courtesy Waterfront Toronto

Beltline

  • Length: 4.5 km
  • Area: 5.1 ha
  • Average Width: 46 m

As the name implies, the Beltline Corridor follows the former Beltline Railway, north from St Clair and eventually east to the Fairbank Transformer Station near Marlee Avenue and Roselawn Avenues. The corridor is part of the GO Barrie line right-of-way until Eglinton Avenue, and is then part of the York Beltline Park the rest of the way.

The corridor crosses 7 roads (6 arterial, 1 local), and criss-crosses the Barrie line once. North of Eglinton, a Meadoway treatment is not needed everywhere, but may help augment some of the more scrubby vegetation. South of Eglinton, there is a major opportunity to create a major north-south link between the Beltline Trail and, in the future, the Greenway planned as part of the Davenport Diamond Grade Separation project.

Dorset Park Bent

  • Length: 3.2 km
  • Area: 20.5 ha
  • Average Width: 64 m

The Dorset Park Bent appears to be a former hydro corridor that has since been abandoned. It started at the Scarboro Transormer Station where the Gatineau and Scarboro-Oakride Corridors intersect, and continued north and northwest until linking up with the Warden Corridor at the 401 west of Warden Avenue. Historical aerial photos show the hydro towers that ran along the corridor, but they are no longer present today. Current satellite images and land parcel configurations make it clear where the corridor once was.

Corridor between Kennedy and Birchmount circa 1956, with hydro towers still visible. Courtesy City of Toronto.

Between Kennedy and Ellesmere Road, the corridor is grass, and actually contains the Dorset Branch of West Highland Creek. North of Ellesmere, the land has been taken up for commercial and residential development. East of Kennedy, it’s a bunch of industrial / commercial yards. The short corridor crosses 8 roads (4 arterial, 3 local, 1 access) and 1 rail line.

Being an abandoned hydro corridor with no vertical restrictions, this corridor could go beyond a Meadoway treatment and be reforested. This is especially important given that it shares the path with the Dorset Branch, which has been straightened and urbanized. Naturalizing the corridor could include restoring a meander to the creek, and bring much needed water quality and quantity improvements to this part of the watershed.

Warden

  • Length: 9.0 km
  • Area: 24.9 ha
  • Average Width: 28 m

The Warden Corridor, as the name implies, parallels Warden Avenue to the west. It starts at the Gatineau Corridor in Wexford, and proceeds directly north to the city boundary and beyond. Within the city limits, the corridor crosses 20 roads (7 arterial, 13 local), 1 expressway and 1 rail line.

However, somewhat like the Dorset Park Bent, it appears to be an abandoned hydro corridor. Between the 401 and the Finch Corridor, the hydro towers are gone and much of it was taken over for residential development, leaving a small 15 metre wide corridor behind for a natural gas line that still lays beneath. South of the 401, the towers remain, but it seems the wires lead to nowhere. What remains of the corridor is all grass, with occasional trimmed trees.

Aerial photo circa 1962, showing the former width of the Warden Corridor north of the 401, as well as the Doreset Park Bent. Courtesy City of Toronto.

If the corridor is indeed inactive south of the 401, it could also be a candidate for full reforestation (as opposed to just a Meadoway treatment). It also parallels the upper reaches of Taylor-Massey Creek for half a kilometre, and would provide some improvements to the watershed. North of the Finch Corridor, a Meadoway treatment would augment the existing trail to the north of the city.

Public Review: An Examination of the Meadoway

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

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Courtesy of The Meadoway

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

Build Bridges, Not Barriers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Over the Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

A First Phase

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

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

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