Golf: The Scourge of Ravines

Let me make it very clear: I don’t like golf. It’s nothing to do with the game itself, but for the fact that it is a land hog, exclusive to one sport and restricted to private members, with no space afforded to the general public (full disclosure, I don’t play typical golf, but a derivative: disc golf). In the Greater Toronto Area, a number of golf courses were established and have taken hold in ravines. This creates a problem in two parts: it fractures the natural corridors of our city.

The first part is obvious: golf courses, with their sprawling greens, are heavily managed to allow for a good game. This fragments the surrounding ecosystem, loads rivers with fertilizer, and foregoes the ecosystem benefits of having that land covered in natural vegetation.

The second part is that, because golf courses are mostly restricted to club member access, they create major gaps in Toronto’s active transportation network. They hog the banks of rivers and creeks, which are often conduits for high-quality hiking and biking trails. This is detrimental to the broader regional network, and in fact, the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) recently released a draft Regional Trail Strategy that is directly or indirectly impacted by at least a dozen of them. They can also be barriers to access from and between local streets and neighbourhoods, making them less walkable and cyclable.

When food and beverage contracts at two city-owned golf courses expired in November 2017, the city noted that golf participation rates and revenues have been declining, and that some city-owned courses struggled to break even. This triggered the question of whether the city should be owning golf courses at all. My opinion: absolutely not. A city government has no business owning land that is restricted to a single activity and charging fees for access, let alone putting public resources towards them.

So this spurred me to look at the 7 city-owned golf courses, as well as 12 private courses, to see how much of a barrier they are in these respects, and rank them in terms of parkland and active transportation criteria. Below are the top 7 courses (3 public, 4 private) that could improve Toronto’s ravines and trail systems.

Public Courses

1. Don Valley

Don Valley Golf Course occupies over 2 kilometres of the West Don River, from the northwest corner of Yonge and Wilson, under the 401 to the southeast corner of Earl Bales Park. It also covers over 47 hectares of land, making it the second largest of the public golf courses.

This course is notable for being steps from a subway station, and within reach of high density populations at Sheppard-Yonge, giving it significant potential as an active transportation corridor. Multi-use trails stretch along most of the West Don to the northwest, all the way into Vaughan. Converting this course into parkland would create a direct pedestrian and cycling access from a number of residences in the Wilson Heights, Armour Heights, Lansing and southwest Willowdale neighbourhoods to Yonge Street and the subway.

It would also create an opportunity to fill a dangerous sidewalk gap along Yonge. Currently, if you are travelling north from Wilson on the west side of Yonge, the sidewalk suddenly ends 200 metres north of William Carson Crescent, forcing you to backtrack, or try to jaywalk across 6 lanes of traffic on Yonge plus an offramp from the 401. It’s a dangerous proposition, and coming southbound is marginally better, with one formal onramp crossing and a pedestrian bridge over Yonge. A full-on trail bypass is a solution that could be facilitated, in part, by opening up the golf course to the public.

2. Royal Woodbine

Royal Woodbine Golf Club is a very long a stretched out course, covering about 3.5 kilometres of Mimico Creek. This course is notable for being in what I refer to as the “Pearson Triangle”, an area bounded by the 401, 427 and the GO Transit Kitchener line. This area has almost no parks in it; with the exception of some land south of Disco Road and north of the 409, the only open space you’ll find will be isolated patches along hydro corridors.

It’s hard to argue for park space in an area with no residents, low rise commercial buildings, and airplanes screaming into and out of Pearson. But remember that this is about naturalizing a stretch of Mimico Creek, and also providing an active transportation link. That has benefits for the environment, as well as workers and customers who don’t have a car.

The success of this stretch also depends on addressing barriers to travel north and south of the course. The 401/427 interchange, immediately to the south of the course, represents a huge barrier the Pearson Triangle and a fairly contiguous creek-side trail south of Eglinton Avenue. There are no sidewalks or trails west of Carlingview Drive either. So even if Royal Woodbine could be converted with trails included, it would be considered quite isolated in the broader network, and this knocks it out of the top spot in the ranking.

3. Dentonia Park

Dentonia Park is along a short 400 metre stretch of Taylor Massey Creek. It is also the smallest of all Toronto golf courses by a long shot: 13.7 hectares, with the next course coming in at over 20 hectares.

This course is small, but its location is critical. It’s the only break in an otherwise continuous, grade-separated, high quality, 13.5 kilometre natural active transportation corridor from Warden Subway Station all the way to Lake Ontario. By opening this course up and creating a grade-separated crossing of Victoria Park Avenue, you could commute by bike without encountering any cars outside of the first and last mile. It would be a #bikeTO fantasy come true.

Private

1. Oakdale

Oakdale Golf and Country Club covers 1,300 metres of Black Creek, which is mostly concentrated in the south part of the course. It is also the largest course in Toronto, covering 88.7 hectares.

Oakdale is a barrier to continuous trail access along Black Creek, and opening it up connect Downsview Dells and Chalkfarm Park. The TRCA has proposed a creative solution to the golf club’s presence by proposing a trail corridor that follows Heathrow Creek to Jane and Wilson, and then redirects users to the Humber River valley. I have provided feedback on the latter part of TRCA’s proposal.

However, this is not an optimal routing, as it still requires climbing out of the Black Creek ravine, and it diverts users away from existing parkland in Chalkfarm Park. This golf course could contribute towards a complete trail network from York University to Jane and Wilson, and has the potential to add significant natural lands to the Black Creek watershed and the broader Downsview community.

2. Donalda

The Donalda Club spreads over 3.25 km of the East Don River, 800 metres of Deerlick Creek, as well as a total of nearly 500 metres of at least three other minor streams. It is the second largest course in Toronto, covering 77.2 hectares.

Donalda is actually the one course to my knowledge that allows some limited access: you can cross between the end of Three Valleys Drive and Chipping Road via a short walkway across the course. However, the owners make it very clear that straying left or right is trespassing on private property.

The result is detrimental to the trail network. Existing adjacent trails along the East Don Trail currently end north of Lawrence Avenue East and east of Don Mills Road, creating a gap in what will otherwise be a continuous trail from the city’s north boundary to the lake (once the trail between Wynford Drive and the Forks of the Don is completed). There are also three potential connections to existing local trails along Deerlick Creek and two other unnamed tributaries. Opening up this course would make a significant improvement to local and regional trail systems.

3. Islington

Islington Golf Club spreads over 1.8 km of Mimico Creek. It is a medium-sized course relative to others within Toronto, covering 51.2 hectares.

The Islington Golf Club creates a gap in the trail network along Mimico Creek. Trail users must currently divert via Kipling Avenue, Burnhamthorpe Road and Dundas Street West to get between the trail segments. It’s not the worst detour in the city, but it’s enough. Closing this gap could contribute towards a continuous trail between Eglinton and Bloor, and perhaps further north to the Pearson Triangle (see Royal Woodbine above) and further south if existing segments were stitched together.

4. Markland Wood

Markland Wood Golf Club spreads over 2.75 km of Etobicoke Creek. It is also a medium-sized course relative to others within Toronto, covering 46.0 hectares.

Markland Wood creates a gap in the trail network along Etobicoke Creek. While “Tributary 4” provides an alternative parallel route, it can feel tight and confined relative to the open valley of the main creek. Closing this gap could make a continuous trail from Dixie Road (north of Courtneypark Drive) to Dundas Street, and all the way to Lake Ontario once the gap between Dundas and the Queensway is addressed. Again, this is something the TRCA has proposed, and I have presented a counterproposal on.

Conclusion

These seven courses received a score of 3 in at least three categories of evaluation. The evaluation of all courses, the evaluation criteria, and a map of the courses are posted below. Do you agree with the ranking? Are there criteria that were missed or require more weight? Let me know what you think in the comments.

#metroscapes 2018 in Review

2018 marks the first full year of #metroscapes, a brand I launched in November 2017 to organize the hundreds of kilometres of hiking I had done in Toronto, and to represent their theme: the exploration of where natural and built environments collide. And with this new brand, I started upping my game. I started planning my walks, making them less of aimless wandering and more of discoveries of natural systems and built corridors. I started pulling from additional resources, such as the City of Toronto’s mapping service and historic aerial photographs. I migrated this website to a new platform to expand beyond walks, and have dedicated pages for projects such as #shorelineTO, #neighbourhoodsTO and Toronto’s Trail Network. And although this website now shifts some focus away from blogging, I still use it, with a new practice of using it to comment on public documents such as the City of Toronto Parkland Strategy and the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority’s Trail Strategy for the Greater Toronto Region.

So it’s been a good year. I am extremely satisfied with how things have shaken out. The entire experience feels richer, easier to share and keep updated, as well as resourceful for fellow Torontonians, expats, and other followers.

So with that, I decided to conduct another year-in-review, similar to what I did for 2017 (it appears that blog post didn’t survive the migration, perhaps a retroactive rewrite is in order). I will go over the stats, the neighbourhoods and watersheds covered, and highlight my favourite shots from the year.

Statistics

2018 was the year that I surpassed what I had walked (and tweeted and recorded) in the prior 21 months.

  • Over 40 walks, I travelled 557 kilometres (km), the equivalent of driving from Toronto to Montreal.
  • The average walk was 13.9 km, about the same distance along Yonge Street from Sheppard Avenue to the lake.
  • The longest walk was 23.2 km (May 5), or almost the distance between Kipling and Warden subway stations.
  • There was lots of variation month-to-month as well; one walk early in August (when I usually take vacation, but was expecting my child this year), and 100 km over 7 walks in February.

Neighbourhoods

There were 166 neighbourhoods covered in 2018, 143 of them which were truly walked through, up from 120 and 80 last year, respectively. Good broad coverage of the city, and Scarborough in particular was blanketed pretty well. Walks in Toronto-East York mostly avoided the downtown core, sticking to East York, the shoreline, and west end. 6 walks went beyond the City of Toronto borders, 3 of them in the Pearson airport area.

Watersheds

Last year, I covered all watersheds except for Mimico Creek. I was able to rectify that this year, covering all watersheds in Toronto.

  • I covered most of the first-order rivers and creeks of the 7 main watersheds, with the exceptions of the East Humber and the Rouge River.
  • 20 second-order or lower streams were followed, ranging from major tributaries such as Black Creek or Taylor Massey Creek, to small semi-lost tributaries such as Vyner Creek or Silver Creek.
  • 7 lost rivers were traced. Two drain straight to Lake Ontario, one was a tributary of Mimico Creek, two were Lower Don tributaries, and two were tributaries of West Highland Creek’s Dorset Branch.

Looking to 2019 and Beyond

It’s been nearly three years since I started tracing and tweeting Metroscapes walks, and that has resulted in over 1,000 km of walks in total. That also means I’ve covered many of the neighbourhoods and watercourses in Toronto. That doesn’t mean I am in short supply of places to see. As I mentioned at the top, I have been planning my walks, and that means there is plenty of goals set for 2019:

  • Three major watercourses: Upper West Don, the Lower Humber, and the Rouge River.
  • Major destinations: The Islands and the Leslie Spit.
  • Numerous tributaries of the Humber, Don and Highland.
  • Exploring the edges of Toronto’s highways and railways.

If I was still able to walk every weekend, I could probably achieve all the walks I’d like in 2019. However, I need to prioritize: I’m now a father with limited free time, and 2019 may be my last year in Toronto.

But this will not be the end of Metroscapes. In fact, it will be an opportunity to expand the brand to the next city/region I call home, and to other cities as well. Stay tuned, and keep exploring your local metroscapes.

Public Review: Building a Better Toronto Park System

Taking a look at Toronto’s Parkland Strategy and making a great park system.

Toronto is in the midst of drafting its 20 year Parkland Strategy, a first since the city’s amalgamation.

One big driver for this is the fact that parkland acquisition has not kept pace with population growth over the past 10 years, leading to a decline in the average park area per person. That’s the math, but in real terms it means that our existing parks have to keep accommodating more people and are becoming more crowded.

park graph 1
Courtesy City of Toronto: Parkland Strategy Phase I Report Primer

The other driver for this is the continued inequality of how parkland is distributed throughout the city. In addition to general inequality between the community council areas, there are particular neighbourhoods and districts with severe deficiencies, with almost no parkland within a walkable distance.

Toronto Parkland Supply
Courtesy City of Toronto: Parkland Strategy Phase 1 Report

So the city is currently drafting the Parkland Strategy with this in mind, and sculpting it around four key themes:

  • Expand: Creating and aquiring new parkland
  • Connect: Bridging gaps between existing parks
  • Improve: Reimagining the use of parks and open spaces
  • Share: Programming parks and allowing multiple uses

I attended the #TOparks talk at City Hall held at the end of May, and was able to ask a question. But I wanted to come back, recollect my thoughts, and provide structured comments on what the Parkland Strategy should look like. Below are my four key recommendations.

Parks as a Transportation System

The theme of connecting in the Parkland Strategy talks a lot about ensuring there is access.  Definitely important; if you want to enjoy a park, you need to get to and from it, as well as around within it. And to be clear, we’re talking about access by foot, bike, or other active transport. But I can’t help but feel like this has a ceiling to it. We need to elevate this from accessing parks for parks sake, and realize that parks can be a transportation system; A and B may be outside of a park, but you want to get between those points through the parks.

Screw the sidewalk. Walk, bike or whatever to/from work, home, a friends house, a community centre, or a restaurant in nature. Fresh oxygen > nitrous oxides. Birds singing > tires roaring.

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All parks, regardless of their intended primary function (nature preservation, recreation, cultural hub, utility conveyance) need to have active transportation as a foundational component, mandatory and integrated. Not as an afterthought, not as a low-priority accommodation around other features.

It needs to be set as priority one, providing the shortest desired path for where people need to go. It needs to be done in a high-quality fashion too. Wide enough to accommodate all users, and in a way that is convenient, safe, assigning priority and reducing conflicts. This means building bridges, underpasses, other appropriate crossings, and reducing grades, much like I highlighted in my piece about The Meadoway.

I’m not just talking about new parks, or parks in the process of enhancement either. There are a whole slew of parks and open spaces that already exist, but do not allow for active transportation access. I would know, after all of my travels. There’s lots of low-hanging fruit, such as utility corridors (besides the Meadoway) without formal trails, corridors without bridges across small streams or railways, and spaces that are simply overgrown and need some mowing and/or tree trimming. While hard and complex infrastructure may take a few years to plan, design, fund and build, there are lots of cheap quick wins that can be implemented within a year or two max.

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The city’s parks and transportation departments need to work together to recognize that the active transportation network is an essential city service, and for more than recreation. This means park plans need to be meshed with other transportation plans, and work together when links in the active transportation network can be achieved.

Parks as a Stormwater Management System

Much of our park system is built off of the ravines, and the various tributaries of our 6 main rivers. It’s obvious by looking at a map of the city’s parks, and seeing the corridors that generally align northwest to southeast.

park graph 3
Courtesy City of Toronto: Parkland Strategy Phase 1 Report

However, some existing parks with open watercourses are at risk, and it is playing out in ravines across the city right now. Our built city has lots of paved surfaces, which means when it rains, there’s lots of water runoff that suddenly needs to go somewhere instead of soaking into the ground where it fell. Many paved surfaces direct this runoff into a drain, which connects to a sewer, which outlets into a nearby creek or river. And that style of stormwater management creates an unnatural, sudden, fast rush in water during and after a storm.

We’ve gotten better with our modern development, creating more porous surfaces to control the water on site, or at least direct it into some kind of management facility like a grassy ditch, a wetland, and/or an engineered pond. But it’s still not in place for many areas of the city developed after the war, when managing stormwater wasn’t mandatory. The impact: streambanks that erode and take trees, trails and anything else in the way with it, in addition to poor water quality.

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If we want to protect our existing parkland, we can do so while creating new parkland at the same time. New stormwater management facilities often require a chunk of land (again, examples being ponds and wetlands), so making it parkland while we’re at it only makes sense, especially if it connects directly into the ravine we’re trying to protect and enhance. Problem, meet opportunity.

On a related thread, there has been a lot of awareness in Toronto about our lost rivers, natural ravines and tributaries that were buried and placed into sewers due to pollution, or to allow development. There has also been talk about potentially daylighting these creeks in the parkland and open space where they still exist, and restoring ravines where they do not. Taking these measures is, just like the engineered stormwater management mentioned above, a great way to enhance our existing parkland, expand our park system, and create corridor connections over time.

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The thing with restoring a lost river is that it would be a long and complicated task. This leads me to my next point.

Parks as a Well Planned System

Lots of new or revitalized parks are isolated leaps at solving problems and capitalizing on random opportunities when they present themselves. Rail Deck Park emerged out of dire parkland needs downtown and the existence of the Union Station Railway Corridor. Downsview Park resulted from the decommissioning of a Canadian Forces Base. The Leslie Street Spit became Tommy Thompson Park after it was no longer needed as a ship harbour.

There are other examples, but the main point here is there is no particular method. Someone brings an idea to the table, and if it is popular, convenient, meets objectives, and we have enough money, we go for it. It hardly seems like they are stitched together by a broader purpose. We just take what we can get.

The one notable exception, of course, being the waterfront revitalization led by Waterfront Toronto. That is driven a long-term vision to open the waterfront back up for public enjoyment, and create new development opportunity. It’s a broader vision and purpose that is earmarked for a specific area.

Looking at other systems, we have examples of transportation systems guided by long-term plans. Metrolinx has its regional transportation plan that sets out specific rapid transit projects to be undertaken in the next 25 years. The city has a 10 year cycling plan to add cycling infrastructure to certain streets and parklands, bridging gaps in a broader grid and meeting cycling demands.

The Big Move - 15-25 Year Plans_Page_1
The Big Move - 15-25 Year Plans_Page_2
The 15- and 25-year plans from The Big Move, the former Regional Transportation Plan for the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area. Courtesy Metrolinx.

The Parkland Strategy is supposed to be a 20 year plan. The vision, objectives, priorities, and principles that are being discussed to date sound like a great core to the document. But I feel that without specific schedules or operating plans, it will continue to only be a vision document with no path to get there, and we will keep acquiring parkland in a random, fractured, opportunistic manner.

The Parkland Strategy needs to be complemented by specific capital/operating plans. I am generally proposing two, one short-term and one long-term, but different numbers, purposes and timelines will work:

5-year Plan

  • A Capital and Operations Plan for projects to be led by the city in the short- and medium-term, or by other governments where agreements are already struck.
    • Improvements or changes to existing parks
    • Acquisition, guidance and negotiation through development planning, and planning of other city capital works.
  • Considers funds required in both capitals and operating budgets
  • Considers policy changes that need to be made
  • New plans every 5 years; 4 plans within the 20-year lifetime of the strategy

20-year Plan

  • A broad stroke document that highlight the areas where connections, expansions or improvements to the park system should occur
    • Zoning changes, and areas to be redeveloped
    • Major, multi-year capital projects with interactions with multiple stakeholders
  • A road map for complex projects requiring significant planning and design work
  • A concrete plan to acquire smaller pieces for assembly over the long-term
  • Updated with changes during 5-year plan drafting, reviewed every 20 years

This approach will ensure that all governments and stakeholders have common, concrete lists and maps of projects to guide their actions, and that the public has a clear document to information and accountability. It eliminates the risk of the strategy’s generalized vision being interpreted in different ways, and executed in a haphazard, opportunistic way. The park system can be expanded, improved and connected over the long-term.

This is particularly relevant for components that need years or decades to be built, small pieces at a time. Daylighting and restoration of ravines is a good example of this; the only way we can achieve this is to assemble pieces of land acquired over the long-term, slowly unwinding the urban fabric built around them. We need a well-defined document to guide us.

Parks as a Well Governed System

The thing with effective park system planning is that there are various parks and open spaces, involving multiple stakeholders with differing ownership, rights, roles and responsibilities. Some of these are laid out in the table below:

Table

Administration of the parks system needs to be a broader, multi-governmental agency to ensure all players are brought to the table, silos are broken, and parks are created / improved / enhanced in a multi-disciplinary and effective manner. This is what makes Waterfront Toronto extremely effective: it is an agency representing all three levels of government, and is the primary authority for coordinating the waterfront revitalization. If we truly want a cohesive, well planned and well managed parks system, we need to consider bringing a similar governance structure for the city’s park system.

The added benefit to this is money. Having adequate money for a park project can be a difficult thing, as Rail Deck Park has shown us. We have to rely heavily on money from growth and new development (section 37 funds, development charges, developer contributions) which can contribute to the park space inequality mentioned up front, and when it isn’t enough, convincing politicians to allocate additional money is a hard sell.

By bringing other agencies on board with the park planning process, parkland can receive funding through other budget brackets and funds. Funding earmarked for new or improved water / wastewater / stormwater systems, active transportation paths, electrical transmission equipment, watershed management and/or nature conservation can all be leveraged to bring down the total bill of creating / improving parks, if that work is integrated into parkland. It also garners more political support if it checks multiple boxes.


The first common theme to all of this is creating a Parkland Strategy that is multi-disciplinary exercise. A park system is more than vegetated open space to unwind and play in. There are critical services that occur in them, to manage stormwater, to transport people, to deliver power, and act as social community spaces. Expanding and improving our parks sounds like an uphill task, but I’m convinced that more effort needs to go towards better integration of these other components that are normally seen as secondary.

It’s second common theme here is a long-term, continual improvement. A great park system will not be built in a day, let alone the lifespan of this 20 year strategy. Everybody has to work together towards the same goals, and not diverge due to interpretation. And those goals have to be consistent over time.

If the Parkland Strategy is going to be successful, it must be a team effort with a single vision. If we get that right, we can achieve a great park system for Toronto.