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 believe waterways and the natural space along them is a public right. 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 COVID-19 was 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 from their homes). 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.
Note: This post was first published on June 1, 2019 with data available from May 30, 2019. It was updated on June 3, 2019 with the latest data available, and improved graphs. It was updated again on June 5, 2019, July 2, 2019 and February 17, 2020 to reflect new height records and revised data from sources.
In June 2017, Lake Ontario rose to a height not seen in the last 100 years of recorded history. The pictures of how this impacted Toronto were dramatic; flooding parks, eroding shorelines, and boardwalks, beaches and the Islands underwater.
Two years later, we broke records again. Once again, it’s a shocking scene.
The height of water in a lake fluctuates naturally. The amount of rainfall flowing into it, and the rate at which it drains through an outlet (if it has one) is a major determinant. However, it can also be affected by temperature, sunlight, formation / melting of snow and ice, and wind.
But how have we hit crazy high levels within the last two years? Rain, and how much and how hard it falls, is definitely a huge factor. But you may be surprised to learn that its less about the rain that falls onto Lake Ontario’s surface and shores or how hard it fell, and more about what’s happening to the east and the west.
This is a look at where water in Lake Ontario comes from, and where it goes.
First, let’s set this up with some historical context on Lake Ontario’s water level (Note 1).
Prior to 2017, Lake Ontario had only gone above a height of 75.7 metres twice in the last century: 1952 and 1973. It has also only gone below 73.8 metres twice during the same period: 1934 and 1936. Otherwise, Lake Ontario has varied in height within this 1.9 metre range from year-to-year, and season-to-season.
Then in 2017, the previous record set in 1952 was broken by 5 centimetres, with the lake reaching a monthly average height of 75.81 metres above sea level. It was dramatic and visually striking, flooding the Toronto Islands and other shoreline areas on the mainland. The capital repair costs to the city were estimated to total $15.6 million.
This year, the high lake levels are repeating themselves. Most days in June 2019 broke Lake Ontario’s previous daily height record of 75.88 m set in 2017. June 2019 also saw a new record average lake height of 75.91 m, or 10 cm above the previous record set in June 2017.
Looking back makes you realize that in Lake Ontario’s history, a couple pairs of high level years occurring in close vicinity is not unprecedented. 1929 + 1930. ’43 +’ 47 + ’52. ’73 + ’74 +’76. Keep the last two sets in mind next time you’re looking at imprints on Toronto’s bridges and culverts. Same story goes for sets of years with record lows.
What causes the changes in Lake Ontario to swing so much? Do I really need to bust out that graphic from your high school science class showing the water cycle? No? Good.
But as I alluded to, Lake Ontario’s water level isn’t affected as much by the rain that falls near the lake. Below is a chart showing the water balances for the Great Lakes.
As you can see, Lake Ontario’s levels are highly dependent on upstream inflow and downstream outflow (79% and 95% of total inflows and outflows, respectively). The remaining 21% of the total inflow is from water fed from rivers and streams, and 5% of the total water is evaporated (Note 2).
Upstream inflows come from the other Great Lakes, which are fed by rainfall and streamflow. So technically, it makes it an indirect impact. But it’s an important distinction to make. A closer look at where Lake Ontario’s water comes from and where it goes will make it clear why.
Ontario: Last Stop Before the St Lawrence
Lake Ontario is impacted by the fact that it is part of Great Lakes-St Lawrence River system. This means it is fed by water from (going upstream):
Lake Erie via the Niagara River;
Lake St Clair, via the Detroit River;
Lake Huron / Georgian Bay, via the St Clair River;
Lake Michigan, via the Straits of Mackinac; and,
Lake Superior, via the St Mary’s River.
Water from Lake Erie flows down the Niagara River, and its mostly unregulated, meaning it flows without anything really holding it back (i.e. a dam). Two exceptions are hydroelectric power plants on both the Canadian and American sides, as well as the Welland Canal. However, the power plants are restricted in how much water they take in; the International Join Commission (IJC) is a bi-national agency that has rules to ensure there is enough water flowing over Niagara Falls, so they look pretty and aren’t a pathetic dribble.
The Welland Canal is another pathway for water between Lakes Erie and Ontario. It isn’t a huge factor either; it’s 8.5% of what flows through the Niagara River (Note 3).
Continuing upstream, Lake Huron and Lake Michigan are technically one lake, as they are hydraulically connected through the Straits of Mackinac and generally sit at the same level. The water from them flows unregulated through the Lake St Clair and the St Clair and Detroit Rivers.
Lake Superior is the one major upstream part of the basin that is regulated. Outflow is controlled via three power plants and a 16-gate dam on the St Mary’s River. However, the outflow of Superior pales in comparison to other inputs to Lakes Michigan, Huron and Erie, and even then, any water held back would be a percentage of that outflow.
All that to say Lake Ontario is fed by the other lakes and the rainfall that feeds into them, and there’s really nothing holding it back. So when all of the lakes are up, it can mean a significant cumulative height difference for Lake Ontario.
Outflow: A Balancing Act
Lake Ontario, and all of the water fed into it, flows into the St Lawrence River, and eventually the Atlantic Ocean. But it’s not as simple as draining a tub.
While the eastern end of Lake Ontario is defined as being at Kingston (where it passes both sides of Wolfe Island), there are locks and dams along the way, which widen the St Lawrence River behind them and form ‘lakes.’ These lakes are:
Lake St Lawrence, between Kingston and Cornwall
Lake St Francis, between Cornwall and Melocheville
Lake St Louis, along the west end of Montreal Island.
The key outlet is at Cornwall, between Lake St Lawrence and Lake St Francis, where the Moses-Saunders Dam controls the flow of water. How much water is released is once again determined by the IJC, but unlike the Niagara River, that goal is not making pretty waterfalls. Nor is it just contingent on what is happening to the west. The IJC has to play a balancing act between the height of Lake Ontario and how high the St Lawrence is downstream.
Lake Ontario is 19,000 km² and an average depth of 86 m. Lake St Francis and Lake St Louis on the other hand are…not so big. I couldn’t find the figures I was looking for, but it’s in the ballpark of 400 km² and an average depth of 10-20 m (if you got better numbers give me a shout). But the magnitude speaks for itself; the same amount of water has a disproportionate impact on water levels.
Even if Lake Ontario is really high, increasing outflow to reduce its height by a couple centimetres could send downstream communities underwater. So even if the Toronto Islands are underwater and our shorelines are being eaten away by erosion, it’s a small cost relative to the damage that could occur down in Quebec.
Another complicating factor is that the Ottawa River meets the St Lawrence at Lake St Louis. It is a very large river basin which is also relatively unregulated, and it can significantly alter the height of the St Lawrence at Lake St Louis. If there are already high flows coming down the Ottawa River, this put extra restrictions on the flow out of the Moses-Saunders Dam so that flooding in Montreal and other Quebec communities downstream doesn’t occur or isn’t worsened.
One mitigating factor in all of this is the evaporation off of the lakes. One would think that warm temperatures mean big thunderstorms, and that is a major pathway for moisture to be carried out of the lake. Well, actually it’s quite low.
Just as snow melt starts entering the system and the rain begins to fall, evaporation rates nosedive, and whatever goes through a lake’s outflow is the only output of the system. When you put the plug in the tub while the water’s still pouring in, it’s gonna fill up.
The manner in which snow falls and melts can also have an impact on the system. I reached out to a friend who is more academically trained in earth and atmospheric sciences to expand on these effects of seasonal change on lake levels.
“A late start to spring and extended cold weather can delay local vegetation’s break from dormancy. This has the effect of reducing evapotranspiration rates early in the season. As plants take up water, they remove some moisture from the ground which would otherwise end up in local river systems, and eventually through to the St. Lawerence River.
An extended winter may also delay snow melt timing, resulting in a greater surge of water into the Great Lakes, as opposed to the longer, drawn-out thaw that we are typically used to.
Downstream damming and excessive rainfall are much more significant contributors to lake level issues. Still, evapotranspiration and snow melt play an important part in our water cycle, and all of these factors together may have helped pushed things over the top this year.”
Putting it all together, you get an idea of why 2017 and this year saw crazy high water levels in Lake Ontario.
Extended winter and late spring
Significant spring rain
Significant unregulated flow into Lake Ontario from Lake Erie
Significant unregulated flow into the St Lawrence from the Ottawa River
Restricted outflow from Lake Ontario
And when you put this in chart form, with the lake level put against the rates of inflow and outflow, it becomes clear how restrictions at the Moses-Saunders Dam can play a large part in raising Lake Ontario’s height.
Between April 18 and May 21, 2019, there was an average of 114.85 million m³ more water flowing into Lake Ontario than flowing out each day. Over 34 days, that makes for a total of 3.9 billion m³ of water. If you didn’t account for elevation, that would be enough to cover the city of Toronto in 6.2 metres of water (Note 4). Accounting for elevation however, that’s enough water to flood downtown Toronto, East York and south Etobicoke (up to the old Iroquois shoreline) with as much as 50 metres of water (Note 5).
So, a lot of water. Spread out over the entirety of Lake Ontario however, it rose 70 cm, which is enough to impact the entirety of Toronto’s 111 km of shoreline, and thousands more kilometres of shoreline across the rest of the lake (Note 6).
So what are the odds of this happening again? I can’t tell you exactly. I have delivered simplified numbers here, and don’t have a good enough understanding of inter-year and inter-seasonal effects on basin supply and drain.
So perhaps it’s time to talk about how we manage the inflows and outflows of the Great Lakes. Should we be taking steps to regulate flows out of Lakes Michigan, Huron and Erie? Should we begin to deregulate flows out of Lake Ontario and find another way to mitigate flooding in the St Lawrence?
That discussion would be a geographical (upstream and downstream) and impact-based (net natural, social and economic) balancing act. And that’s way beyond a single blog post or a single year of records.
1. Lake height measurements are from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s master gauges (Superior – Marquette C.G., Michigan – 9099018 | Michigan-Huron – Harbor Beach, MI – 9075014 | Erie – Fairport, OH – 9063053 | Ontario – Oswego, NY – 9052030) and are based on the International Great Lakes Datum, 1985. Monthly/annual maximums, averages and minimums available here.
4. Not accounting for elevation, Toronto has an area of 630.2 km² (per StatsCan); taking the volume (of water in lake Ontario) and dividing it by area (of Toronto) equals height (3.9 million km³ / 630.2 km² = 6.2 m).
5. I obtained a simplified line drawing of the shore from BlogTO, eliminated the segment east of Scarborough Heights Park, and converted into a polygon (area is 152 km²). I then employed simplified math to illustrate how much water there is; assuming that this area was a triangular prism, with a height equal to point where the slope starts a significant elevation increases (~130 m above sea level, near Yonge Street and Woodlawn Ave; difference from the lowest point in Toronto of 76.5 metres of 53.5 metres from the shore). The volume of this perfect triangular prism is therefore area * height divided by 2 (152 km² * 53.5 m = 4,066 km³). To reverse-calculate how high the water would be for a different volume of water (e.g. the net flow into Lake Ontario; 3.9 million km³), you can multiply the volume by 2, and divide by the area ([3.9 million km³ * 2] / 152 km² = 51.4 m).
6. Toronto’s shoreline length is calculated based on my previous #shorelineTO work. Lake Ontario’s shoreline length is quoted as 1,020 km, however, this measurement may be subject to the coastline paradox to a greater degree than my measurements in Toronto.
Toronto hosted the Pan Am and Parapan Am Games in 2015. Along with hosting such a large sporting event, Toronto invested in several facilities to host the games, to be reused for community benefit afterwards.
There was also one “legacy project” to pay tribute to the games. The Pan Am Path was a proposed 84-kilometre continuous off-road multi-use trail to connect the city, from the northwest Etobicoke, through downtown, to southeast Scarborough. Much of it was along existing trails, but there were a few gaps that needed to be completed:
East Highland – Orton Park Road to Morningside Park
Don Valley – Forks of the Don to Eglinton Avenue
Waterfront – Stadium Road Park to Sherbourne Common
Humber Marshes – Riverwood Parkway to South Humber Park
Weston – Crawford Jones Memorial to Cruickshank Park
So as a legacy to a significant event that happened in the summer of 2015, these projects should be done almost 4 years later…right?
1. East Highland
This segment would connect from the Forks of Highland Creek to an existing trail where Ellesmere Avenue crosses the East Highland Creek. The current detour is following the existing multi-use trail along West Highland Creek south, and Orton Park Road back north to the Gatineau Hydro Corridor.
The City of Toronto’s project site for this connection says that planning did start with the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority back in 2014, with construction starting last year, and completion in 2020. However, I walked the East Highland Creek back in July, and the only construction I saw was old construction accesses from previous creek remediation work. That said, I was able to reach out to the city and confirm that construction will start this year, and it is still anticipated to be done by next year.
2. Don Valley
This segment would connect an existing trail along the Gatineau Hydro Corridor, down the East Don River to the Forks of the Don. The current detour is along various streets to Taylor Massey Creek, and along that ravine.
This connection was missing when the Pan Am Path was first announced, but was well under construction, and was completed in June 2015, one month prior to the opening of the games.
The path was created out of Waterfront Toronto’s revitalization of Queens Quay. The former 4-lane industrial boulevard with a streetcar saw itself cut down to 2 lanes, 1 in each direction north of the streetcar right-of-way, and the former eastbound lanes reclaimed as a dedicated cycling trail and wide pedestrian promenade. For a progressive dense community that was forced into amalgamation and dominated by suburban conservative politics, it was a breath of fresh air. It also made a track record for Waterfront Toronto, the tri-governmental agency that made it happen.
4. Humber Marshes
This is a connection I am not very clear on; the gap exists between King’s Mill Park and South Humber Park, requiring users to travel via Riverwood Parkway and Stephen Drive.
However, where exactly you would place a dedicated trail connection is a mystery to me, as welcome as it would be. This is akin to the TRCA’s proposal to extend a trail through the bottom reach of the Rouge River; it’s entirely a wide river channel with wetlands, and the adjacent tableland is taken up by private residential housing. Creating a path would be tricky and expensive, so this might be one acceptable on-street connection.
This segment would make the Humber River Trail continuous by making a connection between Memorial Park and Cruickshank Park, going under the GO Transit Kitchener line. The current detour up the St Phillips Steps, and along Weston Road.
While dedicated space along the driveway into King’s Mill Park may be a bit of nitpicking, it has always driven me crazy that trail users must face off with vehicles on the skinny Old Mill Road bridge. A dedicated connection should be made, as I suggested in my analysis of TRCA’s Trail Strategy.
It may be of lower priority, but an opportunity exists to improve the trail in the vicinity of Eglinton Avenue. Two additional river crossings grade-separate the trail from Eglinton, and avoid the steep climb around Humber Creek.
As with any trails in Toronto, I place a lot of emphasis on ensuring that off street connections are minimized, and grade separations are created where required. Completing the identified connections and filling the other gaps will mostly address both these elements.
One aspect of the Pan Am Path that I cannot knock on is the branding and wayfinding. The city, in partnership with Friends of the Pan Am Path, have made an excellent website with helpful and informative resources, great navigational signs and maps, and a distinct logo.
At the same time, the branding, wayfinding, and general fanfare for the Pan Am Path feels like a bot of a slap in the face when not all of the larger capital improvements have been completed. Almost four years after the games, I feel the legacy should almost be complete.
Perhaps I am impatient; at least 1/5 of the identified connections is complete, and another 2 will be on the way. But the lack of plans for the remaining 2 really fits with a theme of what feels like a second-class treatment of active transportation in this city; lack of maintenance, lack of building, and lack of progress. Perhaps Toronto’s legacy is talking big, and not following through.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) has released a draft of the Trail Strategy for the Greater Toronto Region (Trail Strategy). As someone who has accumulated over 1,000 kilometres of hiking experience across Toronto, I wanted feedback based on these experiences, specific to the proposed regional trail network within the City of Toronto, and limited portions of York Region south of Highway 407.
I am in agreement with many parts of this proposed regional trail system. However, there are some parts that I feel could be changed to enhance the trail experience, and align better with the Trail Strategy’s vision. Without being privy to the decision-making and perhaps some key considerations, and keeping in mind that this is a regional network for the entire region, I’ll highlight some key issues I believe need to be addressed in a final Trail Strategy:
Creating a crosstown trail corridor within greenspace;
Extending the Scarborough Waterfront Project west;
Travelling further down Black Creek;
Sticking to the Etobicoke Creek river valleys;
Considering 3 alternative trail connections;
Recognizing 5 representations in the map; and,
Addressing 3 remaining gaps in the network.
I wholeheartedly disagree with the Trail Strategy’s reliance on the Bloor Street / Danforth Avenue bike lanes as a major east-west corridor for the regional trail network, between the Scarborough Heights Park area to the west boundary of the Etobicoke Creek watershed. While I fully support and agree that a) bike lanes on Bloor Street / Danforth Avenue are necessary, and b) the Trail Strategy must integrate with it, I do not agree that the TRCA should formally rely on it as a major crosstown corridor for its network. I believe it conflicts with the Trail Strategy’s vision of making a trail network within greenspace.
I think a great alternative corridor exists, using 8 kilometres of existing Valley trail in the Don watershed, and is an opportunity to create nearly 20 kilometres of Corridor trail and associated greenspace. The alternative corridor is as follows:
A new trail from the existing access ramp between Scarborough Heights Park and Rosetta McClain Gardens, and Warden Woods, partially using existing parkland and a former railway spur;
Using the existing trail network along Taylor / Massey Creek and the Lower Don River to Crothers Woods;
A new trail adjacent to Canadian Pacific Railway’s North Toronto subdivision to Davenport Road;
A new trail along the “Green Line” park system proposed by Park People to Metrolinx’s Newmarket subdivision (aka the GO Transit Barrie Line);
A new trail or existing trails along a hydro transmission corridor to Etobicoke Creek.
This alternative corridor is located within greenspace, congruent with the vision of the Trail Strategy, and ensures that the trail experience is richer and safer for active transportation users. It also connects users more directly to two of the destinations identified in the Trail Strategy: the Forks of the Don, and the Humber Parklands.
Scarborough Waterfront West
The TRCA is currently working to implement the Scarborough Waterfront Project, which will protect the Scarborough bluffs from erosion, enhance natural habitat, and create a new continuous waterfront trail from East Point Park to Bluffers Park. The Trail Strategy includes this, and then proposes to direct users up Brimley Road (a significant and relatively steep grade), and continue east via the existing ‘trail’, which is actually a zig-zagging patchwork of local streets and fractured trail segments at the top of the bluffs. Once again, I believe it conflicts with the Trail Strategy’s vision of making a trail network within greenspace.
It’s lost on me why the TRCA would not propose extending its Scarborough Waterfront Project further east. The TRCA, to my knowledge, owns title to all of this stretch of the waterfront with one exception (The Toronto Hunt). Implementing this would create a continuous trail along over 85% of Toronto’s waterfront, from the Rouge River, through Scarborough and the downtown, to Mimico Waterfront Park in Etobicoke. It would also reduce the distance travelled between Bluffers Park and the RC Harris Water Treatment Plant by over 30%, and eliminate any significant grade changes.
The Trail Strategy has identified Black Creek and its parklands as both a trail corridor and a destination. It also proposes extending the existing trail system south from Downsview Dells Park, using Giovanni Caboto and Heathrow Parks. While it does not utilize the rich and natural west part of Downsview Dells Park, I think this is a great and creative solution to get around the barrier presented by the Oakdale Golf and Country Club.
However, the Trail Strategy then proposes to redirect users into the Humber Valley system via Highway 401 and/or Wilson Avenue. I do not agree with this redirection, as I believe there is ample opportunity to continue the trail further south along Black Creek, at least to Weston Road. This would align better with the Trail Strategy’s vision of making a trail network within greenspace, and would facilitate direct connections with the West Toronto Railpath North and the Eglinton Avenue Trail.
It is unfortunate that the Markland Wood Golf Club is a barrier to a continuous trail along Etobicoke Creek, from Eglinton Avenue to the lake. The Trail Strategy suggests overcoming this barrier by creating a Corridor trail along a nearby utility corridor.
It is a worthy proposal, but wish that a Valley trail through an alternative corridor could be considered. My suggested approach is continuing to follow Etobicoke Creek north to Dundas, within lands mostly owned by the TRCA already. Once this trail reaches Neilson PArk, a trail already exists along Etobicoke Creek’s “Tributary 4” to Burnhamthorpe Road. A minor detour along Burnhamthorpe Road would link trail users back to the Etobicoke Creek Trail. Another alternative corridor could be along Little Etobicoke Creek to the west.
There are some trails that I mostly agree with, but would implore TRCA to consider alternative ways of connecting them to the broader network.
The Leaside Spur Trail is (technically) a dead end at its southern tip, in behind 1121-1123 Leslie Street. The TRCA has proposed connecting it by directing users to and along Leslie Street, and down the vehicular entrance to Wilket Creek Park. An alternative connection is already proposed as part of the redevelopment of the former Celestica site (known as Wynford Green): over a bridge over the Canadian Pacific Railway’s Belleville subdivision, and along the access road from Eglinton Avenue into the West Don River Valley. The TRCA should work with the developers to advance this connection.
The Highway 401/427 interchange is a major barrier to pedestrian and cyclist movement between the Pearson Airport area and west end neighbourhoods in Toronto. While the Finch Meadoway is a great opportunity to improve this connectivity, I don’t feel that continuing in a straight northeast/southwest line, from the Richview Transformer Station to the Matheson Boulevard/Eglinton Avenue intersection, would achieve that goal. Instead, I would propose a path that follows Mimico Creek, and connects directly with the West Deane Trail, as an alternative.
The Trail Strategy illustrates an existing ‘trail’ from the top of the Leaside Spur at York Mills Road. This is actually a series of sidewalks along York Mills Road, Lesmill Road, Valleybrook Drive and Duncan Mill Road. A true trail connection could be forged here by continuing the Leaside Spur Trail north to Leslie Street and Woodsworth Greenbelt, and forging a new path through Moatfield Farm Park to the Betty Sutherland Trail. In the future, this trail could be optimized in conjunction with minor daylighting improvements to Vyner Creek.
While the Trail Strategy illustrates a continuous trail along the Rouge River in the Twyn Rivers area, two small but critical improvements are required: a dedicated active transportation bridge across Little Rouge Creek (as opposed to forcing users into vehicular traffic along the heritage bridge), as well as a dedicated or grade-separated crossing of Twyn Rivers Drive. The lack of proper crossings is an ongoing hazard to trail users.
Weston North Humber Connection
The Trail Strategy illustrates an existing trail between Crawford-Jones Memorial Park and Cruickshank Park along the Humber River. This trail, although recognized in many plans, still has not been built. Implementing this connection would avoid a steep detour along Weston Road.
Morningside Park to Ellesmere Road
The Trail Strategy illustrates an existing trail from Morningside Park north to the Gatineau Meadoway. This trail actually does not exist, except underneath the Ellesmere Road bridge. There is plenty of opportunity to use a former construction access that exists in this stretch, and it would greatly improve connectivity within the broader Highland Creek trail system.
West Don at Leslie
The Trail Strategy illustrates an existing trail following the West Don River, north of Steeles Avenue along Leslie Street. There is no dedicated infrastructure along here. A dedicated trail following the West Don, and facilitating a grade-separated crossing of Steeles Avenue, would be preferable.
The Trail Strategy illustrates the Lower Humber as being continuous through the Old Mill area. However, trail users must cross a narrow heritage bridge shared with vehicular traffic, and then use a vehicular access into the park. A dedicated crossing and space along the access road would be preferable.
Finally, there are some gaps in the Trail Strategy that have been overlooked or misrepresented, which I feel need to be addressed.
While the Trail Strategy provides plenty of north-south links across Toronto, there is a notable gap in north Scarborough, between the Warden Meadoway and the Rouge Valley. I think the TRCA should consider a regional trail corridor somewhere inbetween, at least from the Finch Meadoway to the Gatineau Meadoway. I would suggest following East Highland Creek, but any corridor should achieve the goal of of connecting to Scarborough Town Centre.
West Humber to Mimico Connection
I have lamented for years about the lack of a proper link between the West Humber River and Mimico Creek. Such a link has a two fold purpose, in conjunction with the alternate 401/427 crossing suggested above:
Improving connectivity for residents travelling between areas north of Rexdale Boulevard and south of Eglinton Avenue.
Creating an active transportation corridor that links to key destinations such as Pearson airport, its surrounding employment lands. and Woodbine Racetrack.
The Trail Strategy illustrates a trail along Airport Road to Pearson Airport. I think a link between the Humber River and Mimico Creek would provide a better connection through greenspace, with the potential to make local connections along less busy streets.
Finch Meadoway at G Ross Lord Dam, Metrolinx Uxbridge Subdivision
The Trail Strategy illustrates the Finch Meadoway Trail detouring from the hydro corridor in two spots: G Ross Lord Dam and Metrolinx’s Uxbridge Subdivision (aka the Stouffville GO Line). In both of these instances, the TRCA should work on more direct grade-separated connections within the corridor.
All of the suggestions above are framed against the Trail Strategy’s vision: making a trail network within greenspace. But it’s more than that: it’s about making it a high-quality network that is maximized within greenspace. This means opting for connections that reduce diversions, unnecessary winding, and steep grades. It also means sticking to corridors that are as thickly vegetated as possible, grade separated from roads and railways, whereever possible. It’s making a trail network that is convenient, attractive, lush, rich, natural, and safe.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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:
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
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:
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.