Friday, July 15, 2016

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A glimpse into Toronto ravines: The secret ‘remnants of wilderness’ that have been left behind


Chris Selley | July 8, 2016 4:34 PM ET


Toronto’s ravines “are the shared subconscious of the municipality,” Robert Fulford once argued in the National Post. It’s a lovely turn of phrase. These improbable green tears in the skin of the city are where a few of the rivers and streams Toronto co-opted and buried still get to announce their presence, however briefly, which in turn reminds us how we got here. With money and hard work and ingenuity, we built this place up from a wilderness into a great metropolis, mercilessly erasing and starting over — and too often forgetting — as we went.
Laura Pedersen/National PostEvergreen Brick Works in Toronto, Ontario on Thursday, July 7, 2016.


Yet “remnants of wilderness have been left behind,” as Anne Michaels wrote in Fugitive Pieces. “Through these great sunken gardens you can traverse the city beneath the streets, look up to the floating neighbourhoods, houses built in the treetops.” They are rarely visually spectacular or even, to the average citizen, particularly interesting beyond their very existence as quiet forests in an unlikely place. They are islands of urban tranquility of a type that few cities can offer.

Toronto makes excellent use of the upper Don Valley, our biggest “ravine.” Like much of this city, Thorncliffe Park is socially and commercially vibrant but esthetically rather bleak. Yet residents are minutes away from acres of lush river valley parkland, and on weekends it teems with multi-generation families from myriad backgrounds loving life.
Laura Pedersen/National PostA pedestrian enjoys the quarry at the Evergreen Brick Works ravine.


We seem far less sure what to do with the ravines proper: Moore Park Ravine, for example, which runs from the east side of Mount Pleasant Cemetery to the Brickworks; Rosedale Ravine, which runs from the west side of the cemetery, across Mount Pleasant Road and then into the valley; and Cedarvale and Nordheimer ravines, which take you from near Eglinton West station all the way down to Poplar Plains Road.

Even the official paths are haphazardly pavement, gravel and mud. Signposting is all but non-existent: identical-looking paths diverge without notice; stairs offer egress to parts unknown; this week I accidentally found myself on the east side of Rosedale Ravine, scrambling north toward the cemetery.
Laura Pedersen/National PostA broken storm sewer at the Rosedale ravine.


I wouldn’t recommend that hike, but it does offer some impressive views of Yellow Creek. You’ll see collapsing retaining walls and a phenomenal amount of soil erosion, which has fractured an enormous cement storm sewer pipe. You’ll see a heck-load of garbage, including not one but two discarded shopping carts.

And if you want to get there from Moore Park, you’ll find the stairs gated shut. A storm blew over a tree, which crushed the steps, explains Robert Spindler, a local resident who has launched a petition to fix the mess.
Laura Pedersen/National PostA broken storm sewer is seen surrounded by caution tape at Rosedale Ravine in Toronto.


That was three years ago. In the meantime, he says, a group of residents simply fixed the stairs themselves and installed stumps to help climb over the fence. City staff took the stumps away; residents put them back; and eventually, Spindler chuckles, city staff gave up.

To be clear, most ravines are in far better shape. But surely such a state of affairs wouldn’t be tenable in the first place if more people knew about them and used them. “Torontonians really don’t have a sense or appreciation of what a remarkable treasure our ravines really are,” says Jason Ramsay-Brown, who published a book last year about their history and ecology. “They’re 15 per cent of the city of which most Torontonians know nothing about.”

When I was a kid, the ravines were seen as threatening, especially at night: bad teenagers did bad things under the bridges; heaven knows what the men who lived rough down there might be capable of; the Vale of Avoca, part of the Rosedale Ravine, was a popular spot for gay men at a time when that was enough to impugn the topography itself.
Laura Pedersen/National PostA sign marking that the steps are closed is seen at Rosedale ravine.


Nowadays the stigmas have lifted, but the ravines are still obviously underused — whatever you think they ought to be used for. To engineers, they are drainage ditches. To naturalists like Ramsay-Brown, they are rare and endangered ecosystems, plagued by invasive species and full of rare urban fauna. To the average citizen, they might be anything from a jogging track to an unofficial mountain bike park or off-leash area. Not all of those uses are compatible.

The city is putting together a “ravine strategy,” to better coordinate the multiple agencies responsible for them and seek public input on how to protect, celebrate and attract investment to ravines. (They strike me as ideal potential targets for philanthropy.) Notably it proposes informing people in the ravines where they are and where they’re going — what a concept — which might attract more people all on its own.
Laura Pedersen/National PostA shopping cart lies in the water at the Rosedale ravine.


More people are a potential problem, though, and the strategy clearly has a bias toward protecting and restoring the natural environment over expanding human uses beyond simply visiting and appreciating. (Ramsay-Brown says dogs off leash can spread invasive species, and unofficial paths can disrupt nesting sites.) That seems entirely appropriate to me.

There are plenty of places to have a barbecue or ride a mountain bike or play Frisbee golf, as Ramsay-Brown says. “But nature has such specific requirements in order for it to thrive, and we have such limited space for actually doing it, that I don’t think it’s outrageous to say: ‘this far and no further.’”

• Email: cselley@nationalpost.com | Twitter: cselley