How to balance conservation and recreation in Toronto’s urban forests

A view of Toronto from a ravine. LN/Koen Kusters
Koen Kusters
20 March 2018
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TORONTO (Landscape News) — When we think about forests we usually picture vast areas of untamed wilderness. But what about forests in cities?

For International Day of Forests, which this year is highlighting forests and sustainable cities, Landscapes News talked to Jason Ramsay-Brown, an expert on the urban forests of Toronto, Canada. According to Brown, being a world-class city in the 21st century means making space for nature.

Toronto is a city with a secret. It has an extended system of ravines and urban forests, which is largely hidden below the built infrastructure. Throughout the Greater Toronto Area of 6.4 million people there are numerous rivers, creeks and streams, running through deep, narrow forested valleys. They have been described as veins of untamed nature reaching deep into the city’s core. Although the ravines take up 17 percent of Toronto’s surface area, you may not notice them when you walk or drive through the city.

If you know the entry points, however, you can go down to these areas, and you will suddenly find yourself surrounded by an enormous biodiversity of plants, birds and small mammals. You may even encounter coyotes and deer, as Ramsay-Brown did many times, right in the middle of one of the largest cities of North America.

The forested ravines provide watersheds during heavy downpours, and thus help to prevent flooding. This was one of the main reasons for the establishment in 1957 of the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA), whose area of jurisdiction includes 3,467 square kilometers: 2,506 on land and 961 water-based. Additionally, the Toronto City Council stresses that the natural areas provide an opportunity for its urban citizens to be in contact with nature.

URBAN FOREST PLANNING

To make sure that Torontonians can get to know and enjoy the city’s natural areas, the local government intends to increase connectivity by developing entry points and improving signage and guideposts to allow for better access.

Ramsay-Brown, vice president of the Toronto Field Naturalists (TFN), who sits on Toronto’s Ravine Strategy Advisory Group and serves as a representative for the Don River, agrees that improving the connection between people and nature is important. “One of the problems we face is that people are very disconnected from nature,” he says. “If you bring them to these places … they tend to fall in love with them. And we protect the things that we love. So, to me this is the most direct path to conservation work”.

At the same time, however, he is concerned that increasing access to urban forests will eventually come at the expense of their ecological integrity. In Toronto, some of the more popular stretches of nature are already being degraded because there are simply too many visitors walking their dogs and having family picnics.

Finding a balance between connectivity and conservation requires functional zoning, says Ramsay-Brown.

“One of the best techniques that we can use, is to make certain areas very hospitable to certain types of activities, and make other areas very inhospitable to certain activities,” he says.

Moreover, urban forests often consist of patches that are too small to maintain healthy populations of flora and fauna. This means corridors will need to be created to enable species to migrate between forest patches. For this type of work the city government will need to hire ecologists.

“If your urban planning department does not contain ecologists, then you are stuck in the previous century,” says Ramsay-Brown.

PRIVATE DONATIONS

Managing urban forests cannot be compared to managing rural forests. The threats are different. Urban forests deal with free-running dogs, people dumping waste, and exotic species from gardens that find their way into the natural ecosystem, to name but a few of the disturbances they face.

Maintaining healthy urban forests often requires intensive management—making corridors, cleaning polluted areas, re-naturalizing degraded slopes, etc. This does not come cheap, especially when the budgets of city governments are already under a lot of strain. The Toronto City Council tries to deal with this by attracting private money to conserve nature, but this comes with its own peculiarities.

Ramsay-Brown gives an example of a degraded slope that needed to be restored at a cost of CAD 200,000 ($155,000), requiring private donations. Speaking to the people involved, he realized that it was easier to find a donation of CAD 1.2 million for a project that involved both the slope’s restoration and the construction of a tree house for visitors.

“This seemed insane to me,” says Ramsay-Brown, adding that it has proven notoriously difficult to convince companies to donate money to restore areas that are not visible to the public.

“The projects that need the money for re-naturalization, are the projects that most people are not going to see in their day-to-day lives.,” he explains.  “There is an inherent conflict between the fact that private donors are interested in the visibility of their logo, and thus want to invest in high-use areas, while the areas that need money are the areas that should not be used intensively.”

INTRINSIC VALUE

According to Ramsay-Brown, a modern city in today’s day and age will have to carefully manage and maintain the forested areas that are located within its boundaries, finding a balance between nature and urbanity.

“If Toronto wants to maintain its standing as a world-class city, it isn’t enough for us to have an opera house, a major-league sports franchise and a stock market. That’s what made cities world-class in 1950.”

To Ramsay-Brown, natural areas in the city are not just important for their functional purposes, such as flood prevention. To him, it is also about their inherent value. With infectious enthusiasm, he talks about his experiences in Toronto’s urban forests., such as the time he and his daughter had a staring contest with a coyote they encountered on their walk, or the time he saw a hawk feasting on a red-winged black bird, while five other black birds dive-bombed the hawk in an attempt to rescue their friend.

The actual experience of nature doing the things it does is fascinating,” he says. “And whether it is butterflies or birds or deer—whatever your thing is—these places offer amazing insights into how nature works. Just take the time to go down there, be peaceful and be patient, and there it is.”

Ramsay-Brown also volunteers on the Todmorden Mills Wildflower Preserve Stewardship Team, Beechwood Wetland Stewardship Team, and is a member of the Ontario chapter of the Society for Ecological Restoration. He authored the book Toronto’s Ravines and Urban Forests, which was published in 2015.


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