Toronto has big plans for its ravines but official strategy has no city funding yet

City council unanimously passed a strategy last week in an effort to protect and preserve Toronto's ravines — "deep, narrow forested valleys" that make up 17 per cent of the city's land mass. But as of yet, no funding has been allocated.

1 group says lack of dedicated funding is a concern, ravines in varying states of health

Water flows through Taylor Massey Creek. (Muriel Draaisma/CBC)

Ravines make up about 17 per cent of Toronto's land mass, and the city says it has a plan to protect them — but it hasn't yet allocated the funds to do so. 

City council unanimously passed a strategy last week in an effort to manage and preserve what it calls Toronto's "deep, narrow, forested valleys." About 60 per cent of the city's ravines are on public land, and they are home to 87 per cent of Toronto's environmentally significant areas, council says.

The mayor and others have called Toronto's ravines, which wind their way through so many neighbourhoods, the "physical soul" of the city. 

"It's unique. It's a natural treasure," says Coun. Mary-Margaret McMahon, who went on a tour of a Rosedale ravine last spring.

McMahon, who represents Ward 32, Beaches-East York, said she learned that our 18,000 hectares of ravines are under threat from climate change and from invasive species.

A single tree near Wigmore Park in Toronto shows off its red fall colours. (Muriel Draaisma/CBC)

The idea behind the strategy, McMahon said, is to bring ravines into focus, to map out a vision for the green spaces with the intent of establishing priorities for investments. Its five "key planks": protect, invest, connect, partner and celebrate.

"It's long overdue and it's fantastic," she said. "We are so lucky to have a ravine system in Toronto. We need to honour the ravines, to cherish and protect them." 

10-year master plan

But as of yet, no dollar figure has been attached to the plan. Instead, McMahon said, the city will create a full-time position in its Parks, Forestry and Recreation division, to work on it.

The new hire, due to start within a couple of months, will be be expected to develop an implementation plan, manage working groups connected to the strategy and look at how ravines are funded through different city divisions, including parks, water, planning and the Toronto Region Conservation Authority.

Coun. Mary-Margaret McMahon (Ward 32 Beaches - East York) says invasive species could kill Toronto's ravines if not cut back. (Makda Ghebreslassie)

More effective co-ordination is needed among the different divisions responsible for ravines, she said, and there are opportunities to fund specific enhancement projects through private donations. 

McMahon said the ravine issue will come back to the mayor's executive committee next year, and council will determine city funding for the strategy, which will be allocated for a 10-year master plan from 2019 to 2029.

According to the city, the strategy "will act as a framework to guide policy, investment and stewardship related to ravines." It will also attempt to create a balance between protection and public use.

Council aims to determine the health of ravines, with help from University of Toronto research, and incorporate the Ontario Invasive Species Act. And it will look at the idea of allowing "leave-no-trace" camping in ravines by non-profit youth groups. 

"I've seen council adopt many plans and then they sit on the shelf, collecting dust," McMahon said. "That's not going to happen here."

Coun. Glenn De Baeremaeker, who represents Ward 38, Scarborough Centre, described the plan as a simple but powerful document. He said some money might be made available under land acquisition to enable the city to acquire private ravine lands.

"We have this magnificent asset that we have just sort of ignored and forgotten about," De Baeremaeker said. "We've neglected our ravines. We've never actually sat down like this before and create a master plan or ravine strategy."

Funding 'missing' from the equation

Jason Ramsay-Brown, vice-president of the volunteer-run non-profit Toronto Field Naturalists, said his group is concerned about the lack of a dedicated and stable source of funding.

"While the vision of the strategy is excellent — and I believe there's great words and great intention in there — until the money is in the till, it's all just a collection of words," said Ramsay-Brown, author of the book Toronto's Ravines and Urban Forests. "That is very much the missing part in this equation."

Toronto's ravines have been neglected and forgotten. Here bottles and coffee cups litter the side of one ravine in Scarborough. (Muriel Draaisma/CBC)

Ravines are under threat, said Ramsay-Brown, whose organization was one of many groups that presented submissions to council in its development of the strategy. He said the ravines of the Don, Humber and Rouge river watersheds are the city's most ecologically significant because they provide continuity of habitat, but all of the ravines play a role in keeping the city healthy. They help to manage water flow, purify air, act as a carbon sink and enable people to reconnect with nature. 

To date, he said, the city has had "a very unstructured approach" to managing ravine lands. 

"The ravine strategy ... gives us a framework and a vision for how the ravines fit into our city, which up until recently has been sort of a very random set of laws and legislation and regulations," he said. "I think the ravine strategy is an important step in developing our relationship with our urban wilds."

One issue the city will have to address is how to best protect the endangered plant and animals that inhabit our ravines and "make sure that this most amazing ecosystem actually persists into the future," he said.

Toronto's ravines have been called the "physical soul" of the city, winding through their way through neighbourhoods. (Muriel Draaisma/CBC)

Toronto's ravines themselves are in varying states of health, he said.

"All of our natural areas are under a constant siege from encroachment and development, from misuse, from off-leash dogs, from off-trail behaviours, from litter, from salt spray from the road. There is a variety of threats to nature in this city just purely from the context of being in an urban environment," he said.

One ravine that needs immediate attention is the Vale of Avoca, along Yellow Creek, near Yonge Street and St. Clair Avenue. Its banks have suffered severe soil erosion and its infrastructure is collapsing. Ramsay-Brown said Glendon Forest, in the north end of Sunnybrook Park, is also suffering due to overuse, misuse and off-leash dogs.

'Patches of nice habitat'

Forestry students from the University of Toronto urged city council to take an inventory before taking action, and to ensure scientists are on any ravine advisory board established under the strategy.

The students said in their submission that there was good news and bad news about Toronto's ravines. The good news is that the ravines can be saved because there are "patches of nice habitat here and there." 
A coyote in Williamson Park Ravine in a photo taken in December 2016. (Lauren Bonsell/Facebook)

The bad news is, according to a study they had done, the percentage of ravine canopy covered by non-native tree species, mostly Norway maple, had reached 40 per cent in 2015. In 1977, it was just 10 per cent. Non-native species can crowd out native ones.

It estimates that by 2050, if the trend continues, about 60 per cent of the ravine canopy would be non-native species. And it said the city has already lost 30 of its 73 native tree species. 

"Don't look back on this moment 20 years from now with regret when the ecology of the ravines has collapsed and the ravines are merely green spaces with bike lanes, devoid of birdsong and crickets, coyotes and foxes," it said.

Scientific rigour is needed, it concluded.

As for celebrating the ravines, McMahon recommends spending time in them, bathing in the green of the forest, breathing in clean air and feeling, for a moment, that you are not in the city.