Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Legacy of Bring Back the Don

Now that the Task Force to Bring Back the Don is for all intents and purposes a dead duck, it's worth taking a few moments to look back over the 20 odd years of its existence and wonder what if any legacy came from it.

The Task Force started in 1989 at a conference held at the Ontario Science Centre organized by a groundswell of interest about the Don River and the surrounding valley. Long neglected and even declared dead (there was even a funeral!), there were still a few supporters for this hard to access natural space. After the conference which included such luminaries as Jack Layton, the Task Force was formed officially as a city committee in 1991. It was not without difficulties though. It didn't receive any stable funding because conservative forces were opposed to its existence. Alderman Tom Jakobek (he of the MFP leasing scandal) at the time said "The Don River may be dirty but I don't want to see it become an NDP sewer for capturing endless public funds."

This didn't stop them from raising funds for projects from a variety of public and private sources. One of their first projects was to create a book called "Bringing Back the Don". Published in 1991 by the City of Toronto,  it sketched a vision for how the Don could be revived. It included many ideas that were revolutionary at the time but now seem quite ordinary. It has been cited many times by students, urban planners and landscape architects. It helped influence a generation of thought on environmental restoration.

The Task Force was instrumental in creating "Chester Springs Marsh" in 1996. It was called a 'demonstration wetland'. While it didn't work quite as well as planned it did highlight the value of wetlands. In the ensuing years at least half a dozen small wetlands were created or enhanced.  Tree planting was a big activity in the early days and this was how I became involved in 1998. Back in those days the Task Force was one of the few groups doing it but now it seems everyone is doing it. For environmental groups, tree plantings are an easy way to get volunteers involved and act as a springboard for other activities.

While creating wetlands and planting trees were physical legacies of the Task Force, I think an even more important legacy was influencing thinking. The Task Force acted as an advisory body to city council in matters concerning the Don Valley. While this might appear to be a narrow mandate, the Task Force sought and achieved a broader reach by commenting and advising on broader issues such as the Wet Weather Flow Master Plan, the Sewer Use bylaw, the Private Tree bylaw, and the Ravine Use bylaw. All of these issues affect not only the Don but all parts of the City of Toronto. 

Informally we were seen as a kind of think-tank for urban environmental issues. City staff in departments  such as parks, forestry and planning sought our advice for a wide range of topics. I think we were able to educate them and help them learn about the needs of the valley. This knowledge (I hope) is still retained by the city and will continue to influence function and policy well beyond the term of the Task Force. Many of our members participated in other places such as advisory committees, environmental assessments, and other non-profit organizations. I know several of our former members who are involved with or founded such groups as Lost Rivers and Park People.

So the Task Force to Bring Back the Don is done. Did we succeed in bringing back the Don? I would say a little bit of yes and more than enough of no but we started it on its way. The issues concerning the Don are complex, difficult, and costly to fix. The Wet Weather Flow Master Plan started in 2005 and has a 30 year plan. If everything in that plan is accomplished than the Don will be in much better shape. However, the Don Watershed is the most urbanized watershed in Canada and that is the biggest driver of Don issues. The river has been permanently affected by our activities and we will never restore it to its former glory. But if we keep thinking in terms of the river and its needs we have at least changed neglect into respect.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

E.T. Seton Bridge Project Status

E.T. Seton Bridge Project.

Map Legend
Green: open trails (not plowed)
Red: wooden ramp removed, access extremely limited
Black: approximate placement of temporary fences
Blue: informal detour (use at own risk)

I visited the bridge replacement project site at the south end of E.T. Seton Park. It looks like the construction company has abandoned the site for the winter. Some fences are still up but all is not lost. The bridge across the railway tracks is still usable and if you are coming from Don Mills and Overlea (Flemingdon Park) you can still access the bridge via a narrow set of stairs. However the access ramp from E.T. Seton has been removed and is impassible except for the most intrepid of hikers. Getting a bike through here is next to impossible. There is an alternative informal path but it involves crossing the CN tracks and I can't recommend that but it appears that some people are using it. So despite the signs and fencing there is currently limited access. 

I heard through councillor Jaye Robinson's office that a metal ramp will be installed late February, early March. It was my understanding that the Bailey bridge crossing the tracks would also be replaced. There is no word on when this will happen.


Project sign. The recommended detours are laughable at best. I doubt anybody bothers with them.

The bridge is still up. The former wide wooden stairs at the north end have been replaced by a set of narrow stone stairs. Not very bicycle friendly.

The old wooden ramp has been removed. Cement foundations have been put in place in preparation for a new ramp which has yet to be installed.
A look at the bridge with some interesting graffiti/art on the right.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Back At It, More or Less

Back at blogging that is. I've never really left it, since I've continued my involvement with the city's Community Stewardship Program, and participation with Friends of the Don East and the TRCA's Don Watershed Regeneration Council. Plus other volunteer activities at various sites.

I started the blog as an offshoot of the Task Force to Bring Back the Don. Originally, I wanted to communicate to my fellow members my experiences with the Don River and valley. I tried email, and then a yahoo group before I started the blog. Since then I have involved myself through Twitter and recently Facebook.

For awhile the blog was all there was. I put everything there including announcements, events, and my irregular opeds. Blog posting would sometimes simply be a link to somebody`s news article or even just a photo. Then Twitter arrived and I found that it was a better vehicle for the short stuff.

In 2010, Rob Ford was elected as mayor. Ford was the new man on the block and he wanted to put his own stamp on the city. Unfortunately, this included suppressing citizen involvement and he killed off 95% of the citizen committees that had remained throughout the Lastman and Miller eras. This sweep included Bring Back the Don. There was some backlash to this but through delay and obfuscation he effectively killed off the Task Force. Technically the TF is not completely disestablished, but the inability to hold meetings or recruit new members meant that the remaining active members eventually lost interest and moved on to other things and the TF is now for all purposes kaput.

During this time I lost interest in blogging and my interest lapsed except for a few Twitter posts. But I have received a few queries about the status of the blog and it appears that there is a larger constituency out there than just the old Task Force that is interested in the Don.

So I am going to try again. But rather than focus my attention on the blog I will be looking to increase the outreach by connecting through Twitter and Facebook. So if you`re an old blog follower, try cruising over to Facebook or follow on Twitter. Interesting things are still happening with the Don River, the valley and the watershed. There are still more things to be said and done before I am dead and gone.