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.


Tai Viinikka said...

Well summarized! I hope we won't see another funeral (or reason for one) in the future.

Steve said...

As a former city staffer that worked quite a bit with the Task Force, pretty sad to see that it is no longer around. But you're fright, at least got it started on its way.