On a mild Monday in late February, Norah Chaloner and her family drove out to the former Guelph Correctional Centre to go for a hike. Leaving their car on York Road, they walked through the main gate, past the gatehouse, and around what was once the superintendent's house at the top of the hill, stopping every so often to pet a dog or take a picture. Before coming back down past Clythe Creek and the frozen ponds where families ice-fished in lawn chairs, they passed the old prison. The scales of justice are etched in the stone above the door of the administration building. "That's a great metaphor for what we want to do," says Chaloner, community liaison for Yorklands Green Hub, a non-profit group with big plans for the disused site, "to get back into balance with nature."
After 90 years in operation, the correctional centre — where inmates learned farming, dry cleaning, metalworking, and other trades — was closed in 2001, and Infrastructure Ontario has recently divided the 263-acre property into four parcels of land, intending to sell. Yorklands Green Hub hopes to buy 70-acre Parcel 2, to create a facility devoted to urban agriculture, wetland protection, and renewable energy — the science centre envisioned when the organization was established in 2013.
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It would be a place for workshops and exhibits on water conservation and carbon neutrality, and for businesses to display new green technologies. "Our citizen's group has got a good plan together," Chaloner says. "We've got a lot of people involved, and we're ready to start our fundraising campaign this year." But despite its preparedness, and general growing enthusiasm for its idea, Yorklands Green Hub must still overcome some remaining obstacles.
Chaloner says 58 organization have endorsed the project, including the Waterloo-Wellington Wildflower Society, the University of Guelph's G360 Centre for Applied Groundwater Research, and the First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto. "We've already had schoolteachers from Brantford say, 'We'd like to bring two school buses up, grades 9 to 11. Can we do that the third week of April?'" she says. "We say, 'Hold it — we don't even have the property yet!'"
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Securing the land could prove a challenge. Along with the municipal and federal governments, school boards, and other eligible non-profit corporations, Yorklands Green Hub will have an opportunity to buy the parcel before it appears on the open market, but the province has yet to name its price, which makes raising money more difficult. Still, Chaloner is confident the group will be able to collect $1 million, its initial goal. "It's up to us to go out and gather pledges now for the vision that we have and see if there's enough community support," she says. "I can't imagine that there isn't."
James Gordon, city councillor for Guelph's Ward 2, is in favour of the project and says he doesn't know of any opposition among his colleagues — but the subject has yet to be officially discussed. "I think that council is well aware of it," he says, "but there hasn't actually been a proposal brought directly to us by Green Hub." He's concerned that unless the city prioritizes the initiative in advance of the sale of the land, there could be delays at the municipal level. Meanwhile, the city's own plan for the Guelph Innovation District — an extensive mixed-use development to be built, in part, on another parcel of the prison site — has recently been pushed to the back burner.
Gordon grew up in Guelph, and in the late ’60s and early ’70s he passed the correctional centre grounds every day on his way to high school. "It's quite lovely there," he says. "It's right at the edge of town. One of the tasks they gave to the prisoners was landscaping, so there are lots of old stone walls, and little bridges that go over the creeks. And there's two large ponds that generations of Guelphites have gone fishing in. It's the only place left within the city limits where you feel that you're in a rural environment."
The members of Yorklands Green Hub aim to preserve that feeling in perpetuity; they've connected with the Ontario Land Trust Alliance so that they’re ready to establish a public trust if and when they buy Parcel 2. Chaloner sees the site becoming a regional destination, attracting people from nearby Kitchener-Waterloo and Cambridge — municipalities that, like Guelph, are becoming more densely populated, rely on aquifer water, and are running out of rural spaces.
"We have a science centre in Sudbury for forestry and mining, and we have a science centre in Toronto that explains our place in the solar system, and they're both good," she says. "But we don't have a science centre for the 21st century. Families need to know what they can do on their own properties and in their own homes to live a little lighter on the land."
Daniel Sellers works as a journalist and lives in Toronto.
Photo courtesy of Lesley Wilson and licensed for commercial use under a Creative Commons licence. (See the uncropped version.)
Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.