How to build an urban national park — and who to build it for

Rouge National Urban Park has proposed changes to its sprawling green space. What happens when environmental and accessibility concerns clash?
By Ashley Okwuosa - Published on May 12, 2021
Prior to the pandemic, volunteers led guided walks through Rouge National Urban Park. (Facebook)

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TORONTO — Sinéad Zalitach has lived in Scarborough’s West Rouge neighbourhood her whole life. Before the nearby area became part of Rouge National Urban Park, she would catch tadpoles there or go skating on the pond. As she got older, Zalitach, who was born with Parkes Weber Syndrome, a degenerative condition that affects her muscular, skeletal, vascular, and lymphatic systems, needed to rely increasingly on a wheelchair, and accessing the area became more of a challenge.

At the end of last year, in a Facebook group for local residents, Zalitach learned that Parks Canada was looking to make changes to the area. The responses in the group were mixed, she says. “People are, like, ‘Yeah, we want like upgrades and stuff, but at what cost? Like, how's it going to impact the environment? And is it actually going to be usable by everyone?”

In February 2020, Parks Canada announced that it would be holding public consultations around proposed changes — which include putting in a raised boardwalk to connect Rouge Beach to the rest of the park and formalizing an approximately two-kilometre trail — but they’ve have raised questions about how parks should be planned and whom they should be for. Some, including Parks Canada, argue that the suggested moves will improve the ecological integrity of the area and accessibility and safety for all users. But local residents and environmental activists have voiced concern over the increased number of visitors they might bring to the surrounding area, which is largely residential, and the ecological issues that come with building a boardwalk in a protected wetland.

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The Rouge National Urban Park is a first for the federal agency and for the country. In 2019, when Parks Canada took over 18.5 square kilometres of land from the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, it became the largest urban park in North America. Encompassing portions of Toronto, Markham, Pickering, and the Township of Uxbridge, it is 23 times the size of New York’s Central Park and nearly 50 times larger than Toronto's High Park.

It’s also home to more than 1,700 species — including 261 birds, 65 fish, 40 mammals, and 21 reptile and amphibian species, according to the park’s management plan. “It's an extraordinary achievement,” says David Crombie, former Toronto mayor and founding chair of the Waterfront Regeneration Trust, which works with communities to revitalize their waterfronts.

a bridge over a river with a kayaker
The Rouge National Urban Park is 23 times the size of New York’s Central Park. (Facebook)

The park’s accessibility via public transport has also been a selling point — it provides an opportunity for Toronto residents to enjoy nature without having to travel very far. “In the old days, when it came to national parks, it was all about wilderness, and somehow nature didn't exist in the city,” Crombie says. “Our argument is that it is nature in the city that we need to pay attention to, because it is most in jeopardy.”

Places such as Rouge Park can help raise such awareness, says Scott MacIvor, an assistant professor of applied conservation biology at the University of Toronto. “I really do think that part of conservation is engaging people, and when people appreciate nature, they care about it and they make decisions that support nature,” he says. “If we just close it off to a small portion of people that have cars and have canoes — and have the weekend free to go and do these things — I think we could be creating a circumstance that is nature for some, not nature for all.”

Community consultations for the proposed Rouge Park changes were supposed to take six months but ended up lasting more than a year, wrapping up on May 1. “I think the pandemic has really made engagement challenging, and on the other hand, I think it really transformed profoundly the depth of engagement that we're able to do at this time,” says Omar Mcdadi, Parks Canada field-unit superintendent for Rouge National Urban Park. Close to the deadline, 250 residents attended three virtual community sessions with Parks Canada staff members at which they expressed concerns related to such issues as disturbing wildlife in the marsh.

Some of Parks Canada’s proposed developments have been better received than others. Refurbishing the washroom at the beach, creating a new parking lot in an area not prone to flooding (the current lot has flooded in the past), and increasing opportunities for people to better dispose of waste have been welcome. The main point of contention is a proposed boardwalk, which would run between the Mast Trailhead and Rouge Beach. Parks Canada has proposed three options, all of which run south from the Highway 401 underpass and would transition into a raised boardwalk.

a man sits on a partially submerged bench
The area that is now home to Rouge National Urban Park has experienced flooding. (Courtesy of Parks Canada)

According to Mcdadi, not only will the boardwalk help improve accessibility, but it will also formalize informal trails, where lack of controlled access has led to erosion, the trampling of endangered species, and dumping and contamination. Mcdadi says that Park Canada will “choose a single route based on how we can best restore the environment based on improving accessibility outcomes — and, of course, based on public and community feedback.”

Organizations such as Friends of the Rouge Watershed say that the boardwalk will fragment and damage habitat for fish and wildlife, migratory birds, and species at risk — such as Blanding’s and map turtles — and have proposed alternative routes that would avoid cutting through the wetlands.

Mcdadi says, though, that some of the alternatives proposed are outside the park and would involve crossing Highway 401 in an area where there are no pedestrian-crossing signals or sidewalks. And, he adds, adding appropriate handrail and boardwalk components and restoring the most damaged of the 13 kilometres of informal trails throughout the marsh will significantly reduce the ecological footprint by 60 to 80 per cent: “I think, from our perspective, it’s about improving the environment by smart design.”

The next step for the current Rouge Park project will be a detailed impact assessment. Originally scheduled for release in April of this year, it’s now expected within the next few weeks.

Zalitach says she’s not nervous about the changes proposed by the agency. “Things have to change regardless; it's just how life works.” She hopes that with increased visitors to the area will come increased appreciation for it. “We just want other people to respect it the way we respect it.”

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