TORONTO – SinÃ©ad Zalitach has lived his entire life in the West Red Light District of Scarborough. Before the neighboring 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 disease that affects her muscular, skeletal, vascular and lymphatic systems, has had to rely more and more on a wheelchair, and access to the area is become more difficult.
Late last year, in a Facebook group for local residents, Zalitach learned that Parks Canada was looking to make changes to the area. The group’s responses have been mixed, she said. âPeople are, like, ‘Yeah, we want like upgrades and things, but at what cost? For example, how is it going to impact the environment? And will it really be usable by everyone? “
In February 2020, Parks Canada announced that it would hold public consultations on the proposed changes – which include the installation of an elevated boardwalk to connect Red Beach to the rest of the park and the formalization of a trail of approximately two kilometers – but they raised questions about how parks should be planned and who they should be for. Some, including Parks Canada, argue that the suggested measures will improve the ecological integrity of the area and improve accessibility and safety for all users. But local residents and environmental activists have expressed concern about the increased number of visitors they might bring to the surrounding area, which is largely residential, and the environmental issues associated with building a boardwalk in a wetland. protected.
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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 kilometers of land from the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, it became the largest urban park in North America. Comprising parts of Toronto, Markham, Pickering and Uxbridge Township, it is 23 times the size of Central Park in New York City and almost 50 times the size of Toronto’s High Park.
It is also home to more than 1,700 species – including 261 birds, 65 fish, 40 mammals and 21 species of reptiles and amphibians, according to the park’s management plan. âIt’s an amazing achievement,â says David Crombie, former mayor of Toronto and founding chair of the Waterfront Regeneration Trust, which works with communities to revitalize their shores.
The park’s accessibility by public transportation has also been a selling point – it offers Toronto residents the opportunity to enjoy nature without having to travel very far. âIn the old days, when it came to national parks, it was all about the wilderness, and somehow nature didn’t exist in the city,â Crombie says. “Our argument is that it is the nature of the city that we need to pay attention to, because it is the most endangered.”
Places like Rouge Park can help raise awareness, says Scott MacIvor, assistant professor of applied conservation biology at the University of Toronto. âI really think part of conservation is getting people involved, and when people enjoy nature, they care and make decisions that support nature,â he says. âIf we shut it down to a small portion of the people who have cars and canoes – and the weekend is free to go and do these things – I think we could create a situation that is nature for some, not nature. nature for all. . “
Community consultations for the proposed changes to Rouge Park were supposed to last six months, but lasted over a year, ending May 1. âI think the pandemic has really made engagement difficult, and on the other hand, I think it’s really has profoundly transformed the depth of engagement that we are able to make right now,â says Omar Mcdadi, Superintendent of the Parks Canada Field Unit for Rouge National Urban Park. As the deadline approached, 250 residents attended three virtual community sessions with Parks Canada staff during which they raised concerns about issues such as disturbing wildlife in the marsh.
Some of the development projects proposed by Parks Canada have been better received than others. Renovating the toilets at the beach, creating a new parking lot in an area not prone to flooding (the current land has been flooded in the past) and increasing the possibilities for people to better dispose of waste have been the welcome. The main point of contention is a proposed boardwalk, which would be located between the start of the Mast Trail and Red Beach. Parks Canada proposed three options, all of which extend south from the underpass of Highway 401 and would transition to an elevated boardwalk.
According to Mcdadi, not only will the promenade help improve accessibility, but it will also formalize informal trails, where lack of controlled access has led to erosion, trampling of endangered species, dumping and contamination. Mcdadi says Park Canada “will choose a unique route based on how best to restore the environment based on improved accessibility outcomes – and, of course, based on public and community input. “.
Organizations such as Friends of the Rouge Watershed say the walk will fragment and damage habitat for fish and wildlife, migratory birds, and species at risk – like Blanding’s and map turtles – and have proposed alternative routes that would avoid crossing wetlands.
Mcdadi says, however, that some of the proposed alternatives lie 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 proper handrail and boardwalk components and restoring the most damaged of the 13 kilometers of informal trails through the swamp will significantly reduce the ecological footprint by 60-80%: âI believes that, from our point of view, it is about improving the environment through smart design. “
The next phase of the current Rouge Park project will be a detailed impact assessment. Originally slated for release in April of this year, it’s now slated for the next few weeks.
Zalitach says she’s not nervous about the changes the agency is proposing. âThings have to change anyway; that’s just how life works. She hopes that with the increase in the number of visitors to the region, it will be more appreciated. “We just want others to respect him as we respect him.”
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