It’s 10 minutes from their front door to the boat ramp where the Fuller-Thomson family launches their canoe into the Humber River. In spring, they look for swans nesting — in the past, they’ve seen muskrats, and foxes with pups — and in the fall they head upstream to watch salmon spawn.
AARON HARRIS / FOR THE TORONTO STAR Esme Fuller-Thomson, centre, with son Justin and daughter Elysia paddled their canoe on the Humber River -- minutes from Toronto's downtown core -- this past Mother's Day.
“People are astonished when I tell them we canoe in the middle of the city,” says Esme, mother of four and a professor at U of T’s Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work.
When she and her husband Murray Thomson, also a U of T professor, moved to the city Fuller-Thomson, who grew up in a small town, wanted to immerse her family in nature as much as possible. “Walking in High Park to see the blossoms, cycling along the waterfront, canoeing, they’re all part of our family rhythm,” she says. “To have exposure to wind, trees, animals, makes us all feel more grounded.”
And while Toronto has an “amazing” amount of nature for a big city, she says “you have to search a little for it.”
That’s what Karen McDonald discovered her first day on the job with the Toronto Conservation Authority. Fresh out of a fish and wildlife technology program, she toured Tommy Thompson Park, on the Leslie St. Spit, which she didn’t know existed until that day. “I thought OMG, are you kidding me? This was in downtown Toronto and I never knew.”
Now the manager of the urban wilderness park with 316 documented bird species, McDonald says spring is the best time to be there. “The birds are gorgeous and singing their heads off because their hormones are raging.”
Created by accident — it was a construction dump through most of the mid-20th century — the slender, five-kilometre peninsula curves from the foot of Leslie St. into Toronto Harbour. “It could be anywhere,” says McDonald. “Some say parts of the shoreline remind them of the southern Atlantic coast, some compare it to the Shield because of the rocky outcrops. And the gulls screaming overhead make you think you’re on the shores of New Brunswick.”
A glance across the harbour to the sea of construction cranes on Toronto’s skyline, though, raises the question of whether the city’s rapid intensification might win out over its natural beauty. “The challenge is to resist the pull of development dollars and make the choice to protect and restore land, which requires an investment and long-term commitment,” adds McDonald.
The city seems determined not only to protect its 1,600 existing parks and 600 kilometres of trails, but to create more of them. Already its park system is about 8,000 hectares — about 13 per cent of Toronto’s overall land area.
Much of it is being funded from development pockets. For each project, a developer must either donate parkland — if the site is large enough — or pay into the parkland dedication fund, which uses the money to create new parks and refurbish existing ones. For example, in 2008 Concord Adex completed the eight-acre Canoe Landing as part of its 50-acre City Place development.
Currently, Concord Adex is negotiating with the city regarding the design of the eight-acre park in its 45-acre North York project, Concord Park Place.
“The goal is to make the park coherent with the streetscape and the development itself,” says CEO Gabriel Leung. Part of the process was public input, with local people “dreaming big about what they wanted to see in that park. The suggestions were plentiful, from philosophers’ walk and natural ponds, to skating rink and space for public gatherings like farmers markets.”
As part of the rezoning process, the park was relocated from the side of the site to the centre. “The city is trying to design these places — parkland and community centres — in a way that responds to the needs of the neighbourhood and the people who live there,” Leung says. “There’s been a more extensive listening process, which is an improvement, and a more informal collaboration between the city and developers on these public spaces.”
In some cases, development has prompted parks to be built: In 2013, 18 acres of the West Donlands was developed into Corktown Commons by Waterfront Toronto.
When Brandy Lane Homes developed The Davies, a nine-storey midrise development adjacent to Robertson Davies Park at Avenue Rd. just south of Cottingham St., arborists were hired to assess and protect existing trees, and landscape architects brought in to create a welcoming setting for the whole neighbourhood, says CEO David Hirsh.
When a park — like nearby Balfour Park — isn’t animated, it doesn’t get used, Hirsh adds. “It doesn’t take that much money to make a park more visually appealing, or more compelling to sit and linger. They should appeal to people of all ages, with places to chill, have a picnic, play ball, ride bikes. Parks like those can change a city, parks like Paris’s Luxembourg Gardens. They contribute to the vibrancy of the city, which in turn makes the condo lifestyle attractive.”
There’s a natural maturing process, as the GTA’s condo boom, population growth and smaller apartments converge to force more people outdoors. As architect Roland Rom-Colthoff points out, “Trinity Bellwoods Park was totally underutilized until about five years ago. Now you go there and it’s amazing: people are everywhere, blankets out, strolling, cycling, jogging, walking the dog.”
Where parks aren’t an option, the city’s green roof bylaw fills a need. Initially intended to reduce energy consumption and thus the heat-island effect, green roofs connect us both to nature and to people, says Ted Merrick, principle landscape designer with Ferris Associates.
For residential towers six to 10 floors, a sliding scale is used, based on the gross floor area, to come up with a square metre area to satisfy the green roof bylaw. The same type of calculation determines outdoor communal amenity space required.
About 75 per cent of work at Ferris Associates “is in intensely urban situations, where landscapes are social spaces rather than solely green space. Properly done — with greenery, water, deep planters and even art — rooftops can serve the same social purpose as a park, giving those living in small apartments access to the outdoors to congregate and recreate.”
Sadly, most green roofs don’t have the soil to support plant life for very long. With the right engineering, though, a rooftop can be just about anything you want, Merrick says — a wilderness, a tennis court, a butterfly garden, a farm. Or a dog park, which is currently under consideration for the final residential development at City Place.
Merrick’s design for Howard Park, eight- and 10-storey midrise developments in Roncesvalles, includes a tranquil backyard with high ivy covered walls, a long communal table, and a deep naturalized forest setting.
Architect Roland Rom Colthoff of Raw Design designed the building with 10-by-10-foot terraces — every third balcony is owned by the condo rather than the unit owner, so everyone can use them. Once the plantings mature and trail over the side walls, these terraces will provide shade, create a protective envelope around the building and will be amazing to look at, he says.
But in order for a green roof to get people out there using it, Rom Colthoff says there needs to be hardscape, “serious” planting depths, and construction that’s engineered to bear the weight. It “doesn’t even cost that much more.” As far as Rom Colthoff is concerned, green roofs are far more effective than the tiny balconies on most condos which are “usually too shallow to enjoy, and one has to wonder about the value of a balcony on the 40th floor. Developers provide them because people say they want them.”
Community gardens are a feature at all Daniels’ Corp. projects — some of them on the roof. They serve to not only connect residents to nature but also to engage with each other as well, says Adam Molson, Daniels’ manager of project implementation.
That concept works equally well when a project has more room to spread out, like Daniels’ Erin Mills project in Mississauga. The presentation centre has an interactive urban farm, which will be relocated across the street when the six-acre site is redeveloped. “When people get their hands dirty and have to take care of the land, they end up taking on an active sense of stewardship and form a connection with it,” Molson says.
Will buyers pay more for green space?
For Lanterra’s CEO Barry Fenton, the answer is an emphatic yes. At 11 Wellesley, the company’s 2.5-acre site at College and Yonge Sts., the condo building was pushed to one side in order to create at 1.6-acre park. “People definitely buy for green space. I’ve lived through it — we literally sold 2,000 units within 200 yards of the park, in 12 months. Plus, the value of condo units in this area has increased.”
Molson, though, thinks nature does not have much affect on buying decisions, because buyers are more focused on finishes, layout, cost and location.
Hirsh, on the other hand, says it depends on the context. “Those looking to live in the (downtown) core, south of Bloor St. or Yorkville, would like green space but its lack doesn’t affect their buying decision.” In less intense locations, out of the downtown core, Hirsh thinks green space has more influence over the buying decision.
The time will come, says Leung, when green space will affect resale prices, especially once parks and plants mature — and condo dwellers increasingly seek out these natural oases.
It stands to reason. Fuller-Thomson’s research revolves around resilience and recovery — specifically, the factors that contribute to an ability to recover from adversity, and to achieve mental health.
“While there’s not a huge amount of literature on nature’s role in this, I think it makes sense that is part of the whole picture of mental health,” she says, “to attain happiness, psychological well-being, life satisfaction and social integration.”
Get into the green
For a list of Toronto city parks — and directions how to get there by car or transit — go to bit.ly/Torontoparkstrails