By BIRGIT SIBER
Down concealed wooden staircases in the East End of Toronto you will discover an ancient wetland nestled within a vibrant forest, an oasis designated by the City of Toronto as an Environmentally Significant Area.
Many Toronto residents had never heard of Small’s Creek until it became the subject of a collective effort by residents, government officials, engineers, and architects to protect its ecology and wilderness refuge against hasty, destructive construction plans by Metrolinx. This environmentally significant ecosystem is at immediate risk.
To date, Metrolinx has declined to revisit a fundamental problem at the root of our concerns: Their engineered design to support the fourth track for the 400-foot stretch alongside the Small’s Creek Ravine.
In its current state, the plan is to clear-cut the entire existing south embankment flanking the track, removing over 200 trees. Soils will be compacted and a retaining wall located at its base. All the trees rooted within this embankment, which currently shade, protect and nourish this precious wetland and ravine, will be gone. The pre-construction contract has been awarded, the felling of trees is slated to proceed this fall and this delicate ecology will be stressed, irrevocably altered, forever diminished.
Metrolinx takes every opportunity to advertise that they are leaving the ravine in better shape than it is now, that their engineered solution is the best and least disruptive design. To date they have only tweaked their planting proposal and their proposed solution will not shade the wetland within our lifetimes, if ever.
Any protest, whether by community members or expert advisors, is labelled “NIMBY” (Not In My Back Yard), a misnomer, that distracts from the intrinsic link between the health of Toronto’s ravine-wetland system, urban citizens and the vital importance of ecological stewardship in mitigating the greatest challenge to face our human race: climate change.
So, why does this issue expand beyond a few neighbourhoods who have spent decades cherishing the ravine?
The great watershed land, that the City of Toronto has been built on and around, is what makes our city so livable, a refuge and antidote to the hustle and bustle, available to all. The ravines define us. In many respects they are our greatest geographic asset. These remaining wildernesses also provide summer cooling, resilience to storm events, and the very air we breathe.
Small’s Creek Ravine harbours a thriving wetland and flows in a culvert under the railway tracks into Williamson Ravine. Together they form the last remnant of a pre-settlement free-flowing creek system into Ashbridges Bay. There are many more lost rivers, creeks and wetlands now girdled in culverts flowing under our feet, homes, businesses, schools, places of worship, and playgrounds. Small’s Creek is one of the few that has escaped development. Until now.
The Metrolinx design solution clearly has one priority: Leverage the Ford government’s Build Faster Transit Act to accelerate transit projects across the province.
The community unequivocally supports the fourth track, however, the method proposed is representative of old school, siloed, non-systems thinking. It prioritizes speed and economy while dismissing the watershed lands as an inconvenience to progress, an obstacle to be managed. Yet, in our very present climate crisis, there is a renewed and urgent collective realization that these remaining wild places have value for all our citizens and the creatures with whom we share these spaces.
We have patiently and persistently challenged Metrolinx to reopen the engineered design and to develop a more sophisticated solution that addresses several priorities at once: the construction of the fourth track, preservation of the wetland, ravine ecology and beloved community wilderness.
There is time for redesign. This initial work is a pre-construction package. The track is unlikely to be laid for another three to four years. Metrolinx’s refusal to reopen the design speaks volumes.
Letters, written by professional engineers, outline three design concepts to preserve many of the mature trees on the mid to lower embankment. This can be done.
We also have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reconnect Small’s Creek with Williamson Ravine by creating a new pedestrian and wildlife tunnel under the track. Drill rigs will be in the ravine replacing the existing culvert through the track embankment to improve flood prevention. Let’s also reconnect the severed neighbourhoods bordering the track.
Imagine the experience of walking through the embankment and entering the woodland on the other side! Add wooden boardwalks and rest spots along the pathways, by taking inspiration from Glen Stewart Ravine, and we have a cost-effective way to experience and celebrate this extraordinary place.
Small’s Creek gives us the opportunity to pivot and reimagine a better way forward. Let’s take time to get this right. This can still be a win for Metrolinx, the Province of Ontario, the Toronto Region Conservation Authority, the city, the community and this remnant of our ravine watershed with all the creatures and biodiversity it harbours.
To learn more about the efforts to protect Small’s Creek, visit https://www.lakeshoreeasttrains.com/smalls-creek-and-merrill-bridge-park
— Birgit Siber is a local resident, architect and member of Friends of Small’s Creek.