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No subject in Toronto inspires such glib propaganda as the ravines.

"There is nothing quite like the ravines anywhere: no other city has so much nature woven through its urban fabric in that way," Robert Fulford wrote in a typical example.

"The ravines are to Toronto what canals are to Venice, hills are to San Francisco and the Thames River is to London. They are the heart of the city's emotional geography, and understanding Toronto requires an understanding of the ravines."

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Any serious attempt to understand the ravines would probably include the fact that they are an environmental disaster, hopelessly degraded by generations of neglect, and getting steadily worse despite the green boosterism.

It might also notice that the ravines are not woven through the urban fabric in the least; rather, they are emphatically set apart from it, even suppressed by it. At least the hills in San Francisco make an impression; in Toronto, you can drive over a 100-foot bridge and never know it.

It's also possible that this bizarre dislocation -- two worlds, one right on top of the other, yet almost entirely separate -- might help explain why the ravines are still so abused: They have no constituency.

Imagine the Grand Canal or the Thames with nobody using them or visiting them, except for a few ragged bands of the homeless or furtive seekers of quick sex with strangers.

The fact that the ravines are dominated by such marginal uses -- the stuff we want to hide away, the people who want to slip out of sight -- tells the whole truth about this city's notably perverse "emotional geography."

Ditto for the waterfront, of course. If enough people really cared about it, it wouldn't be such a wasteland.

That fact made itself felt at City Hall yesterday, when a handful of councillors debated a new citywide ravine bylaw before an almost empty house. Councillor Joe Mihevc, faithfully quoting his Fulford and extolling our natural "treasure," said he was surprised to see that nobody appeared to be interested in the issue. He shouldn't have been.

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The old City of Toronto's ravine bylaw is excellent legislation, and its extension to the suburbs is undoubtedly a positive example of megacity "harmonization."

But it tends to engage only those with a vested interest: Owners of property abutting ravine lands, whose rights to landscape, grade and fill will be curtailed as a result of the bylaw.

The real story is that so much of the city has gone so long without even the rudimentary control represented by a bylaw.

Cycle along some of the wonderful new trails built in the valley lands north of the 401 to see what that has created: mile after mile of scrubby Manitoba maples, exactly what you'd expect to grow out of the crumbled building materials in vacant lots. Some midtown ravines are completely dominated by Norway maples, which make it impossible for any other plants to grow. Erosion is everywhere.

"We've got some very significant mixed hardwood stands that are remnant," city forester Richard Ubbens said yesterday.

"But that's sporadic. You can't say there's a ribbon of that kind of high-quality, mixed hardwood forest throughout the city. Many areas are highly degraded."

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In addition to the new bylaw, Mr. Ubbens is also promoting "stewardship" among ravine neighbours, focusing particularly on the control of invasive species.

"That is so important," he said, "and it is often just a simple matter."

Councillor Kyle Rae has an even better idea: organizing individual ravines into the natural equivalent of business-improvement areas.

Small levies assessed on abutting property owners would then help finance necessary improvements.

"The ravines are deteriorating," Mr. Rae said. "There's erosion and the need to control invasive species. The pathways are crumbling and there are some very old sewer hookups that need to be replaced.

"It's difficult getting money into the budget for any of that, so we have to find it somewhere else."

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It's a great idea but unlikely to succeed, for the same reason the larger community has failed to invest in the health of the ravines. They still look good from a distance. jbarber@globeandmail.ca

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