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Lost in green space

Ravines and natural parklands like the Don Valley could be the soul of the city, but is Toronto moving boldly enough to make them what they should be?

The Don Valley is the largest of the ravines that make up one-sixth of Toronto.

Where in Toronto, a few minutes from City Hall, can you lose yourself?

Photographer Robert Burley discovered the answer a few years ago: in the Don Valley, just off Bayview Avenue, an area he's been visiting for decades. He went for a short walk and, twisted in the nettles and the maples, had trouble finding his way back. "I had no idea where I was," he writes in a new book of photographs, An Enduring Wilderness. "Or rather, I knew exactly where I was: I was lost."

The Don Valley is the largest of the ravines that make up one-sixth of Toronto – out of sight, often abused and overlooked. But this is changing: Mr. Burley's book comes at a time when the city is officially rethinking how it treats these zones. After decades of slow progress to reclaim them, Toronto is seeing them for what they are, valuable and badly needed green space.

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The question is whether Toronto will move boldly enough to make them what they could be: the soul of the city.

The Rouge River and Little Rouge Creek come together at the Forks of the Rouge.

Last week Mr. Burley and I walked the Don Valley to see some of the places he photographed for the book, which took him to 86 "semi-wild" parks. He clambered up a steep hill above the Evergreen Brick Works, directing me where to step and which hardy sumacs to grab for purchase. "It almost feels as though it might be possible to overcome all the disruptions that have defined this place," he said, "and allow the city to redefine itself around its essential natural features."

Mr. Burley's new book, which is subtitled Toronto's Natural Parklands, includes texts by several prominent local writers, including Anne Michaels and George Elliott Clarke. It's an incredible visual tour that brings to life the strange juxtapositions between urban and rustic that characterize Toronto, from corner to corner: the marshes of the Humber, the tough face of the Scarborough Bluffs, the sled hill at Riverdale Park East.

Mr. Burley, who will speak about the book Sunday at the Brick Works, gestured across the park: the former quarry now a pond and wetland, the industrial buildings now a place for education, markets and office space. "When I started photographing here in the eighties, this was all industrial," he said with a sweep of the hand. "This was scrappy, barren land; there were dirt bikes here."

A citizens' group, Task Force To Bring Back the Don, gained traction in the late 1980s to try and take the valley back. Now the Brick Works, city-owned but leased to the non-profit Evergreen, is one of the few places in Toronto's valley system for programmed activities.

Marathon runners wend their way through the Rosedale Valley Ravine in this 2016 photo from Robert Burley’s book, An Enduring Wilderness.

"As you look across the valley, there is designed space now – but a larger area of semi-wild space," Mr. Burley explains. "And you need more of that designed space; you need a sense that someone has designed an experience for you."

The difficulty is that the ravine system – vast but hard to access – remains murky in the minds of many Torontonians. As Robert Fulford wrote in 1995, "The system resembles a private club that you can use only if you know someone who can escort you in."

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That's changing.

In the Don Valley – the largest and most central of the ravines – the Lower Don Trail, south of Bloor Street, is scheduled to fully reopen in September, after a reworking by designers DTAH and a partial closure of nearly two years. At the same time, Evergreen will launch a new public art strategy Sept. 23, beginning with a series of sculptures by the brilliant Duane Linklater that will sit along the trail.

This will coincide with a policy shift. In September and October, city councillors will consider a new Ravine Strategy for approval. That strategy, developed by city planners, addresses the ravines as a resource for water management and parkland.

A trail in Rouge Park is lost in a sea of ferns.

At the same time, the city will put into effect a pilot program for wayfinding (i.e., signage and other visual cues) to guide people along the Lower Don Trail and the adjacent Riverdale Park East and West. The signage, which appears very well-designed, will allow people to easily find their way to the Don; and it can, and should, work equally well on similar sites across Toronto.

There is momentum for some bigger change. Nearby at the mouth of the Don, three levels of government announced in June a $1.185-billion reconstruction that will create parkland and flood protection – and eventually development – in the historic delta.

But will that money and infrastructure extend into the valley? Last year, I wrote about an expansive vision for the Lower Don that would turn 195 hectares of city-owned land into a Don River Valley Park, a massive showpiece. Last October, Mayor John Tory signalled support for this vision – and yet fully executing the plan would mean moving roads, even a GO rail line, and would require a more robust series of pedestrian bridges and connections.

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Scarborough Bluffs Park offers a majestic vista of Lake Ontario.

It is possible, and ambitious – though much less ambitious, and cheaper, than the proposed Rail Deck Park. The upshot would be a huge green space for new residents of the Port Lands and current residents of Regent Park, Cabbagetown and St. James Town.

Evergreen, which runs the Brick Works, hopes that its art program will help bring people's attention to that particular stretch of green. "Art is an amazing provocateur of ideas," says Evergreen CEO Geoff Cape, "and we have the opportunity to integrate art into the landscape of this unique corridor that tells the story of the city and its natural systems."

As for the bigger Don River Valley Park, "that has languished a little bit," Mr. Cape says. "I'm really hoping the city tries to leverage the investments in the lower Don. There needs to be a more ambitious vision articulated for the master plan." He is right: Signs and a few pedestrian bridges are a start. But to get masses of Torontonians into these spaces will take larger moves and a larger vision. It takes work to help a city get lost.

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