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With 232 hectares of abandoned airfields, sheds and barren land, Toronto’s Downsview Park was an act of faith from its very inception.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Jean Trottier is assistant professor in the department of landscape architecture at the University of Manitoba and chairperson of the Council for Canadian Urbanism.

Parks Canada is coming to town. The federal agency has been instructed to “establish at least one new national urban park in every province and territory, with a target of 15 new urban parks by 2030.” This promises to mark a major recalibration of our national park system – and to generate a certain amount of soul-searching.

We’ve been through this before. Originally conceived as places of tourism and recreation during the early 1900s, our national parks were given new marching orders in the 1970s, with a turn toward environmental conservation and a mandate to protect samples of each Canadian ecoregions.

The hallways and coffee rooms of Parks Canada offices became populated with biologists, ecologists and other “science-y types” more temperamentally inclined to roam pristine ecosystems than soak in urban vibes with the crowds. How well these folks will adapt to their expanded mandate is anyone’s guess, but we should all ponder what a hipper national park system should look like before the agenda gets set.

The obvious inspiration for this new federal initiative is the Rouge National Urban Park, which sits on the eastern edge of the Greater Toronto Area. Ten years in the making, Rouge required the kind of complex deal-making and pragmatism that creating large national parks in urban settings is bound to demand. Its urban proximity notwithstanding, Rouge also exhibits all the attributes we’ve come to associate with national parks: conservation-focused, recreation-friendly and moderately tolerant of low-impact economic activities.

But while Rouge is sometimes branded as “Canada’s first and only national urban park,” that honour might well have gone to Toronto’s Downsview Park, were it not for federal administrative intricacies that placed it beyond the purview of Parks Canada. As a result, these two cousins could not be more different.

Whereas the impetus for Rouge was the preservation of a relatively pristine Carolinian ecosystem, Downsview Park was an act of faith from its very inception: 232 hectares of abandoned airfields, sheds and barren land, the sole merit of which seemed to be to offer a clean slate to the imagination. And whereas Rouge promotes itself as an “escape from the city,” Downsview’s aim is decidedly more hip and aimed at an urban demographic – even if actually getting there is, at best, a sluggish affair.

The quest for the next-century national park is likely to crystallize around these two competing visions. The first – the “conservationist” approach taken with Rouge – will argue for the protection of relatively intact eco-remnants to be found in and around our Canadian cities. The second – let’s call it the “revitalist” approach, which was favoured at Downsview Park – would promote parks as a catalyst for urban regeneration.

These two visions, it must be said, are not mutually exclusive. But it seems likely that Parks Canada’s conservationist ethos, and Canadians’ renewed affection for open natural space after COVID-19 lockdowns, will give the edge to the familiarity and gratification offered by the protection of existing green spaces, as with Rouge’s precedent.

As a case in point, Saskatoon is already busy pitching national designation for its Meewasin Valley, which includes the South Saskatchewan River, native prairie grass habitats, Indigenous archeological sites and some of the city’s most beloved recreational and cultural amenities. People, the local CBC News observes, are “most pleased with the fact that Parks Canada prioritizes the environment.”

To be clear, I applaud the conservation of the Meewasin Valley; it is truly one of Canada’s urban jewels. But we must ask: Shouldn’t the locations of these national urban parks also be determined by their long-term transformative and restorative potential?

Indeed, it’s easy to forget that New York’s Central Park, the granddaddy of North America’s naturalistic urban parks, was but an attempt by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted and architect Calvert Vaux to turn dilapidated municipal land into valuable real estate. It is easy to forget, too, that much of Mont Royal’s flanks had long been logged and furrowed by the time Olmsted was commissioned to design Canada’s “first” urban park. Our cities are full of abandoned quarries, landfills and large industrial areas beget by two centuries of urbanization. Shouldn’t Parks Canada help us live up to that environmental legacy?

Consider Winnipeg, my adopted city of 20 years and which joined Saskatoon and Halifax on Parks Canada’s short list for a new urban national park. The local community is abuzz with prognostics about the park’s location, with the front-runner being a 700-hectare swath of green space comprised of Assiniboine Park, the Assiniboine Forest and the FortWhyte Alive nature preserve, which constitutes one of the largest urban forests in Canada.

But this is a low-hanging fruit, if admittedly a highly desirable one. The reality is that these parks and green spaces are already comparatively well protected, financed and managed. They also happen to be located in Winnipeg’s most affluent neighbourhoods.

In spelling out Parks Canada’s new directives, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau argued that the pandemic recovery efforts offer a historic opportunity to shape the kind of society we aspire to be. We should heed these words and embrace the visionary ambition that gave us the Winnipeg parks system at the turn of the 20th century, America’s largest elm forest in the early 1900s, the floodway in the 1950s and the Forks in the 1970s. Today’s Winnipeg would be unimaginable without these transformative achievements, but it took a lot of imagination to get there.

So what else could Winnipeg do with a national urban park? Well, it could leverage the financial and political clout that comes from a federal designation to finally relocate the Canadian Pacific rail yards that sit at the city’s core, a recurring “pie in the sky” idea that was most recently revived by former federal cabinet minister Lloyd Axworthy and a group of civic leaders in 2018. Or it could proceed with the long-delayed environmental decontamination and urban redevelopment of Point Douglas, the industrial birthplace of Winnipeg, which sits at the ecologically strategic confluent of the Red and Seine rivers.

What if we dared to conceive of a national urban park with rivers at its core, with Point Douglas and its opposing riverbanks, including the historic site of Fort Gibraltar in French St-Boniface, all woven together with pedestrian bridges, skating trails and dogsled tracks? Add the Seine River corridor and the adjacent abandoned stock yards to the mix, and that’s about 600 hectares sitting in some of the city’s most environmentally and economically depressed neighbourhoods.

Or could we imagine, further afield, a widened and reconceived floodway linear park connecting Winnipeg, Birds Hill Provincial Park and the Red River dam at Lockport? That would create a nation-scaled 47-kilometre-long shelterbelt marking the middle point of the Trans-Canada Highway.

Almost exactly 150 years ago, Mr. Olmsted envisaged Mont Royal Park as a green oasis in the heart of a yet-to-come metropolis. We should demonstrate the same foresight now and act boldly to create national urban parks that can serve as a measure of our ambitions – not just for the present, but for the centuries still to come.

Open this photo in gallery:

The Meadoway is transforming a hydro corridor in Scarborough into a vibrant 16-kilometre stretch of urban greenspace and meadowlands that will become one of Canada’s largest linear urban parks. Cyclists and pedestrians will soon be able to travel from the heart of downtown Toronto to Rouge National Urban ParkHandout

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