Some Thoughts on Green Space

Have you ever sensed that a group of random ideas was weaving itself into a larger fabric? I’ve had that feeling lately while thinking about some recent reading in the context of related events in Innisfil. It has to do with green space, how much we have, what it consists of, and questions like “How much should we have?”.

“Ontario’s Planning Act permits municipalities to require … either a maximum of 5% of residential land area (s. 42(1)) or a maximum of one hectare per 300 dwellings
(s. 42(3)) to a municipality for parks or other recreational purposes.”
(Neptis Foundation: “Density and changing standards for public facilities”)

Several examples come to mind of public outrage at the sudden razing of natural growth and treed areas, sometimes without permits, and sometimes on a property that was promoted as a ‘protected’ natural area. Sometimes, residents have banded together in defense of an individual tree as happened in Oakville and recently in Cookstown. Nature matters and people notice.

Chips

Alcona, 2010: “I thought I had a permit”

Some of you may be familiar with the Toronto Star’s ‘Big Ideas’ campaign to crowd-source novel ideas for urban revitalization. I’m inspired by some suggestions that relate to preserving or enhancing natural spaces within a city. For instance:

My fondest memory of cities of the world are the ones where towering trees and majestic buildings appear to be valued equally. Wandering in the heart of a tree-dominated city created the illusion of being in a park.” – Gwen Petreman

What if we created a small, annual tax rebate for property owners and buildings that allot a certain portion of their land to cultivation of food products? We then offer a subsidized service to plant food-bearing saplings, for example pears, apples, cherry trees, etc. at a cost of $15 a tree. It is called ‘The Ark Project’.” – Clark Collett

Lately, I came across an organization working to promote the idea of “Green Infrastructure” in Ontario. The idea is that government funding (i.e. our tax dollars) flows exclusively to the hard assets of city building like pipes, roads or bridges and that a portion of “infrastructure” money should also be made equally available for “green” projects. More information can be found at http://www.greeninfrastructureontario.org. It certainly seems logical considering that there are more ‘green’ components appearing in storm water management, or water purification, for instance. In the long run, these are more efficient and economical. It also makes sense to think of the multi-million dollar South Innisfil Drain project as ‘green infrastructure’.

A book called Happy City, transforming our lives through urban design (Charles Montgomery, 2013) also presents some unique ideas. It brings together many different ideas including the concept of “view-based urbanism” championed in Vancouver. Specific sight-lines are protected to ensure urban residents still have a view of natural features unique to Vancouver like ocean, mountains and sunsets. He also discusses research conducted in England that sought people’s reaction to different landscapes:

Visitors said they felt much more healthy, connected, and ‘grounded’ after spending time in parks with many different kinds of trees and birds than in parks that distilled nature down to lawns and a few trees. The ‘messier’ and more diverse the landscape, the better.”

All of these diverse ideas come together when I put them in the context of Innisfil and consider the design of the Lion’s Head development proposed for South Alcona.

6th Line Multi Use Trail

6th Line Multi Use Trail

The Lion’s Head Secondary Plan has several laudable features. Wider sidewalks are incorporated into a ‘bioswale’ designed to divert storm run-off into the ground before it reaches storm sewers. The developer has also proposed creating a common gathering space for community events and a possible farmers’ market. The plan includes four local parks and one larger park at the centre. This puts some green space within a short distance (200 to 500 metres) of all residents. The plan also makes provision for a separate landscaped bicycle path along the Sixth Line as outlined in Simcoe County’s Master Transportation Plan. Green corridors are also set aside within the development to connect adjacent natural areas.

But I have a few reservations:

In light of Montgomery’s research of parks in Happy City, I’m disturbed by the fate of an existing mature woodlot at the centre of the site:

“detailed environmental studies of the natural heritage feature (woodlot) in the centre of the Sleeping Lion lands have shown that the woodlot was not a significant feature and that its removal would not result in negative environmental impacts. The removal of the woodlot has been off-set in part by a set of Low Impact Design, stormwater management commitments to flood diversion, substantial additional park space …”
(Bousfields Inc., planning consultants to the developer, April 2013)

Can human wellness count as ‘environmental’ impact? No doubt, the four smaller neighbourhood parks would be the groomed lawn variety. I would hope that the larger central park would allow space for some mature ‘messier’ ‘woodlot’ growth as well as perhaps innovative inclusion of some food bearing trees and plants (fruit, berries, nuts) that would be freely available to area residents. That approach could significantly affect residents’ perceptions of well-being.

Could strategic landscaping create the illusion of more “nature” within the development? In effect, could sight lines be altered to soften the visual impact of a dense urban environment without hindering its effectiveness?

Finally, considering the loud protest of residents in Barrie and Gilford concerning the early-morning blast of GO train whistles, I’m surprised that the plan is to intentionally build almost right up to the edge of the CN tracks. The same is happening in Lefroy. Seriously, guys? But then, the whistle blasts are audible for several kilometres so I guess 20 metres or so wouldn’t make any difference.

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