In my years living in Peterborough, I’ve heard plenty of stories from people who are surprised to see wildlife in the heart of our city. Stories including red-tailed foxes on George Street North, coyotes on the golf courses, or deer on the playgrounds. It is truly a gift that we live in a community blessed with an abundance of wildlife and wild spaces.
Many of these stories are often accompanied by a discussion about how the individual creature managed to travel there. I recall several years ago the nation-wide wild (pun intended) speculation about how a white-tailed deer managed to find itself wandering and lost in Toronto’s downtown financial district. Multitudes across the country took time out of their days to imagine the pathway that the deer may have taken to arrive at its downtown foray. Whether or not people realized it, their minds were plotting out Toronto’s natural heritage system.
The idea behind a natural heritage system isn’t a new one. It’s an integration of ecological principles into our urban and rural planning approaches adapted from the concept of “cores and corridors.” It’s easy to imagine that an individual creature, such as an osprey, spotted salamander, or a deer will never have all of its needs met in a single location. Animals need to move between places to acquire food, shelter, and breeding grounds; just as most humans do. If we want to live in a landscape that maintains a healthy ecology, we must be able to facilitate the movement of all creatures to the places they are traveling.
It’s possible to imagine the natural heritage system as a transit network for wildlife in our city. Each core area representing a neighbourhood or village for wildlife to forage, breed, or take shelter. Each corridor acting as a highway or metro system that wildlife can use to travel to and from each transit stop in the system. I personally imagine it as a subway system, mostly hidden from our view and physically separate from most of our day-to-day urban interactions.
Many of the corridors that wildlife uses to travel around our city can be determined by mapping where this hidden metro system comes into conflict with our human transit systems. On the margins of our city, such as where the Meade Creek Corridor crosses Television Road, it’s often possible to observe roadkill. In this sense, mapping our urban wildlife corridors can have tangible impacts in protecting humans and property. Many jurisdictions across Canada have recognized the human health benefit of providing crossing places for wildlife along these corridor areas. The price associated with creating protected wildlife crossings pales in comparison with the cost of providing medical treatment for motor vehicle accidents.
Even where the human health implications are not as clear, providing an opportunity for wildlife to cross the roadway can create real positive publicity for cities. Every year, the Jefferson salamander migrates across King Road in Burlington to lay eggs in the vernal pools that are beyond. Without fail, the story of the Jefferson salamander migration makes national news. Praise from conservation practitioners and naturalists is poured upon the city for its forward-thinking approach to environmental stewardship.
With the expansion of the Greater Toronto Area and the associated loss of significant wild spaces in southern Ontario, it is apparent that there’s a problem with our current planning approaches. In areas such as Pickering or Markham, nearly 96% of natural areas have been lost due to the rapid pace of urban growth. By planning ahead and providing a framework for municipalities to protect their natural landscape, the hope is to enable a healthier landscape ecology while reducing conflict within the urban planning process.
Currently the Province requires municipalities to develop a plan for their natural heritage system as part of the Official Plan process. As many readers may be aware, the Official Plan process is currently underway in Peterborough. You may have already had the opportunity to provide input on transportation and urban design, however it doesn’t seem as if there will be an opportunity to provide input on the natural heritage considerations for our community.
Early survey results seem to indicate that large portions of our population believe that the natural environment and sustainability are the most important issues facing our city. This can hardly come as a surprise, as many proposals to progressively chip away at the core natural areas in our city are met with fierce resistance by citizens who view these places, not just as nearby oases from urban life, but as critical components in the ecology of our landscape.
In the past several years, natural areas have become a flashpoint of confrontation in our community and a symbol of our city’s resistance to collaborative visioning, with areas considered natural treasures by large groups of citizens and naturalists coming under serious threat: Parkways through Jackson Park, sports complexes in the Trent Nature Areas, casinos near Harper Park, and subdivisions adjacent to Loggerhead Marsh.
The script is often the same. The City releases a report in the paper or through social media detailing their grand schemes. In the days following, citizens who cherish these natural areas express outrage in the media and online. Quickly, it’s discovered that discussions between the City and developers or consultants have been happening for the better part of a year. When Council finally meets to vote on the issue at hand, hours—and in some cases days—of presentations from citizens and groups implore City Council to reconsider. City Council votes to accept the proposed project and citizens begin to work in tireless opposition to the City. Sometimes the project is delayed, sometimes it isn’t, but the result is often wounded relationships and a scarred community. It doesn’t have to be this way.
I would propose that a deep and ongoing discussion between the municipality and the citizens of this city could be restorative for both the natural environment and for the strained relationships following years of debates on environmental issues. The fatigue that is felt by the municipality, by developers, and by citizens over the constant conflict facing our natural areas is palpable. A comprehensive and robust Natural Heritage Plan will reduce conflict and increase the ecological resilience of our community. It would be an opportunity for citizens and scientists to concisely express where and what sorts of development could exist in and around our city.
Nearly every major conflict around natural areas in the past four years could have been avoided if there was a clear understanding between members of our community about what we cherish, what is ecologically critical, and where might development take place in our city that has a minimal impact on our environment. It’s a beautiful sight to behold when we can recognize that our natural environment and our built environment don’t need to exist purely in opposition to each other.
To see an example of how this approach is already delivering incredible results and generating productive dialogue, we don’t even need to leave Peterborough County.
Over the past several years, a collaborative of groups around the City of Kawartha Lakes, including First Nations, governing bodies, clubs, and individuals have created the foundation for an expansive, scientifically robust, and agreed-upon natural heritage system. The collaborative is called Kawarthas Naturally Connected and is currently being used to guide decisions by municipalities, stewardship groups, conservation authorities, and many others. You can see the incredible map of the network of natural areas that stretch across our landscape on their website.
In a recent meeting of the collaborative, I was incredibly pleased to see a developer participating in the discussion. They believed that their participation would reduce conflict and that maintaining a healthy landscape ecology would be beneficial to their business model. It’s an encapsulation of the idea that healthy and sustainable enterprise should recognize social, environmental, and economic needs on equal footing.
Unfortunately, there exists a large hole in the centre of the map: the city of Peterborough. Despite being listed as a project partner on the website, participation with the collaborative has been minimal.
Part of the reason for the exclusion on the map is a technical one: urban areas don’t fit within the model in the same way that rural areas do. This doesn’t mean that they don’t play a role in the ecology of our landscape. Some areas on the map skirt our city or end at the margins. Jackson Park, Meade Creek Wetlands, and the Trent Nature Areas are all considered key connections within the regional system. If we are to create a platform to coordinate our urban conservation efforts, we must look to the surrounding region for ways we can dovetail our own efforts.
It’s easy to get lulled into the trap of drawing lines on a map and calling it a natural heritage system. Without robust policies in place to protect the spaces we love, we haven’t created a system of protected places; we have simply made a list of the places we have decided are ecologically important. The reality is, we already know where 90% of the important natural spaces in our community are, but we are unable to effectively protect them.
It is therefore critical that we carefully consider policies that would support the protection of these places we cherish. Several years ago, conservation organization Ontario Nature published The Best Practices Guide to Natural Heritage Systems Planning (PDF), a guide for city planners to support the creation of effective tools for natural heritage system protection. Several ideas expressed in the guide would be excellent first steps towards an ecologically and socially robust landscape.
One such policy proposed by the guide is the creation and facilitation of Environmental Planning Committees to provide input towards development and planning applications. Previous Peterborough administrators have worked in tandem with an Environmental Planning Committee to impart an environmental commentary on issues facing our city. The days of that committee ended years ago, but resurrecting it may be an excellent stepping stone towards a more resilient natural environment and a deeper discussion into how we engage with our community.
This is the opportunity for us to constructively and collectively envision our local environmental future. The possibilities are achievable. We only need to look beyond the city limits to see an example of a way to collaboratively strengthen our natural environment, reduce conflict, and even facilitate economic sustainability.
Because I’m a big believer in translating words into concrete action, the question remains, how do we create the opportunity to collectively protect our natural spaces? I can’t say that I have the answer. It seems that, until our city administration will concede that citizen voices need to be recognized and not just heard, we will be caught on a hamster wheel of conflict and disappointment.
The tool of natural heritage systems planning is a powerful one, but it’s a power meant to be shared, not administered. The power is only unlocked if it’s shared with all of those who stand to benefit. To simply administer it is to diminish the possibilities that it promises.
Perhaps it’s time for citizens to create their own collaborative and invite the City to the table instead of waiting for the City to invite us to theirs? Keeping Peterborough a natural will be a challenge, but I believe that as people who cherish these spaces and are passionate about our natural environment we can create a greener future for all of us.
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Metro map by Dylan Radcliffe. Spotted salamander photo by D. Gordon E. Robertson, via Wikimedia Commons. Other photos by B. Mroz.