Rabbits share the West Toronto Railpath with runners and cyclists. A pair of endangered piping plovers nested on the Toronto Islands last summer, producing three fledglings. Within the last 20 years, two of Canada’s most at-risk bumblebee species were both spotted along the Humber River, near Old Mill subway station. A black bear — an honest-to-goodness black bear — showed up in Rouge Park in 1991.
The world is gripped by an extinction crisis caused in part by urbanization. And yet wildlife persists in the city of Toronto. Sometimes, wildlife even thrives here.
On Thursday, city council adopted a plan to make Toronto wilder. It describes a vision of the city as a rich urban ecosystem that supports a huge diversity of plants and animals.
The Biodiversity Strategy, the city’s first, acknowledges that a greener, wilder city makes for healthier human residents, and that boosting biodiversity will be key to withstanding the pressures of climate change.
Urban ecologists and nature advocates praised the strategy, which has been in development since 2015 and was subject to wide consultations before the final version was put to a vote.
But they warned that the plan would be a waste if it is not backed by action and money, and that they have been disappointed before.
In 2017, city council adopted the Ravine Strategy, a plan to support Toronto’s most important natural oases. Ravines are central to the city’s nature goals because they account for the vast majority of our semi-intact natural ecosystems. Covering 17 per cent of Toronto, they are a huge opportunity for conservation.
Two years later, city staff have still not produced a report on how the Ravine Strategy will be implemented. Council originally requested that this report be delivered in 2018. Council has not approved any dedicated funding for the Ravine Strategy, despite citizen-led pressure. The report, and any funding requests for the 2020 budget, is now expected in December.
“The city has developed over the years, in a variety of areas, some good policies,” says Paul Scrivener, co-chair of the Toronto Ravine Revitalization Study, a project of the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Forestry.
“The biodiversity initiative is a really great one; it pushes all the right buttons. It addresses the issues. But then that’s the talk.
“We gotta do the walk.”
A spokesperson says that the city has advanced the goals of the ravine strategy since it was adopted. Actions include tackling invasive species, establishing monitoring sites in partnership with U of T to study ravine health, and launching “ravine days.”
Experts say the threats to ravines and Toronto’s other natural areas are outpacing the city’s attempts to restore them.
“What we have to do is treat this as a crisis. We treat lots of things as a crisis: climate change, homelessness, gang violence. Because, at the end of the day, ravines are essential for the health and well-being of Toronto,” says Scrivener.
The new Biodiversity Strategy agrees: a rich diversity of flora and fauna, most of which exists in the city’s 11,000 hectares of ravines, is fundamental to the health of every organism that lives in this city, humans included.
Trees clean the air, cool their surroundings and control water flow, helping lessen floods. Clean water is essential to life. Studies have shown that experiencing nature can boost memory, attention and other cognitive functions; improve children’s performance in school; and improve sleep and stress levels.
These measurable benefits are known as “ecosystem services” — the valuable, often irreplaceable things that nature provides us. The city has calculated that Toronto’s ravine system provides more than $822 million in ecosystem services every year.
Nature is of value in itself, regardless of what it provides us. And it is experiencing a cataclysm: up to a million species could become extinct, a United Nations report concluded this year.
Cities have a role to play in the biodiversity crisis and the climate change crisis, two entwined emergencies.
Converting wildlands to concrete has eaten up important habitat, and has magnified the effects of climate change.
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Aside from mitigating these negative effects, cities have a positive role to play: more than 80 per cent of Canadians live in cities, and engaging ordinary citizens is considered key to addressing both crises.
The Biodiversity Strategy acknowledges and responds to these truths. It describes what the city is already doing: identifying and expanding Toronto’s 86 “environmentally sensitive areas,” and protecting natural areas through bylaws, regulations and the Official Plan; monitoring and restoration activities; and managing threats such as pests and sprawl. The urban forestry division plants more than 100,000 trees annually, although not all are native species.
The strategy also lays out the vast need for improvement. Aside from obvious problems such as climate change and habitat loss, invasive species, such as dog-strangling vine, garlic mustard and the Norway maple, are a huge threat, especially in ravines. Three-quarters of ravine areas surveyed since 2009 were found to contain high-risk invasive plant species.
“The document is great,” says Bob Kortright, treasurer of Toronto Field Naturalists, a group that offered input for the Biodiversity Strategy and unsuccessfully petitioned the city to fund the Ravine Strategy adequately in the 2019 budget.
“But we need to get rolling. We need budget. We need staff in the city to enable the Biodiversity Strategy to actually get started.”
On Thursday, council adopted the Biodiversity Strategy unanimously. The motion itself carried no funding. It asked staff to develop an “ecological integrity monitoring framework,” including a budget, by the last quarter of 2020. It also asked staff to identify opportunities for restoration outside of ravines that could be funded in the 2021 budget. It highlighted the upcoming report and budget requests linked to the Ravine Strategy.
Coun. Mike Layton, who first requested staff develop a biodiversity strategy in 2015, says that “it gives staff something else to hang a budget ‘ask’ onto.”
“It will allow us, those of us who want to invest in our city, to say we need to put this money in because, look, we have this biodiversity strategy. We have this ravine strategy … What are we, just in the business of writing plans, or are we in the business of actually funding services?”
Torontonians appear to be enthusiastic about similar initiatives. When the city adopted a Pollinator Protection Strategy in 2018, it created a small fund to supply $5,000 grants to create neighbourhood pollinator gardens. The city was swamped with more than 500 applications; 37 were successful.
That enthusiasm is critical, too, says Scrivener.
“It’s not all about money; it’s also about engaging citizens. That’s one thing I strongly believe in. Good government should engage its citizens to participate and take a stake in this. And people are willing to do that — they just need some guidance.”
“The key thing is, we can talk, and we can study and everything else, but we really do have to get out there and start doing it.”