Post-CHESS 2014 Reflections: Park Déjà vu

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map_rouge_urban_park
Location of Rouge Park; Source: Canadian Geographic/Chris Brackley

CHESS’s Saturday excursion into the suburban wilds originated at the Markham Museum, a Toronto suburb located north east of the city. Our visit began with a presentation by two Parks Canada employees on the new Rouge Urban National Park initiative, which will be the first Canadian national park located within an urban setting. Rouge Park was initially created in 1995 and is currently made of 47 square kilometres of provincial and municipal land. With the creation of Rouge Urban National Park, it is expected to expand to 58 square kilometres. (For more reading on Rouge Urban National Park see the July/August 2013 issue of Canadian Geographic, which contains an excellent article on the park). The Parks Canada staff emphasized a few main points. First, the new urban national park is being created by the Canadian government to meet rising demand for accessible outdoor recreation. Rouge would be the first national park reachable by public transit. Second, they emphasized the green belt function of the park, a mechanism by which to preserve and restore the last remaining sections of green-space in the Greater Toronto Area. Third, they discussed the park’s relationship to the farms located within the park boundaries–a relationship that is either idyllic or fractious, depending on who you are talking to.

Map of Bronte Creek
Location of Bronte Creek Provincial Park; Source: brontecreek.org

What struck was that I had come across all of these arguments before. The rationale for park creation is nearly identical to that of Bronte Creek Provincial Park, in Oakville, Ontario, halfway between Toronto and Hamilton and just off of the Queen Elizabeth Way. The preeminent landscape feature is the Bronte Creek Ravine, which crosses the centre of the park and reaches a depth of 150 feet. Bronte Creek was created in 1971 from five separate family farms and it represented the first concrete manifestation of the Ontario government’s 1970s fascination with the near-urban park concept. It acted as a catalyst for other near-urban park initiatives in Ontario, including London’s Komoka Provincial Park and St. Catherine’s Short Hills Provincial Park. Other provinces had their own near-urban park projects, such as Alberta’s Fish Creek Provincial Park in Calgary.

The objectives of Ontario’s near-urban park enterprise can be broken down into two categories: environmental considerations and the further democratization of recreation. On the one hand it was hoped that parks like Bronte Creek would siphon off some of the visitors from more primitive parks, like Algonquin and Quetico, thus protecting them from the threat of over-use. Near-urban parks were also meant to save the last remaining remnants of green-space from urban sprawl, functioning as part of a city’s greenbelt and acting to drive further conscientious land use planning. On the other hand, near-urban parks were meant to make outdoor recreation more accessible to urban populations. Provincial park accessibility hinges on the availability of automobile transport and cheap fuel, both of which were increasingly elusive for most of Toronto’s citizens during the 1970s.

Bronte Creek Ravine
Bronte Creek Ravine
Henry C. Breckon Farm
Henry C. Breckon Demonstration Farm

In 1971, Premier William Davis commented that Bronte Creek represented a “dramatic departure from the established concept of provincial parks [that] promises to bring the pleasures and beauties of our natural environment closer to a large number of city people.” (Marsh 4) It was to provide day-use opportunities to the 1.5 million people who lived within a 40 kilometre radius of the park. 6,000 parking spaces were provided and the park was designed to handle 30,000 visitors a day, 15% of whom were expected to arrive by public transit. It was the first provincial park to design facilities specifically for disabled people. Original plans created separate recreational zones designed to protect more fragile areas of the park. Efforts were made to restore the creek valley, including reforestation and wetland restoration. These restorative efforts occurred alongside efforts to replant orchards, fields, and other plants that had been present during the land’s agricultural heyday. Two of the farms were restored and used as a children’s farm and a demonstration farm, which was to represent  turn-of-the-century mixed farming in Ontario.

Cows at Bronte
Two Handsome Cows- Residents of Bronte Creek Provincial Park

Bronte Creek and other near-urban provincial parks represent a takeover by the provincial government of what was traditionally a municipal responsibility: providing recreational opportunities for urban residents. What occurred in Ontario and North America more broadly that made this shift occur? Does the contemporary takeover of this responsibility by Parks Canada with the Rouge Park initiative represent another notable shift?  It should be noted that in some ways the near-urban provincial parks were a failure: they never reached the level of popularity that was initially expected. Much of the elaborate original planning for Bronte Creek, which included a tram system, was never realized. The entire near-urban park initiative was basically canned by the late 1970s, when a conservative government came into power in Ontario and deemed the concept not worth pursuing further. Does the creation of Rouge Urban National Park illustrate the failure of Ontario Parks to meet urban outdoor recreation demand? Or does it represent a resurgence of the same societal pressures that led to Bronte Creek Provincial Park in the early 1970s? Comparison of the two parks raises such questions as these. The parallel origin stories of Bronte Creek and Rouge Park further illustrate the importance of looking to the past to more fully understand the implications of our current actions.

Sources

Walter H. Kehm, “Near-Urban Parks: What Are They?” Park News 13 (1977): 8-16.

Gerald Killan, Protected Places: A History of Ontario’s Provincial Park System (Toronto: Dundern Press Limited, 1993): 213.

Ellen Langlands, Bronte Creek Provincial Park Historical Report, December 1972.

John Marsh, “Near-Urban Parks,” Park News 13 (1977): 2-7.

Project Planning Association Limited, Bronte Creek Provincial Park Demonstration Farm Report, Bronte Creek Provincial Park, 1973.

 

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is an environmental historian of Canada and the United States, editor, and digital communications strategist. She earned her PhD in History from the University of Saskatchewan in 2019. She is an executive member, editor, and social media editor for the Network in Canadian History and Environment (NiCHE). She is also a working board member of the Saskatchewan History and Folklore Society and Girls Rock Saskatoon. A passionate social justice advocate, she focuses on developing digital techniques and communications that bridge the divide between academia and the general public in order to democratize knowledge access. You can find out more about her and her freelance services at jessicamdewitt.com.

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