Oxymoron Embodied: The Rouge National Urban Park

By Earth Restoration Service Blogger Hashveenah Manoharan

“Urban park” is an unintuitive phrase. Historically, provincial, state, and national parks are spaces left aside for nature. They are typically sanctuaries for wildlife, spaces to allow plants to flourish without trimming and mowing. These parks are usually managed in a new sense of the word: not attempting to be restrictive of nature in the way of your neighbourhood playground, your vegetable garden, your front lawn. A perfect hub for conservation programs and re-wilding, national parks are associated with abandoning the hustle and bustle of urban life – not merging with it.

But the Rouge National Urban Park, on the fringes of Torontonian suburbia and totalling at 79.1km2, is a shining example of the oxymoron. The Rouge Park as it exists today was largely an activist-driven creation. The grit of the volunteer-run Save the Rouge Valley System team pioneered the cause, working closely with community members and the provincial and federal government, to champion the official introduction of the Rouge Park in 1990. Since then, the Rouge Park has been a sanctuary to both the wildlife and citizens of the Greater Toronto Area, intersecting three other neighbouring cities. To continue to preserve greenspace in such a desired space is courageous, but also cannot be done half-heartedly. Ecological restoration in the Rouge Park through the years has been influenced and bolstered by the community, led into fruition by the work of individuals like the staff and volunteers of Friends of the Rouge Watershed. Since its inception in 1991, FRW itself has planted over 710 000 shrubs, trees, and flowers with 59 000 volunteers, restoring 3.4 million square metres of the Rouge Park.

The concept of an urban park is a compromise. Reinstating nature into developed areas is seldom a fast or easy process, especially not in heavily populated spaces like Toronto where 6.3 million people dwell and the demand for housing is rapidly sprawling concrete beyond the boundaries of the GTA. To drive through the Rouge Park is to pass the Toronto Zoo, acres upon acres of farmland, residencies, and pathways and trails leading to its forests, valleys, rivers, and beaches.

The marriage of the city and the park opens the door to publicity and community interaction. Plans to expand the park’s trail network are underway. You can take public transit from downtown Toronto to the edge of the park and venture into the paths. The Toronto Zoo is continuing its wildlife conservation projects. Learn-to-camp and learn-to-hike programs are underway. And the local NGOs cross their fingers that this exposure would garner an equal amount of support given to the restoration initiatives that have been underway for years.

The question of whether the “Urban” title is simply another way to justify reducing the emphasis on ecological preservation and supporting more recreational development can only be clearly told with time, but evidence of the implied complications have already arisen. The early legislations for the National Urban Park were highly opposed by conservation groups in the park when the revisions on nature protection and ecological integrity were actually lower than the previously held standard. Concern has also been expressed about the leases being dealt to the public, mostly farmers, which may interfere with restoration plans, which themselves need revision with a stricter and more ambitious management plan.

Complications aside, the creation of urban parks poses as a world of possibility to connect urbanites with nature that branches beyond designated lawn-and-tree city parks. They present an opportunity to naturalize spaces that are ripe for development, for cities to prove their dedication to conservation. The Rouge Park would have been easily paved over if not for decades-long commitment of its residents, and now it stands as Canada’s first National Urban Park in its most densely inhabited region. To protect our existing greenspace now is an investment in future compromises, no matter how complex, that will allow restoration and conservation work to flourish in the most unlikely places.

Images taken from Wikimedia Commons