The buzz and tweets of Cottonwood Flats

Cottonwood Flats sounds weirdly provincial, like the name of some suburb in England where people wear large, floppy hats, rather than what it actually is: a naturalized area just north of the Evergreen Brickworks along the Lower Don Trail.

The reason I wanted to visit Cottonwood Flats (ward 29) was initially because of a sign I heard was there. Specifically, this one:

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Oh, and this one:

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Parks are so often filled with hand-slap style signs telling you what you absolutely, musn’t ever do that when I see playful signs like these I’m immediately charmed.

But the signs are not the only thing about Cottonwood Flats that are charming.

When I went there with a friend last Sunday afternoon, we found it fairly secluded. One turn off the busy trail and it really felt like you were out in the middle of some wonderful rural landscape. I love these moments in Toronto, where you take a few steps and are transported away from the city, sometimes in a surprising way

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Cottonwood Flats was used by the City of Toronto to store snow in the winter until 2009 when a natural restoration plan was put into the works that culminated in the beautiful 7-hectare landscape that’s there today.

Getting to the Flats is as easy as turning left at the first bike path intersection north of Pottery Road on the Lower Don Trail. However, it’s not listed on Google Maps, so you can’t search for directions that way. This path takes you over the rail road tracks and then you’re there. If you continue across a small bridge you end up in the winding trails of Crothers Woods, which also includes a bunch of mountain biking trails that, we learned, are not really that great if you have a skinny little road bike.

Native plants and wildflowers give the place a country-ish feel, boosted by the wooden fence that surrounds the songbird meadow in the middle (hence the charming signs). A crushed stone pathway loops around the meadow and includes large stone blocks that act as periodic benches. It’s all just so damn pleasant. 

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On the side of the trail that passes by the Don River, piles of what appear to be construction or highway waste are stacked neatly, creating a good climbing spot and perch to read a book on a cool Autumn day while the Don River does its lazy thing (I’ll be back).

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This is also one of those spots where you want to stand still and close your eyes for a moment and just listen. While we didn’t hear many songbirds in the meadow, the still summer-drunk cicadas were buzzing like the high-voltage power lines that are strung up along the hydro towers marching down one side of the Flats. It sounds, and feels, alive. The perfect late summer treat. 

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This post is part of the City within a Park project, where I’m exploring Toronto by visiting a park I haven’t been to yet in every one of the 44 wards in 2015. (Sorry for the ads, if you see them. WordPress, etc etc.)

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Creating a community hub in Flemingdon Park

I don’t know why I thought Flemingdon Park would be small. In my head, the park was a patch of grass with some towers nearby. In reality, Flemingdon Park is a sprawling linear park in a hydro corridor with playing fields in the middle and a community garden and basketball court on the other.

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It’s also the site of a project by the Toronto Centre for Active Transportation to create a “town centre,” which is being funded by the Healthier Cities and Communities Grant.

According to TCAT, Flemingdon Park lacks the kind of “centre” that can be found in nearby R. V. Burgess Park in the Thorncliffe Park neighbourhood. The idea behind the project is to use a participatory design process, working with the Flemingdon Urban Fair Committee, a local volunteer group that works to animate and improve the park, to spur change and create a community space that can become this focal point.

The grant includes $5,000 for actual physical improvements to realize this space. It’s not much, but if there’s one thing working at Park People has taught me it’s that creating more animated, well-used parks is more about engaging and empowering community members in those spaces. This is essentially what TCAT is getting at with this note:

“The equipment could be mobile, temporary or permanent and will be designed by the group through design facilitation exercises. The project is based on the assumption that the process (i.e. the ‘social infrastructure’) is what makes physical equipment meaningful, and thus what ultimately performs the ‘town centre’ function.”

I was actually at Flemingdon Park with my work because we were partnering with the Toronto International Film Festival to put on ten movies in parks in different neighbourhoods in Toronto in partnership with local groups (such as the Flemingdon Urban Fair Committee).

Seeing everyone come together in the space, it wasn’t hard to imagine how this spot could become the community hub that TCAT and local residents envision. When we got there it was mostly an empty grass field with a few kids playing basketball nearby. But a few hours later it was filled with parents and their kids all running around doing the activities that were set up before the film. An enterprising ice cream vendor had set up nearby to sell popsicles and ice cream cones to the crowds of children and seemed to be doing brisk trade.

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The FUFC has done some amazing work in bringing people out to the park for different activities, including a day of physical activity earlier in the summer as part of the 100in1Day Festival, using funding from the TD Park Builders program that Park People administers.

It just goes to show that to create a lively community hub in a park doesn’t always take a bunch of expensive infrastructure (although physical improvements help), but a dedicated group of local residents working to bring people into the space and make it their own.

TCAT’s first design workshop is coming up on September 15.

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This post is part of the City within a Park project, where I’m exploring Toronto by visiting a park I haven’t been to yet in every one of the 44 wards in 2015. (Sorry for the ads, if you see them. WordPress, etc etc.)

Exploring Black Creek, Toronto’s mini-LA River

I’ve been reading a lot about the LA river recently because of the announcement that Frank Gehry is working with the City of Los Angeles on plans to revitalize the river (plans that some say may clash with previous plans to renaturalize part of it.) So I decided to check out one of Toronto’s own mini-LA rivers, Black Creek.

My first glimpse of Black Creek was before I knew it was Black Creek. I saw it as I passed by on the new UP Express on my way to Newfoundland for a friend’s wedding last month. There, outside the window of the train, I saw a large concrete channel marching down the centre of a street, a trickle of water down its middle. What is that, I thought. It looked so un-Toronto to me.

Turns out it’s part of Black Creek, one of Toronto’s most polluted waterways and the smallest subwatershed of the Humber River, into which it flows.

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According to this little history on the Black Creek Conservation Project website, Black Creek was channelized following Hurricane Hazel in 1954 as a way to prevent flooding and whisk stormwater away faster. It was apparently fully surrounded in its open concrete channel by 1965. The effect is pretty dramatic. It’s horrific and beautiful at the same time, in the way that weird, concrete urban things often are where nature has started to reinsert itself in all the little nooks and crannies.

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Not all of the creek is this austere, however. What makes Black Creek so interesting is how its concrete channel passes through different landscapes. Following the section where it slices down the centre of a road, the creek passes through a series of parkland before it runs through a golf course and then meets up with the Humber River.

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Here the creek’s concrete channel winds its way through mowed grass, willow trees with their boughs hanging low over the water, and alongside tennis courts, children’s playgrounds, and ponds with green water so still that their surfaces appear solid. In some places rocks have been placed in the channel to break up the water, creating more of a natural look. Geese hang around on the concrete like bored teenagers.

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While signs warn people about the potential dangers of flooding during rainstorms, there is no fence to keep you from going down into the channel. The banks are sloped gently and the base of the channel is flat and wide on either side of a trench cut down further where the water flows past. It’s almost like two sidewalks.

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There are other creeks in Toronto that have been corralled into concrete channels like this one. Shawn Micallef has written about two others, Lavender Creek and Mimico Creek, both of which have been at least partly channelized.

These concrete streams are a weird mix of nature and the hardest parts of urbanity. LA’s plans are to get rid of the concrete for the LA River and soften the banks in the hopes that this restores some of the natural elements to the river itself. But Gehry, perhaps not surprisingly given his architecture, is interested in preserving the concrete portions of the river, calling it an “architectural feature.”

All environmental concerns aside, I can kind of see his point. Concrete is ugly and brutish, but that’s kind of its appeal, especially in contrast to the soft, green of the parkland around it. There is something weirdly lovely in an almost dystopian sense about seeing Black Creek wind its way through the city in its concrete chute on its way to the Humber.

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This post is part of the City within a Park project, where I’m exploring Toronto by visiting a park I haven’t been to yet in every one of the 44 wards in 2015. (Sorry for the ads, if you see them. WordPress, etc etc.)