The Between the Lines podcast heads to the Toronto ravine making headlines, to talk to a community member about Metrolinx’s GO Expansion plans, the impact on this ‘oasis’ in the city and how the transit agency has altered plans following community consultations.
This week on Between the Lines: a Metrolinx Podcast, host Matt Llewellyn speaks with Lisa Drew, the chair of a Small’s Creek area dog park.
He later is joined by Metrolinx’s manager of environmental programs and assessment, Gretel Green.
Episode 17 – Fifty Years in Rail: Talking GO Transit's past & future with Rob Fuller – Between The Lines: A Metrolinx Podcast
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- Episode 15 – Tunnel Boring Machines
- Episode 14 – #AMAwithAMA – Your Light Rail Transit (LRT) questions answered
- Episode 13 – Navigating market volatility in transit
You can find out more information about what is happening in Small’s Creek here.
Story by James Wattie, Metrolinx media relations advisor and Between the Lines podcast producer
Want to follow along while you listen? Here’s a full transcript for this episode of Between the Lines.
Between the Lines: Episode #7 – full transcript
Hey, I’m Matt Llewellyn. Welcome to Between The Lines, A Metrolinx Podcast. Every week we’re tackling some tough transit-related topics and letting you hear from some of the brightest minds and leading global experts in the transportation field.
This week: GO Expansion and Small’s Creek.
We’re going to hear from Gretel Green, one of Metrolinx’s managers of environmental programs and assessments.
We have a robust landscape plan, but I think the community also was asking for a few things. One was to reduce our impacts. We’ve done that.
But first, we’re going to the heart of Smalls Creek.
Hello. It’s a bright, sunny February morning when I meet Lisa Drew at Merrill Bridge Road Dog Park in Toronto’s east end.
Hello, Mango. Sorry. This one’s a new puppy in the neighborhood.
Lisa is the chair of the dog park that sits next to Small’s Creek. And she’s also the owner of Dougie, an eight year old Bichon-toy poodle.
He’s 20 pounds of attitude in a ten-pound dog. And when we come here, he usually just stands around.
So being chair of the dog park, I come mainly to just socialize myself…
But lately, those social conversations with the other dog owners is centered around the work that’s happening in the ravine.
The buzzing of chainsaws echoes through the neighbourhood as heavy equipment moves along a large hill that leads up to the Lakeshore East GO Train tracks between Woodbine and Coxwell.
These workers are making room for a retaining wall – that will allow Metrolinx to add a fourth track inside the existing rail corridor – and will enable electrification and far more GO train service to communities east of downtown Toronto, all the way out to Oshawa.
15 years ago, Lisa was one of those commuters…
Yeah, I used to live in Oshawa and I used to work at St Mike’s Hospital for a short time, and so I’d be at 6:30 in the morning, getting on the train.
And then by Whitby, there’s not even standing room.
Her morning routine still includes GO trains, but now instead of riding them, her and Dougie watch the green and white locomotives pass along the tracks next to Merrill Bridge Road Dog Park.
Not all of us are fortunate enough to live near where we work. Like that was my husband and I for a few years. It just made sense to take the train. Why be another car on the road, just basically going along at five kilometers an hour between Oshawa and Toronto?
Like that’ll take forever. On a good day, it’s a 45 minute drive.
And while that experience makes Lisa more understanding of the construction, that’s not the case with all of her neighbours.
Some are opposed and very much worried about how the landscape is going to change.
To somebody who is like just the average person… they see, Oh, it’s lush and green, and there are all these plants and it’s such a nice space.
But then, when you have somebody who’s lived here for a while who knows a bit more about nature, like some of the people who’ve lived here for far longer than me, they say, Oh, we used to have all these other like creatures living in the ravine.
We had turtles and salamanders and these things that are no longer there.
Lisa leads me through a gate and onto a boardwalk that meanders through the ravine. She explains that she believes the fauna has changed because of decades of changes to the make up of the floor of the ravine, just as a passing GO train zips by on the adjacent track.
In the summertime, I walk along the fence and I pull the dog strangling vine because it’s super invasive and it’s taking over the whole corridor.
I would look out the window and I’d see this huge mass of space that was just dog strangling vine and the it would take the place of where pollinating plants would be, where butterflies and bees and all the things we depend on and like to see, are trying to live. But they’re taking away their habitat.
Metrolinx did survey the vegetation in the ravine, and it found that more than 70% of the trees are considered to be non-native and invasive species.
At the request of some local activists, Metrolinx did volunteer to an independent review by the Toronto Region Conservation Authority, which looked at the construction methods being used to build the retaining T-wall and to replace a damaged culvert.
You can see all of the muck down there… that should be free flowing, if it’s a healthy creek.
Lisa explains that she’s attended nearly every community meeting and consultation on this project since becoming the chair of the dog park four years ago, and she’s also kept up with the community concerns as well.
[Save] Small’s Creek wants them to not take down the trees, not to clear cut, not to change the culvert that has been broken, the slope Metrolinx is working on… None of the trees can survive there because of the erosion.
You have gravel from the tracks eroding into the ravine. You’ve got all these trees that are falling.
If they were coming and dumping garbage… Yes, I would get behind them saying yes, save our ravine. But when the ravine has been declining in health for the past decade… What’s worth saving in there, other than the access of the water?
Last week, Metrolinx president and CEO Phil Verster penned an open letter highlighting the work that has been done, such as saving an additional 60 trees by listening to the community and changing the footprint of the construction zone and altering the access to the path of the worksite.
But the part of the letter that stands out the most to Lisa is where it speaks to why Metrolinx is sticking with the current design rather than an alternative approach proposed by a community group.
The reason we’re doing these walls, which they’ve been telling us for ages, is that it is easier for them to install, they won’t be there as long to put them in, and they won’t have to make as much of an environmental impact surrounding it. And I thought, OK, well, that makes sense.
Because they would have had to take the dog park with the kind of retaining wall that these people want . But they think that they know better than the people who’ve been working on this project, which of course, would have been worked on like a decade before they brought us in.
But they’re saying, Oh, there’s no community consultation. What have I been going to? What have I been wasting my time when there are lots of times I wish I would rather listen to paint dry. But I’ve been to these because it’s affecting not just here.
This is for the whole like section that we’re in. And they dominate… now that they started coming, are dominating the meetings.
The retaining wall will also make the community safer by making it much more difficult to access the busy Lakeshore East train tracks.
But it’s a tough sell to people who live along this ravine, and Lisa knows that. But she’s holding out hope that it’s for the greater good.
If everybody were to hold rallies and whatever against any of the changes, this wouldn’t be here.
Like, none of these houses would be here because somebody is always going to object to whatever you do. It’s not all bad. You try living somewhere along the GO line, having to wait for hours to be able to get on a train or to come home from work after you’ve been working all day.
You’re trying to ask them to wait even longer because you want to know exactly what Metrolinx is going to do in the ravine. Because they’ve asked to halt the work, and Metrolinx has admitted that they’ve postponed some of the work to address concerns.
I have to be OK with it’s not going to be perfect. Nothing ever is. So I’m just I’m hopeful that what they’re planning for the part that we have to look at and for the ravine and the part of the dog park is that they’re going to keep up their end and be responsible for what they’ve promised because they can’t promise you the moon and the stars. You can’t ask for the Moon and the stars.
You just got to be hopeful.
Gretel Green is manager of environmental programs and assessment at Metrolinx, and she also happens to call that east end neighborhood home.
Gretel, how would you describe Small’s Creek for people?
So the small creek community is actually a really beautiful, small little wetland, and it’s a remnant of a larger stream valley system that used to be in the middle of City of Toronto.
If you go down some stairs and you walk into a wet area that’s got a muddy path, that’s what half the year and dry half the year, depending on the hydrology of the season. And then on the south side of the ravine, you have another forest and then you actually have the watercourse that actually goes back underground for a while and comes back up along a little further down.
And it connects all the way down to Gerrard Street.
There is deciduous swamp and oak hickory, maple forest is how you would describe it if you were a scientist.
And I’ve walked it a few times with my dog and my daughter, you know, to understand what’s going on here with the community. I’ve been there in the fall, in the winter and the spring. There’s watercress and jewel weed.
There’s remnant wetlands and groundwater fed. There’s dogwood, there are some beautiful species and you feel like you’re in an oasis, for sure. But having said that, a lot of those plants aren’t native and don’t provide the same habitat that the native plants and trees would.
You can understand why the community loves this space so much, but I’m hoping you can also talk about the project and the work that’s happening there right now.
This construction is called early works. It’s construction required to get ready for adding a fourth track on the north side of the current track between Pape and Woodbine.
This is important. It’s important to expand this commuter rail so that we’re not building new roads and new expansion into other ravines. We’re using this linear structure… we’re stuck with where it’s located. I hate to see… I used to work at TRCA.
I hate to see the loss of one tree, and I understand cumulative impacts and I understand the loss; it hits your heart. But this is critical infrastructure to allow all day two-way service and allows people to use the train as a commuting mechanism instead of the roads.
I know that one of the criticisms that we’ve heard about Small’s Creek numerous times is that at the moment there isn’t an approved restoration plan in place. Why is that?
I think there’s a few reasons, and I know that the community sort of trusts me and I hope to live up to their trust and their faith. But I think that we have a robust landscape plan. But I think the community also was asking for a few things. One was to reduce our impacts. We’ve done that.
So the restoration plan needs to be edited to reflect less disturbed areas that can be restored, which is great.
But also, I think that there’s a trail connection that’s being explored and working with the city and TRCA to ensure that that trail connection is the least impactful design that it could be.
And then what we’re going to restore will be determined after that, as sort of worked out with the community and with the city.
So I think we’re in transit here, literally, waiting to see where we end with the community and with the trail connections. And then the restoration plan is the last thing. We’ve committed to it. We have funding for it, so we will be restoring whatever we remove on the landscape.
Can you talk to me a little bit about how this restoration plan fits into the City of Toronto’s overall ravine strategy?
So the city has a ravine strategy and it’s a good strategy. And what they’re doing is slowly over time removing invasive and non-native trees and replacing them with native trees.
It’s a really tough sell for people who are living in these ravines and are used to the shade and the quiet and the recharge you get from these areas.
So to remove these trees would be a big impact at one time, but it will be done at some point.
Like at some point, we will be removing these trees and replacing them with native trees that can provide a better habitat, that was here historically. In this area that we’d be looking to try to restore here, which were a deciduous swamp and oak hickory forest.
So those were are what you would be trying to replant and you would be replanting those with, and we’ve talked about this before, we have a various array of species, some that grow fast, some that grow slow to ensure that there is adequate shade.
You have things that are hardy that would be growing fast and can deal with that hot sun and also the shade, as we talked about on the north side, on the slope, we are now replanting with a bunch of shrubs because that was asked for by the community.
And I totally agree that we should be planting shrubs on the edges of the slope where we can, and those would be hardy shrubs that may not reflect exactly the [inaudible], but will survive in a shady, harsh environment and are native and provide habitat.
one more concern that we’ve heard a lot from people in the neighborhood is about the wetland and whether the construction is actually going to negatively affect that sensitive ecosystem.
If you can, can you explain the plan that the Toronto Region Conservation Authority has reviewed and approved in terms of actually preserving that wetland?
Metrolinx has committed, on many of our projects within regulated areas, to get voluntary permit reviews. This means that technical staff from the TRCA, review and assess our plans with many different technical groups.
They have ecologists, they have storm water engineers, fancy names, to make sure that the watershed works. That the system is maintained, that we don’t have negative impacts when we’re installing something so that wetland is still going to be wet. But we’re going to have reduce the risks of flood and erosion.
I want to go back to something that you said near the beginning of this conversation about this space being a bit of an oasis.
I think it’s fair to say, while it may take a few years, I want to know that if in your heart, do you believe that this ravine will ever be as lush as it is today?
I think I think that’s a hard question, Matt. I think at the end of the day, I have to go home and know that I’ve done the best job I can. That I have to look at my daughter and tell her that I did something I believe in and that I did something that is going to ultimately help her and her generation.
Because that’s where I have my commitments. That’s where I’m going. I want to make sure that my kid gets a better world than I have.
Can I live with this project? Yes, because it’s infrastructure. I’m increasing our service, I’m doubling our tracks and we’ve reduced our impacts as much as we can.
We listen to the community. We’re planting every inch of disturbance we can. We’re working with the TRCA to plant additional trees, up to 2000 trees for the ones we’re replacing here.
We’re doing the most we can do. And that’s what at the end of the day, I have to go home and live with. Will there be impacts?
Will there be a loss of trees? Will the ravine change a little bit?
Will it hurt to see those trees be removed right now?
Yes, but it’s a small sliver of that system and hoping that we can work with the city and the TRCA to replant that that whole system and maybe with the community to replant in their own backyards as well.
That’s Between The Lines: A Metrolinx Podcast for this week. Thanks for your time. We know there are a lot of choices out there and we appreciate you checking us out.
Now, do you have a question that you’d like answered on a transit topic that you’re interested in hearing more about?
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James Wattoe is our producer. He also edits each episode and handles our social.
And I’m Matt Llewellyn.