Connecting the dots
A rendering of The Meadoway at Highland Creek in Scarborough. Credit: TRCA

While small-scale biodiversity projects are important, there’s no question that when it comes to nature, size matters: larger spaces allow for a greater diversity of plants that in turn support a greater diversity and number of species. They also provide critical ecological services, such as cleaning the air, managing stormwater, and mitigating urban heat—all of which only become more important as climate change increases environmental stress.

Cities use different policy and planning levers to protect sensitive urban ecosystems or important habitat links, often designating them as Environmentally Sensitive/Significant Areas. For example, Toronto expanded its ESA’s by 68 areas, Montreal instituted an Ecosystem Management Program for its large parks, and Fredericton released two new large park management plans.

However, with 19% of cities reporting citywide biodiversity strategies in place, and a further 52% who have biodiversity objectives embedded in other environmental plans, there’s a need for more holistic citywide planning that examines key species, develops education and stewardship plans, and identifies habitat corridors.

Connect at all scales

It’s not enough to have habitat patches—even large ones—if they are isolated. Whether it’s an urban landscape or a pristine natural area, you need connected networks for ecosystems to function properly, said Pamela Zevit, Surrey’s Biodiversity Conservation Planner.

Connectivity ensures wildlife are not confined to what Zevit called “habitat islands,” which can easily become degraded by pollution, disease, or disturbance, leaving wildlife with nowhere else to go.

This is why Surrey has spent so much energy planning what it calls its green infrastructure network: a series of cross-city habitat corridors connecting larger habitat hubs. While important at the city scale, planning must also connect within regional networks—after all, animals don’t stop at city borders—so Surrey has made sure their network matches up with the natural systems of neighbouring cities.

“Surrey has a very strong desire to be a leader,” Zevit said. “So we made this effort early on to connect a lot of the dots and we’ll be able to fit into whatever happens over time at the regional level.”

Within its own borders, the city is also working towards approving its first biodiversity design guidelines. The guidelines will cover not just natural areas but places in what Zevit referred to as the “urban matrix”—all those other land uses outside of parks and natural areas that have an impact on biodiversity.

“The [guidelines] are this long overdue, comprehensive approach to linking all the existing design guidelines and construction documents and everything that we have around us and saying how do we integrate biodiversity objectives into everything that the city does,” said Zevit.

Bose Forest Boardwalk in Surrey. Credit: Pamela Zevit
Bose Forest Boardwalk in Surrey. Credit: Pamela Zevit

Calgary is another city that has been working hard at restoring natural spaces and ensuring connectivity through a biodiversity strategy the city approved in 2015.

Over the past two years, the city has identified and evaluated the components of its ecological network so it could prioritize restoration and enhancement projects. It has even produced a guide on how to naturalize existing parks.

Until this evaluative work was underway, Calgary didn’t have “a mechanism to set citywide priorities for biodiversity conservation or habitat restoration,” with actions largely done as needed over time, said the city’s Landscape Analysis Supervisor, Vanessa Carney. Like many Canadian cities, she said, urban development happened neighbourhood by neighbourhood, meaning environmental planning has occurred largely at the local scale, rather than comprehensively across the city or region.

“While this approach helps to conserve highly biodiverse and landscape diverse parcels of land as public, we’ve been missing that ecological backbone that allows us to look at how neighbourhood development contributes or constrains citywide and regional connectivity,” Carney said.

To perform its evaluation, the city examined the permeability of landscapes for wildlife movement, the size of habitat areas and their adjacent land uses, and how integral the space was to the functioning of the overall ecological network.

Despite the citywide view, Carney said that both small and large parks play a role in connectivity. The larger parks serve as “biodiversity reservoirs,” while smaller parks—whether natural or manicured—provide habitat for smaller species, serve as stepping stone habitats, and allow people to connect with nature in their everyday lives.

At this smaller scale, cities can turn to development policies to preserve and enhance connectivity. For example, through its Greenway Amenity Zoning, Langley Township ensures every community includes green corridors and buffers to support biodiversity and Red Deer creates Ecological Profiles for new subdivisions to ensure natural features are protected.

Nose Hill Park in Calgary. Credit: Chris Manderson
Nose Hill Park in Calgary. Credit: Chris Manderson
Restore waterways

Riparian areas (habitat along waterways) are particularly rich areas for biodiversity and can help create important habitat connections. They are also important for climate change mitigation as flood protection from increased extreme weather damage.

Surrey’s Nicomekl River Park project will restore and enhance unique riverfront ecological zones into a 3km linear park, aiming to combine nature with art, heritage, recreation, and social space. The city has released a heritage plan and public art strategy, along with a management plan that highlights opportunities for recognition of Indigenous history, practices, and plants through programming, signage, and naming.

Led by Waterfront Toronto, Toronto is also undertaking a massive restoration project in naturalizing the mouth of the Don River, which flows into Lake Ontario. The project, which also includes creating biodiverse “park streets” as part of new neighbourhood development in the area, will create flood protection and restore lost landscapes.

Naturalized Mouth of the Don River. Credit: Waterfront Toronto
Naturalized Mouth of the Don River. Credit: Waterfront Toronto

At a smaller-scale, Vancouver is moving ahead with daylighting a creek through Tatlow and Volunteer Parks, restoring a waterway into English Bay. The creek is one of many that have been buried throughout Vancouver's development—something many cities did as part of urbanization.

The project acts on priorities in Vancouver’s new parks master plan, VanPlay, for restoring wild spaces and increasing connectivity. Restoring the creek to aboveground will create new aquatic habitat, manage stormwater, improve water quality, and create habitat for birds and pollinators.

Tatlow Park and Volunteer Park Creek Daylighting. Credit: Vancouver Park Board
Tatlow Park and Volunteer Park Creek Daylighting. Credit: Vancouver Park Board
Turn hydro corridors into biodiversity corridors

The often large swathes of mowed grass in hydro corridors that cut for kilometres through cities are also increasingly being seen as areas ripe for habitat connections.

Take The Meadoway, a project of the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority in partnership with the City of Toronto, Hydro One, and philanthropic funder The W. Garfield Weston Foundation.

Already partly constructed, the plan will naturalize a 16km hydro corridor across Scarborough connecting two large natural areas on either side: Rouge National Urban Park and the Lower Don Ravine. When finished, The Meadoway will feature hundreds of acres of meadow habitat with restored wetland areas, a connected trail, and social gathering spaces. An online visualization toolkit showcases the potential of the project, which is expected to be completed by 2024.

Meadoway Western Gateway. Credit: TRCA
Meadoway Western Gateway. Credit: TRCA

Montreal has also announced plans for a biodiversity corridor in a Saint-Laurent borough hydro corridor. “Climate change issues are requiring us to act quickly with innovative solutions,” said the borough’s mayor, Alan DeSousa, calling the project a “laboratory” from which others can learn. Ultimately constructed on 450 hectares of land, the project will include native habitat, trails, and green roofs installed on neighbouring buildings.

Saint Laurent Biodiversity Corridor. Credit: Table Architecture, LAND Italia, civiliti, Biodiversité Conseil
Saint Laurent Biodiversity Corridor. Credit: Table Architecture, LAND Italia, civiliti, Biodiversité Conseil
Make big plans for big parks

Here’s what other Canadian cities are doing to create and enhance large nature parks and increase habitat connectivity:

  • In 2019, Montreal’s mayor announced a vision to create a large green space system in the city dubbed Grand parc de l’Ouest. Situated on Montreal’s West Island, the park will stitch together existing parks and 1,600ha of new green spaces for a total 3,000ha.
  • Halifax is working with the Nova Scotia Nature Trust to preserve a 230ha wilderness area 20 minutes from downtown Halifax called the Blue Mountain Wilderness Connector. Nova Scotia Nature Trust Executive Director Bonnie Sutherland told CBC that the land is “one of the last large intact wilderness areas that we have in the greater Halifax area.” The area is home to several at-risk species and was previously slated to be a housing development.
Blue Mountain Wilderness Connector. Credit: Nova Scotia Nature Trust
Blue Mountain Wilderness Connector. Credit: Nova Scotia Nature Trust
  • In 2019, Kingston approved a new master plan for Belle Park, setting the stage for a 15-year restoration of the 45ha park—the largest urban park operated by the city. The land was formerly a landfill turned golf course and includes Belle Island, which has significant importance as an Indigenous burial ground and is co-owned between the Mohawk Nation Council of Chiefs and the city. The new plan calls for promoting biodiversity through naturalization projects and creating recreational access such as trails.
  • Richmond Hill is moving ahead with a large woodlot restoration project in the 40ha David Dunlap Observatory Park as set out in the park’s 2016-approved master plan, which also identifies wetlands and wildlife corridors. Local advocacy resulted in the land being saved as a park rather than developed.
  • Toronto approved an implementation plan for its Ravine Strategy in 2020 for this network of ecologically rich areas that thread throughout the city. The plan creates a special ravine unit to oversee work and added extra funding towards conservation, clean-up measures, and community stewardship.