EARTHPRINTS-Toronto's urban debris creates haven for flora, fauna and nature-lovers

by Reuters
Thursday, 24 September 2015 10:00 GMT

In December this year the UN Climate Conference takes place in Paris. Ahead of the summit, we will release a series of stories, titled "Earthprints," that show the ability of humans to impact change on the landscape of the planet. From sprawling urban growth to the construction of new islands, each site has profoundly changed in the last 30 years. Each story has accompanying NASA satellite images that show the scale of the change. (http://widerimage.reuters.com/story/earthprints-leslie-street-spit)

By Andrea Hopkins

TORONTO, Sept 24 (Reuters) - Like a rooftop garden in an overcrowded financial district, Toronto's Leslie Street Spit is an unexpected urban oasis whose narrow escape from development has brought marshes, lagoons and forests to the center of Canada's largest city.

Jutting into Lake Ontario just minutes from the worst of Toronto traffic, the more formally named Tommy Thompson Park was created over 60 years ago by the dumping of dredged sand, concrete chunks and earth fill, expanding what was once just a thin strip of land in the city's busy harbor.

The dumping continues to this day but while development plans have threatened the spit from its beginning, the passion of the cyclists, birders, hikers and naturalists who flock to the artificial peninsula every weekend has preserved the unlikely park and left nature to prevail.

For some, the spit offers the best views out to the Great Lake and towards the city's soaring skyline. For others, the auto-free roads offer safe, serene cycling, running and roller-blading in a city whose streets are often clogged with cars.

For most, it offers a 5-km (3-mile) stretch of nature untamed by development: home or visiting spot to 300 species of birds and site of 500 hectares (1200 acres) of pioneer plant life, cottonwood and poplar groves, grassy marshes and gravel beaches.

While trucks hauling concrete and earth from the city's construction sites ply the spit from Monday to Friday, the park is turned over to an eager public every weekend, when its main road and numerous winding paths beckon city residents. Admission is free.

More than 100,000 people visit annually, according to the Toronto and Regional Conservation Authority, which owns the land and water bodies included in the park.

Initially eyed for port-related facilities in the 1950s, the spit was opened to the public in the 1970s after a decrease in lake shipping made those early plans obsolete.

The spit of land has a diverse ecosystem, with a rugged eastern shoreline giving way to wildflower meadows in the middle sections and marshy lagoons on the western shore, beneath the city skyline.

"Nature has a remarkable way of taking over," said Karen McDonald, project manager with the conservation authority. "It's really strong in some areas and plant life started to grow here without the help of a human hand."

The gradual transformation from a lifeless pile of rubble to an urban wilderness means the Leslie Spit is never finished, an ever-changing and unmanicured parcel of water and land.

Cobble beaches are, upon closer examination, composed of red brick, concrete, and kitchen tile worn to colorful pebbles, with patches of rusting rebar and urban detritus piled nearby - unlovely to some, a gritty oasis to others.

Colonies of gulls, terns, herons and cormorants nest along the beaches or in the groves, attracting binocular-toting enthusiasts at dawn. Late summer brings butterfly enthusiasts to the spit, while anglers fish from the park's shores and small bridges.

The place has been eyed for other uses in the bustling city - the population of greater Toronto is some 6 million. From early on, an activist group who call themselves the Friends of the Spit have fought off development, including plans for a hotel, amphitheatre, government dock, yacht clubs, parking lots, water skiing school and campground.

"As honey attracts bees, vacant land attracts plans," the Friends say on their website www.friendsofthespit.ca, pledging persistent vigilance to protect the park for public use forever.

"No other piece of land has attracted such passionate defenders, nor has any other piece of land had such a lengthy battle waged, simply to maintain it and allow it to grow as nature intended." (Editing by Frances Kerry)

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