Oct 162014
 

 

It’s mid-May 2035, and I’ve just boarded a bus outside the new downtown condominium complex where my wife and I now live. It’s never more than a 10-minute wait for comfortable, clean and convenient public transit. On this particular morning, I’m heading up to Jackson Park, which is always a good birding location in spring when warblers are migrating north. Looking out the bus window, I can’t help but notice the many ways in which Peterborough has changed in the past two decades. The city now has a fully integrated transport system comprised of walkways, cycle paths, bus lanes and car lanes. There is even talk of a possible light-rail corridor to link Peterborough to Lakefield and Bridgenorth. In fact, train travel in general has become extremely popular in recent years, mostly because it’s far less expensive than driving. Thanks to big changes in the way Peterborough has developed, car ownership is no longer the necessity it once was. In fact, most families now only own one car or simply use the local car-sharing program when other means of transportation are not an option.
Talking about cars, I’m still amazed by the number of electric and hybrid vehicles on the road. For many years now, consumers have been demanding much greater fuel efficiency, given the huge rise in the cost of gasoline because of the federal carbon tax. This has led to the popularity of smaller and lighter vehicles. Putting a price on carbon was and still is a key tool in Canada’s on-going commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by eight to ten percent a year. Canadians are keeping their fingers crossed but it now seems likely that the aggressive, worldwide action on climate change that began with the Paris Protocol of December 2015 will indeed limit the warming of the planet to under 2 C. Yes, intense storms are much more frequent than 20 or 30 years ago, but scientists are confident that the worse case scenario has been avoided.
It still seems miraculous but people all over the world finally woke up to the fact that an economy powered by fossil fuels and driven by free market ideology was leading the planet to climate chaos and suffocating any potential for climate action. A key result of this realization was a much greater willingness to accept government intervention and regulation of the economy and to support huge reinvestment in the public sphere – especially in new and updated infrastructure to withstand extreme weather events. No longer was “tax” a bad word, since well-funded government action was seen as the only way to respond to the climate threat. In Peterborough, there was also the recognition that the last thing our city should be doing in a time of climate disruption was to invest at great cost in even more roads – remember the Parkway debate way back in 2014? This, of course, would only have encouraged people to drive and pollute more with very little net gain in travelling time.

Trans-Canada Trail near Jackson Park - Drew Monkman

Trans-Canada Trail near Jackson Park – Drew Monkman

As the bus travels north on Charlotte Street, I can’t help but notice how so many of the commercial buildings and houses have changed, as well. One thing that stands out is the number of solar energy panels on the roofs. Along with wind turbines and hydroelectric power, solar provides a much greater percentage of the province’s energy needs than ever before. Although the population of Peterborough has continued to grow, all of the new housing has been provided within the existing city boundaries through intensification and redevelopment, namely rebuilding or restoring areas in a state of decline. Residential neighbourhoods are now mixed use and much higher density, thanks in part to renovations in single-family homes to create rental units and even small stores and businesses. These neighbourhoods now offer shopping, recreation opportunities and public services, all within walking distance. One housing option that’s particularly popular with Baby Boomers and Generation Xers is the large number of multi-story condominium complexes close to the Otonabee River and Little Lake. Easy access to the waterfront and to the downtown makes these condos a huge hit. People are justifiably proud that there have been no large housing developments on the city’s perimeter for over 20 years. Now, when you exit Peterborough, you immediately notice how urban development abruptly stops and farmland and natural areas begin. If there’s one word to describe the new Peterborough, it is “compact”.
Another feature that I love is that most of the new buildings, as well as the fourth and fifth floor additions on existing buildings in the downtown, are of an architectural and landscape style that respects local history, cultural heritage and even local geology and ecology. The upshot is that a sense of place permeates Peterborough. You know that you are in the Kawarthas. For people who remember how a sense of place was being lost in so much of the development in decades past, this has been a huge step forward. And nowhere is the sense of place stronger than in city’s public square, which doubles as a farmers’ market. Buying my fruit and vegetables here, I get a real sense of the wide range of cultural groups and ethnic mixes that now call our city home.
If the weather stays nice tomorrow and my aging knees and hips cooperate, I plan to ride my bike along the new greenway trails that run along both banks of the Otonabee River from the southern edge of the city up to Trent University. New side-branches link up with the Parkway Greenway in the north and Harper Park in the south. Kids love to play along the greenways, climbing trees or catching frogs in the ponds. These ribbons of green also provide migration corridors that allow birds and other wildlife to criss-cross the city safely, thereby increasing biodiversity. People are always so pleased to see wild animals close to their homes.

Parkway Trail between Hilliard Street and Cumberland Drive  - Drew Monkman

Parkway Trail between Hilliard Street and Cumberland Drive – Drew Monkman

Jackson Park
As I get off the bus at Jackson Park and walk down the hill towards the recently refurbished pagoda, I stop for a moment to watch a small flock of warblers feeding in the trees. A Red-tailed Hawk also catches my attention as it brings food to its nest in the Park’s iconic White Pines. Further ahead by the pond, a group of high school students is absorbed in a sketching activity, while seniors stroll in the warm spring sunshine. Despite its urban location, Jackson Park still provides a welcome element of solitude. It’s a place where one can escape from the hustle and bustle of the city and enjoy relative peace and quiet. People shake their heads when they think of how close we came to seeing a noisy, polluting multi-lane bridge built over the park. However, at that time it was common to underestimate the value of nature. Little did we know that even a short walk in a neighbourhood green space could make us feel so much better. Just like exercise, sleep and a proper diet, it is now common knowledge that regular exposure to nature plays a key role in our mental, spiritual and physical health. It even improves our immune system and reduces heart rate and blood pressure. In a nutshell, it enhances our sense of well-being and therefore makes us happier. We’ve also learned that idle thought – especially in conjunction with walking in a natural setting – greatly enhances creativity and problem solving. Gone is the old attitude that the destruction of green space is justified as long as it results in material benefit or economic progress and that our cities can continue to grow forever until there’s nothing of the natural world left.
Pause for thought

This foray into the future – yes, it may be naive – should at least give us pause for thought. When you mark your ballot in the municipal election on October 27, please think about how your choices fit with the values expressed in this essay. Who we choose as our municipal leaders for the next four years will have a huge impact on the kind of development Peterborough can expect. More than anything, we need more politicians who will really listen to the public, a large part of which feels ignored by the present council and let down by the democratic process. This has been a council where willingness to compromise has been largely absent, where it’s often winner take all.
Although business and administrative skills maybe useful in the politicians we elect, they are not what’s most important. We need people with vision, who are fully aware that “business as usual” is no longer an option, especially with the reality of climate change looming over our heads. We also need men and women who understand the vital importance of green space and of a development model that no longer puts the private automobile front and centre. Many such people have their names on the ballot this year. Let’s hope we elect as many of them as possible.

 

Nov 072013
 

Note: In the original version of this article, as published in the Examiner on Nov. 7, several large blocks of text were accidentally omitted. The article is to be reprinted in the next day or two.

 

“Jackson Park…Amazing, Fun…Listening, Discovering, Watching… Bike Rides, Water Falls…Running, Sitting, Staring…Peaceful, Colourful…Nature”

 Catherine and Isabel, grade 4, Roger Neilson Public School

 

Last week, I had the pleasure of spending a day in Jackson Park with Helen Bested’s grade four class from Roger Neilson Public School. From the moment they stormed off the bus until their reluctant departure, the students had the time of their lives. The innate love of nature that all children possess immediately kicked into gear and they clearly couldn’t get enough of the place. Seeing their unbridled energy and enthusiasm for all that Jackson Park has to offer, I couldn’t help but think how sad it is that so many kids these days are missing out on the pure joy of connection with the natural world.

Isabel Hicks (left) and Megan Rivet make the acquaintance of a tree in Jackson Park

Isabel Hicks (left) and Megan Rivet make the acquaintance of a tree in Jackson Park

Within minutes of arriving, the children stood in rapt attention as they observed a Great Blue Heron catching and eventually swallowing a large fish. They also watched and listened with keen amusement as I was able to use pishing (a bird attraction technique) to bring several chickadees, jays and nuthatches to within several metres of the group. Over the course of the day, they tested seed dispersal by launching maple keys into the air off the old concrete bridge; learned how to identify the Park’s iconic trees such as the White Pine; wore blindfolds to explore trees simply through their sense of touch; held handfuls of fallen leaves to their noses to fully appreciate the spicy fragrance; and used their wonderfully-sensitive ears to hear the gentle calls of tree-top birds and the murmuring of the creek – the buffer zone of trees surrounding the park reducing traffic noises to a far-off hum.  As we walked along, the  kids led me to what they were sure was a fox den, pointed out squirrels high in the trees and, when they stopped long enough to catch their breath, asked me why in the world adults would want to put a bridge through this wonderful place.

Their enthusiasm shouldn’t come as a surprise, however. Think about the impact that playing in woods, fields and other natural areas had in your own life. I would be willing to guess that they are among your strongest childhood memories. They are certainly are for me. These experiences allowed all of us to develop independence and confidence in an environment away from adult supervision, to solve problems on our own, but yet usually be close enough to home to feel safe. We built forts, caught frogs and turtles, got “soakers” but usually came home with the sense of having lived an adventure. Today, childhood play and exercise is all about highly structured and adult-supervised activities in gyms, arenas, swimming pools, play parks and on sports fields. In the process, nature is becoming increasingly alien and our children’s physical and mental health are paying the price.

When Helen’s students returned to class, she asked them to write about their day at Jackson Park and to reflect on the impact of a possible bridge and extended Parkway. Here are some excerpts of letters they wrote to Mayor Bennett. “Our class spent a full day at Jackson Park and we had a blast! We played helicopter with the maple seeds and learned how to pish to attract birds. We love Jackson Park so please don’t take away everyone’s joy and laughter. It is a place that is peaceful and quiet. Please keep Jackson Park as it is for kids like me to enjoy and for future generations.” (Elaina)

Students from a grade 4 class at Roger Neilson Public School form a line to demonstrate the width and location of a proposed bridge across Jackson Park.

Students from a grade 4 class at Roger Neilson Public School form a line to demonstrate the width and location of a proposed bridge across Jackson Park.

“If the bridge goes in, the people won’t come a lot. It would be much noisier because of all the cars. I need a place to relax and listen to birds. I go there a lot with my family. We don’t need a Parkway because we already have lots of roads. We only have one Jackson Park. It was given to the city to be maintained as a park and never use it for anything else.” (Nolan and Cameron)

“We love Jackson Park. We need a quiet place to run, climb, listen and watch. We like to run around the forest, playing, watching birds, learning the types of leaves, lying on our backs and looking up at the trees like worms. We are really glad to have Jackson Park…” (Hailee and Megan)

 

Medical Drive – already lost

Clearly, we should be taking the needs of children into account as we move forward with transportation planning in Peterborough.  Their needs should receive as much priority as the needs of people of other ages and the requirements of business.  In a recent document entitled “Child and Youth-friendly Land-use and Transport Planning Guidelines for Ontario” by Richard Gilbert and Catherine O’Brien, the authors explain that the needs of children and youth require the implementation of  “softer,” less intrusive and more inclusive transport systems. Paving over kid-friendly green space to put in a disruptive, noisy and polluting new road that runs close to five schools is the opposite of the direction we should be moving in.

A day at Jackson Park with Examiner columnist Drew Monkman was more interesting than sitting behind their classroom desks for this grade 4 class from Roger Neilson Public School (Helen Bested photo)

A day at Jackson Park with Examiner columnist Drew Monkman was more interesting than sitting behind their classroom desks for this grade 4 class from Roger Neilson Public School (Helen Bested photo)

Children growing up in the vicinity of Medical Drive between Parkhill and Sherbrooke have already lost their green space. What was once a beautiful green corridor is now an ugly walled road. When we lived on Westbrook Drive, our kids could literally step out the backdoor, cross the fence, enter the green space and feel – at least in their eight-year-old minds – as if they were in the country. This is where they played, and they still talk about it. This kind of opportunity is still possible for children living close to Jackson Park or along the Parkway Trail. As Peterborough resident Colleen Whitehouse said in a presentation to Council, “is it not the height of irresponsibility to destroy green space and with it take all the rich experiences it has to offer so freely to our children? Is this really how you want to be remembered?”

 

Health-giving benefits

Over the past 9 months, a Canadian team of social and natural scientists has conducted a literature review that looked at the benefits of nature to our health and well-being. The document “Connecting Canadians with Nature: An investment in the health and well being of our citizens” will published in early 2014.

The findings, all of which are grounded in evidence, are clear – nature is good for us. It is good for our economy, our health our spirit and identity, our personal development and our environment. A preview of the report states that “contact with nature has been found to lower blood pressure, strengthen the immune system, help mitigate disease, and reduce stress levels… nature plays a pivotal role in nurturing relationships by bringing people together. Many studies have demonstrated that nature makes us happy and more generous. Urban residents living near natural environments tend to know more neighbours and feel a stronger sense of belonging to the community … nature provides an escape – a nurturing therapeutic environment. Contact with nature is essential for the development of positive environmental attitudes and values and a lifelong relationship with the natural world.” Peterborough’s abundant, easy-to-access green space and trails is clearly one of the main reasons people choose to move, work, raise families and even come to retire here.  “We chose Peterborough, not Ajax,” is something I hear time and time again.

As responsible, informed citizens, we need to ask Council to direct staff to pursue non-Parkway options. There are alternatives that compare well for transportation, won’t create massive debt and taxes, and will save our valued green space and trails. At the very least – and especially in light of the referendum results from 2003 -Council should follow democracy and fair process. This means not making a Parkway decision until all studies are released, the public’s views on the city’s future (Official Plan Review) are implemented, and priority transportation improvements are completed. We want a future that is unique to Peterborough – not cookie-cutter, non-innovative versions of what has always been done everywhere else.

 

Oct 242013
 

Three contentious issues

 

                This week, I’d like to provide news up-dates and personal thoughts on three contentious issues that should be of interest to anyone who cares about the natural world and, in the case of climate change, the future of this planet as we know it.

 

Parkway Trail between Hilliard and Cumberland

Parkway Trail between Hilliard and Cumberland

Parkway Opposition

                It is time for all of us who care about greenspace and the protection of the natural environment in Peterborough to speak up on the Parkway issue. Opposition to the road and bridge is being led by the “Parks not Parkways” campaign, an initiative of the Peterborough Greenspace Coalition.  The coalition unites the Friends of Jackson Park, Friends of Peterborough Trails, the Peterborough Field Naturalists and the No Parkway group.  Now is the chance to be heard. The environmental assessment recommendation of a full Parkway with a four-lane bridge through Jackson Park goes to Council’s Committee of the Whole on November 13, with Council voting on the proposal November 20. Both are public meetings at the Evinrude Centre. I urge you to get involved by letting your Councillor know how you feel about this issue, requesting a lawn sign, signing the on-line petition, donating money or volunteering time. You should also consider coming and speaking at the meetings. For more information, go to parksnotparkways.ca

Among the many reasons to oppose the Parkway  are the projected cost of 67 million dollars – almost $1,000 dollars for every citizen of Peterborough; the horrendous physical and aesthetic damage that would be done to Jackson Park by the construction of a four-lane bridge; the loss of greenspace along the Parkway where children can safely play and take part in outdoor education activities – there are no less than five schools located near the route; the fact that the proposed Parkway links only 20% of the City’s planned north end residences to only one of the two main employment areas in Peterborough; the loss of one of the City’s largest and most significant greenspace corridors where plants and animals are easily observed and people can connect with nature;  and, finally, the fact that in the 2003 referendum, voters already said NO to the Parkway.  Remember, too, that construction of the Parkway will only save a projected one to three minutes of driving time.

For many of us, there are more visceral arguments, as well. We simply don’t want to have to look at more pavement and concrete (e.g., Medical Drive between Weller and Parkhill); we don’t want to be assaulted by the noise and smell of traffic; and we don’t want to be assailed by the heat of the sun where once there was shade. In other words, we don’t want to give up anymore of Peterborough’s precious, health-giving greenspace to automobiles – even if we don’t use the greenspace ourselves.

It is also important to see the Parkway in relation to the debate on climate change and the absolute imperative of decreasing our consumption of fossil fuels and finding less damaging ways to help people travel through the City. My fear, however, is that there may not be enough people in Peterborough who  know about this issue, are paying attention and who care. As our urbanized society becomes increasingly disconnected from nature, fewer and fewer of us have a strong sense of all that stands to be lost through projects such as these. In the end, we will only fight to protect what we know and love,  and, sadly, a dwindling number of people know the natural world.

 

Climate change

According to the latest International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report released in September, warming of the climate system is unequivocal. Scientists are 95% certain that humans are the dominant cause of the warming. The report states that each of the last three decades has been successively warmer at the Earth’s surface than any preceding decade since 1850. In the Northern Hemisphere, 1983–2012 was likely the warmest 30-year period of the last 1400 years. The atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide have increased to levels unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years. In other words, human influence on the climate system is clear. This is evident from the increasing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere and observed warming. Continued emissions of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and changes in all components of the climate system. The report concludes by saying that limiting climate change will require substantial and sustained reductions of greenhouse gas emissions.

Unfortunately, scientific facts such as these are not enough to stop climate changer deniers, one of whom is a regular contributor to the Letters to the Editor section of this paper. As a result of the Internet, you can now find all manner of fringe opinion and cherry-picked research findings to defend denialist beliefs such as his. However, to accept the arguments denying the cause, extent and/or danger of climate change, you would have to believe that thousands of scientists across the world are either incompetent or are willfully participating in a giant conspiracy to pull the wool over the eyes of the public in an effort to continue to get research grants.  If you don’t believe scientists on climate change, why should you believe them on the dangers of smoking, on how to build a passenger jet or on any other area of scientific investigation? If scientists are as corrupt and/or unskilled as denialists imply, we would have to wonder if any scientific “facts” are trustworthy. That would mean our hospitals, economies, and technologies could not be trusted. Clearly, this is not the case. Furthermore, if trickery or ineptness were rampant, young and ambitious scientists would have exposed the charade or incompetence by now and become famous and highly-respected by doing so. You can rest assured that every argument that deniers have advanced has already been fully examined – and disproven – by researchers.

As lay people, we really have no choice but to base our beliefs and decision-making on what the best peer-reviewed, consensus-based science is telling us – not on right wing ideology, religious fundamentalism or anything else. The stakes are simply too high. And, so far, a massive, world-wide consensus clearly demonstrates that climate change is mostly man-made and a reality. As author Philip Dick said, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”  In the meantime, climate change deniers gravely threaten us all by hampering efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Cat carries a dead bird.

Cat carries a dead bird.

 Free-roaming cats

Over the past four years, Environment Canada scientists conducted extensive analyses to produce the first-ever estimates of annual direct bird mortality from human-related sources. Their findings were published earlier this month in Avian Conservation and Ecology, the electronic scientific journal of Bird Studies Canada and the Society of Canadian Ornithologists. The results indicate that human-related activities destroy roughly 269 million birds and 2 million bird nests in Canada each year.
Most human-related bird deaths (about 99%) are caused by feral and pet cats and collisions with transmission lines, buildings, and vehicles. Cats appear to kill as many birds as all other sources combined – more than 100 million birds annually in Canada. Species that nest or feed on or near the ground are especially vulnerable to cat predation. Collisions with electricity transmission and distribution lines have been identified as the second-largest human-caused source of bird mortality in Canada, causing between 10-41 million bird deaths per year. Collisions with residential and commercial buildings are the third-highest of the human-related causes, killing an estimated 16-42 million birds each year – mostly at houses.

There is some hope on the horizon, however, at least at the local level. For over a year now, Councilor Henry Clarke has been working on a new Peterborough cat by-law with a group of vets, the Peterborough Humane Society, City staff and citizen volunteers. The by-law will address owned cats running at large (i.e., pets) and attempts to deal with the feral cat problem (i.e., wild cats). According to Clarke, City staff is still working on the legal aspects of the by-law, but he is hopeful it will be brought to Council in the near future. It is more important than ever that cat owners – like me – keep our pet cats under our constant care and supervision and not allow them to wander outside at will. Not only is it disrespectful of neighbours but allowing cats to roam freely is taking a huge toll on our increasingly fragile natural world. Unlike so many other threats to nature, it is also a problem we can do something about.

 

 

 

May 012013
 

I heard my first American Toad of the spring this morning. It was “trilling” from the second catchment basin northeast of Chemong Road along the Parkway Trail. Northern Leopard Frogs were making their snoring call in the first basin. Other species along the Trail this morning included Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Blue Jays (small flocks migrating), Song Sparrows, Red-winged Blackbirds, Northern Cardinals and Mallards (in the catchment basins.)  The willows are in full bloom right now and attracting multitudes of bees. Coltsfoot, too, is common around the catchment basins. At first glance, Coltsfoot looks like a Dandelion, but you’ll see that there are no leaves. The scaly stem is quite different as well.

American Toad singing

American Toad singing

Coltsfoot

Coltsfoot

Observer: Drew Monkman