Leading up to the UN Climate Conference in Paris in December, Reuters has a series of photo-essays titled “Earthprints,” each installment aiming to “show the ability of humans to impact change on the landscape of the planet,” accompanied with NASA satellite images showing the scale of the change. Here, F&O presents an urban photo-essay from Canada, featuring the Leslie Street Spit in Toronto, Ontario.
Story by Andrea Hopkins, original photos by Mark Blinch, 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 centre 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 harbour.
The dumping continues to this day. While development plans have threatened the spit from its early days, 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 stretch of nature untamed by development: home or visiting spot to 300 species of birds and site of 500 hectares 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 bodies of water 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.
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 colourful 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, 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.”
Copyright Reuters 2015
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