My first enviro-trauma occurred when they converted my local marsh into a golf course and buried thousands of hibernating spring peepers. But here I am suddenly on the other side of the fence, arguing for a human playground against those dedicated to protecting animal habitat.
How did I leap this fence? It begins with a community consultation over the future of Mimico Beach, the sole survivor of a series of sandy enclaves that once lined the Etobicoke shoreline. The stretch, about the length of an average schoolyard, is just minutes from the Queen streetcar stop on a sweet section of Lakeshore Boulevard lined with cute little stores and modest low-rise apartments.
The Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) has decided to include this particular waterfront in a larger lakeside park and trail in Etobicoke called the Mimico Linear Park. This is the good news. The bad news is that my precious beach is slated to be turned into a wetland.
Of course, the disappearance of wetlands is a major issue in development-crazed southern Ontario.
Brian Bailey, president of Citizens Concerned about the Future of the Etobicoke Waterfront, backs the wetlands proposal. "It's a good way to improve water quality, and the rich wildlife habitat it creates will give local kids a chance to explore and learn."
Former NDP environment minister Ruth Grier, a participant in public consultations, thinks so, too. "The place has been going downhill since unregulated landfill extended the shoreline on either side. After Humber Bay Park West was built, it became hopeless. Because of circulation problems, the water quality will never be good. The geese made a mess of everything. I'd never take children down there. When one of us said, 'How about a wetland?' we thought it was inspired."
Soon the TRCA had added a drawing of a wetland proposal in its presentations to the community. THE TRCA says preliminary environmental assessment results suggest "that long-term beach replenishment and enhancement efforts are prohibitively unsustainable financially and ecologically." The pronouncement represents quite a shift for an experienced organization that months before had offered "beach enhancement" in all its proposals.
Maintenance is a vital issue on both sides of the argument, so I pay a visit to the site to check out the TRCA's insistence that cleanup is hopeless. I'm strolling on a gentle slope of sand and gravel that descends to a pretty little bay. Parents are shepherding awestruck toddlers around condoms and cigarette butts to waves that lick their little booted feet.
It's not Tobago, but it's not bad for a place that hasn't been maintained for years. That's probably because of the efforts of volunteers like the Waterfront Trail artists, who do a big cleanup before their annual community art events, and the neighbour I see trimming a hedge.
Retired architect Tony Paginton, dismissed by wetland proponents as "romantic," calls attention to the urban design issues. He was invited by the TRCA to participate in the Mimico Linear Park Study Group and argues that "this beach is unique because of its geographical situation right in the centre of Mimico. It could easily be turned into a focus for the town. This beach is especially important in an area of modest income. These people can't afford to go to Muskoka."
That's the real problem. This leg of sand and water is perhaps the last affordable beach neighbourhood in Toronto.
Across the bay from the pitifully maintained beach, one can see numerous berths provided to boating clubs on a TRCA-built spit off Humber Bay Park West. Nancy Gaffney of the TRCA admits that, by blocking replenishing waves, this spit is responsible for the fact that Mimico Beach, once mined by the construction industry for its sand, is no longer self-renewing.
Says Gaffney: "We are now trying to come up with a design that will be stable, so we don't leave the city with a maintenance problem that it can't sustain. We've responded to community concerns about new boat moorings and West Nile virus." This wetland will not be a swamp, she promises.
Gaffney explains that the TRCA feels caught between two ministries whose objectives can be contradictory. "The (Ministry of Transport, which is partly funding the revitalization) requires that the TRCA provide boating opportunities wherever possible. The Department of Fisheries insists that any proposal that might require water show a net gain in fish habitat," she says. "It is difficult to achieve the amount of habitat required."
Wetlands may be enchanting, but don't Etobicoke's lower-income citizens have some claims as well? What else will they be expected to give up? Says Carole Goyette of the Lakeshore Area Multi-Services Project (LAMP), "Proper maintenance of the waterfront has been a problem for some time. Now that we are one city, it's becoming an equity issue. The waterfront in Mimico should be maintained like the beaches at Sunnyside."