In June, 2012, when David Suzuki and Richard Louv met for an on-stage conversation in Toronto, Louv praised entomologist Doug Tallamy’s idea for a Homegrown National Park. Later that year, the David Suzuki Foundation announced ambitious plans for a similar project. Whereas Tallamy imagines a coast-to-coast, backyard-based homegrown national park, the Toronto plan calls for a Toronto-specific plan. Both approaches show promise for rethinking where we live — and the possibility that cities and suburbs can become incubators of biodiversity and human health.
Something extraordinary is growing in Toronto’s West End. Front yards are turning into veggie gardens. Flowers are blooming in alleyways and potholes. Unloved patches of dirt around schoolyards and parking lots are transforming into butterfly-friendly gardens.
These green interventions are a result of the first month of the David Suzuki Foundation’s Homegrown National Park Project, an ambitious plan to bring nature to the heart of Canada’s largest city.
While Toronto’s downtown neighbourhoods are vibrant, dynamic places, they’re mostly asphalt and concrete. Inspired by the ideas of authors Richard Louv and Douglas Tallamy, the project aims to connect residents to nature in their neighbourhoods and inject some much-needed colour into the city’s grey palette along the Garrison Creek corridor, where a lost river has flowed through a Victorian sewer beneath the city since the 1880s.
This spring the Foundation recruited 21 Neighbourhood Park Rangers who live, work and play in the corridor. This enthusiastic team of volunteers will lead by example, spending the next several months hatching projects and spreading the word about the many benefits of adding nature to our neighbourhoods.
These projects will bring residents, businesses and institutions together to plant native trees, shrubs and flowers and grow gardens in yards, balconies, roofs, streets and alleyways.
A month into the Homegrown project, momentum is growing.
Rangers Anjum and Georgia live in downtown Toronto. They both have young children and backgrounds in design and architecture. They’re now converting their front yards into gardens. Along with several neighbours who responded to their call to action, they’ll build planters and public benches for their street and have turned a long-neglected hole in the asphalt into a colourful pothole-planter.
Ranger Aiden was born and raised in Toronto’s West End and will begin studies for a PhD in theatre in the fall. He has connected with parks groups in his neighbourhood and has gathered busted-up canoes so he can install a series of canoe-planters full of butterfly-friendly flowers this summer. And Rangers Lori and Rod, a real estate agent and digital media entrepreneur, have been pitching the benefits of native species to local condo boards. They also organized a Yoga in the Park event to raise funds for a long-term project to transform a dreary public parking lot in the burgeoning Liberty Village neighbourhood into a vibrant green hub.
The Rangers aren’t alone in their quest to green the neighbourhood.
More than a dozen amazing local organizations are partners in the Homegrown National Park Project, including groups that plant trees in backyards, green schoolyards, provide free gardening advice, keep bees and help homeowners harvest fruit from their backyard trees.
Events are quickly filling the summer calendar, including a neighbourhood gardening contest, Homegrown Park Crawl where local restaurants will serve their wares in parks throughout the corridor, tree tours and pizza nights in a park. There will even be an outdoor screening of Lost Rivers, where moviegoers will be able to munch marshmallows roasted on a campfire with the city skyline and CN Tower as a backdrop.
While these fun interventions are adding green to the urban fabric, the project is about more than just beautifying the city, or even making space for the birds, bees and butterflies. It aims to change the way people connect with nature and the city. After a month of the project, it’s inspiring to see Rangers – and the hundreds of residents they’ve brought on board– engaging with their neighbourhoods, with each other, and even with the city’s history, in ways they haven’t before.
So, what happens after this summer’s flurry of community-led greening, guerilla gardening and flower bombing? As elegantly articulated in a quote sometimes attributed to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “Whatever you can do or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.” Our simple hope is to create a bit of magic that can grow through the city, one yard at a time. Toronto’s bold green beginning starts now.
Photos © The Suzuki Foundation
The Nature Principle by Richard Louv