Making the Connection: The social, health and environmental benefits of outdoor recreation
In today's demanding digital environment, our primary connection to the real world – and each other – is, more often than not, through our electronic devices. Communication becomes texting. Exercise is something we do in a gym. And nature is experienced on a TV or computer screen. But nothing compares to time actually spent outdoors. Whether it’s a 10-minute stroll in the park, a couple of hours biking the local trails, visit to a historic setting or a full day hike into a conservation area, nature calms the mind, recharges our energy levels and reconnects us to our surroundings. It is more important than ever to embrace the many social, mental and physical health benefits, as well as environmental benefits of making nature a part of our daily lives. TRCA has redesigned trail systems, created different access points, improved accessibility to conservation areas, Black Creek Pioneer Village and the waterfront, and is breaking down accessibility barriers to reconnect people with the landscape. By doing this we are also strengthening our ties to the natural environment, to our heritage and to our communities.
October 4, 2012, marked the official opening of the improved Palgrave Trail system, forging the final connection between the world renowned Bruce Trail, which runs north to the tip of the Bruce Peninsula, and the Oak Ridges Trail, which transects the entire length of the moraine to the west. A total of 22 kilometres of new multi-use trails wind through rich woodlands and open meadows, over streams and past ponds and wetlands in the Palgrave Forest and Wildlife Area.
The trail system includes the Bruce Trail Palgrave Side Trail Section, intended for hikers, bird watchers and other pedestrians, the Great Pine Ridge Trail designed for equestrians, and a series of bike trails developed by the Caledon Cycling Club. Most of the trails run over fairly level terrain and are accessible by a wide range of users, while other more challenging sections in the rolling hills are becoming very popular with mountain bikers. During the winter months, cross country skiers and snow shoe enthusiasts will enjoy 22 kilometres of trails that are self-tracked by users over the formalized trails.
A good trail is like a good book – it is an enjoyable experience that unfolds as you dig deeper and you want to keep going until you finish it.
Mike Bender, Senior Manager of Conservation Lands and General Manager of Rouge Park
“A well designed and maintained trail system is the best way to experience nature without damaging Palgrave’s natural environment or disturbing the more than 200 sensitive plant and animal species that call it home,” says Mike Bender, Senior Manager of Conservation Lands and General Manager of Rouge Park. TRCA has developed a comprehensive set of trail standards that always puts the environment first.
“A formal trail system also improves our ability to prevent misuse, unauthorized access and vandalism. By opening up the conservation land to the public, as well as our volunteer trail captains, we all become environmental stewards,” says Bender.
The Palgrave Trail system is the result of four years of dedicated work by TRCA and our partners, the Region of Peel, Town of Caledon, Bruce Trail Conservancy, Oak Ridges Trail Association, Caledon Cycling Club and Rotary Club of Palgrave, as well as many local residents and neighbours. The objective is to eventually connect York and Peel regions through an integrated network of trail systems.
A stewardship committee made up of local councillors and residents will oversee the future maintenance and development of the trails and will help spread the word about this amazing system. ”As residents begin to use the trails, we can see them reconnecting with their natural heritage,” says Bender. “Some will volunteer for future clean-ups and trail maintenance, others will join local naturalist and outdoors groups, and some may even become trail captains to help even more people ‘get back to nature’.”
Parks and Culture
By definition, “accessibility” means removing barricades. These can be physical, financial and even cultural. On July 6, 2012, the TRCA Board adopted the Authority’s new Admittance Policy and Operating Procedures to provide all community members with equal access to all our facilities. This will encourage not only persons with disabilities, but also children, the financially challenged, and “active transportation” users – which includes walkers, joggers, cyclists, in-line skaters and skateboarders, wheelchair users and snow shoe users – to actively participate and enjoy our services and facilities.
TRCA recognizes and promotes the full participation of all residents in educational, cultural and recreational programs and appropriate services including, but not limited to, persons with disabilities, financially challenged individuals and groups, children and Active Transportation users.
TRCA Admittance Policy, adopted by the Board July 6, 2012
“TRCA is evolving and becoming ever more relevant to the communities we serve,” says Derek Edwards, Director of Parks and Culture. “Being ‘in touch’ and ‘on trend’ helps strengthen community health and well-being, while promoting environmental stewardship and guardianship at the local level.”
TRCA now offers free or improved access to our facilities through a wide range of programs:
- The ‘Kids Free’ program provides free general admission for children aged 15 and under at all conservation areas year-round, as well as weekday admission to Black Creek Pioneer Village during July and August.
- General admission fees at Conservation Areas have been eliminated for “active transportation” users, while TRCA offers affordable admittance to persons with disabilities and financially challenged individuals and groups.
- The Museum Access Pass (MAP), available free-of-charge at all Toronto Public libraries, may be used at Black Creek Pioneer Village.
- The annual Doors Open event invites the community to visit the Lake St. George Field Centre, Claremont Field Centre, Black Creek Pioneer Village and the Kortright Centre for Conservation.
- The Cultural Access Pass, provided to all new Canadian citizens and up to four of their children, provides free admission for one year to all our public use facilities.
Due to the new admittance policy, our education revenues and attendance grew by 13 per cent from 2010 to 2012. In addition, TRCA’s “Accessibility Standards for Customer Service Policy” will ensure that our services, employment opportunities and current workplace environment are accessible to persons with disabilities. We are also working with local municipalities and stakeholders to expand access points, where feasible, for active transportation users to TRCA lands.
“Our services and facilities are more accessible than ever, welcoming a more diverse community of users,” says Doug Miller, Senior Manager, Parks. “That ties directly in with our strategic plan to get people outside, fit and well. The more people who can come out and enjoy our conservation lands – to jog or bike or even just take a leisurely stroll – the bigger the payoff in terms of healthy residents, healthy communities.”
Project by project, beach by beach, park by park, TRCA and its partners are filling in the gaps along the Waterfront Trail. In 2012, two new shoreline parks were completed – stretching 3.8 kilometres in Port Union and another 1.1 km in Mimico– as well as a number of other refinements and improvements along the route. TRCA’s waterfront projects lie almost dead centre of 1,400 km of waterfront trail that stretches from Lake St. Clair, along the north shores of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, and up the St. Lawrence River to the Quebec border.
“Over the past 10 years, we have accomplished a lot,” says Nancy Gaffney, Waterfront Specialist. “It’s like assembling a giant jigsaw puzzle. By making these important links, we are reconnecting the people of the Greater Toronto Area and all of Southern Ontario to their waterfront.”
Mimico Waterfront Park, which opened in October 2012, boasts a number of unique park features including sections of cantilevered boardwalk, a multi-use waterfront trail, small pockets of wetland habitat between the boardwalk and shoreline, and park lighting. The Port Union Waterfront Park, located between the mouth of the Highland Creek and the Rouge River, provides 13.5 hectares of new waterfront green space and 3.8 kilometres of continuous waterfront trail. Completed in November 2012, the park provides safe access to the shoreline by several means; a pedestrian bridge from the City of Pickering to Rouge Beach Park, a tunnel at Port Union Village Common Park, a level crossing east of the Rouge Hills GO Station, an elevator and stairs at the Rouge Hills GO Station, and a pedestrian bridge over Highland Creek from East Point Park.
For people who don’t own cottages, who can’t escape the city on weekends and holidays, the waterfront is their year-round recreation and relaxation destination. By improving access to the waterfront, we are improving both the quality of life and the economic vitality of neighbourhoods along the lakeshore.
Connie Pinto, Senior Project Manager, Waterfront
Much of this work couldn’t have been accomplished if not for the support and funding provided by Waterfront Toronto which has been working with TRCA on these projects since 2001, as well as the support from our federal, provincial and municipal partners.
“Our role is not only to introduce people to nature, but to make it easy for them to access nature,” says Connie Pinto, Senior Project Manager, Waterfront. “It’s all about access and interconnectivity.” In the west end, you can walk from Mimico Waterfront Park to Humber Bay, and then downtown right across the Toronto waterfront to Tommy Thompson Park. In the east, you can stroll alongside Highland Creek, then walk the Port Union trail until you hit Rouge Beach Park, cross the bridge into the City of Pickering and access all its trails.
“We surveyed park users in 2012 and could really chart a positive upswing in people’s moods as a result of park use,” says Pinto. “While cycling and hiking were the most popular activities, over half the people we talked to said that the park was helping them make social connections too. We see lots of seniors, lots of families, lots of neighbours out walking, enjoying the sun, the water views and cool lakeshore breezes.”