Philip Mcleod

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A trail for everyone, or none at all

ENTRY #840: First city council made a promise of a paved trail through the Medway Valley north of Fanshawe Park Road. Then city council made a policy that changed the protocols for trail building in London. So what happens when the promise and the policy clash? A compromise few people really like.

Thursday, April 11, 2013 – London

When city council makes a promise that aims a nature trail one way and then subsequently passes a policy that aims it in the opposite direction, confusion and conflict is virtually assured.

That’s the dilemma in which council is caught as it prepares to decide, next week, which between the promise or the policy is worth keeping. There is no trail through the middle of this, so whatever the decision there will be some very angry citizens.

Perhaps even some angry councillors.

What we’re talking about here is a trail through the northern section of the Medway Valley heritage forest, one piece of which is a certified environmentally sensitive area, or ESA. The northern section extends from Fanshawe Park to Sunningdale Road along the Medway Creek.

In the last decade, after what can only be described as one of city council’s least smart decisions ever, a sewer trunkline was pushed through the valley along the creek from Gainsborough Road virtually to the city’s northern border.

The construction caused untold death and destruction to the habitat and its inhabitants. Perhaps worse, at least if you are a real lover of nature in its natural state, the sewer line quickly encouraged new subdivisions on either side of the little river.

And the folks who bought those new and often pricey homes quickly fell in love with the idea of exploring the wilderness virtually next door. Some 16,000 visited the area last year.

Council’s decision back then wasn’t applauded by everyone. So in order to create more support, council in 2004 made this promise: Once the sewer line was completed north of Fanshawe, a paved walking trail would be built on top, both to allow regular maintenance of the line and recreational use of the forest.

From that point onward, the sewer line was linked directly to the asphalt trail; the benefit of one created the other.

A few years later the city officials had a change of mind. In developing new protocols for nature trails they decided – and council subsequently approved this recommendation – there should be no direct trail access through an environmentally sensitive area. In other areas, depending on use and natural sensitivity, trails could be narrow and dirt, wider and woodchipped, wider still and gravelled or paved.

This latter decision is now slowly being applied across the city, not without controversy because it sometimes means historic trails are arbitrarily relocated, curtailed or closed off.

In the northern Medway, where no formal trail exists beyond the first 500 or so meters above Fanshawe, all work stopped while the new trail policy was being developed. For five years nothing has happened – apart, perhaps, from a lot of complaining from the new neighbours in adjacent subdivisions.

Although trail building was stopped, trail planning continued. But the plan was increasingly being bent to fit the new policy. And the neighbours were increasingly restless as it slowly became apparent the proposed trail was bending away from the promise.

After much talk with and among ratepayer associations, interest groups and concerned citizens, much costly work with consultants, a series of possibilities was developed. Tuesday night they were unveiled for the public, along with a staff recommendation. You can read all the documents here and here.

What Andrew Macpherson, the city’s manager of parks planning and design, outlined could at best be described as an unholy compromise in that it clearly violates the city’s policy. The trail does go through an ESA, howbeit via a boardwalk over the really sensitive parts with woodchips at either end.

And just as clearly it violates the city’s promise. There is more asphalt north of Fanshawe and south of Sunningdale. But the middle section is gravel and narrow.

The public gallery at City Hall was packed for Mr. Macpherson’s presentation. Almost two dozen Londoners rose to express their opinion. Virtually everyone was against what was proposed – residents because it wasn’t the easy-travelling asphalt corridor they were promised, naturalists because it opened a heritage forest to far more traffic than they felt prudent.

Perhaps the most effective reaction came from those who argued anything less than asphalt all the way meant the trail would not be accessible to everyone.

Said Michael Dawthrone, chairperson of city council’s accessibility advisory committee: “One in seven people in our community has a disability. So many trails in London cannot be considered for accessibility, but this one, because of the sewer system, could be. We were told every opportunity to provide accessibility would be taken – we’d like to see that promise honoured.”

On the other side, former city councillor Sandy Levin asked: “If you provide access through here do you provide access through every part of this ESA and then to every ESA in the city? That’s your dilemma.”

Matt Brown, the councillor for Ward 7 which includes the northern section of the Medway heritage forest, rebutted that point. “Some have worried that asphalt here creates a precedent. I have to disagree. This is a unique situation and requires its own solution.”

That solution, he argued, should be to protect areas of the forest not touched by the sewer line, but otherwise to pave it through. “Essentially what we’re talking about is that a commitment was made and the solution going forward requires a compromise.”

Ultimately, and with some reluctance, the planning committee agreed. As Bud Polhill, the committee chairperson said afterward: “It has to be one or the other, either the trail is accessible to everyone and there is no trail for anyone.”

It is unfortunate for whatever wild things stand in the way, but we’re far past the “no trail for anyone” option.


+5 # Loving nature to deathVicki Van Linden 2013-04-11 03:28
It would be great if people would be less greedy when it comes to the natural world. If you value natural areas then don't buy houses that have been built in areas where green spaces were destroyed or compromised by the development.

Remember how some of the home-owners surrounding Sifton Bog cried loudly that the deer must be killed? Evidently, deer eat hosta plants - a capital offense it seems.

How long before these determined hikers with so little regard for wild beings and the natural world will be calling for the city to kill the wild creatures that they may find inconvenient?

This is one of the many things that is so wrong with urban sprawl. London seems determined to hack up every bit of natural space to line the pockets of developers who appear to lack the smallest bit of social conscience.

Why can't we be smarter? Why can't we do things differently than the same miserable way, year after year? Other cities have vision. Why not us?
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+6 # RE: A trail for everyone, or none at allCarol Richardson 2013-04-11 09:11
Phil, The Plan brought forward by Staff was already a compromise! It took many hours of Staff time with different groups, as well as the consultant costs. They had reference resources showing that "accessibility" does not require pavement.(examp les are new types of trail "mulch", boardwalks,) Many examples exist already. Goderich has a waterfront boardwalk; Newfoundland has trails which are accessible even to wheelchairs and strollers. (The only difficult thing there would be to rollerblade!) These cities have recognized Eco-Tourism as a growing source of outside income,

The most egregious part of the proposal going to Council (if I understand correctly) is Plan 5B, which was thoroughly researched,is actually not 5B. Is it true that Plan 4A is now submitted as 5B? Is this "double-speak?"

The most positive result if this does not go back to the original Plan 5B will be an engaged oommunity becoming involved in the 2014 elections, personally running for office, or actively working for those who support Eco-Tourism, attracting companies because of natural areas, and who are not for asphalt in areas already designated "environmentall y significant".
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-4 # A ComprimiseBrian 2013-04-11 10:54
I disagree with Matt Brown on this one.

1) This area is far too small and has already been encroached upon. If it is truly environmentally sensitive you are already pushing the boundaries.

2) Who in their right mind would support a 4 metre wide asphalt path? Have any of those involved walked the trails in our provincial parks?

3) A continuous trail will merely become a short cut for bikes and joggers. If you think bikes won't use the trail if it is not paved take a look at the trail around Fanshawe Lake.

Remove the bridges, narrow the trail and ensure any access points for sewer work have some method to prevent wheeled traffic.

Reading through the documents a question came to mind. Is our city council so inept or frightened to upset residents that it had to bring in a consultant to make a decision for them? What did the consultants charge for something council should have been able to decide on its own.

Matt and the rest of them need to invest in a spine.

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+2 # Why close off the natural world from the disable?Tutis 2013-04-11 14:17
Why close off the natural world from the disable?
As someone who is confined to a wheel chair and loves nature, I support paved paths. There is no evidence that paved paths are any more intrusive than graveled or wood chipped. They encourage users to stay on the path.Graveled or wood chipped paths are not accessible to wheel chairs, walkers or strollers.
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+1 # I guess I don't understand...AnotherView 2013-04-11 15:03
...what the problem is with constructing a strategically located asphalt path through an ESA? Providing a well defined corridor for public usage is better than a dirt path or nothing at all. Experience shows that for the most part, users stick to the trail and don't wander off. And please spare me the from the fear mongering of supposed "death and destruction to the habitat and its inhabitants" nonsense. I've seen more wildlife in my suburban back yard than in many ESA's in London. Really.

ESA's can be both protected and appreciated by all. A little common sense is all that is needed.
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# Yet Another MessMurray Norman 2013-04-11 15:55
I agree with the comments by #4 and #5. Pave the trail. I hike on trails every day in this city and my experience is that when it is paved people stick to it. When there is no pavement or at least a solid pea gravel base then people wander all over and create new trails and cause more problems for the environment than the paved trails do. Also with pavement if done right you get less erosion. Come on Council lets make walking and hiking accessible to everyone and get on with the business of getting people out of cars.
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# RE: A trail for everyone, or none at allJacqueline Madden 2013-04-11 16:21
The simple decision that is about to be made concerning this trail is what surface will be used to complete it. The trail is there, and is going to remain a trail, the only question is what surface to make it. From my perspective, the only correct way to do it is to complete it with an accessible surface so that the trail is able to be used by the entire community. A vote in favour of a non-accessible surface is a vote against the disabled community. This is a unique opportunity for the disabled community to actually be able to wander through a beautiful area that is often-times inaccessible to them. Since the trail is there and is going to remain there, I can see no reasonable reason why it cannot be completed with a surface that will allow people of all abilities access. This was the original compromise that came along with a sewer through the area and should be honoured by the city and supported by the entire community.
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+2 # Common sense should prevailAl 2013-04-11 16:23
Having been in attendance at Tuesday's meeting, I must agree with the position that is being recommended by the Committee. Excellent points were made by all both in favour & in opposition of the plan(s) presented, but a few key points stand out which should reinforce the Committee's position.

(1) The ESA in question is NOT a pristine ecological zone as is sometimes portrayed. Whether it was the right or the wrong decision, & whether we like it or not, the simple fact of the matter is that this segment of the Medway Valley is "pre-violated" in the sense that a sewer line (of all things) has been installed through the valley. It can be argued as to whether this was a proper decision, but the fact of the matter remains that "it is what it is" & both camps are trying to make the best of a less-than-ideal situation. As councillor Brown suggested, this is actually a very unique opportunity to provide a fully-accessibl e route for everyone to enjoy through a beautiful natural area. No one is suggesting that all ESAs should be treated in this way.

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+1 # Accessible surface a must!Jacqueline Madden 2013-04-11 16:34
To simplify the issue, the only decision that is about to be made concerning this trail is what surface will be used. The trail is there, and will continue to be there, the only debate is how to finish it. From my perspective, the only choice is to use an accessible surface so that the trail is accessible to the entire community. A vote for gravel, dirt, wood chips or other assorted "soft" surfaces is a vote against the disabled community. This is a unique opportunity for people with mobility impairments to access a beautiful, natural area that would often-times be inaccessible to them. A continuous asphalt trail was the original compromise that the city offered the community in exchange for a sewer through this area. The city should be expected to honour this compromise with the support of the entire community.
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+2 # Common sense should prevailAl 2013-04-11 16:40

(2) Given the growth around this area, the Medway Valley has become immensely popular & traffic through it has increased exponentially. As outlined above, over 16,000 residents travelled through the area during a monitored 6 month period. The ecological impact of this is substantial. Currently, there are numerous uncontrolled footpaths through the area, each causing change & damage to the surrounding vegetation and soil pattern. Having a safe & accessible route through the area would encourage enthusiasts to remain on marked paths.
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+3 # Wrong CompromiseRod Morley 2013-04-11 20:39
Once again the money of the developers talks. The sewer line shouldn't have been installed in the first place. It only allows for larger bigger homes once agian closer to the Urban Growth Boundary. We need to build inwards not out to the limits in order to keep London a viable financial entity. The only ones who benefit are the developers not the City as whole. Plus we also lose more of London's natural history.
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-2 # Medway MessTree Hugger 2013-04-11 21:29
This is not a unique situation. There are sewers in other ESAs. Does that mean they get paved to? Fully accessible means bikes too. They will have a field day on the slopes. They already used the existing pavement for stakeboarding - and it is not a bloody park people. Oh and by the way, 1 in 7 are disabled because that includes all disabilities including mental illness, hearing, vision, not just mobility. Get a grip.
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# Response to Mr Tree HuggerJacqueline Madden 2013-04-11 21:55
With all due respect, keeping bikers and skateboarders out of the area should be a completely separate discussion from keeping people who need to use mobility aids out of the area. For those who need them, wheelchairs and walkers are not forms of recreation, they are necessities for mobility, not unlike a pair of legs.
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# Who's zoomin' who?cynic 2013-04-11 22:30
Really like to know where in writing it says the city promised? Sure it wasn't the person selling you your big house?
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# Reply / Question to Ms. MaddenTree Hugger 2013-04-12 13:07
Be interested in how you keep bikes and skateboards out and let wheelchairs in. We don't have enough police to stop red light runners, so enforcement isn't going to work. Education - there will always be those that won't change their behaviour particularly young males. So what's your answer?
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+1 # Inappropriate human behaviourJacqueline Madden 2013-04-15 13:06
I agree with you that the issue of encouraging appropriate human behaviour is complicated and an issue that our society struggles with on a daily basis in every facet. Where I disagree with you, is that a solution that blocks one set of users in an attempt to curb the behaviour of another set of users is not the ethical solution. If the issue is that an asphalt trail is going to ruin the environment, let's look at other accessible surfaces that may have less of an impact. If the issue is human behaviour, let's put our best heads together and see how we can best tackle this issue. I do believe that education and enforcement are key parts but let's look at what has been done effectively in other scenarios or problem-solve together to find something that works. I will be at the city council meeting on Tuesday night and would welcome a face-to-face discussion with you.
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