Health + Wellness,  History + Community

Love Letter From a Commuter: Why the Don Valley Should Be Protected

Photo taken by Leyland Rochester

Dear Don Valley, 

It is 9:39 a.m. on Tuesday, September 6, 2022, and I am driving down the Don Valley Parkway, heading to Centennial College for my first day of school. Up until today, I have never been a commuter; I have always lived close to school, so driving every day from my small hometown north of the city is rather new to me. Already I find the bumper-to-bumper traffic along the DVP to be as tedious and exhausting as the constant exhaust fumes that are spewing out of engines all around me. But there is one silver lining: as I take the exit at Don Mills Road and the off-ramp brings me up a slight hill, the city disappears for a moment and it feels like I’m no longer driving on the busy streets of Toronto.

Suddenly, big oak and maple trees seem to spring up out of nowhere and their heavy branches block out the skyline. Vines hang down from these trees and almost touch the roof of my car as it passes underneath. As the road bends, I catch a glimpse of a river through the trees, sunlight glinting off the water. For the few glorious moments that I drive through this stretch, I feel like I’m lost in some enchanted forest rather than the Don Mills connection to O’Connor Drive. But all it took was that first time I saw you, Don Valley, on that first day of school, for me to fall in love with you and all the moments of beauty and reprieve you offer Torontonians.

This is my entrance into the Danforth neighbourhood every morning—and what a grand entrance it is! On crisp, clear fall mornings, I have seen the trees soaked in sunshine and burning with autumn colours; on foggy winter evenings, I have seen the trees plastered with snow, their branches bone-white and bending in the wind; and I have seen the trees in full summer bloom, their green leaves nurtured by a warm breeze. But not only is the Don Valley a scenic entryway into my school, the neighbourhood, and the city, it is also an entrance for countless people into one of the most remarkable green spaces in Toronto.

Photo taken by Leyland Rochester

I am from the small town of Bradford, Ontario, where I have ready access to many secluded parks, conservation areas, and hiking trails. A lot of Torontonians do not share this same luxury. When I go hiking through the Valley, I can be surrounded by lush trees and open fields, blue sky and sprawling forest, but I can still hear the honking and squealing of cars from the DVP; I can still smell the garbage and sewage and pollution; and I can still see the skyline looming in the distance. To engage with nature in a city setting seems to violate all that I love about it—the peace and quiet, the solemn seclusion, the uninterrupted scenery—but maybe the lack of all this gives us a more urgent need for nature in the city. Maybe we need to be reminded of that; after all, the Don Valley has so much to offer.

The Don River watershed is one of the largest in southern Ontario, stretching almost 40 kilometres from its headwaters in the Oak Ridges Moraine to its mouth at Toronto Harbour. It has one of the most extensive trail networks in the city with ten different trails to choose from, ranging from easy to advanced. The Evergreen Brick Works and the Lower Don trails are among the most popular spots. The area is also beloved by cyclists looking for a leisurely ride away from the crowded streets and busy bike lanes. I would highly recommend taking the Lower Don trail south to the Prince Edward Viaduct, where you will pass under the magnificent bridge that connects Danforth Avenue to Bloor Street. With almost 1.5 million Canadians living in close proximity to the Don River, it is the most urbanized watershed in the country. To live so close to nature is a wonderful thing, but the presence of millions of people nearby does pose a threat to the ecosystems that live in the Valley.

Photo taken by Leyland Rochester

So, as the “backyard” for over 300,000 Torontonians, the Don Valley is somewhat at the mercy of these residents and the impact of their lives on the local—not to mention global—environment. Due to climate change and mass urbanization, the area has become more susceptible to severe flooding, with the Evergreen Brick Works and Lower Don trails being identified as some of the most flood-vulnerable regions by conservation authorities. In addition, Metrolinx, the corporation that owns GO Transit, is planning on building a layover facility for unused GO trains near the Prince Edward Viaduct that threatens to destroy precious wetlands, displace wildlife from their habitats, and close popular hiking and biking paths. What’s more, every day hundreds of thousands of vehicles driving on the DVP pump noxious fumes into the atmosphere and the Valley itself.

I feel strangely implicated in this, though. I am driving down the DVP on the morning of September 6 (as I will do every morning for the next eight months), and I am spewing the same emissions into the atmosphere that I am condemning in this letter. Likewise, I do not support Metrolinx’s project, but I take the GO train as often as I can for a “greener” transit alternative. It’s all one big heap of contradictions, isn’t it? But as I’m driving, I notice two figures on the side of Donlands Avenue picking up trash in a community park, and I think about how these are the ones who love this city and who strive to keep its green spaces clean and beautiful. That kind of love is a labour of love, and one that we need to work on for generations to come.

With love and hope,

Leyland Rochester

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