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Toronto’s lack of snow clearing a slippery slope for pandemic-weary residents looking for outdoor escape
Jan. 19, 2021
Oliver Moore

Jim O’Leary was walking with family in late December, enjoying a beautiful winter day in Toronto’s High Park, when they approached an iced-over bridge deep in the dog-park area. In an instant, his feet went out from under him and he went down with “a loud pop.”

On the ground, dizzy and in excruciating pain, he found he couldn’t move his foot. A passerby eventually offered the use of his toboggan and, along with Mr. O’Leary’s son, towed him uphill to the nearest road.

He was in surgery within days for a fully detached tendon and is looking at six months or more of rehab. Although falls are a winter rite of passage, he said, this one was different -- it reinforced his appreciation of the importance of diligent snow clearing.

As Toronto endures its first COVID-19 winter, calls are mounting to make local parks more usable during the colder months.

A new pandemic order by the province that came into effect on Jan. 14 sought to limit outings but specifically exempted walking for exercise as a legitimate reason to leave the house. The city is also encouraging people to get outside for their physical and mental health. But at the same time, some of Toronto’s greatest natural assets have become inhospitable.

Unlike some North American cities that clear hundreds of kilometres of park paths when it snows, Toronto has historically made only modest efforts to keep its green spaces walkable in the colder months.

“I generally had the view that the approach the city’s been taking -- like, let’s make sure the roads are clear but don’t worry about the sidewalks and so on -- seems a little misplaced in terms of priorities,” said Mr. O’Leary, an IT project manager with the province’s liquor retailer.

“I mean, a car can get through a street reasonably well if there’s a bit of snow, but if you’re not mobile, [like] myself right or now, or people who are elderly or what have you, it doesn’t take much snow to make it treacherous.”

While the city has promised to clear some more park paths this year as part of its COVID-19 winter plan, this approach doesn’t apply to most of the city’s green space. It’s a situation that raises thorny questions about equity, safe use of outdoor spaces and how to balance environmental protection with the need to access the city’s natural areas.

“The number-one activity in any parks, anywhere, is to walk,” said Gil Penalosa, past chair of World Urban Parks and founder of the non-profit 8 80 Cities, which argues that a municipality meeting the needs of the very young and old alike will work for all residents.

“Having walking paths has the highest cost-benefit of any infrastructure,” he said. “We should be ploughing and making sure that all the parks have trails and that those trails are usable 365 days of the year for people of all ages and abilities.”

Although recent warmer weather has uncovered some paths, many remain icy. And more snow will inevitably fall. When it does, many off-road paths get little attention and can remain icy for weeks.

The City of Toronto’s Parks, Forestry & Recreation department did not have anyone available for interview, but provided a written statement detailing its snow-clearing efforts.

“Snow operations were expanded in Toronto’s popular parks to enhance outdoor recreation opportunities for Torontonians during the pandemic,” the statement read.

“Parks that facilitate the city’s winter programming plan, featuring outdoor amenities like ice rinks and park washrooms, were prioritized for snow clearing to increase ease of access throughout the winter.”

According to the statement, Toronto had already been clearing snow in some parks based on various criteria, including connections to schools or the presence of recreational facilities.

City staff did not have figures for how much snow was cleared this year versus previous winters. However, the city noted that this year staff identified an additional 60 kilometres of pathways, roads and hydro corridors for clearing. The city argues that unpaved paths are “unsuitable” for salting or other clearing efforts.

The city’s approach isn’t nearly good enough, said Michael Black, who sits on the steering committee of Walk Toronto, a pedestrian advocacy group. While he understands concerns about damaging unpaved paths, he says it may be time for a discussion about laying down a hard surface on such areas -- perhaps even on one side -- to make snow removal easier in winter. And he argues that paved paths and playgrounds should be cleared in every park in the city.

“You can’t say that they’re terrific for summertime use and then let them turn into really dangerous ice zones in the winter,” he said.

“There’s a social equity issue. People [who don’t] go south, or go skiing or whatever at resorts, do still want to get out in the winter. It’s particularly for their use that the city should be maintaining its green space. And if they don’t, what do people do?”

Robert Keshen was left walking around his block in lieu of an outing after driving to a nearby ravine and nearly falling on the hill he needed to traverse to enter. It was particularly frustrating, he said, because that was the first ice he’d encountered on the excursion.

“The parking lot was fine. The street going down there was fine. They seem to be able to do it for cars,” said Mr. Keshen, who works in administration at a law firm.

“Don’t announce you’re going to have, you know, ‘WinterTO’ or ‘ActiveTO’ or whatever they’re calling it now, and tell people to get outside and that it’s safe to go, and then you have elderly people almost killing themselves trying to get down hills.”

With fitness facilities shut down and team sports paused because of the pandemic, going for a stroll offers the chance to stay active while maintaining the encouraged physical distance from others.

Some North American cities have long recognized the importance of year-round activity and make significant efforts to clear their outdoor public spaces.

In Calgary, the city clears 450 of its 1,000 kilometres of paved multiuse pathways. David Hobson, the parks and recreation official responsible for pathway maintenance there, said the reason is to provide year-round access to as many residents as possible.

“There are more people, we’re finding, using pathways to commute to work -- whether that’s cycling or walking, running -- in the morning and at home at night, and to provide those [snow-clearing] services actually encourages that behaviour,” he said, pegging the annual cost of Calgary’s snow clearing at $1.2-million.

“The second major reason, I would say, actually reinforced by the current [pandemic] situation that we’re in right now, is the recreation aspect and the importance of being able to get out and enjoy fresh air and the outdoors as much as possible.”

Minneapolis has a similar approach, clearing about 225 kilometres of pathways, most of them paved, to facilitate commuting and fresh air. Parks staff have been asked to clear more this year and are figuring out how best to tackle the increase.

“Because of COVID [and] a lot of things being shut down, we’ve seen a higher use of our parks system this year than we have in a long time,” said Dave Bergstrom, operations manager at the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board. “So [clearing] makes it crucial for that.”

It was the risk of potentially falling that stopped Graham Isador from running in midtown’s Cedarvale Ravine. A freelance writer, he had taken to the trails as a respite from solo apartment living once his gym closed during lockdown. He’s frustrated with the lack of pathway access, particularly as the loss of his “happy place” only compounds a growing list of pandemic-related disappointments.

“It’s just difficult to have another thing kind of taken away,” he said. “I get that that’s just the weather in Canada in some respects, and that there’s probably not a good answer -- it’s too expensive or too whatever. But it’s just another aspect of a kind of fatigue that I’ve had with COVID and the city’s response to it.”

One day earlier this month, a path leading into Cedarvale was covered with solid ice, stretching for more than a kilometre. Similarly slippery were several kilometres of the Belt Line trail near Eglinton Avenue and most of the Moore Park ravine, adjacent to the Evergreen Brick Works greenspace hub.

All three natural spaces, that in better weather form a pleasant walking loop, were largely impassable, with few people going through.

“Don’t even think about it without spikes on your shoes,” one woman called to a person hesitating at the base of an icy hill. Indeed, of the handful actually using these paths, many were wearing wearing gripped devices over their footwear. Such urban crampons are readily available, and can add valuable traction over ice and snow. But that residents should even need them to walk around outside safely in their own city is absurd, said Mr. Penalosa of 8 80 Cities.

“So why is it that we are going to ask pedestrians to wear spikes on their shoes when we’re not even asking the cars to have winter tires?” he asked. “It would be unreasonable to say to three million people, ‘Okay, you can go to your neighbourhood park -- but you need to wear spikes.’”