Toronto’s ravines: This underground forest playground has been transformed into the greatest urban park ever

It is lush and quiet in the forest under the city. The trails are largely unimpeded by roads, and twist far beneath our highway overpasses. From an aerial perspective, they seem to surround the city core; in actuality they lie underneath it. Toronto’s ravine systems snake their way from the Don River and extend in almost all directions, from east of the city centre and into the outer suburbs. 

Just less than half of them fall under private ownership, but that still leaves about 45,000 acres for people to hike, bike, and walk their dogs along. That expansive acreage dwarfs New York City’s Central Park, which clocks in at 843 acres, but has become the world’s most iconic urban park. Toronto has the largest ravine network in the world, and to uncover the history of the city is to go deep into our urban forest: after all, it is in the centre of the Don Valley where the bricks that built the city were made. 

“Our entire city was built around them,” says Jason Ramsay-Brown, a ravine expert and author of Toronto’s Ravines and Urban Forests. “If you’ve ever been on a bus and it short-turns in some completely inexplicable manner, chances are it’s going around a ravine. If you’ve ever turned in an area and you’re on a giant bridge crossing nothing, chances are, you’re crossing a ravine. Whether we’re aware of their direct influence or not, we are all influenced by them.” 

Ramsay-Brown has been been active in stewardship and conservation for about 10 years, but growing up in the city, his fascination with its ravines took root when he was a kid. Leading me through the Don Valley from Todmorden Mills, a former industrial lumber mill, he points out new growth as well as ecological missed opportunities: areas that used to be illegal dumping sites, marshlands that were paved over, areas where the river was straightened, fields that have been colonised by invasive species. His ecological journey with these beloved ravines is an exercise in understanding industrialisation, population growth and its toll on our surrounding natural life. 

Part of the reason why the ravines aren’t cherished as a defining feature of Toronto is simply that the city has been using them as industrial sites and dumping areas for centuries. However, there is an ongoing effort from Ramsay-Brown, the Toronto and Region Conservation and environmental NGOs to turn back time, replant native species, restore natural habitats for local wildlife, and…

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