It’s a humid summer day in the city and there’s only one activity on your mind: visiting the Toronto Islands. You pack a picnic lunch and your friends meet you at the ferry. You’re thankful for the breeze during the ferry ride on this hot day in Toronto. Arriving at the Islands, you head to the beach, ready to throw your belongings down and run into the water – but wait – there is no sandy beach! The water has covered up the sand, and there is nowhere to sit down and enjoy the beach day you had planned. This is not just a dystopian story: it could be the future of the Toronto Island beaches if nothing is done to preserve them.
With over 1.25 million visitors to the Toronto Islands every year, this urban ecosystem is subject to anthropogenic impacts such as pollution, litter and habitat degradation. Re-imagining the connection between humans and nature is essential to the Islands’ future for everyone to enjoy; people, plants and animals alike. How can our interactions with the Islands restore them, instead of causing further damage? Learning about the land is a good way to start. From there, we can create new stories and experiences that promote healthy relationships between people and nature.
In Ontario, coastal sand dunes are a rare ecosystem that require care and restoration to maintain their health. Hanlan’s Point, lining the west coast of the Toronto Islands, is a great example – home to many plant species and diversity of wildlife. The beach, sand dunes, and native species all play a significant role in maintaining the integrity of this ecosystem. Sand dunes are a dynamic environment which few plants can thrive in. The native marram grass is well adapted to this frequently changing environment. However, it isn’t so well adapted to the impacts of humans. It only takes ten footsteps to kill the fragile marram grass. Not using boardwalks or designated paths to enter the beach area is detrimental to the health of sand dunes.
Through listening to the needs of nature, we can work to restore natural environments as a community. Hanlan’s Point is one of six Environmentally Significant Areas on the Toronto Islands, which the City of Toronto defines as “spaces within Toronto’s natural heritage system that require special protection to preserve their environmentally significant qualities.” Although human impacts can cause harm to this vulnerable habitat, with proper planning, positive human intervention can be instrumental for making positive change.
Since 2008, the City of Toronto has partnered with Fleming College’s Ecosystem Management Technology program to restore the habitat by closing trails, planting native trees and shrubs, transplanting marram grass, installing dune protection fencing and signage, and controlling invasive species. Over the course of thirteen years, the partnership has been successful due to extensive planning, studying and teamwork.
Last year, Ecosystem Management students from Fleming boarded a ferry to Hanlan’s Point beach for their annual visit, equipped with shovels, wading boots and positive attitudes. For many, it was their first time visiting the Islands. Students gathered and listened as professors Mike Fraser and Barb Elliot gave introductions and an overview of the plans for the day before taking action. The driving factor for this work stemmed from deep rooted care and attention to the needs of the changing environment.
Human care and concern for ecosystems sparks a chain reaction that can bring more involvement to restoration and protection efforts. Enriching and bridging human-nature relationships will ensure that Toronto’s cherished greenspaces will stay intact for future generations to enjoy. Before your next visit to the Islands, think about why you want to go. What makes you feel connected? What makes you care?
As Barb Elliot explains, “We conserve what we love and we love what we understand, […] so if we understand it, we will love it and then we want to keep it […] This is a really special place.”
Cortney Gilbert is currently enrolled in the Environmental Visual Communication program at Fleming College, and has an undergraduate degree in Media Production from Ryerson University. Combining her media production experience and passion for wildlife conservation, Cortney aspires to create compelling visual storytelling content to foster change.
Marika is an aspiring documentary filmmaker and writer. Graduated from Environmental Studies from York University with a certificate in community arts, she is now a student of the Environmental Visual Communication program at Fleming College. Working together with the community, her goal is to bring to life and capture stories of the relationships between people and creation.