The Benefits of Urban Forests
by Stephanie Tencer
from: At the Forks, Volume 7, Issue 2, Summer 2000

Increasingly serious respiratory health concerns as well as the growing costs of construction and maintenance of roads have led planners all over the world to re-examine transportation options.

In Europe, many cities are actively working to reduce vehicle use by narrowing roadways, introducing traffic calming measures, and expanding transit, cycling and other alternative means of getting around.

Traffic flow and congestion are also issues in Toronto and most recently have generated controversy in South Leaside, where proposals have been revived to construct an extension of Redway Road through a forested portion of the Don Valley called Crother's Woods.

These plans would not only be an inappropriate solution to the traffic concerns of South Leaside residents, but also have serious economic repercussions for the vital services currently provided to citizens by urban green spaces. Although often not given adequate recognition, Crother's Woods and other forested areas are vital components of our city infrastructure. The Don Valley woodlands and natural areas do more than provide habitat for beautiful plants and animals and give us numerous recreational opportunities. Environmental Significant Areas such as Crother's Woods also help to purify the air, clean our water and combat against climate change.

The current proposal to extend Redway Road through Crother's Woods to Bayview Avenue and to connect Eglinton Avenue near Leslie to Redway Road at Millwood would replace an efficiently functioning piece of existing infrastructure with an ill-considered temporary solution.

New roadways inevitably attract new traffic and rapidly become as congested as those they were intended to relieve.

The table below highlights the many ways in which Crother's Woods benefits residents and contrasts it with what the extension of Redway Road would likely bring to the community.

AIR QUALITY: Toronto Health Department says 1,000 people in the city die prematurely each year because of air pollution. Green areas supply oxygen and filter dirt and smog-forming pollutants from the air. Non-commercial vehicles are responsible for more than 50% of smog-causing nitrogen oxides and 30% of smog-causing volatile organic compounds in the air.
WATER QUALITY/QUANTITY: High stormwater flows pollute our rivers and beaches and cause basement flooding. Green areas absorb stormwater helping to minimize the threat of flooding, and filter water that runs off into our lakes and rivers. The impermeable surface of new roads causes additional stormwater to burden the existing sewer system and introduces grease, salt and other pollutants into the rivers.
NOISE: Stress imposed by noise pollution is a growing concern in cities. Green areas act as a sound buffer, protecting neighbourhoods from excessive noise. Road traffic is a significant source of urban noise pollution
UNBEARABLE WEATHER:WEATHER: Environment Canada estimates the number of days in Ontario with temperatures above 30 degrees Celsius will likely jump from 10 to 50 days per year if carbon dioxide concentrations double. Green areas absorb carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas which contributes to climate change. Green areas cool the environment through evapotranspiration, which helps to counteract the hotter temperatures found in cities. Dark surfaces such as asphalt roads absorb the sun's rays, contributing to the hotter temperatures found in cities. More traffic induced by more roads increases emissions of major greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide.
HABITAT:HABITAT: Habitat loss and degradation is a major stress on wildlife and natural ecosystems. Crother's Woods is a designated Environmentally Significant Area and home to mature Carolinian species and regionally rare plants. Extending Redway Road will result in the irreparable destruction and disturbance of Crother's Woods habitat.
PROPERTY VALUES:VALUES: House prices vary considerably depending on location Home locations next to ravines, parks or other green spaces is a major selling point. Loss of nearby green areas has been shown to significantly reduce residential property values.

In choosing the best method for addressing traffic congestion in our neighbourhoods, we must do so in a way that complements our existing infrastructure, whether it is natural or built.

This year's report of the Toronto Environmental Task Force concluded that:

  • traffic congestion is worsening because of an increased reliance on single occupancy vehicles and an increased number of trucks;
  • traffic congestion in Toronto causes an estimated $1 billion annually in delays, pollution and other negative impacts;
  • because of the number of vehicles on the road, commuters are spending more time on the road, traveling farther, and at slower speeds than 15 years ago;
  • motor vehicles are a major cause of smog, a major emitter of carbon monoxide, and a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions;
  • pollution from motor vehicles causes increased rates of sickness and death and about $646 million a year in increased health costs;
  • vast amounts of land are dedicated to motor vehicles with about 40% of the land in the GTA used for roads and parking lots.

These findings suggest that land use and transportation planning must move away from the traditional car-centred approach.

The proposal to extend Redway Road clearly undermines the many benefits of urban green space and as a result would do more harm than good. Crother's Woods is a vital component of our urban infrastructure and a much-needed natural refuge from our cityscape. Let's keep it that way!

FODE is a membership-based non-profit organization working to protect and enhance the Don River and to encourage the establishment of healthy and sustainable communities within the central and eastern portions of the Don watershed, Toronto, Ontario. © 2004