By John Carley
[John Carley is co-chair of Friends of the Spit. This is an abridged adaptation of an article published in “Ashbridge’s Bay – An Anthology of Writings by Those Who Knew and Loved Ashbridge’s Bay (1998)”. Edited by George Fairfield.]
The Leslie Street Spit is a man-made peninsula (or “Spit”), which extends 5 kilometres into Lake Ontario from the base of Leslie Street, in Toronto’s East end. Over the years, the Spit has become a significant urban wilderness on Toronto’s shoreline.
No other piece of land has attracted such passionate defenders, nor has any other piece of land had such a lengthy battle waged, simply to maintain it and allow it to grow as nature intended. As Ashbridge’s Bay and Marsh were filled and that land taken forever from the public realm, the creation of the Leslie Street Spit and its subsequent naturalization has somewhat redressed the tremendous loss of the marsh.
That the struggle to save this land from development was lengthy and bitter at times, and is still ongoing, points to the vigilance that is required whenever conservation and development interests clash.
The Toronto Harbour Commissioners (THC), a federally chartered body, began construction of the Spit in the late 1950’s. It was designed to protect a harbour expansion for a forecast increase in shipping. While this need never materialized, the Spit became a convenient place for dumping the vast quantities of rubble and fill generated by Toronto’s rapid growth in the 60’s and 70’s.
Over the years, the raw site has become well-vegetated through seeds in the fill, washed ashore, airborne and bird-borne. The protected Outer Harbour peninsulas, with their sandy soils, now host a tall cottonwood and poplar forest, while the wave-washed heavy rubble areas of the endikement and armouring have been far slower to vegetate. Botanically, the Spit has become an outdoor classroom demonstrating pioneer plant communities and their succession.
The Leslie Street Spit has become well-known for its importance for migratory birds. Over 290 species have been observed, 45 of which are known to breed.
First-time visitors walking through the Spit would have no inkling of the struggle to preserve this land as a Public Urban Wilderness. They might see many species of plants and birds, butterflies and reptiles, all in an unregulated, unmanicured landscape. They would be astounded by the number of walkers, joggers, hikers, roller-bladers, and cyclists using the spine road and they might be rather perplexed as to why a 100 mooring sailing club remains in one of the embayments. The fact that these visitor could walk at all in a car-free urban wilderness setting is primarily due to the actions of a citizen’s advocacy group called “Friends of the Spit”.
In 1968, the THC unveiled “A Bold Concept”, an ambitious plan to build a second spit to the west and establish a huge residential development and an airport on the newly-created land. The project was soon abandoned because of costs. As honey attracts bees, vacant land attracts plans. For example, in 1976, the “visionary” plans of the park depicted sailing clubs and marinas in every embayment. The raw rubble was to be transformed into an Aquatic Park, building on the theme park model of Ontario Place.
However, as this plan and then successive plans were debated, nature was winning. As the Spit became more vegetated and started to change from the lifeless pile of rubble to one with a wide variety of life, more and more people became fond of it as a place to get away from it all right at the centre of the city. Thousands liked it as it was. This passion for the land and the commitment to it was evident by the public’s response and support.
Apart from a few hardy souls who, no doubt, sneaked under the fence, at the risk of being charged with trespassing by the THC, the Spit remained the preserve of dump trucks and wildlife until 1972. That year, after many representations, the Beaches Bicycle Club (the Beach is a community close to the Spit) managed to convince the THC to allow its members to tour the site under the THC supervision. A few other groups were also cautiously permitted to inspect the Spit later that year.
In 1973, the THC allowed access to the public in a limited way, by sponsoring bus tours on Sunday afternoons, from June to September. Some 2,300 people saw the Spit from the window of a bus that year. The following year, cyclists and hikers were allowed onto the Spit for the first time. The season lasted for 20 Sundays. Observation sites were marked and a descriptive brochure distributed. Only individuals over 18 years were admitted (children had to be accompanied by an adult), upon signing a release form. Despite these limitations, and the fact that vegetation was still sparse, the number of visitors increased, which prompted the first of a number of questionnaires about the possible uses of the park. The majority of those who replied favoured low-intensity recreation. “Suggestions were 100% in favour of flowers, trees, birds and wildlife,” reported the THC in its newsletter. Visitors wanted no cars and no commercial uses.
In 1977, Spit enthusiasts managed to get the Spit opened to the public during longer hours and on Saturdays as well, and the season extended into November. That year 9,471 visitors were recorded, half of them cyclists. Another questionnaire showed again a majority in favour of low-intensity recreation.
While a number of nature-oriented groups such as the Toronto Field Naturalists were publicizing the Spit as a wildlife park, the need for an advocacy group that would focus on the issue had become evident. The founding meeting of Friends of the Spit (FOS), in late 1977, attracted 200 people. A steering committee was appointed (five of the eight original steering committee members are still members of FOS). Friends of the Spit was run by an ad-hoc steering committee with two co-chairs. Membership in FOS was $2.00. A pamphlet was produced to recruit new members. Birdwatchers, naturalists, and cyclists constituted the initial core of Friends of the Spit. Concurrently, the Ontario Sailing Association, a lobby group partially funded with public money, lobbied to establish extensive boating facilities on the Spit.
Eventually, Friends of the Spit grew to a membership of 1,200 (of the initial membership of 200 in 1977, more than 100 are still active members of FOS). Initially its goals were simple: in the short term, to keep the Spit open to the public. Access was in jeopardy as the THC threatened to reduce or terminate public access to the land. The long term goal was to let the Spit grow naturally without development and without privatization of uses. The Friends’ rallying cry was “Let It Be”.
During the late 1970’s the Ontario Government determined that the Metropolitan Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (MTRCA) was the appropriate body to develop the Spit as a public park. It was assumed that the planning of the Spit would produce a multi-use park sanctioned by a public participation process. The MTRCA was putting forward a $22 million Aquatic Park, which included a hotel, an amphitheatre, government docks, private yacht clubs, parking for 2,000 cars, a water skiing school, camping and many other amusement facilities.
By the end of January 1978, the steering committee of Friends of the Spit had prepared a brief to the MTRCA, calling for the abandonment of the proposed plan.
“Our commitment is to ‘passive’ recreational use of the Spit (e.g. hiking, cycling, jogging, etc.), while the Spit develops naturally into a near wilderness in the heart of the city. The Spit is our last chance for an undeveloped, peaceful area where city-dwellers can be in harmony with nature”, FOS stated in its brief.
Friends expended enormous time and energy combatting the desire of planners to allow private car access on the Spit. In the summer of 1978, some 50 mooring spaces had been created on the Spit by the THC, and sailors requested car access to their boats. After meetings with THC officials, a compromise was hammered out whereby sailors could drive their cars on the Spit before and after public hours. “Such a compromise seemed unavoidable this year,” stated FOS newsletter of May 1978 — and like many temporary items (Income Tax, for example) the “compromise” still continues nearly two decades later.
The number of visitors topped 18,000 in 1978, double the figure for the previous year. They included “not only individuals seeking a quiet afternoon but various naturalist groups… and a bus load of geologists attending a convention being shown the scientific aspects of shoreline erosion by a provincial government geologist. Yet another THC survey showed once more a majority of visitors in favour of low-intensity recreation.
Responding to boaters’ pleas for more mooring space on the Spit, FOS commented: “When you compare the 18,000 who went to the Spit for other uses and the tiny handful of boaters, it’s a disproportionate concern. The issue is not birds or boats. It’s people or cars.”
From 1985 on, life became frantic for the Friends as threat upon threat hit the Spit. The MTRCA started a five-phase planning exercise, which included a large number of public meetings. Time and time again, FOS members and allied groups were asked to attend meetings, write letters, and make phone calls in an attempt to convince the MTRCA board to vote for a no-development option.
Two options were retained for consideration by the MTRCA: 1) preserve the whole Spit in its natural state, and 2) designate the first half for marinas and other intensive recreation and the other half as “natural resource” area (with a heavy emphasis on “management” and “created landscapes”).
It was evident from the onset, however, that the MTRCA planning exercise would inexorably lead to a “carved” Spit. A basic planning assumption seemed to state that the Spit must accommodate all needs, and hence, a “compromise” was desirable. Friends of the Spit initiated an extensive lobbying campaign which included a major brief entitled “A Better Concept Plan”, unveiled at a well-attended news conference and sent to all the MTRCA board members and City of Toronto politicians.
“A Better Concept Plan” described the Friends’ vision of an all-natural Spit: minimal management and intervention, a modest interpretive centre, no private vehicles, free public access for low-intensity recreation and informal nature education. The solution for sailboat clubs was to allow them to remain within a waterfront park complex on the North Shore lands (Cherry Beach and lands to the east), or to relocate them to the THC marina arm under construction. (The THC was constructing a 1,200 boat marina on a new spit of land at the base of the Spit proper. This proposal was fought by Friends, and eventually limited to 600 spaces.)
In a desperate attempt to gain the support of more MTRCA board members for FOS’s vision, “A Better Concept Plan” had allowed the Aquatic Park Sailing Club to remain on the Spit. However, this was an ad hoc negotiating position, for the sole purpose of that particular phase of the MTRCA Master Plan. Friends of the Spit remains adamantly opposed to private or dedicated uses on any part of the Spit.
While “A Better Concept Plan” was very well received by all supporters and got extensive media coverage, it was to have little effect on the MTRCA decision-makers. Their 1988 final plan allowed car traffic halfway down the Spit to a large interpretive centre with parking lot, and established boating facilities along two of the embayments.
To accommodate up to 8 boating clubs and facilities, the MTRCA plan showed the addition of lakefill in an MTRCA designated environmentally significant area (a tern nesting site). The $6 million (in 1987 dollars – a figure many felt was grossly underestimated) plan also included extensive planting and landscaping in the “natural area” which would remain at the end of the Spit, “to enhance the natural experience of visitors”.
The Friends’ newsletter of January 1987 states: “This grotesque plan is being put forward despite the repeated requests from the public to ‘leave the Spit alone’. Time and time again, survey after survey, public meeting after public meeting, the majority of the public has said it wants the Spit to remain a Public Urban Wilderness. These wishes have been totally ignored by the MTRCA for the sake of political expediency…
“The list of ‘strengths and weaknesses’ to justify this plan is a classic example of double-space. For instance, one strength is a’ large natural area’, but one weakness is a ‘somewhat smaller natural area’. Another strength is ‘park walking distances reduced’ (of course, the park is smaller)…”
On January 29, 1988, at the conclusion of a 35 deputation, six-hour marathon meeting, the MTRCA board approved the divided Spit option. FOS reported in its next newsletter: “The meeting confirmed again that the MTRCA’s ‘consultation’ process is nothing but a sham, and that neither the quality nor the fairness of the arguments put forward by the ‘Let It Be’ groups and individuals (who constitute the vast majority) were going to change a mindset ensconced since the very beginning of the planning exercise. It was evident that the MTRCA board has consistently refused to acknowledge the many weaknesses in the plan and in the public consultation process.”
Following the approval of the divided Spit option, Friends of the Spit suffered an obvious letdown. Many members and supporters felt that it was time to relinquish the fight. However, and thankfully, the steering committee of the organization kept on and took the issue to the provincial Ministry of the Environment, who had to approve the MTRCA Master Plan. As the MTRCA plan wended its way through the bureaucracy, other factors came into play. The Royal Commission on the Future of the Toronto Waterfront, chaired by former Toronto Mayor David Crombie, was given the mandate to study all aspects of the Toronto Waterfront, and to make recommendations to ensure that the waterfront was clean, green and accessible, and developed in the public interest.
At extensive public hearings in 1989, at which deputant after deputant addressed issues pertinent to the Spit and called for the Spit to be left as an urban wilderness, the Commission sided with the Friends of the Spit position. Confronted with this commission sanction, the Conservation Authority then submitted a revised development plan for consideration by interest groups and for provincial environmental assessment.
Other than its retention of the Aquatic Park Sailing Club, this revised plan, to all intents and purposes, acceded to the Friends of the Spit position. In addition to the pressure of Friends of the Spit, which sufficiently delayed the planning exercise until the important findings of the Royal Commission could come forward, the downswing in the economy of 1990 meant that schemes of the magnitude proposed by the MTRCA were unlikely to proceed. Faced with cutbacks, the low cost option originally proposed by Friends of the Spit made enormous sense. The revised plan gained acceptance by the Minister in 1995. Friends of the Spit gave its support to the plan, with the exception of the retention of the Aquatic Park Sailing Club in Embayment “C”.
The Spit is land in evolution. In another 20 or 30 years its physical appearance will be much different than it is now. In opposition to one MTRCA senior staffer’s desire that he wanted to go down to the park and see it “finished”, Friends of the Spit hope that the park and its natural component will be ever-changing and evolving.
In any successful citizen’s advocacy group, there are guiding principles. These positions shaped the battle that saved the Leslie Street Spit and led to the organization’s ultimate success.
These activities positioned the group as people who were more than just a shrill one-note opposition. By taking a positive role of stewardship, one becomes a much more serious contending force. It’s very hard for a proponent to dismiss an opposition group if each time you appear, you are able to make note of a new publication or pass out a new brochure that is more than just an advocacy pamphlet but is indeed a researched document. Friends of the Spit received the 1996 Ontario Association of Landscape Architects Service to the Environment Award, in recognition of its advocacy and stewardship.
Friends of the Spit have learned one more item: to be ever vigilant. There is always a threat. In April 1996, four days before it was to be approved by City Council, Friends of the Spit learned that an 18 acre “Golf Academy”, driving range and mini-putt were scheduled for the baselands of the Spit: lands which have an environmentally significant area designation and which support a wide variety of bird species, herpetiles, and other flora and fauna. By a mass campaign of letter writing and delegations, Friends of the Spit and supporters were able to get the issue sent back to Executive Committee. Executive Committee voted 5 to 1 to disallow the Golf Academy, a decision which was later supported unanimously by City Council.
It is important to note that without vigilance by citizen’s groups, schemes such as this would be approved. In this instance, The Waterfront Trust and City Council had little problem with the proposal until objections were raised by Friends of the Spit and their supporters. Interestingly the MTRCA had never been advised of this golf scheme; so despite years and years of work, a proponent, helped by the City of Toronto Economic Development Corporation (a corporation owned by the City of Toronto) attempted suddenly to gain permission for a use as detrimental as a Golf Academy. So in the final analysis, vigilance.
The book, illustrated with numerous maps and photographs, will interest any Toronto history buff. It is available at some Toronto Public Libraries. Click here for more information.
FOS MEMBERSHIP FORM
Household $8.00 (2 or more at the same address)
Print the FOS Membership Form and mail with your cheque to:
Friends of the Spit
P.O. Box 51518
2140A Queen St. East
Toronto, Ontario M4E 3V7
FOS does not sell, trade, or share its mailing and email list.
Quotable Quote: from National Geographic, Best City Weekends 2013, pp 118-119
“One of the great things about Toronto is the proximity of urbanity to wilderness, which is very rare in continental North America,” says author Stephen Marche, who set his first novel in Toronto. The city is woven with ravines, their coiling pathways busy with joggers and happy dogs (rabbits, foxes, and owls make cameo appearances). But Marche’s favorite green corner is the Leslie Street Spit, a place rarely traversed even by natives. Poking into Lake Ontario, the three-mile-long peninsula served initially as a landfill, but has now flourished into a wildflower-speckled sanctuary for more than 300 species of birds, from the yellow warbler to the snowy owl. “The spit is one of the most remarkable parts of Toronto and is a great metaphor for the city itself: What began basically as a garbage dump unexpectedly turned into a beautiful place,” says Marche.