As a child, I took my first steps in an apartment in Tehran. It was a big apartment – over 180 square metres – but an apartment nonetheless. We lived in that apartment until we left Tehran, initially for London, and eventually settling in Richmond Hill, a suburb of Toronto, Canada. I remember quite clearly that as a child I felt deprived of green space, of not being able to climb trees or to run around without being scolded that I might break something. Even in the schoolyard, which was almost entirely covered by concrete slabs, save for a few trees, we were reprimanded for running or chasing each other due to the risk of falling and injuring ourselves. I was quite lucky because my best friend in primary school, Mandana, lived in a two-story house with terraces overlooking a beautiful garden. We’d spend many afternoons both during the school year and in the summer, playing in the yard or the attic or the storage room in the basement of this house. It was a great outlet for an apartment-dwelling kid especially since the closest public green space, the Melat Park, was a good two miles (3.5 kilometres) away and we seldom went to it. That garden was a treasure in a concrete jungle of several million residents.
Now that I have my own little girl, we too live in an apartment and although she’s too small to run around and play hide and seek or climb trees, I think about things like raising children in big cities, green space, and human-nature interaction. Arguably London with its several million residents is one of the original mega-cities. Yet amazingly it doesn’t feel like a concrete jungle. For one thing, the prevalence of low-rise buildings even in the very centre of the city allows one to always catch a glimpse of the sky. More importantly, the UK capital is exceptionally green. We live in Chiswick in the West of London and within a 20-minute walking radius, we’ve got an impressive array of parks to choose from. From the stately Chiswick House and Garden (a mere five-minute walk) and magnificent Kew to the more modest Grove Park, Turnham Green, Chiswick Common, and Acton Green Common, there is no shortage of greenery in this area. If I were more active and motivated I could easily reach Osterley or Richmond Park by public transit, bicycle, or car. In fact 47% of London is composed of green space. This is a figure one should not take for granted. I know I certainly don’t.
When I lived in Canada too, I was grateful for the conscious integration of public parks and nature trails in urban areas, which I assumed was somehow linked to the legacy of Anglo-Canadian pioneers and their city planning efforts. In Richmond Hill, where I grew up as the township began to increase in size and turn from farmlands to subdivisions in the early 1970s, an impressive 166 parks were planned for. A few of these are undeveloped natural areas similar to the valley around the Don River in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) but most are urban parks, small in size and usually containing playgrounds, ice arenas, and baseball pitches. Their purpose is to provide recreation and activity space, not so much conserving nature. Since the early nineties, Richmond Hill’s population has more than tripled from 60,000 to over 185,000 as development has increased at an explosive rate. In fact, all over the GTA and surrounding suburbs in an increasingly competitive and capitalist climate, every bit of land is being turned into private property. Among this sea of new homes, the public sphere, is sadly becoming a string of spaces of consumption. Shopping malls, plazas, plazas, and more plazas. Even public washrooms exist only in the realm of shopping malls, cafes, and restaurants and can no longer be called “public” since they serve the consumer rather than the ordinary citizen.
In 2008, when the last remaining wooded area surrounding the David Dunlap Observatory was sold by the University of Toronto to developers, Richmond Hillians took a stand. The story is chronicled in detail in the university’s student paper. In short, the observatory and 76 hectares of land around it, was endowed according to the wishes of David Dunlap by his family to the university in the 1920s. The deed indicated, however, that – should the university ever “use the land for purposes other than research” – it should revert to Dunlap’s heirs. So when the university decided to sell the land in 2008 as light pollution in Richmond Hill rendered research in the observatory impossible, it spent four years and hundreds of thousands of dollars in a war of attrition to get the three descendants of David Dunlap to capitulate to an alteration in the deed. Eventually in 2007 the university sold the land to the highest bidder, the housing developer Corsico, for 70 million dollars. The Town of Richmond Hill, together with David Dunlap Observatory Defenders (DDOD), a lobby group, and another group of advocates, the Richmond Hill Naturalists fought for complete conservation but finally settled with Corsica in 2010 to turn 40 out of the 76 hectares to parkland. The media hailed this as a victory for all parties.
When I went back to Richmond Hill this past spring, seeing the sight of the clear-cut site, an area that used to home to coyotes, foxes, and numerous birds was painful. Looking at the Richmond Hill Parks and Trails map where the rectangle representing the 76 hectares of land around David Dunlap Observatory encompasses a bigger area than Richmond Green Park and Mill Pond Park combined, the top two biggest parks in Richmond Hill, is even more painful. What a lost opportunity. And to think that half of this land, the last naturally green area with a diverse wildlife is being turned to not a museum, not a public library, not even a public secondary school, but townhomes, banal suburban cheaply made townhomes, is painful. I applaud the efforts of the Richmond Hill council, DDOD, and Richmond Hill Naturalists for saving even half of this estate. Yet I still cannot get over what a lost opportunity this was. I have nothing against home ownership. It’s the first step toward wealth creation for ordinary families on top of providing decent homes. Yet this level of suburban sprawl devoid of public green space – public anything – will turn places like Richmond Hill into an asphalt and concrete hell. We need communities. A sea of subdivisions interspersed with shopping malls and plazas with the occasional denominational or ethnocentric places of worship won’t do. In an increasingly multi-cultural secular society they have to take shape around all-inclusive public spaces like parks that are open to all citizens independent of their shopping habits, home ownership, religion or lack thereof.
As a laywoman interested in urban planning, I won’t pretend to know the master plan of the town of Richmond Hill or its by-laws. I am just hoping aloud that as city-dwellers in whichever city we dwell, we can shift focus from building homes to building communities. I hope we can do this for our next generation. Whenever I think about moving back to Toronto or surrounding suburbs, one of the main considerations aside from employment is the availability of public green space, right up there with public transit and public education. Things that make a community, not just a home.