The Changing Attitudes Toward Ravines

Don River

Toronto’s extensive ravine system is often considered to be our most distinctive geographic feature. While we may not think about ravines as being a part of our day-to-day lives, they’re a big part of how we get around, how we unwind and how we connect with nature.

Yet Toronto’s ravines tend to be largely unexplored green spaces. From industrial dumping grounds to an escape from the urban landscape, the term ravine has held many different associations over the years. As we start to rethink the way we use ravines, let’s look at some of the past uses and misconceptions towards these hidden natural spaces:

Ravines as “Disposable”

A recent article in the Toronto Star described a time in the 1920s when our ravine system was considered so “utterly disposable” that people would wash their cars in the Humber River. In fact, the health of Toronto’s waterways suffered for a long time because they were seen as dumping grounds for residents and industries.

Historically, ravines in Toronto were routinely filled in for development and industrial use, hindering the river’s natural ability to control flooding. With these industries now gone, the task now becomes improving the water quality of these waterways and restoring them to a more natural condition.

OId photo of people washing cars in the Humber River
When ravines were considered disposable, residents would wash their cars in the Humber River (Source: City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 1237).

Ravines as “Unsafe”

While ravines offer a sense of seclusion and quiet in the midst of the city, these same qualities have made some residents nervous about visiting their local ravines. For many who grew up near ravines, there have long been rumours of flash floods, crime, wild animals and numerous other hidden dangers that lurked in ravines.

In 1991, the Taskforce to Bring Back the Don published a report that described some of the fears and concerns residents raised during community consultations:

“The personal safety issue is an important consideration for many. Some said they would never venture into the valley alone, because they would feel unsafe and several said they wouldn’t let their children go down there because they see it as ‘dirty and dangerous.’”

Bringing Back the Don, 1991

The lack of entry points was another issue that was raised in the 1991 report. “Even for many who would be interested in going there, they had no idea how to gain access.”

Decades later, residents are echoing these same concerns. The Toronto Star published an article recently on why the ravines by E.T. Seton Park are largely underused by residents, listing safety concerns and lack of access points as contributing factors.

Although the chance of incurring an injury or encountering any dangers along the ravine paths are slim, it can be hard to shake many of these rumours. By encouraging more people to discover their local ravines, the more we can lift some of the stigmas associated with one of our city’s most valuable assets.

There are many resources and opportunities to explore these ravines either through a self-guided tour or one of the many guided tours offered in the city.

Don Valley ravine, 1944
Archive photo of the Don Valley ravine, 1944 (Photo credit: Toronto Star archives).

How Are Ravines Changing?

In September 2017, the City of Toronto completed a Toronto Ravine Strategy. Through consultation with the public, the TRCA and a wide range of stakeholders, the strategy includes improvements such as better gateways into the ravine, navigation once there and how to publicize historic places.

The strategy acts as a framework to guide policy, investment and stewardship related to ravines with an aim to balance the fine line between protection and use.

Learn more about Toronto’s Ravine Strategy. You can also discover some of the Don Valley’s many ravines by checking out the Walk the Don trail guides!