Despite Toronto’s reputation as an urban metropolis, nature can be found here, intertwined with city life in curious ways. 

Cherry blossom trees bloom each spring at UTSG, flourishing against the brutalist backdrop of Robarts Library. Over 300 trees of approximately 50 species stand guard in Queen’s Park, seemingly stranded in a moat of traffic, overlooking frantic jaywalkers. Branching out into the surrounding suburbs and boroughs, the UTSC Campus Farm spans 10 acres of land, and UTM is known for its luscious greenspaces, wildlife, and proximity to the Credit Valley River.

According to a Greenbelt Foundation report by U of T PhD student Jacqueline Scott and Professor Tenley Conway, ‘urban forests’ such as Toronto’s have many benefits. Research shows that trees can help cities mitigate and adapt to the climate crisis by sequestering carbon, regulating temperature, soaking up rainwater to prevent flooding, and promoting biodiversity. 

Trees lend shade in the summer and shield from cold winds in the winter, saving the York Region an estimated $8 million in temperature regulation in 2008. The cooling effects of trees are particularly crucial to urban spaces, where they help combat the heat island effect created by dense clusters of buildings and roads absorbing and emitting large amounts of heat. Urban trees are not only easy on the eyes — they can also improve air quality, health, and property values.

However, the environmental, health-related, and social benefits of urban green spaces are not felt equitably. Numerous studies have shown that low-income and racialized neighbourhoods have reduced access to urban green spaces. 

Toronto is no exception to this trend. Research has revealed inequities in the distribution of green spaces in the city. Low socioeconomic areas — based on indicators of education, employment, and income — are more polluted, less walkable, and less green.


The distribution of green spaces in Toronto

A 2018 study from Ryerson University researchers found a positive correlation between the percentage of forest canopy cover and the median household income of Toronto neighbourhoods. 

The largest cluster of high-income, high-canopy-cover neighbourhoods is in central Toronto, including affluent areas such as Rosedale-Moore Park, Bridle Path-Sunnybrook-York Mills, and more, boasting an average forest canopy cover of 55.6 per cent. 

The City of Toronto’s 2016 profile of Bridle Path-Sunnybrook-York Mills reveals that a majority of its residents are affluent and do not belong to a visibly minoritized group. The median household income in the neighbourhood is $215,798 compared to Toronto’s average of $65,829, and 30.2 per cent of residents identify as a visible minority, lower than the city’s average of 51.5 per cent.

Low-income, low-canopy-cover neighbourhoods are clustered in the city’s southern-central region. For instance, Little Portugal had an average canopy cover of just 10 per cent with a standard error of 5.5 in 2009.

As Scott and Conway write in their report, “The absence of trees is another layer of inequality in lives shaped by oppression.”

As a PhD student in social justice education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, Scott focuses her research on Black Canadian involvement in environmentalism and outdoor recreation. The discrepancies in tree distribution can be seen in a walk through Scott’s own neighbourhood, Regent Park, and some upscale areas, such as Cabbagetown, Rosedale, and the Brickworks. 

“Just the huge difference in the distribution of trees… I didn’t need to look far to support my argument,” Scott said.

A walk through Lawrence Park — one of the affluent neighbourhoods identified by Ryerson University researchers in the high-income, high-canopy-cover cluster — reveals an even greater contrast. Some houses in this area line the Lawrence Park Ravine, which Scott frequents for its beautiful trees, some approaching 200 years old. 

“The people in those houses, they don’t suffer from nature deficit disorder,” Scott said. “You want to see a 200-year-old tree? Step into your backyard. You want to see the 256 [varieties] of birds in Toronto? There’s a pretty good chance that maybe 100 of them are in your backyard. You want to see deer? In your backyard.”

“An easy thing would be to say, ‘Well, those people are lucky…’ Luck’s got nothing to do with it, but race and money [have] everything to do with it.”


The root cause

How did these discrepancies in trees and green space arise in the first place? Conway and Scott identify three main groups involved in tree planting: municipal governments, non-profit organizations, and individuals. 

Tree planting by municipalities and non-profits are less likely to occur in low-income, racialized neighbourhoods. Also, individual homeowners are more likely to plant trees than renters, and these homeowners are more likely to be white. 

Historical influences are also at play. The Ryerson University researchers noted the historical affluence of areas such as Bridle Path-Sunnybrook-York Mills. In these historically wealthy neighbourhoods, the canopy cover has accumulated over decades. The favourable socioeconomic conditions in these communities have also given them protection from redevelopment. 

Other areas of Toronto, such as the downtown area, have faced development and gentrification in the form of new condos and high-rise buildings. The redevelopment process often involves cutting down or damaging existing trees.  

Researchers suggest that low-income individuals displaced by these waves of development are then forced to migrate into even lower-income neighbourhoods with lower canopy cover, furthering the gap in access to green space.

In contrast, the trees and houses in the Bridle Path remain standing, largely unscathed because of their historic status and charm, and by virtue of the neighbourhood’s historic whiteness and affluence.


The lack of diverse representation in environmentalism

Scott loves the outdoors and is an avid birdwatcher. She shares her experiences as a Black woman environmentalist on her Twitter account and blog

Scott remembers discovering her own love for the outdoors on a camping trip.

“Growing up, I had absolutely no interest in environmentalism [and] green spaces,” Scott recalled with a laugh. “The only thing I was interested in was books. You want to find me? Find a quiet spot with the books. I was the little kid who sat there and read the encyclopedia and the dictionary for fun.”

She saw a sign for a camping and canoe trip one day while walking through Harbourfront and decided to go out of “sheer boredom.” The exact details of the trip are foggy now, but Scott described the way she had felt that day with riveting clarity: “The moment I was in the forest, I felt something shifting in my soul… This spiritually felt like I’m home.”

“Since then, most weekends, I’m always outdoors because outdoors is where I feel alive.”

The day before our interview, Scott had spotted a red-tailed hawk, floating among the trees as she walked through the ravine. As I listened to her recount the moment of watching, waiting for the swoop of the hawk’s partner, I was reminded of an incident last summer in New York City’s Central Park when a white woman called the police, claiming repeatedly to be threatened by Christian Cooper, a Black man and birdwatcher, who’d requested that she keep her dog on a leash per the park’s rules. 

One Black birder in an urban city saw the majestic flight of red-tailed hawks. Another Black birder in a different urban city saw a racist system that targeted him because of the colour of his skin. 

Underlying Cooper’s experience is the assumption that Black people do not belong in environmentalism and the outdoors — an issue that surfaced repeatedly in my conversation with Scott. A Black birdwatcher is viewed as unusual at best and a threat at worst. 

“When you look at the environmental field, it’s the absence of people of colour there that’s really glaring,” Scott said. 

To Scott, the lack of Black representation in environmentalism was clear “from day one.” On that first fateful camping trip and on subsequent excursions, Scott often found that she was the only Black person in the group. 

Scroll through social media, Scott implored, and take a look at the account of an environmental organization or outdoor recreation company. How many Black faces can you spot? What kind of message does this send?

Even when people from racialized communities are involved in environmentalism, their presence may be erased, as was the case with Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate, who was cropped from a news conference photo while her four white peers were left in the frame. The photographer claimed this was done for compositional reasons, yet the apparent erasure of Blackness in environmentalism clearly struck a chord, with many tweeting their support for Nakate and outrage over the incident.

The stereotypical image of an environmentalist is perpetuated by the faces we see in programs and media: they may be kayakers, mountain climbers, or conservationists, but they are almost always white. 

Absence of green space is physically restrictive, but absence of representation is the invisible barrier that quietly lays down the rules of who belongs in environmentalism — discouraging greater interest and involvement from racialized communities. 


The myth of the “Great White North”

Despite their lack of visibility in the media, diverse voices in environmentalism are present and striving to be heard. In Toronto, their full force was felt in the streets during the 2019 climate strike, as thousands marched through the city demanding action on the climate crisis.

“[At] the protest, it looked like the Toronto subway. The people who you’d expect on the subway — every shade, every accent… We’re all there at the climate crisis protests,” Scott said. “Yet still, when it comes to the media representation, we’re not there. And it just really struck me how the leadership of those organizations are disconnected from what is happening on the ground.”

Diverse faces in environmentalism and outdoor recreation are folded away, quietly and unassumingly, behind familiar white narratives — one being Canada’s own title as the ‘Great White North.”’“The north, the winter fits into the old mythology in Canada, that this is a land of snow and ice,” Scott explained, “and white people are the ones who are best able to live in these climates.”

Indeed, the ‘Great White North’ conjures images of the wintry mountain man and the white fur trader. It’s manifested in winter sports like skiing and hockey, which are largely dominated by white athletes. In the idea of the ‘Great White North,’ Canada’s natural environment and national identity are merged and conflated with an underlying whiteness.

These narratives shape our perceptions of race and environmentalism as Scott illustrates: “Black people in the city, it’s no big deal. [But] Black people hiking in Algonquin Park… whoa.”

The concept of the ‘Great White North’ is a myth — a cropped history with racialized groups left out of frame. Scott noted the centuries of Black history in Canada, marked by enslavement and extending back to the 1600s. And long before the arrival of European settlers, the land was home to Indigenous peoples, whose displacement is the foundation of the cities and parks we now occupy. 

The green spaces we see today are amalgamations of the natural and the human-made, of development, reconstruction, and replanting, directed by and reflective of social factors over time. The histories they hold can and have been overwritten and rearranged, for time to come.


Where to go from here?

In their report, Conway and Scott call upon individuals and homeowners to help protect urban trees, plant new trees, and get involved with environmental stewardship. 

However, it’s important to acknowledge that the trees we plant are on Indigenous land. Understanding Black and Indigenous history is crucial to rectifying the environmental inequities that have been perpetuated in our cities and cultural narratives.

To encourage participation from racialized communities, environmental organizations can hire more diverse staff to target their outreach and build relationships. Increased Black representation in environmentalism and the outdoors would show that Black communities belong in that space too. 

Perhaps one benefit of the distribution of Toronto’s green spaces is that many parks and ravines can be reached by public transit. Scott named a few hidden gems found right along Toronto’s subway lines: High Park, beside the station of the same name; the Don Valley Ravine, found around Castle Frank Station; and the Humber River Valley, which is a short walk from Old Mill Station. Further out, an hour and a half transit ride from downtown Toronto can take you to Scarborough’s Rouge National Park.

“I think people don’t often know that you don’t have to drive four or five hours to go experience nature,” said Scott. “It’s right here in Toronto.” 

During the pandemic, Scott has noticed more people, especially those from racialized groups, venturing to the outdoors. 

“It’s nice to see it. In some ways that’s one gift of COVID — that because we’re so sick and tired of being indoors, we’re exploring more,” Scott said. “It’s just been really, really interesting. Whether I’m on my bike, or hiking, or whatever — it’s like, wow, I’m not the only one. It just gives it a different vibe.”

Scott hopes that the environmental sector will build on this increased interest in outdoor recreation to create more inclusive outdoor spaces beyond the pandemic. After all, outdoor spaces made open, accessible, and inviting to all have the potential to invigorate our spirits and uplift our most vulnerable communities.

“People of colour, our lives are so stressful. But nature is calming… the blues disappear for an hour or so. All the problems just disappear,” Scott reflected. “You get the sun on your face [and] you can watch the birds… Even in winter, [you can] watch the kids tobogganing down the hill… or [you can] walk on the snow and have it crunch [under] your feet.”

“Even if you only go [out] in the winter for 15 minutes, the fresh air is good for the soul.”