How is York investing in its Green Spaces?

(Courtesy of Nabneel Sarma)

As a city home to millions of people, Toronto and the GTA is well-known for its green spaces. The city’s green sector employs more than 60,000 people in jobs such as clean energy, green buildings, and sustainable transportation. It is estimated that the green sector in Toronto has contributed $6.55 billion in GDP, increasing by 22 per cent from 2014 to 2018. There are hundreds of companies that specialize in this sector in Toronto, and various programs for investors and job-seekers to get involved in, such as special funds, partnerships and post-secondary programs.

As man-made climate change is slowly causing the world’s environments to change, the question of whether or not Toronto should invest in more green spaces to deal with this crisis has been gaining attention. Over recent years, more economic experts in global cities are realizing that investing in protecting the environment is key to absorbing the main economic damages that climate change’s symptoms have caused. This includes investing in the protection, maintenance and construction of green spaces. 

According to Lauren Castelino, the co-executive director at Regenesis, green spaces are important for many reasons. Regenesis is a community environmental organization who has established many climate initiatives at York’s campuses, such as the YUM! Market at the Keele campus, the Glendon Community Garden, and the Seed Library at both campuses. 

“Green spaces are critical to supporting the web of life,” says Castelino. “For us humans, nature helps support mental and physical health.”

There is much proof in this statement. Vegetation in urban design can help absorb and store greenhouse gases that accelerate climate change, with one mature tree absorbing up to 150 kg of carbon dioxide every year.

Green spaces can also have various physical health benefits when mitigating climate change, including reducing damage from extreme weather and improving a city’s air quality. They can also reduce mental stress resulting from these disasters, such as common anxiety symptoms experienced as a flood. As an added benefit, green spaces like community gardens also lower the risk of food insecurity in certain communities by being a local food source. 

When asked about whether it is important to have green spaces at York, some students had their own reasons for saying yes.

“I like looking at nature,” says Angela Lee, a first-year biology student. “It’s just different than seeing pavement. Even when it’s cold outside, part of me still prefers walking outside instead of traveling around York inside the buildings because I like looking at the trees.”

“I like the temperature regulation that they provide,” says Aldrin Limos, a fourth-year electrical engineering student. “It’s nice to have some shade around because the campus is pretty big, and I don’t really want to be stuck inside. Even in lounges, I don’t really wanna be stuck inside during the warmer months. I want to be out, actually enjoying the fresh air.”

Even though climate-related anxiety has risen among young people recently, Toronto’s green space has been shrinking over a long period of time. The emerging affordability crisis and the housing crisis in recent years has not helped with this issue. As the cost of living and housing has become challenging for many to afford, especially at York, governments have decided to sell available green space around their jurisdictions off to housing and condo developers in order to construct more buildings to accommodate the growing population. This has an effect of eating away at the amount of parkland that can be useful for communities and cities to thrive in.

At times, this subject has become controversial. Around last year, the Ontario government chose to open up some parts of protected Greenbelt land to a group of wealthy housing developers who were well-connected to the now-former Housing Minister Steve Clark’s chief-of-staff. After considerable backlash from the public, a scathing report from the auditor general, and the resignations of influential politicians in the premier’s cabinet, the Ford government reversed their decision to sell the land in September 2023. 

In response to these issues, York’s Office of Sustainability explains they are adopting initiatives to deal with these situations. 

“We are currently in the process of renewing our Sustainability Strategy through institutional consultation processes,” says Nicole Arsenault, program director of sustainability at York. “Our goals include specific creating guiding principles, objectives, and strategic actions that we hope the community will endorse. This also includes some specific thinking about ways we can draw on Indigenous knowledge systems, in addition to renaturalization and biodiversity regeneration.” 

The university aims to complete this renewal by spring 2024. They plan to establish sustainability standards for biodiversity protection and land use planning, guide new university development with green building targets and create a culture of sustainability that centres on the education and preservation of environmental knowledge.

They are also continuing to work on their plans of their future vision of the Keele campus. Living Well Together: York University’s Campus Vision and Strategy — developed by York Development Corporation and York President Rhonda Lenton — focuses on reimagining the Keele campus to embody York’s principles of social and environmental responsibility. The university plans to overhaul Harry W. Arthurs Common to be more environmentally friendly, and also plans to add four new neighbourhoods, including a commercial centre and a residential district.

Potential plans for revision of Keele campus (Courtesy of York University)

The Office of Sustainability says their efforts to protect important green spaces across their campuses correlates with the City of Toronto’s strategies, especially TransformTO, the Biodiversity Strategy and the Ravine Strategy. According to Mike Layton, the chief sustainability officer at York, their goals share targets with Toronto’s strategy “to increase tree canopy, reduce the heat island effect, and protect our ravines.”

In the meantime, York has numerous green spaces for students to take advantage of, such as the Maloca Community Garden in the Keele campus, which serves as both a teaching space and as a way for students to grow their own food. 

Glendon is a better example of green spaces than Keele is, however. Located in an urban forest running along the Don River, many of its spaces are currently being used as living labs and also for experiential learning. York also hosts the Las Nubes EcoCampus in Costa Rica, which houses a biological nature reserve inside its spaces. 

When asked about whether York has enough green space, Limos says, “If they’re going to expand the campus and actually remove the green spaces, then no. But as it is now, I think so.”

“There have been some important enhancements and rehabilitation of green spaces on campus,” Castelino adds. “However, more could always be done. York does not have the same level of endowment of similar sized universities like U of T or UBC, which makes it more challenging to afford. Regenesis would love to see a public greenhouse be built over the empty pond in the Harry Arthurs Commons for year-round greenspace access.”

About the Author

By Nabneel Sarma


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