I just came in from a long walk in the University of New Brunswick Woodlot on the edge of the City of Fredericton.
It’s funny how such a simple act like walking and looking can reveal so much about society and our relationship to nature.
For those of you who might be unaware, the UNB Woodlot (now called, in part, the Creighton Conservation Forest) is located immediately south of the City of Fredericton on both sides of Regent Street towards New Maryland. Or beside Costco, if that’s your reference point.
For the past several years I have had a chance to—albeit slightly– influence the way this 3,500 acre plot of forest, wetland and stream will ultimately be used to benefit the City and the University of New Brunswick. The Creighton Conservation Forest Advisory Committee (CCFAC) of which I am a member, has done a complicated dance with those within the University who would prefer “development” over nature any day of the week.
Set up to address public opposition to the gobbling up of the woodlot by big box stores, the CCAFC, led by Dr. Rick Cunjak and populated with various UNB property and forestry experts and two community members including me, has reached a compromise between preservation and full-blown urbanization. Half the woodlot will be set aside in large contiguous chunks for conservation, protecting the Corbett Brook drainage area, while the other half will be gradually meted out for retail leases.
Back to my walk. It was essentially to scope out the location for a multi-purpose trail on the east side of Regent Street between New Maryland and Knowledge Park (at Costco) which bracket the property. As it happens there is already a well-drained woods road there that could, for all intents and purposes, become such a trail. It would require collaboration between the City and UNB, and possibly some mall merchants, but it could be done. Its existence would promote safe bicycle commuting from suburb to downtown.
After walking the future trail route, I headed back to scout the perimeter of the big box stores. Nearing the buildings, I encountered frost fencing and loads of garbage blown off the massive parking lots, typical of urban fringe zones of neglect. When I lived in Toronto, I became familiar with this type of blighted landscape when I was involved with the Black Creek Project, a conservation group formed to clean up Black Creek in Toronto’s west end.
Black Creek flows through a pioneer village and one of the densest, most socially-challenged areas in Canada, commonly known as the Jane-Finch corridor. South of that, it meanders through an area of Weston where slaughterhouses and rendering plants all seemed (at the time) to have mysterious discharges into the already-polluted Creek and its tributaries. Blobs of fat, leaking barrels of toxic material and oily sheens were common. Turning west, the Creek disappeared into storm drains, re-emerging from the underworld here and there to eventually join up with the Humber River.
I recall one workday (Black Creek Project held many tree planting events, cleanups and meetings with developers intending to pipe lengths of the stream) where volunteers scrubbed rocks in the stream bed which were covered in green algae in a futile attempt to improve water quality. So sad, I thought of the rock cleaning at the time; so hopeless a tragedy befallen an urban stream that once offered crystal clear water teeming with fish. And volunteers naive enough to think this act would help.
We planted trees along lengths of concrete channel which at other times became so bank-full during rainstorms that kids occasionally drowned, set loose by the slick concrete and lack of hand-holds in the channel. They perished, pinned underwater against culvert grates. We worked with what we had.
More optimistic members in our group suggested that we (Black Creek Project) approach the City of Toronto to rip up concrete channels where the stream flowed. Another suggested we get signs bearing names of Black Creek and its tributaries erected, so people would know a stream was there and perhaps grow to appreciate it, warts and all.
Back in Fredericton, turning away from the frost fence and garbage, I traversed the vast parking lot of the Corbett Centre, dog in tow, dodging mammoth SUVs and pickup trucks and shoppers with fully-laden carts heading towards their vehicles. How dynamic downtown Fredericton could be if only a fraction of these people so enamoured of Costco and Winners (where I have shopped many times) supported the downtown merchants, I thought.
What draws these people to these places, so morally conflicting and bereft of anything natural or appealing? Is it their need for “stuff” from China, evidence of which blows into the woodlot in the form of cardboard box fragments? Is the emptiness they are trying to fill worth the cost of destroying a wild area, home to many life forms and enjoyed by skiers, walkers and earnest forestry students?
There is indeed no free lunch. Although half of the UNB Woodlot is now to be protected in the form of the Creighton Conservation Forest, both it and the remainder will gradually be degraded through the construction of roads, storm water detention ponds and buildings which are expensive and inherently unsustainable in their design. Even in the area of the future “Conservation Forest,” the sound of car traffic is today a constant, drowning out whatever birds are there. It will worsen over time.
Will Corbett Brook become another storm sewer? Perhaps the trout living in it now won’t survive the increased sediment and heavy metals draining into the channel from parking lots. Stream temperatures will also likely rise as runoff settles into the many retention ponds, fully exposed to the blazing sun, making them even more inhospitable for fish and their insect cohorts. The cost of urbanization, I suppose.
When I left Toronto for Fredericton in 1995, city engineers were ripping up concrete channels along the Black Creek and replacing them with boulders, simulating a natural channel. Signs were being erected denoting the presence of streams all around the place. There was even talk of “daylighting” portions of Black Creek, something not even the most childishly optimistic in our group had dare contemplate.
There was hope after all.
Margo Sheppard lives in Fredericton and is a member of the NB Media Co-op.