Thursday 26 September 2013

Giving Nature a Voice at the Urban Planning Table: Saskatoon's Northeast Swale

We often take nature for granted in our urban built environments. And yet, we remain a part of it. We rejoice to see geese flying overhead, and we are devastated when flash floods damage our homes and businesses. 

For many years, most Saskatoon residents were oblivious to the Northeast Swale, an ancient river channel that stretches for 26 km to the northeast of Saskatoon, starting at Peturrson’s Ravine, just north of the Regional Psychiatric Centre. Now, however, Saskatoon is expanding and planning new neighbourhoods that will encircle the Swale.

 The Swale, a corridor connecting native prairie uplands and linked wetlands, has a quiet, subtle beauty. Hundreds of ducks nest in the wetlands; herds of deer and a wide variety of plants, including a rare fern less than 5 centimetres high, share the rocky outcroppings. It provides water drainage and retention, clean air and recreation.

Just as the river, with its network of trails and paths has been a defining feature of Saskatoon during the past 100 years, the Swale has the potential to be a central feature of our community in the future, similar to Stanley Park in Vancouver or Nose Hill Park in Calgary.

The Meewasin Valley Authority has led the way in identifying the importance of the Northeast Swale and in determining how it can be protected. “We can’t preserve the Swale. It will change. It can’t help it with urban development right beside it.” says Mike Velonas, Manager of Planning and Conservation. “Our goal is to establish the limits of acceptable change.”

Responding to New Information 
In 2002, the City of Saskatoon and the Meewasin Valley Authority approved a set of Guidelines for Development prepared by Stantec. However, as time passed there was growing awareness of the importance of the Swale, and the City agreed to reopen the discussion and update its development plans for this area.

Meewasin and the City recognized that developing a resource management plan for the Northeast Swale would be far-reaching, covering everything from road construction to wildlife habitat preservation, and it was agreed to open up the planning process to outside experts, including the Northeast Swale Watchers, a group of concerned citizens intent on preserving a healthy Swale for future generations.

“We’ve had a very positive, fruitful collaboration with the City while developing the Resource Management Plan,” Mike Velonas says. “Without collaboration, this kind of thing isn’t possible. There are too many interests – from land developers, to naturalists, to stormwater management. We needed to find a way to balance all these different interests.”

A Balancing Act 

The Resource Management Plan provides background information on the geology and ecology of the Swale, including detailed information compiled during several bioblitzes. Here are just a few of the key items from the resource management guidelines.

Roads and Bridges
Establishing a network of roads to connect new neighbourhoods with the rest of the city could fragment the Swale and disrupt the natural movement of wildlife in the area. Of particular concern are the roads leading to and from the proposed North Bridge, and the route has been adjusted so as to bypass the most sensitive parts of the Swale.

The planners did not believe there was a large enough mammal population to justify wildlife crossings. Instead, they hope to avoid collisions by maintaining an urban feel to the roadway so that traffic will stay at 50 km/hour. Curbs and gutters and same-width lanes will be used, and there will be no median. This should be effective with traffic approaching from developed neighbourhoods to the south, but it will be harder to stop drivers coming off the six-lane bridge from speeding up in what appears to be an undeveloped area.

No vegetation will be planted along the roadway that might hide or camouflage animals, and the planners may incorporate below-grade amphibian crossings.

The Province has expressed an interest in constructing a perimeter highway and bridge. Current plans for the highway show it crossing a large body of water within the Swale and the two proposed bridges would split the swale twice in a very short distance. The Province says that it cannot alter its plans as they have already been posted and approved by affected landowners. Hopefully, they can be persuaded to reopen the discussion as current plans pose considerable risks to the ecosystem:

“The highway will increase fragmentation within the swale and isolate the Northeast swale from the greater swale. The increased noise and light associated with the highway may disrupt mating of birds and amphibians, as well as their natural cycles. Unless wildlife crossings are constructed, wildlife may not be able to cross the road safely. There are further potential risks such as changes to the quality and quantity of surface and groundwater, direct impact from construction, and the likelihood of invasive species encroachment.” (p. 46, Resource Management Plan)

Neighbourhood Buffers
The Management Plan calls for the development of greenways to provide a transition zone between the Swale and the backyards facing the Swale. The greenways would provide a buffer from grass and yard plants that can be invasive and would filter out the fertilizer from runoff water.

There is also an opportunity for commuter cycle trails along the greenways.

Access to the Swale
The Management Plan recommends the development of a Recreation, Education and Interpretation Plan for the Northeast Swale that will encourage naturalists to visit and provide educational opportunities for young people while discouraging overly intensive use (e.g. mountain biking, unplanned trails, off-leash dog parks) that could erode the soil, introduce invasive species, destroy native plants, and disturb wildlife.

Northeast Swale Watchers 
In 2011, after a public showing of a film about the Swale, Louise Jones invited other concerned citizens to establish an advocacy group that would speak out to conserve and protect the Swale.

The Northeast Swale Watchers was formed and has become a voice for nature, encouraging the City to be proactive in recognizing the Swale as the “Green Heart of Saskatoon’s northeast” and advocating for protection of the Swale as new neighbourhoods are developed.

Members of the Swale Watchers provided technical expertise on wetlands, wildlife, and vegetation in the development of the Resource Management Plan.

A group of 18 to 20 people continue to meet on a monthly basis. Speakers at the monthly meetings update the group on specific topics, such as stormwater management and the Province’s plans for the perimeter highway, ensuring that the group’s members are informed and knowledgeable advocates.

The Big Picture
The Swale Watchers emphasize the importance of protecting the greater swale, which stretches for 26 kilometers northeast of Saskatoon and recommend the establishment of a regional planning model in order to address development concerns outside Saskatoon in Corman Park and Aberdeen.

 “We would like to find ways of obtaining legal protection in perpetuity for the swale,” Louise Jones says. “Land prices are so high. It’s hard to get people to put conservation easements or restrictions on their land.”

The group has hosted a bus tour of the entire swale for City of Saskatoon councillors and administrators as well as two public tours in collaboration with the Saskatoon Nature Society. Louise suggests that other interested groups provide a similar bus tour for the general public, perhaps during the Nature City Festival.

Giving Nature a Voice
The Swale Watchers welcome new members. Contact Louise Jones for further information and check out the group’s Wikispace.

Note: The Resource Management Plan and the film about the Swale will be available shortly on Meewasin’s website.

Photo Credits: DAFT (aerial view), Meewasin, Swale Watchers

See Also:
The Northeast Swale: Ancient River Valley, Urban Nature Reserve
Meewasin Valley Authority
Nature in our Backyard: Saskatoon's Naturalized Parks