Toronto prides itself on the environmental image it projects to the world. It holds green fairs, produces volumes of publications on its “green initiatives”, it has a Green Master Plan, offers workshops on what the City is doing and what householders can do to reduce excess storm water flow, to increase the green canopy, to decrease pollution and to have “healthy yards”.
But, at the street level does this image hold true? Toronto has been fighting a long battle against conservation gardeners…the very people who put into practise the actions that the City preaches. The first public skirmish (and there were many before) took place when Sandy Bell challenged Toronto in court to protect a tiny patch of diversity in front of her home in 1996 that had fallen afoul of her neighbours aesthetic preferences…she won. During the case, Toronto changed its bylaw to one that was also inadequate. Two years later, Doug Counter took up the cause in Counter vs Etobicoke (since amalgamated into Toronto) and the courts recognized our right to garden on the public media adjacent to our homes.
Yet since those rulings, every year the Toronto’s Licensing and Services Inspectors continue descend on private yards to bully offenders — those who choose to garden with the planet in mind– into configuring their properties into replicas of 1950’s suburban gardens. A few stand up to the tyranny and demand their Charter-protected right to be different. Ten in the first 8 months of 2012, many more in preceding years.
In a city the size of Toronto, how do these miscreant gardens come to the attention of City forces? There are informers are among us. it could be the neighbour that you offended by asking to quiet his music after midnight. it could be that sweet little old lady down the street…the one with the carefully clipped Korean boxwood hedge and Japanese honeysuckle climbing the whitewashed trellis who cluck clucks at your carefully chosen native wonders. The garden police can be called in by anyone pausing long enough on the street to note your house number.
Perhaps its the sexual component that bothers them? Conservation gardens encourage plants to intermingle, twining around each other, standing leaf to leaf, swaying suggestively in the breeze. I don’t need to tell you about the birds and bees…they’re everywhere around these gardens. Why, I’ve even seen a hummingbird brazenly stick its beak down the throat of a cardinal flower….right in the front yard!
Once the gestapo…I mean the garden police…I mean the brave men and women of the Municipal Licensing and Standards division have you on their radar, you’ll stay there for at least two years. One leaf out of place can extend that period.
It doesn’t matter that your garden hasn’t violated any laws by having noxious weeds or tall turf grass. If a complaint has been received your will receive an advisory notice warning you to take unspecified corrective action — before any investigation has taken place. If you actually have any vegetation over 20cm (8 inches), especially if the inspector hasn’t seen that vegetation for sale at the local big box store or growing in his mom’s garden, you can be charged and made to cut down your garden. City inspectors base their assessment on their personal perceptions and misconceptions rather than relying on any actual health or safety defects.
There is one avenue to stop the City mowers…you may appeal to a sitting of the local Community Council. If they appreciate the look of your garden, you may prevail and be granted an exemption…valid only until the next complaint is received.
In 2009, seven such exemption requests were made at a single Council sitting. Disturbed by the amount of Community Council time taken up by these appeals, the Toronto/East York Community Council requested a report on the process. No report materialized. In January 2012, Councillor Nunziata requested another report…to try and recover the costs of investigations from the victims of these over zealous garden police and to solicit support in the destruction of “natural” gardens from neighbours who hadn’t been disturbed enough to lodge independent complaints.
Councillor Nunziata seems to have forgotten that the beneficiary of supplimentary garden inspections performed by a horticulturalist from the City’s Parks department, is the MLS dept — the homeowner already knows what they have in their garden and does not need to have their choices examined. In most cases, ecological gardeners are well informed and have gone to great lengths to select their purchases and to identify any species that have subsequently volunteered. Therefore, any charges levied for these inspection services should be to the MLS department that has failed for so many many years to adequately train its workforce.
Council seems to be viewing our gardens through the lens of a gated community association, where the goal is to create as much uniformity as possible…in the outside appearance of the homes and presumably in the occupants of the residences. This is very much counter to the view that the world holds of Toronto, one in which diversity is prized. Biodiversity should be no less valued than cultural diversity especially as the rest of the world increasingly embraces its natural heritage as a primary defence against the impacts of climate change.
Toronto the Green is failing to protect the most important element in Toronto’s Green Plan…the individual residents who implement environmental projects on their own properties.