Janet McKay is the founder and executive director of LEAF (Local Enhancement and Appreciation of Forests). This not-for-profit organization was established in 1996, and through its programming and diverse partnerships, LEAF has significantly contributed to a greener and healthier Greater Toronto Area. Janet kindly sat down with LUNA to talk about her life spent advocating on behalf of the urban forest.
by Alan Li
Did you feel a connection to nature from an early age?
I spent a lot of my childhood with animals. I lived on a farm in the middle of nowhere, so while there were no local kids to play with, we had cats, a few rabbits and even a pony. It was a like a little menagerie - those were my friends and I really connected with them.
People thought I was weird, but I would say that I had a deeper empathy towards the other living beings around me. As a child, I always felt I would somehow be involved in conservation, but I didn’t know how.
There are lots of incredible people working to protect the environment: from respected scientists like Jane Goodall and David Suzuki, to unsung heroes in our communities. Who are some of your heroes and mentors?
There are so many! Definitely there’s Bill Mollison who’s one of the founders of permaculture. Permaculture is a design philosophy where we respect and learn from nature. It’s the opposite of the conventional methods in use, where - let’s say - an area is first leveled and then planted with a monoculture of trees or crops.
Specifically around urban forestry, Dr. Andy Kenney was certainly a mentor for me. What Andy did, was recognize and voice the importance of community involvement in forest management and stewardship at a time when it wasn’t accepted. Back then the standard approach was to leave it the “professionals”, but Andy knew that the community’s voice needed to come first in order to be successful.
The two things these gentlemen have in common is an ability to take complex concepts and make them understandable and relatable. The basic principles I learned from them are what I’ve stuck with and continue to use to this day! For example, in permaculture anything you do needs to have at least three purposes. So when you apply that thinking to what you’re doing, it allows you to let go of some things so you can focus on where you’ll have the greatest impact.
Can you share the “aha” moment when you realized how you could make a difference in the community through LEAF?
There was never a big lightbulb moment; it was more of an evolution, with lots of small lightbulb moments spread out over time. Back in the early 1990s, when the pre-LEAF work was happening, I connected with Dr. Andy Kenney, who was teaching urban forestry at the University of Toronto. That was when I heard the term “urban forest” for the first time. I guess you could say it was an “aha” moment; in a way, understanding how to frame the issue and the role of community empowered me. It helped me see how I could make a contribution.
Another moment came from looking around my neighbourhood, and realizing there was a lot of backyard space being underutilized, and thinking about what we could do there. One thing about permaculture is that you look at your locale and get that in order first. So seeing this untapped opportunity in my neighbourhood, and at the same time understanding there’s a role for the community, I decided to put those two things together and see where it would take me.
I definitely did not have it all figured out before starting LEAF!
More recently, you co-founded the Green Infrastructure Ontario Coalition (GIO). For people unfamiliar with the term “green infrastructure”, what does it mean and why does it matter?
When I think of green infrastructure, I think of things that are green and living. What comes to my mind is the urban forest, individual trees and shrubs, green roofs, wetlands, parkland and soil.
If we imagine a city without any living green infrastructure, we immediately see why it’s so important: carbon storage, improving air quality, storm water attenuation, habitat creation, shade and UV protection, energy conservation through shade, addressing the heat island effect. The list is long! Green infrastructure also improves our mental state, which is often taken for granted.
Our cities are dense, but there are creative ways for designing a city that allows for green infrastructure. Preserving what’s already there is always the best approach. It’s very hard to replace a large mature trees, because in new developments there’s often inadequate soil volume and quality. There are many hazards for a young tree growing up, and to think that it will survive through all of that is very challenging.
One of the reasons for starting GIO was that most of the urban infrastructure activity happens at the municipal government level. The provincial and federal governments haven’t given the support that’s needed in terms of research, resource development, and funding. It’s been left entirely up to the municipalities, so we’ve been advocating at the higher levels of government that they need to be supporting and investing in living green infrastructure since that’s where the vast majority of our population lives. All the ecological benefits of green infrastructure are very important for people too.
One of the successes we’ve had at GIO has been advocating for infrastructure spending to include green infrastructure, which provides just as many benefits as grey infrastructure (i.e. sewer systems).
The Wilket Creek ravine lies within the Don River Watershed. According to reports by the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, this watershed has only nine percent forest cover. What are some ways to increase the natural cover in an area that’s completely urbanized?
It’s challenging. There are some projects that involve depaving. While there may be potential to depave some areas, it’s not always feasible. Green living walls and green roofs are also options. Obviously with green roofs you have structural load considerations - soil has a lot of weight associated with it, and the buildings need to be able to withstand that. It’s very expensive to go back and retrofit these dense neighbourhoods, so it’s critical we stop making the same mistakes when planning developments.
Making green infrastructure the new normal, is the motto for GIO. We want living green infrastructure to be prioritized in our urban settlements. Especially in the face of climate change, our green infrastructure is the buffer between us and the elements. For example, storm water attenuation and improving air quality have become much more important to us as our cities become hotter and our storms become more violent, and yet, the urban forest is now more at risk than ever.
We can see how the ravines are being walloped by the effects of climate change and the spread of invasive species. How can citizens help these beleaguered wild spaces?
I think it’s important to voice how important the ravines are to your local decision makers. Toronto has a ravine strategy, which is fantastic, but implementing these strategies takes time and resources. Getting involved with the public consultations and letting the decision makers know how important it is to the community will help prioritize that. There are a lot of competing priorities for resources, and to effectively reach the politicians and policy makers, you need to have a community united with a common message.
Beyond LEAF’s core program of backyard tree planting, your organization has numerous campaigns and youth initiatives. Can you share a few stories of the positive impacts these programs are having across the city?
It’s really wonderful to see the range of impacts that we’re part of. I think that just speaks to the interest in the urban forest from all walks of life - trees can really unite and inspire people!
One of our newer projects is a partnership with Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC) and the City of Toronto Forestry department. We’re working to engage the tenants and staff to plant and maintain trees. This is an exciting project because TCHC has property across the city that can really help us increase our overall canopy cover. These are also communities that will benefit from additional green space.
Junior Urban Forest Rangers is another relatively new program that’s really exciting. We’re working with three city departments - Parks, Forestry, and Recreation – and this initiative involves and directly benefits all three. At Riverdale Park East, we offer a half-day workshop for City of Toronto day campers where they become forest rangers. It’s a fun hands-on workshop where the kids mulch and water the trees in the park, while at the same time learning how these individual trees are connected to the bigger urban forest.
How do trees inspire you?
I think they’re just so determined and steadfast. They find a way to survive in the face of hardships, and generously support an abundance of life while asking for so little in return.
When Janet is not busy at the helm of LEAF, she can be found tending her own backyard forest in the Junction neighbourhood where she lives. Janet also volunteers with Adopt-a-Dog/Save-a-Life, a registered Toronto based charity dedicated to saving abandoned dogs and placing them in loving homes.
To learn how you can become a steward of the urban forest, please visit the LEAF website. https://www.yourleaf.org/
The fourth annual Urban Ravine Symposium is happening on October 10th at Toronto Botanical Garden (TBG). Through tours, talks, displays and networking, this event will contribute to the growing enthusiasm for urban ravine restoration. Visit the TBG website to view the exciting line-up of presentations – a little science, a little art, and a whole lot of inspiration!
Following the symposium is the TBG Urban Tree Workshop on October 11th. There will be hands-on demonstrations and a tree walk along Wilket Creek. To register for the symposium or tree workshop (or both) events, please follow the links below: