Toronto Parks: Leslie Street Spit
City life can be overwhelming, but thankfully Toronto has plenty of green patches where you can seek refuge from the crowded streets and blaring sirens that come with living in Canada's largest city. If you're pining for trees and a true escape in the city, Leslie Street Spit is it.
The Spit goes by a few alternate monikers, including Tommy Thompson Park (an autonomous park) and the scientific-sounding Outer Harbour East Headland. The Spit is home to cottonwood and poplar trees with around 400 species of plants. Each shore of the Spit has awe-inspiring vistas with Lake Ontario stretching far across the horizon and the high reaching city's towering skyline in the other direction.
With all the Spit has to offer it would be nice to think of this space as a thoughtful gift from the City of Toronto, but that's not the case. The Spit is a happy accident. The story begins in the late 1950s, when the City built the Spit to accommodate an expected influx of shipping with the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway, set to happen in 1959. However, the influx never came and the city's inner harbour was, and still remains, sufficient for shipping needs. Toronto was left with a five kilometer long manmade peninsula jutting out from Leslie Street.
Since then the Spit has become one of the most biodiverse parks, in spite of serving as a dumping ground since 1960. Toronto has been using the Spit as a storage facility of sorts for sand, earth, concrete and other refuse that has been stripped from the city. The Spit is as Toronto as it gets, made up of its discarded relics, but nevertheless thriving environmentally. On the shores, you can find bricks so obscured by the lake's erosion they are barely decipherable save for their rounded holes. Degraded remains from concrete sidewalks and long-gone buildings find their final resting place along the shores at The Spit.
Eventually the entire Spit will be a slick public park, but for now the southern portion remains an active dumping zone. Park visitors leave their "_____ was here" claim by erecting inukshuks from eroded brick, concrete and rebar. This manmade Frankenpark is a haunted wasteland of Toronto's past, but the area also offers wildflower meadows, cottonwood forests and coastal marches that present a softer side. Here, it's hard to tell that just 50 years ago this park was a murky pile of debris sprinkled with top soil.
While it's true the Spit was never a planned project, there was some human intervention necessary to make it what it is today. The non-partisan advocacy group "Friends of The Spit" and its 1200 members have been working since 1977 to ensure the park remains an untouched green space at no cost to park visitors. The Spit's land, including Tommy Thompson Park, is currently owned by the Toronto Conservation Authority.
As Toronto works to resurrect its waterfront, the public has had to fight vigilantly to keep developers away from this prime real estate--ironic considering developers provided the earth and rubble to create the Spit in the first place.
There have been several firm offers put forward, the strongest of which was a plan for an aquatic park including a hotel, amphitheatre, docks, yacht clubs, a waterskiing school, and others attractions that would have reshaped the Spit into another Ontario Place. Luckily, considering the City doesn't even know what to do with the Ontario Place it already has, the people's objections were eventually heard and the urban wilderness remains.
For those hoping to visit the park, you're going to have to put aside a weekend and leave the pets at home. The park is only open on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays from 9am-6pm and enforces a no-dogs policy to protect plant life in the park. It's an ideal spot to spend some time by the lake away from honking cars and Island ferry crowds, and for now at least a little less manicured than many of Toronto parks.
Size: 250 hectares
Transit accessibility: 501 Queen St. Streetcar. Get off at Berkshire St. and walk south on Leslie St. Cars are not allowed onto the Spit, but parking is available at the gate.
Trail: 5KM. A Lighthouse built in 1974 that now runs on solar power can be found at the end of the trail.