One Bridge Too Many

A Park and its Defenders

CHERYL LYON – Like any city built on a river, Peterborough has added bridges to keep up with its growth. Ten to be exact. The large ones carry traffic; three smaller ones (counting the bridge on the Trent University Symons campus) are for walkers only.

The Otonabee River, running through the heart of the city, has etched itself deeply into the Peterborough landscape. In the local Anishinaabe language, the river’s name is derived from ode meaning heart and nbii meaning water.

Who, then, could possibly object to adding another bridge – especially if it only crosses a creek? Peterborough was to answer that question when it came to Jackson Creek at the heart of Jackson Park. For the friends of that creek, an insistence on how the city is also defined by its smaller waterways led to a long fight to quash the construction of a new bridge. This battle was no “walk in the park”.

A bit of history

In 1893, Charlotte Jane (Jackson) Nicholls of the prominent Nicholls family, bequeathed a piece of land to the city of Peterborough to be used specifically as a park for all citizens. Named after her family, this park is not a manicured green swath with requisite ball diamond, plastic play structure and space for dog-walking. A walker descends into Jackson. Its forested slopes fall gently down to the creek rushing along its floor. Cyclists and skiers have come to love the broad main trail that roughly follows the creek. In winter, toboggans slide down another trail. And for those who enjoy a slower pace, other narrower trails meander off into the trees or down to the water.

It was not the Otonabee River that devastated Peterborough’s downtown in the Great Flood of 2004. It was an overflowing Jackson Creek, whose historic, natural course had been altered and obstructed by urban development. As the city expanded, traffic flow had become a hot issue. At the city’s southern entrance, a short piece of roadway was built as part of a planned extension to the north. It was ominously named “The Parkway”, though there was no park in the area. In 2003, a plan to extend it further north was narrowly defeated in a city-wide referendum.

In early 2012, Rob Steinman, arriving for a walk in the Park, was shocked to see a sign saying that the trails through it were closed for construction of a sewer line in preparation for new north-end subdivisions. Steinman recalls the shock: “How could they do that! The least they could do was warn us the trails were going to close.”

In October of 2012, the city opened a public information centre on the extension of the first, short Parkway. It included a new traffic bridge over Jackson Park, meant to relieve cut-through vehicle traffic in the city’s north-end neighbourhoods. For Steinman, this proved to be “one bridge too many.” He quickly mobilized like-minded users of the Park as well as other community groups, including the Greenspace Coalition, the No Parkway Group, and Friends of Peterborough Community Trails. They became the Friends of Jackson Park (FoJP) in 2013.

After a public meeting about the extension caught the attention of other opponents of the plan, Steinman put a petition online opposing it. Over 1000 people signed it, including ex-Peterburians living as far away as California. Such was the hold that the Park still had on those who knew and remembered it.

One group appealed to the provincial government to block the part of the extension plan that included the bridge over the Park. Their efforts included a petition that garnered an unprecedented 6000 signatures. The result was a provincial government order for the City to conduct a costly Class “A” Environmental Assessment that would take about three years.

Final victory came in 2017 when a new Mayor and Council removed the Parkway extension from the City’s Official Plan. It had been, Steinman said, “the largest outpouring on a specific issue in Peterborough in living memory.”

What difference did stopping another bridge make to Peterborough?

The “battle of the bridge” served as a major turning point in Peterborough’s understanding of itself. The publicity and citizen activism taught residents about the role of Nature in community health, and the need for municipal planning and decision-making to take into account the worsening climate crisis. It also gave many residents new experience in effectively influencing a city’s decision-making.

The future of Jackson Park

I sat in on FoJP’s most recent discussion of its current and future role. Samples of the spirit and thinking recorded in the room that night [see inset box] illustrate the deep meaning that Jackson Park has for the city’s future.

They remain dedicated to keeping Jackson Park an oasis of natural beauty and ecological diversity. They continue to advocate, educate, clean up and love Jackson Park. (see photo of this year’s annual park clean-up.)

Water and green space will continue to shape the city of Peterborough. Both will be ongoing sites of struggle between livability and commerce; between human nature and Mother Nature. That “one bridge too many” over a park has come to symbolize what a united community can accomplish in the face of a planetary crisis.

WHAT JACKSON PARK MEANS TO ME
(comments from FOJP workshop participants, 2023)
“the wild within the city”
“aesthetic, beautiful, peaceful, spiritual, quiet, dark”
“a role model for Canadian inner city parks”
“future generations of all life forms”
“for the City to celebrate and care for”
“risks to the park include wildlife poaching/harvesting and
subdivision developments”

One Bridge Too Many © 2024 by Cheryl Lyon in the Greenzine is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 

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