Celebrating and Protecting Cootes Paradise

By Chris Sanislo

We have one of the most beautiful entrances to a city you will ever find. Arriving in Hamilton by taking the York Boulevard exit from the 403 reveals a welcoming vista with urban bustle to the left and tranquil nature on the right. The pinnacle of this view is the crossing of the historic McQuesten High Level Bridge.

On June 11th, spending ‘A Day On The Bridge’ will be a very unique event to celebrate this view. Heading into summer, the calendar is saturated with plenty of festivals, but adding this one to the list will certainly be worth it. The whole event takes place on the McQuesten Bridge and will welcome guests of all ages to participate in a number of fun activities and enjoy musical acts throughout the day. The evening programming brings a sure-to-be memorable dinner gala that features dishes by our area’s finest chefs – all under the twilight sky, with a view of Cootes Paradise as the picturesque backdrop.

The view of Cootes Paradise is, in a word, breathtaking. Snap a picture from the bridge and it could easily be confused for a water-side escape in cottage country. But, when you consider that this view is a mere 3 kilometers from the heart of downtown Hamilton – it becomes a true treasure, well worth protecting. And that is just what A Day On The Bridge is all about. Protecting a Hamilton treasure.

This event will raise funds to purchase land that will become part of the Cootes To Escarpment EcoPark System. But that’s just one of the objectives. According to Project Champion, Patrick Bermingham, the bigger objective here is to provide a showcase for the natural beauty within our city and region.

A Day On The Bridge will be an opportunity to fully absorb the view of Cootes Paradise and enhance the awareness of that environment. “What most people don’t know, is that Cootes Paradise is the most bio-diverse area in Canada,” explains Patrick. “There is no other pocket like what we have here.” Ensuring there is a solid understanding of this is a key part of the preservation.

“The reality is that Hamilton has been blessed with greenspace. We need to recognize it’s an important part to our health – as people and as a community.”

We’re lucky to be home to a handful of organizations whose primary function is conservation. Gazing from even a modest hilltop will likely have your field of view covering land under the protection of the Hamilton Conservation Authority, Conservation Halton, the Niagara Escarpment Commission or even Royal Botanical Gardens. A fortunate happenstance and an indication of the delicate bio-diversity of our shared home.

As we see in all corners of our city, the encroachment of development is a constant pressure on greenspace and farmland. Working to prevent unabated sprawl is certainly required. “We all know that infill and urban intensification is a necessity,” states Bermingham, “but we should also be looking at a similar strategy with greenspace.” Employing this fundamental of urban development to intensifying our natural spaces was an intriguing perspective. And after a bit of thought, it felt like an obvious, yet an understated approach. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone who didn’t value the greenspace within and surrounding our city – but, ensuring its proliferation into the long-term future seems low on the priority list.

People come to Hamilton for our proximity to natural areas. Visit any of the area waterfalls on a summer weekend and the crowds will attest; creating an issue where measures to control the number of visitors is being debated. Regardless, our natural assets are part of what Bermingham explains gives Hamilton a ‘Magnet City’ distinction – a city that attracts people with its created and inherent properties. This is important for our future. “Magnet cities attract talent, resources, entrepreneurs and dynamic people. A Day On The Bridge is an opportunity to focus on the appeal of our natural features.”

This is where land acquisition becomes a necessity of preservation. Currently, an overwhelming amount of natural areas are under the stewardship of private land owners. Even in the delicate Dundas Valley, conservation authorities only cover about 30% of the land. A rather tenuous hold that would probably make the wildlife we share this land with a bit nervous.

“Ideally, the progression of protection would take the Cootes to Escarpment EcoPark and have it become a Provincial Park”, says Bermingham. Until then, our region’s greenspace is under the watchful eye of a handful of organizations. And that’s okay, as long as we recognize that the birds and animals aren’t overly interested in our arbitrarily drawn boundaries.

Bermingham stresses that we need to be making plans for our region with an outlook that spans fifty years or more. That means engaging youth to be more aware and understanding the value greenspace brings to our city and our personal health. Enable them to embrace nature and respect it – generating an appreciation that will last a lifetime and be passed on for generations.

When asked how he felt Hamilton performs in managing its urban and natural balance, Bermingham shared an interesting story about Elizabeth Graves Simcoe, the wife of John Graves Simcoe – the first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada. When they arrived in our region in the late 1700’s, she found it so beautiful she did not want to leave. “She did a watercolour overlooking Cootes Paradise. The painting was dated June 11, 1796; exactly 221 years before A Day On The Bridge. And looking at that painting, aside from a couple apartment buildings, the view is virtually unchanged. I see that as a sign that we’re on the right track.”