Markham, York Region and Parks Canada join forces to shape the future of Rouge National Urban Park

·4 min read

The recent presentation of a draft memorandum of understanding (MOU) is the first step in formalizing the roles Markham and York Region will have alongside Parks Canada in the operation of Rouge National Urban Park (RNUP).

Regional Councillor Jack Heath presented the draft at Markham’s July 14 council meeting.

With 16.5 per cent of Markham existing within RNUP boundaries and 44 per cent of RNUP within either Markham or York Region, Heath explains that the MOU is essential to give Markham and York official roles in the ongoing development of the park. Instead of having a “we” and “them” relationship with Parks Canada, there is accountability on all levels.

As a national park in a city, RNUP is the first of its kind in Canada. The park spans from the Oak Ridges Moraine south to Lake Ontario with the unique feature of having Markham in its midst.

The idea for a national park in an urban setting came about when Parks Canada realized that it had to make its National Parks more accessible. Unlike Canada’s other National Parks, it is within a reasonable travelling distance for about 20 per cent of the country’s population and a free, year-round escape to the outdoors for millions. No charge for park entry adds to the accessibility of the park and is another feature that sets it apart.

Logistically, the many access points make charging for entry impossible. As Heath explains, the “urban” element of RNUP makes it a “gateway (to nature) for the largest and most culturally diverse population in Canada.”

Youth, newcomers to Canada, and low to middle-income earning Canadians are among the visitors RNUP aims to attract.

The benefits of the park extend well beyond lifestyle enhancement for residents. Environmental and economic gains are equally significant. Planting trees and protecting existing ones, along with the restoration and ongoing protection of wetlands and grasslands, can provide up to 30 per cent of global climate solutions and prevent biodiversity loss.

The attraction of tourists to the park and the continuing protection and support of valuable agricultural land within the park boundaries contribute to the region’s economy.

Heath explains that the concept of “affiliated municipal greenspaces” is a distinctive and significant advantage to the urban park concept.

Greenspaces in Markham are plentiful and include trails, parks, stormwater management ponds, and other natural areas. The opportunity to seamlessly connect these spaces to RNUP expands the park’s potential on several levels. For Parks Canada, it broadens the park beyond its official boundaries by incorporating municipal greenspaces that Markham still owns and maintains.

Markham residents, like those in Cornell and Boxgrove benefit because their neighbourhood parks and trails connect to a National Park. Furthermore, out-of-town park visitors following the trail systems to Markham and Unionville main streets to explore the many shops and restaurants generate tourism dollars.

Beyond the concept of affiliated municipal greenspaces, the MOU details several items for consideration. The transfer of remaining land parcels from Markham and York Region to Parks Canada, fundraising, municipal servicing of the park, the restoration and stewardship of Cedarena ice rink, and a proposed welcome facility at Reesor Road and Highway 7 are among them.

Omar McDadi, field unit superintendent, RNUP, and involved in drafting the MOU, offered that it is a “milestone document” that “unlocks for us so many opportunities and so much potential.”

Heath added that he expects RNUP “will have impact on a national scale.”

The impact is already underway. With growing awareness of the need for outdoor spaces that promote conservation, recreation, learning, and mental and physical wellbeing, the federal government announced the creation of the National Urban Parks Program in August 2021. The program includes a $130-million financial commitment to create a network of national urban parks throughout the country, expanding access to the nearly 72 per cent of Canadians living in urban centres.

Getting the MOU to the approval stage is the task of the newly formed Parks Canada, York, and Markham Collaboration Committee.

Graham Seaman, director of sustainability and asset management, City of Markham, offered that due to the “significant” nature of the MOU, he expects it will take six to nine months for the committee to report back to council for final approval.

Though a critical player in bringing RNUP to fruition in 2015, Heath is humble about his involvement. His motivation for making RNUP happen centres on Markham and York Region residents. When it comes to heritage, he thinks only of what is “the best thing to do for the people.”

He recognizes that development is inevitable in a community like Markham but recognizes the need to balance its rapid growth with greenspace preservation.

“We’re trying to secure more land in parkland and natural areas, and that’s why we jumped all over this,” Heath said.

RNUP is open 365 days a year and admission is free. Visit: https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/pn-np/on/rouge or the Rouge National Urban Park mobile app for information.

Jennifer McLaughlin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Markham Review

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