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High Park a gem in Toronto's ecosystem

Last Updated Feb 22, 2019 at 8:19 pm EDT

On any random summer day in High Park, birdwatchers, theatre-goers and Tour-de-France-ready cyclists might claim their territory as much as the animals that live there.

Every year, more than one million people tread through the 399-acre ecosystem west of downtown, which the city calls the “jewel” of our park system.

But if it weren’t for the foresight of English-born architect John Howard and his wife Jemima to designate the prime real estate “for the free use of the citizens of Toronto” when they turned it over to the city in 1873, the area could as well have become a fleet of condos and semi-detached homes.

Instead it’s a green space where the city comes to picnic, hike and marvel at cherry blossoms when it’s warm and play shinny and cross-country ski when it’s not.

“High Park is the lungs of our city,” Coun. Sarah Doucette told CityNews.

“It’s a place you can go and get away from people. It’s a place you can go and appreciate nature. You can go and get away from your stresses … It’s a destination for not only those who don’t have gardens, but also for people who just want to get out and be free.”

Doucette, whose ward envelopes the park, says she wasn’t surprised when the community came forward with money and support to rebuild a playground destroyed by fire and when it rallied to save the High Park Zoo, originally set aside for cuts in Mayor Rob Ford’s 2012 budget.

High Park Zoo

Though the city said it didn’t have the $114,000 needed to keep the zoo open past June, the bison, llamas and peacocks have got a reprieve.

Doucette says volunteers have raised $119,000 including matching funds from the Honey Family Foundation. And she’s confident they can collect the money needed to keep the zoo open through 2014, when she wants to put it back on the city budget.

“We should not be closing it for a mere $227,000 a year — the city has money,” she said.

“The people have spoken. They want to keep it open. It’s not just my ward. This is a city-wide park. It’s a city-wide zoo.”

She says the zoo is popular for school trips and now has baby animals — llamas, mouflon sheep, ducks, chickens, turkeys and wallaby joeys.

“You look at people’s faces when they come through that zoo,” she said. “Whether they’re touching the animals or not, the stress of their jobs and their lives just melts off.”

Jamie Bell Adventure Playground

On March 17, arson destroyed the wood castle anchoring the Jamie Bell Adventure Playground on the west side of the park.

Doucette was “shocked and angry” to learn of the fire, but immediately set her sights on rebuilding.

Canadian Tire, a local TD Canada Trust branch and residents donated enough to cover the cost, and Doucette held a meeting to get the community’s input on how the new playground should look.

She said so far, it seems people want the same design with a few tweaks so parents can better see their children. She also plans to make the structures more accessible to children with disabilities.

A community build day for the lighter work should take place by the end of next month, with the goal of having the playground ready for the summer.

Shakespeare in High Park

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the beloved summer tradition of watching Shakespeare in the park’s open-air amphitheatre. For the occasion, Canadian Stage has chosen A Midsummer Night’s Dream — the tale of four lovers who pass through a forest inhabited by mischievous fairies.

The pay-what-you-can event (formerly the Dream in High Park) takes place Tuesday to Sunday from June 26 – Sept. 2.

The Children’s Teaching Kitchen

Thirteen years coming, the new Children’s Teaching Kitchen is finally in the last stages of construction and should be open for the summer.

On the agenda: cooking with ingredients from the High Park Children’s Garden, summer camps, free harvest lunches and green-building workshops.

The kitchen was made using environmentally friendly methods and locally sourced materials, including a green roof, a rainwater harvesting system, solar water heating and plastered straw bale walls.