Rob O‘Flanagan, Guelph Mercury
February 12, 2011
In the first days of the Hanlon Creek Business Park occupation of the summer of 2009, I often walked up a farm access road on the east side of the property in order to get a clandestine look at the protesters’ encampment. It was off Hazelwood Drive.
A tall stand of evergreens and other trees lined both sides of the laneway, providing good cover for anyone with a large telephoto lens who wanted to see deep into the property – to gauge what new structures and dwellings the activists had put up, what new blockades had been erected.
I drove down Hazelwood Drive this week and was temporarily disoriented. The access road and its trees were obliterated. Not a trace of it was left. I had trouble recalling what it actually looked like or identifying the place where it had stood. Other defining features were also gone. The slight rise in the land at the end of the laneway, the surrounding hedges and shrubs, the relics of a farm refuse dump – all were levelled. What trees used to stand there were reduced to gnarled stacks of branches and a couple of piles of logs. The sight of this radical alteration of land that used to hold raw, overgrown fields partitioned by remnants of agricultural inroads and hedgerows, brought to mind something Guelph Mayor Karen Farbridge had said back in 2009 in praise of the Hanlon Creek Business Park on environmental grounds. She painted quite a rosy picture, I recall.
Farbridge on more than one occasion stressed that the environmental footprint of the project would be minimal, and that it would add to, rather than subtract from the canopy of greenery that accentuated the land. It would not be an assault on the environment, but rather a kind of enhancement and protection of it.
That was the impression I got from what the mayor said, and it set up an equally rosy expectation that a kind of soft, minimally intrusive approach would be taken in the construction process. One should, of course, know better – construction is generally never soft.
Farbridge provided numbers to support her appealing vision. Admittedly, 1,700 trees were going to be cut down to make room for the industrial park’s roadways, sidewalks and buildings. But 2,500 replacement trees would be planted and 5,000 shrubs to boot. The park wasn’t about less, but about more in terms of the environment. Far from paving paradise and putting up a parking lot, it was to be a carefully selected group of tree-hugging enterprises nestled in a forestlike setting.
In some property development schematic that counts landscaping accents as trees, Farbridge’s claim may be defendable. In some carbon capture formula that calculates the amount of greenhouse gases absorbed by leafy trees – whether of the decades-old laneway variety or the paved boulevard variety – her claim may hold up under weight of evidence. But the impression she left about the nonintrusive nature of the development is pure fantasy.
The start of construction of the Hanlon Creek Business Park has been a near total hack-job of what was once there. Yes, the large cedar woods and other significant trees that shelter the Hanlon Creek tributary remain. Otherwise, a complete transformation of the land has taken place. Every time I drive by the property and see what it really means to turn farmland into industrial land, I feel that a fairy tale of sorts was told back in 2009.
Those overgrown fields weren’t too pretty to look at, but their plants and soils were undoubtedly habitats for countless forms of life. There has no doubt been significant destruction of natural habitats and ecosystems under the teeth and claws of the earthmovers.
Scanning the site in recent days, I’ve seen land levelled, topsoil scrapped off to the limestone bone, trees uprooted and natural features irreversibly obliterated. And, in view of this cold reality, it has become difficult to give the mayor’s tiptoe through the tulips vision of the industrial park the benefit of the doubt.
Cities need places for industry to happen. That is a given. Earth generally needs to be dug up in the making of those places. Trees need to be cut down, defining landmarks altered. And no matter how one sells it, the thorough destruction of what was once there is all but guaranteed. It may not have been in the best interests politically for the mayor to speak of this at the time, but to my mind her defence of the project on environment enhancement grounds was disingenuous.
Just because the Hanlon Creek Business Park is well underway, doesn’t mean one should then resign themselves to what’s done is done, and acquiesce to official opinion without whispering any further criticism, or without calling to mind the claims of the past.
Mayor Farbridge left the impression machines would somehow walk softly on the land and they most certainly have not. We should now watch very carefully – and perhaps even demand a tree count – to ensure that those 2,500 trees and 5,000 shrubs are indeed planted and are not just a part of a fairy tale.