Friday, August 02, 2013

forest? golf course? precinct?

So I took the time this week to go for a couple of walks in the the former Southwood Golf Course, which adjoins the University of Manitoba.

Though Southwood had been at that location since 1894, shareholders were facing erosion on the riverbank holes and the need to renovate/rebuild their clubhouse, built in 1957.

Shareholders elected to move the club to St. Norbert in 2011. The U of M bought the land and, thankfully, threw the doors open to the public, i.e. commuting cyclists, dog-walkers, and rampaging teenagers.

In September 2012, the U of M released a document that described its plans for what they're calling "the Southwood precinct."

Here's the opening snippet from the FAQ:

"Q. What does the University of Manitoba plan to do with the Southwood precinct?

A. Taking ownership of the Southwood precinct offers a chance for the University of Manitoba to transform the entire Fort Garry campus and how people think about it. It is a rare opportunity to do something unique and transformative; to be aggressively sustainable in our thinking as we integrate the future development of the existing campus space with Southwood’s 120 acres, to allow for the future needs of the university while developing a vibrant interface with the community, in the form of a new, sustainable, multi-use neighbourhood.  We see the potential for our campus community as a whole to become a 24/7 live/work/learn/play environment, shaped by five goals and guiding principles: connected, destination, sustainable, community, transformative. We will move away from being a commuter campus towards a vibrant campus community destination. Development will be determined by the result of an Open International Design Competition."

While I know how I feel about press releases that use language like "aggressively sustainable," I haven't quite figured out how I feel about the land and trees at Southwood.

Southwood staff have been "aggressively managing" the land for nearly a hundred years, planting and maintaining carpets of non-native grasses via pesti- and herbicides.

U of M gardeners have been doing minimal mowing around the golf cart paths, letting the fairways grow in. This has created a series of mono-culture meadows, which are lovely to look at and even sort of fun to trudge through. When I was there I even saw two pre-teen boys galloping through the meadow behind their house with butterfly nets, though I think they were mostly catching dragonflies, the small orange and the large blue ones.

The greens have become completely overgrown with invasive weed species and there are several large clumps of thistles throughout the property, which are now releasing seeds and which will likely get much larger unless they are also managed.

In addition to the grasses, Southwood's 120 acres is also home to a mix of native trees like oaks and elms and a variety of ornamental/non-native trees and shrubs. And while there are a lot of mature oaks, there are also a lot of heavily heavily pruned, dying, and dead trees, which U of M gardeners seem to be slowly removing.

All of which is to say that there were few to no mushrooms and even though we found apple trees in one spot and saskatoons in another, I had no inclination to pick any of the fruit.

All of which is to say that I probably won't walk there again. In addition to the fact that it feels like a strangely neglected park instead of a forest, I don't want to get too attached. Half to three-quarters of the trees might be gone in five years, "aggressively sustainable" development plan or no.

I'm an urban forest girl, so I was hoping that I would be able to add Southwood to the roster of forests that I visit. But the land and the trees there will need a couple of more years to return to a semi-wild state and I'm not very interested in parks, neglected or otherwise.

I'm going to try to convince someone from the U of M's Natural Resources Institute to walk with me at Southwood in the coming weeks, to see how a ecologist would view the processes at work at there.

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