It was 20 years ago when Albany Avenue resident Amanda McConnell returned from filming in the Amazon in despair. “It was two months of thick smoke, starving families, and destroyed rainforests” said McConnell.
But rather than let her despair paralyze her, McConnell was galvanized into action. Along with neighbour Temma Gentles and partner John Blazina “we decided we would act locally and think globally. We flyered the neighbourhood about forming a local environmental group and got about 16 people to the first meeting.”
The group never looked back. For 20 years, Grassroots Albany has lead a remarkable array of local initiatives in the West Annex, enriching the urban forest and strengthening community bonds along the way.
Now in its 16th year, the sale is a circle-the-calendar social event for the entire neighbourhood. For native plant aficionados and newbies alike, it is an opportunity to buy plants and get advice from Grassroots volunteers who staff the sale. All are local gardeners with expertise in what works in the local West Annex microclimate, and from whose gardens most of the plant sales have come. Native plants, shrubs and trees have always been the emphasis of the sale: plants that have evolved here, have adapted to the local climate, soils, and rainfall, and which sustain local insects, birds, and other wildlife.
From the proceeds of the plant sale, Grassroots funds a myriad of local environmental initiatives.
Only three years after Grassroots was established, it undertook an unprecedented yard-by-yard tree inventory and study into the natural history of trees of the Albany-Howland neighbourhood. Armed with the information gathered in that study, Grassroots spearheaded countless planting campaigns over the years, from front yard tree planting in partnership with the City of Toronto Forestry Department to last fall’s free native tree giveaway, which Grassroots funded in conjunction with a grant from the Toronto Parks and Trees Foundation. Grassroots Albany planted over 40 new native trees in local backyards as a result of this initiative alone.
In 2004, Grassroots once again financed an inventory of the local urban forest. The results, reported in Return to the Forest–The Albany Neighbourhood 12 Years Later were gratifying. While trees were declining elsewhere in the city, the 2004 report showed that the community planting projects had significantly increased the number and diversity of neighbourhood trees.
Plants and trees are just one facet of Grassroots’ activities. Earlier this decade Grassroots offered tadpoles for distribution to local back-yard ponds to help re-establish the toad population once indigenous to the neighbourhood.
St. Alban’s Square is graced each summer with one of Grassroots’ most famous initiatives–the spectacular display of Explorer roses stretching the entire length of the park from Howland to Albany Avenue on the north side–known as Jacobs’ Ladder. Few of the rose walk’s many admirers realize this living tribute to neighbour and urban thinker Jane Jacobs was entirely funded and planted by Grassroots, and maintained by neighbourhood volunteers organized by Grassroots.
The rose walk is but one of the many projects Grassroots has undertaken in St. Alban’s Square, a down-on-its-luck park sliding towards dereliction when Grassroots adopted it 20 years ago. The vibrancy this verdant space enjoys today is owed entirely to Grassroots’ tireless work over the last two decades, including in the area of advocacy for the West Annex’s most important public space.
When St. Alban’s Square was threatened in 2004 by Royal St. George’s College‘s proposal to “assume maintenance” of the park and turn it into their exclusive playground for morning recess, lunches, and after school activities, then Councillor Olivia Chow turned to Grassroots to gauge the community response: a resounding thumbs down.
Again in 2008, Grassroots helped the West Annex stand up to the Annex Residents’ Association Working Group’s plan to turn St. Alban’s into the dumping ground for the Annex’s off-leash dog problem.
In 20 years, employing her great personal charm, warmth, and passion, McConnell converted an entire neighbourhood to the local and sustainable causes long before they became fashionable, and helped foster a vibrant, active, and united community. The West Annex thanks her.