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This school uncovered a buried stream and transformed its schoolyard

In this week's issue of our environment newsletter, we learn what happened after a Toronto school 'daylighted' a buried creek through its schoolyard, take a look at a highrise in Halifax that set a new green energy record and visit a grocery store in Brandon, Man., that saves food and customers' money.

Also: A record-breaking solar highrise in Halifax

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This week:

  • A Toronto school uncovered a buried stream and transformed its schoolyard
  • A record-breaking solar highrise in Halifax
  • Manitoba Food Rescue Grocery grows to save more food from the trash

This school uncovered a buried stream and transformed its schoolyard

Two girls in white blazers peer into a brown creek among trees. Children and buildings are in the background. Blue flowers are in the foreground.

Buried under cities across Canada, in culverts and tunnels, are networks of rivers and streams that once nourished the surrounding landscapes. Now, there are efforts to uncover or "daylight" some of them, restoring habitat for plants and animals, while helping prevent urban flooding.

One challenge is that many of these waterways pass through a variety of urban landscapes, both publicly and privately owned, from parks to residential and commercial developments to school yards.

But a Toronto school shows that it's possible for at least some of those to coexist with streams and enjoy the benefits of resurfacing lost waterways.

A daylighted section of Burke Brook, part of Toronto's Don River watershed, meanders through the schoolyard and under bridges between the Junior and Senior schools at Havergal College, a girls' private elementary and secondary school in a mid-town neighbourhood.

For decades, a section of Burke Brook lay buried in a culvert at the bottom of the ravine that runs through the school yard.

When the school decided to build a natural playground and outdoor learning space in 2013, it hired landscape architect Mike Salisbury to design and carry out the project. He soon realized that daylighting Burke Brook wasn't just possible and beneficial — it was necessary in order to do the grading, terracing and slope-side planting to build the playground and a mini-amphitheatre, while protecting the ravine and flood plain and allowing for more habitat restoration.

"That project was able to happen because of the work we did in restoring the stream and putting in a bridge," he said, adding that he believes it created more learning opportunities for the students. "They could go in and safely play with the habitat that was created at the bottom."

Girls walk on a path through the woods, accompanied by a woman with the word "Coach" on her t-shirt.

Daylighting involved temporarily damming a section of the brook and pumping the water around it so the culvert could be removed.

It's part of a much bigger ravine restoration project, as well as the learning program and opportunities at the school, said Heather Schibli, the landscape architect who has been working on both those aspects for the past four years.

She was originally hired to help re-naturalize the schoolyard but "there was so much synergy between what the teachers were covering in their curriculum and then when we were doing … the school was happy to kind of combine efforts and have the students engaged in doing the restoration planting within the ravine."

Today, she's also involved in hikes through the woods with the students, showing them bones and feathers from local wildlife and some of the native plant species thriving there, such as choke cherry, alternate leaf dogwood, sugar maple and trilliums.

"They just get super excited and they start squealing when they see worms and other critters that are in there," Schibli said. "It's not hard to get them engaged."

Two girls in white blazers stand on a wooden bridge over a creek.

On a spring day earlier this week, two Grade 12 students, Catharine and Mackenzie, gave me a tour of a path along the brook, over bridges and through woods dotted with emerging white and blue wildflowers, ferns and trilliums, pointing out where they had planted trees to control erosion. "It was one of my favourite activities from last year," Catharine said. Mackenzie agreed. Dozens of other students wound past us, giggling and chatting as they gathered sticks and stones to make natural art for Arts Week and Earth Week.

The ravine restoration project actually began three decades ago with a tragic accident.

A student at the school, Lisa Hardie, died in a flash flood while on a field trip in Costa Rica. Hardie loved the outdoors and was part of the school's newly formed environment club. Her family decided to honour her memory by planting trees and creating outdoor learning areas at the school.

A decade later, the City of Toronto wanted volunteers to help restore and maintain the city's ravines. The school's board of governors stepped up, committing to the Burke Brook Stewardship Project, which aimed to improve the amount and quality of water in the brook, to let surrounding landscapes absorb and filter the water, to replant native species, and to protect and regenerate aquatic life in the brook.

Students and former students planted hundreds of trees from more than 130 species and removed many invasive plants, such as Norway maple and garlic mustard, that had taken over.

Years later, the work continues. Schibli and the students have planted sedges, round-leaved dogwood, wood ferns and Virginia bluebells in the flood plain along the brook's banks to stabilize it and absorb water that overflows during heavy rains. They've placed logs and branches in the stream to moderate the water's flow and allow sediment in the water to filter it as they would in any natural waterway, Schibli said, "so that ultimately the water is leaving Havergal cleaner than when it entered."

Emily Chung

Editor's note: To learn more about daylighting rivers hidden under our cities, including maps and photos of lost waterways across Canada, check out our new interactive feature.

Old issues of What on Earth? are here. The CBC News climate page is here.

Check out our podcast and radio show. This week: Can genetic editing of crops like canola help deal with the drought that Canadian farmers are increasingly facing? What On Earth drops new podcast episodes every Wednesday and Saturday. You can find them on your favourite podcast app, or on demand at CBC Listen. The radio show airs Sundays at 11 a.m. ET, 11:30 a.m. in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Is this year's spring strange where you are? Check how it compares to past years with CBC's Climate Dashboard.

Reader feedback

Many of you wrote to tell us about our lapse into Latin in the story about the New Brunswick paying farmers for conservationexcusare nos. We've figured out what caused the problem and hope to stick to English in today's issue.

We've asked for your tips to live more sustainably and save money at the same time. Here are some from Ivan Zubot of Lumsden, Sask.

"1. Hang your clothes outside to dry, both summer and winter, even in northern climates.

2. Use the power of the sun, through energy efficient glass, to heat your house during the winter months. Make sure you have a south overhang to shade the glass in the summer months. Double savings: saves winter heating and summer cooling costs.

3. Insulate your home as much as financially possible! Don't forget about your basement floor. This can be a significant heat loss in Northern climates.

4. Seal your home from air leaks. Either from the inside or outside.

5. Replace all lighting with LED.

6. Use your oven as little as possible during the hot months.

7. Plant deciduous shade trees near your home for summer cooling and winter sun.

8. Collect rainwater off of your roof to water trees, lawns or garden.

9. Conserve water, especially hot water, and minimize your shower time.

10. Plant as much greenery in your space as you can to help cool the planet.

11. If you must have a hot tub, convert the heater to a heat pump to achieve a major power savings.

12. If you have an attached garage park your vehicle outside to cool down (in the summer) before driving in. This prevents your garage from heating up and transferring heat to your living space."

Please keep those money-saving, climate-saving tips coming.

For a future issue, we're interested in your tips to live more sustainably and save money at the same time. Do you have some to share?

Write us at whatonearth@cbc.ca.

Have a compelling personal story about climate change you want to share with CBC News? Pitch a First Person column here.

The Big Picture: A tower of solar panels

A tall tower with a big grey panel over the front side and a sign in front that says "Loyola Residence."

Loyola Residence Tower at Saint Mary's University in Halifax earned a unique title earlier this year, upon completion of year-long renovations. It is now the tallest solar-integrated building in North America. That doesn't just mean it has a lot of solar panels; in fact, the south-facing wall is the solar panel.

It's all thanks to building-integrated photovoltaics (BIPVs), which is the solar energy tech built into the tower's new wall. With BIPVs, any surface that the sun touches can generate electricity with BIPVs, from windows to guard rails.

Construction on this $8.5 million project began in February 2023, and the wall began to produce power in January 2024. A year-long wait isn't so bad, since the wall is generating enough power for the entire building, according to Margaret Murphy, the university's vice president of external affairs. She said it even has leftover electricity to redirect it to adjoining buildings.

The senior director of facilities management at Saint Mary's, Dennis Gillis, told CTV he hopes Loyola tower doesn't hold its new record very long. He wants to inspire others to integrate solar technology on their buildings.

.— Gabrielle Huston

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

Food Rescue Grocery grows, to save more food and more money for customers

A person holds an armful of groceries.

Every pallet of bread, potatoes or beef that arrives at the Food Rescue Grocery in Brandon, Man., keeps good food from going to waste.

Even better, the operation has been so successful it has been moved to a bigger location.

Food Rescue Grocery is a social enterprise that accepts excess food from retail and warehouse distributors — items that could not be sold in grocery stores, are considered excess or are stuck in the transportation chain. The "rescued" food is then sold to community members at a discount.

Since opening in May 2022, the store has prevented more than 335,000 kilograms of food from ending up in landfills, according to operations manager Ross Robinson, who is also the executive director of the John Howard Society, the organization that oversees the store.

During the grand reopening at Brandon's Town Centre mall last week, the store saw more than 200 transactions, Robinson says, suggesting increased grocery prices are hitting many consumers hard.

"The impact this has for people on fixed incomes — the numbers of seniors that are availing themselves of what we offer here … really has been a learning experience," Robinson said.

Elizabeth Morrow, the store's retail lead, says the grand reopening saw a lineup that extended from the front door into the parking lot.

"It's not a secret that food is drastically getting more and more expensive, so the cost of it alone is a problem for everyone," Morrow said. "Just being able to stretch their budgets and things like that is a huge bonus."

One of the store's major goals is promoting the idea of ending food waste, Morrow says. Whether foodstuff is coming to Food Rescue Grocery or going to another charity or soup kitchen, people need to look for ways to prevent good food from going to waste.

The food rescue charity organization Second Harvest estimates about 60 per cent of food produced is lost and wasted annually. About 32 per cent, or 11.2 million tonnes, of that food is edible and could be redirected, the organization says.

Bev Merlin says she visits the Food Rescue Grocery because she loves a good deal and helping prevent food waste at the same time.

"I've known about food waste forever," Merlin said. "I've always taught my children when they were younger about it."

When the Food Rescue Grocery opened, Morrow says, they never envisioned saving so much food. That's led to the push to find a bigger location.

Morrow says what's happening at the store is part of changing the conversation about consumption and waste.

"I think people are way more mindful when they come here, because a lot of the times we get really random stuff," Morrow said. "People have to use their imaginations on how they're going to utilize that … so people are being a lot more mindful of what they're consuming."

One of the big additions to the new store is the Refillery — a partnership with Brandon's ReNu Spa that gives clients the opportunity to buy soap, shampoo and other hygiene products when they bring their own containers, Morrow says.

Each community connection made through the store is helping change the conversation about food recovery, said Robinson — especially because the store spans multiple demographics.

"What we're seeing is a low, slow burn … to get the awareness to the people, the decision-makers."

— Chelsea Kemp

Stay in touch!

Thanks for reading. Are there issues you'd like us to cover? Questions you want answered? Do you just want to share a kind word? We'd love to hear from you. Email us at whatonearth@cbc.ca.

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Editors: Emily Chung and Hannah Hoag | Logo design: Sködt McNalty

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