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University group looking to strike a 'symbiotic' relationship with Penetang

'What we're trying to achieve is a new educational strategy where people can learn to solve problems in the climate emergency by collaborating with each other,' says professor at York's Faculty of Environmental Studies

A group of York University ecologists is eyeing Penetang's eco gardens to further education around climate change solutions.

José Etcheverry, professor at York University's Environmental Studies faculty, presented the idea to council committee at its recent meeting.

"We decided collectively to try to impress on you the benefits you will accrue on a community level," he said. "What we're trying to achieve is a new educational strategy where people can learn to solve problems in the climate emergency by collaborating with each other."

Etcheverry, who co-chairs the Sustainable Energy Initiative and serves as director of the International Renewable Energy Academy, had made inroads in the area through a connection with the Economic Development Corporation of North Simcoe.

Through that connection, he said, the existing eco gardens came to his team's attention.

Etcheverry shared slides that laid out the original plans for the piece of land, which has two plots occupied by local residents that plant vegetable gardens on the land.

"I talked to one of the local gardeners to understand the history of the garden and what it means to her and the community," he said, talking about a recent COVID-safe trip he took to the location to take some fresh photos.

His team is proposing a Climate Change Solutions Park or a CSP.

The proposal, as outlined in a staff report discussed during the meeting, says "the CSP will have art, inspirational displays and new learning-by-doing training opportunities carefully curated to showcase how to solve the climate emergency. The park would provide a physical and online space to develop research networks focused on key climate solutions such as renewable energy, electric mobility, precision agriculture and leadership training."

In addition, the report states, the CSP will provide a place for all to see, connect and learn about how the solutions to the climate crisis can be developed and implemented at the local level to benefit the community.

As with any proposed project, the question of finances loomed large on the minds of council members.

"We're always concerned about the financial aspect of what would be expected from our end of things," said Deputy Mayor Anita Dubeau. "I do support this initiative. We have an ideal piece of property and this would be a fabulous opportunity for Penetanguishene and North Simcoe."

Etcheverry said he and his team are open to discussions with town staff to ensure this can be a 'symbiotic relationship.'

"We come together and everybody benefits," he said. "This is diamond that needs to be polished. We are willing to put our money where our words are."

Where Etcheverry did not outline a financial commitment for the project, he did mention a financial incentive for area students and residents.

"We have received funding from a federal funding agency to try to do work in creative learning," he said. "We would be willing to give up to 10 to 15 scholarships to local people that may want to work with us on this."

As for liability, Etcheverry said, this is not their first rodeo.

"We've been in a good relationship with the City of Toronto and the City of Markham," he said. "It all starts somewhere, so I think this is the first step. In terms of liability, we don't want to burden you. We want to identify grants that would benefit here. We could apply together for grants that would benefit the local community."

Coun. Debbie Levy was excited.

"We're always thinking dollars and budgets, but sometimes you have to take a leap of faith," she said. "We have a lot of exciting things going on, we have a lot of development going on. And any improvement to that area and the people it will bring in, adds excitement to the town."

The motion was unanimously passed with council committee authorizing staff to proceed with an agreement with York University to utilize the designated portion of Ecology Garden for the purposes of developing a CSP. A bylaw to that effect will be brought forward for approval at a future council meeting.