Developing an Interpretive Tree Story Map: The Story of the Ryerson Tree Team

Authors: Niko Casuncad, Nadia Dowhaniuk, Shannen Doyle, Ross Edwards, Danielle Lenarcic Biss, and Gelila Mekonnen, The Ryerson “Tree Team”

“The story is the basic unit of human understanding.” James Maskalyk

We are a team of six graduate students in the Master of Planning in Urban Development program at Ryerson University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning. As part of our degree, we have the opportunity to put theory into practice through project-based experiential learning studios for community-based clients over a 12-week period. In Fall 2019, we were tasked by the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) to explore how an interpretive story map might be created to engage audiences with heritage trees and surrounding green spaces and foster environmental stewardship. This Tree Story Map would be focused on the Carrying Place Trail, an Indigenous trail and portaging route that remains one of the oldest established transportation routes in Canada, running from the mouth of the Humber River on Lake Ontario to the Holland River near Lake Simcoe.

Every good story has an origin. Our story began with the need to protect one particular Great Red Oak, an ancient tree that has been growing along the Carrying Place Trail for an estimated 350 to 400 years in Toronto’s Humbermede neighbourhood. This is one of many identified trees of this age. There is a key opportunity to map elder trees like this one, given their cultural and ecological value and role as important seed sources.

Our team proposed that the Tree Story Map be grounded in community, cultural heritage, and Indigenous worldviews. Through truth and storytelling, the map would share the lived experiences that form our collective history and inspire action-oriented stewardship by promoting interactions and emotional connections between trees and people. To inform our understanding of how a map could take shape, we conducted site visits along the Carrying Place Trail, consulted with key advisors, and reviewed relevant academic literature, planning and policy frameworks, and storytelling precedents. We then developed a set of five Strategic Directions, each embedded with a commitment to continuous monitoring and evaluation as well as a “two-eyed” approach to both Indigenous and Western understandings. Our recommendations included an integrative strategy dependent on partnerships with Indigenous and other community leaders, using a diversified funding and promotional model and offering accessible, inclusive programming. Most of all, we emphasized that the map be rooted in the foundations of immersive storytelling as taught by Indigenous Elders.

Sample prototype of an interactive app that could allow users to contribute their own ideas and stories

Our team developed possible iterations for the Tree Story Map, featuring integration with the existing mobile storytelling app Driftscape as well as a framework for an independent, interactive app that would allow users to contribute their own ideas and stories. As soon-to-be urban planners, we see ourselves as future-oriented storytellers who can use collective narratives to realign what we value, build empathy, connect people to place, and ensure equitable outcomes for all. Through emotional engagement — and perhaps co-creation — we believe a Tree Story Map can build personal relationships with trees, fuel a sense of shared stewardship, and honour the Indigenous peoples of Toronto.

The Tree Team and our client, supervisor, and advisors. From left to right (top): Sheila Boudreau, Edith George, Ross Edwards, Shannen Doyle, Danielle Lenarcic Biss, Victoria Kramkowski, Jim Adams. (bottom) Allison Hands, Nadia Dowhaniuk, Niko Casuncad, Gelila Mekonnen.