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Public editor: Can you visualize 5,000 acres? Sometimes hard numbers are not enough

Environment Minister Peter Kent shows off part of what will become Rouge National Urban Park in Scarborough, Ont., on May 25, 2012.

Nathan Denette/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Here's an interesting thought from a reader. How big is 5,000 acres? Can't picture it? What about 2,000 hectares? No idea? I couldn't help you there.

So when a reader wrote in to say he was confused about the article on a massive new national park in Pickering, Ont., I could tell him he wasn't alone. He wondered how to picture the size of the 3,500 hectares that will be set aside for an airport and the 2,100 hectares that will be opened for development and the 2,000 hectares that will be transferred to the Rouge National Urban Park.

I could confuse you greatly by stating how big an acre is versus a hectare (imperial system and metric system) with sizes of 4,840 square yards for an acre or 2.471 acres for a hectare (of course, I had to look that up).

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But really what you want to know is: how big is that? I was always taught that you need to describe things in a way that people can visualize. So an acre is roughly the size of a football field. One square kilometre is 100 hectares. Or even better, here is the reader's advice: "The park area is given as '5,000 acres'; the proposed airport is shown as '8,700 acres.' Distances on our (Canadian) maps are given in km. How does one 'visualize' the dimensions of 5,000 (or 8,700) acres? How about relating these sizes to road distances? What about 20 (or 35) km2? 20 km could be thought of as 5 km by 4 km, 35 km could be thought of as 7 km by 5 km. Now, the reader can relate the map areas with road distances."

I can imagine 7 km by 5 km much more easily. It is always useful when you are writing a description of something sizable to think how you would describe it to a friend. On the small size, a millimeter is the thickness of a penny. That's easy to imagine. The size of PEI, the number of people who could fit into the Bell Centre – these are much better descriptions, more vivid and relatable than the real numbers. This doesn't mean you shouldn't put the official number of hectares in the story, but it needs to be described more fully.

If you have any thoughts on this or any other subject, please send an email to publiceditor@globeandmail.com

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About the Author
Public Editor

Sylvia Stead has been a reporter and editor at the Globe since 1975, after graduating from the University of Western Ontario in Journalism with a minor in Political Science. She won the Board of Governors Award there in 1974. As a reporter, Sylvia covered courts, education and Queen's Park. More

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