Saturday, June 11, 2011

Rethinking Montreal's tragic green space shortfall

   The rule-of-thumb for cities is that you want to shoot for 2 hectares of green space per 1,000 inhabitants.
   Some Canadian cities like Ottawa have a sparkling 8 hectares per 1,000 residents. Toronto has 3.24, London England 2.7 while Montreal has a mere 1.2.
   Thirty years ago* Montreal had 4,066 hectares of green space, which made for 1.8 hectares of green space per 1,000 people and the aim was to bump that up to to standard by adding 2,226 hectares but rather than increase, that number has declined by one third.
   Some parts of town have more green space than others. Having ample green space in the West Island doesn't mean much if you live in Anjou. Montreal has opted to centralize its green space in places like Agrignon Park and Mount Royal. So those huge expanses skewer the numbers because if you don't live within easy access of those places, you're not likely to enjoy them and your green space ratio is likely far more grim.
   Take my neighbourhood, known as the St. Raymond's parish of NDG. Bureaucrats like to pretend that this is part of the larger Cote-des-Neiges-Notre-Dame-de-Grace, which encompasses a huge span of territory.
   But in fact St. Raymond's parish is a sealed unit, bounded by a cliff, a railroad track, the Decarie expressway and Cavendish Boulevard. There are few ways in and out of this area, which measures about 40 hectares in size. The population of the area is about 6,000-8,000. So the math suggests we should have about 15 hectares of green space. But the area has about 1.5 hectares concentrated overwhelmingly in Oxford Park, about 10% of which was recently paved over inexplicably by Projet Montreal city councillor and purported friend of green spaces, Peter McQueen.
   So my neighbourhood has only one-tenth of the green space which it should have just to reach the norms but rather than add to it, politicians like McQueen and many others are decreasing it.
   In this case the green space was lost because the bureaucrats and politicians thought they should turn it into sports facilities, including a soccer field, a sport which has gobbled up a lot of green space from the public in recent years, most famously on Fletchers Field some time ago, although little seems to have been learned from that.
   (The proliferation of these athletic facilities at the expense of green space has been justified by the laughable "midnight basketball" idea that it's impossible to rob banks and sell crack while you're playing basketball. But in fact if we want to advance the underclass, there are much better ways, for example, we could simply use that sports budget to pay them to join book clubs, rather than heap money on the creation of facilities that do nothing to advance them professionally or intellectually.)
   Another paradox is that wealthy neighbourhoods have more green space than poor neighbourhoods, and yet those wealthy people already have a much greater access to backyards and country houses and other recreational advantages, so the distribution of parklands is socially unjust, weighted against the poor, of course.
   A few propositions concerning green space policy: don't merely add to it, add to accessible green spaces that people can actually walk to easily. Adjust zoning to allow for much taller buildings, which will then shrink the urban land density footprint and allow more verdant space around buildings. And reduce the number of soccer fields and other athletic facilities which have been gobbling up green space.

*City short of local parks, study finds: by Ingrid Peritz. The Gazette [Montreal, Que] 24 Apr 1985: 3.


Kirk Bennett said...

Politicians are selling our social assets to greedy and inscupulous developpers at an unprecedented rate. Yes, the poor are paying a premium for this, and we ought be more intelligent about who we are voting for.

Time to expose the corrupt and their rotten deeds.

Kirk Bennett

Broggles said...

It's teh damned housing market. If there were more inbuilding with smaller units that were affordable to the less-well-to-dos, we'd save more greenspace. It's the classic schema - expand as far as possible, then come back and build in wherever you have clout. And build bigger and bigger. Don't build until the money is there. That all conspires against greenspace.

Anonymous said...

I found it funny when I first visited Montreal that there were "parks" that were actually vast empty spaces covered with gravel. To me, this might be considered a "parking lot," but certainly never a PARK. Funny that some prior mayor (I believe I was told Houde was responsible?) had considered these parks, or at least hoodwinked the community to accept them as such.

gds said...

These statistics are somewhat misleading as they only factor is green space that is privately managed like a golf course or municipally managed. Using those same calculations, the island of Montreal has 5% green space. Not included are the 4 acres of the Ste-Anne de Bellevue and the 14.5 km of green space of the Lachine canal that are federally managed. Nor are the 8 sqkm of les iles de Boucherville park that is run by SEPAQ.

Michael Fish said...

Excellent Post, Whatever happened to the Group, Green Spaces - Espaces Verts, of the Seventies ? It was very effective then at fighting for proper Green Spaces. For a few years, the issue was almost number one on the City's agenda.

Anonymous said...

The problem is overpopulation. Stop breeding, stop distributing benefits.

Kristian said...

Thanks Mike, I called the Green Coalition (or the group with a name along those lines) and didn't really click with them philosophically. For example I mentioned that it would be nice to see those places designed with the green strips next to the sidewalk to have those turned back to grass but they said they didn't worry about such stuff. They want some kinda remote woods protected but I am more interested in stuff that's right in our faces.

Stephanie said...

Talk to the folks at the Conseil regional d'environnement (CRE). At one of their conferences several years back there was a study presented about how much green space Montreal is losing and the urban heat island effect that is created/exacerbated when you build on/pave green space.

BdgBill said...

Completely agree with you on the loss of green space in the city. I live across the street from Percy Walters park and it has been under constant threat since I lived here. It's only through the work of an organization of dog owners that the park is still there at all. Hardly a week goes by when there isn't a story in the paper about some developer floating a plan to take another chip out of Mount Royal.

So, we are on the same page with the green space issue but... Paying people to join book clubs so they don't become criminals? Seriously?

Anonymous said...

I think your argument is one of the reasons why it is important to protect the green space which is currently available at Meadowbrooke. We don't need more expensive high-end condos at the expense of valuable lacing green space.
FYI...Fletchers Field....if you go back historically, actually has less space (football/soccer field, baseball diamonds) now devoted to team sports that in did in the 50s, 60s and 70s.

Jimmy Z.

Kristian said...

Once again, that whole Meadowbrooke thing is very valiant but the fact that there are already groups fighting for that, combined with the fact that it's quite far away, combine to make me less interested in that issue as compared to green spaces within walking distance of people's homes.

I can't comment on Fletcher's Field in the 1950s but the population density was far lower then and the amount of green spaces might have been much higher in other places. Plus I doubt that these facilities were fenced off as they are now ( I noticed they even have a fenced off soccer field in Westmount park now, it's very unpleasant to see this).

I have no major objection to a grass football or baseball field that is occasionally used for pick up games, or the occasion league game. Those fields, when used maybe 5 or 10 percent of the time for organized sports can double as green spaces, that seems reasonable within a larger park setting. In a smaller park I would prefer to see green spaces prioritized over sports complexes through landscaping, build little hills with water coming down, that sort of thing. I think people would have great moments of their lives near such natural urban paradises.

It's the sausage factory of organized sports associations that have pussy whipped the various local councillors like Peter McQueen to get them to submit and hand over their local parks in their entirety and fence off these community resources for exclusive use by these organizations, they fence them off and exclude the locals. Any councillor who goes along for such a bad idea has terrible judgment and very poor resolve and will not last long in city politics.

Anonymous said...

One of the reasons you have a shortage of greenspace in this area is because the housing density in the area is still very low. With 2 and 3 story apartment buildings, low rise single family homes, and duplexes you just don't get the type of density that makes space available.

Worse yet, city bylaws do not allow for that density to change quickly. Even if they take down an old building and replace it with new, they cannot be more than 1 story bigger than the neighbors. There is little to encourage this type of renewal and increase in density.

It should also be pointed out that in that area you define, many of the houses have back yards and green space of their own.

It is a bit misleading however to arbitrarily limit an area based on what you see as the boundries. As an example, while it may not be green space that you can walk in or play in, the area of the "cliffs" are filled with green plants, trees, and the like, and that stretches just outside of the boundry you chose. You have also chosen to include a pretty significant commercial area (along St Jacques towards Cavendish) which will never have green space. You also ignore the green space 1 block away at NDG park, as well as the significant green spaces of the Concordia campus only a few streets further west. I think that you cut the area down narrowly to try to make a point, but it is somewhat misleading.

Myself, I prefer the idea of significant larger parks, destination areas, especially when they are connected to public transit. It allows more people to enjoy truly exceptional outdoor spaces, rather than walking around the same 50x50 postage stamp "park".

Kristian said...

Oh, thanks for those points but overall I don't share your views.

Having to drive to get to a park is not my vision of a proper way to set up green space. You can try to get families taking the bus to some far off park but that sort of stuff doesn't happen much in practice.

A neighbourhood park is the scene of many a spontaneous rite of passage, that's where you hold hands with your first sweetheart, toss a ball with your first child, that sort of stuff. It needs to be local, something you can spontaneously just do without planning a bus schedule around.

And I didn't mention NDG Park in my mention of St. Raymonds because it isn't in St. Raymonds. It might look close on a map but it's actually quite difficult to get to from most of St Raymonds as you either have to take the urine-soaked tunnel or the concrete underpass nightmares of Cavendish or Girouard, it's quite a haul for most from here to that on foot.

And the idea of the cliff as a green space is something I could never understand. It's fenced off, unsafe in many ways: isolated, very steep (a kid died there about 40 years ago) and not even visible. It might purify the air and I am all for that but it's not a usable green space where people have access to or will ever be able to enjoy.

I agree with you thought that some slightly taller buildings could be built but in doing that deal they would also have to commit to buying some house or something and knocking it down to create green space.

There's a book called The Developers by James Lorimer put out in 1971 that argues that Montreal is a better city than Toronto because a far lower percentage of inhabitants are forced to live in high rises. But now we see the upshot of that is that they end up having considerably more green space. The urban sprawl issue is out of control in Montreal as well so this could be a time to allow some taller structures, but I'll reiterate, you've got to make sure there are green spaces created every time you do that.

UrbanLegend said...

The notion of creating a better neighbourhood with by adding ever more density by raising existing apartment building height restrictions and adding more high-rises to the mix has already proven to be a disastrous failure in major U.S. cities such as Chicago, for example (Google Cabrini-Green and Pruitt-Igoe for a wake-up call). Too many residents, fewer parking spaces, more traffic, more crime, and the downward spiral begins.

Who remembers the small golf courses on the island of Montreal which should have become parks and playgrounds instead of new housing like the ones in Hampstead and TMR. Unfortunately, back then there was little if any public protest.

In 1956 Montreal did get off to a good start when Mayor Drapeau made park improvement a priority with the addition of new playground facilities including the existing "park shacks" where for the first time neighbourhood kids had access to toilets, sinks, changing rooms for wading and swimming pools and hockey rinks, balls and mallets for the croquet courts, shuffleboard equipment, etc. Indeed, up until sometime in the 1970s each park even had a paid male or female monitor with an office and telephone in the building. Presumably underused, those croquet and shuffleboard facilities were ripped out beginning in 1995.

The monitors are long gone, too, of course, so that nowadays these "park shacks" largely remain locked most of the year with no staff in sight. One cannot even use the toilets unless it's during late June through August when some municipal crews decide to show up--and that's if you're lucky and depending on which neighbourhood you live in.

Whether it's because the city's blue collar employee's union are a bunch of uncaring slackers or that later administrations had blamed apathy or vandalism for this restriction of access is unclear, but our parks are certainly not what they used to be--although lately under Mayor Tremblay there have been some major improvements such as basketball courts, new and imaginative kiddy-apparatus, and wading-pool upgrades, The new Benny Park centre, new trees, etc.

But why is it that some parks receive preferential treatment over others? Whereas Kent Park seems to get regular makeovers, others are neglected. Asphalt paths are ripped out and replaced with gravel. Some improvement! That gravel soon scatters, the ground beneath turns to water-filled mud potholes, many of the older, worn-out or broken benches are never replaced, and what soccer nets do exist are either left bolted to the fence for way too long into the milder months or allowed to be dragged around indiscriminately by anyone who cares to use them--if ever. Furthermore, I always saw more kids playing baseball in the parks than the few stragglers who play soccer today.

And who exactly was it who decided that baseball be replaced by soccer anyway? Some World Cup fan no doubt. Lately, there seems to be a move to bring baseball back to our local parks.

Regarding city blue collar workers: why do they insist on driving their trucks right onto the grass, thus leaving unsightly tire tracks? Or is this done deliberately as an excuse to create more work for them to do?

Kristian said...

I agree with most of your comments and won't pretend to know the entire spectrum involved in making taller buildings to create more green space, but I'd point out that Toronto has a very low crime rate and that's a city with far more high rise residential housing than Montreal.

I think the transformation from baseball to soccer went full speed under Mayor Bourque in about 1998 or so. I think it had to do with a child obesity scare, parents wanted their kids running around more than they were. I won't get into why I think soccer is an inferior sport but I'll point out that there might have been some insurance issues, kids get nicked with the ball quite a lot in baseball, last night in my son's game there were two that got hit in the face and one on the wrist,(they were fine though) no such worries with the harmless soccer ball.

UrbanLegend said...

As far as fencing-off areas of large parks for "organized sports" such as in Fletcher's Field, the fact is that most kids in a neighbourhood are by nature unorganized (for better or worse) and probably resent being herded and discriminated against if they don't happen to measure up to a presumed "team standard", and anyway, just how often do these "organized sports teams" perform to show off their talents.

Not that I am against organizing wayward or bored youth, but "survival of the fittest" usually reigns supreme in such matters. Not an ideal situation.

The evolution of Montreal's parks was very much haphazard before, during, and after world wars and recessions, so it's no surprise that some neighbourhoods lost out.

The Plateau, as an example, was truly an awful place that the original Jewish residents couldn't wait to move out of--which they eventually did. The Greeks moved in, "gentrification" emerged, yet it is still not a part of town that I would want to raise a family in. Would you? Narrow streets, trash-filled lanes, drug dealing, etc.

That being said, there are many successful, model neighborhoods in Montreal incorporating a finite height-restriction, shopping facilities, and evenly-spaced park areas.

What seems to be happening lately, however, is that every available empty lot is slated for a condo in the neverending quest for tax revenue. Yet, exactly how many Montrealers can plonk down a million bucks for one?

UrbanLegend said...

No, creating blocks of high-rise apartments and condos does not a "neighbourhood" make, and it definitely does not guarantee to be well-balanced with sufficient green space and parks.

A perfect example of this very poor "planning" is the sector of town bordered approximately by the streets Cote Vertu, Jules Poitras, Crepeau, and Montpellier where you have multiple high-rises but very few parks. Autoroute 15 cuts right through it and heavy truck traffic along Cote Vertu needs to access this highway as well as the industrial park southward down Lebeau Boulevard into Deslauriers, etc.

The only large green space is on l'Acadie Blvd. near Henri Bourassa but this is essentially cut-off completely by the highway, and certainly not within comfortable walking distance for the residents.

Although bus service is good and the Montpellier AMT railway station near enough, I would definitely rate this
to be a "user-unfriendly" neighbourhood, with residents more than likely preferring to live anonymously like drones in a beehive. Not a place to raise kids.

As if this wasn't bad enough, even more high rises are being built along Henri Bourassa near l'Acadie and Jules Poitras--not to mention that this entire sector lies directly under the inbound flightpath heading toward Pierre Trudeau (Dorval) Airport. Jumbo jets and everything else create a continuous racket. Nice "neighbourhood"?

A similar situation exists further west along Cote Vertu around Cavendish Blvd. Loads of high-rises and condos, but not enough green spaces.

This, of course, doesn't mean that these areas of Montreal are doomed to spiral downward into a Cabrini-Green or Pruitt-Igoe horror story, but one wonders who exactly lives in such buildings and if they were even concerned about green spaces or parks in the first place? I suspect they were probably more interested in the indoor parking and access to the malls closeby, succumbing to whatever bait the real estate developers were using at the time.

The rule of Location Location Location should be taught as early as kindergarten.

Kristian said...

Yes, I agree. Safeguards and guarantees should be put into place ensuring that all significant vertical be accompanied by green space creation.

emdx said...

Ah! The Sainte-Holy-Montagne™!!!

How many absurd things were done in order to “protect” it!

I’ll give you one example. 25 years ago, when Doré ushered-in an era of hope to get rid of the horrors of the Drapeau-era, did you know that he offered nothing less than a whole third of a very big park to a developper?

Developper Béïque had set his sights on a plot of land of about 30m depth by 125m width (about 3750 m²), right at Pine avenue and Redpath crescent (about accross Mc-Gill’s Beatty Hall). Of course, this went against all the tenets of the Holy-Sainte-Montagne™ preservationists!!! Never mind that the plot of land was extremely steep and did not connect to the existing Mont-Royal park. It had to be saved!

So Gardiner and Bourque offered Béïque a swap deal: he would give his plot of land to the city, in exchange of a full third of Ahuntsic park, right by the Henri-Bourassa Métro.

Ahuntsic park is 425 by 330 meters large. That’s 140,250m² — a whole seventh of square kilometers. Not an insignificant park; it occupies roughly the space of 8 adjacent city blocks! Well, the City was giving Béïque nearly 50,000 m² carved from an existing park in exchange for a measly 3750n². A 12fold increase in size!!!

Worse is that was touted as an “improvement”. You see, one of the Drapeau-era horrors was that about a quarter of the park was progressively turned into a parking lot, to allow Laval residents to take the Métro downtown. The deal would have presumably have the developper build an underground garage, a shopping mall and some condos besides the STM bus terminal. But it still was to be built IN the park.

The city councillor of the times, Pierre Lachapelle, an ecologist and prior Transport-2000 president, objected, even though he was a RCM councillor. Over the months-long battle, he managed to prevent the land swap from happenning, and managed to wrestle the closure of the parking lot and a in-depth park remodeling, for the benefit of Ahuntsic residents. And for the benefits of Montréal and Montréal-Nord transit users, he also managed to have a brand new bus terminal built. And since he is a public transport promoter, this is the absolutely very best bus terminal the STM has, where people can wait for their buses inside in foul weather (by comparison, the most recent one, the Côte-Vertu terminus, designed by the AMT, is an absolute user-unfriendly horror).


Well, the land-swap did not occur, and it seems the city bought the land from Béïque, after all, because it is listed as the “Pins/Redpath Crescent” park in the GIS database, and has yet to be landscaped as a park that, no doubt, will be thoroughly ignored by passers-by…

Pierre Lachapelle was ousted when Bourque took over and the city fell-back into Drapeau-era-style horrors, and for his role in opposing “his” mayor Doré, he is thoroughly blacklisted and is unable to get a job anywhere.