Ilots de Fraicheur

It certainly looks green enough…

It’s too hot, and too dry, for far too long.

Not just here, it’s a phenomenon that affects many large urban areas throughout the world. But its universality is no reason to ignore it. Montréal’s not as green as it seems, and our local environment could be improved through very straightforward improvements to our ecological vitality.

Big cities can aversely affect the very same ecosystems that birthed sustained human habitation (and by extension, the city itself). In other words, a city’s design, regulations, and ecological sustainability – or lack thereof – can have rather profound effects on the city’s long-term viability. Consider Centralia Pennsylvania, or even Cleveland, whose river famously caught fire as a result of contamination by massive quantities of industrial pollutants. You don’t invest in cities that aren’t healthy, and the vitality of a city’s ecosystem and environment in general serve as a metric by which to determine a city’s health. Green cities are more than merely arboreal, they foster a close link between the citizen and their geography, climate and environment. Green cities beget green citizens, healthier citizens. Clean air and water should not be taken for granted, and that we think ours to be better than most is no reason to shy away from what I can only describe as a much-needed ecological audit. How clean is it really?

And why do people living in areas close to large industrial operations die younger than the average? How much does soil contamination drive up the costs of water treatment? Or how low does it drive adjacent property values?

Are we adequately considering these issues as we continue to build and move forward?

Sometimes I think our problem here is that the city seems so green, we don’t really think too much about the quality of our environment. Do we have the best quality air? Do we have access to clean, locally grown food? Why isn’t every alleyway a ‘green alleyway’? Is it me, or does the weather seem to be getting generally less predictable? (not to mention falling into patterns that seem to lead to regular environmental problems, like flooding and drought, heat waves and deep freezes). Why do I feel like my city is good at green washing and not much else? Oxidized copper domes and green tinted glass certainly drive the point home aesthetically, especially given their rather strategic locations on leafy public parks and squares, or with the ubiquitous mountain foliage serving as backdrop to our modernist skyscrapers, but the numbers aren’t very encouraging and the very real ‘de-greening’ of our local environment may have far-reaching consequences – higher power consumption, increased wear and tear on city infrastructure, a more destructive local carbon footprint, inclement weather and all that flows quite literally after it, etc.

This is why we absolutely cannot afford to further ignore our local water-table and why we absolutely must re-develop local wetlands

I found an interesting piece listed on the excellent the Montreal City Weblog from the Journal de Montréal on the growing problem of surface heat retention in the Montréal region and the need for new ‘Ilots de Fraicheur’ or large green spaces to refresh our air and water. This may seem like a trivial piece of environmental science, but consider the very real effects of high heat retention in urban areas – heat waves in Europe in 2003 are estimated to have killed 70,000 with 15,000 in France alone. This is not through drought causing starvation (though of course it does in many developing nations), but simply people over-heating in any number of ways and succumbing to the strain of sustained high temperatures on the human body. We rarely think about how destroying available green space in an urban context may in turn have rather drastic local environmental consequences, yet we’re apparently aware that the destruction of wetlands in our biosphere (as an example) is directly responsible for high heat retention and low ground water retention. The science is clear but we refuse to acknowledge just how crucial environmental development may be so as to provide a superior quality of life moving forward. City infrastructure needs to be repaired, but might not be so maintenance prone if our weather was generally more cooperative. We have the tools and intellectual capital to effect real change in this respect. In other words, city beautification must evolve into urban environmental engineering.

I can imagine the reduction of available green spaces in the city (about 20% in fifteen years) may be quite directly responsible for a worsening local ecological situation. This isn’t rocket science. Water levels have been low this summer, leading to watering bans, but more significantly I can remember having this problem last year, and the year before last, etc etc. Without sufficient ground water our weather gets weird, unpredictable. That the soil dries up may not be so much a concern for urbanites but given the agricultural backbone of our region, we’d be wise to think beyond our borders, as this impacts our ability to purchase locally grown food for decent prices. Poor harvests lead to farm foreclosures and purchase by large agro-science firms like Monsanto, something Québec and Montréal could do without, not to mention fewer options at our beloved local markets. It’s all highly integrated, and we know with a degree of certainty that in order to turn this negative trend around, we would be wise to develop as much new green space in the urban core as possible, while reducing needless low-density residential development as much as possible. Thus, we need more parks, wetlands, green alleys, green roofs, urban agriculture and additional city-sponsored ‘no development’ zones. Only our city has the financial means to improve the region’s ecosystem en masse and in one shot; neither the province nor the federal government seem overly interested in such things. Thus it can no longer be effected as band-aid solutions or otherwise left to the limited resources of the philanthropic side of the citizenry – we need a master plan and tax-revenue to address this problem.

The City of Montréal published this guide to our seventeen largest nature parks; the total area comes up to just under eighteen square kilometers. The island’s total area is 499 square kilometers, making preserved green space a little less than four per cent. There’s a good chunk of preserved Montréal wilderness out at the Western tip of the island, but this is outside the city’s territory, and so far simply waiting to be built upon. This stretch is just about the last place you’ll find wild deer on the island, and Charest has promised to build a new urban boulevard right through it. Though it’s been described merely as providing a much needed additional North-South conduit between residential areas and the highways, the fact remains that there has been talk of using the route to connect Highways 40 and 440, through Ile-Bizard and Laval, for some time. Land to the West of this proposed boulevard would likely quickly open up to additional low-density residential development, something the West Island already has in spades. Wouldn’t it be wiser to keep some green?

This should be greener…

And all the while we continue planning the destruction of what remaining wetlands and large green areas we have left. As the on-island population inches closer to two million people we’ll need to increase urban density if we want to save the vital forest and swamps that regulate the local water table. A proposed ‘green-belt‘ around the island is encouraging, but doesn’t seem to feature much if any real green-development in the most highly urbanized areas. I don’t think this is entirely a problem to be contained, geographically, as it is one which must be addressed from within.

Like I said, we need a master plan.

For a city apparently so forward thinking, we’re considerably retarded in terms of instituting broad ecological regeneration. If we don’t get on this soon, we may pass a threshold from which we cannot return. Bad environments have sunk many cities, in this country as well as the States. I don’t think we can afford the downturn in investment that would surely come from a major environmental disaster – don’t forget, our city almost had to be evacuated during the Ice Storm. It was too close a call for my personal comfort.

Shakespeare in Cabot Square

Cabot Square in the Fall – not my work

How fortunate my mistake.

I was originally supposed to see Repercussion Theatre’s production of The Taming of the Shrew in Verdun, but had mixed-up the dates. Seeing how few dates were left, I proposed Friday August 3rd, in Cabot Square. It would be a nice way to cap off the week, and a picnic was planned for the occasion.

But wait – Cabot Square? Come again?

They can’t be serious!

My previous encounters with the summer delight that is Shakespeare in the Park had been in the broad green expanses of Westmount Park and NDG Park, places I assumed had been designed with outdoor theatre in mind. Cabot Square is run-down, the whole area is, and the park is typically filled with a wide assortment of people living on the edge doing their edgewise living. It’s far more a public square than park, as the design supports pedestrian through-traffic. There’s not much grass and you’d be wise to watch where you sit – broken beer bottles being the least of your concerns. It isn’t pretty, and I wondered whether the busy and hectic backdrop of entertainment complexes, bus stops and a hospital would, combined, have a detrimental effect on the quality of the performance?

I couldn’t have been more wrong, and I’m delighted to see just how effectively urban public theatre can quickly and rather decisively transform an otherwise unsightly part of town. Despite the background noise and the limitations of the space, Repercussion Theatre did an exemplary job entertaining well over a hundred enthusiastic spectators. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that they came mentally prepared for the site, something I found rather fascinating, and knew ahead of time to expect the unexpected and unpredictable. Good on them too, it worked quite well. Perhaps these are just the hallmarks of talented actors, but I digress.

The set itself was minimalist and easily transportable, and stationed on the slightly more spacious eastern side of the square, with the majority of the audience seated in collapsable chairs by the Cabot monument. This left a fair bit of open space undisturbed by the performance, and kept it disconnected from the busier western side (where you’ll find several more bus stops and the always boisterous Métro entrance). With the position of lights, seats, picnic tables and a couple fold-down tents, the area for the performance was clearly delineated without requiring any actual obstructions, such as fences, folding tables or security guards. In this way, it was far more inviting than it might be otherwise. That said, there are risks involved, such as having the performance disrupted by yahoos running amok in the city. But hey, c’est la vie. Excellent actors make all the difference.

I met a few friends after a long day of work, all of us well-dressed and keen to participate in a moment of public culture. We sat down stage left and enjoyed a sumptuous picnic of fine Indian cuisine from Thali and a nice Portuguese white wine whose name escapes me at the moment. Joining us was probably the best behaved racing hound I’ve ever met; didn’t make a sound the entire time and seemed to be legitimately relaxed around so many people. The show got off without a hitch and it was immediately apparent that this was a well-oiled machine, having done more than a dozen earlier performances. I recognized several actors off the bat, having somewhat come up in the milieu of Montréal’s Anglophone theatre community. And on that note, Repercussion does excellent work and I’m glad to see that despite the many difficulties experienced by this community over the years, it nonetheless keeps itself going with vibrant well-executed productions and talented actors. We’re rather fortunate in this respect.

The eruption of amplified human voices at ten past seven got the temporarily re-located public drinking enthusiasts going early, and shouts coming from the edge of the square would occasionally compete with the dialogue, but never enough to trip anyone up. Halfway through the first act one of these enthusiasts approached the stage enquiring ‘you wanna kill somebody? you… you… wanna kill some buddy, eh?’

All of a sudden an audience member appeared by the drunk’s side and seemed to be going in for a kiss. His hand was on his shoulder and he seemed to be whispering to him, and after an initial protest the intrepid spectator reached further down for his waist. He quickly silenced the drunk and got him to move away without a fuss. I would find out later the spectator was in fact just that, an average citizen watching the show who had the wherewithal and requisite gumption to prevent a greater disturbance. I was quite impressed to say the very least. Suffice it to say if you think I get a kick out of organized citizens reclaiming urban space, I’m certainly overjoyed to see the disorganized amongst us stepping up at the crucial moment to assist in prolonging the reclamation of urban space by the citizenry.

Discussing the matter after the show with our intrepid peacemaker, he remarked how much more authentic a setting Cabot Square really is for this kind of entertainment, as compared to the manicured lawns and genteel manners of other public spaces used in this year’s production. It dawned on me at the moment that Cabot Square was rather apropos. Much like back in the 16th century, the people brought their own chairs, booze, food, dogs, whole families etc. and occasionally people would rather impetuously interfere with the goings on. Midway through the second act a fistfight occurred just behind the stage – no actors were harmed during the production though despite some rather raucous slapstick between local mainstays Alex McCooeye (Petruchio) and Matt Gagnon (Grumio). Kirsten Rasmussen delivered an excellent performance as the intensely independent and free-spirited (if somewhat overly scandalized) Katharina, and her well-timed command of Shakespearian double-entendres and innuendo gave way to excited bursts of laughter from parents with unknowing children in tow. Shakespeare, when un-Disneyfied, can be immensely entertaining for all ages and has always seemed to me to reveal itself to be increasingly complex, intricate, as one’s command of the English language expands and evolves. Repercussion’s cast paid a loving tribute to the Bard in this respect, and it was very well received from all in attendance.

I definitely want more of this.