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.

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