Cabot Square Redux: not quite paradise, kind of a parking lot…

This used to be much greener; the interior of Cabot Square is now paved over in a special kind of asphalt
This used to be much greener; the interior of Cabot Square is now paved over in a special kind of asphalt

After about a year’s worth of work, Cabot Square re-opened to the public on Wednesday July 8th.

The major improvement involves two outreach workers who will now use the square’s renovated stone kiosk (vespasienne) as home base to provide services to the primarily Aboriginal homeless community that (up until the renovations began) called Cabot Square home. Whether this homeless population returns to spend their time in Cabot Square remains to be seen, but the mere fact that these outreach workers have their own workspace within the square is in and of itself a progressive step in the right direction. From what I’ve read, the kiosk will also serve as a café where the proceeds will support the homeless (or the outreach program that helps the homeless). This is also good – Montreal is well known for its dearth of coffee-purchasing opportunities…

Other improvements: apparently there’s daily programming (music, dance, theatre) organized throughout the summer, and free wifi. I have a greater interest in the latter rather than the former, but again, glad to see it and I hope these activities are well-attended.

However, as you can see in the above photo, much of the square has been covered over in a slick ‘water-permeable ground covering’ that looks an awful lot like asphalt and for that reason looks awful.

Green space in Cabot Square is now defined by oversized curbs
Green space in Cabot Square is now defined by oversized curbs

This is not to say that the square was completely paved over – just that too much of it was. The paved portion flows around ‘green islands’ – there are now several such ‘islands’ in the newly renovated square, sharply divided from the walking paths with large curbs that integrate a few benches and subtle anti-skateboarding dimples. Within the green islands, plants surrounding the bases of several trees. Elsewhere in the square, younger trees planted to replace those removed during the renovation are surrounded by small circles of wood chips.

The division between green and grey isn’t subtle – it’s very clear where you’re supposed to walk and where you’re not.

There’s almost no grass per se, no flowerbeds either. In its previous incarnation, there were patches of grass and no physical barrier between the somewhat symmetrical paving-stone walking paths and the green space.

The new arrangement reminds me of a trip to the Biodome; nature in the new Cabot Square is ‘grade-separated’ – look, but don’t touch seems to be the overriding design philosophy, which is ironic given how Aboriginal politics often involves efforts to sustain our interactions with the natural environment (i.e. preservation with an aim towards common appreciation etc.)

While there’s no doubt the new Cabot Square is slick, clean and modern, it’s also much less of a park. It feels more like a transit point than an urban refuge, and this is odd given that there’s so much less going on around Cabot Square these days (i.e. the Forum closed in 1996, the Children’s Hospital just relocated and the square isn’t the major bus terminus it once was). Considering there are plans to increase residential density in the area by building more condo towers and apartment buildings, I figured city planners would have gone in a different direction, aiming to provide an urban refuge instead of a kind of shaded crossroads.

It occurred to me that the paved surface will certainly make the space easier to clean, and further allows city vehicles to drive around inside the square without ripping up the ground and grass. Except that these posts have been installed at every entrance and seem pretty solid. I’m not entirely sure what their purpose is… I think it’s to slow down cyclists.

Questionable Purpose

There’s a greater irony here: before the renovation Montreal police would regularly drive directly into the square and either park their cruiser near the statue or do a quick lap before heading back out. Tactics such as these are intended to intimidate and drive people away. It also destroyed the paths and and the grass. Municipal workers would do the same when they were ostensibly working at maintaining the square.

Now the square has a paved interior with wide paths and large curbs to ensure the division between green space and walking space, but these posts make it impossible for any car or truck to enter the square (and Montreal police pledged somewhat to treat homeless Aboriginals more like human beings).

One thing I noticed when visiting recently was the removal of shrubs, decorative fences and bus shelters that once ran around the square’s periphery. I completely approve of this, and wrote about the necessity of opening up sight lines in the past. The former arrangement of bus shelters and shrubs made it impossible to see across the space and for this reason made it an ideal location for homeless people to congregate (Place Emilie-Gamelin and Viger Square suffer from the same problem).

So that being the case, it makes me wonder if the homeless Aboriginal community (or any members of the broader homeless community for that matter) will return to the square.

The picnic tables have been removed, as have a number of park benches. Garbage and recycling has been moved to the periphery, largely at the entrances (in a move I could only assume was based on a recent STM decision to do the same with Métro stations, wherein garbage and recycling has been removed from platform level and relocated to receptacles located up near the ticket kiosks). This is one of those ideas that’s good in theory but rarely in practice (i.e. people have about a 30-second tolerance limit to carrying garbage; if a garbage bin isn’t immediately available, they tend to just drop it on the ground).

And as to those anti-skateboarding dimples on the curbs? Again, useful in theory, but given that the entire square has been paved over, the whole square is now far more inviting to skateboarders than it was previously. Moreover, on all sections of the curbs that ramp up from ground level, there doesn’t seem to be any dimples at all.

Put it another way, when I visited the square last week, it was a group of skateboarders who were making best use of the space. I don’t think this is what the city had in mind.

Underwhelming

Here we see an example of one of the myriad ‘activities’ slated to take place in the square. I think this was for a caricaturist. Elsewhere there was a small group of somewhat depressed looking ‘street performers’ dressed like pirate-clowns; I’m assuming this was entertainment intended for children…

Again, more good stuff in theory, but only time will tell whether this actually leads to a major vocational change for the square. There seemed to be a lot of people working (ostensibly) for the city that day, and supporting this over the long term may prove problematic what with austerity budgets.

Renovated Vespasienne

And here’s the renovated vespasienne. It looks great, but it didn’t look like the café component was fully operational. It’s unfortunate there’s no landscaping around the base of the edifice (no flowers or plants), as this gives the impression the vespasienne grew out of the pavement.

Perhaps the single biggest lost opportunity was the Métro entrance kiosk located at the northwest corner of the square, in that what is arguably the most problematic structure in the square was left as-is. The Métro entrance in the square was once very useful indeed – keep in mind Atwater was the western terminus of the Green Line for about a decade, and up until 20 years ago the Forum was the city’s primary sporting and concert venue. Thus, it was useful to have a large Métro entrance located directly across from the Forum to help manage the crowds. Ever since the Forum stopped being a important venue this Métro entrance hasn’t been particularly useful. It, and the long tunnel that connects it with the Alexis Nihon complex diagonally across the street, hasn’t been very well maintained and all too often stinks of piss.

And as such it will remain – I suppose getting the city’s parks department and the STM to cooperate on a city beautification project may have been a little too difficult to coordinate. Thus, the STM kiosk remains an oversized, underused and aesthetically disconnected element of the square. Had they removed it the square could have had an entrance from arguably its highest traffic corner. Instead, the structure remains as a lasting visual obstruction to what’s going on inside the square and will likely continue to serve as something of a homeless shelter in its own right.

At the end of the day it begs the question – is this really the best our city can do?

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