Valérie Plante

People are actually upset over a new green space conservation project

This network of parks promises a health boost to the city, its citizens, maybe even the planet. And yet complaints are piling up.

This past week, Montreal mayor Valerie Plante announced that the city had concluded a major deal to preserve its wetlands and biodiversity, by creating a huge urban park on the West Island. How huge? When all is said and done, it will be the largest municipal park in the country and eight times the size of New York’s Central Park.

Spanning 3,000 hectares, the temporarily named Grand parc de l’Ouest will regroup five existing West Island nature parks in Pierrefonds-Roxboro, l’Île-Bizard-Sainte-Geneviève and Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, private property initially slated for development and public institutions. According to many environmentalists, the plan is a significant gesture in green space preservation, perhaps the most significant since the creation of Montreal’s Mont-Royal Park.

And yet, when I checked people’s reactions online, I was dumbfounded to find — alongside the accolades and enthusiasm — a whole lot of whataboutism and uninformed complaining about how the mayor should be focusing on providing social housing and fixing the roads instead.

I don’t know if any of you have noticed, but we’re in the middle of unprecedented road construction in this town. Construction detours, construction traffic, construction cones, construction chaos. Last I checked, none of this construction was happening because the city is drilling for oil or looking for ancient artifacts. We’re fixing roads! Lots of them.

We have been collectively complaining for decades that Montreal’s infrastructure was in dire need of help. The necessary investments were not made by previous administrations and that neglect finally caught up with us.

We just finished building a brand-new Champlain Bridge, work on the Turcot Interchange is moving along nicely, sewer networks are being replaced and that, too, necessitates digging streets up. How in the world are we supposed to tackle all these repairs without inconveniencing drivers? It’s silly to complain the city isn’t doing something to tackle infrastructure decay and then, when it does, complain that it’s getting in the way of your commute. Take the metro, a BIXI, or maximize your time in your car by learning to appreciate audio books or podcasts, but, for the love of God, stop complaining just to complain. It’s counter-productive and, frankly, boring.  

As for social housing, considering this is the first administration I’ve seen take this issue to heart, I find the accusation particularly jarring. If people who were pretending to be concerned about the availability of social housing were actually concerned, they would know that this past June, Projet Montréal passed a new housing bylaw forcing real-estate developers to create or fund social and affordable housing if they want to build in Montreal. According to the bylaw, which must go through a public consultation and won’t be adopted until 2020, contractors will have to enter into an agreement with the city to build affordable and social housing units, family housing units, give land to the city or make a financial contribution.

This is an aggressively proactive measure to prevent becoming another Toronto or Vancouver, boost social housing and give people with limited means a fighting chance as housing values increase and the rental market begins to tighten.

“When I envision Montreal 10 years, 20 years, 50 years from now, what I hope to see are diverse neighbourhoods where everyone belongs, no matter their financial status,” said Mayor Valerie Plante during that announcement. That’s my hope, too.

Can more be done? Of course! Can better coordination take place, fewer mistakes made? Absolutely! There’s always room for improvement, and some street closures have occasionally defied logic. But if you think coordinating thousands of kilometres of construction during a very short timeframe (weather-wise) without affecting commutes, or developing plans to encourage social housing without simultaneously discouraging promoters who want to build in a booming real-estate market is easy, I welcome you to try. We can always use more resourceful people in politics, and who better than these online beholders of obvious solutions to complex problems that no experts in their respective fields were smart enough to come up with before Larry from Facebook typed them out in the comments section in UPPER CASE for all of us to see. Thank you, Larry.

It’s easy to get online and type a few nonsense words of complaints about what the administration should be doing, instead of what it’s actually doing, but it’s a whole other ballgame when you’re the one calling the shots and forced to prioritize amongst the many challenges and issues that call out for your attention.

The Plante administration, like any other political administration, could afford to do things better, and it has experienced its share of growing pains. But it’s the first time as a Montreal resident where I feel that decisions are earnestly being made for the long-term benefit of the average folks who live, work and play in this city. I see the administration waging some very interesting and brave battles when it comes to animal control, social housing, development of public spaces we all can use and enjoy, and now, green space conservation.  

To have people upset over news that an area that was originally slated for real-estate development will now (assuming all goes well) be added to five current parks to preserve green space for future generations baffles my mind. How much of a navel-gazer do you have to be, at a time when every major environmental organization is telling us we need to do more to save our green space and tackle climate change, to be disappointed that a local administration seems to be doing exactly that?

And if you don’t give a damn about green spaces and don’t understand the direct link between nature conservation and a healthier state of mind and body in healthier cities, perhaps some practical reasons will help you get it.

Much of the land that will be preserved is in flood zones and at-risk areas where people can’t develop or should have never developed. Transforming this land back into marshlands, as other cities around the world have done, will help absorb the water and mitigate flooding. Remember all that time, energy and taxpayer money spent helping people and their properties flooded out this spring in and around Montreal? Shall we repeat that costly and stressful process every year, or do we do something about it? Because, whether we choose to act or not, climate change is changing our lives because we continue to selfishly refuse to change the way we live.

As grandiose and ambitious as Plante’s plan to create this park is, it’s a small gesture in the larger context of so much that needs to be done to tackle climate change around the world.

But on a smaller scale, I don’t want to live in a concrete jungle. Physical activity makes people healthier, less burdensome to the health system and increases the length and quality of their lives. Access to parks has been proven to increase the frequency of physical activity and also makes people happier. From a more practical point of view, parks contribute to pollution abatement and cool down the temperatures. Last summer already showed us what heat waves can do to the vulnerable. Parks also increase property values, increase tourism, control stormwater runoff and create a stronger sense of community. Parks are a good thing, folks!

This administration is showing the political will to tackle some big, long-term issues and a desire to leave behind something precious and valuable that generations of Montrealers will be able to enjoy and benefit from. I can’t fathom being angry about that. ■