Opinion: It’s crucial to preserve Montreal Island’s remaining natural spaces
Last Friday, Montreal and the borough of Pierrefonds-Roxboro announced plans for western Pierrefonds: To sweeten the deal to build 5,000-6,000 housing units on 185 hectares of land, developers are to cede approximately 80 hectares of surrounding area to the city for preservation. (About 100 hectares of mainly forest had already been preserved.)
Mayor Denis Coderre heralded this as harmonizing development and preservation: providing housing, on the one hand, and preserving our “rich and precious” natural heritage, on the other. And, inasmuch as part would be preserved (sustained) and part would be developed, he deemed it “sustainable development.”
All is not quite what it seems, however. But first, some background.
The area involved is south of Gouin Blvd. in Pierrefonds-Roxboro, east of the Rivière l’Anse-à-l’Orme, and north of Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue and Kirkland. The part slated for development consists of long-abandoned fields delineated with hedgerows and pocked with marshy areas. Researchers have found 128 species of plants. The part marked for conservation consists mainly of forests. This land is located on a flyway of spring and fall migrations; 158 species of birds, some of which are vulnerable, have been seen in and around the region.
The problem with Coderre’s wish to develop the fields and preserve our “rich and precious” natural heritage in the forests is that the natural heritage of the fields is equally rich and precious. The animal and bird species that inhabit the forests are different from those living in the fields.
The urban plan adopted earlier this year defines these 185 hectares as essential habitat for many species. There is research to indicate that any development in this area will seriously damage the region’s valuable biodiversity.
Plant, animal and bird species throughout the world are undergoing precipitous drops in numbers, in part because of habitat loss. In 2010, at the Conference of the Partners in Nagoya, Japan, Montreal and jurisdictions worldwide pledged to stop and reverse these declines.
Coderre’s idea of sustainability (develop some; preserve the rest) would have made sense 60 years ago. In the 1950s, the island of Montreal had ample natural spaces. Since then, it has been develop, develop, develop. It is now 2015, and Montreal has a huge natural-spaces deficit. With 1.2 hectares of natural spaces per 1,000 inhabitants, Montreal is far below standards considered necessary for the health and well-being of its citizens. (Toronto has 3.24 hectares per 1,000 and Ottawa 8.) The only way to correct this imbalance is by preserving what few natural spaces remain on the island of Montreal.
To date, the island of Montreal has preserved less than 3,000 hectares of natural spaces. Montreal has committed itself in the recent urban plan to add another 2,000 hectares. Preserving the 185 hectares in western Pierrefonds is crucial for Montreal to meet its objectives.
Montreal asserts that it needs this development to attract and keep young families from moving off the island in search of green space. The irony of this project is that it involves destroying 185 hectares of green space to do so.
We do not need to build on our last available natural spaces to provide housing for a growing population and to retain residents on the island of Montreal. We have 5,000 hectares of brownfields. These fields could be re-greened and claimed for model community developments, just as the Glen Yards were reclaimed for the MUHC superhospital. With a little political will, we could have our cake and eat it, too: ample housing for a growing population, meet our local and international commitments, be truly sustainable, and create a magnificent, bio-diverse park of forest and field on the island of Montreal.
Al Hayek is past president of the Green Coalition. A resident of N.D.G., he teaches math at Vanier College.