A solution to protect the
environment and biodiversity
A moratorium on developing remaining wilderness and farmland can make a difference for Greater Montreal
By Irwin Rapoport
February 16, 2023
Residents of the island of Montreal and Laval, and municipalities in the North and South Shores and Laurentians, can do much to protect the environment and biodiversity via simple actions that could have immediate impacts over the next few years.
The first action requires all municipalities in the Greater Montreal Area to immediately invoke a complete moratorium on the development of all remaining wilderness areas, wetlands, green spaces, and farmland. This would upset many developers and construction companies, and municipalities that believe residential, commercial, and industrial development are beneficial to their communities as they would generate new revenues, attract new residents, and bolster the status of their cities and towns.
The first action requires all municipalities in the Greater Montreal Area to immediately invoke a complete moratorium on the development of all remaining wilderness areas, wetlands, green spaces, and farmland.
A moratorium would not only protect threatened lands but a great variety of plants, animals, and insects that are becoming increasingly rare, with some species facing the reality of local extinction. A moratorium would protect areas such as the Technoparc Wetlands and wilderness, including the Monarch Fields in Saint-Laurent and Dorval; the L’Anse à l’Orme wilderness in Pierrefonds and nearby forests and fields in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, Senneville, Baie D’Urfé, Ile Bizard, and Sainte-Geneviève; Angell Woods in Beaconsfield; the Fairview Forest in Pointe-Claire; the golf course in Anjou; vast tracts of forests and fields in the eastern area of the Montreal; wilderness and farmland in Laval, the North and South Shores, and the Laurentians, which contains very fertile farmland and excellent wilderness areas that are home to a great deal of biodiversity.
As one drives up the Laurentian Autoroute that takes you through Laval, the North Shore, and the Laurentians, including municipalities such as Mirabel, Saint-Sauveur, and Saint-Jérôme, one quickly notices the rapid increase in development – residential, commercial, and industrial – continues unabated and whose pace is quickening. This is also happening all over the South Shore, where forests, wetlands, farm fields, and green spaces are being devoured by development.
Off-island development is also increasing due to the Réseau express métropolitain (REM) commuter rail project, which has Phase One going from Brossard in the South Shore to Two Mountains in the North Shore. Many environmental activists opposed the project at the Bureau d’audiences publiques sur l’environnement (BAPE) hearings. I was among the presenters opposed to the project, and we succeeded. The BAPE report called for the REM project to be scrapped, and for the planners to go back to the drawing board. The Quebec Liberal government led by Premier Philippe Couillard, which put forward the REM project, ignored the BAPE report and then to ensure it would be constructed, exempted the project from environmental studies and reviews.
‘The ease of the REM to bring people to Montreal to work, but live off-island, will continue the ongoing decline of the population on the island of Montreal and a decrease in tax revenues, which means tax increases for residents on the island…’
Former Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre supported the REM enthusiastically. Before the 2017 Montreal municipal election, many environmentalists called on Projet Montreal, led by Valérie Plante, to oppose the REM. Those efforts failed, and the party backed the REM with gusto. When the $10 billion REM de l’Est project was announced, Mayor Plante spoke out against it. But it was too late. By backing Phase One, knowing its impacts, she lost the moral high ground. She had no right to complain.
The project, according to the CBC report, is grand in its scale: “The second phase of the Réseau express métropolitain is to include 23 stations along 32 kilometres of track, stretching from downtown to the eastern neighbourhoods of Pointe-aux-Trembles and Montréal-Nord through a mix of underground tunnels and elevated tracks.”
Let’s be clear, the REM project will not only destroy many remaining sections of wilderness, wetlands, green spaces, and farmland, but lead to an exodus of people to off-island communities and the construction of more homes and condo developments, shopping centres, office buildings, light industrial facilities, and roads and highways. The ease of the REM to bring people to Montreal to work, but live off-island, will continue the ongoing decline of the population on the island of Montreal and a decrease in tax revenues, which means tax increases for residents on the island, whether they live in the City of Montreal and the independent municipalities, who on an annual basis are being pressed to pay greater contributions to Montreal.
The Coderre and Plante administrations increased the budgets of Montreal by leaps and bounds, and there are no signs that this will stop soon. Furthermore, the City of Montreal is notorious for wasteful spending, having no respect for taxpayer dollars, and being eager to raise taxes. Two examples to prove my point: the cost of hybrid diesel-electric buses and the cost of the new Bellechasse bus garage. There are far too many examples of how Montreal mismanages taxpayer dollars, and the cost of road construction by the city says it all.
The first phase of the REM cannot be stopped, and we shall have to live with all of the consequences but hopefully, the second phase and future phases can be nixed. We actually have to make it harder for people to leave the island.
‘The island, I would estimate, consists of at least 25 percent of commercial and light-industrial sprawl along major arteries, such as Sources, Saint-Jean, Saint-Charles, and Gouin boulevards… These sites can, via a well-thought-out program, be redeveloped.’
Should a moratorium be enacted on the island for wilderness et al, does that not mean an end to development? Far from it. There is plenty of space to build on. Firstly, ten percent plus of the island consists of brownfields – polluted sites that have to be cleaned up before construction. The Glen Campus of the MUHC was constructed on a brownfield site – the former Glen Yards, which required an extensive cleanup that removed contaminated material. We can clean up these polluted sites and redevelop them. The initiative won’t be easy, and it will require a serious amount of coordination between landowners, developers, and all levels of government. These sites should be cleaned up, in any case, as they pose environmental threats.
The island, I would estimate, consists of at least 25 percent of commercial and light-industrial sprawl along major arteries, such as Sources, Saint-Jean, Saint-Charles, and Gouin boulevards. There are countless others. These streets, which contain many strip malls, shopping centres and individual businesses, often have ratios of 20 to 30 percent for buildings and 70 percent for parking. These sites can, via a well-thought-out program, be redeveloped. The goal would be to have three to four storeys of commercial and office space, followed by eight to 12 storeys of residential with a mix of units to meet the needs of families with children, couples without children, and singles. Sections of the parking lots can be converted into green spaces, and underground parking can be set up for shoppers and residents.
The beauty of such a redevelopment plan, which can be done in phases to allow current businesses to relocate, is that these arteries already have bus lines serving them and existing underground services – water and sewage lines, storm drains, gas and electric utilities, and communications systems. We can design buildings that enhance the architectural scene and create positive environments for people to live, play, and work.
We must reduce the number of privately owned cars on the island. The number of registered vehicles has been increasing, especially SUVs which are extremely popular with Quebecers. We must reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) from fossil fuels. This requires an improved public transit system to incentivize people to give up their cars voluntarily. Nor are electric vehicles the answer as they are far from being environmentally friendly as they necessitate mining for materials to manufacture batteries, and building more hydroelectric dams in northern Quebec, which flood vast tracts of wilderness, killing great amounts of plants and animals, and generating tremendous levels of pollution, especially the release of mercury into the water and ecosystem. In the last provincial election, Premier François Legault advocated for more hydroelectric development in the north.
Make no mistake hydroelectricity is not “green.” Check out these web links:
There are many households with two or more cars. Part of the problem is that we have allowed too many communities to be designed based on getting around by car. This is easily seen in West Island communities and those in Laval and the South Shore. There is a solution, which would be very unpopular, but helps on multiple levels.
The first step is to establish an annual surtax on households that have two or more cars. For the second car, it could be a surtax of $2,000, $3,000 for the third vehicle, and so on. This would reduce the number of privately owned cars and lead to people making better choices in terms of driving habits. The money raised would be devoted to financing public transit systems. The goal is to get people out of their cars and onto public transit – buses and the Metro. Instead of expensive Metro lines, we could re-establish the tramway system in Montreal, which before its removal, was extensive and covered many of the routes used by current bus lines today. As an example, there were trams on Sherbrooke Street from the western end to the eastern sections.
Modern technology permits the construction of tramway lines that are not eyesores. An alternative to the first phase of the REM called for the building of seven or eight major tramway lines in high-density areas, investing in the two existing commuter rail lines serving the West Island and off-island areas, and extending the Metro’s Blue Line by five stations. This would have cost as much as the REM, carried four times the number of passengers, and reduced GHGs via the removal of cars from the road. The REM, instead, increases urban sprawl and the number of cars on the road and promotes the development of wilderness, green spaces, and farmland.
We must design more efficient communities based on getting around easily by foot, bicycle, and public transit. A case in point is NDG and Snowdon in West End Montreal. The area is home to 80,000 plus people, and they are served by several bus lines, five Metro stations, and two commuter train stations.
The West Island is based on residential development dependent upon getting around by car and having large homes with significant lawns. Dollard des Ormeaux and Kirkland are amongst the worst examples of this type of planning. Whereas NDG is based on a grid pattern that contains many reasonably sized homes with decent lawns, many parks, and commercial areas with stores that meet local needs. When you put everything together, you have an area with a tremendous community spirit, complete with schools, houses of worship, and community centres.
‘An alternative to the first phase of the REM called for the building of seven or eight major tramway lines in high-density areas, investing in the two existing commuter rail lines serving the West Island and off-island areas, and extending the Metro’s Blue Line by five stations.
It’s easy to imagine a West Island with many NDG-type communities, with lots of green space and wilderness. It may be possible for the West Island to undergo such a transformation in the future, but that will require a considerable desire to re-imagine the large area that is home to many distinct communities.
There are some signs of hope. The Wilderton Shopping Centre in Côte-des-Neiges is being transformed into a new configuration of residential and commercial, and we have seen many large commercial buildings in the West Island, many of them vacant or semi-vacant, demolished and redeveloped for residential use. Half of the Cavendish Mall in Côte-Saint-Luc was torn down and replaced with residential – a mix of townhouses and single-family homes – a few years ago. I recall when the fields and forests on the mall site were destroyed to make way for the mall. The site was approximately 35 percent building and 65 percent surface parking. When it was a wilderness, it was home to a great variety of trees and wildlife, along with wetlands.
I have put forward a few ideas on what can be done should we put our minds to the task, and I would welcome your suggestions via the comments section at the bottom of this article.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of WestmountMag.ca or its publishers.
Irwin Rapoport is a freelance journalist with Bachelor degrees in History and Political Science from Concordia University.