What’s wrong with Westmount Park /2
A discussion of the 2020-21 Revitalization Plan for Westmount Park
By Wanda Potrykus
February 27, 2021
“Olmsted designed primarily in the pastoral and picturesque styles, each to achieve a particular effect. The pastoral style featured vast expanses of green with small lakes, trees and groves and produced a soothing, restorative effect on the viewer. The picturesque style covered rocky, broken terrain with teeming shrubs and creepers to express nature’s richness. The picturesque style played with light and shade to lend the landscape a sense of mystery.”
The Pastoral, the Picturesque and the Sublime were the three aesthetic concepts established during the Romantic era of landscape design that come closest to describing the design evolution of Westmount’s central and namesake park. The first two represent nature as a comforting source of spiritual and physical sustenance; the last refers to ‘Nature untamed.’
However, ‘sublime’ in reference to Westmount Park can only be used as a description of its first two decades or so from 1892 when the existence of a wild cacophony of ravines, streams, boulders, rocks and deep gullies along with trees and dense undergrowth deemed the area an impossible site for farming or housing; and thus occasioned its evolution into what would become 130 years later the Westmount Park we know as today (although currently there is very little of the ‘sublime’ left in the park).
Designed in the ‘spirit of Olmsted’
Our park was not designed by Frederick Law Olmsted Sr but was engineered and overseen in its early years by his sons, the Olmsted Brothers (as consultants) and in particular, by two of his former students in landscape design – Rickson A. Outhet (1898-1908) and M.J. Howard Manning (1912), who both adhered closely to the elder Olmsted’s teachings.
But in the 21st century it is the ‘spirit of Olmsted’ and his celebrated park design philosophy that Westmount’s ‘pearl of a park’ is coming close to losing if many of the elements of the Stantec vision of our park are implemented. As others have commented, Westmount Council seems to regard the park more as a service centre rather than a work of publicly accessible landscape art, community, pleasure and freedom, four of the integral values embodied in the Olmsted philosophy.
“Part of the problem… is that former and present mayors and councillors see the park as a sort of service area. What they do not understand is that the majority of Westmounters see it as a living thing, just like a relative they know and love, and they are sad that that relative is in such bad shape. People view the park as a whole, they see the aesthetic of it, not a service area where you put this here and that there. This is very misguided and it’s certainly not how Olmsted saw it, nor the other architects who participated in the changes throughout the years…”
– Patrick Barnard, Westmounters Discuss the Future of Westmount Park
For frankly, there is not a great deal wrong with our park that a substantial amount of long-overdue expenditure and maintenance wouldn’t fix. That said, the approach proposed by our Westmount City Council seems to infer it needs a rather substantial and costly fix. Or, as the City of Westmount’s website euphemistically refers to it, a revitalization as in “The Westmount Park Revitalization Project”.
But is the ‘revitalization’ plan currently under discussion and proposed by the City-hired consultants, Stantec, really the solution Westmounters and other park visitors require?
How much ‘revitalization’ does our central park need?
Rather than revitalization, many residents seem to prefer the word ‘maintenance’, which has been sadly lacking in the last 20 to 25 years in our park. Paths haven’t been repaired, drainage issues not addressed, leading to more deterioration. Yet, more man-made contrivances are proposed that even 100 or more years ago, the Olmsted Brothers had warned against. Moreover, undergrowth has been cleared but not replanted, trees cut down but not replaced, leaving the somewhat dangerous ground-level stumps and roots to rot away.
In some of the high traffic areas, such as around the lagoon, stumps are a tripping hazard for children and seniors because as rot sets in, small feet as well as canes and walkers and somewhat bigger feet too get stuck, especially when the stump is covered over in the fall with leaves and the winter with snow and so a fall occurs. Often less serious for the younger ones who cry out to be sure but who usually walk or limp away, not so for an increasing number of seniors.
But what else is wrong?
Give us back our ‘shady wood’ and avian refuge
Sadly, a previous and to some, ‘magical’, contemplative and shady ‘woodland’ area between the clay tennis courts and the waterway has been opened up to increasing traffic with mature trees removed, bushes cut down and ground cover sadly denuded. All a result of significantly increased usage by wheeled and bipedal (as well as quadruped) residents shortcutting their way through the park or being brought there specifically to ‘plunge’ into the adjacent waterway. This, along with the passage of cyclists, including children, and the SPVM bike patrol, who love to zoom through the mud and dirt on their mountain bikes. (Mount Royal Park has a similar problem with its unpaved paths, much beloved by mountain bikers).
Sadly, a previous and to some, ‘magical’, contemplative and shady ‘woodland’ area between the clay tennis courts and the waterway has been opened up to increasing traffic with mature trees removed, bushes cut down and ground cover sadly denuded.
I say ‘sadly’ as this is an area our returning avian visitors, including the wild ducks and songbirds, use as a nesting and nursery site and refuge. But now, it has become a neglected, dilapidated eyesore, trampled down even further by the passage of too many feet, paws and wheels.
Residents call for a designated ‘nature’ area
Perhaps when the naturalization of the waterway is adopted and work has begun, this area can be artistically cordoned off somehow and re-naturalized as well. Some Westmounters, via a resident-inspired online NatureScene petition are calling for a designated nature area in the park and are asking that this area, along with an adjacent one across the waterway (currently signalled out in Stantec’s plan as the revitalized ‘event area’), become a mini nature zone instead.
Berry and other fruit and flower-bearing bushes that formerly provided food for the birds and insects should be reintroduced or replaced with equivalent native species. Thus, our beloved woodland area can once again become an area of rest and repose for park-goers and a haven for our avian visitors instead of just another paved pathway for those shortcutting their way through the park.
This could be easily done, not by eliminating the pathway ‘through the wood’ entirely but by re-visualizing it by means of a vine-covered trellis delineating the area with a ‘kissing gate’ or other romantically inspired rustic barrier and a gateway that impedes the easy passage of bikes (but not wheelchairs or strollers) and indicates this is a nature zone area. Frankly, there are plenty of other pathways in the park available to those passing quickly through.
‘The Romantics looked to nature as a liberating force, a source of sensual pleasure, moral instruction, religious insight, and artistic inspiration.’
Parks are for pleasure, not for passing through
A park shouldn’t be designed primarily around those wishing to ‘save’ a few steps or minutes by avoiding or going around an obstacle or a curve in the path. We’re all supposed to be aiming for 10,000 steps a day, not making pathways more pervasive and shorter. Perhaps this call for straighter paths is to allows us to walk and talk on our phones more easily and to ignore what is around and in front of us.
“Scenery was designed to enhance the sense of space: indistinct boundaries using plants, brush and trees as opposed to sharp ones; interplay of light and shadow close up, and blurred detail further away; a vast expanse of greenery at the end of which lies a grove of yellow poplar; a path that winds through a bit of landscape and intersects with others, dividing the terrain into triangular islands of successive new views.”
No, no, no to the air bridges!
Stantec, on the other hand, has designated this woodland area as a primary pathway, proposing to install costly and potentially slippery granite pathways as well as an ugly wooden ‘air bridge’, supposedly to remind us of the ‘twig’ or birch bridges from the early 20th-century version of Westmount park. Stantec’s weird bridge to nowhere is shown swinging out over the water, destroying the view of the serene lagoon, then swooping back down to earth on the verdant slope overlooking it.
But we want our Romantic movement-inspired park and vistas cleaned up and rejuvenated, not destroyed. Most of us don’t want an overhead walkway through our woodland glade or messing up one of the most favoured picnic and gathering areas overlooking the lagoon.
“Scenic vistas, winding paths, bucolic meadows, and rustic retreats suitable for solitary contemplation are just a few of the alluring naturalistic features of gardens (parks) created in the Romantic spirit. Landscape designers of the Romantic era sought to express the inherent beauty of nature in opposition to the strictly symmetrical, formal gardens…”
No more pandering to the short-cutters and grid-lovers
The City has reduced green space in Westmount Park significantly in recent years by choosing to pave over a myriad of user-created shortcuts instead of replanting them with low, shrubby deciduous and evergreen ground-cover to encourage those time and step-saving residents and visitors to stay on and follow the existing paths rather than forging new ones by denuding areas of formerly grassy ground-cover.
‘Give me sustenance for the spirit, not more pathways for the harried of heart. Don’t turn our park into nothing but paved pathways. Enough already! Stop the desecration of our “pearl of a park.’
What most don’t choose to acknowledge is that obstacles are needed to challenge the brains of all ages and provide opportunities to stop and wonder at one’s surroundings. There’s a reason some plants and bushes have thorns or spiky leaves and have become known as ‘defensive’ plantings. Most of us perennial park-goers would rather see a rose garden or a mixed planting with barberry, firethorn or perhaps holly to dissuade tramplers and create a visual panorama of colours during the year to feed the senses rather than view another swathe of greenery carved up by yet another paved pathway to speed the passage of commuters through the park.
“Wintergreen barberry is an evergreen shrub (that) makes an excellent live barrier or hedge. Dark green leaves turn bronze in the winter and yellow flowers follow in the spring. Interesting winter fruits are oval and bluish-black in colour.”
Give me sustenance for the spirit, not more pathways for the harried of heart. Don’t turn our park into nothing but paved pathways. Enough already! Stop the desecration of our ‘pearl of a park.’
Got your own opinion?
Should you have your own opinions as to what’s wrong or right about Westmount Park, you can comment on the City website and/or below this article, as well as by signing and/or commenting on the online NatureScene: Support Nature in Westmount Park Now petition.
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.
Wanda Potrykus is a writer, editor, translator and poet. A graduate of McGill, she has spent most of her career in marketing communications, PR, event and media relations specializing in international aviation, telecommunications, education and the marketing of the arts.