Reconnecting with rivers in Quebec City
November 5, 2021
This contribution from Christopher Dewolf is part of Park People’s 10 Years Together in City Parks. The series has been edited by Dylan Reid with illustrations from Park People’s own Jake Tobin Garrett.
Be sure to check out all of the contributors throughout the year.
Quebec City owes its existence to the St. Lawrence River, and it’s easy to see why. From atop the ramparts of the old citadel, you can see for dozens of kilometres in each direction. This is where the waterway widens into something more than a river, where the tides start having an effect, where the water starts becoming progressively saltier as it flows towards the Atlantic. The current carries your eye past the lush farmland of Île d’Orléans, past the mountains of Charlevoix and into the distant horizon.
Credit: Le Parc des Grandes-Rivières de Québec Map. Rousseau Lefebvre
Shift your gaze, though, and something else comes into focus: another river, much smaller, flowing past factories, grain silos and container yards. This is the Saint-Charles River, one of four unheralded waterways that are no less important to Quebec City than the St. Lawrence. And the city now has a plan to underline the importance of these rivers by creating 30 square kilometres of parkland, 100 kilometres of trails giving the public access to the water, and a host of new facilities along their shores. It’s an ambitious 20-year plan that is the fruit of collaboration between citizens and their government.
“We’re going back to the source,” says Marysela Rubiano, an environmental advisor with the city government, who has been working on the project since its launch in 2016. “We don’t want these rivers to be places that people pass by. We want them to stay.”
Reconnection with the rivers
Known officially as the Plan de mise en valeur des rivières – literally the River Development Plan, but perhaps better translated as “adding value to the rivers” – the project centres around the creation of the vast new parc des Grandes-Rivières-de-Québec. But framing it as a new park makes it easy to overlook its massive scope – and its potential impact.
The plan touches on nearly every corner of the city, from the well-to-do suburbs around the Cap-Rouge River, to the spectacular waterfall of the Montmorency River, to the neighbourhoods along the Beauport River through which one of the oldest roads in Canada runs. The Saint-Charles River meanders for 25 kilometres from its source in Lake Saint-Charles, through the northern suburbs and finally to the heart of the city and the St. Lawrence. Along the way, it passes passes through the historic Huron-Wendat community of Wendake as well as ecologically important wetlands and the historically working-class but fast-gentrifying neighbourhoods of Saint-Sauveur, Saint-Roch and Limoilou.
Beyond the four main rivers, eight more minor watercourses will be incorporated into the project. By the time it has been completed, it will include new conservation zones, eleven visitor centres and nine activity hubs where the public can have direct access to the water for activities like swimming and kayaking.
Credit: Saint-Charles, Parc des Saules. Rousseau Lefebvre.
None of this could have happened without the participation of Quebec City residents, many of whom have a close relationship with the rivers, despite limited access and a lack of public infrastructure.
“We started to get citizens involved even before the project started,” says Rubiano. “People have really gotten on board and embraced it. There’s a sense of belonging to each of the rivers.”
What’s happening in Quebec City can serve as an important lesson for other cities across Canada. Many are looking for ways to embrace their own undervalued waterways in order to improve biodiversity, deal with climate change challenges like increased flooding, and give citizens better access to the natural environment.
“When you look at each of these issues separately, they’re very important. But when you combine them you gain so much value,” says urban designer Ken Greenberg, who has consulted for Quebec City and other municipalities on their waterway projects. “In each city the particularities are a little different, the topography is different, the opportunities are different. But the principle of making these watercourses key parts of the life of the city is always the same. It’s an opportunity to do more in terms of the public realm.”
A river at the heart of Canada
The story of Quebec City – and by extension, the whole of Canada – is inextricably tied to that of its rivers. When French explorer Jacques Cartier arrived in 1535, he encountered an Iroquoian village called Stadaconé that was nestled on the banks of the Saint-Charles River, which he named rivière Sainte-Croix in honour of the day of his arrival, the Feast of the Cross. The village was home to around 500 people living in longhouses, and it was described by its inhabitants as kanata, meaning “village.” Cartier took it to refer to the entire region around Stadaconé, and through his correspondence, a variation on the word – Canada – became shorthand for the entire St. Lawrence river valley.
Cartier and his men suffered through a harsh winter in their camp near Stadaconé. Deprived of fresh food and unfamiliar with their new surroundings, many of them died of scurvy. The rest were saved only when the inhabitants of Stadaconé taught them how to use fir needles to make aneda, a vitamin-rich tea. Cartier repaid the gesture by abducting several of the village’s inhabitants, including the chief, Donnaconna, and taking them back to France the following spring. All but one of the group died, and when Cartier returned to Quebec in 1541 and attempted to start a colony near the mouth of the Cap-Rouge River, the newly hostile Iroquoians forced him and his crew to leave.
By the time French settlers arrived for good in 1608, under the leadership of Samuel de Champlain, Stadaconé had disappeared. In the preceding decades, Iroquoian society had been decimated by a mix of European diseases, increasingly cold winters caused by the Little Ice Age, and conflict with other Indigenous nations. Members of Algonquin and Innu nations visited the Saint-Charles river to fish for eels and trout. The Innu call it Cabirecoubat – “a thousand meanders” – because of its many curves. The Huron-Wendat call it Akiawenrahk, “river of the trout.” They settled on its shores in 1697 after war, famine and disease forced them to leave their homeland on the shores of Lake Huron.
As for the French settlers, they renamed the river Saint-Charles in honour of vicar Charles de Boves. They developed its banks over the course of the seventeenth century, building a brewery, a potash refinery and a shipyard between 1668 and 1675. That foreshadowed its industrial development in the 19th and 20th centuries, when the Saint-Charles gradually became one of the most polluted waterways in Quebec. Raw sewage flowed directly into the water.
In 1974, the lower portion of the river was dammed and encased in concrete. It was part of a post-industrial revitalization plan that also included marinas, housing and parks along the river – the better to match the expressways, shopping malls and high-rises that had become the modern face of Quebec City.
“Once it was concreted over, the river was more presentable,” notes writer François Gosselin Couillard in his neighbourhood history of St-Roch. “The rats had fled – along with all other forms of life. Concrete asphyxiates all fauna, marine and terrestrial.”
The concrete did nothing to alleviate the pollution. As the river festered, nearby residents took matters into their own hands. In 1979, a non-profit organisation called Pêche en ville began reintroducing trout into the upper portion of the river. Two decades later, in 2000, a group of citizens began meeting in Victoria Park – a historic green space on the banks of the Saint-Charles – to discuss how to encourage people to reconnect with the river while also improving its natural environment. That led to a plan for a new linear park along the waterway, including the renaturalization of its banks. The concrete was ripped out in time for Quebec City’s 400th anniversary in 2008.
Global ideas for a global vision
There was a growing sense that the new park was only a beginning. Something more was possible, indeed necessary. “What was missing was a global vision,” says Amélie Germain, a landscape architect with the City of Quebec. A global vision needs global inspiration, so in 2016, the city launched an international competition for ideas on how to reconnect Quebec with not only the Saint-Charles river but all of its waterways.
“The competition was extremely important in terms of raising the level of ambition, aspiration and vision around what the rivers could be,” says Greenberg, who served as a judge. “What was fascinating was that it was an anonymous competition. We didn’t know who the participants were until we opened the envelopes with their names. They were from really highly qualified people around the world who had done a lot of research on Quebec City. This process raised public expectations.”
The competition attracted 21 concepts from designers in 10 different countries. Each was asked to offer a vision on three different scales: for the rivers as a whole, for each river specifically, and for an overall design sensibility or ambiance. The goal was to harvest ideas. “The traditional approach would be to put out a call for tenders,” says Rubiano. “But we wanted to get as many ideas as possible to inspire ourselves.”
Credit: Cap-Rouge, Centre Nautique. Rousseau Lefebvre.
The judges selected three laureates. Headwater Lot, by Brooklyn design firm Cadaster, takes inspiration from the historic French seigneurial system of land development in order to conceive of a more perpendicular relationship to the rivers, rather than a linear approach that follows the shoreline. The National Urban Park of Quebec, by Gothenburg-based studio White Arkitekter, envisions free public access to all of Quebec City’s riverbanks, taking inspiration from the “right to roam” that is guaranteed in a number of European countries like the United Kingdom. The Loop, by Los Angeles-based architect Joo Hyung Oh, proposed a network of interconnected pathways that linked up all four rivers.
“They allowed us to see the richness we have,” says Germain. “For them, the richness was obvious.” But familiarity breeds contempt, she notes – and many Quebec City locals had never considered just how precious a resource their rivers were. “We gave citizens a bit of a chance to dream,” says Rubiano.
The competition was followed by public workshops, surveys, information sessions, in-situ consultations on the banks of each river, and a mobile museum called Le Rivièroscope. While some citizens were oblivious to rivers that were just a short walk away from their homes, others had a deep knowledge of their landscapes, fauna and flora. “It got quite particular and specific around the local topography, demography, community interests,” says Greenberg. “The solutions were quite bespoke. They were quite tailored to the opportunities.”
What the consultations revealed was that people were looking for year-round access to the rivers for recreational activities, but they wanted this to occur in harmony with conserving the natural environment. In other words, no return to the lifelessness of the Saint-Charles when its banks were concreted over.
Ending the “false dichotomy”
This multi-year process informed a master plan that was unveiled in the fall of 2020.
“What the Quebec City plan demonstrates beautifully is that it is possible to have very sensitive interventions in these natural areas which are not damaging to habitats, to nature, but actually enable people to be in the river valleys, to have access to nature, to enjoy nature without disturbing it,” says Greenberg
This is a key point, he adds, because conservation authorities have often created what he describes as a “false dichotomy” between protecting natural habitats and allowing public access to the water.
Credit: MontMorency, Base plein-air. Rousseau Lefebvre.
Quebec City isn’t the only city embarking on a more balanced approach. In Calgary, where much of the glacier-fed Bow River is lined by berms and dikes, the RiverWalk combines flood protection with a convivial and intimate experience of the water. In Edmonton, the Touch the Water Promenade is being developed to improve public access to the North Saskatchewan River. In Montreal, swimming was once common in the St. Lawrence until pollution levels soared. Now, with pollution under control, a half-dozen new projects are restoring public access. Among these are the Promenade de Bellerive, which will provide new swimming facilities by the summer of 2022, alongside a pavilion that hosts a farmers’ market, cultural events and a biergarten. In the historic neighbourhood of Lachine, a marina will be replaced by a new park that will restore wetlands while encouraging non-motorized water sports.
Germain says the lack of recreational infrastructure around Quebec City’s rivers has led nearby residents to improvise by creating their own trails.
“In one of our big parks, we are missing trails, docks, rest areas, and there are 18 kilometres of informal trails,” she notes. But it’s possible that city planners could formalize those grassroots interventions. “People often find the best shortcuts – they’ve made a path because there’s a nice natural landscape to see, or a natural beach,” says Germain. “On the other hand, we have the challenge of making sure they’re not going through wetlands and that there’s no environmental degradation.”
The next step forward will be to lay the groundwork for everything envisioned in the master plan. Some of that involves “transitional spaces” like seating areas on the Dorchester Bridge, floating cabins on the Montmorency River, and the Espace collectif Marina Saint-Roch, where non-profit placemaking organization La Pépinière runs a summertime pavilion dedicated to cultural and community events like concerts, yoga classes and tango lessons. “They allow us to test the design of spaces before we do something permanent,” says Germain. Other steps include the ongoing revamp of two parks along the Saint-Charles, which has already led to the construction of a new footbridge across the river at Pointe-aux-Lièvres Park.
There are still another two decades to go before the plan is fully realized. And that’s what makes it so remarkable: it’s a generational project.
“Our children and grandchildren will inherit this,” says Rubiano. “It’s a project that brings everyone together, whether it’s citizens or organizations dedicated to the rivers,” adds Germain.
“It’s essential to have a sense of belonging to this project, especially if we want to bring it to term. [Public participation] requires an enormous amount of effort and it slows down the process, that’s for sure. But it makes for a project that is much richer – and will go much further.”
About Christopher Dewolf
Christopher DeWolf is a Montreal-based journalist who focuses on cities and culture. Previously based in Hong Kong, he is the managing editor of Zolima CityMag and a regular contributor to the South China Morning Post, Eater and other publications. His book “Borrowed Spaces: Life Between the Cracks of Modern Hong Kong” examines the tension between grassroots and top-down views of urban life.
This contribution from Christopher Dewolf part of Park People’s 10 Years Together in City Parks. The series has been edited by Dylan Reid with illustrations from Park People’s own Jake Tobin Garrett.
Be sure to check out all of the contributors throughout the year.
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