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.
The plot of former agricultural land next to the Parc nature de l’Anse-à-l’Orme, on the western edge of Montreal, is fascinating in many ways. For one thing, it’s home to 270 species of flora and fauna that thrive within a mix of wetlands, woods and meadows. It occupies 365 hectares of land, making it one of the largest undeveloped—and until recently unprotected—swathes of natural territory on this island that more than two million people call home. But perhaps the most surprising thing about it is how few people seem to know it exists.
“At so many of the doors we knocked on, people didn’t even know that right beside them was this massive former agricultural land that was regenerating,” says Sue Stacho, Co-founder of Sauvons L’Anse-à -L’Orme. In 2015, when a huge new residential project called Cap Nature was announced for this parcel of land, she helped start a group to protect it from development.
“We worked really hard – blood, sweat and tears,” she says. “We had to do so much to communicate why spaces like that are so important.” They knocked on doors, and hosted events like a Mother’s Day walk through the woods and evening stroll to appreciate the frog population: “any type of exposure to the area that we could bring to it.”
It worked. In 2019, Montreal mayor Valérie Plante announced the creation of the Grand parc de l’Ouest, which will protect the area around l’Anse-à-l’Orme from development. But it goes much further than that: the new green space will be the largest municipal park in Canada, with a 30-square-kilometre expanse that includes active farmland, McGill University’s Morgan Arboretum, existing nature parks and previously unprotected natural areas that were vulnerable to development.
It’s a lesson in how grassroots activism can achieve tangible results. And it’s an opportunity to boost the amount of green space in Montreal, which has only 24 square metres per person, one of the lowest rates among Canada’s cities. But the Grand parc de l’Ouest is also a project of staggering scope, complexity and ambition. Not only does it span an area that is 15 times larger than Mount Royal Park, Montreal’s largest and most recognizable urban green space, it is a hodgepodge of different spaces crisscrossed by roads, railways and watercourses. It spans two Montreal boroughs and three independent towns, encompassing five existing nature parks and lands owned by McGill University.
The Grand parc de l’Ouest brings to mind other large, edge-of-city parks, such as the Rouge National Urban Park near Toronto, Fish Creek Provincial Park in Calgary and the Blue Mountain Wilderness Connector in Halifax. Like these, the Grand parc de l’Ouest has the dual mission of protecting biodiversity while giving urban dwellers access to nature. Those goals are not always easy to reconcile. In 2019, Parks Canada developed a detailed management plan for Rouge Park with the goal of balancing the needs of agriculture, recreation and conservation. The Nova Scotia Nature Trust, a charity that manages land across the province, is taking a similar approach in its stewardship of Blue Mountain.
For the Grand parc de l’Ouest, the challenge becomes particularly obvious when you look at its location on a map. Autoroute 40, one of Canada’s busiest highways, runs straight through the park, and in 2023 the Réseau express métropolitain (REM) metro system will open with a station at l’Anse à l’Orme, with trains arriving from downtown Montreal every 10 minutes. That will make the park very easy to access but could pose a problem when it comes to managing human impact on sensitive natural areas. On top of everything, the Grand parc de l’Ouest will be run not by Parks Canada or a provincial authority, but by the City of Montreal, which has more limited experience in managing natural areas.
All of that adds up to something with extraordinary potential – and no shortage of pitfalls.
“It’s been a long time in Montreal since we’ve seen the willingness to make these big gestures,” says Jonathan Cha, a landscape architect, urbanist and heritage consultant. “The challenge will be grouping all of these different natural spaces together. It’s a project that will require a lot of time, a lot of money – a very long-term project. But it’s a grand vision. There’s almost no space leftover on Montreal Island and this secures it for the benefit and well-being of the population.”
That this natural space came to be left undeveloped in one of Canada’s largest and most densely populated cities is the result of a half-century of effort by environmentalists and community activists. As with other parts of Montreal, the western third of the island – a dangling apostrophe of land buffeted by Lake St. Louis, the Lake of Two Mountains and the Rivière des Prairies – was once a lush broadleaf woodland frequented by people of the Haudenosaunee nations that lived in the region. After the arrival of French colonists in the middle of the 17th century, the colonial administration gave control of the land to the priests of the Sulpician Order, who divided it into strips of property to be farmed by colonists.
Aside from a handful of villages and early railroad suburbs, the West Island remained largely rural until after the Second World War.
“Even the tree-lined seigneurial property boundaries were still in place,” recalls historian George Vassiadis, who moved to the West Island as a child in 1968. Things changed quickly with Montreal’s postwar suburban expansion. “For the first few years after we moved into our new duplex on Spring Garden Road, the view across the street was of fields which had only recently ceased to be cultivated,” Vassiadis wrote in the arts journal Montréal Serai. “By the mid-1970s the fields had been replaced with houses.”
As bungalows and strip malls quickly ate away at farmland, developers turned their attention to some of the area’s last pockets of woodland. In 1977, plans were drawn up to raze the Bois-de-Saraguay, a biodiverse pocket of forest next to an old village, and replace it with apartment blocks, single-family houses, two shopping centres and a marina. Nearby residents successfully fought the plans, leading to the creation of Montreal’s first nature park. In 1979, Quebec’s government gave the regional council, the Montreal Urban Community, the power to develop a whole network of nature parks, including several that will now be part of the Grand parc de l’Ouest: Rapides-du-Cheval-Blanc, Bois-de-l’Île-Bizard, Cap-Saint-Jacques and l’Anse-à-l’Orme.
Conservation is the focus in each of these parks, but they are also popular recreational spots for people from across Greater Montreal. The largest of the parks is Cap-Saint-Jacques, which every weekend attracts thousands of people, most of them arriving by car, although that could change when the REM offers rapid transit access. In the winter, they rent fat bikes or snowshoes and head off into the woods. In the spring, they drizzle maple syrup onto oreilles de crisse – crispy pork rinds – at the park’s sugar shack. And in the summer, a broad, sandy beach beckons with views across the Lake of the Two Mountains.
Although these nature parks already cover a significant amount of land, they were broken up by private property that was long coveted by developers. For decades, much of that land had been protected by special agricultural zoning, but when the zoning was lifted in 1991, a resulting tax increase forced many farmers out of business. Over the years, the now-abandoned lands steadily returned to a more natural state. “There’s a whole range of wildlife that had been returning to these lands that had now been left fallow waiting for a development project to come along,” says David Fletcher, who co-founded the Green Coalition, a West Island environmental watchdog, in 1988. “All these animals that are iconic in eastern Canada, like the fisher [a member of the weasel family] and the white-tailed deer, were finding their way back to Montreal.”
Sue Stacho, who has been involved with the Green Coalition since the early 2000s, came across the abandoned farmland next to l’Anse-à-l’Orme one day while riding her bike.
“It’s this amazing place. Natural,” she says. “It wasn’t managed with trails and park benches everywhere. There are thermal pools in the spring. There are wetlands. Every time I went, if I went in a new way, I would find something new to learn about. If you know your way around, you can be out there all day.”
In 2015, a proposal to develop the land was announced. Known as Cap Nature and billed by its developer as “an environmentally responsible neighbourhood,” it would have preserved 180 hectares of the old farmland, but the remaining 185 hectares would be replaced by 5,500 housing units. Stacho and other members of the Green Coalition decided to fight it. Banding together to form a pressure group called Sauvons l’Anse-à-l’Orme, they succeeded in recruiting a host of other environmental organizations – including the Suzuki Foundation, CPAWS Quebec and the Sierra Club – to join their cause.
Citizen support was particularly crucial to their effort, which drew the attention of Projet Montréal, a municipal political party with a focus on sustainable development. “Once they learned about the space and realized there was real momentum growing for the protection of it, they were always around,” says Stacho. When Projet Montréal won a surprise victory in the 2017 Montreal elections, the wheels for the Grand parc de l’Ouest were set in motion.
The announcement of the park in September 2019 was greeted by the threat of lawsuits from landowners, including the developers of Cap Nature. By the end of that year, however, the city had managed to negotiate the purchase of most of the privately-held land in question. “There’s still about 40 to 45 hectares in private hands, but there’s no way a viable project could work,” says Fletcher. He considers the park a victory. “It’s been a very long haul. Quite a tumultuous three decades. We’ve been on guard with those lands for all that time.”
Fletcher gives special credit to Stacho, whose ability to raise public awareness of the old farmland is what opened the door to the new park.
“She’s a very energetic woman and her team did a remarkable job in bringing that to a conclusion,” he says. Now the conclusion of one chapter is leading to the beginning of another: the process of actually developing the Grand parc de l’Ouest.
Public consultations began last year, with most activities taking place online due to the pandemic. The challenge now will be to balance different visions of what the park should be. Stacho wants to see an emphasis on conservation, but some West Island residents are eager for more recreational opportunities, with some even raising the possibility of motocross trails in a recent online roundtable discussion. The green space is also used for hunting deer and trapping beavers, which the province recently declined to ban despite pressure from Montreal. “I’ve gone out and seen signs of activity there like shotgun shells and rifle cartridges left on the ground,” says Fletcher. “The kind of trapping taking place there is wire snare – it’s brutal. Absolutely horrific.”
Jonathan Cha points out that, beyond its natural spaces, the Grand parc de l’Ouest includes plenty of built heritage, including stone walls and houses from the French colonial era. “You need a very fine-grained knowledge of the territory to come up with a plan for it,” he says. There’s also the question of active agricultural lands, which make up a significant proportion of the new park. “Who will manage those lands?” asks Cha. “Farmer-proprietors? Co-ops? The city will need to create a new model to manage a park like this. There will need to be an additional layer of expertise on top of what they’re already used to.”
It will be a generational process, he says. “You need to have people around the table who are going to be there for a long time. There has to be a continuity in the process. The challenges are so big and numerous and the area is so vast and complicated there isn’t anyone person who can grasp everything that is going to be happening.”
What it comes down to is something Sue Stacho realized in her fight to save l’Anse-à-l’Orme: parks need people. It was the local community that rallied to protect this land from development, and it was through the collective action of many different people that the Grand parc de l’Ouest was created. Now those same people—and many others—will be needed to shape, sustain and nurture the park for decades to come.
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.
Be sure to check out all of the contributors throughout the year.