The alleyway in Saint-Henri between Saint-Ambroise and Sainte-Marie streets, and between Côte Saint-Paul and de Courcelle, is somwhat of an anomaly: nearly 4-lanes wide, it is one of the only clues that the Saint-Pierre river once wound it’s way through south-west Montreal.
At the turn of the century, the river was canalised and the properties around it began to be developed. Since raw sewage was dumped directly into the river, it became a public health hazard and was partially covered. Then in the 1930s, it was completely buried in a large concrete collector, which still serves as a combined sewer collecting both rain water and household waste-water in the neighbourhood.
The Sud-Ouest borough recently received a grant from the Institut national de santé publique to transform this vast and dull expanse of concrete into Montreal’s first woonerf.
The borough describes a woonerf as a convivial street where one can safely walk, bicycle, play, and relax, while still being accessible to cars, adding that the woonerf aims animate residential streets by giving them a soul. But the project also has more tangible goals: the subsidy requires the woonerf to have permeable surfaces over at least 85% of the site, to introduce vegetation in order to reduce the heat-island effect, and to incorporate a space for urban agriculture.
New tools for public participation
Perhaps most interestingly, part of the philosophy of the woonerf is it’s participatory nature. With this in mind, the borough hosted a second consultation session with local residents and organizations last Thursday. They presented a design in which nearly the entire 550 x 20m alley would be transformed into a greenspace.
At an earlier meeting, residents of the adjacent properties had stressed the importance of being able to access their backyard parking spots, so the woonerf would be bordered by two 5-m strips of “reinforced grass”, which can withstand being driven upon without necessily inviting motorized traffic. In the centre of the woonerf, a hundred trees would be planted alongside a sinuous path for pedestrians and cyclists, evoking the winding St-Pierre river. A second phase in 2013 would incorporate street furniture such as benches, picnic tables, a water fountain and possibly sports facilities, and a third phrase would add a community garden in 2014.
The borough recruited the Urban Ecology Centre to animate last thursday’s workshop, and they developed innovative tools that took the dialogue beyond the confrontational format that is all too familiar at public consultations. Citizens were asked to vote on things like the width, shape and materials used in the project, and to express their preferences of ambiance and activities offered in the site. They were also asked to indicate their interest in contributing, for instance by planting a tree or a vertical garden on their property, and to write their wildest dreams for their neighbourhood on colourful post-its.
But this alleyway is anomalous in more than it’s width: while it is usually illegal to park in Montreal alleyways, which are generally not cleared of snow during the winter, this alley has become an informal parking lot for local residents and businesses.
By far the most pressing issue for locals was the loss of these parking spots. A study by the borough found that there are enough empty parking spots on the adjacent streets to accommodate the displaced vehicles (not to mention that many denser neighbourhoods manage with no back-alley parking). Yet some residents described the proposal as “extremist” or even “dangerous” for it’s conversion of concrete into greenspace.
A place for youth in the process?
Readers of this blog may have noted that I am rather preoccupied with youth participation – specifically how teenagers can participate in defining and designing the urban environment (see this post and this post).
Since the woonerf’s target audience includes young people, and the alley is a stone’s throw from James Lyng high school, I thought it was an excellent occasion for the borough to consult youth about what they wanted for their neighbourhood.
Through my work with Youth Fusion, I was able to involve a group of sec 1 students in a design process: we visited the site, brainstormed ideas, and create proposals for the woonerf, which I was able to present during the meeting last Thursday. I was thrilled when borough mayor Benoit Dorais agreed to have someone come to the school and further the dialogue with the students.
Although this isn’t listed on Google Maps, a sign across the street from the end of the “Alleyway” says that it’s in fact an extension of Ste Emilie street.
You can see the sign on street view here: http://bit.ly/l9IQPF
Maybe it would be better to use the term “home zone” or “zone résidentielle” (terms suggested by Wikipedia) – language is an important part of politics, and I can understand why some people might feel alienated or patronized by the jargony term “woonerf.”
“Yet some residents described the proposal as “extremist” or even “dangerous” for it’s conversion of concrete into greenspace.”
Could you further elaborate on this? i’ve heard the mentioned now and then, but i really do not understand the thinking behind it.
I’m sure these people don’t think an asphalt alley is an ideal situation, so what do they actually want instead?
@William: I love the term WOONERF! I understand your point, but it’s just so fun to say! The James Lyng students seem to really dig it as well. We all just go around saying woonerf all the time :) Try it – you’ll probably like it. Plus, it’s kinda bilingual…
@Faiz: some residents proposed keeping 40% of the space paved, or using technological solutions, rather than vegetable cover, to reduce heat-island effect. One said that the trees would block out light and create a dangerous place at night. You’d be surprised how attached people can be to free parking…
Don’t get me wrong, I love the word “woonerf” too (I also happen to love the word “autostrade”, the original Canadian French word for autoroute.) It’s just that jargon is a dangerous road to go down – it can come across as elitist. I’m also not to sure how many people would consider it to be both English and French either (English more-or-less readily adopts foreign words, French… well it takes a bit longer!)
Anyway, that’s just my recommendation as a professional research communicator. C’est un beau projet.
The Collecteur Saint-Pierre, as the river-which-runs-through-the-sewers is called, regularly overflows during big rainstorms. I wonder what plans there are to control this.
Why are we dumping tax money into this project? Did developers put pressure on the city to clean up that place?
“One said that the trees would block out light and create a dangerous place at night.” — It’s true Westmount and Outremont are notoriously dangerous because of their vegetation!
@Jack, as mentioned in the post, the funder is the Institut national de santé publique, and the justification has to do wtih improving environmental health by reducing heat-island effect, increasing permeable surfaces, encouraging active transportation, providing a place for urban agriculture.
While there there have obviously been public investments alongside new private development in the whole sector (along the canal, for instance), I believe that there is just 1 lot adjacent to the woonerf site that is currently up for development and the owner/developer wasn’t present at the meeting I attended.
Isn’t Duluth Montreal’s first woonerf? It certainly seems like a shared space to me, without curbs and most typical traffic control devices.
I would like to congratulate the author for the thought of involving the Secondary High School students for their input. Having children of that age myself, it is important to acknowledge the thoughts/views of our future decision makers and the reciprocal benefits are potentialy large. Well done! PS Spacing Montreal is great..
Friendly editing advice: possessive ‘its’ has NO apostrophe. The apostrophes needs to be removed from (1) “once found it’s way”;
(2) “of the woonerf is it’s participatory nature”; (3) “more than it’s width”; (4) “it’s conversion of concrete”. But informative article and nice slice of Montreal history.