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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

The Regionalist: Does Montreal Need a Belt?

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The analogy of the “belt” which is used to describe the way in which cities around the round have tried to contain and/or manage urban growth may seem a little bit odd, but it is in many ways quite fitting: a belt is something we wear so that our pants don’t fall down; it doesn’t make you thinner (although it may appear to do so). And it doesn’t really prevent you from gaining weight, because belts are adjustable (up to a point). So it is with greenbelts.

One might ask, then, does Montreal really need a belt? The Green Coalition seems to think so – and they have managed to rally behind their proposal approximately 80 organizations, including 15 municipalities. This is of course good news for Montreal: citizens, politicians and civil society actors coming together to ask for the preservation of green space on a regional scale. But I think it is important to pause for a second and ponder our choice of words: is it really a “green belt” that we need, or it is something else?

Here it is important to trace the idea of the greenbelt to its source. One thing is clear: greenbelts have a long history and no single origin. There are descriptions in the Old Testament of “towns and cities with inviolable rural hinterlands”, which suggests that the preservation of agricultural land is a preoccupation that dates back at least a few thousand years. There were also attempts to establish a cordon sanitaire around London, England, by the Crown and the Commonwealth Parliament as early as the 16th and 17th centuries.

Something else is clear, though: the modern greenbelt movement originated in England in the late 19th century and was motivated by two distinct (but interrelated) historical conditions: urban overcrowding (which, it was believed, caused the alienation of urban dwellers from nature) and the encroachment of “urban sprawl” onto rural and agricultural lands (which was perceived as threat to “Englishness”). The London Greenbelt was therefore “sold” both as a way to increase the poor’s access to recreational land, as well as way to “preserve” the countryside (which was and continues to be the recreational land of the rich). Similarly, the first active proponents of greenbelting in the U.S. were members of the Regional Planning Association of America (RPAA), like Benton MacKaye and Lewis Mumford, and they also saw the greenbelt as having a double-function: repelling the “metropolitan invasion” of the countryside, and giving urbanites (read “gentiles”) access to nature.

Hence the tension that existed – and continues to exist – in the very idea of the greenbelt: it is both elitist and populist in its appeal, pro-urban and anti-urban in its objectives, inclusionary and exclusionary in its effects and progressive and regressive in its outlook (note: the progressive and regressive effects of greenbelt policies are well-documented, but beyond the scope of this post… hit me up if you want to know more). One interesting example of this was provided to me by John Rahaim, who is currently Director of Planning in San Francisco and was formerly Director of Planning in Seattle. He recounts that once the greenbelt was implemented in Seattle, activists and environmentalists started paying less attention to the loss of natural habitats within the greenbelt – which (he intuited based on his experience) resulted in an accelerated rate of habitat destruction.

All this to say the following: Montreal certainly needs a strong vision for the preservation of open-space and natural habitats, as well as strong leadership for politicians and civil society. But we should be careful what words we use (and what we mean by the words we use). Toronto has succeeded in creating a “greenbelt” that is neither anti-urban, nor anti-rural (I will cover it in  more detail in a different post, as it deserves to be treated separately). But Toronto’s greenbelt is not really a belt – it is an all-emcompassing land-use planning regime (along with Places to grow) that extends far beyond the immediate urban periphery.

Unless we are ready to walk the walk, then, maybe we should call our greenbelt plan something different – so as to avoid using an idea that connotes something ambiguous and may work against our larger, higher-order objective, which is to live harmoniously with nature, both within the city and outside of it.

The Regionalist is a column written by Joël Thibert about regional planning, regional transportation and other regional stuff.



  1. Yes, a green belt would be nice, as once green space is gone, its gone.

    A green belt could have a linear path and provide a car-free transportation network to almost everywhere within and without, a nice quieter place to walk.

    Back in the Twenties, bicyclists would ride from Ahuntsic over the walkway on the upstream side of CPR Bridge at Bordeaux ( which has a rather-rare railway Gauntlet Track on it’s deck! Google It. ) west of the Jail on Gouin, before Pont Viau was constructed, and travel west on Ile. Jesus to Cartierville Bridge and then return to Bordeaux on the Montreal side along Gouin.

    Green space of a type now only occurs when it is abandoned and condemned land from the smoke stack era such as Turcot Yard and many of those industrial sites in the East end.

    The latter, no matter how graffitied and grotty with broken concrete and rebar, might well be preferred to high-density slums to be built on the quick, overloading the infrastructures such as drinking water, sewers, and Hydro power, not to mention thousands of automobiles all clamouring for the right of way.

    Most of these quickie developments instantly provide fresh vertical surfaces for the graffiti ilk and areas to park junker cars that have no further hope.

    The Island could use a ring of new bridges rite now.

    How much grief brought on by Internal Combustion!

    Thank You.

  2. Fascinating and informative; thank you.  I agree that the language used and often abused in the name of the environment has become an effective tool for both educating the general public and/or influencing public opinion.

    Unfortunately social media and the media in general does not give much time/space for complex nuances  and we, the public, have become lazy… 
    We barely read the headlines and slogans and we do generally believe what we read…If we read it often enough.

    Some ‘green’ groups ( counting on the public’s ignorance of complex environmental issues  ) would have you believe that all private developers are bad and all green space must be preserved at any cost… Thus sadly failing to see the proverbial forest for the trees.

    I’d like to hear about examples where both responsible development and nature can coexist in a way that benefits the planet as a whole…

  3. The definition of Greenbelt in Ottawa is: create a wide green barrier to growth, then have the suburbs leap over the boundary and sprawl while the city goes bankrupt building roads to cross the belt and serve the new communities. Read about the failure of Ottawa’s visionary greenbelt before deciding on one for Montreal.

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