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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

The Regionalist: Recreation Beyond Degradation

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A man fishing at Pointe-aux-Anglais (close to Oka) on July 1st (Photo: Alanah Heffez)

I recently came upon a fascinating book titled “The ecological basis of planning”, which is basically a series of essays about the (mis)adaptation of humankind to urban life, all written by the illustrious unknown Artur Glickson, published posthumously in 1971 and prefaced by none other than Lewis Mumford. There is a lot that could be said about his contribution to the fields of planning and architecture and his visionary outlook, but there is one issue in particular which he brings up and which is still very current: that of recreational land use.

Glikson makes a simple but compelling argument:

a. “The provision of recreational space in the house, the town, the region and the country is essential for the harmonious conduct of urban life” (23) because, according to Glikson, recreation is what allows us to form organic and harmonious relations with others and to find a “spatial rhythm” to our lives.

b. Yet, he notes, “it is impossible to provide for the theoretically needed amount of land for outdoor regional recreation if it is intended to be exclusively recreational land” (28). And this problem becomes more acute as people get richer.

c. More importantly, he argues, the recreational pressures of urban dwellers contribute to “disfiguring” and “denaturing” the indigenous landscape, “inundating” the countryside – all of which are not merely symptoms of cultural decline, but also a cause thereof. He writes that environments stripped of all functions other than recreation do not “represent a true source of physical and psychological enrichment and renewal”. Rather, he suggests, these degraded environments degrade us as human beings.

d. The solution: open the whole region for recreational use, make recreation a part and parcel of the function of all land use. “Nowhere should recreation be an exclusive function of an area; a landscape should be useful and beautiful at the same time – a resource of life and of its renewal” (28). Thus, we need to reconstruct the landscape to allow for the coexistence of work and play, exceptional beauty and everyday life, etc.

Reading his words, I cannot help but to think of the Laurentians and parts the Eastern Townships – which have become playgrounds for urban dwellers and have, indeed, been degraded to the point where there is no landscape to speak of. There are countless definitions of what counts as a landscape, but my own definition is the following: a landscape is made up of land and people who shape one another. Clearly, urban recreationers are shaping the land of the Laurentians… but are the Laurentians shaping them back?

It is amazing to think that Glikson’s essay on recreation was written some 50 years ago and to see how little progress we have made as far as integrating recreation into the practice of planning at all levels. Downtown Montreal has certainly become a place of recreation and entertainment (thanks to the Festivals), but “recreational planning” is still relatively marginal in this city, despite the fact that opportunities abound. The St-Michel quarry or the Contrecoeur site along the Lafarge quarry east of the Anjou borough could have both become regional recreation destination, but the converted quarry has little to offer in the way of recreation and the Contrecoeur site has recently been developed into a large-scale residential project  without any attempt at integrating the natural elements of the site. Yet, if we really believe in sustainability, we have to make recreation happen everywhere, and not just in downtown or “out in the country”. And that means using every opportunity (like a quarry being closed or industrial land being freed up) to make the city more “recreationable”.

Let me end with a quote from Glikson (please forgive him the use of the universal “he”… he is from the 1920s after all) : “Acting towards [the purpose of landscape reconstruction], Man would rediscover the land as an inexhaustible resource of human recreation; making such discoveries, he would at the same time regain confidence in his own capabilities. Recreation would then become means and ends in one – and the earth, a better habitation.”


One comment

  1. Thank you for this post. I support many of your points but feel there is an important cultural component to the kind of recreational planning you write about. As an example, a friend of mine recently took the regional GO bus from Toronto to the suburb of Milton, Ontario. He and his girlfriend walked along the road up the Niagara Escarpment to the beautiful Rattlesnake Point conservation area for a dayhike. They received strange looks in Milton, while in Europe this would be considered a normal weekend excursion. There have been some good advances for cycling tourism of this nature in Quebec and southern Ontario but a more integrated approach between economy and tourism is warranted. Cultural Plans in municipalities and upper tier regions might be the place to start.

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