Artistic photo of grass growing out of the dirt. A\J AlternativesJournal.ca From the series "Comme un murmure" by Normand Rajotte.

From the lookout at the top of Mount Royal, you can see how the city rolls out upon the great plain of the St. Lawrence Valley. In the foreground are the tightly knit neighbourhoods and narrow streets that make Montreal so liveable, the historic McGill campus and the city’s distinctive skyline. In the middle distance, the river hems in the city and its bridges provide access from the suburbs. Beyond is the featureless urban sprawl that could be anywhere on Earth. On the horizon, you can make out several blue bumps – Mount Royal’s sister mountains, which dot the rural landscape stretching to the US border. 

From this distance, the scene appears peaceful, motionless. Yet this is a landscape on which scores of battles have been fought between those who are committed to stemming sprawl and preserving the region’s remaining farmland and natural features, and those who want to see business continue as usual. The preservationists have scored some important victories, but for the most part, it’s the developers and their (sometimes corrupt) municipal boosters that have carried the day. 

While the suburban growth machine has been well-organized and oiled by the windfall profits that flow from up-zoning greenfield land for development, environmental groups have been isolated in their local redoubts, fighting rearguard skirmishes over small patches of forest, wetland or farmland. But now the order of battle appears to be changing. Environmentalists and other progressive forces across the region are combining their resources and uniting behind a vision of a resurgent nature – the Montreal Greenbelt. 

Containing Sprawl

Of Canada’s largest urban regions, Montreal has the weakest form of regional conservation planning and governance. Metro Vancouver is vaunted for its ability to achieve consensus among urban and suburban municipalities and protect its Green Zone. The region has a strong growth management plan supported by provincial legislation and an agricultural protection system that restricts the conversion of foodlands to urban uses. The Toronto region has its Places to Grow Act and Greenbelt plans, which create a robust provincial framework for controlling sprawl, preserving farmland and protecting key ecological features, such as the Oak Ridges Moraine and the Niagara Escarpment. 

Montreal has a timid regional government (the Montreal Metropolitan Community, or MMC) that is distrusted by suburban municipalities and only half-heartedly supported by the province. Set up in 2001, the MMC was mandated by the provincial government to produce a regional land-use plan. For 11 years, the agency stumbled forward, stymied by suburban mayors who did not want to limit their growth potential. Only last year did they finally produce a regional plan, but its implementation is uncertain.

While the provincial government has been aware of the region’s unsustainable situation for more than 30 years, its efforts to address it have been uneven. In the late 1970s, the government set up an agricultural land reserve to help contain growth and preserve the farm economy near major cities. While it has helped avoid the worst ravages of sprawl, such as scattered and leapfrog development, the law has not prevented the inexorable nibbling away of farmland. Pressured by municipalities and developers, the commission that oversees the farmland preservation system routinely grants permission to remove land parcels from the protected zone. Periodically, the provincial government assists with this process by authorizing major de-zonings.  

Meanwhile, land outside the agricultural preserve is even more vulnerable to development. Although a patchwork of federal, provincial and municipal regulations protects isolated pieces of the region’s natural heritage, there is no overarching strategy to preserve or restore ecological features and functions. Forests and other valuable features are under attack by individual property owners, real estate developers, gravel pit operators, municipal public works departments, provincial highway engineers and the myriad other agents, who unwittingly inflict a death by a thousand cuts by pursuing their self interest in the absence of a public interest framework. 

The result has been a steady, even precipitous decline in the amount and quality of natural areas in the Montreal region. By 1976, 83 per cent of Montreal’s original wetlands had been lost, and a fifth of the remaining wetlands have since been destroyed. While the region was almost entirely forested when Europeans arrived 400 years ago, only seven per cent was covered at the beginning of the 21st century. The remaining forests have been disappearing at a rate close to two per cent per year. And a considerable amount of agricultural land has been developed in recent decades. Since the late 1970s, close to 30,000 hectares of agricultural land have been converted to other uses in the Montreal region, an area almost two-thirds the size of the Island of Montreal.

From the series "Comme un murmure" by Normand Rajotte.

The Montreal Greenbelt

Most greenbelts are multifunctional in nature. They provide a firebreak to sprawl, stabilize the local farm economy, serve as recreational venues and preserve natural areas such as forests and wetlands. They can improve surface and underground water quality, help clean the air of pollutants and provide habitat to flora and fauna. 

Montreal’s proposed greenbelt is more than twice as large as the one that surrounds Toronto. It would occupy a swath of the St. Lawrence Valley that extends from the Ontario boundary in the southwest to Trois-Rivières in the northeast, between the Laurentian foothills to the northwest and the Appalachians to the southeast, near the US border. The converging Ottawa and St. Lawrence rivers feed this region and bathe the many islands of the Montreal Archipelago, principally the Island of Montreal and Île Jésus (Laval). 

Almost half of the 17,000 km2 that make up the proposed greenbelt are agricultural lands (among the most productive in the province), a quarter is forested (with many species at their most northerly range), and 11 per cent is urbanized. The rest is made up of lakes, rivers, streams and wetlands. Although the region represents only one per cent of the province’s land, it contains the largest concentration of endangered species. It is estimated that only three per cent of the bioregion is currently protected by government regulation or private covenant. “This area of unique ecological and cultural importance is experiencing the strongest development pressures in the province,” says David Fletcher, a spokesperson for the Montreal Greenbelt Movement. “We need to move now.”

Unlike greenbelts in the rest of Canada, Montreal’s would not really be a belt at all. Rather than a doughnut of green space surrounding the grey, urbanized area, the greenbelt being proposed by Fletcher and his compatriots is more like a mosaic of the region’s valuable ecological features. 

It includes the large swaths of agricultural land and forest that dominate rural parts of the region, but also the remaining nature within urban areas. Many francophones refer to it as a “trame,” which means the weft of a fabric. 

By protecting this residual fabric of forests, floodplains, wetlands, agricultural lands and islands connected by natural corridors and water courses, the Montreal Greenbelt will serve as a type of peace treaty among the region’s environmentalists, farmers and developers. The goal is to strengthen protection of the existing agricultural lands and permanently protect another 17 per cent of the region’s surface area – a target more than five times higher than the current level of protection. “Most of the land is privately owned, so it is going to be a challenge,” says Fletcher. “The remaining ecosystems are fragmented. We need to protect what is still there and establish corridors to form a continuous network that will support species preservation and migration.” 

The idea of a Montreal Greenbelt began taking shape almost 25 years ago. In 1989, the Green Coalition, a grassroots conservation group that Fletcher helped found, succeeded in getting a $200-million commitment (from the now-defunct Montreal Urban Community) to acquire and protect key natural areas throughout the city. But in 1992, a cash-strapped government declared a moratorium on spending, and the program was quietly forgotten. With no conservation plan in place, more than 1,000 hectares of forests were stripped during the next decade.

In 2003, the Green Coalition approached the Québec government for help. They asked then-environment minister Thomas Mulcair to consider creating a provincial park that would include remaining green space in the west end of Montreal Island and on adjacent shores at the confluence of the St. Lawrence and Ottawa rivers. Mulcair promised to consider the Lake of Two Mountains National Park concept, in which he saw an opportunity to promote both tourism and ecological protection.  

Two years later, Mulcair emerged with a much more ambitious proposal: a greenbelt that would protect all the ecologically valuable land in the greater Montreal region. Ironically, just as Mulcair was about to release his preliminary plan for the Montreal Greenbelt in 2006, then-premier Jean Charest sacked him for not supporting a bid to sell parts of an existing provincial park to a private developer (who happened to be a personal friend of the premier). The new environment minister, Claude Béchard, was cool to the idea of a greenbelt and off-loaded responsibility for the initiative to the MMC, which initially did little to promote it.

Rebuffed by the provincial government, the Green Coalition decided to build momentum by enlisting a wider array of stakeholders. In 2007, the group launched the Partnership for an Ecological Park in the Montreal Archipelago, which has since signed on more than 100 supporters. The list includes 14 municipal partners (among them the cities of Montreal and Longueuil), provincial and federal opposition parties, and many local environmental groups already fighting to preserve patches of green space. Supporters have all signed letters calling on the province to take the necessary action to set up the proposed greenbelt.  

From the series "Comme un murmure" by Normand Rajotte.

Pangs of Implementation

The Montreal Metropolitan Community is the regional government for Montreal, Laval, Longueuil and the other municipalities on the northern and southern “crowns.” It occupies only about one-quarter of the region targeted by the supporters of the Montreal Greenbelt, but includes the areas with the most direct development pressures. It is therefore crucial to the establishment of a future greenbelt. 

In 2011, the MMC embarked on a new effort to create a land-use plan for the Montreal region. David Fletcher’s group used the opportunity to display the broad enthusiasm for a local greenbelt by encouraging its supporters to present briefs during public hearings. The schedule had to be lengthened to accommodate the 350 individuals and organizations that came forward, many calling for the creation of a greenbelt. The MMC could hardly ignore this groundswell of support, and it did not. 

When the MMC approved the new regional plan in December 2011, the vague idea of a Montreal Greenbelt was transformed into a tangible project with government backing. The plan endorsed the creation of a greenbelt and adopted the 17 per cent goal for formally protected lands within the MMC’s borders by 2031. 

It recognized 31 significant forests and 52 corridors that deserve protection, and promised to raise the proportion of land under forest cover from 19 per cent to 30. The plan also imposed a five-year freeze on further removals from the agricultural zone, and proposed a six per cent increase in cultivated land over the next 20 years. The provincial government backed up these commitments by announcing that it would dedicate $30-million to implementing MMC’s greenbelt plan over the next four years. 

While environmentalists rejoiced then, they have since become a little more wary. First of all, the MMC can’t implement its own plan; it must rely on the region’s 82 municipalities to also adopt new plans that reflect these regional requirements, which is unlikely to occur before 2014. Meanwhile, developers are furiously working to get suburban municipalities to approve projects that might be affected by the freeze. Thus, despite the introduction of the MMC plan, greenfield development continues at an alarming rate. Citizens of Saint-Bruno, Carignan, Otterburn Park, Longueuil and the West Island of Montreal and Laval are still struggling to preserve their significant forests and wetlands.

Secondly, the MMC plan covers only one-quarter of the proposed Greenbelt, so most of the region remains unaffected. Finally, the MMC and its member municipalities cannot simply expropriate private land in order to protect it. Creative financing mechanisms and major investments (in the hundreds of millions of dollars) will be needed to see the plan through. 

Hoping to strengthen government resolve, Fletcher’s grassroots group recently joined an array of major environmental groups to form the Montreal Greenbelt Movement. The new coalition brings together the political capital built up by Fletcher and his colleagues over 20-odd years, and the financial resources and professional know-how of organizations like the David Suzuki Foundation and Nature Québec. 

The new coalition has helped build momentum for the Greenbelt plan. In January it was announced that the province’s $30-million investment would be matched by the MMC and local municipalities, for a total of $90-million. That money will create a parks along the Mille-Îles River and St. Lawrence Seaway, and green corridors near Mount Saint-Bruno and between Chateauguay and Léry on Montreal’s south shore. These projects will connect remaining natural areas and help to permanently protect 17 per cent of the land in the MMC. Now the coalition is pushing for similar investments in the other three-quarters of the proposed Greenbelt.

Karel Mayrand, who directs the Suzuki Foundation in Montreal, says the group is lobbying hard for an immediate freeze on greenfield development in the MMC, and to extend the provisions of the new MMC plan to the larger Montreal Greenbelt region. The group’s leaders are not naïve though – they know that the suburban growth machine is working behind the scenes to undermine their vision. “The new coalition gives us more resources to campaign with, more access to the media, and it will give us more influence to confront those who are against the greenbelt vision,” Mayrand says. “Now we have become an actor that cannot be dismissed.”

The view from the top of Mount Royal hasn’t changed much since the Montreal Greenbelt Movement was formed. But for once, heritage preservation groups are not acting alone to protect small patches of biodiversity. Like the mosaic of green spaces that makes up the Montreal Greenbelt vision, this new coalition will help fashion these local groups into a redoubtable network. “They will be part of a single campaign now,” says Mayrand. “They will continue fighting locally, but for a bigger cause. If you try to cut down 12 trees on Mount Royal, people feel you are attacking the whole mountain. That’s how we want people to feel about the greenbelt.”

Get involved by engaging the Montreal Greenbelt Movement or The Green Coalition. ceintureverte.org | greencoalitionverte.ca

For an update on where the Montreal greenbelt plan is now, listen to our interview with Ray in the Greenbelts podcast.

Montreal photographer Normand Rajotte turned his focus from editorial photography to landscapes in the early 1980s, coincidentally not long after the first attempt by the provincial government to preserve lands around the metropolis. He produced the Comme un murmure [As a Whisper] series between 2004 and 2010 during solitary excursions in search of natural omens on a nondescript hundred-acre wooded lot. Updating a traditional approach, Rajotte’s microlandscapes are unique to Québec photography, often exposing the secret lives of the undergrowth.

Ray Tomalty is principal of Smart Cities Research, a Montréal consulting firm that specializes in issues related to urban sustainability. He is also an adjunct professor at the School of Urban Planning at McGill University, an A\J editorial board member and a regular contributor to the magazine.

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