It may seem strange, but what brought me to Montreal in 1985 were its empty lots. I used to love walking through them, seeing the flowers, the insects, all of the life that chose to live there.
They represented the power of the non-human, natural world. They comforted me as a kind of refuge from the relentless built urban environment that I otherwise spent my days passing through. These anomalies made Montreal different than more prosperous cities. But as the economy picked up, one by one, Montreal’s great empty lots disappeared. I remember the field behind the bus depot, at the corner of Ontario and Saint-Hubert, that was like an oasis of smells and sights on the fringes of downtown. It was first paved over to make a parking lot, and is now on its way to being the new home of University of Quebec student dorms. I remember the lot that went along Sherbrooke street, just to the West of Saint-Denis. Its undecided fate for so many years gave the plants time to grow into a young forest. The owners of this property hired a friend of mine to be its custodian. He would tell us stories of its secret life, of squatters and small animals that were trying to live there. Finally the economy picked up enough for the land to be developed once again, this time into a wall of prestigious condominiums.
I was attracted to Montreal more for its nature than its urbanity. This is what is strange. Why wouldn’t I just move to somewhere that was close to nature? The answer to this question is mixed up with the confused vanities of youth, but as those shed away, what remained was an idealism that told me that the choices I made of where I live and how I lived indeed mattered. The fear that industrialization was threatening the natural equilibrium of the planet was part of my consciousness like everyone else’s as I grew up, even 40 years ago. So I figured if I didn’t buy a car, walked and rode my bike everywhere, and lived in dense housing, I would limit my impact on the environment.
But I still craved nature. The empty lots, les terrains vagues, with their ambiguous status, are the purest examples of nature in the city. While I watched them disappear I also saw my peers with the same craving for nature one by one purchase cottages outside the city where they would balance themselves on the weekends. This struck me as ironic. Escaping to greener spaces beyond the cities in our cars creates more pollution. Environmentalism is a serpentine complex, a Pandora’s box.
But it also works the other way around. A neighborhood like the Mile End is a model for green living. The number of people who walk, bike or bus in their daily lives is proportionately high. But there’s a price. We are surrounded by a grid of main thoroughfares, in close enough proximity to significantly increase our chances of developing respiratory problems from the many poisons in automobile exhaust. What to choose?
When paradox leads us to disillusionment and cynicism, the last empty lots in Montreal are a glimmer of hope. Instead of going to the cottage we could connect to nature right where we live. The work of the Sprout Out Loud gardener’s collective points us to an appreciation of nature in a lost corner of our city. In The World Without Us, Alan Weisman worked with biologists, engineers, and other specialists to hypothesize about what would happen if all of a sudden there were no more humans on earth. He describes the fascinating stages of nature re-establishing itself within our built environments. I hope I live to see the day when parcels of land are left to grow wild as connections to nature around every urban corner.