creative spaces

In an abandoned CP Rail lot in Montreal’s Mile End, a group of rogue gardeners till the soil and sip hot toddies on a chilly November afternoon. Meanwhile, in the South-West Village des Tanneries, neighbours come together for a weekly barbeque in a gap between the buildings known as “Bikers’ Garden.” Across town, in a swath of undeveloped land that fringes an East End gravel quarry, an urban planner is leading an educational workshop for kids to explore the ways that city-dwellers interact with the environment.

Montrealers have quietly taken hold of these grey spaces, which are neither privately managed nor programmed for public use, and they have created a place of their own. The result reminds me of a tropical ecology course in Panama, back when I was doing my bachelors in Environmental Science.

When an old tree falls down in the rainforest, sunlight hits the forest floor for the first time in decades. Quite suddenly, a tiny micro-climate is created, with conditions ideal for smaller grasses and leafy plants. These pioneer species take root and flourish for a while, but eventually become overwhelmed by taller bushes, palms and trees that cast the forest floor into shadow once again. A few decades later, one tree will manage to out-compete its fellows – taking up most of the soil nutrients and blanketing the gap with its canopy. (This massive tree will also provide homes for thousands of other living things like vines, orchids, insects, and birds). By that time the pioneer species will be long gone and spot will once again reach it’s climax growth. Its a very micro-scale version of ecological succession.

One the reasons that tropical rainforests are so famous for their biodiversity is that gaps are always being created and filled in somewhere or other. Climax communities and pioneer species exist side by side.

In the Village des Tanneries neighbourhood of Saint-Henri, Bikers’ Garden feels a bit like one of those gaps. Legend has it, a biker bunker was burnt down on Cazelais street a couple of decades ago, leaving behind a gap between triplexes. This gap opens up onto a corner of land tucked under an overpass of the Turcot interchange. With no external plan for the land, the local community has crept in. The field is surrounded by colourfully painted concrete blocks, hosts a swing-set, and is used by local residents for weekly barbeques during the summer.

Another local example is the Parc sans nom in the Plateau which, for a few years, was home to a community pizza oven a semi-legal Saint-Jean-Baptiste party and exhibits and movie projections by artist collective Dare-Dare. Now the borough uses it to store heavy machinery.

These places are constantly on the brink of disappearing. Any day, community organizers warn, the shared space will be taken over by parking lots, condos, new road developments, or even city parks. Perhaps this is as inevitable as a tree spreading its leaves under the sunlight. After all, isn’t the ephemeral quality of these places part of what makes them feel so precious? Aren’t city-sanctioned graffiti walls, picnic areas, and skate-parks a little less beloved than their rogue counterparts?

Perhaps the municipal government and private developers are like the dominant trees that will eventually fill in the gaps in the canopy. But these dominant species are not the only actors at play : citizen actions and community groups are the pioneers who will creep into un-used spaces and make them livable.

They have an equally valid role to play in maintaining a diversity of activities and spaces available to us and – in order to foster our collective resilience – they should be encouraged. This isn’t something we can ask city planners to do for us any more than grasses in the jungle can ask a towering tree to push over. It is something that has got to come from the bottom up.

Flipping through the pages of my old tropical biology lab book, this phrase sticks out: “in biological conservation, we seek to preserve the capacity for evolution.”

Now how might that apply to cities?

Photos: above Panamanian Cloud Forest by Alexandra Gaudreau (January 2003). Below lot behind Village des Tanneries by Alanah Heffez (Oct 2008)

See posting for aforementioned pictures:

Alanah Heffez

Alanah grew up in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce and the Plateau. She has worked on Environmental Education projects in various North American places, from Panama to New York City to Kuujjuarapik. Having fallen in love with Montreal at an early age, she is particulary interested in the urban environment and how meaningful places are created. She is currently a contributing editor of Spacing magazine, a blog that explores Montreal's urban landscape.

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