Archive for April, 2011

Oh, how I dream of a city where the car is not king. A city designed first and foremost with the pedestrian in mind. And not just the single, able-bodied pedestrian who can dash across the street before the walk light starts to flash, but also those pushing strollers or pulling toddlers or pushing walkers, over curbs, under overpasses, across intersections, onto public transit. A city where you can ride along a bicycle path without it suddenly ending, leaving you on your own to cross an overpass and three lanes of traffic.

The people at the Montreal Urban Ecology Centre (MUEC) have been doing more than dreaming: they’ve been taking action, with a project called “Green, Active and Healthy Neighbourhoods.” Begun in 2009, the project aims to redesign streets and public spaces to prioritize walking, cycling, and other modes of active transportation — one neighbourhood at a time.

To this end, the MUEC has spearheaded pilot projects in four neighbourhoods: Park Extension, Mercier East, Plateau East and Southeastern NDG. In each case, the MUEC team has adopted a participatory approach involving citizens, local organizations and elected officials, who work with professionals in urban planning, urban design, architecture and other relevant fields to identify the problems in their neighbourhood and come up with concrete solutions. It’s a year-long process that culminates in the development of an action plan.

Proposal for Laurier Avenue in front of De Lorimier Park. (Illustration by David Chedore for the Montreal Urban Ecology Centre)

The MUEC did not invent the idea of green neighbourhoods. In fact, their project builds on the City of Montreal’s 2008 Transportation Plan “The Transportation Plan recommends the creation of new green neighbourhoods. This strategy would promote the designation of perimeters with rules and amenities aimed at calming traffic, increasing security and restoring the quality of life appropriate to the residents of these neighbourhoods.” (Development Program No. 16)

“We wanted to demonstrate the feasibility of planning green neighbourhoods with citizens, experts and local organizations,” explained Luc Rabouin, executive director of the MUEC. “We wanted to encourage the political will, and to bring about a change in practices among professionals.”

Recommendations for Plateau East

The plan for Plateau East was launched yesterday. It contains over 50 recommended actions, each explained in detail. Marie-Hélène Armand, urban planning advisor at the MUEC, explained some of the proposed interventions for specific intersections or streets.

Some of the simpler recommendations involve adding traffic lights, stop signs and crosswalks to improve pedestrian safety; adding planters and installing benches. Other measures include widening sidewalks (and narrowing streets), adding planting strips, or building sidewalk bump-outs to reduce traffic speed, increase drivers’ visibility, and shorten the crossing distance. A number of recommendations deal with improving the bike path network and improving cyclist safety. More complex measures involve redesigning (and rebuilding) problematic intersections or overpasses, or changing the direction of traffic on some streets.

Entrance to Masson Street viaduct as it is now. (Illustration by David Chedore for the Montreal Urban Ecology Centre)

Proposed changes for Masson Street viaduct. (Illustration by David Chedore for the Montreal Urban Ecology Centre)

Josée Duplessis, city counsellor for the De Lorimier district of the Plateau Mont-Royal borough, said the city — which has been an active partner throughout the process — has already agreed to implement some of the smaller recommendations, and will study the feasibility of others. To this end, she announced the creation of a follow-up committee, which will include representatives and professionals from the various groups and partners involved.

So what happened in Park Ex and Mercier East?

Rabouin notes that real change requires four ingredients: political will, mobilization of local organizations and associations (business, health, etc.), citizens who assert their demands, and professionals such as urban planners who are open to doing things differently. He believes the Plateau East has a good measure of all four ingredients.

In Park Extension and Mercier East, where plans were launched last spring, things are moving more slowly, he admits. Yet they are moving. In Mercier East, the mayor set up a follow-up committee bringing all stakeholders to the table; the borough has now committed to building a pedestrian and cyclist crossing over the train tracks — one of the bigger and more costly requests. In Park Extension, he said, a follow-up committee has only just been created, but several local organizations have now decided to work together to push for change.

It’s a long-term vision. “What we’re saying is, you have to seize all the opportunities,” said Rabouin. “Streets and sidewalks get redone all the time, so you may as well redo them right!”

The plan for Southeastern NDG is scheduled to be launched mid-June.

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Lately, when I wash dishes, take my shower, or turn on the washing machine, I’m thinking about my walk though the vast, dark, cavernous filtration gallery at Montreal’s Charles-J. Des Baillets water filtration plant. I’m thinking about the sixty basins of water filtering through their four-foot-deep beds of sand. I’m thinking about the deafening noise of the plant’s pumps. I’m thinking about the molecules darting around in the gigantic ozonizers that kill bacteria and viruses. I’m thinking about the 20 Megawatts per day it takes to do all this.

And that’s just one of seven plants serving the Montreal territory.

Each day, pumps draw water from the St. Lawrence River, Lac Saint-Louis, Rivière des Prairies and Lac des Deux Montagnes to supply the island with drinking water. The water is filtered, disinfected and chlorinated, sent to water reservoirs for storage, and then carried though a distribution network of pipes to businesses and homes.

Filtration Gallery tech sheet: "60 filtering beds divided into four units of 15 double filters, each having 4.9 m by 16.5 m tanks"

After we’ve used the water and flushed our toilets, it goes through another network of pipes to the island of Montreal’s wastewater treatment station, where it is cleaned as much as possible before being dumped back into the St. Lawrence River. (But we’ll talk about that another day.)

Like last fall’s excursion to the city dump (um, sanitary landfill), my visit to the Charles-J. Des Baillets filtration plant in LaSalle was organized by the Société environnementale Côte-des-Neiges (SOCENV). These visits are part of a program for integrating immigrants into Quebec society, but anyone is welcome to participate.

Noisy pumps. For the tour, our guide spoke into a headset and we wore earphones.

The Des Baillets plant is the island of Montreal’s second biggest, producing 1.136 million cubic metres of drinking water per day. The biggest is the Atwater plant, producing 1.364 million m3.  Both plants draw their water from the depths of the St. Lawrence River, just upstream from the Lachine Rapids. Together, they produce 88% of the island’s potable water.

The water treatment process

In operation since 1978, the Des Baillets plant is a bit different from the Atwater plant because it uses ozonation to disinfect the water. “Ozonation . . . produces water of superior quality than that obtained from the classic chlorination process,” the plant’s literature states. Some chlorine is added at the end of the process, but this is just to make sure the water remains sterile until it reaches your tap (or the tap of your friend who lives on the far end of the distribution system).

Here’s how it works:

1. Water goes through a rough screening at the point of intake to prevent the passage of larger substances or objects. It is then pumped up to the top of the filtration plant, so that gravity can carry the water through the rest of the plant’s processes.

2. In the filtration gallery, the water goes through double filters that use 1.2 m of siliceous sand, eliminating about 80% of organic substances, bacteria and viruses.

The insides of an ozonizer (one not currently in use, that is!)

3. Next, ozone is injected. This destroys any remaining bacteria and viruses. The ozone is then destroyed in powerful ovens. Note: at the moment, the ozone is extracted from the air; however, the plant is undergoing renovations to use pure oxygen instead.

4. At this point, the water is suitable for human consumption. However, to keep the water sterile throughout its distribution, a small dose of chlorine is injected before it is pumped out to the reservoirs. (In the plants that do not use ozonation, chlorination is part of the disinfection process.)

Montreal has seven drinking water production plants. The five on the west of the island have reservoirs, at the plants or along the network, with a total capacity equivalent to 32 Olympic pools. The Des Baillets and Atwater plants have on-site reservoirs with capacities equivalent to 121 and 66 Olympic pools respectively. But they supply six reservoirs located on and around the summit of Mount Royal, with a total capacity of over 600,000 m3 (160 Olympic pools). Gravity is then used to send the water through the city’s distribution system.

Mmm, mmm, good

The water is tested when it comes out of the plant, of course, but also all along the network, every day. Standards and parameters (including those relating to chlorine) are set out in Quebec’s Regulation respecting the quality of drinking water. During the visit, our guide noted that the plant will soon be adding UV treatment, to further improve the water quality.

I’m not going to get into the tap water vs. bottled water debate here. But I think it’s safe to say that (1) Montreal has excellent tap water; and (2) the environmental impact and energy costs of bottled water far exceed those of potable tap water.

On the issue of whether tap water or bottled water is better for your health, the Quebec organization Eau Secours did a study a few years ago, comparing applicable laws, regulations and quality controls for the two types of water. You can read their conclusions online : “Eau du robinet versus eau embouteillée: laquelle est la plus sécuritaire?” They also have a campaign about the safe reuse of plastic bottles: see their brochure, “La réutilisation des contenants de plastique d’eau embouteillée et la santé.” (Both links in French only, sorry.)

And now, I’m off to have a cup of tea — made from freshly boiled and brewed Montreal tap water.


City of Montreal: “Production de l’eau potable” and in particular, “Le saviez-vous?” (a sort of FAQ page)

Eau Secours, a Quebec coalition that advocates responsible water management

Info about the UN “Water for Life” Decade

Aquanomy, a site devoted to water conservation in the home

And an interesting article that appeared recently in The Economist, reminding us that not everyone has free and easy access (or any access) to safe drinking water: “The worth of water.”


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