Montreal’s Darlington Corridor Grows, Gradually, Landscape Architecture Magazine, Dec. 2022.
The Ecological Corridor Darlington project in Montreal, Canada belongs to an emerging school of thought—often coming under the banner of “rewilding” in Europe—that argues, for the sake of biodiversity and prevention of mass extinction, that urban spaces should be densely repopulated by greenery and wildlife, merging human and animal habitats. If its full vision is realized, the Darlington project will eventually trace a continuous pathway between three large parks in central Montreal¬—Mount Royal, Parc Jarry, and Parc Pierre Trudeau—and intersect with an active railway, expanding biodiversity within the urban environment and gradually allowing red foxes and other wildlife from the nearby Mount Royal hills to make their way into the city. The plan stages its ecological comeback in the manner of Japanese steps, garden by garden, engaging communities along the way and involving local residents. The far-off dream: to daylight an underground stream buried below Darlington Avenue, which extends northwest from Mount Royal and between the other two parks.
Begun in 2012 by Alexandre Beaudoin, a biodiversity consultant for the Mount Royal nature area, in collaboration with landscape architect Marie Le Mélédo, the project envisioned a dual approach: Small garden projects and fruit trees, installed quickly, would benefit the diverse Côte-des-Neiges neighborhood around Darlington Avenue, testing people’s desire to get their hands dirty in the soil and preventing the pushback that can happen when green space replaces pavement. Meanwhile, the team would work to get city officials to enhance ecosystem services, using bioswales to collect stormwater and trees and understory plantings to mediate the heat island effect, support pollinators, and promote biodiversity.
“It’s not that easy to get a linear corridor in the city, so we are focusing on [small] steps,” says Beaudoin, whose PhD work at the University of Montreal focuses on how well the greening of urban spaces is accepted by local populations. “We focus on green spaces that will enhance the habitat for biodiversity.”
In 2014, Beaudoin and Le Mélédo began planting fruit trees and edible and medicinal plants on the campus of the University of Montreal, situated within Mount Royal. With help from the president of the Côte-des-Neiges-Notre-Dame-de-Grâce residential borough, they secured funding to install 44 giant flowerpots on Darlington Avenue, which members of local communities then planted. Since then, the borough has supported annual projects to expand the corridor, working with masters’ students in the landscape architecture program at the university.
For the larger project, the parks’ initial discontinuity will be an advantage, Beaudoin says. It will help prevent invasive species from spreading. “You can have the poetic approach, which is to connect the green spaces, and it will definitely help [biodiversity] because we’re attacking the fragmentation of the habitats,” he says. “At the same time, we make a link for invasive species too. So, we have to be alert for this reality.”
Apart from funding, design implementation, and adoption by society, the expansion of multispecies ecologies in human built environments faces substantial policy obstacles. Montreal has a municipal office of ecological transition and resilience to help transform the city in the face of climate crisis and loss of biodiversity. It is exploring, for instance, how to modify current regulations restricting grasses from growing higher than eight inches, which prevents wild plants from flowering. Clément Badra, a coordinator for the Darlingon project from 2017 to 2020, now serves as a political attaché in the mayor’s office for Côte-des-Neiges-Notre-Dame-de-Grâce. In August, the organizers walked the district with the mayor, who expressed enthusiasm for expanding the forest into the city.
As much potential as the project has to mobilize the population, “we need public institutions to help out a lot more than they’re doing right now,” Badra says. “There’s a ton of regulations in place that put constraints on the project, so there’s a need to be looking at that.”