In search of Montreal’s greener side

It is generally accepted that higher incomes are associated with better health outcomes; as far as mortality goes, it isn’t hard to make the connection between being able to pay for better services and living longer. But a new study has found that discrepancies in health outcomes related to income inequality are substantially reduced with higher exposure to greenery.

While all of us are familiar with the preachings on sustainability and the greening of our urban environment for the earth’s sake, our future children’s sake, and quite possibly our own psychological sake, the study, published in The Lancet, has indicated that exposure to green spaces is also directly linked to our very immediate bodily health. Subjects in England, across income ranges displayed longer life spans on average; with increased exposure to greenery, they were also less likely to die of circulatory disease specifically, although the study found no correlation between cancer and proximity to green spaces.

The idea that “green is good” has been around for a while now, but according to Richard Mitchell, a co-author of the study, there is little research on the concrete impacts of greening.

“We lack a lot of evidence on exactly how green space is beneficial to health,” Mitchell said. “There have been studies about the relationships between green space and population health, but we think this is the first [study] to look at its impact on inequalities in health.”

Across the pond, Montreal has not yet shifted the focus of its greening approaches to concentrate more directly on health and income inequalities, but the city nonetheless has an extensive plan for urban green spaces, often collaborating with neighbourhood-based organizations in their greening initiatives. In turn, these non-governmental groups, such as La Société de Verdissement (Soverdi) and the Urban Ecology Centre, attempt to solve problems such as the urban heat island effect – where cities are warmer than their rural surroundings – and work with communities to build greener, healthier environments.

Among medium-sized cities, Montreal is faring well in green initiatives.

Owen Rose, president of the Urban Ecology Centre, noted that from an ecological perspective, Montreal benefits from its large, densely-populated urban core, which facilitates access to transit and services, and contributes to the city’s vibrant urban culture. But, according to Rose, Montreal, like most North American cities, also has a tree deficit.

“In the long run this means that… we’ll see fewer trees than we have already,” he said.

Pierre Belec, special advisor to the General Manager for the city of Montreal and liaison for Soverdi, meanwhile, noted that the tree-planting project is only one aspect of the city’s complex sustainability and greening plan. However, he identified it as a keystone initiative.

“The tree planting projects in the boroughs are big projects because often old [trees] need to be cut down and new ones replanted en masse,” Belec said. “There is a renewal of the urban forest which is being planned right now.”

Yet Rose contends that even though the city plants new trees every year, there is still a net deforestation problem. This, in turn, is exacerbated in the more dense, urban, downtown neighbourhoods.

“There is limited per capita access to green space in the old pre-World-War-II neighbourhoods, for instance Rosemont, or the South centre, St. Henri, Point St. Charles, [and even] the Plateau,” Rose said. “All of these central neighbourhoods have a low level of park access per capita because they were densely populated and densely grown. The challenge is how to give them greater access to more green spaces.”

The city has no specific guidelines for selecting which neighbourhoods will undergo greening projects, and leaves such issues to the boroughs. Thus, economic considerations – such as a prioritization of marginalized areas in greening projects, per The Lancet study’s findings, for example – are not accounted for.

According to Belec, the impetus for greening projects is instead left largely to individual communities themselves.

“We work mostly on a first-com- first-serve basis because of the necessary involvement of people,” he said. “There is not such a planning process.”

Belec added that neighbourhood greening projects have been initiated through various routes – both top-down and bottom-up. He cited the examples of Verdun and Rosemeont, two areas in which the elected officials were involved in the process, often going door-to-door to mobilize people interested in pursuing a greening objective. On the other hand, districts like the Plateau have seen citizens take a much more hands-on approach.

“[In the Plateau] people have been greening their back alleys for 20 years now, so you don’t need to go out and convince them, they’ll come to you; and this means that we don’t need to do a lot of planning on which neighbourhoods to target,” Belec said.

However, Rose explained that certain neighbourhoods are, by nature, able to support more greenery based on their relative location and wealth.

“Westmont and Outremont [for example] are old neighbourhoods, but they are very green,” he said. “The problem with the old, downtown, pre-World-War-II neighbourhoods is that they can’t compare in greenery, [and] they also tend to be poorer neighbourhoods as well. The periphery, outside the central area, just by virtue of being much less dense, has more greenery.”

Though the Urban Ecology Centre itself does not have a policy to target less advantaged neighbourhoods, Rose noted that this is not a matter of ideology, but rather a matter of geography – the Centre is located in the Milton-Parc neighbourhood. Still, the Urban Ecology Centre concerns itself with a range of urban environmental issues, which have impacts city-wide – from sustainable neighbourhood planning, to urban transport and water management. Rose reported that a large new project on green neighbourhoods, geared toward healthy active transport, is currently at the top of the Centre’s agenda.

“It’s about encouraging people to walk, bike, and use public transit, as well as focusing on neighbourhoods that are poorer, to improve healthy living conditions,” Rose said, adding that people need to be able to walk and exercise in safer environments in order to be healthier.

“We need safe sidewalks and bike-paths,” Rose said. “[The problem is that] in Montreal, our poorer central neighbourhoods have less per capita green space and higher traffic densities, so it’s not as encouraging for people to walk and exercise.”

This, he said, may be a factor contributing to the health discrepancies among income groups, adding that poorer areas tend to be deprived of the green spaces which are so integral to health – both physically and psychologically.

The city, meanwhile, has its own plans for boosting accessibility.

Noting the importance of bike paths in linking the city’s neighbourhoods, as well as facilitating access to green spaces and parks for many residents, Patricia Lowe, communications officer for the city of Montreal, has reported that plans to open a “beltway” or “green loop” around the mountain are in the works. The project is scheduled to be completed next year.

“That will [allow] access – [for both] biking and walking – to the mountain from different areas of the city that were previously cut off. The Plateau and Côte-des-Neiges will have easier access, and downtown eastern Montreal too,” Lowe said, adding that this would greatly ameliorate issues of differential access to green spaces.