Is the transformation of the Camillien-Houde route a continuation of Olmsted’s legacy?

Mount Royal Park was designed as a sequence of poetic settings unfolding over a gentle climb. In doing so, he made our modest mountain seem larger, more majestic, more royal. Above all, he insisted that such a singular place should not simply serve to breathe clean air and exercise, but that deeply touching the souls of visitors should be its main objective. Everyone, including the most deprived or least mobile, should be able to enjoy the landscapes of Mount Royal magnified by landscape art. No place should be taken over by a select group. This is the brilliant vision of Frederick Law Olmsted.

Many voices repeated in unison that the transformation of Camillien-Houde into a cycle route and a pedestrian path was directly inspired by this vision. Does this selling point stand up to analysis?

The slope of the Camillien-Houde route reaches 10%, which exceeds the maximum acceptable to be universally accessible, even with the installation of a guardrail. Only experienced cyclists and pedestrians will enjoy climbing such a steep slope very quickly. The father of landscape architecture in North America insisted that maximum slopes not exceed 2% on today’s Olmsted Road and other trails.

The descent is even more problematic. The creation of a wide, steeply sloping cycle route will encourage many cyclists to let themselves be carried away by a dizzying descent. A few years ago, a speed detector was installed at the site where a cyclist died when he hit the door of a vehicle making a U-turn. This counter revealed that cyclists generally drove much faster than motorists. Imagine a peloton of cyclists riding at a breakneck pace coming face to face with a climber overtaking an exhausted cyclist zigzagging or a family crossing the cycle route in a happy disorder. Even trees risk being lethal if they slip.

When announcing the project, Mayor Valérie Plante strongly insisted on the presence of numerous organizations linked to sports cycling, including the International Cycling Union. Could the Camillien-Houde cycle route be destined to become a center for elite development?

The perspective also shows a wide path intended for pedestrians. Let’s not forget that the slope will be too steep, both to suit the majority of walkers and to resist water runoff. Its surfaces will probably be more similar to those observed in densely urbanized environments rather than Olmsted Road.

The Camillien-Houde route is the oversized, asphalted heir to a tramway that took citizens from the East to the Smith house, in the heart of Mount Royal Park. The evolution of this territory is described with sensitivity in a wonderfully illustrated text, The mountain path, by historian Denise Caron. This text is part of the rich documentation made accessible as part of a public consultation (OCPM) in which thousands of Montrealers participated.

During this consultation, as in each of the dozens held for more than three decades, Montrealers repeated tirelessly and with ever greater force that any action taken on Mount Royal must achieve excellence in all respects.

How will we highlight rock walls, visual openings, streams and other natural elements of the mountain? The project should not simply seek to maximize the number of trees planted. Interventions must primarily be part of the protection and enhancement of the singularities of the mountain, including its rich natural environments.

Mount Royal is the iconic and emblematic place of Montreal, because its mountain character has been magnified and enchanted by Olmsted’s art. It is one of the absolute masterpieces of this great master.

Everyone agrees on the fact that the Camillien-Houde route is oversized and that it must be fundamentally transformed. Other options than the one presented exist to minimize asphalt surfaces and discourage through vehicle traffic. Over the past five years, different versions of a walking path meeting the criteria set out by the OCPM have surely been developed. Another solution would be to once again install a rolling tram on a green carpet and create a more winding pedestrian path, which includes honeycombed inserts planted with perennials, allowing a fire truck or an ambulance to respond to emergencies. Mount Royal deserves an informed discussion.

Can we get away from preconceptions, even if they are pious? It is often said that “hell is paved with good intentions”. We must succeed in a project that truly achieves excellence both for its democratic, landscape and ecological values, a project worthy of this exceptional heritage from which we have benefited for almost 150 years and which we must magnify.

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