Ever since the pandemic started in Quebec last year, Enrico Asselin has noticed that parks and greenspaces across the city of Laval are getting a lot more attention from residents than usual.
As the president of Mouvement PlantAction – a local organization devoted to increasing greenspace in the city for public and environmental health – Asselin has been a longtime advocate for urban regreening, raising awareness of the many benefits that trees provide, especially for people's physical and mental health.
But when the pandemic hit, millions of people around the world suddenly found themselves stuck inside, and access to greenspace and safe outdoor areas took on a whole new importance, according to Asselin.
"Our work has always been about helping fight climate change and the loss of biodiversity while having a positive impact on the health and wellbeing of urban communities," Asselin said.
"When COVID-19 hit, and most indoor public spaces closed, greenspaces became essential, which helped to highlight the importance of the work we do."
According to a June 2020 survey conducted by Park People – a national Canadian charity whose mission is to support and mobilize park stakeholders, and for whom TD Bank Group is a founding sponsor – 70% of Canadian respondents said their appreciation for parks and green spaces has increased during COVID-19. While in an adjacent survey, 55% of park department representatives interviewed said park use had increased during COVID-19.
According to the same survey, nearly two-thirds of respondents said they had been visiting parks at least several times a week throughout the pandemic, while 82% of respondents said that parks have become more important to their mental health during COVID-19.
Mouvement PlantAction is just one of more than a dozen organizations coordinating regreening projects across numerous cities in Quebec as part of the Sous les pavés (SLP) project run by the Centre d’écologie urbaine de Montréal (CEUM), which launched in 2018.
The Sous les pavés project aims to create more public greenspaces that enhance the health of communities and the environment. The project is supported by TD through the TD Ready Commitment, the Bank's global corporate citizenship platform.
A community transformed, just in time
For the residents of Place Saint-Martin in the city of Laval – a low-income housing project that is home to about 350 families – the regreening project coordinated by Asselin and Mouvement PlantAction in 2018 could not have happened at a better time.
The project involved 55 community volunteers coming together to rip out a 250 square-metre section of asphalt and replace it with 10 trees and more than 500 perennial plants to provide a much-needed play area, flower garden and shaded gathering space for the community.
The once sterile and uninviting space, which was dangerously icy in the winter and too hot to use in the summer, became a new gathering space. Since the project was completed, it has provided a much-needed greenspace for locals to use, including during the long months of isolation as a result of public health measures in place during the pandemic.
"It couldn’t have been a better time to have completed this project in Laval in 2018," Asselin said.
"The community ended up with a flower garden where people can socialize and relax, and a place for children to play in at a time when they perhaps needed it the most, and for a community that needed it the most. Low income housing has notoriously poor access to greenspaces and is often situated in densely paved areas that our projects target the most."
Water cycles and urban heat islands
Regreening projects for SLP are typically chosen according to a number of criteria, including the size of the site (usually the site needs to be at least 100 square-metres of asphalt), the location's relation to public space, whether the area is more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, as well as the community's need and desire to maintain the greenspace in the future.
Beyond the benefits to the residents of Place Saint-Martin, Mouvement PlantAction estimates that the results of the de-paving project will divert 250 cubic-metres of water from sewers per year.
"Over the decades, our cities have been waterproofed by roads, sidewalks and constructed buildings, preventing water from being absorbed by the ground," explains Raphaëlle Dufresne, project coordinator at the Centre d’écologie urbaine de Montréal.
"Paved surfaces have several negative environmental and economic impacts including the interruption of the natural water cycle, redirecting runoff to public infrastructure and increased costs of water treatment and maintenance of municipal infrastructure," said Dufresne.
By helping reduce paved spaces, SLP is a climate change adaptation project that helps recreate 'sponge cities' by offering a solution for the sustainable management of rainwater, while getting communities involved in creating new greenspaces, explained Dufresne.
"Climate change amplifies extreme weather events and affects the urban water cycle," said Dufresne.
"We are already seeing more abundant and extreme precipitation in Quebec and can expect this phenomenon to increase, so we must act now. Climate change adaptation strategies must be increasingly integrated into municipal planning tools to make them more resilient."
Along with increased rainfall due to climate change comes increased temperatures, which pose a significant health risk for urban dwellers. According to Health Canada, large dark surfaces (roads, roofs and parking lots) in urban areas can turn cities into what are called 'urban heat islands', which are surfaces that absorb and radiate the sun's rays, making cities hotter than rural areas, and which contribute to poorer air quality.
Citizens fighting climate change
Between 2021–2024, phase two of the SLP project includes plans to de-pave and regreen 18 public or community-use spaces in 10 Quebec regions, with the support of TD.
"Creating more green spaces in cities bring its share of environmental and public health benefits: fewer paved spaces, more rainwater absorbed naturally, improved air quality and fewer heat islands, just to name a few," said Dufresne.
"However, it’s the social aspect of the SLP project that really shines. Thanks to this initiative, people can participate in the creation of spaces that meet their real needs. It can mobilize citizens and give them a way to take concrete action against climate change through its participatory process."