Opinion: On Mount Royal, let Frederick Olmsted be our guide

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As the City of Montreal advances its plans for Camillien-Houde Way, proponents and opponents are lifting up Frederick Law Olmsted, the great social reformer and landscape architect, in support of their plan. This is the man whose legacy includes not only Mount Royal but some of the most celebrated natural landmarks in the world: Central Park in N.Y.C., the Emerald Necklace in Boston, and the U.S. Capitol Grounds in Washington, D.C.  

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What would Olmsted do? What considerations would this great designer offer to city leaders as they consider changes to their great mountain reservation? 

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Let’s let Olmsted be our guide.  

First: Love the mountain

While Olmsted didn’t use those words, that was the major sentiment that informed his landscape design of Mount Royal. He steadfastly refused to call Mount Royal a park because it was a mountain and scenic recreation ground. Everything he did was designed to keep the mountain character in mind and the “main purpose of the enjoyment of natural scenery.” Lesson: Avoid anything that detracts from enjoying natural scenery on the mountain.   

Take it slow

Olmsted worked on Mount Royal from 1874 to 1877, and more than 100 letters remain concerning the project. Alas, much of the correspondence reflects Olmsted’s supreme disappointment with Montreal leaders who did not understand or follow his designs. In their desire to move forward rapidly, they invariably made changes that he believed would, in time, be regretted.

“If it is to be cut up with roads and walks,” he warned “and if thousands of people are to seek their recreation upon it unrestrainedly … it is likely to lose whatever of natural charm you first saw in it.”

After three transmission towers marred the viewshed and a massive parking lot was added on the mountain, Olmsted experts sounded the alarm that Olmsted’s tragic prediction might come true.  

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So it was, in 2002, that the National Association for Olmsted Parks (now the Olmsted Network) issued a Declaration on Mount Royal warning that care must be taken to limit and reduce the number of intrusions in the park:  

“Olmsted’s concept of creating a series of landscape poems along a winding road that gradually ascends the mountain is still relevant today and should remain as the structuring element and guiding principle for the park and some areas adjacent to it.”

An artist’s rendering shows how Camillien-Houde Way will be off-limits to car traffic. “All-or-nothing closures may not be the answer,” writes Anne Neal Petri of the Olmsted Network. mon

Enhance the experience through thoughtful circulation 

A continuing concern of Olmsted was the design of pathways and circulation. In a letter to the commissioners in 1874, he noted that proper circulation would promote “a tranquilizing sense of security in the minds of all classes of visitors.” This meant, for Olmsted, considerable attention to grades and a smooth and pleasurable ride.   

Passage should involve a seamless and carefully planned progression, following a gently curving course, opening different scenery to view. Trees and shrubs should be planted “in groups and clusters and thickets, with frequent glades, and openings where under favorable circumstances distant views can best be commanded.”  

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When the chairman of the Montreal Park Commission proposed a change in the road design, Olmsted wrote back with pointed criticism, finding the road too steep for safe or pleasurable passage.   

These considerations deserve equal attention today. Although vistas are an essential piece of Olmsted’s mountain design, municipal plans show heavy forestation that will block the unique views that Olmsted valued.

City plans also inexplicably ignore the recommendations of the Office de consultation publique de Montréal (OCPM) that car traffic continue, with design changes focused on making Camillien-Houde Way and Remembrance Rd. safe, slow moving and tree lined so as “to enhance the Mount Royal experience and the discovery of its landscape, natural and cultural heritage while reducing and discouraging through traffic.”  

Make sure all have access

In Mount Royal and all of Olmsted’s public commissions, access and enjoyment were critical design principles. According to Olmsted expert Charles Beveridge:   

“Access to the landscapes he designed was … important to him. His intent was to meet human needs, and to that end he made his parks accessible to all — not only all social groups, but also all ages and all physical conditions. On Mount Royal itself, as part of the system of drives and walking paths that he planned, he included a path that went to the top of the mountain and returned by another route that could be used by convalescents in wheelchairs.”

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In his 1881 published report on Mount Royal, Olmsted was especially focused on access for invalids and the infirm. He wanted to have a path from bottom to top that was accessible by wheelchair. In thinking about the design, he urged leaders to ask: “(Can) this or that be made easier and more grateful to an old woman or a sick child, without, on the whole, additional expense, except in thoughtfulness?”   

Today, these concerns remain equally important. Yet city plans will mean no vehicle access to the mountain from the east. While bicyclists will no doubt find car-free Camillien-Houde appealing, predictable speeds of up to 60 km/h or more will undermine safety and security for those on foot. Moreover, the planned road closure will be actively hostile to the enjoyment of the elderly or disabled — two groups for which Olmsted made special plans in his initial design.  

Recommendation

Given genuine concerns about city plans, citizens of Montreal and the world deserve a thorough presentation on the issues — security, public use, public transit, traffic and design principles — before any action is taken. The planning process needs to include experts in landscape architecture and Olmsted design, working with the local park team.   

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At the end of the day, all-or-nothing closures may not be the answer. Many communities have adopted partial closures and employed limits based on time and season.  

Olmsted should have the last word

In his 1881 report, Olmsted reminded Montrealers of the special qualities of their mountain reservation and urged city leaders to respect their treasure with thoughtfulness: “(Have) new mountain ideals in view; ideals with more, not less, of poetic charm,” he wrote. “(Ensure) your roads and other artificial constructions (are) made with studied regard.”  

Anne Neal Petri is president and CEO of the Olmsted Network based in Washington, D.C.

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