Sober second thought important in urban planning and architecture

SST is an acronym that was once in more familiar use as an identifier of aircraft capable of travelling at higher speeds than sound. It stood for supersonic transport and it seemed to provide a glamorous image of a people desirous of progress and bent on realizing things as fast as humanly possible, at lightning speed … or nearly.

Although the acronym has already been appropriated, it could also have stood for something quite different: sober second thought. Thought of in that way, SST is a quality of reflection that seems often to be abandoned in the haste for progress.

Of course, you might say, examples abound of the presence of sober second thought in our current projects of development. The considerable delays in the developing of a site and plan for one of Montreal’s two super-hospitals: is that not a fine example of this? Perhaps. Another interpretation of the delays is not the desire for SST (in this new sense of the acronym) but rather the fight for position between various actors at institutional and government levels. SST may not have counted for very much. Was it a factor in the Mirabel adventure (nobody seems to have then given much thought to the city-Mirabel transport link)?

We need not look too far for good examples. Often, SST is provided by citizen groups who feel that the full implications of progress have not been given appropriate second thought. Richard Desjardin has brought those together who feel that modern forestry practice in Quebec is at least in need of some re-evaluation. A group of citizens in the Valleyfield-Beauharnois region enabled a sober reflection on Hydro-Québec’s Sirois natural gas electricity-generating project and saved us from the pollution equivalent of 600,000 new gasoline cars on the road. Such SST may lead to the more environmentally friendly development of hydroelectric or wind power options.

The entrance to the Musée national du Québec via Grand-Allée is unquestionably one of the more beautiful urban plans we have and has been enjoyed by locals and visitors for many decades. As you walk up the short road toward the small traffic circle and its monument to one of the two main protagonists of an eighteenth century European conflict, and to the beautiful museum complex and entrance, you are embraced by the calm of the short walk and the park spaces to its left and right. The new addition to the museum will likely change that heritage site and destroy an adjoining convent. Has the administration of the Musée national, piloted by the very active John Porter, given very much sober second thought to its plans for a large addition that would fill much of this space while still being physically divorced from the existing museum?

The museum’s expansion project is needed (which other museums have fifty times more art than they can exhibit at one time?). Could not the convent building be saved from demolition and used to store some of the museum’s very considerable collection? What about the parking lot to the museum just east of the former prison? Could parking not be relocated underground and a new building addition be placed there and more closely integrated into the existing museum? And would not the addition make sense if placed near the original museum building, perhaps to its south? The Battlefield Commission would have to give permission and/or allocate a small part of the Plaines d’Abraham, but it is not as if the Plains were too small in area to permit that possibility.

Many consider the large Rabaska liquid natural gas terminal a done thing. Perhaps it makes sense to a part of the population. Another group of citizens, however, is involved in the exercise of SST and are questioning the potential security concerns involved in allowing 12-story-high liquid natural gas vessels of three football fields in length to manoeuvre within a very thin channel between Ile d’Orléans and La Rive Sud, close to surrounding villages but also to a population base of 600,000 persons. The distances from the nearby populations on the island or on the south shore are reputedly considerably less than the American minimum limits for such operations, but Canada has apparently no legislation on this important matter (although Canada did act to prevent methane tankers into Passamaquoddy Bay near St. Andrews).

The Canadian government will soon give its advice on the use of the important national waterway, upon which the methane port would be built. How much sober second thought will be brought into play on this? Security of the population and the impact of the operation on seaway traffic is only one of several aspects they might reflect upon. Others, although perhaps of less import for the Department of Transport Canada, are the heritage nature of the area involved and the environmental questions of the port and that of an almost inevitable future industrial development of a fossil-fuel-based industry.

The seaway is a lifeline, and has been from the pre-European period through to French colonial and more recent times. The possibility of the huge tankers blocking the channel or the waters in front of the Port de Québec, when winds in excess of 20 or 30 km/h ground them, is of concern. Should not sober second thought take into further account the advantages (no doubt significant) and the disadvantages (equally significant) of the projected port in this area? Just how important is the project to the Quebec City region itself? If our relatively modest needs are not supplied by Russia or Algeria, could they not be by western Canada? Should other options not be considered, including the development of an industrial site that would be more physically divorced from the built up areas of Quebec City, the south shore and Ile d’Orléans?

Things that happen at high speed can leave long trails. Maybe it is time for an open discussion and some SST?