In Quebec City, the Rivers Return to the People

Cities around the world with any sort of waterfront or riverfront have been revitalizing these places, which are often saddled with polluted ports and factories, creating vibrant community spaces and recreational areas in the process. But cities vary in their ability to take advantage of their water. Some cities have flush budgets while others don’t. Some cities can tap great local planning and design talent while others must import this talent, which can be expensive. At a session at the American Planning Association (APA) conference in Chicago, Peter Murphy, Ville de Quebec, explained how Quebec City has been lucky enough to use some $250 million in federal, provincial, and local funds and tap an amazing set of local planners, landscape architects, and architects to transform its riverfront for its 400th anniversary.

Murphy said Quebec City was the only walled city north of Mexico. It’s the “cradle of French culture in North America.” But perhaps it’s most defining characteristic is its rivers, which have shaped its evolution. Quebec actually means “the place where the river narrows.” In its early history, the city came into being to transport lumber, which was moved from ports down its rivers. Quebec City provided much of the wood for Britain’s warships during the “Napoleonic blockade.” The lumber economy led to vast fortunes, with the estates of lumber barons coming in, all with river views.

Beginning around 1800, industrial development took off in Quebec City, with the riverfronts playing a critical role in this move towards the machine age. Over 200 years, development was mostly centered in the Quebec City limits, but beginning in the 21st century, the city began to sprawl out. “Development could no longer be accommodated by the riverfronts.” But by the mid-20th century, the riverfront had also become a place for recreation, at least in parts. Beaches were used for swimming, at least until the water pollution got so bad people could no longer go in.

In 2002, Quebec City was swallowed up by its surrounding areas, a “forced amalgamation process” that swelled its population from around 150,000 to more than 516,000. There was also a 6-fold increase in land area. So Quebec City decided to use this as an opportunity, creating a new “integrated planning process” and a new master plan, “Green, Blue, White,” to “rethink public space and parks and trails” in the expanded city. To get funding, projects had to have widespread public support and be found in diverse neighborhoods.

Murphy went through a slew of great projects, but highlighted here are just a few. Along Parc de la Plage Jacques Cartier, a 1.5 mile-long walkway, that was previously an access road, a new contemporary art wall was put in that commemorates the colonial presence, the early French settlers. A public walkway done by a local landscape architect uses both formal and informal spaces, featuring lighting, benches, and pavilions. There are framed views at different spots.

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In another part of the riverfront, the Samuel de-Champlain promenade transformed a 4-lane highway into pedestrian and bicycle-friendly parkway. The highway along the riverfront had previously cut off access to the water, like so many other riverfront highways in other cities. The existing road was narrowed by nearly 30 feet, with lanes removed, and made windy, to slow it down, turning it into a parkway. Some 1,200 trees were added along with thousands of shrubs. Picnic areas and soccer fields were added. Murphy said “the redesign was an instant success and quickly appropriated by the public.”


For the St. Michael Church, which sits on top of one of the best vantage points to see all of Quebec City, the city identified the need to revamp the sight lines so that there’s a better view of the church and river views. The terrace was redesigned with great sensitivity. The city team and designers decided to improve bicycling access, bury utility lines in some streets leading to the church (to remove visual obstacles), and open up the “visual connections.” The project “restored the views,” while updating the site and making it more accessible.

Other projects: the new Beauport Bay recreation area, one of the most ambitious projects, also had a “rocky start” but but “finished nicely,” with a new landscape that takes advantage of the site’s great winds. People visit for kite-flying and wind surfing. The St. Charles River corridor, a new 30-kilometer-long linear park, offers a network of bridges and boardwalks. Concrete walls originally added along the riverfront were removed in favor of low-maintenance native plants. “The re-naturalization has led to new wildlife habitat.” Pointe-Aux-Gerves (Hare Point) changed from a highly polluted brownfield, with contaminated soils down 13 feet deep, to a new green neighborhood. The really costly remediation and redevelopment project was done with private sector partners.

While all the redevelopment work mentioned was viewed as successes, he said there were also failures. The Old Port Agora, which is right below old Quebec, was to get a new plaza. The existing metal benches needed repair. The plaza felt isolated, underused. While the planning process, led by a 20-30 member committee, had moved forward successfully with the other sites mentioned, here it ran into the “Save the Agora from Drowning,” a local social activist group, which objected to the urban design plans put forward. He said the “vast majority of the city supported the design proposals,” yet some 100,o00 emails came in against the plan. Murphy said designs had to change midstream. The result: a “cutting-edge site from a technical point of view,” with bold native plant landscape and separate bicycling and pedestrian access, but an underused space. Apparently, this isn’t due to the design though: the port authority hasn’t been able to find an operator for the new outdoor stage they created. Murphy said this has been a “planning failure. It’s a beautifully landscaped dead space.” (To note: Cirque Du Soleil is expected to move to the area for a set of free summer shows, potentially transforming the place into the lively space it was designed to be.)

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The city now has a new riverfront along its 10-kilometer-long Eastern side, with more pieces coming in along the west. With all the places to go, the city is also focused on “programming” these spaces, particularly for seniors. As Murphy noted, Canada is the second fastest aging society on Earth, behind Japan. So “we need to not only add years to our life, but life to our years.”

Explore all of Quebec City’s revitalized parks and gardens.

Image credits: (1) Walled City / Vagabond Dish, (2) Parc de la Plage Jacques Cartier / Trip Advisor, (3) Samuel de-Champlain promenade / Trekearth, (4) Samuel de-Champlain promenade / ArchDaily, (5) Old Port Agora / Agora 

3 thoughts on “In Quebec City, the Rivers Return to the People

  1. scientiste 04/15/2013 / 1:06 pm

    Reblogged this on Mental Flowers and commented:
    Another great example of creating enriching public spaces out of natural environments and features already in place.

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