About 25 people gathered on June 2 at the north end of Champlain Park for a unique opportunity: a tour of the gardens and forest planted and managed by the Champlain Park community. Among those participating were five city councillors and their staff, City employees from a variety of departments, and a few stray plant and ecology nerds (like myself).
It’s worth providing some backgroundon the public space. The new forest and pollinator gardens are situated at the north end of Champlain Park on an underused section of Pontiac Street straddling National Capital Commision (NCC) lands and a former gravel parking lot. In 2019, the community, in collaboration with several organizations, depaved this stretch of the street and began to rehabilitate the shoulder and parking area. Over the course of two years,the Community Association’s Environment Committee—led by Daniel Buckles, Kris Phillips, John Arnason, and Catherine Shearer—established a number ofnew green initiatives. Today, the public green space boasts a pollinator garden, a rain garden, an Indigenous medicinal plants garden, a Miyawaki tiny forest of native species, a Carolinian forest (possibly the future of forests in Ottawa), and novel methods for tree planting in shallow, rocky soils (Hügelkultur). Stewardship continues—mostly by clearing invasive species that disrupt the ecosystem, but also by watering, weeding and gradually expanding the area planted. (See this paper for details on species and methods of the project.)
As Shearer, Arnason, and Buckles explained throughout the visit, the project offers substantial community benefit. Of course, given that all the species planted are native, or near natives from just south of Ottawa, it supports local biodiversity. It also serves as a demonstration plot and arboretum: the organizers regularly offer tours like ours, so people can gather inspiration, take in lessons, and apply them in their own neighbourhoods. In fact, the space is highly visible and accessible to the general public: it’s located right next to a multi-use path that leads directly to the Ottawa River. But the group’s efforts to enhance biodiversity and encourage community stewardship has also brought together community members, whether those assisting in the depaving or the high school students who self-organized to water the plants in dry periods.
One of the key elements, according to its leadership, are a few enablers that must be in place for an initiative like this to take root. One is administrative support from land owners, such as the NCC and the City of Ottawa. A land-access permit from the NCC which is renewed annually, defines a number of permitted activities and allows the community the flexibility to implement those activities on its own time. A second enabler is coverage of volunteer activities by the insurance policy of the Champlain Park Community Association. This aspect is particularly current in that the City has been revisiting its insurance arrangements with community associations, to try and make them easier and less prohibitive financially.
This visit was so important for the present moment because the barriers to undertaking this sort of project on City land are considerable; for example, doing so requires the approval of up to three City departments, as well as up to $5 million in liability insurance.In fact, the City has paused approvals of such projects for 2023—admittedly, to streamline the approvals process, which is overdue.
At the same time, opportunities for community stewardship in Ottawa are considerable. Enthusiasm for horticulture is great—as evidenced by the rapid expansion of groups like the Ottawa Wildflower Seed Library. Across the city, there are numerous under-utilized spaces owned by the City where green spaces could be established or improved. The City is taking a step in the right direction by rethinking its right-of-way bylaw, but this is just the beginning of what can happen to create and enhance tree canopy and plant biodiversity. Initiatives like the one at Champlain Park are an excellent way for the City to engage communities in meeting public goals, like countering the climate emergency and responding to climate-change-related events like the 2022 derecho.
One of those on the tour asked a question about the long-term viability of the wonderful work going on at the Champlain Park project. The organizers responded that this remained an open question because the leads “are not youngsters,” in their words. Much work needs to be done to engage future generations in such projects and plan for succession. The more ambitious it becomes, the more hands are needed.
In light of both the challenges and the benefits, how can the City make such projects easier? We’re certainly hoping that this visit—as well as the City’s current efforts to streamline community stewardship projects—move the dial in this direction so more biodiversity can flourish and we can take environmental community action across the city.
William van Geest is a Program Coordinator with Ecology Ottawa.
- Daniel Buckles introduces the Champlain Park project to a crowd of City officials, among others.
- Catherine Shearer answers questions about the pollinator gardens.
- John Arnason describes species in the Indigenous medicinal garden.
- The Carolinian Forest includes species that, with the effects of climate change, may soon be more common in Ottawa.
- Participants take advantage of lemonade provided: the temperature hit 33 degrees celsius!
- Daniel Buckles describes interventions in the Champlain Woods.