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Backing up the Big Yellow Taxi

‘Unpaving’ a parking lot is important to Mac — and to Hamilton

ByAidan Johnson -  Hamilton Spectator, August 31, 2013
Alberta poet Joni Mitchell wrote, around 1970, the first words of her song Big Yellow Taxi: "They paved paradise / And put up a parking lot."
A few years before, bulldozers at McMaster University had done exactly that. "Paradise", in that case, was a small but very old wetland on the campus grounds. It filtered waters that fed Ancaster Creek, a.k.a. Cold Spring Creek. That stream flows directly to yet another Paradise: Cootes — Hamilton's famous marsh, and the largest wetland on the west side of Lake Ontario. The Mac marsh became the campus parking lot now known as Lot M. The loss of the wetland weakened the creek, and so Cootes with it.
Mitchell was not specifically thinking of Mac when she wrote Big Yellow Taxi. But she was certainly haunted by the overall destruction of Canada's wild lands and waterways. Moreover, Mitchell was inspired by the burgeoning Canadian environmentalist movement of the 1960s, with its pointed view of how harming nature jeopardizes human life. (She pleads in the song: "Hey, farmer, farmer / Put away that DDT now / Give me spots on my apples / But leave me the birds and the bees.")
To pave paradise and put up a parking lot is to transact a seriously bad trade. But today — some 50 years after the creation of Lot M — a group of Mac alumni, students, and professors is seeking reversal. They have developed a plan called McMarsh. It would turn Lot M back into a marsh, making Mac the only Canadian university with a restored ecosystem project on campus.

The idea is to make McMarsh a ‘living lab’: students would be deeply involved in both the planning and the resurrection of the wetland.

That wetland would feed back into Ancaster Creek, cleaning and enriching its waters. This would in turn strengthen Cootes, which is no small boon since Cootes is both a nationally important reptile and amphibian area (pursuant to the criteria of the Canadian Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Network), and a nationally important bird area (a designation by BirdLife International, the avian ecology NGO).
McMarsh deserves the support of all McMaster denizens, and indeed all Hamiltonians. Not just for environmental reasons: McMarsh would strengthen education at McMaster, as well as the university's regionally valuable brand. The idea is to make McMarsh a "living lab": students would be deeply involved in both the planning and the resurrection of the wetland, integrating abstract learning in biology and engineering with tangible work.

Of course, Mac needs parking lots. But some preliminary evidence suggests that Lot M is much less needed now — in the era of McMaster's increased presence downtown and in Burlington — than it used to be. The lot is also not ideally situated, arguably, in terms of its present purpose: it is on the extreme west side of campus, relatively far from Mac's academic hub. (My brother and I used to collect empty beer bottles there when we were children, for "empties" money at the Beer Store.) The fact that more evidence needs to be gathered and analyzed on the "utilization" point illustrates the tender, preliminary stage at which McMarsh finds itself.
Beginnings can be exciting. Before Big Yellow Taxi, Mitchell imagined humanity's own primordial start, in her song Woodstock (1969): "We are stardust / Billion year old carbon / We are golden / Caught in the devil's bargain / And we've got to get ourselves back to the garden." The line is poetic, but also literal: the singer is impressed by the Woodstock music festival not just as any kind of event, but as an event that specifically happened outdoors (indeed, often in mud), linking men and women with nature.
Her point is in accord with McMarsh: at least in part, paradise can be regained.
Aidan Johnson is a Hamilton area community activist and lawyer.

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