Skip to main content

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.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Where did the water go? Art action in Lot M Parking

West Campus Eco-Art Project  A walking activity and site activation on McMaster’s West Campus.  West Campus Eco-Art Project is a project that incorporates creative walking activities and an artistic site activation connected with the West Campus Redesign Initiative at McMaster University. The initiative provides opportunities for connecting with nature through an on-line informational video, walking excursions and creative activities that deepen knowledge and experience with place in all its complexities (social history, citizen science, ecology and diversity).  Focusing on the Coldwater creek valley on McMaster’s West Campus, participants will learn about the history and unique features of the area and will be invited to then engage with the site through observation, sketching and stencil-making. Stencils will be used to paint text and image on the parking lot asphalt to delineate a blue line that marks an historic water route.  The project is supported by the McMaster Museum of Art (

McMaster's Parking Problem: Next Level

I'm sharing a recent article published in the Dundas Star News about McMaster's plan to build a - get this - $17-million dollar parking structure. Seventeen million. Yes, $17,000,000.00 That's a lot of money to provide temporary shelter for vehicles of people who choose to drive to campus. We will be following this closely. Here's the article.  Cootes Drive six-storey McMaster University parking garage under review Variances or amendment to zoning bylaw expected to permit parking structure Craig Campbell, Dundas Star News, Friday, March 5, 2021 Zoning bylaw variances, or amendments, could be required for a planned six-storey, 567-space McMaster University parking garage west of Cootes Drive, and north of Thorndale Crescent. University spokesperson Michelle Donavon said the $17-million structure on parking lot K at Westaway Road will help ongoing efforts to re-naturalize parts of the west campus, by moving some surface parking into the structure. “These plans will increa

a vision for nature in Cootes

View the Eco-Park Document here Make Cootes national park, group urges TheSpec.com - Local - Make Cootes national park, group urges Create eco-park in urbanized area Eric McGuinness , The Hamilton Spectator (Jan 28, 2009) The idea of a Cootes Paradise National Park is being revived by local conservationists. But they say it is jeopardized by plans for a self-storage warehouse beside the Desjardins Canal at the east entrance to Dundas. They point to a new vision of an urban eco-park -- maybe a national park -- incorporating the Cootes marsh, drafted by Urban Strategies Inc., the firm responsible for McMaster University's campus master plan among other Hamilton projects. Joe Berridge, a partner who has helped reshape waterfronts in Toronto, New York and London, produced the concept document at the invitation of Ben Vanderbrug, retired general manager of the Hamilton Conservati