The city of Montréal in Québec lies almost exactly halfway between the North Pole and the equator, in a region that climatologists describe as “humid continental.” Which is to say, hot in summer, bitterly cold in winter, and wet all year round. Starting in October or November, that means snow: a little over two metres annually, burying sidewalks, trapping cars, and generally swallowing the streetscape until as late as May.
It’s no surprise, then, that snow removal is a big business in Montréal. In 2019 the city spent $166.4 million hauling it off the streets and laying down nearly 150,000 tonnes of salt in its place — more than the weight of 66 Statues of Liberty.
That year, approximately 300,000 trips were made to remove roughly 12 million cubic metres of snow, enough to fill the Great Pyramid of Giza five times over.
But where does all that snow go?
That’s what Patrick Evans asked himself 20 years ago, while sitting in traffic behind a snow truck during one of his first winters in Montréal. Evans is now an expert in northern architecture and a design professor at UQAM university, but at the time he had just relocated from Halifax to start his career.
Rather than go home, Evans decided to find out where that truckload of snow was headed. “I was in my beat-up old Honda Civic,” he recalls, “and I just followed the truck for 45 minutes,” all the way to a fence at the end of a street in a low-income neighbourhood called Saint-Michel, in the north end of Montréal. He climbed out of his car and watched in amazement as the truck entered a gigantic quarry filled with snow.
Evans had discovered the Saint-Michel Quarry. By far the biggest of the city’s 29 snow dump sites, it receives 4.8 million cubic metres of dirty, trash-filled snow every year — 40 per cent of the city’s total snowfall.
There’s so much snow that some years it never fully melts, even on the hottest day of summer. Yet despite occupying 17 per cent of the neighbourhood, the quarry remains effectively hidden by a dense treeline. Most locals go about their lives without ever laying eyes on it: a massive, strangely invisible crater in the middle of their community. But even if residents don’t know it’s there, they know what it does to the neighbourhood.
“People identify the impacts of the quarry,” says Agnès Barthélémy, the Saint-Michel Quarry project manager for Vivre Saint-Michel en Santé, a neighbourhood community organization. “They know very well that the neighbourhood is cut in two and that there are plenty of trucks everywhere, which make traffic even more difficult. They know there is constant noise. And they know it takes them 50 minutes to go to school. It’s just when you ask them exactly why. That, they don’t know.”
She explains that many residents of the neighbourhood — 40 percent of whom live below the poverty line — don’t have time to investigate the sources of these problems, let alone to try to solve them.
“People here are at times in very difficult situations,” says Barthélémy. “We’re talking about situations where they don’t have food, where they find it difficult to pay their rent, where they’re in apartments that are in bad conditions. When you’re living with those problems, why the neighbourhood is cut in two becomes a very distant problem.”
For almost six decades, the big open pit known as the Francon Quarry produced the crushed stones and cement that have shaped Montréal, supplying material to build important architectural landmarks like the Olympic Stadium, Habitat 67, and the Jewish General Hospital. When the city purchased it in 1984, the quarry was converted, first into a municipal garbage dump, and then into the snow dump it is today.
“Snow is considered trash in Montréal,” says Daniel Chérubin of Vivre Saint-Michel en Santé. “And no one wonders where that trash goes, they just know a truck comes by and picks it up.”
Since 2006 Vivre Saint-Michel en Santé has been holding consultations with the city in hopes of turning the site into something other than a place to store snow.
“It’s only since we started talks with the city about a development project, in 2005, that the quarry’s been starting to be seen in a positive light,” says Jean Panet-Raymond. He works for Vivre Saint-Michel en Santé as a citizen participation officer and has been a community organizer in the neighbourhood for over 30 years.
The site was a nuisance to the residents of the neighbourhood long before the city started using it for snow removal, says Panet-Raymond. While the quarry was still being exploited for its natural resources, dynamite could be heard and felt exploding at least twice a day. All the surrounding houses had cracks in their foundations, and dust and smoke could be seen (and inhaled) throughout the streets of Saint-Michel.
“And after years of public pressure we finally get that activity to stop, and the city decides to take possession of it and have trucks fill the hole with snow,” says Panet-Raymond.
Thinking differently about snow
After discovering the quarry, Evans was inspired to write Where the Snow Goes, a children’s picture book published in 2005. He recounts his adventure following the snow truck and how it inspired him to start working on a wild idea: to use giant ice cubes to help cool down city parks during summer heat waves. It may sound like a project that’s better suited to children’s literature than urban design, but Evans points out that the idea is well-grounded in reality.
“In places like Japan, Sweden, Norway, and even China now, they are doing things with snow instead of just treating it like garbage,” he says.
Since he wrote his book, scientists around the world have made a lot of progress in turning snow into an energy source. In Bibai, Japan, some of the 8 to 11 metres of snow the city receives each winter is stored in special containers and then used in summer to cool data centres. The Oslo Airport in Norway uses a snow-based cooling system to reduce energy costs. And recently, UCLA scientists claim to have invented a way to produce electricity from falling snow using an electron-capturing device.
Most cities around the world still just push it to the side of the road, however.
Due to the enormous amount of snow Montréal receives each winter, Chérubin understands that not all of it can be converted into energy. Nonetheless, there’s a desperate need to stop dumping so much of it into the quarry and start examining other options.
He says the quarry’s awkward location poses more than a mobility problem. The 150 trucks passing each hour during a snowstorm create dangerous pollution and present real physical threats to pedestrians, problems he feels are being ignored by city officials.
In 2018 the city’s administration proposed using part of the quarry to store heavy machinery and trucks, which would add even more traffic to the neighbourhood.
That’s when Evans was contacted by Agnès Barthélémy of Vivre St-Michel en Santé, who had read his book and was desperate to stop the quarry from becoming the site where the city stores most of its trucks, as well as most of its snow.
“She’s a force,” says Evans. “She read the book, picked up the phone, and called me. She then came to see me and told me I had to do this. I didn’t really have a right of refusal!”
For the last 10 years, his graduating design class has been given the mandate to create habitation projects to help communities that would benefit from cold-weather infrastructure and designs. In 2019 Evans tasked his class with remodelling the Saint-Michel Quarry and finding a new use for the snow it stores.
“I actually never knew the quarry was there because of the huge wall of trees that blocks it,” says Chantal Shahin, one of Evans’ design students and a resident of Saint-Michel for the past six years. “It’s only once we got permission to visit it that I realized that this was the source of all the neighbourhood’s problems.” Shahin says Saint-Michel has many small parks, but they don’t have much in the way of benches, tables, or even playgrounds for children to play in.
According to the recent graduate, the constant air pollution and dirt coming from trucks are the main reasons the neighbourhood as a whole has been neglected. In winter, she says, the trucks sometimes stay running for upwards of 30 minutes without moving, lined up in rows of 10 while waiting to enter the quarry.
“I think people in Saint-Michel just feel abandoned,” says Shahin. “They feel like Saint-Michel is seen as a bad neighbourhood, a dirty neighbourhood, so they lost hope.”
After eight months of research and development, Evans’ class created La Carrière Francon, a published book with nine designs to remodel the quarry and benefit the community. The projects are based on consultations with Vivre Saint-Michel en Santé to ensure they address the issues facing the neighbourhood’s 56,000 residents.
It was fundamental for Barthélémy that all projects find a way to not only facilitate vehicle and foot traffic, but also ease access to community resources, which are mostly concentrated west of the quarry and can take up to an hour for people in the east to reach.
The designs include space for small businesses, bike paths and walkways, affordable housing, community gardens, and even an area to dump snow and store heavy machinery — but for Saint-Michel only, not the whole city.
“Now it’s our job [at Vivre Saint-Michel en Santé] to make these projects known to all residents,” says Barthélémy.
The city and borough administration attended the book launch in spring 2019 and expressed initial interest in the projects, but Evans says he hasn’t heard from any city official since that evening.
“In my opinion it is more a matter of will than of technology,” he says. “The will to treat the snow as something other than garbage.”
He thinks the city should stop handing off their snow-removal decisions to waste-management engineers, and instead put experts in charge who understand that snow is part of the urban winter experience and who recognize its true value as an energy source.
Evans believes that snow should be strategically placed throughout the city, by, for instance, leaving part of a pedestrian road covered with snow to let people ski or pull toboggans, a common practice in many Scandinavian cities. The architect would also like to see leftover snow used to sustainably cool hospitals, as is done in Sweden, Norway, and China.
“These were visionary projects,” says Josué Corvil, the city councillor for the district of Saint-Michel. But the politician admits that no change to the quarry should be expected anytime soon.
“Even the proposed public works facility, which we really need, I’m told could take a few years to approve, and that’s if it does get approved,” Corvil added.
Panet-Raymond, who is nearing retirement age, says he hasn’t given up hope on stopping the quarry snow dump. “I’m a long-term optimist,” he says. “It’s a 20- to 30-year vision for me. I think it’s going to happen; I just don’t think I’ll see it during my lifetime.”
Montréal-based freelance writer and video journalist Sacha Obas is passionate about tackling social issues. He has written articles for the Montreal Times, the Montreal Community Contact, and the Concordian.
Chloë Ellingson is a documentary photographer and filmmaker based in Montréal. Her documentary projects have been featured in the Walrus, the British Journal of Photography, and the Toronto Star. She regularly contributes to publications like Chatelaine and the Globe and Mail.
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