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Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Deforested City

London likes to be known as the Forest City, even though the nickname may have originally been an insult. London, the city deep in the forests of southwestern Ontario — an unimportant, little hick town lost in the middle of nowhere.

The city is looking at how to improve the downtown. Nothing new here. Ever since I moved to London, more than three decades ago, the rallying cry has been, "Downtown revival!"

I remember when paving stones and trees in the sidewalk were part of the answer. Paving stones appeared everywhere downtown. Not only were they more visually interesting than concrete, taxpayers were told that in the long run paving stones would save the city money. Work that in the past would have necessitated the destruction of the sidewalk and the subsequent installation of a new concrete pad would now be completed by lifting out the paving stones, setting them to the side and when the work was completed the stones would be placed back in their original positions. This hasn't happened. The stones are lifted, scrapped and asphalt used to patch over the repair — all very messy.

I also recall when sidewalks lined with shade-giving trees were being promoted. Cuts were crudely made in the concrete sidewalks, steel grates to protect the trees, while allowing ample water to reach their roots, were installed. The trees were planted, sometimes multiple times. It appears now the city has given up, at least along this stretch of York Street shown on the left.

The paving stones have settled and to make walking safer asphalt has been used to eliminate the ridge that could trip walkers. In the centre where there was once a tree, there is now a circular patch of asphalt. The only green is supplied by weeds struggling through the steel grate.

I believe this is a symbol, a sign — a sign of defeat. The ideas were, as they say, half-baked. The dream of a sidewalk beautified by a long, row of green trees is dead. On the right, the grate has been removed, as have the paving stones, and the entire square patch of earth asphalted over. Not even a weed will be allowed to grow.

Why didn't the trees flourish? Possibly, they died because the dream was never healthy. Before we plant trees in the sidewalk, maybe we have to plant trees in people's minds. And before that, maybe we have to plant the desire to create a better, a more beautiful downtown in people's minds. It is clear from the lack of care exercised in the cutting of the original concrete, in the lazy, oh-so-ugly asphalt maintenance, that even the city did not take this beautification program seriously.

Maybe the city had the right idea a few years ago when they opted for brightly painted metal trees, works of art, for the downtown. Oddly enough, some folk are again calling for the real thing. Before we change the trees, we need to change the attitude, the mindset, of Londoners.

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