Student Works: Ecotone Hydro Park

A recent thesis project at McGill University by Tania Delage takes Lebbeus Woods’ idea of the borderline and the ecological phenomena of the ecotone as an opportunity to cross-breed infrastructure, ecology and public amenities.

The borderline is the site where various systems collide, superimpose, or react to create a new condition. (Woods) These systems can vary greatly in scope; from social conditions to ecological and biological conditions. They may be tied to shifts in economic activity, technological advancements, obsolete or growing infrastructure, and environmental phenomena. Ecotones are the natural spaces where transformation and growth occur, typically at borderline site conditions. It is these sites of superimposed systems that provide the grounds for a new ‘mode of culture.’

At an ecological scale, the site is the Great Lakes basin and Saint-Lawrence River, the largest freshwater system of the world. The watershed is home to many ecological systems and provides important migratory routes for fish that spawn in fresh water only to return to their salt water habitat. Ringed by areas of intense urbanization, the watershed represents a major transportation artery for commercial navigation and provides a source of hydro electric power to the surrounding areas. The waterway also serves as an open sewer to cities along its shore, as it simultaneously supplies their drinking water.

The site of intervention is the overflow or deversoir of the Rivière-des-prairies hydro-electric dam, one of the first built in Québec, located between the north shore of Montreal and the south shore of Laval. The overflow is essentially a giant retaining wall that allows for the regulation of water levels. The overflow is adjacent to the nature park - l’Ile de la Visitation. In contrast to the bucolic nature of the area, housing developments upstream discharge the equivalent of one Olympic-sized pool of untreated waste every three days into the river, producing highly polluted sediment in the area.

The project reconfigures the dam to become an inhabited filtration system and a public ‘water’ park. Fingers into the river form aerobic filtration gardens, while the concrete rings in plan form sedimentation basins, and support natural habitats for amphibians and waterfowl and re-establish migratory routes of certain fish species.

Hydro-electric generation can literally be turned on and off by shutting and opening the watergates, an endeavour lasting merely a few minutes. In times of low energy requirements, such as at night, the watergates are shut, thereby stopping the currents. The two water levels present in the site offer opportunities for a changing landscape, atune to the cyclical hydrological variations. Floating filtering gardens, located on the high water level sway back and forth with the currents produced by the dam to reminding visitors of the inner-workings of the facility itself. At the lower water level, an extension of the nature park is created, allowing visitors to experience the filter housing sequence.

Elements of the landscape become submerged, no longer suitable for human inhabitation but become appropriate for different types of wildlife. Part infrastructure, part landscape, the park becomes a shifting exchange point between water systems, energy resources, human users and animal habitats.

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