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cityscape

West-End Community Groups Want “Living Walls” Along Toronto’s Train Tracks

A west-end activist group wants Metrolinx to rethink its plans for 5-metre-high sound-cancelling walls.

Could some trees and shrubbery help settle years of bad blood between Metrolinx and west-end residents? That’s what some Junction-area community groups are saying.

At issue are the noise-cancelling walls Metrolinx plans to build along the Georgetown GO rail corridor, which runs through several west-Toronto neighbourhoods. The walls, at an estimated five meters high, would line certain sections of the railway, separating it from surrounding homes and businesses.

These walls, Metrolinx says, would prevent nearby communities from noticing an increase in noise from passing trains when the agency rolls out a planned expansion of train service in the corridor. The expansion will include more-frequent GO trains and new express-rail service to Pearson Airport.

Just as west-end residents once bitterly opposed the now-inevitable increase in train service (they dislike the fact that the new trains won’t run on electricity), some are now up in arms over the visual impact of the noise barriers, which they say would be too imposing. They also claim the barriers would be inviting targets for graffiti.

In a press release issued on September 17, a community activist group called the Junction Triangle Rail Committee made a counterproposal: Instead of walls made of concrete, vinyl, or acrylic, why not use plants in special, cage-like metal containers to create a sort of living wall? The group partnered with the Wabash Building Society to hire Brown and Storey Architects to flesh out the concept. (All the images in the gallery accompanying this post are renderings taken from Brown and Storey’s presentation [PDF].)

The architects argue that green, leafy barriers would be a more humane, more attractive way of shielding neighbours from the trains, and that the shrubs would be a better complement for the West Toronto Railpath, which, under the current plans, will get the noise-wall treatment over much of its length. They could also be combined with new pedestrian crossings to create a sort of linear park.

As to whether plants would be effective at blotting out train noise, nobody’s quite sure. Living walls aren’t normally used this way, and Metrolinx doesn’t intend to test them before 2015, when the new trains are expected to start rolling.

Kevin Putnam, a member of the Junction Triangle Rail Committee, sees the living-wall proposal as an answer to what he characterizes as an inadequate public-consultation process—one that has been geared toward creating consensus around a predetermined outcome. “Metrolinx hasn’t tried anything other than concrete and plexiglass noise walls, which are made for along highways,” Putnam said. “Nobody’s ever undertaken a pilot project [of living walls].”

From Metrolinx, a rendering of what an acrylic noise-canceling wall might look like, in context.

Metrolinx has been holding public noise-wall consultations in communities along the rail corridor for the past several months, and plans to continue doing so until October. Participants are invited to give input on the design of the walls, though Metrolinx always has final say over whether that input is heeded.

As to the specific proposal—building living walls instead of artificial ones—Metrolinx says it’s not possible. In an emailed statement, Metrolinx spokesperson Vanessa Thomas told us that there isn’t enough space in the rail corridor to install something like a living wall. Other greened-up options, though, might be considered.

“Green trellis walls, transparent acrylic panels, and concrete and wood-bonded materials are all under consideration, as a direct result of the community feedback we have received,” the statement says. Metrolinx has said that some trees will be replanted in front of the walls, in any case.

Thomas said Metrolinx has tried to meet with residents and Brown and Storey Architects about the living-wall proposal, to no avail. Putnam, for his part, says his group has unsuccessfully sought meetings with Metrolinx CEO Bruce McCuaig, Metrolinx Chairman Rob Prichard, and Transportation Minister Glen Murray.

Putnam is skeptical that noise-cancelling walls are even necessary (although Metrolinx’s consultants, in detailed reports released in 2012 and 2013, maintained that they are). “The whole thing’s a big lie,” he said. “There’s no consultation happening.” The Ministry of the Environment requires some level of noise mitigation near the tracks.

It’s true, at least, that Metrolinx is building more walls than are necessary in the short term—but the agency says it’s overbuilding deliberately, to account for expected future increases in train traffic.

UPDATE: September 18, 2013, 4:50 PM We’ve added a rendering from Metrolinx showing what a acrylic wall would look like, in context.

Gallery images courtesy of Brown and Storey Architects.

Body image coutesy of Metrolinx.

Comments

  • wklis

    I like green.

  • vampchick21

    Perhaps climbing plants planted in front of the walls would work.

    • Graeme

      Yeah, I was gonna say. Be better for sound-dampening, I’d wager.

      • vampchick21

        It’s probably the best compromise in this situation.

        • Graeme

          Word.

    • iSkyscraper

      Agreed. Since there is already dirt there it would be much easier to plant climbing ivy on whatever Metrolinx was going to build. Living walls are more for hardscape areas that lack planters or ground for the roots.

      • vampchick21

        And I rather like the effect of ivy growing over a wall or the side of a house.

  • EtobicokeLocal

    I am glad that are pushing for this. I grew up near there and that area, around the Wallace bridge, has always been a bit of an eyesore. My only hope is that it gets maintained better then the other green spaces around Toronto.

  • tyrannosaurus_rek

    I hope some of the walls are left bare for street artists.

    • HotDang

      There’s actually some really charming graffiti up on the hoardings adjoining the construction at bloor and the rail path.

      • vampchick21

        And the graffiti on the sound wall by Queen and Dufferin is pretty awesome.

    • tomwest

      Yay, vandalism.

      • vampchick21

        yeah, cause all graffiti is automatically vandalism, no way could anyone put it up legally!

        • tomwest

          I’m predicting what will happen. I’m not saying street art is vandalism.

  • Bob_Evans

    I have no problem with leaving the corridor without walls. The rail corridor is an interesting urban landscape and soundscape that we don’t need to be protected from. Building either the “Berlin Wall” or “giant hedge” option is not going to make the neighbourhood silent. There are plenty of busses, trucks and even other rail corridors that will keep west Toronto noisy.

  • scottld

    I would like to be a bit more specific on the details.

    In 2015 the airport “link” (with only 2 stops!) will start. There are some sections along the corridor that must have walls put up for THIS additional noise. “2015 Build”. These walls are 5 metres high which is significant and they must meet MOE sound attenuation standards.

    Sometime in the future, as much as 30 years in the future, there will be additional trains running in the corridor. At this time more walls would be needed IF sound levels reach a specified level. “Full build”

    Metrolinx, even at last nights public meeting, have been very cagey about explaining this difference because they want to build all the walls now regardless of whether they are needed and regardless of what demand in the future the corridor may have. To some extent Metrolinx (compare its projects to other cities) lives in the 1950s a bit so the points that residents are making are:

    - Why cant the wall that have to go up for the 2015 be greener, living, reflective of their communities?

    - Why cant the sections of the corridor where wall that are not needed in 2015 (or who knows when) be greener, more integrated with the community and Railpath, be reflective of their communities, and avoid needlessly creating barriers between communities? Why put up sterile barriers if they are not needed?

    - If the lines are to be electrified as the Government says somewhere around 2017 why not wait and see if more walls are even needed since electric trains are celebrated by transit authorities the world over as being as much as 25% quieter than diesel? Why not wait until see what the future noise and train volume is? Metrolinx has done zero real world (as opposed to projections) audio tests along the corridor –some of these future walls may be a waste of money. Audio experts at some of these meetings have disputed Metrolinx’s audio studies as being inaccurate. Why cant people know for sure?

    - If electric trains are as quiet as every electric commuter train service in the world says from- Aukland to Vancouver- is there a possibility that some of the “2015 build” walls might not be needed in a few years?

    Metrolinx is under a huge rush to finish this project for the Pan Am Games (even though the athletes will be taking buses from the airport) and the design and community consultation has lasted only a few meetings over the last couple of months. The designers said last night that they had been working for 6-8 months on designs which is impossible as they were only hired 3 months ago and then introduced to the communities. The 22km of the corridor stretches through a diverse group of communities with different needs and opinions and relationships to the rail corridor. It deserves careful consideration and should be something that augments and improves the communities it travels through and residents were saying at last nights meeting that they think that Metrolinx should aim as high as they do.

    Before the usual blowhards who dont know the finer details arrive calling people NIMBYs it should be noted that the same residents are asking for electric trains as well because electric trains would mean increased service and stops for St. Clair, King, Queen, Liberty; kind of like a DRL.Thats right, residents are asking for MORE trains and because of that many feel we should wait until the electrification plays out and then design the remaining Full Build , if needed at all.

    • tomwest

      The airport link will have four stops, not two…

      • scottld

        Why no stops at Queen, King, et al? I mean where people actually live and work? Thats what I want.

        • vampchick21

          That would depend on the exact route and the feasibility of putting stops in I suppose. If they airport link is following the rail line along where I think it is, there would be room for a stop at the Dufferin Bridge, serving Queen & King at the same time.

          The other side of the logic is that those of us on King and Queen have pretty good access to Union Station anyway, and would most likely use that.

        • tomwest

          Because then Metrolinx would be getting into the buisness of moving people within Toronto, which would annoy the TTC and the City.
          Given the TTC won’t let MiWay or YRT buses carry people doing intra-Toronto trips, why on earth would they let a new Metrolinx route take on that function? (Beyond that already committed).

          • scottld

            Agreed things have to change. But as an airport link even the auditor general questions its viability as built. 2012 report. Ask MX why they wont release their not so great marketing study results. I would love to see it function like links in other cities.

  • https://paul.kishimoto.name/ Paul Kishimoto

    There’s some irony here — Metrolinx has no choice but to follow environmental regulations (can someone look them up?) originally enacted to protect people from train, highway and other noise.

    If some members of the community say they’re “okay” with no walls, or louder noise that might result from these living walls, or that they find the “soundscape” “interesting, or want to “wait and see” how bad the noise actually is, that really doesn’t make any difference—because a government agency isn’t given the discretion to toss laws out the window.

    They’re also under pressure to deliver a project on-time and on-budget. Certain vendors already produce the kind of opaque concrete sound barrier used next to highways, at known costs and with known acoustical properties. So if it’s between that, and a concept solution that may not meet the statutory noise requirements or budget (if it were ever developed), they simply cannot responsibly choose the latter.

    As a result, they end up being seen as an inflexible adversary by the community.

    Finally, I wonder about the social justice question. Say I live in a nice, quiet house away from the tracks, but property values next to them are lower. The wall will ensure quiet for the lower-income folks living next to the tracks from noise all day long, but will worsen my view as I bike along the railpath to and from work. Whose interests should rule?

    vampchick’s compromise idea is solid, because it lets Metrolinx satisfy their legal obligations while providing the green aspect this group wants.

    • vampchick21

      I live in a condo building next to railroad tracks, and while the noise wall doesn’t help me (I’m up on the 8th floor), you do get used to the sound (you also, incidently, get used to firetrucks roaring out of the firehall at all hours of the day and night when you live near one), they do have ivy and other climbing/clinging plants starting to cover the wall. It looks quite neat actually.

      I’ve a feeling there’s a little bit of ‘my way or the highway’ happening on both sides.

    • tyrannosaurus_rek

      There’s no reason they can’t build the mandated walls and tack a green wall structure to the front, is there?

      • https://paul.kishimoto.name/ Paul Kishimoto

        Quick Googling:

        http://www.ene.gov.on.ca/stdprodconsume/groups/lr/@ene/@resources/documents/resource/std01_079357.pdf — from 1997, no idea if it’s still current. Look at the definition for “control measure” (very broad) and section 3.1.2, which gives required decibel levels.

        http://ntl.bts.gov/lib/43000/43000/43080/134556_FR.pdf — 200-page study of a green, earth-filled barrier; see Ch.9 for noise.

        Specific solutions aside, my point is that hiring architects to produce renderings is less than half the work. The other part is parsing the laws and regulations, researching alternative products & experience in other jurisdictions, and figuring out how to propose a change that is compatible with the legal requirements Metrolinx cannot evade.

  • Mark

    Living walls sound nice, but what about the 6 months of the year when things don’t grow? The cages would be empty and noise and dust would blow right through. Am I crazy? Seems like best compromise would be vines or something growing on a hard surface wall.

    • tomwest

      The cages wouldn’t be empty – thety’d be full of leaf-less plant. Also, there are evergreen plants.

  • manny

    we need to evaluate this with rigor. chain walls do not work in winter and will not shield very from sound. its a bad idea from the get go. metrolinx should continue with the concrete walls and plant trees in front or vines or what have you but we should never have only a chain link fence. stop fooling around – many trains passing and only leaves blocking the sounds is just a stupid idea. obviouslly the crew arguing against the concrete wall know nothing about accoustics, vibration etc. also depending on how concrete it treated it can be beautiful too

  • tomwest

    The law requires a certain noise reduction from these walls. A hedge just won’t achieve that.

    • scottld

      And the law does not require walls at this time along the entire corridor. I know as I have the maps in my hand and I am on 2 of the CAC’s. MX, as evidenced by a public meeting this week is reluctant to show the public these maps.

      • tomwest

        So you’d rather have more disruption from consturction when the noise walls become required, rather than future-proofing now?

        • scottld

          Yes. Most transit experts say that the Big Moves projections for the Georgetown are vastly optimistic. Even MX says levels may not be that high for 30 years. Walls going in next year have a life span of less than that; I know I have read the specs and talked with the designer. If APL becomes electric full build may not be needed for a really long time. If line goes electric in 2017 (ha ha) then not having walls makes catenary installation way easier saving money and time.

  • tomwest

    So use coniferous plants, which stay green throughout the year.
    (Also, the non-leafy parts of any plants would remain in place all year – it’s not like the entire plant vanishes come winter…)

  • tomwest

    Not noise-proof enough :-(

  • https://paul.kishimoto.name/ Paul Kishimoto

    Using an express rail link to provide local service is a weird idea, for the same reason that the “current” Scarborough subway proposal with only 2 stops is inferior to a 7-stop LRT: it’s not the right technology choice for the goal you have in mind.

    Because this is the real world, and not 9gag, there is complexity, and a project can have both compelling advantages AND compelling disadvantages—even using only one particular lens, such as social justice.