West-End Community Groups Want "Living Walls" Along Toronto's Train Tracks
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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.