Once forbidding, Quebec City reclaiming its historic waterfront

Date 17/10/2018

Written byTaylor Ireland

he establishment of a swimming “beachhead” in the city is a prominent event in what has been a progressive reclaiming and redevelopment of one of Quebec City’s most important and historic assets, its waterfront. This is the first in a three-part look at the city and its river.

One of the few knocks on Quebec City has been there is no decent beach nearby where people can seek relief from the heat. True, the city has dozens of outdoor pools and waterparks in all districts, but what about a refreshing dip in a big body of water?

Two years ago that wee quibble about the city’s attractions was resolved, in spectacular fashion. You might call it a miracle, but it’s more the result of political will and technological savvy, that people can now swim in the St. Lawrence River a few minutes by car or bike from the downtown, at the sprawling beach at the Baie de Beauport.

It’s really a remarkable thing that longtime residents, accustomed to the majestic river that defines the city being unfit for bathing, perhaps never thought they’d see happen. But thanks to elaborate water treatment infrastructure, including a massive facility next door to the beach, water quality has improved to the point where swimming and water frolic are now possible. The only time when swimming is not allowed is after a heavy rain where there is the risk of untreated water overflowing into the river.

The natural sand Beauport beach had been redeveloped as of 10 years ago, with many activities available without people allowed to go directly into the water. Now that swimming is allowed, the beach has taken on a whole new vitality. So far this summer, helped by unusually hot weather and a relative lack of rain, the beach has set records for attendance.

The beach has also become a popular spot for nightlife with a series of music concerts planned throughout the summer. There are also all kinds of other activities, such as a special yoga day, a fitness “boot camp” for new mothers, and a graffiti workshop for kids.

But it is the beach itself that is the main attraction. Swimmers can take in an incredible panorama of the city’s waterfront while bathing in the surprisingly clear water. Big ships chug by, sailboats, paddleboards, kayaks and canoes ply the waterway, all with the bridge to Ile d’Orleans and the skylines of Quebec City and Levis on the south shore as a backdrop.

One of the big surprises for people who first arrive in Quebec City is that apart from being exceptionally beautiful and historic, it is very much a port city.

Who knew that there were such dramatic tides on the river, and that the waters of the St. Lawrence start to become salty – brackish is the word – at Ile d’Orleans as the waterway gradually widens to become a vast gulf on the Atlantic Ocean.

Of course, historically, the river – le fleuve – is the raison d’être for the city, as explorers and colonists sought to open up a continent long inhabited by aboriginal peoples. Quebec City, for much of its early history up until the late 1800s was a leading shipbuilding centre, as well as the economic hub for New France and then British North America.

There is a fascinating depiction of the evolution of the waterfront in Quebec City, on rue Saint Antoine, where granite plaques mark the retreating shoreline in 1600, 1700 and 1800. On that same street is the Auberge Saint Antoine where excavated artefacts tell the tale of a very bustling port.

In the past 20 or so years, there has been a “sea-change” in the city’s relationship with its waterfront. Like many port cities around the world, industrial development, the invasion of the automobile, unrestrained pollution and unenlightened planning choices basically rendered the shoreline inaccessible, unappealing and contaminated.

Since then, attitudes have changed radically and governments have taken action to reclaim the river. In Quebec City, a first step was to remove much of the industrial infrastructure that had made a stretch of shoreline look like an oil refinery alley. The vast storage tanks were moved to a more appropriate location, ironically, in the Beauport area. Then, about 20 years ago, forward-looking thinkers started to push plans to create a vast park along the river, as a “legacy” project to celebrate the city’s 400th anniversary in 2008.

The Promenade de Samuel Champlain is an amazing example of “build it and they will come.” Where once the river was just something one glanced at wistfully while driving along the shoreline highway, a popular 4.3 km-long green space now invites people to walk, jog, cycle, fish, picnic, play soccer, frolic in spray parks, or simply take in the pleasure of being so intimately close to such a magnificent body or water.

This spring work got underway on Phase 3 of the Promenade Champlain development. This is the most ambitious stage of the project, requiring a section of railway line to be moved, creating space for a huge park and swimming area, including a simulated beach, as well as access to the natural beach that used to attract throngs of people 50 years ago. A marina, a park for sports, the preservation of an historic wharf and the protection of marshland for wildlife is also part of the vision.

With the expected completion of Phase 3 in three years time, Quebec City’s waterfront, stretching from the western suburb of Cap Rouge to the historic old port will be one of the most impressive reclamations of urban waterfronts in the world. The project has already amassed many international awards and distinctions for its boldness and beauty. Phase 3 will no doubt earn it similar acclaim.

Eventually, the final phase of the project would see the development of a park or at least a pathway, along the river to the east as far as the bridge to Ile d’Orleans.

While the ambitious Promenade Samuel de Champlain is an amazing achievement in maximizing the recreational potential of Quebec City’s waterfront, there are equally exciting developments in tapping the potential of the port as both a commercial and tourist destination. We’ll “dive” into that topic in the next blog.