Veterans Memorial Parkway in London

March-April 2013

The morning of Saturday, September 29, 2012, was picture perfect – sunny and mild with leaves beginning their colourful fall transition. It was an ideal morning to linger over a coffee and read the paper. But by 8:15 am, a swarm of people were assembling at the London, Ontario headquarters of Trojan Technologies: local Boy Scouts, Girl Guides, a purple-clad brigade of students and faculty from Western University, horticultural students from nearby Fanshawe College decked out in full safety gear, local business people and politicians. With shovels in hand, the group of over 250 people were there with a common purpose – to plant several hundred large caliper trees along Veterans Memorial Parkway (VMP) at the east end of the city. 

It was the latest effort in a multi-year program to commemorate Canadian servicemen and women along the ten-kilometre parkway that links Highway 401 and the city’s airport. The ambitious environmental project, which includes significant rock features, flags and the planting of thousands of trees and shrubs, is equally noteworthy for the public/private partnership that is driving it forward. 

A Model for the Future
Established between the City of London and Landscape Ontario, the Veterans Memorial Parkway Community Project (VMPCP, brings together the municipality, the trade association and in its local members, London businesses, community and service groups, and the public. According to London Mayor, Joe Fontana, it is the shape of things to come. “This is the first time that the City has given up control of a project. More and more, governments must be prepared and willing to work in collaboration with partnerships,” said Fontana at the September 30, 2011 signing ceremony that brought the VMPCP into existence. 

Barry Sandler, the VMPCP’s tireless Executive Director, acknowledges that bringing people from diverse areas to share a common vision isn’t without its challenges. But he’s quick to point out how effectively the groups have come together. “We’ve been very good at merging all of those disparate interests and perspectives into a unified plan and policy and direction,” says Sandler. Grant Harrison of Landscape Ontario’s London Chapter agrees. “To have that diverse group of people around the table, all going towards the same goal is very cool,” says Harrison. “The cooperation we’ve had with so many divisions of the City, with local businesses, and with the community is amazing. It works surprisingly well.” 

Harrison also points out that it’s a progressive move for the City of London to give up some of the control on a project taking place on public land. Andrew Macpherson, Manager of Environmental and Parks Planning for the City of London, sees the Veterans Memorial Parkway Community Project as democracy in action. “This project gives a stronger voice to the community because it’s their project,” says Macpherson. But he adds that the City’s ongoing interest in the project is vital. “It’s public land, a road allowance, so there are some restrictions from that perspective. Occasionally, we have to say, “That’s a fabulous idea, but we’ll have to come up with another way to implement it.” Our job is to make sure it’s practical, doable and that it isn’t a burden on the taxpayer in the long run. That way, we can do this as a community project that will have benefits forever.” 

For London businesses, especially those located along the parkway, a key benefit of the project is the statement it makes about the city. Hank Vanderlaan is the founder of Trojan Technologies, a global water treatment company headquartered in the city. Trojan was one of the first businesses to make an ongoing financial contribution to the project. “For us, supporting the project was a natural fit. If we do a beautiful job on the VMP, it becomes a standard for the City – and will inspire more great things,” says Vanderlaan. “And when we bring customers in from around the world, it says good things about London.” 

Other companies providing ongoing support for the project include 3M Canada, Starlim North America, Echo Power Equipment Canada and Kellogg’s Canada. 

Pat Small oversees Community Relations for 3M Canada, and was enthusiastic about getting involved for several reasons. “From a 3M perspective, we bring our customers in from the airport and the 401 and the Veterans Memorial Parkway is the gateway to our offices. The landscaping along the parkway and the commemorative features make a great first impression,” says Small, adding that 3M also makes ongoing investments to beautify and naturalize their Canadian head office property along the VMP. “This environmental project compliments our own efforts and fits perfectly with our tradition of giving back to the community. 3M also has a very dedicated employee base who want to be involved, and the VMPCP project also offers a volunteer experience for our employees to participate.”  

The guiding hand that keeps the massive project on track aesthetically is provided by Ron Koudys, the landscape architect who developed the original plan. Koudys, who has been retained by the City to fulfill that role, sits on VMPCP Board of Directors and is actively involved in the London community and complimentary reforesting initiatives. “When you’re working with volunteers and so many different groups, everyone interprets the objective in their own way and it gets pulled from side to side,” he says. “A project of this scale over an extended period of time needs continuity. It doesn’t have to be rigid, it should be flexible and respond to available resources and the money that comes available.”

How It All Began
The project originated back in 2006 when Airport Road was renamed to honour Canadian veterans. Along with the new name – Veterans Memorial Parkway – came discussions about what a “parkway” could and should be for the city. Ron Koudys, who developed the long-term plan, took inspiration from the natural splendor of the Blue Ridge Parkway that runs through the Carolinas and Tennessee. Koudys’ vision was to weave a subtle tribute to veterans into the landscape. “It’s not about the glory of war. It’s about honouring the sacrifice and the courage – the attributes of the soldiers. The heroic side of it rather than the militaristic side of it,” explains Koudys. “I wanted to create features along the parkway that people would discover as they drove that had words that evoked those types of images.”  

Using infrastructure money from the federal and provincial governments, the City of London invested $1,000,000 in 2009 to bring the master plan for the parkway to life. It was an important kick-start to the project that included the installation of several commemorative rock features, as well incorporating almost a thousand trees. Scouts Canada played an early role in the project’s tree plantings as part of their annual Scoutrees initiative. 

‘Whips’ Take a Beating...
The early tree projects were based on planting whips. This allowed the Scouts and other community volunteers to be directly involved, and permitted the planting of a large number of trees. However, there were drawbacks. Less than ideal soil conditions, competing vegetation, and the harsh realities of life beside a busy roadway took their toll, killing off almost 40% of the whips. 

Along with Mother Nature’s punishment, public sentiment was also working against the young plants. The frail whips had little immediate effect in beautifying the VMP, so despite the effort and investment, the planting projects went unnoticed along the parkway. The prospect of waiting five to ten years for the trees to have any positive impact was beyond the patience of the community, donors and local businesses located along the parkway. 

Landscape Ontario to the Rescue
Enter Barry Sandler. Bored with retirement, he had been overseeing the Scoutrees commitment for the local Scouts Canada chapter. Energized by the early progress of the infrastructure investment, Sandler began weaving together a coalition that included the City, local businesses and the community to keep the program going. He also recognized that a different approach to planting trees along the parkway was needed to attract outside funding. After talking to arborists, tree growers and local landscapers, it was clear that bigger trees were the only way to go. “Unfortunately, four Scouts and a shovel don’t cut it when you’re dealing with 50-60 mm caliper trees that have 300 pound root balls,” laughs Sandler. “We needed heavy equipment and expertise, so we approached Landscape Ontario. Their interest and commitment was immediate.” 

A Better Approach to Planting
With Landscape Ontario’s involvement, a new methodology for volunteer tree planting was born. According to Sandler: “Professional volunteers have allowed us to plant large caliper trees and keep the quality and survivability very high. The community volunteers, who do the backfilling, mulching and staking, help us keep the costs down.” This year, students enrolled in Fanshawe College’s Horticultural Technician Program have supplemented the community volunteers. Michael Pascoe, the Program Coordinator, has made participation in tree planting along Veterans Memorial Parkway a course requirement. At the September 29th planting event, over 60 students were dispersed amongst other volunteers from the community to share their learning and expertise. 

Selecting Trees for Maximum Survival
Highway right-of-way (ROW) land is a particularly challenging environment for plants and trees. In addition to air and soil pollutants, vegetation along highways typically face compacted soils, poor drainage and exposure to climate extremes. However, they can do tremendous good. Beyond the beauty they bring to the highway landscape, trees planted on ROW land help reduce erosion and air and noise pollution. To maximize their positive effect, tree species selection is extremely important. 

Ron Koudys’ original hope for London’s Veterans Memorial Parkway project was to use native Carolinian species, including Kentucky coffee, tulip and sweet gum trees. However, the harsh conditions along the parkway precluded their inclusion in the plan. Instead, based on his own evaluations of soils, moisture availability, slope and other climactic conditions, Koudys has incorporated hardier species, such as Colorado spruce, ‘autumn blaze’ hybrid maple and locust trees. He’s also having success with burr oak, river birch and serviceberry trees. These choices, combined with the switch from whips to large caliper trees, has cut losses to less than 10%. 

Another influence on Koudys’ tree species selections is an ongoing study led by Dr. Hannah Mathers of Ohio State University. Mather’s research is investigating tree survivability along ROW land, and is being conducted at planting sites along some of the busiest sections of the 401. Early findings indicate survival is dependent on the species, the planting site and the production environment used before out-planting. This information will help increase survivability of the trees along the VMPCP, as well as the millions of trees planted along highways by the Ontario Ministry of Transportation.

The Matter of Maintenance
Beyond fundraising, one the most challenging issues facing the Veterans Memorial Parkway Community Project is that of ongoing maintenance. According to the City of London’s Andrew Macpherson, the plan and planting strategy have been designed to maximize the immediate impact of the trees while minimizing their long-term requirements for upkeep. “As plants mature and grow up, the general maintenance should go down – they become more natural systems and tend to look after themselves. But trees do require maintenance, especially on a road allowance.” 

To Barry Sandler, maintenance is an opportunity to bring other professional volunteers into the project’s public/private model. “I think the same methodology we use to do the capital side, which is getting the trees in the ground in the first place, can be applied to the after care. This is why we are working on engaging local arborists to get them involved in the project on much the same basis,” says the VMPCP Executive Director. “Having them provide a day of service every couple of years brings credibility to the project, raises their profile and ensures the ongoing health of this important memorial to our troops.” 

As the project gains momentum on its way to completion in 2017, Sandler sees it as having tremendous potential beyond its original scope and beyond London itself. “We’re getting requests from the public for individual memorial trees for family members who served in the military,” he says. “And I’m also receiving inquiries from people in other municipalities who are very interested in this initiative and our process. Given the tight economic times that we’re are in, I believe this is one of the only ways we’re going to be able to get these kinds of communities projects done in the future.”   


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