by Jason F. McLennan
Consider this a love letter to The City of Sudbury – the community where I was born and raised and that I still love and care for deeply and that helped shape my career, which has since taken me around the world.
I grew up in Sudbury during the 1970s and 1980s and my perception of the city is filled with positive memories of a vibrant, active community – of playing sports year-round and enjoying the lakes and outdoors, all within easy reach. Yet growing up in Sudbury during this time also means that my memories of this place are forever associated with the Superstack, which I thought was a ‘cloud making machine’ when I was really young. I didn’t understand the environmental legacy of our community until I got older, but I knew at a young age that the city was there because of nickel – my uncle worked at Inco, as did the parents of many of my friends. I still remember the intense feeling during the big strike of 1978 when we all had to pitch in to help those that were holding out in Canada’s longest strike.
As a school child I participated in the regreening efforts each year, as did so many Sudburians; the work we all did to plant millions of trees on a heavily impacted ‘moonscape’ inspired my whole career and understanding of humanity’s ability to either be agents of degradation or agents of regeneration. It was apparent that our species could kill whole ecosystems in pursuit of the things we needed – or we could in turn come together to heal and restore and create the conditions conducive for life. Sudbury proved both in a single century. It is this duality that has shaped what I do as an architect, planner, author, and environmentalist.
I left Sudbury at nineteen to be educated in the USA and Europe. At the time I wondered what a boy from a northern mining town could possibly do on the bigger stages down south and was more than a bit intimidated when I left home. Yet over time I found out that I could in fact compete anywhere – and that Sudbury, as a place to grow up and experience life in – was up to the task of preparing me. Over the last nearly thirty years, I’ve met and worked with billionaires, movie stars and world leaders – yet no matter where I go and who I meet, I always tell them with pride, “I’m Canadian and I’m from Sudbury.” Most admittedly don’t know where Sudbury is or what it means to be from The Rock, but if you grew up in Sudbury, you do. We are the North!
Recently I’ve had the opportunity to return home to visit Sudbury again and I now proudly serve on the board of the new school of architecture downtown. Having a world class school of architecture in Sudbury isn’t something that I thought would ever happen, but testament again to what this community can accomplish. Growing up in Sudbury, I learned that people often underestimated us – yet we know we are capable of achievement out of all proportion to our size and geography. No matter what I design and build in the USA or other larger markets, my hometown will always be this community.
So it was greatly concerning to hear of the planned demise of the Superstack that figured so largely in my imagination as a child. Once gone it’s gone forever – and I really think that simply removing it from our skyline would be a huge missed opportunity. Taking it down is thinking small; turning it into something truly revolutionary is what this community needs to do.
And so this is what I offer to the people of Sudbury: a new vision of what is possible to start a new decade of optimism.
A New Icon of Hope and Regeneration
Sudbury’s story is inextricably linked with the Superstack, and that story doesn’t end at environmental degradation by acid rain. It continues to this day, and includes the millions of trees we’ve planted, lakes restored to vibrancy, the buildup of depleted soils, and the return of biodiversity.
The Superstack is a big symbol for the city and Canada’s second tallest structure, and for that reason it represents massive possibility. Once it’s gone, a big piece of the city’s identity and story will be lost, along with the opportunity to remake this emblem of Sudbury’s environmentally dark past into one of its regenerative present and hopeful future. Plus, I truly believe it will be missed.
While demolition by implosion was ruled out because of the obvious hazards it represented to the Copper Cliff and Sudbury communities, demolition by any means will have huge energy and carbon implications, cost millions of dollars, and might bring negative air quality impacts to local residents who have suffered enough in its shadow already.
What if instead the Superstack became a major Canadian tourist attraction and a shining example of how Sudbury once again thought big about its future?
The World’s Tallest Solar Array
My design studio offers the City of Sudbury a new possible vision for the remaking of the Sudbury Superstack.
Sudbury, like many cities throughout Canada and across the world, has announced a climate emergency. In times like these we need not only respond, but act boldly, sharing a vision of leaps toward a living future. Imagine the Superstack armored in solar panels, ascending up the height of the stack 1200 feet, transforming the one-time pollutant spewer into the world’s tallest solar array. If people come to Sudbury excited about the Big Nickel—a mere roadside attraction by comparison, imagine what the Superstack could become! Imagine people going up the Superstack in a superfast, renewably powered elevator, in an experience powered completely by the sun, to take in the view of the entire region. There they would see the impacts of mining at its base and beyond that our beautiful lakes and regreened hills and valleys for miles around. By my calculations, this solar array could be large enough to power the entire town of Copper Cliff. Given that solar is now the cheapest new form of energy generation, the economics are powerful and positive.
A Dedication to Sudbury’s Regreening Pioneers
Imagine, after an incredible ride to the top (which is taller than the main levels of the CN tower), arriving at a beautiful, glittering greenhouse ecosystem designed in a shape to be symbolic of the smoke that used to billow out, yet now filled with native plants in a celebration of place and the revitalization efforts in the landscape below, dedicated to the citizens, public servants, educators, and scientists of Sudbury, who together imagined what could be accomplished with years of dedicated hard work and careful stewardship. This would be a place of multi-faceted learning and inspiration – perhaps an extension of Science North – a living lesson in renewable energy, the path from environmental degradation to regeneration, local ecology, and local community and culture. This would be a place for visitors from around the world to collect inspiration and motivation from the story of how a Northern town came together to regenerate itself.
A Sustainable Economic Engine
Tourism in Sudbury continues to grow and there is interest these days in authentic experiences. People want to tour breweries and factories and learn how things work. People would clamor to tour the mining facility and then rise to the top of Sudbury’s newly rebranded icon, now a showcase for Vale’s leadership and a progressive future. This design would put Sudbury on the map for its leadership on climate change and restoration. The tourist site would generate millions annually in both ticket sales and sellable energy, a much better proposition than spending money to merely take it down. The project would also generate much needed tourism jobs and further support businesses in the community in multiple ways.
Anything good must start with an idea, and so I offer this to Sudbury as a possible vision of its future if it decides to think big and recognize that it too can play on the world stage. Imagine the planet’s tallest solar array, published in media outlets everywhere, generating clean energy mounted to the former tallest smokestack and culminating not with pollution, but with a solar powered greenhouse which also happens to be the tallest planetarium and human biosphere on the globe.
A new symbol of hope and the start of something truly big for Sudbury.
[Find this article, as printed in Northern Ontario Business, available here.]