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The over 200 participants at the McGill "Challenging Cities in Canada" conference were loud and clear in their message: Although Canada's cities are wealthy, diverse and safe, they need help if they are going to thrive.
The three-day conference, held February 11 to 13, was organized by the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada (MISC), which is headed by political scientist Antonia Maioni. In seven panel discussions, urban planners, architects, politicians, consultants, academics and business leaders debated the challenges facing our cities, how they compete in a competitive world and how their future can be assured.
In her welcoming remarks, Governor General Adrienne Clarkson reminded the participants that while each city confronts very different problems, they all have one thing in common: citizens' thirst for political engagement. The ideal good city can become real, but to do so will require deliberate action on the part of leaders to harness our potential.
Montreal Mayor Gérald Tremblay agreed. "Beyond rhetoric, a change in attitude is essential. We must not only listen, we must act." Although cities contribute 50 percent of the country's wealth, he said, their administrative arrangements remain "frozen in time."
Tremblay forcefully argued that Montreal requires more money and more powers from the provincial and federal governments if it is to close the economic gap with other North American cities. Although, after Boston, Montreal has the second-highest number of university students per capita, it has only one third of Boston's per capita GDP.
"We have the networks, the assets and the people, but we are not adding value to these assets," he said, calling for stronger links between the universities, the private sector and governments to spur innovation and growth. The key, he said, is not to waste time fighting over existing money and power — if we can "grow the pie," all people and governments will share in the reward.
The conference served as a bully pulpit for federal politicians seeking to show their interest in urban affairs. MP John Godfrey, recently appointed by Prime Minister Martin as his parliamentary secretary with special responsibility for cities, was careful to say that any federal involvement in cities would not be at the expense of provincial governments — a touchy issue in Quebec. Instead, it will be about "seeing federal activities through an urban lens" by recognizing that the vast majority of federal spending is made in urban areas.
But NDP leader Jack Layton, prefiguring a tight election battle against fellow panelist Liberal incumbent Dennis Mills, hit back, noting that Liberal corporate tax cuts are equivalent to five times the value of proposed federal urban investment.
The difficulty of governing large metropolitan areas was a recurring theme. Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver are all at the centre of sprawling regions, and each has a very different approach to regional government. Benoît Labonté, the president of the Metropolitan Montreal Chamber of Commerce, said that Montreal competes with Beijing, not Blainville, and that tighter integration with the other 62 municipalities of the Montreal Metropolitan Community is required.
With the exception of The Gazette columnist Henry Aubin, all panelists agreed that Montreal cannot afford to waste time in a costly debate over municipal demergers. Aubin characterized the city merger as a boondoggle on the scale of the Olympic Stadium fiasco of the '70s.
Former McGill chancellor Gretta Chambers noted that Montrealers possess an "inbred schizophrenia" — a double loyalty to the whole and to the neighbourhood. The challenge will be for Montreal to retain its human scale while being "resolutely committed to a dynamic future," she said. MISC visiting scholar Warren Allmand and Canadian Centre for Architecture founder Phyllis Lambert agreed, saying that citizens must be fully informed and included in decision-making.
In his closing remarks, McGill urban planning professor Raphaël Fischler said that today's interest in cities is an echo of the progressive era at the end of the 19th century, when urban reform movements swept across the continent. He called on participants to heed the Governor General's advice to make decisions wisely.
The over 40 panelists from across the country included McGill Chancellor Richard Pound, award-winning architects Ken Greenberg of Toronto and Bing Thom of Vancouver, Montreal comedy impresario Andy Nulman, Canada West Foundation President Roger Gibbins, FRAPRU coordinator François Saillant and former Quebec cabinet minister Gil Rémillard. This was the ninth annual conference of the Institute, and the first on the topic of urban issues.
Downtown Montreal is defined by its strong east-west connections — Sherbrooke, de Maisonneuve, Ste. Catherine, René-Lévesque, the Ville Marie Expressway and its tributaries and, of course, the St. Lawrence River itself. The north-south links between the Mountain and the river are weak. West of University Avenue, they are non-existent. Although you can walk from the foot of the Mountain at Pine Avenue to the beautifully restored Lachine Canal basin in 25 minutes, the psychological distance is much greater.
All of this may change if a group of enthusiastic urbanists has its way.
As part of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada's "Challenging Cities in Canada" conference, McGill's Schools of Architecture and Urban Planning hosted an urban design "charrette," a hands-on workshop to brainstorm a new urban design concept for Peel Street.
Led by architect and urban planner Aurèle Cardinal, 14 professors, professionals, students and interested citizens spent four hours on Valentine's Day sketching over a two-metre-long map on layer after layer of tracing paper.
Peel Street is the only street that runs uninterrupted from the Mountain to the Lachine Canal. City planners believe that a rethought Peel can knit together a number of now unrelated places between the canal and the Mountain: the newly cleaned-up canal basin, the historic Irish district of Griffintown, the growing campus of the ETS technical school, the Planetarium, Dorchester Square, the commercial stretch from Ste. Catherine to Sherbrooke and the McGill buildings between Sherbrooke and Pine.
School of Architecture chair David Covo and city planner Cameron Charlebois agreed that, due to the many slices of Montreal's past and present that it crosses, Peel expresses a powerful narrative. Griffintown, Dorchester Square and Chaboillez Square (the location of the Planetarium) were the commercial core of the 19th-century city. Reviving these spaces and connecting them to downtown and Old Montreal will change the way both locals and tourists think about the city.
It was noted that today at least half of the land south of René-Lévesque is covered by parking lots and ramps for the Ville Marie Expressway. All agreed that new residential, commercial, educational and cultural buildings should be built on this land. Participants agreed that the new neighbourhoods must be mixed, so that there will be around-the-clock, year-round activity.
Attendee Louise O'Sullivan, the city councillor for the area, noted that the city is studying a possible tramway loop up Peel that would link Old Montreal, Place des Arts and downtown to the Lachine Canal area. Charrette participants agreed that this could only work if street parking was eliminated.
McGill urban planning student Bryan Bowen, who is doing his master's thesis on the Griffintown/Lachine area, was excited by what he saw.
"It was exciting to be a part of this process. Seeing key figures from public, private and academic agencies come together for this exercise shows real growth and promise for our profession. I'm looking forward to seeing the results in the months and years ahead," he said.