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Urban shift is reshaping Montreal

 

Montreal will be a much greyer city 20 years from now, and the aging of our populace will influence everything from home design to urban architecture to public transportation.

 

It will also be a more multi-coloured city, measured in terms of skin tone, and multi-linguistic, too, as new legions of immigrants flow in, altering its face, flavour and sound.

 

It will be more condensed, with condominiums overtaking expensive single-family homes as the lodging of choice for first-time homebuyers. And it will be a poorer city mired in a heavily indebted province, forcing it to focus on necessities like rebuilding roads and paring down bureaucracies and services rather than investing in grand designs like megaprojects or metro extensions.

 

Economic imperatives will force Montreal to focus on what it’s good at to survive — namely, being itself. The city will endure by hosting festivals and conferences, promoting its flourishing arts scene, throwing successful, peaceful street parties for hundreds of thousands at a time and inviting the world to come. It will market itself as a vibrant, fun, creative place to live, and a coveted vacation destination for legions of retired baby boomers with time on their hands and savings to burn. This in turn will lead the city to become more accommodating to pedestrians and cyclists, with stretches of thoroughfares like Crescent and Ste. Catherine Sts. becoming pedestrian-only enclaves.

 

This is the Montreal 2033 vision of McGill University architecture professor and housing expert Avi Friedman. Author of 12 books on housing and sustainable development, he is called on by cities throughout the world to consult on urban development and wealth generation. He sees in Montreal’s future a metropolis that will be poorer, still paying for past transgressions of inept infrastructure design and inadequate maintenance. But at the same time, it will be buoyed by its four major universities and its cachet as one of the cool hangouts in the vast North American neighbourhood, a magnet for tourist dollars, immigrants and creative minds.

 

“Montreal is a brand. We’re not talking about Hamilton or Markham or Windsor. Montreal is a brand. But we need to learn how to use our brand better,” he said.

 

Statistics Canada released figures in the fall that indicated Montreal was becoming a city of singles. Nearly 41 per cent of its residents who reside in a private dwelling live on their own, as compared to 30 per cent in most large Canadian cities. Our aging population, large number of university students, exodus of families to the suburbs, low immigration numbers and high percentage of apartments are largely the cause.

 

The numbers spurred Friedman to ponder where the city he’s lived in for more than three decades will be in 2033. Major urban shifts, he notes, generally take about 20 years to evolve.

 

“I wasn’t looking for pie-in-the-sky ideas, not Jetsons-type futuristic predictions, just reasonable assumptions based on trends we are already seeing today.”

 

The greatest influence will come from the aging of the huge demographic wave that is the baby boomer generation, which will be between 70 and 87 years old in 20 years. Most will no longer be working, or paying as much in taxes.

 

“Montreal, like other eastern cities, is going to be a poorer city than it is today, which is likely to force greater efficiency of all operations and institutions,” Friedman said. “We will have to learn to do more with less.”

 

As families shrink (the average family size has gone from 3.5 individuals in 1970 to 2.5 in 2006), and house prices rise, demand for smaller living units will increase. The era of the single-family house as a starter home within the city limits will be a thing of the past for most, as it has been in many European cities for a long time, Friedman said. First-time buyers, many of them young families, will move into the many condominium projects sprouting downtown. Older boomers will shift from their suburban homes to condominiums. The ratio of family homes to condominiums, now at a roughly 60-40 split, will probably reverse during the next two decades, he predicted.

 

Already densely populated neighbourhoods like Notre Dame de Grâce will see residents and developers building upward, putting additional floors on houses or commercial buildings to add residential space. (In congested Vancouver, developers have already started stacking condominium complexes on top of big-box stores like Walmart and Home Depot.) Homeowners will transform their basements into separate apartments, and the division of single-family homes into separate units to take in two or more families will proliferate. Houses will be transformed as more people opt to work out of home offices, or as retirees alter their living spaces to pursue their hobbies or their work.

 

And seniors will make room for live-in nannies and nurses to help care for them. There will also be more grab-bars, ramps and in-house escalators. Technological advances will allow many routine hospital procedures to be done at home via computer. Patients will be able to check their blood pressure and other health indicators at home and send the information to their caregivers over the Internet, all the while chatting with nurses or doctors face-to-face via Skype.

 

“Aging in place will be on the upswing,” Friedman said. “There will be less and less reason for hospital visits.”

 

The new superhospitals going up downtown and in N.D.G. will also spur residential development as thousands of hospital workers seek housing nearby. Condominiums have started sprouting already near the hospitals, and close to the métro stations and train stations that serve them. Private medical clinics, for locals and foreigners alike, will be built around and even in hospitals, as the cash-strapped government off-loads more services to the private sector for wealthier clients not willing, for example, to wait three years for a hip replacement.

 

The condominium boom, well underway in Montreal and reaching the saturation point, will continue, although at a slower pace. Montreal is on the verge of a condo crash, Friedman predicted, part of the normal ebb and flow of residential construction that regenerates every five years.

 

“You will hear about bankruptcies, about people going under, all sorts of bad stories. This is common. Then there will be a burst of energy and another wave.”

 

Condominium developers will start incorporating more family-friendly features like larger units, terrace gardens and parks on their properties. Condo towers with shops and restaurants on the ground floor will become more common, as will the SOHO concept (Self-Office, Home Office) common in China, where residences are located on upper floors and small offices on lower floors, and people commute by elevator. Many boomers, liberated from their children and their jobs, will give up their suburban homes to live closer to services and entertainment and downtown. Their influx will spur elderly-friendly changes seen in other cities, such as automatic doors at unwieldy metro entrances. Métro stations will become poles of residential development, followed closely by commercial properties to serve the influx of people.

 

Suburbs like the West Island will see more low-level condominiums of four to six storeys, and available land between municipalities will be slowly colonized, making for one continuous metropolis.

 

The densification, with housing projects like those in Griffintown bringing tens of thousands of residents into the downtown core, will result in an even more active and vibrant city, with offshoots of more shops, restaurants, services and life downtown. Neighbourhoods like St-Henri, Rosemont and Park Extension, relatively close to downtown and well-served by public transit, will be the next regions to see a slow gentrification, Friedman predicted.

 

In a sense, we will mirror Toronto’s growth, but on a smaller scale and with a Montreal twist.

 

“In 20 years, downtown Montreal will be populated by many more people who will bring their flavour, their lifestyle and their unique Montreal brand, with things like after-hours clubs, which is not Toronto,” Friedman said. “This is a fun city, with restaurants and pubs and clubs. I believe it will be a fun place.”

 

Friedman sees Montreal’s four major universities and an increase in immigration quotas to make up for low birthrates as other major drivers of change, with immigrants coming from burgeoning regions like Asia and Latin America and settling in the north and east of the city. Already, roughly 10 per cent of the students in Friedman’s bachelor’s-level architecture classes are from mainland China. Montreal needs to do more to attract the droves of computer engineers from places like China, India and Pakistan who currently see California as their first choice. And tourism, with the many jobs it brings, will be Montreal’s bread and butter.

 

At this phase in its history, Friedman sees Montreal as a city bogged down by the sins of its past, fixated on corruption and mismanagement and with no sense of a grand vision coming from city hall. Things will get more difficult from an economic standpoint, and “poorer cities do nothing. If you have wealth, you can change things,” he said, pointing to bike and public-transit friendly European cities like Copenhagen, Helsinki, Amsterdam and Berlin as examples.

 

There is hope for Montreal’s future, Friedman said. It is articulated in the plethora of condominium towers and cranes on its skyline, in Montreal’s reputation for its joie-de-vivre attitude, open-mindedness and its artistic energy, a magnet for the young, adventurous and creative.

 

But the hope is tempered with this caveat: the successful cities that Friedman has observed, are those whose citizens are willing to enforce change, as opposed to hoping city councillors will do it for them.

 

“Do-it-yourself cities are the successful cities. We have to ask ourselves ‘Are we a forwards city, or a backwards one?’ ”

 

Developments already underway provide an indication of the answer.

 

“The densification of the core we’re seeing here will bring life,” he said, gazing up at the condominium towers growing like mighty redwoods of metal and glass in Griffintown. “This city will be a hopping place.”

 

 

 

Read more: http://www.montrealgazette.com/Urban+shift+reshaping+Montreal/8071854/story.html#ixzz2NF8glXu5

Edited by yarabundi
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