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http://montrealgazette.com/news/local-news/montreal-re-imagined/montreal-reimagined-cityscape-is-more-than-only-a-view

 

The Montreal Re-Imagined section is presented by Concordia University Concordia University

 

Montreal Reimagined: Cityscape is more than only a view

MONTREAL, QUE.:

 

April 02, 2015 -- Logo staff mugshot / headshot of Luca Barone in Montreal Thursday April 02, 2015.

LUCA BARONE, SPECIAL TO MONTREAL GAZETTE

 

Until I graduated, my daily hike up to McGill’s Faculty of Law on the corner of Peel St. and Dr. Penfield Ave. began at the corner of de Maisonneuve Blvd. W., where I would emerge into daylight from the métro station.

Ascending into the world from the underground takes a little readjusting: you look around to get your bearings, check the weather, and let your eyes readjust to the sunlight. I was never afforded much to look at until I began walking north up Peel and glimpsed the mountain. The east-west view along de Maisonneuve is disappointing. Look left or right and the view is the same: dark towers pockmarked with windows rise up on the horizon.

 

When a building obstructs a view down a street and becomes the focal point of what you see, it is known as a terminated vista. They can be a blessing and a curse. They also can help create a sense of destination and diversity in a city and can be manipulated to highlight significant landmarks. The view of McGill’s campus against the backdrop of Mount Royal from McGill College Ave. is one of Montreal’s iconic landscapes. Looking south down St. Urbain St., the view of the Art Deco waterfall of the Aldred Building on Place d’Armes is another example of a successful blocked view that beckons rather than repulses, as is the view of the dome of the Hôtel-Dieu looking north along Ste-Famille. These landmarks create a sense of place and they are symbols of our city.

 

But look south down Parc Ave. toward Place du Parc (the Air Transat building) and the view is hardly inspiring. When the view down a street ends in a blank tower, the terminated vista does not help create a more livable city. Not every building should be monumental or iconic, but any urban building should make you want to walk toward it rather than avert your eyes.

 

Downtown towers should be built because they have many virtues, from proximity to public transit to the lower environmental effect of higher population density, but we should not ignore how these buildings relate to their surroundings. Uniformity should not be the goal, either: a building should not have to look exactly like its neighbours, but it should complement them.

 

Without exaggerating the importance of the look and shape of buildings, Montrealers deserve more than what we’re getting from urban planners, architects and real estate developers. We should trudge out of the métro and be delighted by what we see. In a city full of talented architects, much of the blame for uninspired buildings lies with real estate developers who don’t hire local talent, and city councillors and urban planners who give construction permits without paying sufficient attention to buildings’ visual impact.

 

The Louis-Bohème building on the corner of Bleury and de Maisonneuve is an example of a building that succeeds on many levels. Its apartments make the best use of the land by increasing the density of residents in the area. It also has underground parking and shops at ground level, from where you can also access the Place-des-Arts métro station. In many ways, the building represents exactly the kind of development Montreal needs. But it fails as an element of the urban landscape. When you see it rising above Parc or de Maisonneuve, the view of its charcoal concrete panels leaves you unmoved at best and intimidated at worst.

 

In a city that suffers from interminable winters exacerbated by short days and little sunlight, buildings clad in light-absorbing, dark materials are not merely ugly — they should be considered a public health concern.

 

One way to improve urban design would be to develop a sustainable local architecture that is responsive to our climate. Initiatives like the Quartier des Spectacles’ Luminothérapie winter light installations are a great start, but the city should take a more active role in promoting architecture that makes long winters more bearable. For example, Edmonton has issued specific winter design guidelines that promote architectural features that block wind, maximize sunlight, and enliven the cityscape as part of its “WinterCity Strategy.”

 

It is not easy for a building to enrich its surroundings while responding to the demands of a city and its inhabitants, the climate and the economy. But our buildings speak eloquently about who we are and what we value. We have to live with them for decades, if not centuries. It’s worth getting them right

 

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Montreal Reimagined: At home in the city

MONTREAL, QUE.: April 02, 2015 -- Logo staff mugshot / headshot of Luca Barone in Montreal Thursday April 02, 2015.

 

LUCA BARONE, SPECIAL TO MONTREAL GAZETTE

More from Luca Barone, Special to Montreal Gazette

Published on: March 29, 2015

 

This column focuses on the issues of urban renewal and resilience. It is part of our biweekly Montreal Reimagined series. Luca Barone is a native Montrealer who graduated from McGill University’s Faculty of Law and Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. He has studied urban affairs and worked in real estate development in both Montreal and New York City.

 

I was once a panellist at a discussion about Montreal condo development at the Maison de l’architecture du Québec. During the question-and-answer period, I remarked we ought to treat the city as our living room, accepting smaller housing in the city’s core in return for a more vibrant urban life and a lower environmental impact.

 

I agree with Harvard economist Edward Glaeser who wrote in his book Triumph of the City: “We must stop idolizing home ownership, which favours suburban tract homes over high-rise apartments, and stop romanticizing rural villages.” A gentleman in the audience who identified himself as an architect angrily replied he didn’t want to live in an apartment, nor did he want to use the city as his living room. He provided no reasoning for his outburst other than dismay at the size and price of condos in Montreal, but his opinion was symptomatic of an intangible, yet pernicious problem with how we think about our city. Montrealers lack a genuinely urban sensibility and judge Montreal against a suburban ideal. Our politics, our environment and our city are the worse for it.

 

This bias against the city runs deep. Université Laval sociologist Andrée Fortin’s research found Quebec films depict urban settings as unliveable places scarred by poverty and crime. Suburbs, by contrast, have been idealized on film, especially for families raising children, as dreamed of places with a bright future where life is good, as François Cardinal recently discussed in La Presse.

 

And when we’re not dreaming of the suburbs, we rhapsodize about foreign cities. Leonard Cohen may have described Old Montreal (though, importantly, not by name) in “Suzanne,” but he is likely better known for romanticizing an already heavily romanticized other metropolis in “Chelsea Hotel #2”: “Those were the reasons and that was New York,” he recounted to the world. Places like New York generate stories about themselves through film, song, television and literature that make city living appealing to vast hordes of aspiring Manhattanites. The same cannot be said for Montreal.

 

Art imitates life, but it also shapes our mentalities.

 

Setting aside the practical and political obstacles to making our city a more attractive place to put down roots (higher property valuations, underinvestment in public transit and urban infrastructure from all levels of government), a pervasive anti-urban attitude threatens Montreal’s sustainable growth.

 

Why?

 

Because prizing the suburbs over the city feeds into apathy about Montreal and reduces our communal sense of ownership and the amount of pressure placed on the municipal, provincial and federal governments to make the city a better place to live. If young families and seniors and single young professionals were all clamouring to live in downtown Montreal, the city would be forced to respond to demands for better services and amenities. A prejudice against city living makes it easier for city hall to get away with doing less for everyone.

 

Talking about abstract things like collective attitudes may seem academic, but the way we think has serious consequences in the real world. As the threat of climate change grows, the need to combat urban sprawl and its harmful side effects has become imperative. To do so, we need to change our ideal of where and how a good life is lived. Sacrificing square footage does not mean sacrificing enjoyment — quite the opposite. A shorter commute means more time to yourself, less money spent on gas and car maintenance, and fewer greenhouse gases. Living in a city apartment means being able to walk, bike or take a bus to the store, to the park, to your child’s school or to a friend’s house.

 

City life has the added perk of making us more generous and trusting: Glaeser notes the kind of face-to-face contact city-dwellers run into on a daily basis, whether on public transit, in the halls of apartment buildings, or in line at the grocery store, leads to more trust, generosity and co-operation than any other sort of interaction.

 

Making Montreal more dense, especially around transit hubs like métro and train stations (a practice known as transit-oriented development), is already a priority mandated by the Plan métropolitain d’aménagement et de développement, the document that lays out the broad urban planning goals of the Communauté métropolitaine de Montréal. Glaeser highlights the importance of this: “Good environmentalism means putting buildings in places where they will do the least ecological harm. This means we must be more tolerant of tearing down the short buildings in cities in order to build tall ones, and more intolerant of the activists who oppose emissions-reducing urban growth. Governments should encourage people to live in modestly sized urban aeries instead of bribing home buyers into big suburban McMansions.” It remains to be seen how the city will implement transit-oriented development here. One area ripe for such redevelopment is Pierre-de-Coubertin Ave. between the Viau and Pie-IX métro stations across from the Olympic Stadium. In proximity to sporting facilities, a cinema, the Botanical Garden, the Biodome, and Maisonneuve Park — and a scant 15-minute métro ride to downtown Montreal — the avenue should be home to thousands of Montrealers living in high-rises profiting from a spectacular view and exceptional mobility, yet it is lined with small apartment houses and duplexes entirely out of scale with the towering stadium, wasting the true value of the land.

 

A greener, more livable Montreal is possible, but we have to really want it. We will never get what we do not demand from our governments, real estate developers and urban planners. It is time to start dreaming big about living in Montreal.

 

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Resilient cities are smarter cities

 

MONTREAL, QUE.: April 02, 2015 -- Logo staff mugshot / headshot of Luca Barone in Montreal Thursday April 02, 2015.

LUCA BARONE, SPECIAL TO MONTREAL GAZETTE

More from Luca Barone, Special to Montreal Gazette

Published on: March 15, 2015

 

This new column focuses on the issues of urban renewal and resilience. It is part of our biweekly Montreal Reimagined series. Luca Barone is a native Montrealer who graduated from McGill University’s Faculty of Law and Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. He has studied urban affairs and worked in real estate development in both Montreal and New York City.

 

When the High Line, a linear park created out of a disused, elevated railway, opened in New York City in 2009, I walked along it in awe of its splendid greenery and lush urbanity. But it also made me angry: as a Montrealer, I wanted my own city to make something as ambitiously beautiful. In 2012, I penned an op-ed in this newspaper about it, in which I wrote: “Had such an idea been proposed for Montreal, would it ever have seen the light of day? That kind of audacity would probably have been ignored by developers indifferent to innovative design, or buried under the weight of municipal red tape.”

 

How has our city fared since then?

 

To the observers of municipal affairs, a long-standing source of frustration has been the lag between when discussions about innovative urban policies take root elsewhere around the world and when, if ever, they start resonating here. For a long time, our city’s problems seemed overwhelming: corruption, collusion, failing and falling infrastructure, a stagnant economy. We collectively shrugged our shoulders. What stood in the way of meaningful solutions was that we were not candidly assessing our problems, and, when we were, we did so within the framework of obsolete and dated policy-making concepts. In a city full of thoughtful citizens, few good ideas made it to city hall. Yet out of all that gloom came something transformative: in the past few years, the way both ordinary Montrealers and city officials speak about their city has slowly shifted from resigned apathy to a more productive engagement. This greater involvement from civil society, in concert with a refreshingly active mayor, has carried fresh ideas into the dialogue about our city, exemplified by the Je fais Montreal campaign (formerly Je vois Montreal).

 

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Montreal Reimagined: Bees for social change

The “smart city” initiative endorsed by Mayor Denis Coderre is helping to bring our city back into the global conversation about how to make a good city great. A smart city — a fluid term — adopts a technology — and data-driven approach to governance that uses digital tools to improve all aspects of urban life from traffic management to energy efficiency. Coderre has made turning Montreal into a smart city a priority for his administration by creating a Smart and Digital City Office at city hall tasked with defining Montreal’s objectives in becoming a smart city and planning how to achieve them. In late January, the city unveiled the broad goals of its three-year smart city plan, from free public Wi-Fi to greater municipal transparency. Granting citizens access to municipal data in order for mobile apps or other ventures to be developed is a hallmark of the transparency championed by smart cities everywhere, so this is a good place to start. However, Montreal’s smart city initiative is still too young and nebulous to be assessed. One objective absent from the city’s initial goals of “collect, communicate, co-ordinate and collaborate” is attracting top talent to work in municipal government. Cities are only ever as smart as those people who are empowered to make decisions in it. San Francisco’s Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation organized the “San Francisco Mayor’s Innovation Fellowship Program, which brought four mid-career professionals into the public sector for the first time” in an effort to make working in government “cool again.”

 

Beyond the data-sharing and transparency components of a smart city, Montreal ought to look beyond the obviously digital to make our city smarter. A smarter city is necessarily a more adaptable one, a place that keeps working no matter what unexpected event occurs. In addition to developing useful mobile apps, we need to look at our city as a complex system of interdependent actors and structures to think about how Montreal can be more resilient. A resilient city is one where streets do not close because extreme cold has caused water mains to rupture or where city officials find unobtrusive means to facilitate the flow of people and goods despite a closed artery. Resilience sounds by turns clinical and puritanical, but all it means is that a city should plan for all foreseeable events, thereby making itself a more stable, enjoyable place to live, work, invest and play. In 2013, former American Institute of Architects President Clark Manus highlighted the importance of resilience: “As innovative as a city may profess to be, resilience is a critical linchpin that any 21st century city must fully address. Resilience is the new Green.”

 

An initiative of the Rockefeller Foundation called 100 Resilient Cities defines urban resilience as “the capacity of individuals, communities, institutions, businesses and systems within a city to survive, adapt and grow no matter what kinds of chronic stresses and acute shocks they experience.” Events like Hurricane Sandy and the widespread flooding it caused in New York City underscore the need to design structures that are not only more energy efficient but that can withstand extreme weather. As Montreal’s brutally cold February demonstrated, modern cities need to be resilient enough to keep functioning well in the face of challenging conditions like prolonged periods of severe cold.

 

Last December, Montreal was selected to join the 100 Resilient Cities network along with 34 other cities out of a pool of 331 applicant municipalities. Membership provides cities with the support to hire a Chief Resilience Officer tasked with elaborating and implementing a resilience strategy. Montreal identified its resilience challenges as aging infrastructure, a declining or aging population, heat waves, the risk of hazardous materials accidents (in light of the catastrophic train derailment in Lac-Mégantic) and infrastructure failure. Preparing to mitigate the effects of these and other risks by innovative means is of central importance to Montreal’s prosperity.

 

Resilience is a pressing concern in urban governance today because it acknowledges imperfection and seeks to improve city life despite chronic problems. Cities must attempt to remedy persistent ills, but the implementation of most systemic solutions is necessarily a lengthy process — covering the Ville Marie Expressway, for instance, would take a while even with the most efficient project management. Aiming not to make the best the enemy of the better, resilience emphasizes adaptability and working around problems to improve city life on an ongoing basis. Montrealers should be pleased to know that their city government is embracing this concept as we brace for several years of major public works projects.

 

We do not yet have unimpeachable governance or an urban amenity that compares to the High Line, but at least we have finally begun asking the right questions about how to improve Montreal.

 

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