Creating an Alpha World City – II

What’s Montreal going to look like in 2030?

According to StatsCan, the Greater Montreal Area will have a combined population of 5.275 million people, with more than two million living on the island alone.

Just a reminder, this is the projected population by 2030, less than seventeen years from now. How large will we be in twenty-five years? Or fifty?

Greater Montreal is a geographically immense area, one that contains a wide variety of development zones – industrial, commercial, high, low and medium density residential and, currently, still a fair bit of green space, rural or semi-rural areas on the periphery. I believe we’ve achieved a kind of balance in the greater region, but in order to sustain major population growth, we will have to look towards increasing density in the urban core – suburban sprawl has already extended so far in all directions its common for commuters to spend well over an hour in transit between home and office (and that’s not limited to public transit, highway traffic at rush hour won’t get you home much faster.

If we strive to contain sprawl, such as with a moratorium on new housing construction, we can maintain the current balance of developed and natural lands within the greater region of Montreal (not to mention stabilize the real estate market), something that would likely serve to drive up the value of detached suburban homes considerably. The city’s suburban middle class would rather quickly find themselves living in far more valuable homes, and the consequential ‘scarcity’ of new homes will drive demand for alternatives, such as high-density urban or semi-urban areas. Moreover, there would be ample reason to get home-owners to invest significantly in home renovations considering such legislation would establish a more-or-less permanent ‘seller’s market’ concerning suburban real estate.

If we want to get the most bang for our collective buck we can’t afford a city that expands ever outward. It places an unnecessary stress on the lives of far too many citizens, is ludicrously expensive and is getting more and more expensive to maintain. The metro region has a population density of 900 people per square kilometer – over an area of 4,400 square kilometers!

But if we place limits on outward expansion and focus on densification we concentrate the tax-pool to a fixed area, and can potentially enlarge the area that constitutes the City of Montreal, be it through annexation, densification or both. As it stands there is a sizeable enough demand for high-density condominiums in the city centre there are over a dozen projects currently underway, and more to come, all of which are being built on otherwise empty lots. But even though these condos will sell and provide much-needed high-density construction, no services have been provided for. The city needs to adjust to problem quickly if it wishes to secure new long-term city residents.

Montreal has all the potential, the human capital, the cultural and intellectual capital necessary to become an Alpha World City – a city of international economic, cultural and political significance. Broadly speaking I believe we are on the right path towards achieving this goal, though it is largely as a result of decisions made long-ago and becoming poorly understood today. Too little is being done today to insure our future, and thus, if we’re to guarantee ourselves a global role for the bulk of the 21st century, I’d like to suggest we begin putting into place the laws and administrative structures necessary to propel massive growth.

Montreal could be one vote, one referendum away from becoming the largest city in Canada. If we willed it. If the citizens of the region collectively backed the idea that the area we know as Greater Montreal were fused into a single city. What a proud and powerful city that would be.

Whether in one single referendum or a series of individual local votes, the mayor could conceivably ask the citizens of the independent communities within Greater Montreal whether they would like to merge into the City of Montréal proper. It’s called annexation, and whether by provincial dictate or individual plebiscites leading to direct votes, it’s largely how Montreal came to become the size it is today. Places like Pierrefonds, Ahuntsic, Outremont, Cartierville, Saraguay, Notre-Dame-de-Grace and Saint Henri were once all independent communities. Today, they are distinct elements and communities within the larger metropolis. If the City of Montreal were to succeed in convincing a majority of the citizens of all independent communities within the Greater Montreal region to agree to voluntary annexation, we could grow to a city of 3.65 million people almost overnight. That number, incidentally, is expected to crack the four million mark in the next few years.

If we were all Montrealers, we’d be almost twice as large as Canada’s current largest city, the City of Toronto with their population of 2.5 million. This may not seem that impressive at first, but consider the economic and political power wielded by a city with a tax-base of four million people. That’s where things start getting very interesting in my opinion, as the City of Montreal would have a residential tax-base similar to Alberta or British Columbia. At this point, the City would have to take on a greater portion of the provincial administrative and services burden (such as with regards to healthcare, social services and education – the city would have to establish its own departments to handle local administration of the hospitals and schools, according to mega-city needs and constraints. In a sense, this would be similar to the relationship between New York City and New York State with regards to the administration, organization and operation of key social services). Now while this would, by necessity, make the government of the City of Montréal grow to a considerably larger size, it also means we’ll have a greater degree of operational autonomy, and can better organize services to suit our needs.

I’ll tell you this much. We could build as we needed without turning to the provincial or federal governments for hand-outs. We’d be economically sovereign.

There’s a lot of potential power there. That tax revenue could fund excellent public schools, expand access to post-secondary education, provide rehabilitative homeless shelters, Métro expansions, you name it. If Montreal can’t grow out any further and low-density residential development is constrained, the rise in land value could result in greater personal wealth on a large scale, not to mention a potentially significant local generational wealth transfer. Urbanites desperately seeking suburban homes and neighbourhoods will have to pay more for homes, meaning the extant middle class middle-aged generation (which missed the long promised major wealth transfer of the 2000s) may in turn be able to provide their children with a considerable degree of wealth at some point in the future. Containing that wealth may serve, in time, to lessen the burden of taxation.

Talk of merger isn’t likely to win anyone over any time soon, given former Premier Bernard Landry royally fucked public perception of the word by forcing all communities on the Island of Montreal into a single city back in 2002 with the forced merger. I wouldn’t propose forcing anyone to do anything, especially not when they could be asked and convinced its the right thing to do first. And taking this necessary first step really has nothing to do with Toronto, though I could imagine this might be just the rallying-cry to unite voters around. It has everything to do with taking control of our destiny, of running our own affairs and working towards an attainable goal.

You see this map? It’s not really what the Montréal Métro map looks like, and it’s not even entirely based on STM plans and predictions. Rather, it’s based on the idea that the entirety of the metropolitan region should be connected via a common high-capacity public transit system, as one might see in any Alpha World City. We have an excellent public transit system by any set of standards, but its not growing fast enough. We’re above and beyond most North American cities, but are falling behind internationally. The stigmas attached to public transit need to be eliminated, and the system needs to be expanded to levels comparable with Tokyo or Paris. Granted we don’t have their population, but major growth can only be obtained if key pieces of infrastructure are already in place.

You may be asking why we need to get bigger, why we need to start thinking on a bigger scale? For me its rather simple – I’d like to see a veritable utopia, a city that takes complete care of its citizens and vice-versa. A city which is invaluable on a global scale, with the resources to be at the forefront of the arts and sciences. In order to live like kings we will require a larger population, and in turn will have the resources to employ the latest technologies to improve life for all citizens across the board. You might think this is crazy, that achieving any kind of utopia is futile. I politely disagree.

But I will say this. It is exceptionally disconcerting to see just how many people have a general ‘that can’t be accomplished because other people have tried and failed in the past’ mentality. I’ve heard with regards to the Big O (it was so expensive we should demolish it), the Olympics in general (again, it was so expensive we should never do it again, despite now having paid for all the infrastructure), and even the possibility of Montréal re-gaining its position of global prominence. Hell, I was once told we can’t have trams here because there would be too much snow in the winter (we had year-round tram service from the 1880s to 1959, worked just fine).

The fact of the matter is, if we looked no further than our own recent history, we would find all the missing keys to re-gaining our national primacy. We would find the projects that once focused development and international attention, and find all the failures we could turn into success stories. We could be a city of Universal Expositions, International Olympiads and a seat of international governance (don’t forget – it was recently proposed that the UN move its headquarters to Montréal; this can be an issue as long as we insist on it, and let’s face it, of all places, the UN certainly belongs here). All of this can be ours again, insofar as we decide not only that it is possible, but more importantly, that it is vital to achieve a minimum standard as an Alpha World City. The initial investment must be made by the citizens of an expanded single-entity super-metropolis, though their tax-dollars, into building the components necessary for large-scale growth and development. Then follows the infrastructure and services development, the creation of expansion of city departments and agencies into a foundation of steady, well-paying jobs to facilitate the development of a proud and prosperous local middle class. And from this strong foundation we will attract and produce the commercial and industrial interests necessary to achieve this coveted status. An Alpha City can lead by the examples created by the R&D they can support, and they maintain their appeal by experimentation. Let our city become the new experiment in modern urbanism, it is high-time we lead by example.

The reasons to build a supercity are many and would appeal to anyone living in the metropolitan region. Consider this my official announcement, I plan on winning a municipal election and becoming mayor, and under my watch we will climb to dizzying heights. Our future is the only thing I’m consistently concerned with, and I can imagine it looking very bright indeed.

On a final note, a short list of projects we may wish to consider if we want to become not only Canada’s first and foremost city, but beyond that, a city of global significance:

1. 24hr public transit access throughout the entire Greater Montreal region, using multiple systems

2. A unified public education system to guarantee French and English spoken and written fluency

3. A multi-airport system capable of handling more than 50 million passengers per year

4. An internationally recognized medical tourism hospital

5. The creation of a new bilingual university and several officially bilingual feeder CEGEPs

6. The development of a full-size version of Moishe Safdie’s subsidized housing project to provide subsidized housing for 100,000 more people

7. A car-free central business district

8. The development of a ‘locavore’ bureau, designed to ensure the new city can sustain its own food requirements. A simultaneous development would place emphasis on creating new centres of urban agriculture in addition to a proliferation of fresh produce markets.

9. Hosting both another Summer Olympic games and another Universal Exposition

(article in development, editing to come)

Kondiaronk Book Review – Saturday Night at the Bagel Factory

Don Bell was what you might consider a kind of boulevardier back in the 1960s and 1970s, keeping abreast of the freaks and geeks which make urban living so goddam enjoyable. He compiled a variety of anecdotes into the aforementioned compendium which became a big local and national hit back in 1972. Though I can imagine almost everyone interviewed by Bell is likely dead by now (save for a few old hippies), the characters are paradoxically products of their era and somehow timeless as well. We don’t have the same calibre of local eccentrics like we used to, in my honest opinion, but we’ll never be short on characters. Bell demonstrates clearly the source of so much creative inspiration in his honest and down-to-earth portrayals of a host of characters from early 70s Montréal, from local big shot showbiz types in their halcyon days to the silent and methodical Greek pool-sharks, from old-money dilettantes to new age gurus and the caffein-addled over-night crew staffing the Mile End bagel shops. Don Bell was looking for what the creatively-inclined see in the people and faces of this city, a never-ending supply of complex reactions and adjustments to the human experience. Sometimes hilarious, sometimes poignant, at times ill at ease with those living on the fringes of our society, the stories and scenarios he relates seems to steer away from the pulp curb-side reporting of Al Palmer in his Montreal Confidential as though he was interested principally in offering a societal and cultural almanac.

It’s been something I’ve been looking for for quite some time now – to capture that fleeting feeling of knowing the spirit, hydra-esque though it may be, a location may generate. In another sense I find myself looking for the zeitgeist in the built and natural environment, and by extension how such an environment may impact the people and colour their character. I think Marsan was looking for this, and Richler was certainly aware of it, and yet for some reason I don’t think we care as much about it anymore. That or we have forgotten what we came so close to defining. Either way, the people always seem to be at least able to feel in their spines, and know it to exist if only to know its indelible imprint. Don Bell saw the city in the citizen, and how the city, as a living, breathing super-organism, defines lives and lifestyles for its inhabitants. He demonstrates the beacon-esque qualities of a modern city in its prime, and the seedier elements of the underbelly, the harsh-realities of the lives of the people in the guts of a gigantic machine. Required reading for any boulevardier, urbanist, or Montreal history & literature enthusiast. Also, it caused a fair bit of controversy, but you’ll have to read it to find out why.