Unite the West Island {Part 1}

Baie d’Urfe, quintessential Old West Island – unknown author

This post has a lot to do with the West Island, as you might suspect from the title, but the West Island is fundamentally an important component of metropolitan Montreal, and thus I feel it has a place here. In my opinion, in order for the West Island to become all it can be and provide for itself long-term, it must unite into a single amalgamated city. It is beginning to mature in such a fashion that a discernible local character and culture has developed here, largely as the result of the development of common goals and aspirations for the people who live there. The people who live here have common needs which have heretofore largely been the responsibility of either the City of Montréal or the Province of Québec; otherwise, the West Island today is merely a collection of small municipalities with little mutually beneficial long-range planning. This must change if we want to increase our standard of living, together. This must change if we truly want solutions to the myriad problems and difficulties that we’ve all become acutely aware of over the last few years. Problems with traffic gridlock, declining population, lack of local investment capital, over-crowded hospitals and lack of public transit access – all of this can be better dealt with by a new, united West Island city.

Ask yourself, what can a city of 235,000 people do for itself? How quickly can it double its population? What opportunities can it provide for its citizens? What resources could it share and benefit from, and what could we guarantee for to promote our unique society and culture? Finally, what can 235,000 people do to increase property and house values and median income across the entire West Island, simultaneously?

There is a lot more to the West Island than residential housing projects and strip malls, though you might not know it to first look at it. In too many ways the West Island is the defective prototypical North American sprawl mega-suburb. But it has a unique character nonetheless and I would dare say the makings of at least its own identifiable sub-culture within the larger subgroups of Montréal culture and the Québecois middle-class. We are distinct as a whole in many ways, but we refuse to see our points of commonality, and thus our community remains an ineffective collection of cities without much common planning. Our bondage is our lack of cooperation. Moreover, we have unique needs with regards to education, healthcare, public works & transit and emergency services, yet we are overly reliant on outside forces to supply these services. As long as this is the case we can’t do much to improve the bare essentials of our shared services, and further have very little hope to collect the investment capital needed to fund our own improvement programs.

So why not unite?

If the eight de-merged municipalities were to combine with the four merged communities along the north-western edge of the island (which would be advantageous for the City of Montréal, but I’ll address that later), we could quickly form a new community of roughly 235,000 people, a community of roughly equal size to other Canadian cities like Kitchener, Burnaby, Regina or Windsor. All of those cities manage to provide their own public transit and emergency services, not to mention universities, museums, performance venues and sports stadiums. Ultimately, this is not about limiting the individual sovereignty of the constituent West Island communities, but rather about recognizing our common needs as citizens in a suburban conurbation with over 300 years of shared history and inter-related development. Throughout much of the 20th century development was more or less haphazard, driven largely the market trends in post-war suburban housing construction common throughout North America. But this in turn has lead to a large number of people with a common appreciation of shared green spaces and the rustic charm which is emblematic of the region, and a general desire amongst said residents to see what remains of Montreal’s last remaining wilderness (a semi contiguous area of Eastern Great Lakes lowland forest in the Northwest sector) preserved and promoted. In other words, there’s a reason why people live there together; they appreciate many of the same services and aesthetics, and they choose this region as an ideal location to raise a family and develop important middle-class wealth. We think similarly and have broadly similar aspirations, so why do we continue to plan like 17th century hamlets?

If we unite, we can plan on a large scale, limit low-density residential construction while promoting higher-density alternatives. We could build a new city centre akin to examples you would find in Toronto’s inner-ring suburban areas, like North York. By increasing density we could provide diverse housing styles for new residents, and establish a civic core for the West Island as a whole. Moreover, we could seek to develop new higher-density retail space and commercial office space as well, to attract necessary local services. New capital and investment could be obtained in a far more efficient manner, and provide on a greater scale, through the lobbying efforts of a single new medium sized city.

But we simply cannot do it alone, as individual communities, this must be an achievement for our own societal evolution. We must ask ourselves what our future holds and whether or not we will grow old here, with our children.. If West Island residents want better schools & hospitals, better opportunities and greater options, then we must provide for each-other en masse. If the older generations want their children to raise families here as well, they must be given reasons to stay. Uniting the West Island into a single community could allow us to accomplish many things for each other, not to mention establish a better working relationship with the other major cities of the Montréal Archipelago. We owe it not only to ourselves to put ourselves in a stronger bargaining position with the City and the Province, and we know both Ottawa and Québec City will look favourably towards this new community. We must lead by example, to unite so as to encourage better thinking in the future, better design and a better standard of living, here inasmuch as anywhere else in Canada.

There’s a lot of ground to cover here, I’m guessing this might be a three-parter. More later. But before I go, if you lived in the West Island or live there now, ask yourself what life would be like if a new combined community suddenly had the capital to construct a sophisticated performing arts venue, a bilingual liberal arts university, a surface tram network or an art museum. What dreams could we realize for the greater good?