0316 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 Mtl campaign (formerly Je Vois Mtl).
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.