It would seem Mayor Denis Coderre is increasingly “seduced” by the idea of pedestrianizing the entire downtown portion of Ste-Catherine Street. It’s about time. This is a project that was floated by Projet Montréal all the way back in 2004, and in 2013 was in the platforms of both Projet Montréal and Groupe Mélanie Joly – who together won all of Ville-Marie’s council seats, as a reminder, despite the Tremblay-era regulation which imposes the Mayor’s will on the downtown core.
All the more reason why this is a nice surprise, especially since Coderre said nothing of it during the election campaign. With all the usual caveats about consultation and working with the business community, the Mayor now says he’d like to take advantage of the crisis with the street’s century-old water mains to rethink the design of Montreal’s most important commercial artery. The goal is for Ste-Catherine Street to emerge reborn in time for the city’s 375th birthday celebrations in 2017.
This is fantastic news. Nearly every major European city has their main commercial pedestrian avenues downtown, from Dublin to Berlin, Prague to Budapest, and cities across Germany, France and Spain, the latter which often have whole networks shaded by the sun. And it’s not confined to the rich world either: the Mexican cities of Puebla, Guadalajara and Mexico City all have their pedestrian shopping malls as well, as do Istanbul, Buenos Aires, and many, many more.
Suffice to say that pedestrian zones are an essential part of an urbanized environment in many parts of the world. Frequently, they become the very heart and soul of the commercial and social life of the downtown core. Yet oddly, in the bizarro world of the North American car-culture bubble, the debate often takes a turn towards the hysterical, with business owners howling at the threat of removing car access from shoppers despite full and efficient service by public transit.
Their fears, of course, are utter hogwash, as anyone who’s travelled much to cities outside North America – or, um, the Village in summer – knows well. As a shopper after all, what do you find more agreeable? An afternoon saunter down the pedestrian mall, going from shop to shop and resting at cafes, parks, restaurants or cultural attractions along the way? Or driving in circles hunting for parking for 20 minutes, paying for it, and then walking 5-10 minutes anyway because you couldn’t find parking in front of your shop? And…then what do you do, by the way? Do you walk back to your car right away and head home, or do you…walk down the street some more to see what else there might be, or make an afternoon of it?
Let’s be lucid on this point: Ste-Catherine Street is not a driving street. It’s too narrow, too congested, and too chaotic. Walk down the street on a summer day and count the number of people pouring off the sidewalks for lack of adequate space. The current layout is not only crammed, noisy, polluting, outdated and all-around unpleasant; it’s dangerous.
Now imagine what it could look and feel like, if the redesign carried out in the Quartier des spectacles stretched all the way down to Atwater, as suggested by Projet Montréal leader Richard Bergeron. Imagine the reinvented ambiance of the street, without the roars of engines, exhaust fumes, or overcrowding; imagine buskers near Concordia lining the way as in Grafton Street in Dublin, where evening strollers gather round to enjoy; public art installations and performances, cozy benches and potted trees (evergreens?) in rows on either side; even funky rest-spot placettes down the middle, with locally designed tables where you can savour the Vietnamese takeout you just grabbed from the food truck – the better to take a pause and a breather, as you admire the architecture of this storied street…
Montréal, ville blanche
Now I’m about to get a bit bold: let’s keep it pedestrianized all year round. Yes, this goes against the common wisdom in this city, as politicos of all stripes fall for the easy presumption that all things exterior in Montreal must die between November and March. But why such timidity and lack of imagination?
Montreal may seem tropical in the summer, but come winter we’re downright nordic, and it’s precisely this dual character (we love dualisms here, of all kinds) that makes Montreal the special place it is. Let’s not forget that the human body needs to walk all year round to be healthy, as emphasized most recently by the city’s Permanent Committee on Culture, Heritage and Sports, which concluded its consultations with the finding that Montrealers must become more active, and especially in winter.
They’re right, and our cities should be designed to encourage this. So just throw on your long johns and wool and get out there – hell, we’re Montrealers! We’re used to it! If we can dance outside for twelve nights in January and February each Igloofest, or hop around art galleries all night for Nuit Blanche just a few weeks later, then surely we can take a little stroll down the pedestrian mall, with warm comforts on all sides for the occasional respite.
Few cities are as creative as Montreal, so why hide from winter when we can redesign it? Why not have food trucks serve hot (regular and spiked) beverages along the street, or roasted chestnuts, like on Istanbul’s pedestrian Istiklal Avenue? Why not install stylized electric heaters in the rest-spots on a pedestrianized Ste-Catherine Street come the cold season, or better yet, urban fireplaces of the sort used at Igloofest (pictured)? And while we’re at it, how about a few ice sculptures dotting your path? Any or all of these would quickly become iconic elements of Montréal, ville blanche, and gathering grounds for locals and travellers to rub shoulders around a warm fire or art piece, a chat, or a hot chocolate (Baileys optional?).
Or how about an indoor network of pause-chaleurs with signs to guide you, for when the cold just gets a little too intense to bear? Cafés, bar and bistros could opt to join the seasonal network, exchanging discounted prices on hot drinks and hot food for free publicity from the city (and further compensated for by the influx of customers, and especially tourists, it would draw in). These too would become a distinctive trait of Montreal winters, and unique social environments for people to find warmth together as they seek shelter from the cold.
These are but a few propositions of course, and would all need to be carefully debated and considered further. The elderly and mobility-challenged in particular would need to be accommodated, for example, perhaps by reserving more parking spaces for them on all side streets. But these issues are easily surmountable, and the ideas here are at least enough to show there are myriad options available for those with the will and audacity to devise them.
We’re Montreal. If we dream it, they will come.
Follow Shawn on Twitter: @Shawn_Katz