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January 25, 2001 Urbanologist optimistic about mergers



Urban Studies Professor John Zacharias.

Urban Studies Professor John Zacharias.

Photo by Christian Fleury.

by Zack Taylor

Montreal is not the first Canadian metropolitan area to face amalgamation. First Halifax, then Toronto and Ottawa have gone the way of the “megacity” since 1995.

In January 2002, all 28 city governments on the island of Montreal will become one. Overnight, 284 councillors and mayors will be replaced by one mayor and 71 councillors. Municipalities like Westmount, Outremont, and Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue will cease to exist as independent entities.

While citizens of the smaller cities and especially anglophones have been vocal in their protests, the PQ government pushed the merger bill through the National Assembly before Christmas.

John Zacharias, the director of Concordia’s Urban Studies Program, is guardedly optimistic about the merger, though he believes that it will be far more difficult than the recent merger of Toronto’s five boroughs.

“It is difficult to know the advantages in the short run. There are vastly different bureaucratic cultures from one municipality to another in Montreal, and many of the smaller ones have no planning staff at all.”

When it comes to thorny issues of taxing, spending, and government responsiveness, Zacharias defers to the political scientists. He is emphatic, however, in saying that Montreal must be treated as a single planning entity.

“There have been so many expensive mistakes made because planning decisions have been subordinated to political decisions,” he says. “With a centralized professional planning bureaucracy, we stand a good chance of correcting them.”

The merger does not address what he sees as the central problem facing the Montreal region: suburban sprawl.

“Sprawl will destroy our competitiveness. The percentage of our budget going into maintenance of infrastructure like roads is growing year over year.

“We’re sprawling at a faster rate than almost any other North American city despite 10 years of flat population growth. All of this sprawl is on the north and south shores — amalgamating the island will at best create a new kind of political pressure to halt sprawl, but there will be no direct authority.”

Asked what how an amalgamated Montreal will stack up against cities like Toronto or Boston in the future, Zacharias is circumspect.

“Cities are specializing. They are developing profiles that are attractive to particular types of business investment. How successful Montreal will be in this competitive environment may have little to do with city governments. Our city governments are very dependent on provincial and federal governments for funding infrastructure improvements.”

The greatest sin of the past 10 years is one of omission, he says. Passed in 1992, Montreal’s first-ever master plan is concerned with regulations rather than achieving long-term objectives. Since Mayor Bourque was elected in 1994, the city’s planning department has been further diminished.

All of the signs of downtown revitalization — the Alouettes’ move to Molson Stadium, new university buildings, Ex-centris, the Simons/ Paramount theatre complex, the Cité du multimédia, and the Molson Centre, among others — are the result of private sector or provincial government initiatives.

This was not always the case. “In the 1970s, 80s, and early 90s, a lot of important decisions were made: Métro system expansion, South Shore bus integration, dedicated bus lanes. These helped keep downtown commercial vacancy rates below suburban rates, something rare in North America.”

Good planning in Montreal is not impossible. Zacharias says that with a good professional bureaucracy responsible for the whole island, regional co-ordination, and a strong political voice, forward-looking planning can take place.

A unit of the Department of Geography, the Urban Studies program offers a unique analytical approach that emphasizes urban project development.

“Urban planning in Quebec has been more about studying techniques and the governmental process. Our program is far more broadly based,” Zacharias says.

In the program, students work on both real and hypothetical case studies with an eye on what conditions are required to make a plan happen, including funding and stakeholder support. This, he says, prepares them for employment as planners in both the private and public sectors.









On the run: Ludovic Matthews and David Taylor make a break across de Maisonneuve Blvd.

On the run: Ludovic Matthews and David Taylor make a break across de Maisonneuve Blvd.

Photo by Andrew Dobrowolskyj.

Urban Studies students tackle de Maisonneuve dilemma

Although no one has been killed crossing the busy street between the library and the Hall Building, safety is a serious concern. The two buildings are connected by an underground tunnel, yet thousands of students jaywalk across de Maisonneuve Blvd. every day.

Urban Studies students David Taylor and Ludovic Matthews set out to discover why.
Matthews surveyed 50 students in order to determine their reasons for not using the tunnel, finding that perception of greater speed was the main reason cited for crossing the street. Indeed, people will cross outdoors regardless of weather.

The surveyed students’ instinct proved correct: even taking into account the 45-second traffic light cycle, data from empirical tests shows that it is on average quicker to cross the street than to take the tunnel.

They also surveyed students to find out which floors of both buildings were the most likely starting and destination points. Most crossers wish to end up on the second through fourth floors of the library, or on the fourth floor or above of the Hall Building. This led Matthews to propose an elevated walkway connecting the fourth or fifth floors of both buildings. The survey showed that 79 per cent would take a fourth-floor bridge if it existed. A bridge has never been contemplated by the university, and they are discouraged by the city, says Professor John Zacharias.

The locations of the buildings’ doors doesn’t help, says Taylor, as mid-block placement of doors encourages jaywalking. If the doors were at the Mackay and Bishop corners, people would be more likely to cross at the lights.

— Zack Taylor