Note: At the bottom of this article you will find a powerful video version, best seen at full screen.
When I was first offered to opportunity of moving to Montreal, I deeply questioned myself, not knowing whether I would be able to tolerate living in a city anymore, especially after 15 years of having been in a very small rural Mexican town surrounded by corn fields, with a magnificent mountain chain as an horizon. In my early adulthood, I had fled from Mexico City, moving south of the huge metropolis to a small place that was till to some extent cosmopolitan. Now another change beckoned. I had already visited Montreal a couple of times before, and I had the feeling that it was a still altogether a human-scale city. An urban conglomerate—yes, but one that offered breathing spaces, open sights, the refreshing contact of water and plenty of choices here and there to escape from the “concrete jungle” even if one were still in the midst of it. So I took my chance. And here I am on this island, four years later, not regretting my decision at all, but rather enjoying a quality of life that I had thought impossible to find in a big city.
Of course, like any urban centre in the world, Montreal has many serious issues—expanding expressways, underfunded public transit, contaminated industrial sites (don’t forget Technoparc), waste management, the threat of growing built-up areas at the expense of green spaces, just to mention a few. Sure enough, we all have to deal with them to a greater or lesser extent, and ideally we will play an active role in their solution. Nonetheless, through this very short collection of images, rather than focusing on Montreal’s pressing environmental issues, I want to pay tribute to those aspects that from my perspective make this city so liveable, an environment for us to cherish, enhance and preserve.
1. A mountain within the city
What would Montreal be without its Mount Royal?
Not many cities in the world have a mountain right in the middle of their urban core, with a wooded parkland that has been preserved to a large extent rather than having been swallowed up by built-up areas.
In spite of human intervention, Mount Royal still holds a fine tract of maple-hickory forest, right in the heart of the southwest of Quebec, that larger domain with the greatest biodiversity found in all the province.
2. Green landscapes (natural and urban parks)
Montreal stands out for the number of natural and urban parks of all sizes distributed across the island.
Many cities have a vestige of their original surroundings, but with a network of 17 sizeable parks, Montreal keeps an invaluable heritage of natural habitats within its urban fabric. These “islets of biodiversity” not only buffer the impact of land development, creating beneficial micro-climates and improving air quality, among other many beneficial effects, but also provide Montrealers with an improved quality of life and opportunities to reconnect with nature “just around the corner.”
3. Water (the river and canals / fountains)
Coming from a semi-arid climate, I find water to be a most essential element of any urban environment. In addition to the St. Lawrence and its tributaries embracing the island and contributing to the uniqueness of Montreal’s lush landscape and shoreline areas of high ecological value, the city features any number of waterways, canals and fountains highly appreciated by Montrealers for their leisure and recreational potential.
4. Green neighbourhood alleys (ruelles vertes) and pedestrian streets
Today, Montrealers are creating new urban spaces by greening alleys, an initiative that started some ten years ago in the Plateau Mont-Royal borough.
In a “green alley,” cement is removed along both sides of the street to create planted corridors with perennial plants, bushes and trees (ideally native). The impacts of increased vegetation are immediate: better air quality and cooler neighbourhoods in the summer.
5. Urban agriculture (community gardens, green roofs)
Montreal has been referred to as a “gardening Mecca.” Besides a longstanding and extensive municipal community garden program, many successful grassroots gardening efforts and urban agriculture projects have helped groups and individuals alike reclaim land—school yards or abandoned areas, rooftops, terraces and balconies—for beauty or for food production, encouraging active citizenship and collective ties: people doing something for themselves and for their community at the same time.
6. Bike paths and public transport
Turn around and you’ll see a bike. Who would have thought that a city with a winter as long and hard as Montreal’s would become a major cycling centre? But the passion of Montrealers for their bicycles, and a wonderful, constantly expanding system of bike paths, is remarkable.
In fact, that’s one of the things that I’ve enjoyed most in Montreal—being able to live without a car. Eight months a year my loyal bike gets me around wherever I need to go, and the other four, a really good public system solves my transport needs. (I admire those brave enough to keep on biking through the winter; my tropical blood doesn’t take me that far.)
A new component of Montreal’s public transport system is the Bixi, a self-serve bicycle system, solar-powered, and available to Montrealers and tourists alike. Our city is the first with such a solar-powered system and its success, even after only one year of operation, has led other cities around the world to take Bixi as a model.
7. Neighbourhood/social networks, community action for the environment
Behind all of these features that I so much appreciate in Montreal is—no doubt—community action and the persistent work of social networks.
It is for each of us to dare to dream of different, better and more sustainable ways of making the city our own. And with small, day-to-day actions, we all are making that change possible.
What is at stake right now — on our planet –is complexity at the highest level: intelligence, consciousness, artistic activity.