The Montreal Gazette’s number 1 news story of 2008: It snowed. The city was treated to 3.7 meters of the stuff between November 2007 and April ’08 and, according to journalist Anne Sutherland, Montrealers spent the winter “hip deep in misery.”
I suppose I should be used to this by now, but it still surprises me every time snow makes the front page. In a city that is blanketed with the stuff for nearly half of the year, every year, why do snow storms – and the subsequent snow-plowing debacle – consistently generate a flurry of media attention?
It wouldn’t be so bad if we just wanted to talk about the weather – after all, for many city-dwellers the weather is our only daily reminder that we belong to a wider natural environment that is beyond our immediate control. The intense climatic ups and down that all Montrealers live with are one of the few experiences that we share with our neighbours, our co-workers, and even strangers on the bus. But the media has an unhelpful habit of seeking out and broadcasting the most unpleasant snow-related experiences (usually extra hours tacked onto already lengthy car commutes) and then eagerly blaming the city for botching the snow-clearing before the last flakes have even had a chance to settle.
After receiving 20 cm of snow earlier this month, Marcel Tremblay, the city’s committee member responsible for public services, pointed out that the free parking lots which are designed to get cars off the street and facilitate snow clearing remained underused, towing illegally parked cars was slowing down the clearing operations, and despite tough driving conditions, there hadn’t been any increase in public transit usage.
It seems many of us assume that City workers should make winter conditions effectively disappear while we go on behaving exactly as we do the rest of the year. And this expectation is more than unrealistic, it’s a symptom that Montrealers have become disconnected from their sense of physical place.
It may be sunny year-round on our favourite TV shows. Perhaps it’s business as usual at our company’s international offices. Our facebook friends might not have to wade through slush puddles on every street-corner. But as globally dispersed as our social and economic interactions may be, we all still inhabit a real place, and for those of us who are from Montreal or have chosen to live here, winter is an elemental, undeniable part of our existence. Even the most efficient snow plow team in the world won’t take it away.
To make matters worse, many of us live in an urban (or suburban) environment that does not take reality of our climate into account. Development has become increasingly homogeneous across North America in the last sixty years – our weather patterns have not. Cars and the culture of individual car ownership were certainly not conceived for a place with 4-foot snow banks. Sprawl’s strict separation of homes, shops and workplaces; its detached houses, long driveways, and vast outdoor parking lots, were clearly not designed with 20-cm snowfalls or -20 degree weather at heart.
But Montreal is a unique city in a lot of ways and these conditions are one of them. We need accept it and we need to move on…which may mean not moving at all or using alternative transportation when snow limits our mobility. We can shop and socialize locally when it’s too snowy to dig the car out and the buses are struggling to make it down the street. We can try to build flexibility in our work schedules when the weather reduces our mobility or work from home when possible. We can replace strollers with toboggans, and wear warm, waterproof winter boots, even when they are not in style.
How about turning the bike path network into cross-country a ski route in the winter?
We also need to embody the realities of winter in the urban form beyond the architectural technicalities (snow loads, insulation, thermal contraction). Neither importing cookie-cutter development models, nor counting on international starchitects is the best way to acheive this. It means things like considering accessibility in snowy and icy conditions (indoor passageways are handy and long private driveways are not). Permeable streetscapes, for instance multiple store-fronts rather than a large commercial block with a single entrance, give people the chance to get out of the cold. We need ensure that there are non-commercial indoor places that are truly public and outdoor public spaces that are attractive year-round. Even if – or especially if – that means that homeless people will find nooks and crannies to curl up in for a time.
La Presse’s Stéphane Laporte takes a more level-headed approach than his fellow journalists, urging Montrealers to embrace our snowy destiny.“Il neige à Montréal, sporadiquement, de novembre à avril… C’est normal. C’est notre destin. Notre identité,” he writes in a wry editorial,
“Montréal est couvert à la grandeur et on voudrait que ça soit parti en deux heures. Les nerfs! La neige, ce n’est pas une substance radioactive ou explosive. C’est juste de l’eau prise ensemble. Ça ne nous mangera pas. On peut même s’amuser avec.”
Kids excitedly hit the toboggan run at Murray Hill park, Dec 31st.