About 130 residents came together in Mile End last Sunday to pen a collective vision for the future of their neighbourhood during a Forum organized by the Comité des Citoyens du Mile End.
The borough recently announced that it would invest $9 million in the Saint-Viateur Est area – an area currently dominated by abandoned lots and monolithic relics of the textile industry – in order to attract $250 million in private investments.
Although locals are excited about the improvements that such an investment could bring to the neighbourhood, they are a bit concerned about how such a massive influx of new private development will shape the neighbourhood, which has already been gentrifying rapidly for years.
Some participants stressed that, before beginning to improve infrastructure and beautify the neighbourhood, it is essential to protect established residents, for instance through rent control in both residential and commercial spaces, subsidized space for artists, family-oriented housing, etc.
Is more consultation the answer?
Wait, isn’t the city responsible for organizing public consultations about this kind of development?
« Les gens n’ont pas juste envie de contester, mais aussi de proposer,» says Richard Ryan, one of the members of the Comité des Citoyens du Mile End who organized the forum
Residents want more than a to critique the city’s established plans during a formulaic public consultation process – they want to propose their own ideas. Especially in an area like Mile End where residents are characterized as highly-educated creative types.
The citizens’ committee tried to organize a participatory process that was both rooted in the place and fostered a collective vision. The process included exploratory walks around the sector (and an upcoming Jane’s Walk), six thematic meetings in local cafés, artistic interventions on the street, and collaboration with a local elementary school where students were invited to present a drawing of their ideal neighbourhood.
At the conference, Ryan repeated that the forum was not meant to go against the elected officials or the borough’s planning process. But in our conversation afterwards, he added that the citizens’ committee does want to force the borough to have more transparency in their decision-making process.
Public consultations about the St-Viateur extension were held 4 years ago. A separate consultation about the space around the train tracks – one of the only green spaces in Mile End – will be held at some not-yet defined future point. Consultations are only held once the borough has approved a proposal.
The borough mayor, Helen Fotopoulos, provincial representative, Amir Khadir, and Projet Montreal party leader, Richard Bergeron, were present to soak up some of the citizen’s concerns and suggestions. After all, how often does a city-run consultation process inspire over a hundred local residents to put their heads together to formulate their priorities for a neighbourhood? In Ryan’s experience, it hasn’t happened yet.
“Les gens n’y croyent plus quand c’est top-down,” he concludes: citizens just don’t believe in the top-down consultation process anymore.
About 130 participants spent the morning discussing ideas in small groups, and then each table presented a proposition to the Forum.
From Vision to Action?
What next? The question came up at the Forum and again in my conversation with Ryan. The borough has said they are open to collaborating with the citizens’ committee but, considering that official public consultations rarely lead to in-depth restructuring of an urban project, how is this unofficial consultation supposed to insert itself into the decision-making process?
“On a des gros défis là,” admits Ryan: the next step is a big challenge. The citizens’ committee will organize the propositions into an integrated vision which will be presented to the decision-makers and participants and structure the committee’s future actions.
One of the most popular suggestions was to have a local public market, offering organic food and local artisanal products, where people could meet and various resources for citizens would be grouped.
While the forum was an instance of grass-roots participatory planning, most of the ideas raised were dossiers that would have to be handed over to the borough or city. I suppose that this is the nature of framing the activity within the context of the planned investment in the sector.
But still, I would like to see this kind of collective vision and energy be translated into grass-roots action. Ryan mentioned that the Citizens’ committee could act as a link, seeking approval and support for citizen projects with the city.
One group, called Imagine (le) Mile End has taken a few steps, including the colourful Park(ing) installation pictured above, and has plans for more concrete actions in the ‘hood. The same group provides an in-depth summary of Sunday’s meet and the emerging propositions here. The official summary documents will be available in the coming weeks.
Photo by Imagine le Mile End. The group took over a number of parking spaces last Saturday to raise awareness about future developments planned in Mile End.