This post is a special submission from Daniel Rotsztain, a student of Urban Geography at McGill University.
When walking through Montreal, we cannot deny the usefulness of the shortcut. Shortcuts that are used frequently by many people show us the lovely chaos that ensues when urban design fails to consider our pedestrian needs. Many pedestrians share one goal: to get between two points in the city as fast as possible. Ideally, urban planners would design paths that meet our needs perfectly: major routes that bring the maximum number of people to the places they want to go.
Fortunately, the ideal of perfect planning is rarely a reality. Each of us has a separate orientation toward the city, a separate idea of what routes are important, and a different concept of effective and efficient negotiations of the urban space and, ideally, the urban fabric is fluid enough to accommodate that. A simple example is the natural path that forms at many street corners. Cutting a corner makes your walk only slightly faster yet, inevitably, sidewalks at 90 degree angles are happily traded for a quicker trod through the soil.
Living in a wintery city gives Montrealers a unique perspective on the natural path phenomenon. Once the snow arrives, our mobility through large open spaces is considerably hindered. Every winter in Park Jeanne-Mance, the city ploughs paths that trace the perimeter of the park, the slowest route for someone who wants to walk across. Having to walk through the park daily, I’ve found that shortcuts through the snow appear every winter in the same place. A path that initially manifests as a narrow track of boot prints, meandering past trees and picnic tables, slowly evolves to become wide and navigable.
We can read these indexes of movement as evidence of Montreal’s collective unconscious, instances of unorganized agreement by the community to subscribe to a more efficient path than that which has been offered by the city. The natural path through the snow also shows me that ultimately, I rely on the actions of others in urban space. The path’s angle shortens the walk for the most number of people, and is a beautiful instance where natural human behaviour manifests in collective rationality and the logic of a city can be easily read.
Another example can be found on Ave des Pins, just west of du Parc. When the city redesigned the intersection to fit a more human scale, a large fence was built separating the north and south sides of Pins in order to prevent pedestrians from jay-walking through the fast-moving traffic. Despite these efforts, a path has formed directly through the seemingly indestructible steel fence. We can again appreciate the organic and collective nature of our negotiation of Montreal’s urban space and realize that ultimately, our city is formed by its citizens: our actions, our behaviours and our habits.
All photos provided by Daniel Rotsztain