All day yesterday, I looked at this map.
For their first Citizen’s Agora, the Institut de politiques alternatives de Montréal went big: they chose the entire Metropolitain area for a spin in the think-tank. The timing is right: Bill 58 mandated the Communauté Métropolitaine de Montréal (CMM) to draft a regional plan by the end of 2011. The agora aimed to produce some concrete recommendations.
In one presentation after another, the map was used to describe trends in density, transit, greenspace.
But the map is not the territory. I once went to a rave at the Cosmodome in Laval; I once watched a movie at Sainte-Eustache’s drive-in, but overall, the CMM’s territory remains mysterious to me. And I assume that it is more or less unknown to everyone who attended, although many of them are professionals working in urban planning, transportation, or commerce in one of the 82 cities or towns outlined above. It is just too spread out to know with any level of intimacy.
The Boston Metro Experience
And yet regional planning is of the essence, as one of the opening panelists, Timothy G Reardon from Boston’s Metro Future, highlighted.
Since property tax is the only source of income for municipalities, greenfield development usually seems like the only way to cope with the rising cost of serving the community. But when dozens of towns in the same region come to the same conclusion, and each build more single-family dwellings, more strip-malls and more industrial parks, the market for these things becomes diluted. Working alone, not only does each town fail to meet their objectives and solve the local problem, but they multiply regional problems such as loss of agricultural land and car-oriented development.
“Local issues are rooted in regional trends and local decisions have regional impacts,” said Reardon. When it comes down to it, most suburbs’ attractiveness to industry or home-buyers has more to do with the state of the metro area than the particularities of the bungalow stock or the industrial park.
The real challenge is persuading people to get on board. Reardon said that, in Boston, they were able to do this by creating a constituency who would advocate for the regional plan. In that region there is no legal planning body at the metro-scale so instead, Reardon and his colleagues took the metro-planning show on the road, visiting various citizens’ groups in 101 surrounding municipalities, and engaging them through a process of visioning and valuing (I picture this as a 30s style urban planning side-show caravan, although I’m sure it was a laptop and suitcase tour).
During Reardon’s presentation, we had a change in map.
So metro planning is our responsibility?
The people who dedicate a Saturday to discussing regional planning issues are earnest, progressive, often identify themselves as optimists. Professors, students, environmentalists, even a few city councillors, line up at the microphones to call for densification, transit, and the fundamental integration of transportation with planning; everyone agrees about the importance of democracy, social equity, preserving natural spaces, and valuing agricultural land.
Only in the final hour does Gazette columnist Henri Aubin addressed the elephant in the room: Halting urban sprawl, preventing the dezoning of agricultural land, and focusing development in the city centre tend to run against the interests of the suburbs, who none-the-less hold half the balance of power in the CMM. To make things even trickier, the “450” is more politically volatile and therefore has lot more influence at the provincial level.
“M Tremblay a montré peu de leadership au CMM,” he said. “Le potentiel de leadership vient plutot de gens comme vous, du public.”
Aubin also pointed out that the media has a role to play: “Avec l’invisibilité de la CMM, les élus de la CMM peuvent être aussi têtu qu’ils veulent sans que le public le sache.”
Gérard Beaudet (Observatoire sur la mobilité, UdeM) drew a similar conclusion: “On ne peut pas passer outre des problèmes de gouvernance…Ce n’est pas de l’immobilisme, c’est de l’immobilisation volontaire.” We definitely can’t trust decisions about regional planning to the governing bodies, he insisted. Civil society and citizens must mobilize and champion these issues. Oh, and since there’s no public consultation body at this level of governance, we also have to organize the democratic forum in order to do so, just as IPAM has done.
But the territory is, well, big. For most of us it remains unknown, and therefore unloved, and therefore undefended. For many of us, just venturing beyond our neighbourhood can induce culture shock. Aubin is right about the role of the media, but frankly Spacing Comunauté Metropolitaine de Montréal feels like a bit much to take on.
Photo: Finding a balance between agricultural preservation, greenspace and development looks simple from afar, but how does it play out on the ground? (Photo of Laval by Alanah Heffez, April 2009)