Montreal: Lessons from great Canadian urbanism

Ever had a teacher who was so amazing at storytelling that difficult subjects become clear – and riveting? Some of my favourites that come to mind are Professors John Kraus and Robert Garbacz on electromagnetics, and Andrés Duany and Léon Krier on urbanism. The last few days, I’ve spent some time in la belle province, and I’ve felt that the Ville de Montréal is such a teacher.

Many of the design and legal issues we often discuss here on PlaceShakers, Montréal makes quick work of with some telling images. Heading on to Mont-Tremblant and Ottawa next, expect this to be the first in a series of three collections of insights from some great Canadian urbanism.

Cycling City

Outside of the fine-grained street networks and amazing architecture, the next thing that strikes me about Montreal is the exceptional cycling culture that seems to have taken over the city. The bikeshare seen here is empty, so perhaps the only complaint is getting the supply (5000 Bixi bikes) up to the increasing demand.

Downtown has given over an entire lane to a curb-separated bikeway, which is supported with bike-friendly signage and signals.



Recently I’ve complained about façade-ectomies in other cities. Rarely have I seen a North American city go to such great lengths to re-purpose entire structures. This building is an extreme example, wearing its archeology as a badge of courage, marking time over the 1700’s, 1800’s, and 1900’s.

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts has expanded into 7 buildings over three blocks, thanks in large part to the urban form of the buildings –including an apartment building and a church– that lent themselves to re-purposing. The original building seen here was expanded twice out back before attempting to cross the street.
Original art museum seen on left, then expanded into and behind the church next door, brown apartment building and new construction across the street. An underground network connects the seven buildings. This is the sort of re-purposing and infill flexibility that form-based codes enable so well.
Instead of carting off the church to another city when it was no longer required for its original purpose, local support for re-purposing allowed this important landmark to be utilized by the art museum and concert hall.
Carefully referencing the massing of the re-purposed apartment building next door, the new wing of the art museum fits in.


Permanent Pedestrian Streets

Scott Doyon recently pointed out the challenges of pedestrian malls, along with the places in which they work. Montreal is clearly such a place, with large populations of in-town housing, four major universities, and tourists. The permanent pedestrian streets here clearly deliver, including the sublime Rue Prince Arthur Est pictured here, a favourite university student hangout.

Some of the permanent pedestrian streets here don’t behave as malls, but rather playful art pieces, like these 3,500 temporary overlay markers by Claude Cormier. Later this block will become a permanent sculpture garden. Usually we’d complain about clipping the street grid like this, however the grain is so fine here with large percentages of people on foot, it works. As does this similar treatment of outdoor seating under purple trees by the beautiful McCord Museum:

Monocultures rarely work, and while a well-done pedestrian street is satisfying, I’m wondering if this allee through McGill University really needs to ban cyclists? The cyclists clearly don’t think so.

Pedestrians of haute couture graced the streets during last week’s Festival Mode & Design.


Temporary Pedestrian Streets

Closed to cars from 17 May to 23 September, some great temporary pedestrian streets teem with life. Others close for shorter periods to handle the large numbers of pedestrians drawn by summer and festivals.

Rue Sainte-Catherine during Festival Mode & Design

Avenue McGill College during Festival Mode & Design

Rue Sainte-Catherine by Place des Festivals

Rue Saint Paul

Avenue McGill College during Festival Mode & Design


Simple Public Space

However tempting over-programming public space may be, simplicity makes a strong case for livability. Montreal plazas and squares satisfy basic needs for shade and rest, then save their investment for one central iconic feature, like a fountain or a small café. The results are timeless and so pleasing that the grass doesn’t always have to be perfect.

Square Saint-Louis

Square Saint-Louis

Square Dorchester

This well-used pocket park keeps it simple, offering shade and a bench on a hot day on Rue Drummond between Boulevard de Maisonneuve and Rue Sherbrooke


Terminated Vistas

Earlier this year, we discussed the terminated vista. Montreal elevates the conversation.

Terminating the vista of Rue Saint-Denis, Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel overlooks the water and is dedicated to sailors

Rue Saint Paul’s outlook enjoys the dome at Bonsecour Market and the steeple at Bonceour Chapel.

Place Jacques Cartier

Avenue McGill College ends on the arts building, Moyse Hall

Avenue McGill College toward Redpath Museum


Century Material

Early on in this conversation we discussed re-purposing. To make capturing the embodied energy in a building a possibility, we’d have to start with century material in the first place. Buildings that are intended to last upwards of 100  years are found in abundance in Montreal, and a few of them were built in the 20th century. The 21st less so, but here’s hoping for a return to permanence.

City Hall in Old Montreal

Christ’s Church Cathedral

Saint James

Sun Life Insurance

Mary-Reine-du-Monde Basilique

Mary-Reine-du-Monde Basilique

Mary-Reine-du-Monde Basilique

Saint-Joseph du Mount Royal construction was inaugurated in 1924, and completed in 1967. Well worth the wait, and the 516 steps to get to the top!

Saint-Joseph du Mount Royal



Thanks again to Montreal and its planners for some delightful lessons learned. Definitely worth a visit, and if you’re heading this way soon, you’ll want to try some of the food that is as timeless as the urbanism. Around for decades with thankfully very little change, L’Express, Laloux, and Duc de Lorraine were my favourites. Also worth a visit is the Star Wars show at the Science Museum and the Biodome. Both aimed at children, our 7-year-old enjoyed the shows, however at the end of the day, preferred riding the Metro and bus system and walking the streets, along with the visit to Saint-Joseph du Mount Royal. Just as with the urbanism, the bells and whistles are rarely as valued as much as the permanence. Even if you’re seven.

–Hazel Borys

The urban lessons go on and on. In fact, this post is part of a three part series on Canadian urbanism. Read the whole thing:

Montreal: Lessons from great Canadian urbanism
Mont-Tremblant: Cottage Living in the Canadian Shield
Ottawa: Lessons from great Canadian urbanism

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  1. Definitely time for another visit to my favorite northern city. My heart aches at these beautiful photos.

  2. Thanks again for yet another insightful and interesting article.

  3. Montreal is such a great festival city

  4. Good pics, Hazel… thanks! Haven’t spent any time in Montreal in years… gotta get back up there.

  5. You’ve nicely summed up many of my favourite things about Montreal, which I enjoyed during a year spent there!

  6. Thanks for the encouragement, everyone, in comments, tweets, link backs, and emails! And Steve, those photo tips you gave me on our last walk definitely show up in these pics — thanks again for that.

  7. Canada! One of many cultures living collectively in this very cutting edge socialist system. French spoken in this culture, and the whole appearance transforms to a full re-birth in the winter months for another side of this fascinating culture – once thought of as “Two Solitudes” now, fully communicating, in both languages, Across this country. Expect multi-lingualism, with French and English most prominent at the moment, and all over the land, very strong four season cultural events. not a “Melting Pot” mentality but an unbreakable mutual respect situation through-out the land. For example in Southern Ontario, a full time French language TV and radio service and also, Italian, Spanish, German, Italian, Polish, Russian Indian, Pakistani, Chinese, Ukrainian, and more – common denominator? love of each other’s differences, respect, even enjoyment of all cultures – Hell! we even have summertime Caribanna a Jamaican street festival, and right after, the Gay Parade in Toronto,( we love our gays, rarely discriminate) St Patrick’s Day later on in March too! We have become so culturally rich and now in this age of modern communications so abundantly exposed to cultures we no longer see frightening differences but factor that bind us together In mutual respect.

  8. @Steve: I’ve never been and MY heart aches at the beauty of the pictures. I will most definitely get there. Too beautiful to miss! Great job, Hazel!

  9. Thanks, Wes and Bruce!

  10. We go up to Montreal once a year, when the students are returning and the streets are alive. We can be in the world’s second largest French speaking city in about 8 hours of driving time. In our area, nobody would think of putting up signs or devising menus in French. Spanish is the only other option other than English. This despite the proximity to a large French-speaking population and a preponderance of Germanic heritage. I have no argument with providing language options in Spanish, but feel that French, German and perhaps several other languages as well. If an American visits Europe, they will certainly visit cash machines. All of them provide at least six language choices.

  11. Nice pictures of Montreal indeed…although only one facet of Montreal is represented, the touristic side. As most Montrealers don’t live in downtown, nor in the old Montreal, it would be keen to remember how the city is deeply separeted in 2 or even 4 sub-divisions, all of it because of an archaich train track that does not allow pedestrian to cross over unless they can pay a find of 114$ each time they do so. This is a huge scar in the city that is part of our everyday life. But invisible to tourists..

    • Robert Ruffo says

      Central Montreal – places that look a lot like these, has about half the population living in it. Many suburbs are quite dense and have greta public transit – not that many places in or around Montreal resemble the American or Toronto sprawl model. The archaic trains tracks and $114 you mention are a figment of your imagination: I have no idea what you are talking about


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