Last July, the Urban Eye spoke with Owen Rose, an interning architect who is one of the founders of Montreal's Comité Mont-Royal Avenue Verte. Dedicated to the pedestrianization of Mount Royal Avenue, one of the main commercial streets of Montreal's Plateau, Avenue Verte has been pressuring the local government to hold a public hearing on sustainable development and automobile use in the Plateau borough, attracting great public support in the process. Last week, we caught up with Owen Rose.
Rendering of a car-free Mount Royal.
IMAGE COURTESY OF OWEN ROSE.
If Avenue Verte had its way, what would Mount Royal Avenue look like?
The idea is a pedestrian street with access for bicycles and public transit that is electrified, whether it be bus or train, with an overall strategy for reducing the number of cars on the entire Plateau. We think taking cars off of Mount Royal Avenue is a way of discouraging people from driving on the Plateau. [We also want to] realign the entire avenue so that it's properly designed for nicer trees and sidewalks.
What's been going on since we last spoke?
There was the urban plan for the city and the urban plan for the Plateau. Both of them were released last spring. They had a series of public hearings on both urban plans-for the City of Montreal urban plan we had to submit a memoir, but for the Plateau an interesting thing happened. [The borough] was experimenting with the concept of participative democracy so they created a commission with ten individuals who live on the Plateau. [During] the four hearings, the commission would sit through them all and record memoirs, take notes, read all the papers and come up with a unified, consensual list of recommendations to improve the urban plan of the Plateau.
In December, the commission-these ten individuals, all volunteers-came out with a consensus report. [It called] for measurable steps to reduce cars, create more bike paths, turn Mount Royal Avenue into a detailed planning zone, with the potential to create a pilot project to reduce cars and promote public transit [on the street]. They had this whole list of amazing recommendations that were ecological, urban ... We were incredibly impressed. We had been fearful that [the commission's recommendations] would be really diluted, but what we saw from these public hearings, the consensus really was to reduce cars, put people first and promote public transit.
So the urban plan of the Plateau was revised-but released again with virtually all of the commission's recommendations ignored. We created a storm and said, "What's happening? You've created a commission who voluntarily put all of its time into this. Then you completely brush it to the side?" Well, the outcry was intense. On March 7, [the borough council] was planning to [approve the plan]. A week earlier they had announced that the plan was out there for us to look at and only a week later they planned to vote on it and accept it for ten years! Everyone was upset, so they were forced to withdraw it from vote and put it back on the drawing board. To support the commission, Avenue Verte created a coalition which emitted a communiqué saying that we publicly support [their recommendations].
Mount Royal on a rainy November evening.
PHOTO BY CHRISTOPHER DeWOLF
A lot of people get defensive when they see your plan and accuse you of taking a hard line. What about other ideas, like a Dutch-style woonerf [literally "street for living"], where pedestrians, cars and bikes share the street, but obstacles like fountains force cars to go slowly-would you be open to something like that?
What we're open to are the public hearings where that idea might be brought up ... The hearings [could result in an agreement that] the first year we should eliminate some parking spots, then in the second year close the street on weekends but leave it open on weekdays. But the city refuses to give itself the mandate to reduce automobile use in Montreal over [any period of time]. In Copenhagen, forty years ago, they said, "Our goal is to reduce cars." Over the next ten, twenty, thirty years, they successively closed streets [to cars] and reduced parking over the same time. Paris has come up with a plan to close the city centre to cars, not next year, but by 2010 or 2012, while improving public transit or closing off the city to cars street by street. What's important is that they've given themselves the goal to reduce cars. The problem here is that the city or the [borough] won't even give itself that goal.
What would it take to change the attitude of public officials, then?
Public opinion-definitely public opinion.
But do you think public opinion is on your side?
It's already there, but the politicians are far behind. Public opinion for improving transit and reducing cars is there. If you just take the Plateau, people are clearly [in favour of] reducing the number of cars, but the politicians are fearful of that. Why? It's funny that public transport fees have gone up by forty percent over the last so many years, but the parking-meter fee has not gone up at all. The will is not there, politically, so Avenue Verte, realizing this, is the attack dog. We're being radical but someone has to do that.
Mount Royal on a sunny April day.
PHOTO BY CHRISTOPHER DeWOLF
Mount Royal's business improvement association [the SDEC] is particularly opposed to your plan. Its leader, Michel Despatie, won't even meet with you. Why?
The merchants have a very good point. They say, "We're going to lose twenty percent of our business [the percentage of Mount Royal shoppers who drive] and that's twenty percent of our margin. We don't have that to lose." But we're not asking them to lose twenty percent of their business. We're talking about, in collaboration with them, finding a way to make this work. In my immediate neighbourhood, I have a choice of three bakeries, two fish shops, two produce stores, one incredible meat store. Plus I have a grocery store and a pharmacy. I don't want to see those go-it's not my goal to make those businesses suffer. Part of the joy of living on the Plateau is having access to all that. But how do we work with them to make this all change? We know it's a major change of paradigm [to drastically reduce the number of cars in the city], but we want to create one concrete example to show people that it works. If you create one example that works, you'll create pressure all over the city to do the same thing.
What is Avenue Verte's guiding philosophy?
The guiding philosophy is really quality of life, urban ecology and local participative democracy. When you empower people through democracy, they start to get more involved in issues of urban ecology. The overriding issue for us is quality of life. We want to enjoy our neighbourhoods. Ecologically, we know that cities are the most efficient ways of living together. Cities are the heart of civilization. We're here in the twenty-first century, we have all of this history we're aware of and we're more educated and live longer than ever before. Why can't we transform our cities into oases of urban, ecological living?
Corner of Mount Royal and de la Roche.
PHOTO BY CHRISTOPHER DeWOLF