When we revisited Montreal, Canada it reminded me of what I like about cities, especially those that strike a balance between density and livability.
Not hyper dense like Tokyo and not the type of suburban low density found in many U.S. cities, Montreal has what many would consider a “Goldilocks” density. The metro region is split almost evenly between suburban and urban life in dense, walkable, transit-rich neighborhoods made up of two-story townhomes and apartments. Montreal has nearly identical density to Lakewood, but makes better use of the space by not giving away any of that precious resource to driveways, surface parking lots or yards.
One not so obvious item that makes Montreal work are its alleys. Behind the row houses, the city works with property owners to shape them, often adding green space to supplement the postage stamp gardens in the front. The front of buildings have spiraling, wrought-iron staircases and balconies to buffer building from street, which are often narrow and tree lined. The green alleys are also where the utility lines and poles are hidden. The result is many apartments have two balconies. The front balcony provides a space for retirees to sit and keep eyes on the street during the day. The back balcony is ideal for socializing in small groups in the evening where trees provide shade and a little more privacy. The greening of Montreal’s alleys—an official designation with funds provided by the city—seems to have shifted the focus in the alleys from car access to creating play spaces for children or a canvass for community projects.
Montreal has the type of density that supports transit and their Metro is fast and frequent. They also have invested heavily in bike infrastructure and have an impressive number of people biking as a result. It is the type of density you might find in a borough of New York or San Francisco where residents trade private land for public benefit. The land that would be given over to lawns is reapportioned into small green spaces and large central parks throughout.
But, with mid-range density come challenges like affordable housing. Density isn’t the only factor weighing on housing affordability. Transportation, Food, Housing, Education and Health Care all have to be considered. The latter two are completely subsidized by the Canadian government for its citizens. For Housing, a quick look at Montreal’s real estate listings would suggest ($1,400 for a one-bedroom apartment in an area that is near the Metro but more mixed income) that it is in the less affordable range compared to cities like Cleveland, a depressed real estate market but one where larger spaces substitute for proximity and force people into car ownership. That’s a value choice, like space is equated with wealth. But really, is double the square footage equal to double the quality of life? How well are we using our (average) 2,000 square feet per household of space in the U.S.?
The lesson from Montreal, which by all accounts seems to be enjoying a really nice quality of life, is halving the square footage can work when its balanced by a better public realm. I admit that I do live a compact, transit-connected way in Cleveland, a region where the public realm is tilted toward car convenience. It’s not as simple as measuring density when they can be similar between Montreal and parts of Cleveland. Arguably we could support a culture of walking to shops, socializing, school and so forth. Yes, Montreal has a critical mass of cultural creatives and Cleveland is still figuring out how to recover. But, we also have RTA’s redesign of its transit system and the city’s pursuit of a form-based code as ideas to pursue with tangible outcomes at stake that could tilt us back toward infilling density and reducing vehicle miles traveled. The ineffable joie du vivre that can be found in Montreal is much more than the sum of its parts, but Cleveland’s legacy as a streetcar city could still be a fragment of our cultural heritage that we reclaim.