While the Minister responsible for Social Services Lionel Carmant and the mayors of Quebec meet on the thorny issue of homelessness, urban planning professor Gérard Beaudet publishes a historical summary highlighting the chronic incapacity of Quebec decision-makers to rigorously regulate the urban changes. Hence the enormous problems linked to urban sprawl, all-car driving, heritage protection, access to housing, etc.
Let’s start at the end. After racing through five centuries of the city’s history in his new book A changing urban Quebec (Éditions MultiMondes), from the first hamlets of the French colony to the recent expansion of sprawling suburbs, urban planning professor at the University of Montreal (UdeM) Gérard Beaudet summarizes the lessons to be learned.
“When it comes to town planning and regional development, everything is obviously not dismaying,” he writes in conclusion. Year after year, remarkable achievements in urban planning, real estate development, urban design, heritage development or landscape protection are praised. The continuation of urban sprawl, the destruction of natural environments, the approval by municipalities of soulless real estate projects, as well as the numerous demolitions and the few extremis rescues of buildings of heritage interest, show that the achievements are extremely fragile. »
The criticism with feather duster and hammer then turns to the action or inaction of the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government which adds to the misfortunes. The evidence cited is dizzying: stubbornness for years around the 3rde link or the Eastern Metropolitan Express Network (REM); procrastination around protected areas; improvisations in the Seniors’ Houses and the Blue Spaces; the continuation of highway projects; the refusal to recognize the housing crisis; etc. Should we really remember that the mayors of Quebec are meeting on Friday for a summit on homelessness, a growing scourge in Quebec’s highly urbanized society?
Here, in 2021, 80% of the population lived in a city, and the six census metropolitan areas accounted for 88% of city dwellers. However, this fundamental change took place without any guidelines or planning, or almost.
“It is difficult not to remember that Quebec is, by far, the last province to have adopted an Act on land use planning and development. [en 1979], said the professor in an interview. This is the same observation in relation to the American states. We were 50 years behind the most latecomers. We must also note that in certain issues, we are clearly standing still, in public transport, the fight against climate change, urban sprawl or the place of the car. »
These delays coupled with a refusal to intervene can be explained in part by the powerful lobby of sellers of land, houses or tanks, but also by a sort of socio-cultural invariant, a certain anti-urban imagination. “We have a rather particular relationship with the city here,” says the specialist. In the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, the cooperative movement campaigned for an escape to the countryside, a return to the land. The city was supposedly unhealthy for good French-Canadian families even though we had been a predominantly urban society since the beginning of the 20th century.e century. »
Quebecers have an obvious attachment to the suburbs and are not the only ones. However, this model cracks everywhere and everywhere.
The last part of the book is called “Facing the Paradigm Shift”. It opens with a list of recent thematic issues of the journal. Urbanity of the Order of Urban Planners of Quebec, where it was a question of decline, climate resilience, smart cities or dependence on the automobile.
“Discourses against urban sprawl or against individual automobiles do not take into account the extremely deep roots of the imagination with regard to these two phenomena,” says the professor. We act as if it were the result of rational choices and that it would be enough to put new arguments on the table to change behavior. Asking people to think about what their second car costs them clearly doesn’t work. We face a poor grasp of the reality of these fundamental things. »
Quebec-style economic planning adds bones to the cheese. For decades, the State has allowed businesses to set up around road corridors, further and further from centers, further contributing to urban sprawl. “When you work in Mirabel, you can live in Saint-Sauveur. We act as if this reality does not exist. The distribution of employment is totally neglected by decision-makers. There is a lack of understanding of the problems and the solutions are therefore not appropriate. »
However, he and his colleagues have indeed been training urban planners in large numbers for decades, his institute attached to UdeM having been created in 1961. “I respond to that jokingly: things are going badly, yes, but imagine if we weren’t there! The town planners are the prince’s advisors. If the prince’s name is Jean-Paul L’Allier, that’s rather encouraging. Otherwise, we saw it with the 3e link and the REM, we do not have politicians who listen to those who are capable of clarifying decisions. We also have the same problem at the Ministries of Education and Health. There is a rather unhealthy relationship with expertise in Quebec. »