Montreal: Canada's Best Urban Playground?

Forget Toronto. Forget Vancouver. If you are looking for a fun urban adventure, plan a Montreal getaway.  And, not just because Montreal will be celebrating its 375th anniversary with numerous special festivities in 2017, but because Montreal’s everyday “joie de vivre” makes it a great urban playground anytime.

In the underground of the Les Cours Mont-Royal building is the world's largest collection of Barbie Dolls - over 1,000.  How playful is that? Click here for more info

In the underground of the Les Cours Mont-Royal building is the world's largest collection of Barbie Dolls - over 1,000.  How playful is that? Click here for more info

Colourful

Montreal has done a spectacular job utilizing colour to add a sense of play and warmth to their winter pedestrian experience.  The large red dot lights projected on the sidewalks in several locations and a half block-long window with its rows of neon dots that change colour as you walk distract from the cold outside.  

But the piece de la resistance is the block-long west wall of the Palais des Congres (Montreal Convention Centre) composed of 58 glass panels of yellow, pink, green and blue that really brightens up a cloudy day. And on days when the sun shines, the inside is a magical kaleidoscope of colours.  

With Calgary’s abundant sunshine and amazing collection of glass towers and +15 glass bridges, we should be a world leader in the use of coloured glass as a means of creating a unique sense of place. Instead of all the black, beige and grey facades imagine if more buildings were like Battisella’s Beltline condo, Colours.

The glass facade of Montreal's Convention Centre at night. 

The glass facade of Montreal's Convention Centre at night. 

No this is not the Montreal's Red Light District, it is just a way to add some fun to those who are out for an evening stroll, even in the winter.

No this is not the Montreal's Red Light District, it is just a way to add some fun to those who are out for an evening stroll, even in the winter.

Even Montreal's Metro Stations are colourful and playful.

Even Montreal's Metro Stations are colourful and playful.

Scavenger Hunt

I thought Calgary was doing pretty well with its proliferation of funky street art, but it pales in comparison to Montreal.  Wandering Montreal’s rues and avenues, I was forever pulling out my camera - over 100 street art photos in all (and I didn’t take photos of every one).  It was a fun scavenger hunt experience.

And while street art is fun with its cartoon-like characters, Montreal’s urban landscape is full of clever murals. It turns out local and international muralist transforms St Laurent Boulevard into an outdoor gallery every June during its annual Mural Festival. (I have added it to my bucket list).

Imagine how much more pedestrian-friendly our City Centre would if more of Calgary’s blank walls had murals like Doug Driediger’s “Giving Wings to the Dream” on the east wall of the old CUPS building on 7th Ave SW.  

This cartoon-like street art is just one of a many pieces that convert a back alley into an art gallery. 

This cartoon-like street art is just one of a many pieces that convert a back alley into an art gallery. 

Another playful piece of street art. 

Another playful piece of street art. 

 On The Wall

Montreal En Lumiere festival (February 23 to March 11, 2017) is one of largest annual winter festivals in the world - attendance exceeds one million every year.  

The festival’s amazing light installations create a circus-like atmosphere at the Place des Festivals (Calgary’s equivalent being Olympic Plaza).  What I particularly love about this festival is how it continues, on a smaller scale, throughout the year.  Year-round, blank walls throughout the City Centre come to life at night with changing colourful images projected on them. Imagine what it must be like when 1000 projectors and 185 loudspeakers animate their winter nights.  (Another one for my bucket list).

Old Montreal’s “Cite Memories” features 20 movies projected on the sides of historical buildings that tell Montreal’s history.  Download a free app and you can to listen as you watch or walk around.  Wouldn’t that be great for Stephen Ave, Inglewood and Kensington?

Calgary has tried to do a Winter Festival many times and failed. Perhaps it is a case of “go big or go home!” Rather than sending Calgary Transit officials on a junket to explore electronic fares systems (which they could do in Montreal), why not send our best festival producers to Montreal to investigate how to create a successful Winter Festival. (Montreal actually has two major winter festivals - Igloofest is a dance electronic music fest from Jan 12 to Feb 19, 2017).

Just one of dozens of projections on blank walls in Montreal's City Centre.  This piece was like a silent movie. 

Just one of dozens of projections on blank walls in Montreal's City Centre.  This piece was like a silent movie. 

Millennial Madness

With Montreal’s City Center being home to 170,000 post-secondary students it has the distinction of having North America’s largest student population (including 18,000 International students).  They may be there for an education, but they also generate a “party-on” atmosphere. Case in point – I was in a 30-minute line up during a snowstorm to get into a “pop-up” cocktail lounge serving up $12 Christmas-themed cocktails to a room full of millennials. 

Might a good use of Calgary’s empty downtown office space be an international university campus? Perhaps Mayor Nenshi can persuade his alma mater Harvard Business School to open in Calgary. 

Loop is a cross between a music box, a zoetrope and a railway handcar – the familiar pump-powered vehicles from Bugs Bunny cartoons. The retro-futuristic machine plays animated fairy-tale loops set in motion when visitors work the lever together. When the cylinder starts spinning, it lights up, making the series of still images appear to move. 

Loop is a cross between a music box, a zoetrope and a railway handcar – the familiar pump-powered vehicles from Bugs Bunny cartoons. The retro-futuristic machine plays animated fairy-tale loops set in motion when visitors work the lever together. When the cylinder starts spinning, it lights up, making the series of still images appear to move. 

People of all ages this unique urban playground.

People of all ages this unique urban playground.

One of several Winter Markets that we encountered as we flaneured Montreal's City Centre. 

One of several Winter Markets that we encountered as we flaneured Montreal's City Centre. 

Unique Streets

While every city has its signature shopping streets, Montreal has dozens – St. Catherine, St. Laurent, St. Denis, Mont-Royal, Laurier, St. Viateur and St. Hubert to name a few.  While St. Catherine, like Vancouver’s Robson or Toronto’s Queen Streets, is full of national and international franchises, Montreal’s other streets house primarily local shops, cafes, restaurants, pubs, clubs and galleries (no Starbucks on every corner).  

The number of fashion boutiques with locally designed clothing is impressive, as are the number of commercial art and artisan galleries. And Montreal has the most restaurants on a per capita basis of any major city in North America. In Plateau, Mile End, Little Italy, Little Burgundy and Griffintown, the shopping streets are chock-a-block full of interesting local shops.  Montreal is an amazing incubator of fashion designers, artists, artisans, event producers, chefs, bakers, baristas etc. 

While Calgary is spending millions of dollars creating pretty streetscapes to attract more people to Kensington, Inglewood and 17th Avenue, Montreal’s sidewalks are at best “adequate” - no designer benches, expensive lamp posts with banners, or “special” crosswalks to be found.  People don’t come to areas to look at banners or sit on pretty benches, they come to shop, dine, drink and meet friends.  A little grittiness doesn’t hurt anyone – in fact a street’s unique patina is part of its charm. 

What also makes Montreal’s vibrant streets unique is the lack of gentrification, i.e. replacing older buildings with newer buildings that in turn displaces lower income people and attracts more affluent residents. There are not a lot of new cookie-cutter condos with retail at street level except in downtown and Griffintown. Montreal makes do with the existing inventory of low-rise buildings from the mid 20th century, thereby keeping rents more affordable for “mom and pop” businesses.  

With so much to sip and savour, Montreal’s streets epitomize what Jane Jacobs, the influential 1960s urban activist meant when she said street vitality is directly linked to the number of doors that open onto the street - more doors the better. 

Rue St-Hubert is a five-block long street with over 400 mom and pop businesses - from thrift stores to wedding shops.  A canopy over the sidewalk, protect pedestrians from the elements and creates a unique sense of place.

Rue St-Hubert is a five-block long street with over 400 mom and pop businesses - from thrift stores to wedding shops.  A canopy over the sidewalk, protect pedestrians from the elements and creates a unique sense of place.

Seems like everywhere you go in Montreal there are shops along the streets. These shops create an attractive pedestrian environment. 

Seems like everywhere you go in Montreal there are shops along the streets. These shops create an attractive pedestrian environment. 

St. Catherine's Street in the downtown core is still lined with stores that attract shoppers at all times of the day, seven days a week, not the lobby of office buildings or high-end restaurants.

St. Catherine's Street in the downtown core is still lined with stores that attract shoppers at all times of the day, seven days a week, not the lobby of office buildings or high-end restaurants.

 Family Fun

Gobsmacked best describes my reaction to Montreal’s Desjardins Complex built in 1976. It consists of three office towers and a Hyatt Regency Hotel atop an indoor shopping centre.  From the outside it isn’t anything special, but inside the six-storey high, multi-purpose event space comes complete with a permanent dancing fountain (with lights and music) is very impressive.  

At Christmas, it is transformed into a Christmas wonderland with stage for festive performances, old fashioned carousel, mini-train for kids’ rides, face painting and yes, even a Santa Castle where kids get to meet Santa.  The place is packed with families each December.

Calgary missed a huge opportunity to create a dynamic indoor programming space as part of Bankers Hall, The Bow, Eighth Avenue Place or the redeveloped Core and Devonian Gardens.

This is the entrance to the elevators that get you to Montreal's observation deck on the 45th floor of the Place de Ville Marie. Once you are there you can experience  #MTLGO, an interactive multimedia exhibition, designed by Montréal-based company gsmprject°. It explores many popular city themes—from hockey to gastronomy to performing arts to neighbourhoods—through 55 videos of citizens and Montréal personalities as well as 500 photos culled from the city’s social media and archives.  You could easily spend a hour or more with this entertaining and educational exhibition. 

This is the entrance to the elevators that get you to Montreal's observation deck on the 45th floor of the Place de Ville Marie. Once you are there you can experience  #MTLGO, an interactive multimedia exhibition, designed by Montréal-based company gsmprject°. It explores many popular city themes—from hockey to gastronomy to performing arts to neighbourhoods—through 55 videos of citizens and Montréal personalities as well as 500 photos culled from the city’s social media and archives.  You could easily spend a hour or more with this entertaining and educational exhibition. 

We nicknames Montreal's Museum of Fine Art, the Museum of Fun Art given not only the fun artwork on display, but also the fun way it was exhibited. 

We nicknames Montreal's Museum of Fine Art, the Museum of Fun Art given not only the fun artwork on display, but also the fun way it was exhibited. 

Montreal is home to Cirque du Soleil, which is fun for everyone. 

Montreal is home to Cirque du Soleil, which is fun for everyone. 

 Last Word

While not a fan of imitating what other cities do, Calgary developers, urban designers, planners, festival/event managers and politicians could well be inspired by Montreal’s unique and creative city building strategies. 

For the rest of us, Montreal is full of fun urban surprises.  Our best surprise was Crew Collective & Café – you have to see it to believe it! 

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