Montreal vs Calgary: Underground City vs Above Ground City!

With the arrival of -20C temperatures, Calgary’s +15 walkway becomes the best thing since sliced bread for downtown workers and patrons.

However, that’s not how many urban planners in Calgary, Minneapolis, Edmonton and Winnipeg see it. Many think skyways are a bad idea because they suck the life out of the streets BELOW.  

Montreal's Desjardin Complex lobby is an indoor town square, complete with a dancing fountain and year-round programming. 

Montreal's Desjardin Complex lobby is an indoor town square, complete with a dancing fountain and year-round programming. 

Calgary's Bankers Hall lobby is magical at Christmas, but lacks the public programming space to make it vibrant evenings and weekends.

Calgary's Bankers Hall lobby is magical at Christmas, but lacks the public programming space to make it vibrant evenings and weekends.

+15 should be celebrated

I have always been a big defender of Calgary’s +15, believing that in good weather people love go outside, but in bad weather they love a coat-free way to get meetings, lunch or a coffee, or shop.  The +15 system in Calgary is also the best place to bump into that friend or business associate you have been meaning to call. (These observations are based on 10+ years as the Executive Director of the Calgary Downtown Association).

I have also been touting Montreal’s world famous Underground City (a 32-km network of tunnels connecting offices, hotels, shopping, entertainment complexes and subway stations) used by 500,000 people a day as an example of how indoor and outdoor urban vitality can co-exist. I don’t recall ever hearing a planner say Montreal should abandon its network of tunnels because they suck the life out of the streets ABOVE.

Not having been to Montreal for several years, I decided it was time to reacquaint myself on how Montreal’s “Underground City” compares to Calgary’s “Above Ground City” and its impact on street vitality.

Link: Fun Facts Montreal's Underground City

The Tour

Thanks to Tourism Montreal, I got hooked up with Thom Seivewright, a Montreal Expert (it says so on his business card) who regularly conducts tours of Montreal’s Underground City. We met at the information counter at street level at their Eaton Centre, just off St. Catherine Street (Montreal’s historic downtown shopping street) for an a-mazing (pun intended) whirlwind two-hour tour of the Underground City.

Tom standing beside one of the few Underground Maps showing all of the buildings that are linked by tunnels as well as to the METRO subway. 

Tom standing beside one of the few Underground Maps showing all of the buildings that are linked by tunnels as well as to the METRO subway. 

Am I that out of touch?

To be accurate, since rebranding in 2004, it’s called RESO (the word “reseau” means “network” in French and the “O” refers to METRO, the name of the subway). This was the first I have heard of the new name.

I am going to continue to call it the Underground City – expert Thom thinks that is a better name and I agree.

We quickly headed down the stairs (little did I know this would be the first of thousands of stairs and dozens of escalator rides), as the Underground City is a complex network of underground tunnels and street level lobbies. 

At first, it looked much like Calgary’s +15 with familiar franchise shops, food courts and a moderate number of people – it was 10 am.  As we walked briskly through the system of tunnels, Thom informed and entertained with stories about how the Underground City evolved tunnel-by-tunnel and new building-by-new building, not unlike Calgary’s +15. 

One of the hundreds of stairs and elevators that you must negotiate when exploring Montreal's Underground City.

One of the hundreds of stairs and elevators that you must negotiate when exploring Montreal's Underground City.

Calgary's The Core shopping centre is three blocks long with a huge glass skylight, creating an contiguous shopping experience, with sky bridges at both the second and third floors. Yes, there are some stairs and ramps to negotiate. 

Calgary's The Core shopping centre is three blocks long with a huge glass skylight, creating an contiguous shopping experience, with sky bridges at both the second and third floors. Yes, there are some stairs and ramps to negotiate. 

Busking in one of Montreal's tunnels.

Busking in one of Montreal's tunnels.

A busker belting out a song in Calgary's +15 bridge. 

A busker belting out a song in Calgary's +15 bridge. 

Tom beside a piece of the Berlin Wall located in a tunnel in Montreal's Quarter International. 

Tom beside a piece of the Berlin Wall located in a tunnel in Montreal's Quarter International. 

A Jack Shadbolt painting is just one of several original artworks by major Canadian artists (including Montreal's Riopelle) located in the lobby of Calgary's Eight Avenue Place. 

A Jack Shadbolt painting is just one of several original artworks by major Canadian artists (including Montreal's Riopelle) located in the lobby of Calgary's Eight Avenue Place. 

Similarities

Montreal’s Underground City started in 1962 when the owners of the iconic Place Ville-Marie office tower with a shopping center at street level wanted to connect to the upscale Queen Elizabeth Hotel (the site of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Bed-In in 1969) across the street via a tunnel.  

Calgary’s +15 system was first discussed in 1963, (though it wasn’t realized until 1970) with the first bridge also connecting an office tower (Calgary Place) and a hotel (Calgary Inn, now the Westin).

Today, Montreal’s Underground includes all the major downtown office complexes -Eaton Centre, Cours Mont-Royal, Complexe Les Ailes, Place Montreal Trust, Place Ville-Marie, World Trade Centre Montreal and Complex Desjardins. 

The same goes for Calgary, where the +15 connects Bankers Hall, Bow Valley Square, The Bow, Eighth Avenue Place, Scotia Centre, Sun Life Towers, TD Square Towers, Canada Trust Tower and Suncor Energy Centre. 

And just like Calgary’s +15, Montreal’s Underground also has some gaps and its east side arts district (which includes the City’s convention centre) is not well connected to downtown’s main shopping and office complexes.

Both cities’ networks also include thousands of shops, cafes and food courts, on multi-levels, public art and interesting urban design elements, as well as “sketchy” areas at their peripheries.

Montreals Eaton's Centre lobby 

Lobby art in Calgary's Jamieson Place office tower. 

Lobby art in Calgary's Jamieson Place office tower. 

Fine dining in Montreal's World Trade Centre office building.

Fine dining in Montreal's World Trade Centre office building.

"Grab & go" lunch in Calgary's Bankers Hall.

"Grab & go" lunch in Calgary's Bankers Hall.

Montreal's World Trade Center tower is an indoor oasis of old world charm.  

Montreal's World Trade Center tower is an indoor oasis of old world charm.  

Calgary's equivalent would be Jamieson Place's winter garden with its infinity ponds, Dale Chihuly glass sculptures and living wall. 

Calgary's equivalent would be Jamieson Place's winter garden with its infinity ponds, Dale Chihuly glass sculptures and living wall. 

Public art is featured in many of Montreal's new tunnels. 

Public art is featured in many of Montreal's new tunnels. 

The +15 corridor at Calgary's Centennial Parkade is home to the Udderly Art Pasteur which is a legacy to the 2000 public art project that saw 100+ colourful cows adorn the streets, parks and plazas of downtown. 

The +15 corridor at Calgary's Centennial Parkade is home to the Udderly Art Pasteur which is a legacy to the 2000 public art project that saw 100+ colourful cows adorn the streets, parks and plazas of downtown. 

This was my favourite tunnel, it was like what I would imagine it would be to walk onto/into an ice berg. I am thinking it by be blog worthy on its own. 

This was my favourite tunnel, it was like what I would imagine it would be to walk onto/into an ice berg. I am thinking it by be blog worthy on its own. 

Calgary's playful +15 bridge connecting the Municipal Building and Arts Commons (Performing Arts Center) is a hit with the kids.  It offers a great view of the traffic along Macleod Trail entering the downtown.  

Calgary's playful +15 bridge connecting the Municipal Building and Arts Commons (Performing Arts Center) is a hit with the kids.  It offers a great view of the traffic along Macleod Trail entering the downtown.  

Differences

Montreal’s Underground City includes numerous residential buildings, dozens of hotels, post-secondary school and the Bell Centre arena.  Calgary’s +15 has only 9 hotels, no schools, no arena and I don’t believe there is single residential building attached to the system.

While Montreal’s system has more shopping than Calgary’s, it doesn’t come close to matching Calgary’s Core with its four levels of shopping under a three-block long skylight.  Montreal’s food courts and cafes, because they are underground, have a cozy vibe, but don’t have the spectacular sun and views Calgary’s +15 provides.  

Calgary’s +15 signage and map program is much more extensive and consistent than Montreal’s.  It is also easier to navigate the +15, because, you can see where you are going as you cross a bridge, allowing for better orientating yourself impossible to do in a tunnel. 

Map of Montreal's maze of underground tunnels in pink.

Map of Calgary's Above Ground Skywalk (yellow and white) with its 60+ bridges. 

Map of Calgary's Above Ground Skywalk (yellow and white) with its 60+ bridges. 

Montreal’s network, with its thousands of stairs, hundreds of escalators and few ramps is a nightmare for anyone with accessibility issues. While not perfect Calgary’s +15 system is definitely more accessible.

Thom noted that while a half a million people use the Underground every day, most downtown Montreal workers don’t use the system extensively as it is rarely convenient to go more than a couple of blocks. In fact, he apologized a couple of times as he asked if it would be OK if we went outside to save time.

Montreal Underground’s big advantage over Calgary’s +15 is its link to their METRO (subway) system; Calgarians have to go outside to catch a train.  The METRO system was very slick; our wait time was 5 minutes or less even at non-peak times, loading and unloading was fast as were the speed of the trains (up to 74 km/hr). It made our LRT system seem bush-league especially as it travels through our downtown.  On the plus side, Calgarians have a free fare zone in our downtown; Montrealers aren’t so fortunate.

Calgary’s +15 has nothing to match Montreal Complex Desjardins with its indoor town square space designed for public programming. Their Christmas programming was amazing - a Santa Village that included a Meet Santa Castle, carousel, mini-train and stage for various performances. It also had a special Disney-like fountain; light and music show for Christmas. The place was packed with families on the weekends.  Calgary’s renovated Devonian Gardens pales in comparison.    

Exiting Montreal's METRO directly into the Underground City. 

Exiting Montreal's METRO directly into the Underground City. 

Looking from Holt Renfrew +15 corridor to an outdoor C-Train Station in Calgary. 

Looking from Holt Renfrew +15 corridor to an outdoor C-Train Station in Calgary. 

Look out at Calgary's 7th Avenue Transit Corridor from the +15 bridge linking The Core to First Canadian Centre. 

Look out at Calgary's 7th Avenue Transit Corridor from the +15 bridge linking The Core to First Canadian Centre. 

Complexe Desjardins food court on the weekend in December is packed. 

Complexe Desjardins food court on the weekend in December is packed. 

Devonian Gardens (currently closed for repairs) includes a popular indoor children's playground. It is a popular winter picnic spot. 

Devonian Gardens (currently closed for repairs) includes a popular indoor children's playground. It is a popular winter picnic spot. 

IMHO (In my humble opinion)

While there are differences, for the most part Montreal’s Underground City and Calgary’s Above Ground City function in a very similar manner.

The big difference is that on the weekends and evenings, Montreal’s Underground City shopping areas, as well as St. Catherine Street sidewalks are just as busy, as weekdays, while Calgary’s +15 and Stephen Avenue have limited pedestrian traffic.

The reason for this isn’t because Calgary’s +15 system sucks the life out of the street but rather because Montreal’s downtown has more diversity of building types (uses) than Calgary’s, which will be the subject of a future blog.

In the winter Calgary's Stephen Avenue is often a hostile pedestrian environment, while the +15 walkway is animated with people shopping, dining and going to meetings.  

In the winter Calgary's Stephen Avenue is often a hostile pedestrian environment, while the +15 walkway is animated with people shopping, dining and going to meetings.  

When the weather is nice, Stephen Avenue is a fun place to stroll and people watch. 

When the weather is nice, Stephen Avenue is a fun place to stroll and people watch. 

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