Local leaders in Canada's second largest metro area increasingly talk of "Greater Montréal"—and mean it. Henryk Sadura/Shutterstock.com

After a contentious start, mayors from the region have come together to jointly plan a more sustainable metropolitan area.

MONTREAL, Canada—“Greater Montréal is definitely a great place to live.”

That’s from a website promoting Canada’s second largest metropolis to foreign investors. Greater Montréal. The local businesses and political groups behind the site are marketing not just the city of Montréal itself or any one of its affluent suburbs, but the entire urban region. In French, it’s Grand Montréal.

It hasn’t always been this way. Locals here sometimes have a hard time grasping what “Greater Montréal” is all about. The core city, with its office towers and dense walkable neighborhoods built on a European model, doesn’t have much in common with its sprawling suburbs and the car-based lifestyle they entail. In the past, local leaders have been unable to collaborate on common projects, such as finding funds to build adequate transportation to the suburban Mirabel airport, which closed and had to be demolished.

But this is slowly changing. For the first time, mayors of the entire region and civil society groups are working from a common plan to turn the metropolitan area into a thriving and sustainable urban center. They’re applying best practices from abroad and inventing their own tools for sound regional governance. Advertising “Greater Montréal” to global business is just one way that plan is being put into action.

The new thinking in the Montréal region underlies an important meeting taking place this week. Mayors and urban experts from around the world are gathering to discuss how to share and strengthen models for governing metropolitan areas. The resulting Montréal Declaration will feed directly into the agenda for Habitat III, the United Nations’ once-every-20-years conference on cities, to take place next year. (See all Citiscope coverage related to Habitat III here.)

The stakes are large. By 2030, some 41 metropolitan areas around the world will be home to more than 10 million people each. If those metropolises are to grow in a way that is healthy for their people as well as the planet, local leaders within these regions will need to see past jurisdictional boundaries and work together to solve common problems.

Rocky path to regionalism

About 1.7 million people live within the city of Montréal, which is located on an island in the St. Lawrence River. More than a dozen suburban municipalities share space on the island — a few of them are even surrounded by the city on all sides. Many more small suburban municipalities are located on the north and south shores of the river. Add it all up and you have a total of 3.7 million people living in 82 municipalities, spread across a territory that is roughly 3.5 times bigger than New York City.

There have been efforts to consolidate local government within this area. But they have been very contentious. In 2002, the provincial government of Quebec forced all 28 municipalities on the island of Montréal to merge into one mega-city. The hope was that a larger city would create economies of scale and allow for more efficient delivery of municipal services.

Montréal Mayor Denis Coderre presides over the regional governance body known as the Montréal Metropolitan Community, or CMM. (Ville de Montréal)

Some of the wealthier municipalities absorbed into the city protested. They complained that their services would get worse, not better, under the merger. They also didn’t like sharing their tax base with the city. The provincial government allowed a referendum on the merger. Fifteen municipalities on the island voted to regain their independence; a dozen opted to remain in the bigger city, having benefited from revenue sharing and increased services. The “de-merger” in 2006 revealed a profound cultural divide between neighboring communities, as well as irreconcilable differences on tax and budget issues.

While the merger/de-merger controversy was playing out, the seeds of a more lasting change were being planted. In 2000, the provincial government passed a law allowing the creation of a metropolitan organization to facilitate the management of regional services such as transportation, public housing, infrastructure, planning and environmental protection. The Montréal Metropolitan Community, or CMM, was created soon after. It’s governed by a council presided by the mayor of Montréal (currently Denis Coderre) and comprised of 27 other mayors from the metropolitan area. Each municipality must contribute financially to the CMM’s yearly budget (CAD$119 million or USD$90 million for 2015) to help maintain and develop services.

Era of solidarity

The CMM didn’t have a big impact right away. The body had limited powers and the mayors could not agree on a vision for the metro area. That began to change about five years ago, when the region began facing a slew of challenges that municipalities couldn’t address on their own. Those challenges included decaying infrastructure, a sluggish economy, and an exodus of families from the island to the peripheries. Through the CMM, the region’s mayors started working on the first-ever regional development strategy for the Montréal metro area.

It was called the Metropolitan Land Use and Development Plan, or PMAD. And it was centered on three key areas: economic development, environmental protection and transportation. Suzanne Roy, mayor of Sainte-Julie, a suburb in the south shore says the PMAD was part of an effort to make all of the Montréal region more attractive and competitive on the international scene. “It wasn’t easy, but we learned to work together,” Roy recalls. “We went from an era of parochialism to one of solidarity.”

Adopted in 2011 after an unprecedented series of public consultations, the PMAD was quickly touted as a remarkable consensus between mayors with vastly different priorities. The plan sets ambitious goals for the next 20 years, such as raising the share of public transit trips in the region from 25 percent to 35 percent by 2031; concentrating 40 percent of planned urbanization around transit nodes; and protecting 17 percent of the territory from development and environmental degradation. A provincial law was later passed to turn the PMAD into a binding document. This means all municipalities that are part of the CMM are obliged to respect the PMAD’s objectives in their own planning efforts. As Florence Paulhiac, Chair of the In. SITU research center at the Université du Québec à Montréal, says, “It’s a huge step forward for the region.”

Among the flagship projects included in PMAD is a “green and blue belt” connecting green space, natural parks, rivers and protected buildings by a network of bike paths, public transit and waterways. That includes a new 143-kilometer (89-mile) bike and pedestrian path going from west to east. Félix Gravel, a consultant with the Conseil Régional de l’Environnement Montréal, an NGO promoting environmental protection and sustainable development, says the path is a symbol of the plan’s big ambitions. “Crossing a metropolis by other means than the car has never been done before,” he says.

New challenges

Rethinking transportation is at the heart of the PMAD, which embraces the concept of transit-oriented development to channel urban growth. This means generating holistic and high-density development complete with jobs, services, housing and access to public transit in selected urban centers. The CMM is currently supporting the development of 17 transit-oriented development pilot projects with a CAD$1.7 million (US$1.3 million) grant to municipalities for preliminary studies. But the PMAD makes way for a huge number of such projects — up to 155 of them across the region.

Paula Negron says this might be one area where the PMAD is overly ambitious. “It’s too much for a region of 3.5 million people,” says Negron, who co-heads the Observatoire de la mobilité durable, a research center on sustainable transportation at the Université de Montréal. “It’s difficult to have a structured metropolitan plan when you have so many areas to focus on.” She also fears the PMAD’s economic strategy is too weak to ensure that new jobs will indeed flow to the new development nodes rather than Montréal’s downtown.

The Montréal Metropolitan Community takes in the core city and its many suburban communities. (CMM)

There are other challenges. Data sharing is one of them. For example, all the planning around transit-oriented development has also raised the inevitable question of how much car parking should be allowed in these zones. According to Félix Gravel, the CMM is blocked by a general lack of information being shared between municipalities, public agencies and private companies. “The lack of data is blatant,” Gravel says. “Municipalities don’t know how many [parking spaces] they’re offering, and how many they should offer.” Some efforts are being made to open up data at the metropolitan level, he says, but this requires a cultural change that may take time to accomplish.

Another hurdle to implementing the PMAD is financing, particularly for transit. All the new development plans rely on the availability of robust transit services. But chronic under-financing of transit agencies by the municipal, provincial and federal governments will make it difficult to accommodate new users. “The network is now saturated in certain sectors, and the demand is constantly growing,” says Florence Paulhiac. “Transportation agencies don’t have enough money to ensure the maintenance and expansion of their network.”

Innovative tools for metropolitan governance

In spite of these challenges, local planners are enthusiastic about tools put in place by the CMM to help local governments reach the goals set by the PMAD.

Among them is a detailed guidebook aimed at municipalities, boroughs, planners and promoters to help them implement the transit-oriented development plans. Another is a biennial report outlining progress made on PMAD objectives, and actions taken by municipalities.

Then there is something called the Metropolitan Agora. It’s a day-long public meeting organized once every two years, in which elected officials, city workers, planners and civil society groups are invited to come together and reflect on the metropolitan experience and showcase innovative projects that align with the PMAD’s vision. The Agora has been credited as one of the CMM’s most interesting tools for dialogue and collaboration between all stakeholders, especially municipalities; it’s also a way for the CMM to educate the public on the plan and gain its support on core issues. This year’s Agora took place on Monday October 5.

When asked how the 82 mayors came to align on a common vision, Suzanne Roy says mutual respect is a crucial factor. “The only way we succeeded in creating the PMAD, is when the different sectors didn’t feel threatened anymore. For instance, we didn’t feel the center wanted everything for itself, or the suburbs wanted everything for themselves. It’s all about creating a balance,” she explains.

Disagreements still occur — plans for the extension of a highway in the north shore, as well as for a new mega mall on the island of Montréal, have been heavily criticized for going against the PMAD. But a general consensus has emerged in the region around urban sustainability. Even the mayor of Laval, a sprawling city north of Montréal that used to epitomize suburban living, has become a staunch proponent of environmental protection and public transit.

New reforms led by the government of Quebec could give a boost to Greater Montréal’s ambitions as of next year. They include giving more autonomy to all municipalities in the province to make their own decisions in terms of spending and governance. The reforms also would grant the City of Montréal a special political status, which could eventually lead to increased powers when it comes to managing the environment, immigration, economic development, housing and transportation.

According to Montréal Mayor Denis Coderre, such a status could help boost the entire region’s economy, notably by allowing the city to bring new jobs and foreign investment. As he said last year, “A real metropolis should have the autonomy to decide on its priorities.”

Top image: Henryk Sadura / Shutterstock.com

This story originally appeared on Citiscope, an Atlantic partner site.

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