Last weekend, the mayors of Lachine and Verdun tested new ways to determine how neighbourhoods get created. Each consulted local experts and residents prior to creating plans for new development.
Their methods differed, but if either or both methods work to make residents comfortable and attached to new projects, municipal land use planning in Montreal could change forever.
Either way, residents appreciated efforts to bring them into the fold early in the planning. Both consultations attracted hundreds of participants. Covering them for my local paper marked a pleasant change.
Residents Usually Get Little Say
I’ve followed municipal land use development in the city for years. Most of the time, residents have little or no influence about what happens in their neighbourhoods.
The usual land use planning routine features city officials privately meeting with developers to negotiate a new project.
Their plan then goes through an internal planning committee of residents and local municipal planning experts.
The committee makes changes.
Developers pay architects for more concept plans.
By the time the development gets approved, both the city and the developer are wed to a project. Only then do local residents get a say.
From the developer and city official perspective, residents who notice problems are trouble-makers.
Traditionally, politicians deal with the potential conflict by attempting to hide legally-required consultations from residents.
Journalists and citizens with an interest in land use planning pay careful attention to official consultations set for December, January, July, August, and holidays. Consultations set for those times are likely to represent very unpopular developments. The consultation for one particularly touchy development took place on the night of the Stanley Cup Playoff! Only four people attended.
Too often, major changes are made to neighbourhoods without property owners being informed at all.
I know of one case where residents in fancy skyscrapers didn’t discover that future developments would eliminate their precious views of the mountain, the river or both until shovels went into the ground.
Usually, public consultations pit residents against developers. If possible, politicians try to divide critics. Advocates for projects with condos and townhouses work hard to set people with environmental concerns against social housing activists.
Residents Forced to Stop Projects
From the resident perspective, city officials and developers care little about neighbourhoods.
Residents who notice problems must work hard to prevent developments from occurring as planned. I’ve seen local residents prevent a former school from becoming a senior’s home shortly after a baby boom because they knew that more schools would be needed in the neighbourhood a few years later. They stopped grocery store owners from expanding because they knew that the resulting traffic would create safety hazards for children attending the school across the street. Schools haven’t opened for years because neighbours use every avenue open to them to stop projects.
Local residents prevented one major development near the highway three different times. In that case, it was hard to believe that the city and the developer kept bringing back the same unpopular project.
In contrast, the presentations in Lachine and Verdun during the weekend felt lively and fun.
The Lachine event featured an open house with developers, local activists and business groups staffing tables to share their visions with residents. A video camera taped attendee visions for the future neighbourhood. It felt so positive and inviting, a few people wondered if it were some kind of trick.
The Verdun event felt equally positive. Set up like a competition, the presentation featured volunteer teams of architects, interns and citizens presenting extraordinarily-well-thought-out plans for the new development. After each team presented, attendees could ask questions or make comments. It was not only informative as a process, but kind of fun too.
I hope these two events usher in new practices in municipal land use planning.