My experience of living at the lovely-and-bustling corner of Duluth and St Urbain in the south-west corner of Montreal’s Plateau neighbourhood has taught me a valuable lesson about how minor features in informal urban design can transform the most intolerable, noisy thoroughfares into places where people want to be. This adds evidence to my theory that the smallest, slightest changes to anything, can make enormous differences.

As I previously described in “a st urbain parade“, St Urbain is a major north-south thoroughfare that transects the entirety of the island of Montreal. Primarily a one way street, which works to reduce interruptions in traffic flow, speeding up traffic, St Urbain connects the north shore, Autoroute 40, and mid and downtown Montreal to the Old Port and Autoroute 20, creating a mini-highway that is frequented by large trucks and buses, along with the steady flow of regular traffic.

Keeping this in mind, St Urbain can be a very harsh place for pedestrians and bikers. Though lined with Montreal’s archetypal beautiful triplexes and requisite small, local businesses sprinkled in-between, the street is much wider than is typical of the Plateau, and the constant flow of speedy one-way traffic creates an, at times, intolerable urban environment.

St Urbain, looking south from Duluth, does not look like the most appealing street to spend time in, even more so due to the constant passing southbound traffic.

Living on the first floor of a triplex on St Urbain gave me first-hand experience of its constant traffic. Besides the consistent wooshing of passing cars, intermittently, gigantic trucks and buses would pass, literally shaking the ground. The inconsistency of the traffic noise made it hard to tune out, like other kinds of “white noise”.

Another angle of Duluth and St Urbain further reveals its barren landscape.

Despite these conditions, the front porch of my apartment, and the corner in general, was a very pleasant place to be.

I attribute this to a number of factors. My porch was a very well defined space – protected by the apartment on one side, a wall of vegetation and a mid-level fence on the other sides. The corner in general was extremely green, the shade and wind that was provided compensating for the constant passing traffic.

An old roommate good friend enjoys the pleasant space created by a wall of vegetation and well defined dimensions of the front porch of our apartment.

With these minimal features — an otherwise desolate, unpleasant place becomes an extremely pleasant space to spend hours in.

My experience of my front porch at St Urbain and Duluth has taught me an important lesson about humans: people are extremely adaptable, and with a few amenities, are more than willing to spend time in otherwise harsh environments.

This is important to consider in urban design. A city inevitably (and due to poor planning/design decisions of the past) has spaces that few people would enjoy spending time by – industrial parks, highway overpasses, water treatment facilities, and ports, to name a few. As cities become the focal point of human culture, and urbanization continues, we must look to these formerly neglected places as the sites of future densification. People will probably shy away from the idea that sites near highways could foster beautiful neighbourhoods and urban spaces — with this post, I am attempting to illustrate the inhabitability of these “desolate places”.

Already, the greyest, most industrial parts of a city have the ability to evoke a certain aesthetic. As the city recycles itself, we will have to confront these decaying industrial parts of our city, and learn to appreciate their beauty, transforming them into habitable spaces. A very possible urban future involves the transformation of formerly industrial areas and highway overpasses to urban parks and densification neighbourhood projects. We’ve seen this already with Toronto’s announcement of the future Don Lands neighbourhood, which will be on formerly industrial land and incorporate industrial features into its design, including an underpass park; another example is New York City’s High-Line: a beautiful elevated park that snakes along formerly industrial areas in Manhattan. Former industrial spaces can indeed be the subject of a shift of aesthetic perception.

This shift in aesthetics can also be detected in contemporary forms of gentrification. Whereas in the past, artists, students and marginalized groups inhabited decaying inner city areas that had been fled by the middle- and upper classes in the mid 20th century, restoring the beauty to the abandoned architectural treasures, since these inner city “heritage” areas have become extremely expensive, the most recent wave of gentrification is in the formerly industrial fringes of cities: Montreal’s St Henri and Point St Charles, London’s industrial areas, Toronto’s Junction Triangle to name a few. We are seeing people take up what they’ve got in terms of affordable housing stock and making, indeed, beautiful places in conventionally desolate spaces.

The examples in this post, my porch on St Urbain, the conversion of industrial areas to neighbourhoods and parks, and gentrification occurring in the industrial areas of cities, are an attempt to acknowledge the malleability of pop-aesthetics and further, to highlight the ability, with thoughtful informal urban design and a minimal amount of elements, to transform desolate spaces to urban oases.