Jan Gehl and his allies have a very sensible approach when it comes to urban design: design cities for people, not cars. In his books Life Between Buildings, and Cities For People, Gehl outlines very specific elements that must be included to make an urban environment tolerable for pedestrians, such as vertical facade articulation, opportunities to sit and watch the street go by, and providing places for people to gather to attract other people, to name a few.

I whole-heartedly agree with Gehl, and his clearly articulated, no-nonsense design philosophy. But I have to say, sometimes, an urban landscape designed for cars can be quite enjoyable when experienced on foot.

Of course, walking a desolate, highway-style streetscape for miles and miles would be no fun. Car-style infrastructure at a human scale, however, offers a change in the rhythm of a city and a truly unique urban experience. That is, if it doesn’t define the urban form, and if adequate space for pedestrians is provided.

The stairs to Boulevard Rosemont just off of St Laurent and Bernard

Boulevard Rosemont in Montreal begins just west of St Laurent at the end of Van Horne, where it rises dramatically over The Main, hovering high above the railways, eventually landing at St Denis where it resumes its life as a normal, people-scaled street. Taking the stairs from St Laurent and walking to St Denis on Rosemont is spectacular. Sweeping views of the city and its mountain are afforded by the height of the overpass. Walking along elevated Rosemont speeds the world up: long straight lines lead your eye all-the-way to St Denis, with cars wooshing by along an impressive and beautiful curve; the many streets between St Laurent and St Denis are quickly passed over, lost in the speed of the overpass. The same distance on a more southern street, passing St Dominique, then Coloniale, then Debullion, all the way to St Denis would feel much, much longer. On Rosemont, you end up at St Denis before you know it.

Of course, the Rosemont overpass-section would be awful if it were surrounded by an equally car-oriented cityscape. But it isn’t — it’s embedded in and surrounded by  the urban form of the Mile End, Petite Italie, and Rosemont, some of the densest, healthiest, most pedestrian-oriented streetscapes in Canada.

The pedestrian sized tunnel at the foot of St Marc in Montreal

Another example in Montreal is a tunnel at the foot of St Marc, south of St Catherine, just East of the Canadian Centre for Architecture. Here, the opposite of the Elevated-Rosemont effect occurs: a pedestrian-friendly sidewalk follows the road into a rare subterranean tunnel streetscape. Again, this would not be enjoyable if it went on forever, but a quick and dramatic change from the surrounding downtown streets, to a sensory experience wholly distinct in feel and rhythm, provides pedestrians with a fine grain of diversity in their negotiations of the city.

The St Urbain bike lane, travelling briefly under an overpass

Also in Montreal is one of my favourite examples of a bike path, one that shows immense respect for bicycles and their role as a viable transportation option. Back up in the Mile End, the Clark bike path eventually leads you to St Urbain and  under a railway overpass. This is by no means a pretty section of a recreational bike-trail. This is a hard and heavy streetscape, one for pure utility. Treating bike path design the same as road design (not reserving it for recreational trails) is a powerful gesture, signalling the city’s dedication to bike infrastructure.  And the experience of using this section of the bike path is wonderful — much like the Rosemont overpass, it speeds up space and time. Catapulting your way down and up the path is an exhilarating and welcome variation in an otherwise highly urbaine route.


The Cogswell Interchange, in Halifax

Further east, in Halifax, is the very sad Cogswell Interchange, an Overpass to Nowhere that was born of the wayward plans of 1960s urban planners. While every time I biked along Cogswell in the dead quiet of early Saturday mornings last summer I was reminded of the beautiful communities that were destroyed to build this purposeless infrastructure, I also came to enjoy this section of my ride to the Market. Between the North End and Downtown, Cogswell is a wide expanse in an otherwise dense urban form. Early in the morning, with barely any traffic, I would zoom down Cogswell Street and glide up to the Overpass, feeling empowered by my bike’s ability to overcome an otherwise hostile car-centric environment. Cycling Cogswell offered a variation in space in time on my route, marked the malleability of urban space and its effect on our experiences of reality.

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