Archives for posts with tag: st urbain

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.

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As I first experienced sometime last August, the vibrant Portuguese community that currently occupies the formerly Jewish south-west of Montreal’s Plateau neighbourhood periodically holds Saint Celebrations — street parades that shut down St Urbain between Mont Royal and Duluth.

The effect of shutting down the street proved to be incredibly pleasant. St Urbain is a largely  residential street north of Sherbrooke. Due to the fact that it is a one way thoroughfare that crosses the entire island, extending from the city’s Northern highways, through the residential Mile End and Plateau neighbourhoods, past the industrial area and highway overpass south of Rene Lesveque and, finally ending at Old Montreal, the street is effectively a highway. I live directly on St Urbain at Duluth, in a walk up, my bedroom window on the street, so I know intimately how busy St Urbain can be. Traffic zooms by at all hours of the day, at incredibly high speeds; if the vehicle is lucky to not be stopped by any red lights, St Urbain presents itself as a chute, sending cars zooming southwards.

St Urbain is not the most pleasant street. Though it boasts an incredibly large and beautiful stock of classic Montreal duplexes and triplexes, with the requisite local businesses sprinkled in between, the extremely high speed traffic detracts from the aesthetics of one of the city’s most important streets.

But when the street was closed to accommodate the Portuguese parade, I experienced a different kind of St Urbain. The kind of street that must have been the one Mordecai Richler spoke of so dearly. Gone were the constant wooshes of passing traffic. Rather, silence rued the day. The sound of birds, the summer breeze, the chit chat of passersby, the voices of my friends directly beside me, these were the sounds of the city restored to an otherwise inner-city highway, frozen to accommodate a different kind of traffic.

And then I looked up, and was delighted to see the windows and balconies that line the street populated by curious onlookers, children and adults, watching the parade, delighting in experiencing a St Urbain not characterized by the typical unassociated traffic, flinging across the island at an unbelievable speed from where-ever to some place, but rather, their neighbours, partaking in a cultural activity that evoked the participation not just of those in the parade, but the entire citizenry of the street.

This wonderful experience of St Urbain made me think what limiting the traffic would do to the street. If Montreal were to make it a two way street, which I think must have been its original usage, the pleasant calm that I temporarily experienced would endure permanently. The same happens, I suppose, in Sao Paulo, when every Sunday they close down the central highway that eviscerates the city’s core, handing it back over to the residents of the city, especially those who dwell in highrises that line the expressway. In Sao Paulo, on such a day, the usual racket associated with a superhighway stops completely, and is replaced by the chatter of an impromptu and inherently ephemeral market-esque streetscape.

I don’t expect St Urbain will ever be converted to a two-way street. Frankly, beyond these pleasantries thought up by a naive, idyllic urbanist, there is no need to restore quiet to St Urbain. I imagine that the street is a necessary north-south thoroughfare, accommodating a noticeably immense amount of traffic’s journey across the island. And it’s better than the alternative: a real highway, cutting up the unique Plateau urban landscape (see: autoroute Decarie).

I suppose that I’ll just have to enjoy the wonders of a temporarily closed St Urbain as they come and go.