April 30 2013

Public Spaces in a Winter City: Montreal, Canada

Montreal is transformed by the seasons. During our hot summers, bars and terraces overflow with people, festivals bring crowds to the streets, and public spaces brim with locals and tourists.

Winter is a different story. Large public spaces that are vibrant in the warmer months, like Place-des-Arts and Place Jacques-Cartier, are virtually abandoned when the cold hits. Understandably, the snow and below-zero temperatures discourage sitting outside with no shelter.



Exploring Montreal with my visiting friends makes me realize just how empty outdoor spaces become in the winter. Montreal is one of the most densely populated cities in North America. However, my friend who had been living in New York asked me “Are the streets always this quiet?” when he visited. It was true. As we walked through Old Montreal, we were often left alone in the public realm, with its old architecture and cobblestone roads.

Montrealers are good at taking shelter from the cold. The Underground City offers access to jobs and schools, as well as restaurants and shopping. This realm has public spaces with fountains, benches, restaurants, and cafés – and it is all heated. Shopping malls and centers abound in Montreal – sometimes they are even called “plazas.”

Montrealers are also proud of their winters and their ability to tough them out. There are many outdoor activities, including skating rinks, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, and festivals like Igloofest. This outdoor rave brings folks, often dressed in ski gear, to dance to electronic music and drink warm alcoholic concoctions. However, beyond these events that successfully draw Montrealers into the streets, the public realm remains tranquil, a sharp contrast from the vibrant summer streets.

I had the opportunity to visit Copenhagen and Stockholm in December 2009. Although it was chilly and days were short, I saw a lot of street life. Streets were lined with festive lights and brightly coloured buildings brightened the streetscape; street food was plentiful (just recently re-legalized in Montreal); cafés offered blankets to their clients wishing to sit outside; and there was street entertainment every day.

Copenhagen Street Life

Copenhagen Street Life

What can urban planners in northern cities do to infuse life into the public realm in the winter months?

Credits: Photographs by Devon Willis. Data linked to sources.

Devon Paige Willis

Devon Paige Willis is a native Montrealer and recent graduate of McGill University where she did her B.A. in Environment and Political Science. She discovered a passion for urban and transportation planning in her final year, during which time she attended UC Berkeley’s [IN]City introductory urban planning program and completed her honours thesis about cycling in Montreal, specifically measuring bikeability and understanding what affects cyclist satisfaction. She will pursue a Master of Urban Studies called 4Cities starting in September 2013. The Masters takes place in Brussels, Vienna, Copenhagen and Madrid and focus on European Urban Planning. She will be focusing on sustainable transportation and is especially interested in urban planning and transportation in suburban environments. She has her own urban planning blog at iliveinthesuburbs.wordpress.com.

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, April 30th, 2013 at 9:30 am and is filed under Architecture, Urban Planning and Design. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


One Response to “Public Spaces in a Winter City: Montreal, Canada”

  1. Jordan Says:

    Good to know what I’m getting in to before moving to Montreal this autumn! I was fascinated by the underground city in Singapore, so I very much look forward to exploring Montreal’s.

    Regarding enlivening winter streets, I’m at a bit of a loss with how to do that. With the presence of an amenity-laden underground network, what does the cold outside world have to offer? Certainly a tough question to ponder.

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