Cities have lost their way – literally. Cities were designed originally on a human scale for walking rather than cars and driving. No surprise there. But this author’s hope for the West island communities reminds me of the Main line communities west of Philadelphia, PA.
From The McGill Daily
The Walkable City explores the concept of an accessible, sustainable urban landscape at a time when concerns of the climate, economy, and resources are forcing us to reconsider our geography. “A walkable city, in modern terms, is a city with a core that is still vibrant, that has housing, street life, and neighbourhoods that may be on a transportation hub,” the author explains in an interview.
The definition describes the author’s own neighbourhood of Outremont. “The density in this area is such that it can support shopping streets, and there are a lot of schools around. The transportation has always been good, and like I said, you can walk,” she elaborates. “My husband walked to McGill every day for 40 years. He can walk there in 35 minutes.”
A native of southern California, Soderstrom relocated to Montreal after studying journalism at UC Berkeley when her husband received a position at McGill in the late 1960s. “I didn’t speak any French, and the institutions were very different, so most of my expertise went out the window,” she recalls. Still, Soderstrom was able to learn the language, work as a freelance journalist, and raise children in the home she still inhabits; she even found time for community activism in between drafting 11 books, an assortment of novels and non-fiction. Among other small-scale political endeavours, her campaign for a new library in Outremont reminds one of the crusade Jacobs once led against a New York City highway proposal.
Soderstrom begins The Walkable City with a tale of house hunting in the dead of winter, and ends with a summary of what makes her neighbourhood so great. Yet there is surprisingly little information about Montreal in between. The text primarily examines the situations of Paris and Toronto, with excursions to suburban Ontario, California, and Vancouver, as well as a chapter on the rest of the world. “The whole book is informed by Montreal,” Soderstrom insists. “Montreal is the background for everything I do.”
After an introduction, Soderstom summarizes the anthropology of walking, finding artifacts of bipedal mobility in thoroughly modern cities. In our interview, Soderstrom pointed out some local instances of this heritage. “All the côtes,” – Côte Ste-Catherine and Côte-des-Neiges,” she explains – “those are all Amerindian paths that go around the mountain.” Some instances are surprisingly recent: Rue Gilford in the Plateau, which mysteriously abandons the grid as it crosses St. Denis, was a footpath trampled down at the end of the 19th century. Workers walked that way to build houses on the quarry at Laurier and Christophe Colombe, and at some point it was paved into a street.
Soderstrom avoids statistics and inconvenient truths, choosing to focus on immediate realities facing the urban realm. After all, cities revolved around foot travel long before it was good for the environment or cheaper than filling up the tank. In the first chapter, Soderstrom writes, “I discovered that the idea that a city might not be walkable would never have occurred to anyone who lived before 1800.” An observation that seems so apparent is actually quite profound when phrased so bluntly. Not only does our suburban expansion lead to long-term distress, it can also lead to mundane absurdities – like those the author recounts in a horror story set in Vaughan, Ontario, where running any sort of errand in the barren landscape requires a car.
Soderstrom is full of refreshing opinions, one being that suburbs are not intrinsically evil. Though suburbs built for the automobile cannot easily achieve walkability, those developed around old trolley or commuter rail lines have some promise; in fact, many operated as independent villages before the proliferation of the car. Soderstrom sees potential in some West Island suburbs. “There’s always been rail service out there,” she says. “It was set up so you’d have to drive to the station, but now there is more condominium construction around these stations. Assuming you get decent rail service, you can get to downtown Montreal fairly quickly.” The book addresses North Vancouver as an example of a high-density suburb that is accessible without wheels and remains connected with the city core.
Research Credit: Mary Soderstrom