Life Sized York Central – third session, Montreal – Phil Bixby

The third of our Screenings and Conversations took place on 20th Jan, drawing inspiration from Montreal and the Life Sized City film presented by Mikael Colville-Anderson. This is a brief blog noting some of the issues which the film raised, and some of the discussion which followed.

Montreal is a huge city – population over 4m across the whole metropolitan area, and so much bigger than York, but it’s formed of distinct neighbourhoods with their own character – and their own mayor. Change can be radical with the right person in charge, it appeared, although the kind of conflict that might bring in its wake was only hinted at. Public space was a key part of this, including the creation of large municipal public space – “places to meet the city” as they were described.

But there was also a lot of grass-roots activity around re-purposing unused space – the Lande project which sought to identify and bring into public use neglected sites. As with the previous films, food was a common theme – growing, distribution – and again a major strand of this was bringing diverse people together and building dignity and shared understanding. The Panier Fute project had been started by a woman who had arrived from Algeria and discovered food poverty in her new backyard.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of repurposing of “waste public space” was the riverside project which annually repurposed the municipal snow dump as a waterside beach – Village au Pied-du-Courant puts out a call for projects each year, accommodating these on a sand-covered space, free of branding and with costs kept minimal. There was an almost shocking confidence about this willingness to renew – there was a comment about not simply rolling out an idea for repeats simply because it’s popular once. The process of re-thinking is constant.

But not every city is blessed with these surplus spaces – on York Central we’re well aware that it’s all valuable land. As Helen pointed out “these ideas all make use of the margins, the gaps inbetween – often places or circumstances of failure” and asked whether York’s inequalities still provided opportunities to redistribute wealth to create collaborative opportunity as part of a vision for the place.

One place which York Central will have though is streets. Impressive though Montreal’s parks are, perhaps the real excitement happens in the streets and back alleys. Two things seemed key to this:-

Firstly the design of homes and streets – low- to medium-rise buildings with balconies, connecting them with the street. As was pointed out in discussion, Montreal’s climate certainly isn’t “balcony-friendly” all year but certainly in summer this seems to encourage “eyes on the street”. And despite the climate, and nothing too special in terms of infrastructure, Montreal has high numbers of people cycling –  perhaps because of that “ownership” by overlooking homes and businesses – very different to what we often get here with the architecture doing hard work to separate public and private realm.

The second point was around clever thinking on land ownership. One example was a block-sized co-op of co-ops, incorporating a wide mix of housing and with tenure arrangements designed to ensure a mixed community – people entering on low/no income aren’t forced to move on if their financial means increase. Colville-Anderson attended a meal in the street – the tables vanishing into the distance down the middle of the road – and there appeared to be genuine connection between people. Another example was where the council retained ownership of front and back yards – allowing access and use but preventing them becoming closed off from the public realm, encouraging connection to collective activity.

How can we take these lessons and apply them to York Central? How can YoCo use its intended model of collective ownership to ensure that mixed community? How can public realm – streets and frontages – be designed to be animated by activity rather than simply places for car parking? And can we do “back alleys” routes which connect and can be green, but are car-free?

One of the positives from the event was the comment that wonderful though these examples are, we have many similar projects running in York – adult cycle training, public food growing, etc. (Mind you, one wonderful idea we haven’t tapped into was the Bois Public project – taking fallen Ash trees and working with trainees to turn them into imaginative public seating). How do we build on what we’re already doing? Is the key to it making better connections – working with an overall theme of Wellbeing, perhaps. There was discussion in the film of how Montreal had accepted its standing amongst bigger urban centres – it was “a happy underdog”. Perhaps reeling back on the “world class” language in York might allow us to all gather round a new sense of purpose – doing what we do, really confidently, well and imaginatively?

Our final session in this Screenings and Conversations series is on 27th January, and it will focus on York Central and the themes which we’ve identified from these three films. Before then, please email or tweet us your comments to give us a starting point to build upon, or even better, write us a blog on some aspect of the film (or indeed this blog) that you’d like to respond to or pose questions around.

You can book for the final session at