I recently attended the Third Annual Institute for Mixed-Use Planning and Development in Montreal. Through a series of hands-on, interactive team-based studies, the five-day program engaged about 60 participants to explore and address difficult questions relating to the planning and development of – you guessed it – mixed-use real estate projects.
The backdrop was Old Montreal, providing us with a 400-year old laboratory to discuss urban revitalization and mixed-use development. We were in the petri dish that we were learning and talking about. Cool in a navel-gazing kind of way.
But as dynamic and cool as Old Montreal is, it became clear pretty quickly that the decisions we made as a society 50 to 60 years ago don’t necessarily work now.
For example, consider the massive and imposing retired-grain-silo skyline feature known as Pointe-du Moulin Silo No.5. No urban planner in their right mind would approve a heavy-industrial project in a location like this today. But there it is, like some kind of giant mouldering concrete Global HQ for Dr. Evil, dominating the waterfront. What do you do with it, now that it’s there? Tear it down? Re-purpose it? And if re-purposing is the name of the game, how can you do that in a way that people will still think is smart 50 years from now?
Conference teams attacked this issue, and came up with mixed-use ideas ranging from making it a performing arts centre with a hotel and rooftop swimming pool, to making it a science & technology hub for universities and researchers from around the world. The creativity displayed in balancing education, entertainment, retail, residential, public realm and green space was inspirational, and was grounded in reality by smart spreadsheets outlining how to make the ideas economically viable.
We keep talking about doing things differently: trying different sustainable methods; experimenting with new architecture. But at an uber-macro level we need to look at planning differently. A cool façade here, and a new park there just isn’t enough. Inherent in the difficulty of building great spaces is the reality of political will. Politicians aren’t generally thinking in 50-year timeframes. They are thinking about the next election. Mustering public and political support for expensive large-scale changes to the very fabric of our cities is a heroic and daunting task.
But all that aside, if the way we plan civic spaces and cities isn’t quite working, why do we keep tracing that same old plan, patting ourselves on the back for a public art piece, a LEED building, or a new stretch of renovated lofts here and there. We need to think beyond big. We need to play God, and orchestrate the planning of great cities, cities that last, for the very long term. It’s the most sustainable and environmentally responsible thing we can do.
Big thanks must go out to LiveWorkLearnPlay, Canada Lands Corporation and McGill University for bringing so many of us together to address some of the challenges faced by the real estate and community development industry in the new economy. If you have the opportunity to attend next year, go! I hope I am invited back, and truly look forward to the experience. Kudos for a job well done.