By Jim Durrett, President of Buckhead Coalition and Executive Director of Buckhead Community Improvement District, and Michael Halicki, Executive Director of Park Pride
Festivals. Public art. Walkable and bikeable streets. Night-time LED illumination. A highly valued public realm. People are out and about like you wouldn’t believe!
As one of my fellow LINK participants remarked, there seems to be a cultivation of joy as a civic virtue at work here in Montreal.
Approximately 120 festivals are held every year in Montreal, a city of nearly two million people. Can you imagine that? Festivals offering and celebrating art, music, comedy, food, culture — you name it — take place year-round.
Almost everywhere you look when you explore the city you see public art — sculptures, murals, fountains — funded in part by a one percent fee on development project costs.
Because sidewalks are generous and bicycle facilities are plentiful, including a robust bike rental network, lots of people are outdoors, active and enjoying the beautiful and interesting environment.
Wander the streets at night and you are struck by the creative use of colorful high-tech LED lighting, including projection of video stories on building walls, trees and on the ground. Not only do you feel safe, but you also experience awe.
Without adequate parks, squares and other open space, all of what I have attempted to describe above is extremely difficult to achieve. Montreal clearly understands the importance of its public realm.
I invited another fellow LINK participant, Michael Halicki, executive director of Park Pride, to offer his perspective on what he has experienced. He generously accepted, so I pass him the baton now.
Thank you, Jim. I echo Jim’s observations regarding the importance of the public realm which I experienced while exploring the city by foot, by tour bus and by bikeshare.
Montreal’s vibrant public life is reinforced through its many parks, squares and plazas. Much of this infrastructure is longstanding (including the expansive, Olmsted-designed Mount Royal Park that gives the city its name) but in recent years Montreal has expanded its dedicated bike lanes and modified roadways to make the city’s transportation network more accommodating to other users. The experimentation we witnessed in Montreal goes beyond what we have seen in Atlanta and should inspire us to push the envelope.
A good example in this regard is Mont Royal Avenue. For the fourth consecutive year, this 1.5-mile street is closed to vehicles and open to walking and biking all summer long! Restaurants have spread out into the streets with open air seating. Other merchants have benefitted from the influx of summer activity as well thanks to increased foot traffic in the area. We visited Mont Royal Avenue on a workday afternoon and witnessed a vibrant street party of people gathering, strolling and biking. What was this special event we happened upon? It wasn’t “special” at all. Just another summer day – a weekday at that — in Montreal.
This spirit of experimentation also applies to what is happening in Montreal’s public realm. As Jim shared, the city is filled with public sculptures, murals and other forms of public art. In recent years, however, Montreal has stepped up its game by lighting bridges, sides of buildings and other structures that define the public realm. During one of our sessions, we learned about the Moment Factory that brings the Jacques Cartier Bridge to life at sunset in a daily interactive light show. As the seasons change, so do the lights, changing throughout the year from “an energizing spring green to a radiant summer orange, a voluptuous fall red, and finally an icy winter blue.” The patterns reflect a variety of data inputs, so no light show is ever the same. This ambitious project was commissioned in 2017 and will run for 10 years.
More recent is “the Ring,” an elegant, 90-foot-high stainless steel ring that floats between buildings and is permanently lit at night. This public art is activated through public festivals and performances and defines Montreal’s urban experience much like “the Bean” at Millenium Park in Chicago.
Neither of these public art installations have been inexpensive, and both have been supported with ample public funding as well as some private funding. My main takeaway is that these examples of public art and street closures reflect a longstanding commitment to the public realm, as Jim observed. Montreal has also built upon this commitment with creativity and a boldness that is inspiring, and hopefully, contagious. I look forward to seeing these ideas take root as we return to our city and apply the lessons we have learned.
One final point I will share is that it was not lost on any of us that August is a great time to visit Montreal and that winters in Montreal are not for the faint of heart. Our positive experience in Montreal was informed, in part, by the time of our visit. While we enjoyed mid-October temperatures in the heat of summer, we are all thankful for the year-round opportunities for enjoyment in the public realm that Atlanta allows and we sometimes take for granted.