Walk the Region!

walk the region 2011 map

Joel Thibert

Nearly a century has passed since Benton MacKaye wrote The New Exploration: A Philosophy of Regional Planning, in which he called upon urban planners of policy-makers to firmly situate the city in its natural ecosystem and to balance the needs of humankind and those of nature. For MacKaye, and other members of the Regional Planning Association of America (RPAA) such as Lewis Mumford, the future of our civilization depended very much on the success (or failure) of this balancing act.

Despite the fact that we know much more than we did 100 years ago about ecological health and its impact on human health, we haven’t made much progress as far as situating the city within its ecological context. Our urban region is politically, linguistically, culturally, socially and – above all – ecologically fragmented and becoming increasingly so. Urban sprawl continues, unabated. Woodland and marshland continue to be lost to development which contributes nothing to our collective wealth. Francophones and families are leaving the island in droves to establish themselves in second- and third-ring suburbs, more often than not in places inhabited by people like themselves. And above all, our regional government continues to be largely ineffectual (partly by design), as a result of which the relationship between the City of Montreal and other municipalities in the regionhas become adversarial (if not hostile).

This problem is by no means unique to Montreal – or even to cities in North America. And in fact, regional dynamics in Montreal are somewhat “healthier” than those of most cities in North America. Unlike Detroit, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Baltimore and many others, the City of Montreal proper remains lively – economically and culturally. But that could change. Montreal will never be Detroit – manufacturing jobs have already disappeared and been replaced – but the City of Montreal could lose more and more jobs, even as new jobs are created (or the same jobs are relocated) in the second-ring suburbs (according the 2009 report on employment in region released by Emploi Québec, this is in fact what is happening – more than 37 000 jobs were lost on the island in 2009, while 24 000 new jobs were created in the suburbs).

Why does it matter? Because the region as a whole will suffer if the City of Montreal becomes poorer, less well-serviced and less competitive as a result. Because fiscal competition between municipalities and the ineffectiveness of the agricultural land protection regulatory framework together are fueling urban sprawl. Because spatial segregation within an urban region is often self-reinforcing and may lead to a weakening of social ties across different income, linguistic and cultural/ethnic groups.

Which is why we need some form of regional governance (if not government) that allows us to start thinking of city, country and nature as inseparable (and intertwined) – and of municipalities as partners, not competitors. But the more I read, write and think about this issue (which is what I do for a living), the more I think regionalism needs to happen on the ground somehow. Imposing a structure from above might help for certain things – but in the end local politicians think locally, and so do their constituents.

So… a friend of mine and I had the same idea independently a few weeks ago: why not organize an “expedition” on foot with the aim of “crossing” the entire metropolitan region? As a way, first and foremost, to learn about the region in which we live and way people live in different places. But also as a way to entice people from all over the metropolitan area and beyond – perhaps just a few in the beginning – to join in the expedition, share with others, discover new places, and develop a sense of belonging to this thing we call the region.

I would like to propose a three-day expedition on June 24-25-26 (long weekend) over a distance of approximately 100 km. One possible route could be the one illustrated in the map above (from Pointe-aux-anglais, west of Oka, to the summit of Mont-Hilaire) and linked here – but that is just an idea.

We would carry tents and other camping gear (but not necessarily food, as it is more or less available everywhere) and camp wherever we could (in someone’s backyard, for example, if we can find someone in Ste-Dorothée and Longueuil who would agree to let us camp there). And we could celebrate St-Jean-Baptiste somewhere in Laval!!!

So… is anyone interested? If so, you can reply to this post or e-mail me at walktheregion@gmail.com

Let’s walk!