Culture | Pedestrian power

Alexander Weisler chats with Walkable City author Mary Soderstrom about sidewalks, cities, and urban sprawl

In 1852, Emperor Napoleon III commissioned Baron Georges-Eugene Haussmann to rebuild his capital, transforming Paris from a mélange of industrial slums into the deceptively compact and eminently walkable cultural hub we know today.

If a top-down grand plan for urban redevelopment was presented to Montreal – or any other North American city, for that matter – that included modifications such as mass evictions in working-class quarters and the widening of roads to increase police power, citizens would be aghast. Such a plan presents a veritable “what not to do” checklist for urbanists. Ironically, Haussmann’s model is still considered an exemplar of urban planning.

Canada’s own darling of urbanism, anti-development activist Jane Jacobs, managed to avoid commenting on the Haussmann affair throughout her career. An opponent of urban renewal, it was hard for this woman of contradictions to deride Paris, a city that she enjoyed as a tourist. After all, the strollable rues of Paris exhibit the vital street life that Jacobs celebrated in her own neighbourhoods: New York’s Greenwich Village and Toronto’s Annex.

Finally, two years after Jacobs’s death and over a century into Haussmann’s time residing in Pêre Lachaise cemetery, the two are now in dialogue with one another thanks to prolific Montreal writer Mary Soderstrom. 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.

The author’s view on gentrification is more complex than the usual derision; she remains characteristically pragmatic and free of contradictory hipster jargon. After chuckling at the enormity of the topic, she remarks, “It fits both ways. I think it’s essential for several reasons. One is to maintain a housing stock, and [another is] to keep services, because the middle class have a sense of entitlement, and they’re going to put out petitions for things like stop signs on street corners, and that doesn’t hurt people. There is a problem with pushing out people who live there their whole lives and I don’t really know the solution to that other than to pull everyone up.”

Though they stroll the gardens of Paris and the streets of Toronto together in Soderstrom’s book, Jacobs never fully confronts Haussmann’s actions in The Walkable City. The Baron’s grand plans would surely upset her principles – but, Soderstrom says, “what saved the Haussmann renovation was that it was built on a human scale. Of course there were a number of human tragedies, but what was left as a city is so compact and walkable…. There’s so much going on.”

Just as Jacobs avoided confirming whether such sacrifices were worth it, Soderstrom’s The Walkable City avoids much discussion of gentrification or economic inequality as expressed in the landscape. At times, it seems like there’s no answer to the dilemma for the time being – at least not a fair one.

The Walkable City by Mary Soderstrom is available for $22.95 from Véhicle Press.