Culture  With great power comes great sustainability

CCA-backed municipal lobby group seeks to insert sustainability into urban planning

On October 14, Phyllis Lambert, founder of the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA), launched the Institut de politique alternative de Montréal (IPAM) with the help of several other Montrealers. The new organization, dedicated to long-term, sustainable urban growth, was announced last Wednesday morning to reporters over breakfast in an ornate Victorian room at the CCA. Lambert spoke with Dinu Bumbaru, policy director of Héritage Montréal, and Dimitri Roussopoulos, founder of the Montreal Urban Ecology Centre, both vice-presidents of IPAM.

Speaking in French, Bumbaru identified six areas of activity for the institute: “heritage, poverty, social housing and justice, ecology, urban planning and transportation, and democracy.” The huge range of issues covered by IPAM means that it will have to work closely with high-level politicians as well as grassroots and community organizations.

In a very frank moment, Roussopoulos emphasized IPAM’s board members’, particularly Lambert’s, access to politicians: “When Madame Lambert picks up the phone and wants to speak to the mayor of Montreal, she can get his or her ear, or get a meeting with him or her at the drop of a hat.”

However, Roussopoulos went on to say that “this is not enough,” an opinion shared by Lambert, who was particularly frustrated by the disregard for public consultations. “We worked on that very hard, and we finally got [public consultations] passed,” she said. “The city charter finally put [public consultations] in and now they don’t listen to them! Well, that’s up to the citizens to say ‘My goodness, what’s happening?’”

IPAM’s directors envision the institute as a bridge between Montreal citizens and the City’s many bureaucrats. To that end, the board recruited representatives from all four of Montreal’s universities, including McGill urban planning professor Raphaël Fischler, local community organizers, and citizens’ group representatives.

One of the most important initial recommendations, which IPAM intends to take to whomever wins the November 1 municipal election, is for the City to hold a “Citizens’ Forum,” open to all interested Montrealers. While public consultations are open to anyone, they are technical and time consuming, deterring some of the people most affected by large-scale developments – for example, people without an education and those who work long or inconvenient hours.

At the same time, IPAM’s directors emphasized the need for a holistic approach to urban planning. According to Bumbaru, “a city is more than just a catalogue of projects.” Following this maxim, the institute is trying to think long term. Instead of simply intervening in urban planning decisions that it sees as harmful to the sustainable development in the city, IPAM’s goals are longer-term – in fact, they want to challenge and ultimately change the way Montreal, and even other cities, are planned. Said Lambert: “I think that we’re not going to try to deal so much with this or that particular project, but what happens in cities more generally.”

This broad view has obvious advantages, in that it sees all aspects of the city as integral to its future and considers more than just the short-term benefits of glamorous new projects or gentrification in the guise of “revitalization.” However, it also means that IPAM lacks a concrete set of initial projects.

Lambert and her fellow board members are certainly well-connected to the Montreal political and urban planning establishments, and seem to have a genuine desire to change the way new developments are made. IPAM may well become a powerful lobbying force, a new check on the City government. But at this point – less than a week after its launch and less than a month before a municipal election – it is almost impossible to tell.

Said Roussopoulos: “Anything that has to do with the urban question, with the future of cities, the future of our city, will be part of our work.” With luck, they will be able to instigate change in the future, but as all IPAM’s directors emphasized, we can’t predict what will happen, and we must always consider the larger scale and the longer term.