Planning post-COVID downtown Montreal as a shopping centre: why not?

There is a lot to be said for managing downtowns as shopping centres. As planners think about resuscitating Montreal’s, and other, downtowns, it is worth considering.

This does NOT mean privatization, surveillance and control. It could mean that: but these aspects of shopping centre management would not enhance our cities. I am not suggesting that all aspects of shopping centres are desirable.

However, even Marxists such as Frederic Jameson and socialists such as Leigh Phillips and Michal Rozworski argue that large retail organisations like Walmart are prime examples of effective central planning. I follow them in suggesting that socially minded urban planners, those eager to make downtowns more accessible and citizen-friendly, could do worse than look closely at what has made shopping centres so effective.

Here are a few examples:

  • regulation of rents: rents in shopping centres are not individually maximised. A well-managed shopping centre is organised in such a way that a variety of different services, stores and other activities can locate there, including those that pay lower rent but that make the centre attractive (think of hairdressers or shoe repairs). Currently, in downtown, each building is managed separately, and each building owner seeks to maximise her return without considering what is good for downtown as a whole. This drives small businesses out, homogenises downtowns, and makes them sterile: why not copy shopping centres and regulate rents to allow for more diversity and for the creation of longer term value?
  • total pedestrianisation: there are no vehicles in shopping centre alleys, nor are cars parked there. Pedestrianisation – feared and reviled by downtown shop-keepers in North America – is a feature of suburban shopping malls! It is also a feature of many many European and Latin-American cities such as London, Norwich, Exeter, Cambridge, Oxford, Berne, Lyon, Mexico-City, Strasbourg, Freiburg…..
  • easy access, and car parking on the edge: shopping centres are easy to access, often by car. These cars are parked at the edge of the pedestrianised areas (i.e. of the shopping centres). In North America, bearing in mind the poor public transport and the need for downtowns to attract suburban workers and shoppers, it would be wise for downtowns to accommodate cars at their edges. Alternatively, or in addition, suburban parking spaces linked to downtown by (the rare) good public transport can also work. In Montreal we have decent public transport (though metro stations are very difficult to access for people carrying bags, with young children, living with physical limitations…) and we are building a new regional light-rail system: these should be made fully accessible for everyone, then leveraged to get people to downtown without their cars.
  • easy access for people with mobility challenges: many people – for example the elderly, those living with a disability, people with children – cannot easily take public transport nor walk from car parks or metro stations along pedestrianised streets. In shopping centres there are often solutions to this, such as golf-cart like buggies, mobility aids, or simply wheel chairs. In downtowns, even on pedestrianised streets, some slow moving taxis and specialised transportation must be allowed and encouraged.
  • well maintained public lavatories : this one speaks for itself. How come shopping centres have them, but not our dowtowns?
  • bicycles don’t mix with pedestrians : I am cyclist and love bikes. Yet I can see that bikes and pedestrians don’t mix. Bikes travel at a very different speed, and can’t anticipate pedestrian movements. That is why bicycles, like cars, are absent from shopping mall alleys. Montreal downtown, which should be accessible to cyclists, should also clearly segregate fast-moving vehicles (such as bikes) from sauntering elders and darting children.

Downtowns offer so much more than shopping centres: culture, restaurants, variety of people, fresh air, difference, excitement, institutions, student life, corporate action…. But shopping centres can provide some inspiration as to how Montreal and other downtowns can be reimagined to make them even more attractive.

Published by Richard Shearmur

I am a professor at McGill's School of Urban Planning. I perform research on innovation, on how we locate work activities (in a world where people often work from many places), and on urban and regional economic geography. I used to work in real-estate, and teach a course on this. I am an urban planner, member of the Ordre des Urbanistes du Québec and of the Canadian institute of Planners.

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