Life Lessons from Montrealers: City Planning & Design, Eating Habits, Social Media...

I have lived in cities all of my life — and in some of the greatest ones too. Some may say, what’s the point? All cities are the same. Naturally I’d beg to differ. But the last couple of years made me sway towards that critical line of thinking too with expensive lifestyles, high taxes, lack of parking, poor public transportation system, inadequate community services, the usual problems of gentrification, and many others.

Yet Montreal has managed to open my eyes on a new way of urban living. Here’s how:

DESIGN: A DRIVING FORCE OF CULTURAL AND ECONOMIC LIFE

Design is a strategic force in the city, reflected in $700+ million in economic benefits and over 20K jobs generated by this sector. They understand urban planning to accommodate people and their lifestyles in human scale, not in cars. Montreal is the only city in North America to have established a Design Commissioner position within its administration.

Downtown MTL is a walkable area, which is assisted in winter by its unique maze of underground facilities. Some great neighborhoods are within 5-10 minutes by metro or bus, 15 minutes cycle ride and are even walkable. Certain streets such as Rue Ste. Catherine in the Village have been pedestrianized, allowing for people to mix and mingle purposefully and spontaneously. Low-rise, rich in trees, unique with their winding, metal staircases, these areas are alive with a mix of older urban residents and a new generation of natives and migrants.

Rue St. Catherine, Montreal

Rue St. Catherine, Montreal

This proximity to the center of such revitalized and pleasant neighborhoods ensures an important level of urban residence. Policies have included considerable investment in public spaces, markets, parks, recreation areas (hello beach volleyball courts!), street life, small shops (rather than characterless malls), art and culture.

The city has retained its 350-year old urban heritage through the revitalization of the Old Port and Canal Lachine, putting down 27 miles of bike lanes, building over and submerging the freeway that cut downtown in two. Companies and the government invest heavily in public art programs such as Aires Libres or Quartier des Spectacles. Graffiti art is welcome and commissioned. They’ve dropped old pianos (destined to be trashed) around the city for spontaneous play.

LIVE IN THE MOMENT

Everyone has the right to act as a tourist after just landing here. But at the International Jazz Festival, I got yelled at for recording a song in its entirety on my iPhone.

“Put that away, just listen to the music!”

I’m glad I got called out. How shameful is it to experience life through a device when it’s happening right in front of your face. Musicians and performers like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs have banned smartphones at their concerts too.

Everywhere else, people pretend to look at important emails or, let’s be honest, Facebook to fill gaps in time. As if we’re not intelligent enough to come up with something interesting.

Beyond the usual tech junkies, I haven’t experienced blatant phone-browsing here in Montreal… not during lunch, at the bar or in a party, unless someone is literally giving directions. Montrealers relish face to face time and they’re all opinionated so conversations are never dull. Everyone takes advantage of one-on-one interactions especially during the summer— from dining at terrasses, group activities, to biking and shopping together — since there will be little opportunity to socialize once winter hits.

International Jazz Festival, Montreal

International Jazz Festival, Montreal

NEVER EAT ALONE

It’s so refreshing to see restaurants fill up with tables of 2, 3 or even 6 for lunch and dinner. I don’t think I’ve seen a lone diner unless they’re working on their computer or want some respite.

Montrealers love sharing a meal. They take their cue from their French heritage, who attribute their slim figures to the notion of shared meals. This supposedly distracts you from eating too much or too fast. Shared meals = digestion aide!

L’Avenue, a fun restaurant w/ amazing breakfast in Montreal

L’Avenue, a fun restaurant w/ amazing breakfast in Montreal

REAL SOCIAL NETWORKING

Just like anywhere else, building and sustaining relationships are important when it comes to our personal and professional lives. The aspect of social networking here is alive and well, just not in the online sense but offline.

That’s why social networking apps like Yelp are not widely used in Montreal. You’ll see that a majority of comments and photos were uploaded in 2011 and the most recent reviews are from a loyal customer or a tourist. A lot of the truly wonderful places in Montreal aren’t mentioned on TripAdvisor, Notable.ca or MTLBlog.com. And if they are, they’re swarmed with tourists.

In Montreal, word-of-mouth and personal recommendations are king compared to traditional media or expert reviews. I think this kind of resistance is a testament to Montreal’s still strong underground culture.

They know the good things in life take time to grow and nourish; time being the operative word here.

There’s no need to rush invitations to media for restaurant openings (as I witnessed during Le Bon Vivant’s unveiling last week). The owner/chef operates as usual, gets his team on a rhythm, invites close friends, family and colleagues for tastings, and lets the community discover the new spot on its own…. all with the hope that they’ll spread the word. Even during opening day, I only saw a couple of people taking photos with their smartphones. The diners enjoyed being in the moment, to taste and to have an experience. Not to document their every move.

Bet your bottom dollar that no one will upload a Yelp review for another month or so. That’s just out of respect for the chef, who is still working out the kinks in his daily operation and wants to do good by his customers. And also, so that it still maintains a non-mainstream status.

Networking and discovery happens largely offline in Montreal. Some may see this kind of behavior as regressive. No wonder the French-Canadians are so behind! That there’s no real innovation here. I say au contraire, mon frere!

Silicon Valley may beat its chest for moving fast and breaking things, but they’re responsible for pushing and constantly fixing the alpha product. Whereas everyone else can listen, observe, and learn from the mistakes made with the alpha to ensure the beta is a vast improvement. This is when I think it’s okay to be late to the game.

I’ve come to understand and appreciate all of these details after watching the urban documentary, The Human Scale, which questions our assumptions about modernity and guides our brick-and-mortar ways of building to encourage human interaction. A lot of the day-to-day happenings in this city can be attributed to thoughtful city planning, like I mentioned above.

Our survival depends on the physical and spiritual interactions we have with other people and life forms. We are all social beings meant to learn from one another. I think that’s what Montrealers do best: take learnings from their citizens’ different cultures — European, Latin, Asian, Western — and created their own version of modern living.

Now if they can only control the winters.

If you’ve traveled to Montreal, let me know about your experience there.

Re-run from my LinkedIn Pulse post, originally published 9/5/14