Updated: Sep 14, 2022
Toward the end of our visit to this planned community we have arrived at the town centre. The first thing we see is an attractive park with public washrooms, a small playground with exercise equipment suitable for both children and older adults, tennis courts and a thriving flower garden dominated by large maples. Across a small-scale ring road, accessed by a zebra crossing and traffic lights, we see a commuter rail station and a series of bus stops flanked by a line of shops, small-scale offices and apartments on the second and third floors.
We walk to the other side of the town square, framed by a series of low-rise apartments several older six-storey apartments, side by side with newer mid-rise condo buildings. All the streets have generous sidewalks, landscaped boulevards and elegant streetlamps, decorated with colourful flower baskets.
As we continue our tour, the apartments give way to townhouses, duplexes and single detached houses, catering to different income levels. All in all, we see a well laid out
community which seems to tick all the boxes for the kind of walkable, transit-friendly
development advocated by planners and urban designers everywhere. A poster child for the latest thinking on community design?
Well actually, no. This is Town of Mount Royal, a ‘new town’ suburb 10 minutes by train to downtown Montreal in Quebec that dates back to 1910. Designed by landscape architect Frederick Gage Todd, TMR (as it always referred to by locals) owes its existence to the Canadian Northern Railway (CNR), which would later be absorbed into CN Rail. The CNR’s owners, Sir William Mackenzie and Sir Donald Mann, in collaboration with the CNR’s chief engineer, Henry K. Wicksteed, decided to build the model town to finance construction of the railway tunnel through Mont Royal, the city’s iconic ‘mountain.‘ 1
The abundant green space and elegant landscaping is today enhanced by thousands of mature trees that underscore the town’s character and the commitment of its designers and architects to the Garden City principles of Ebenezer Howard that were popular back in the day. 2
My guide on the tour is my wife, who grew up in TMR in the 1960s. We are enjoying a nostalgic return visit from our home in Toronto. She marvels at the extensive tree canopies, and remarks that very little has changed since she left as a teenager. “Everything seems so perfect,” she says. “There’s a grocery store, shops and all kinds of amenities for families, churches (but no synagogues). The park. The train. The buses are more modern but so little else seems to have changed. Why is that?”
“Perhaps because it hasn’t needed to,” I answer. “That’s the genius of a design that gets the basics right but still allows for things to evolve.” The town continued to be built out from the start of the First World War through the 1970s.
The town centre we are admiring has in fact changed quite a bit, but only to accommodate additional apartments, and more recently, the condos. There is order but also variety, due in large part I am guessing to the role played by the town’s Planning Advisory Committee and guidelines established through a ‘site planning and architectural integration program.
The economics of this ‘model town’ have always worked, and continue to function well long after the original developers left the scene; the additional residential density added over the years not only adds to the vibrancy of the place but ensures that the retail stores continue to thrive.
The question on my mind as we watch residents go about their daily routines is why are
planners, developers and policy makers still struggling to replicate the successful development models that showed the way more than a century ago?
Glenn Miller, FCIP, RPP is a Toronto-based urban planner.
1 Regrettably, the tunnel closed in 2020 for up to four years to accommodate upgrading and maintenance. Commuter traffic to downtown has been a problem ever since.
2 Some have noted that the town plan closely resembles a Union Jack! This ‘fact’ has not stopped demographic change, however, with the principal language shifting from English to French long ago.