July 3, 2023

When renewal and safety go hand in hand

The District Central – an iconic part of Montreal, long referred to as “Cité de la Mode”-  has witnessed the major social and economic upheavals that have marked the history of Quebec and  Montreal. After suffering the repercussions of market globalization, the district embarked on a neighbourhood renewal process in the 2000s. A key player in this transformations since 2016, the SDC District Central will be deploying new elements of its territory signature over the next few years. In addition to its image, the announced initiatives will make mobility a priority and help build a safer neighbourhood for all.

Pollinate, language of the District Central Signature Intervention Plan, 2023

Bound by Sauvé and Berri streets and highways 15 and 40, the District Central receives some 25,000 workers each day, making it the 4th largest employment hub in Montreal. The SDC has the potential to accommodate more the 40,000 people in the coming years. This number is in addition to residents and the many people passing through including customers, suppliers and delivery personnel whose presence feed the economic life of this three square kilometre area. Some travel by public transit and on foot while others by bicycle and car. The presence of urban manufacturers also generates a certain amount of truck traffic. Albeit a sign of vitality, the juxtaposition of these different uses and audiences raises safety issues particularly for pedestrians and cyclists. These issues are exacerbated by the configuration of space and the monumentality of buildings that make up the area.

“From the very first consultation with local economic stakeholders, the question of safety was raised, explains Hélène Veilleux, Executive Director of the SDC District Central. Many employers said that the environment could be oppressive and detracts from the general feeling of safety, which was not conducive to recruiting and retaining workers.” The local population also deplored the lack of lighting, sidewalks in certain zones and the sometimes difficult cohabitation with vehicles, particularly large trucks.

Since then, the Société de développement commercial has conducted a series of consultations, until it was able to outline the desired development for the area. A high-impact, mixed-use design that offers a clear and concrete response to the needs expressed by business owners, workers and residents alike. For the Executive Director of the SDC, the territory signature plan adopted in February 2023 marks a turning point in the district’s revitalization process. “The plan, she says, allows us to move from ideas to action, without sacrificing what has always been the neighbourhood’s strength: its community.”

Maxime Brosseau, Associate Architect at Zaraté Lavigne Architectes, is a member of the team of professionals involved in drawing up the signature plan. In his opinion, it’s the area’s multiple vocations throughout the years and the resulting configuration of the environment that today hinders the overall sense of safety. “Because of their previous use, streets that are now seldom used and uninhabited are very wide and uninviting. On the flipside, very busy streets are extremely narrow, making it more difficult for different modes of transportation to coexist. The absence of safe passageways and clear routes for pedestrians are also cause for concern.”

More importantly, he says, the fact that the neighbourhood has been less attractive for some time has meant that people have forgotten how to coexist. “If, as a driver or trucker for example, I have to go to an area that I know has a lot of pedestrian traffic and plenty of bike paths, I’ll naturally be more on the lookout. By clearly marking the territory, the signature plan that has been drawn up would reverse the trend and would ultimately help increase safety, per se.”

Landscaping and signage interventions, District Central Signature Intervention Plan, 2023

Creating a favourable environment

Spread over five years, the territory signature plan is divided into three main areas of intervention.

The first relates to the landscape including the development of green zones, each with its own distinctive character. These zones will be connected by paths to encourage mobility and connection between residents. They will also offer four-season recreational areas. “Even if they are temporary, these interventions, explains Maxime Brosseau, will change the perceptions of the District Central and shatter the image of an industrial territory long associated with it. They will improve the experience for people who live and move around the area and encourage them to take ownership of the space. Above all, they will lead to the construction of safe, habit-forming routes.”

The second part involves the installation of fixed and mobile street furniture, adapted to winter conditions and deployed across all sectors according to the year and season. For the consulting architect, “in addition to enlivening the neighbourhood, the integration of benches, tables and kiosks in places that are highly frequented by workers, residents and visitors – sometimes even in the street – will force a change in behaviour, including a definite reduction in  traffic speeds, identified as a problem in certain sectors. When, as a driver, I know that there’s a possibility that furniture has been added, and that it can also change places depending on the time of year, I naturally adjust my driving style.”

Blue illuminated mural under a railway underpass, District Central Signature Intervention Plan, 2023

The third and final part of the intervention plan focuses on signage. It will feature, among other things, ground markings, initially to link the green areas together, but also to highlight the urban links desired in the future urban plan. It will also showcase some of the industrial artefacts that bear witness to the district’s history, as well as the current infrastructure, particularly in terms of rail links. Signs will also be used to inform residents, merchants and passersby about areas of interest and to direct them from one sector to another.

From Maxime Brosseau’s perspective, of all the interventions included in the plan, signage is probably the most structuring in terms of safety. It will not only help people find their way around the environment,” he says, “it will also make it easier to identify important infrastructures and the best route to get somewhere, thereby contributing to a general feeling of safety. It will also ensure that, as a driver, I’ll know right away that I’m entering a busier zone, where I need to be more attentive.”

Leveraging best practices

Myriam Goulet, MOBA’s Sustainable Transportation Project Manager, agrees. “Depending on how it’s used, signage helps to distinguish one zone from another, which contributes to a general feeling of safety. By marking out routes, for example, not only do we make life easier for many people, but we also establish habits. It helps other users to become aware of their surroundings and adapt their behavior accordingly.”

According to the project manager, another best practice is the integration of street furniture into the District Central’s signature plan. This measure, she says, is known to contribute to compliance with speed limits, particularly on narrow roads. In terms of safety,” insists Myriam Goulet, “a good layout must maintain a certain balance, and avoid segregating uses too much. Instead, we must seek to facilitate cohabitation and take into account the needs of everyone.”

Landscaping, urban (furniture) and signage interventions, District Central Signature Intervention Plan, 2023

In Myriam Goulet’s opinion, whatever the intended objectives may be, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that real change takes time. “Getting people to change the way they drive or get around the area will not happen overnight. This type of change takes place in several phases. If we want to speed things up, we must ensure a balance between the positive and the negative. In other words, there must be a clear win-win situation. That is the essence of a coherent, safe layout for all.”

For Hélène Veilleux, it is in this very spirit that the territory signature plan was adopted. “When it comes to development and mobility, the SDC’s position has stayed the same since the beginning. All our interventions are in line with a spirit of harmonious cohabitation between different uses and modes of transport, be it by car, on foot or by bicycle. The signature plan is no exception. It aims to improve the experience of everyone who visits and lives in the neighborhood. From here, we hope to spread the word, and yes of course introduce as many people as possible to the District Central, but above all contribute to the common good.”


Guylaine Boucher, writer and associate at Agence Médiapresse inc.

Guylaine Boucher is an established writer with over 25 years’ experience. Renowned for her ability to understand and explain the most complex issues in simple terms, over the past few years she has taken an interest in subjects as varied as sustainable development, nursing and the police force.

This article was published by  Routes et Transports.  To consult it (in French) >>

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