Hanes: Laval’s vision of a 15-minute neighborhood recalls life in days gone by

We’ve heard of the 15-minute city, but what about the 15-minute suburb, town, or village? Laval wants to be a pioneer in this.

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Île Jésus was once a collection of prosperous farming towns bordered by the Mille-Îles River to the north and Rivières des Prairies to the south, including: Ste-Rose, St. François and St-Vincent-de Paul.

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Today, they are the names of the districts of the neighborhoods of the third largest city in Quebec. In 1965, 14 municipalities, including Chomedey, Vimont and Ste-Dorothée, were merged into today’s Laval.

Despite being half the size of the island of Montreal (242 square kilometers vs. 472), Laval has only a quarter of Montreal’s population (approximately 423,000 vs. 1.7 million), according to census data from 2016. In other words, it’s largely a sprawling suburb of single-family homes, strip malls, and big box stores. The arrival of the metro in 2007 brought pockets of density. And some of the ancient villages that once dotted Île Jésus remain charming hubs. But for the most part, Laval is a car-centric suburb that lacks density.

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Mayor Stéphane Boyer plans to change that.

After being elected last fall on the promise of a clean, green and modern agenda, he recently launched a massive overhaul of his city’s urban planning regulations to “bring Laval into the 21st century.”

His new vision for Laval includes the densification of housing and commercial activity so that all residents live and work in neighborhoods where schools, daycare centers, supermarkets, jobs and recreational facilities are within walking, cycling or public transportation distance. . Boyer is essentially proposing bring the concept of the city of 15 minutes to the ‘burbs.

And he is not alone. Boyer was one of the new generation of young mayors elected throughout Quebec last November, with the intention of bringing Projet Montréal’s locally initiated 21st-century city-building ideas to smaller centers, such as Quebec City, Longueuil, Sherbrooke, Gatineau, Granby and Drummondville. Aware of the impact of climate change, these mayors want to do their part in using urban planning tools to densify their cities, promote active transportation instead of relying on personal cars, and curb sprawl that increasingly consumes precious wood, wetlands, meadows and agricultural land.

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Strangely, one of his biggest obstacles appears to be a Coalition Avenir Québec government, which he thinks can win re-election this fall with promises of more sprawl-inducing roads, tunnels and bridges.

Paris is among the cities leading the charge toward this 15-minute urban planning philosophy, and the pandemic helped popularize it. Closures that kept people in their own neighborhoods and the shift to remote or hybrid work emphasized the convenience and importance of having services and amenities within a 15-minute radius. Now many Quebecers in cities and suburbs are eager for such changes.

Montreal, with its dense neighborhoods, was already well positioned to advance the concept. Of course, getting it into the suburbs is more challenging, but it’s all the more important given the increased reliance on individual vehicles, one of the largest and fastest growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions in Quebec.

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Laval, like many similar cities, is spread out with business districts arranged in a linear fashion. Clusters of large stores with ample parking lots are separated by wide boulevards with traffic lights that take a long time to change. The same design discourages walking and encourages car use to get from one place to another, even when destinations are within walking distance of each other. Infill development is needed to create mixed-use neighborhoods with homes, businesses, and services.

Densification in small cities and suburbs does not mean building skyscrapers, despite what Quebec Transport Minister François Bonnardel may think. Bringing in low-rise condominiums with ground-floor commercial space and building townhomes around a central green space in areas dominated by single-family homes can build density without compromising character. But attitudes may have to change to foster acceptance and avoid NIMBYism.

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Concentrating new construction around public transportation hubs is also crucial to making service more efficient and facilitating commutes to other parts of the city or downtown Montreal. If neighborhoods are set up to be self-contained, many of the round-trip car trips through suburbs or smaller centers will become unnecessary.

Including active infrastructure like bike lanes, wider sidewalks, and strips of greenery may actually be easier in scattered communities than in large cities, as there is more space to work. It is a matter of smart planning and a vision of the future.

The spirit of urban planning may be called the 15-minute city, but there is no reason not to bring this revolution to towns, cities and suburbs as well. In fact, it’s not so much a revolution as it is a throwback to a time before car culture dominated development, when pedestrianized main streets were the focus of civic and commercial life.

Moving people from the butcher to the baker to the ice cream parlor will strengthen communities large and small, making them greener, more livable and resilient.

In Laval’s case, it may just be a modern take on traditional village life.

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