Saturday, August 23, 2008

Assets: Charm, Culture, History

This post is the third in a series of posts I am writing about lessons planners could learn from Canada. My recent trip showed me North American cities that have done a better job of managing their urban fabric than is typical south of the 49th Parallel.

Thursday I asked you to guess where the above photo was taken. I was surprised not by the accuracy of the responses, but rather by the lack of "Europe" as an answer.

Quebec City is perhaps the most European place this side of Europe. Arriving at Gare du Palais, one is treated to quite a wakeup call. You're supposed to have to arrive at an Airport to get to Europe from North America, not a train station.

I've always found Canada's bilingual nature attractive. From cereal boxes to street signs, the Canadians do it in two languages. Except in Quebec. Here in la belle province, French culture is almost overwhelming. Montreal is cosmopolitan enough to be bilingual and while many of the Quebecois in Quebec City speak English, many don't (or won't admit it).

But that's not what makes this place feel European.

The urban form is breathtakingly European. Quebec still has its city walls, still has its winding narrow streets, still has its connection to its past.

This connection is something that I think many American cities lack. In today's world of global media and trade, it is extremely difficult to keep everything from clothes to speech unique. But the urban form is something which should be harder to change than one's jeans. Unfortunately, in the name of progress, we have torn down culturally significant buildings and wiped neighborhoods like those in Vieux-Quebec off the map.

Perhaps we can restore some of these areas. But I think it is significant to note that it is not impossible to sustain a European urban from in North America. Canada's gasoline prices are only slightly higher than ours, so the pressure to suburbanize is probably strong there too. And sprawl does exist in the Great Lone Land. Perhaps policy is where the difference lies.

Regardless, I think many lessons from the urban form in Quebec can be taken. Nowhere else in North America will you find such a place as this.

The license plates in Quebec proclaim "Je me souviens." I remember.

It seems we would also do well to remember our past too.

I am a huge supporter of new urbanism, although admittedly it has its flaws. I am an even bigger supporter of old urbanism. Quebec is a great example of this.

1 comment:

nathancontramundi said...

"I am a huge supporter of new urbanism, although admittedly it has its flaws. I am an even bigger supporter of old urbanism. Quebec is a great example of this."

I wholly agree, Matt. However, I think you say more here -- and with this entire post -- than you intend to. You make two points, one, unintentionally (I think.)

A) The best cities are in touch with their past, specifically with an undeniably religious past anathema to many in the planning field; a past over which as we learned in Theory and History, the planning academy glosses, paying little heed to those crazy guys, guided by the supernatural, rather than relying solely upon reason, who built the great cities -- to the extent that cities were planned, and not the products of organic growth -- of the Old World.

B) These best cities were as much the product of organic growth -- of the market, of religious doings, of military -- as of planners' visions, if not more so. This is why, appealing as it is, New Urbanism falls short very short of the lofty bar set by old urbanism: the New is planned; the old grew.