“The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city. It is, moreover, a common rather than an individual right since this transformation inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power to reshape the processes of urbanization.”
— Henri Lefebvre, philosopher, sociologist

“The right to the city is an empty signifier. Everything depends on who gets to fill it with meaning.”
— David Harvey, geographer, City University of New York
 
 

Can $500 empower a group of citizens to transform their neighbourhood? In the words of Véronique Fournier, Executive Director of the Montreal Urban Ecology Centre (MUEC), this modest sum was a “spark.”

Fournier’s organization launched Transforme ta ville in 2014 with a simple premise. Give people some funds to launch a small neighbourhood project. At the core of the initiative, says Fournier, was the principle of public space. The $500 was a “lever” for empowering residents to participate in this space. The idea is that anyone of any background should be able to find a place for themselves in contributing to the built environment.

 
 
Working toward local goals connected citizens with municipal leaders, raising awareness of policy, regulations – and not surprisingly – barriers to change.

The initiative succeeded beyond the immediate effects of whatever “micro” project was proposed, whether it was beautifying an overpass, creating a street-level book exchange or the sharing of gardens that were previously exclusively private. Working toward local goals connected citizens with municipal leaders, raising awareness of policy, regulations – and not surprisingly – barriers to change. In Montreal’s neighbourhood of Rosemont, for example, a group of residents that wanted to create installations in public spaces discovered regulations prohibiting exactly that. (Eventually, they were able to proceed with their project after working with the relevant authorities.)

 

 
TRANSFORME TA VILLE Transforme ta ville is a call to citizens to get involved in actions to reappropriate public space in Montreal, Laval and Longueuil, whether through greening neighbourhoods, engaging in the social economy or in urban art. Over 70 projects were completed. These are four examples. Photos by Montreal Urban Ecology Centre

TRANSFORME TA VILLE

Transforme ta ville is a call to citizens to get involved in actions to reappropriate public space in Montreal, Laval and Longueuil, whether through greening neighbourhoods, engaging in the social economy or in urban art. Over 70 projects were completed. These are four examples.

Photos by Montreal Urban Ecology Centre

 
 

Colourful characters
Notre-Dame-de-Grâce

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A group of elementary school students in the Montreal neighbourhood of Notre-Dame-de-Grâce wanted to beautify the drab, grey overpass they saw every week on their walk to the city library. As part of Transforme ta ville, they planted flowers in containers. Next, they plan to knit around the metal fencing, decorating it with lively, vibrant colours. 

 

 

Neighbourhood book exchange
Plateau-Mont-Royal

Building a “book bank” that includes books for children and for adults, with the goal of creating more dynamic relationships between neighbourhood citizens. This sharing tool favours sustainability, repurposing and better collective living while also promoting reading.

 

 
 

Green garden alleyway
Saint-Henri

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By installing planting boxes built by citizens, this project advanced urban agriculture and helped reduce the dumping of unwanted trash as well as cut down on noise pollution from trucks. It also showed how to use public space for environmental purposes.

 

The Duluth children’s raft
Plateau-Mont-Royal

planter.jpg

In a fast-paced world, opportunities to meet and learn about our neighbours are rare. Building a playful “parklet” where children and parents gather helps break down social isolation and can create more trusting neighbourhood ties. Strengthening community cohesion also creates a situation where neighbours look out for one another and especially for young ones.

 


 
 


In Laval, a citizen-project proved how a micro-initiative can “scale up” into something larger and more enduring. Local residents felt that the local park, Parc des Coccinelles, lacked shade and shelter, constraining activities in poor weather and exposing visitors to the relentless glare of the sun on hot summer days. Citizens proposed that benches be fitted with roofs, hence the name of the eventual project, Un toit sur mon banc (A Roof over My Bench).

City ordinances prohibited implementing this idea. Not to be deterred, the project leaders successfully enlisted engineering students from Montreal’s École de technologie supérieure (ÉTS) and from ÉTS’s École de l’innovation citoyenne (Citizen Innovation School) to help out. These aspiring professionals, with Laval’s technical requirements in hand, have embarked on a two-semester process of designing and prototyping new roofs. Selecting the best designs will be up to a jury of city planners, artists and leaders.
 

 
100IN1DAY What if hundreds of people united, each one taking a small action to improve their city, all on the same day? That is the thinking behind 100in1Day, a global festival of citizen engagement, which had its first Canadian incarnation in Montreal in 2013. For example, in Bedford, N.S., in 2014, supermarket employees did “Reverse Panhandling,” handing out healthy free food to “combat cynicism by showing that sometimes you can get something for free without a catch.”  Visit the Montreal 100en1jour site Photo by Kristina Servant, Flickr

100IN1DAY

What if hundreds of people united, each one taking a small action to improve their city, all on the same day? That is the thinking behind 100in1Day, a global festival of citizen engagement, which had its first Canadian incarnation in Montreal in 2013. For example, in Bedford, N.S., in 2014, supermarket employees did “Reverse Panhandling,” handing out healthy free food to “combat cynicism by showing that sometimes you can get something for free without a catch.” 

Visit the Montreal 100en1jour site

Photo by Kristina Servant, Flickr

 


MUEC also experimented with what is called participatory budgeting. This process originated in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 1989. It is a way of managing public money while engaging residents in the act of governance, usually at the municipal level. It allows community members to provide direct input into allocating part of a city’s public budget.

MUEC established a partnership with the New York City-based Participatory Budgeting Project (PBP) in order to deepen its learning about the field, as well as to become part of a larger network of cities that are practising transformational work in power distribution. It is now the official Quebec partner of PBP.

In Saint-Basile-le-Grand, Quebec, residents were tasked with determining how to spend part of the city’s municipal budget of $22 million. A portion of the budget was set aside for projects that were proposed and voted on by residents aged 16 and older. There was no shortage of ideas: residents presented more than 50 project proposals to a committee of community members and city staff, who then evaluated their feasibility and cost. By the end of 2014, this process had yielded two brand new projects: more secure crossings and pedestrian refuge areas on one of the town’s main streets, and a new public square for meetings, cultural activities, heritage tours or simply resting.

The enabling role of new technology was highly evident in Saint-Basile-le-Grand. A social enterprise called Open North, which creates websites to enable government transparency, was able to provide a budget simulator that calculated the participatory budget and informed and increased the involvement of residents in the operating budget of the city.

 
 
“We want to create a new citizenship culture by bringing citizens closer to the decision making process.”

The Mayor of Saint-Basile-le-Grand, Bernard Gagnon, who committed to a second cycle of participatory budgeting, has said, “We want to create a new citizenship culture by bringing citizens closer to the decision making process.”

Evergreen CityWorks also tackled the theme of civic engagement. One of its initiatives, We Are Cities, had a specific aim: to create a new vision and action plan for cities. They wanted to create more than just a traditional policy paper. They wanted to mobilize Canadians to shape this country’s urban future and to change the narrative surrounding cities and urban regions.
 

 
WE ARE CITIES Canadians from coast to coast were invited to participate in two ways: 1) through roundtable meetings held across the country, and 2) through an online crowdsourcing platform. The campaign held 75 roundtables in 35 cities. As of June 2015, the website had received 13,100 unique visitors. Photo by Carmen Douville

WE ARE CITIES

Canadians from coast to coast were invited to participate in two ways: 1) through roundtable meetings held across the country, and 2) through an online crowdsourcing platform. The campaign held 75 roundtables in 35 cities. As of June 2015, the website had received 13,100 unique visitors.

Photo by Carmen Douville

 

And while there were great ideas, the bigger value was in the network of Cities for People conveners that emerged, who were eager to drive change at the local level.
 


Project curator and former director of Evergreen CityWorks John Brodhead admits that the initiative, while vastly surpassing expectations for audience engagement and participation, delivered something quite different than expected. “Before launching, I thought we would come out with some new big ideas,” he says. “And while there were great ideas, the bigger value was in the network of We Are Cities conveners that emerged, who were eager to drive change at the local level. We had not anticipated that.”

 
 

 

We Are Cities conveners organized roundtables and carried out demonstration projects in Halifax, Calgary, Ottawa, Montreal, Winnipeg and Vancouver, as well as among Indigenous communities in several cities.

The kinds of community grants that had such success in Transforme ta ville were amplified by We Are Cities on the national stage in the form of the new Community Innovation Grants. Over 240 groups applied for funding in 2015, and 18 finalists were ultimately selected to receive grants of $2,000 or $5,000.

“The recipients of the grants have not only identified innovative ways of addressing these issues, but have also taken immediate action to tackle these issues themselves,” says Brodhead.

 
 
IMAGINE MY CITY Imagine My City seeks to create the civic engagement model of the future. Community Innovation Grants supported the creation of a virtual reality kiosk that was tested at the Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto as part of City Hall's 50th Anniversary. At the kiosk, people used their smartphones and virtual reality headsets to experience a curated time-lapse of the virtual square. The goal of Imagine My City is to expand the possibilities of this pilot project to other sites where citizens will have the chance to better experience the transformational changes that will occur as new city-building projects emerge. Photo by imaginemycity.org

IMAGINE MY CITY

Imagine My City seeks to create the civic engagement model of the future. Community Innovation Grants supported the creation of a virtual reality kiosk that was tested at the Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto as part of City Hall's 50th Anniversary. At the kiosk, people used their smartphones and virtual reality headsets to experience a curated time-lapse of the virtual square. The goal of Imagine My City is to expand the possibilities of this pilot project to other sites where citizens will have the chance to better experience the transformational changes that will occur as new city-building projects emerge.

Photo by imaginemycity.org