Historian of the city, politics, and society
Since Sunday I’ve been in Victoria for the annual meeting of the Canadian Historical Association (CHA). Yesterday I took part in a panel presentation that brought together scholars from western, eastern, and central Canada to discuss the different ways that citizens have engaged in planning their local communities since the 1950s. Often their engagement took the form of pushing back against plans to dramatically redevelop urban space to accommodate car traffic. I presented research on 1970s Montreal cycling advocacy group le Monde à bicyclette. It was fun and really interesting to connect with other scholars interested in cities, politics, and the management of urban space. A summary of the panel is below.
Our City, Our Voices: Citizen Activism and Urban Planning in Canada, 1950-80
Sponsored by the Political History Group
Facilitator: Nicolas Kenny (SFU)
Liam Haggarty (Mount Royal) and Jesse Salus (Independent Scholar): “Calgary’s Ring Road Controversy: A History of Community and Environmental Activism in Alberta”
Andrew Nurse (Mount Allison): “Pyrrhic Victory: Opposition to Freeway Development and the Crisis of Civic Activism, Halifax 1971-73”
Valérie Poirier (UQAM): «L’autoroute est-ouest, c’est pas le progrès!»: environnement et mobilisation citoyenne en opposition au projet d’autoroute est-ouest à Montréal en 1971
Daniel Ross (York): “’Vive la Vélorution!’: Le Monde à Bicyclette Imagines a Bikeable City, 1975-80
In the post-WWII era, Canadian cities followed the example of their American neighbours in embracing modernist planning as a solution to the infrastructure needs created by postwar prosperity and population growth. The new planning paradigm relied on experts to formulate large-scale plans for improving the functionality and efficiency of cities. One of the principal concerns of planners was accommodating the private automobile through the construction of wider and better-maintained roads, new expressways, and parking.
This expert-led, auto-centric trend in planning aroused its share of opposition. Citizens in affected communities expressed anger at being ignored by their elected officials and excluded from the planning process. They mobilized to oppose the perceived social and environmental costs of this kind of development: the destruction of housing, neighbourhoods, and communities; a decrease in the quality of urban life; and increased traffic, accidents, and pollution. Instead, these citizens proposed a different vision of the city, one that promoted community over efficiency and favoured alternative modes of transport, including public transit, cycling, and walking. In many cases, they saw their own political mobilization as a reaffirmation of the importance of participatory democracy: of people having a say in the planning and governance of their own communities. The four papers that compose this panel focus on citizen mobilization both against auto-centric urban development, and for a more organic, bikeable, or walkable city. They document a fascinating moment in Canadian history, and one that is very relevant to current debates.