Quebec City’s challenge: managing growth while staying close

Date 13/11/2017

Written byTaylor Ireland

We’re back and blogging after a bit of a break since the summer. And, as I highlighted  in my last blog, the summer of 2017 was a very special one, notably for celebrations surrounding two particular anniversaries.

The first was the 50th anniversary of Quebec’s spectacular, people-friendly, 10-day-long, summer music gathering on the Plains of Abraham – Festival d’étè – which attracted hundreds of thousands of fans. People are still buzzing about shows by Pink and The Who, among many other highlights.

On the heels of that amazing event came the Rendezvous 2017 tall ships regatta, an official celebration to mark the 150th anniversary of the founding of Canada. The event was especially meaningful for Quebec City for two reasons. One is that the city was founded by ship-bound European adventurers and for many years was a major ship-building port. The other is that Quebec hosted in 1864 the crucial negotiations that led to Confederation three years later.

The Rendezvous was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for naval buffs, featuring a parade of some 60 majestic ships of the high seas from around the world, from a Spanish galleon to the largest sailing vessel in the service of the United States. It attracted huge throngs of visitors to Quebec’s old port. Sparkling July weather no doubt helped produce an event beyond organizers’ wildest dreams.

One moment during the Rendezvous struck those who were there as something very special, but typical of Quebec City. Many officials were gathered at the official launch of the event, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau, several cabinet ministers, and, of course, the mayor of Quebec City, Régis Labeaume.

Following the ceremony, the prime minister, under very light security, mingled with the crowd – un bain de foule, in French – many of whom were tourists who just happened to be there at the time. The mayor, as well, basked in the friendly greetings of the crowd on a glorious day in his wondrous city.

On any given day, residents of the city are likely to encounter in person, if  not the mayor himself, then their council members, making the rounds in the shops and markets in their district. The structure of neighbourhood councils, comprised of citizens, ensures “retail” or “street level” input to decision-making at City Hall.

The word that comes to mind to describe this aspect of Quebec City, is proximity. It is the quality a city has to make its residents feel close and connected to their elected officials, municipal services, commercial outlets and their fellow residents.

Quebec City has traditionally been called “le village,” usually in comparison with Montreal, “le grand metropole.” While “village” may imply gossipy and sleepy from the perspective of the chaotic cosmopolitan metropolis down the road, the reality of the nickname is the compact and convenient qualities that make the provincial capital such a surprisingly liveable city.

Part of the reason Quebec City is so accessible in terms of not having to drive great distances to do basic shopping and dining is that historically the city developed around “villages” or what might be called neighbourhood nodes. In the central core of the city, these neighbourhoods, with names like Sillery, Limoilou, Montcalm, Saint-Sacrement, l’Ancienne Lorette, Cap Rouge, Beauport and Charlesbourg, are more or less self-contained retail centres with a wide range of services offered.

If you can’t find what you want in your local neighbourhood, the city has a rather amazing array of shopping centres within a relatively short drive or via the city’s convenient public transit system. Commercial development on the outskirts will get a big boost in the near future, with the opening of a huge Ikea store, around which a local developer is planning a “Centropolis” of other commercial and entertainment attractions.

Similarly, the city administration would like to see more commercial activity shifted to the vicinity of the city’s impressive new sports and entertainment amphitheatre, the Vidéotron Centre. Plans are in the works, for example, to build a large public market offering local produce, crafts and other goods. There’s been such a market for years in the old port and it is likely to remain there in some form or other.

The head-spinning burst of growth of Quebec City in recent years, after decades of status quo, was a central issue in the municipal election campaign leading to the vote last week. All three main parties proposed solutions to the twin challenges of managing expansion, a major symptom of which is increased road traffic – while enticing more people to come to Quebec City to fill the crying demand for qualified workers.

Mayor Labeaume was returned to office with a comfortable win and most of the seats on council. He declared his immediate priority would be to come up with a plan for a structured transport system, whether it be light rail, metro, tramway, monorail or combination of one or more. The mission, says the mayor, is to take the pressure off commuter road transport at the same time maintaining and improving local services in the city’s many neighbourhoods.

As civic leaders debate its exciting future it’s clear the challenge is to ensure the precious proximity that has made Quebec City famous for being a walker’s paradise and an ideal place to live.