It’s mid-week (Wednesday). DesignInquiry Montréal is picking up speed.
We look at the exoskeletal spiral staircases of Montréal's terraced houses courtesy of a presentation by Amery Calvelli. DI framer Emily Luce examines design’s role in 16th Century geopolitics via point blankets – the iconic wool trade blanket once exchanged for prized animal furs and currently used as a corporate branding by The Bay. Luce casts a clear gaze on the trading patterns of early Québeçois voyageurs’ with First Nations.
Her discussion about early design and power-plays segues into present-day politics of the ‘City of Design’. Luce a faculty member of the University of Lethbridge Fine Arts and new Media Department asks us “What happens when you take money and power out of the equation?” and “What does it mean to be a design citizen?” She points out that, “Even UNESCO can't designate just one City of Design. It requires multiple perspectives to more accurately represent the whole picture.”
Christopher Moore, Luce’s co-framer, sees the group contributing to a long term project to about how the Cities of Design around the world relate. “I want to bring many people from several viewpoints together to understand my research into the larger study of the UNESCO City of Design…” he explains.
The City of Design designation is the central theme of all our research interests. Luce further explains how the group is coalescing, “…each researcher's work contributes to the larger picture of the design city. The kaleidoscopic research effect can produce a variety of finished forms that we can share with larger, more diverse audiences than we ever imagined.”
I find it inspiring to be in Montréal where a bounty of meaningful design is sustained by supportive infrastructure. In the last few years I’ve lived in smaller places with little public evidence of design thinking. I believe that is the reality for many communities in Canada. In that context, cultural planning initiatives such as a Creative Cities designation can produce tangible social results.
Within cultural planning economic development is typically a parallel goal to help creative industries grow. There are places where this is an asset because it allows artists and designers to practice in the places they live in. Williams Lake, BC collects a small percentage of tax dollars for a ‘Central Cariboo Arts and Culture Function’, the city is using the money to create an artist run centre. In other communities cultural tourism is an alternative to economic development through exploitive resource development.
It’s a struggle to create these systems of support from the ground up. Serious designers relocate to the largest cities to have a viable practice. Do these cultural migrations make the City of Design an example of the culturally ‘rich’ getting ‘richer’? What would happen if the same kind of global recognition was given to Dawson City, a town of 1300 people and home to a the Klondike Institute of Art and Culture, the Berton House Writers’ Retreat, several live music venues, art galleries and an international short film festival?
Montréal has experienced decades of change including economic downturns, a mass exodus and cultural hegemony along with periods of unrestrained exuberance. The latter is evident as our group travels by Métro to Ile Ste-Hélène to visit Buckminster Fuller’s contribution to Expo 67. Biosphére is a spacey geodesic dome-shaped museum dedicated to the environment. 23 opinionated designers are hushed while gazing up at the lattice-work of the perfect half sphere. It hovers above us like a parked planet.
Outside the museum is a demonstration house with a living wall and a ZENN car displayed outside. ZENN is an acronym for – Zero Emissions No Noise. Manufactured in Saint-Jérôme, Quebec (40 kms away). The ZENN is the only car made in Canada. Check out Rick Mercer’s ZENN bit
Most of the group heads off to visit 1976 Olympic stadium. There is a sports illustrator in the group Tim Vyner who is sharing his interest in art and large athletic events. His prolific renderings capture moments of time etched into millions of memories.
Five of us splinter off for a BIXI ride. Our single file expedition pedals breezily across the Pont de la Concorde. We are modern day voyageurs looking to trade insights for sight-seeing. We sail past Moshe Safdie’s Habitat '67, riding beside the rolling river until we hug the Lachine canal. Sweaty, spandexed commuters pass us intently focused on the clearly marked bike trail. We turn into the heart of the city. Our small procession weaves along Boulevard de Maisonneuve during rush our traffic.
As we follow the line of slow moving cars we pass several BIXI docking stations where users can return bikes. Each station is marked by a solar panel mounted on a slim pole – this powers the tracking devices in the bikes. Residents can check the number of bikes at each station online. I notice the docking stations are missing the maps that are usually mounted in a large frame at every station. The blank signs yawn at me like an unblinking eye.
BIXI (‘BIke taXI*) is a system designed by Montréaler Michel Dallaire. It fulfills many of the defining points of the City of Design: it utilizes the built environment and shows how local designers can take advantage of urban conditions (from April to November). The BIXI system has become a key component of the City of Montréal’s Transportation Plan and Sustainable Development Plan 2010-2015 which includes actions like; Reduce automobile dependency; Calm traffic; and Help Montréal businesses adopt best practices for sustainable development.
We drop off our bikes at one of these map-less docking stations and plunk on a patio to try regional beers with Christine Zoltok, a designer with Communauto a local car sharing organization.
Zoltok explains Communauto’s alternative transportation philosophy, “One of the major concepts we promote here is the "transport cocktail" as a transportation solution - that is, a mixture of alternative transportation methods that include public transport, biking, train, carsharing, ridesharing and walking. So all of the players try to work together to cross promote our respective transport systems, and to get people using them together.” I think the ability to design systems to reduce dependency on liquid hydro-carbon fuels is a trait of the sustainable design city.
Later that night I claim a towering roll of paper left in the recycling bin and spread it on the floor of my room. In block printing I carefully write out one of the cycling stories I’ve been collecting from DI participants and trim the poster to about the size of the sign holders mounted on BIXI docking stations.
By the time I hit rue Ste-Catherine it’s 3am. My heart races as I walk along the street still noisy with traffic and stop at the BIXI docking station at rue Guy. Swiftly, I peel the backing off the double-sided tape I’ve fixed to the back of my sign. With an expansive sweep of my hand I flatten it to the blank sign frame watching over the docking station. I step back and admire the soundbyte of Josh’s cycle story and my hand-made lettering:
“I remember we used to play dodge ball on our bikes. I remember getting an old plank of wood we used to have in the yard. I took it an tied it to the top tube with rope and figured if I rode fast enough I would take off like and airplane.”
I take a photo. My breath returns to normal and I head back towards the residence.
It’s my way of connecting adult riders to the pleasure of riding a bike, instead of hammering out active transportation messages with policy recommendations, pollution analysis, asthma statistics and spouting the brutal politics of fuel extraction.
Research about climate protection through behaviour change repeatedly finds that people do not change out of guilt or fear. For example, those who take action to conserve energy generally do so for reasons unconnected to the environment (e.g., to save money). Armed with that knowledge I am playing with the emotional response to childhood joys.
This advertising campaign is small but heart-felt. After an afternoon of pedaling around Montréal and learning about its sustainable transportation systems I’m coasting on the possibilities of the Sustainable City of Design.