14.11.2019 –


Repurposing the City

Exhibitions such as CCA’s Actions: What Can You Do with The City? from 20081 demonstrated that citizen-led movements often bypass traditional, top-down design focused on flashy and complex urban projects like roof tops and greenhouses, which are more costly and harder to implement than grassroots actions. Around the globe, small cumulative actions can and are creating parallel and livable cities within cities, which are around the corner to be discovered. We can learn a lot from them.

For example, in the last decade and a half, Montreal has gone through a green revolution. The ruelles vertes (green lanes) of Montreal are particular to the city. Starting about 15 years ago as a modest citizen effort in a couple of neighbourhoods, the initiative has gradually spread and seen rapid growth especially in the last five years. By 2018, there were 346 officially designated ruelles vertes. By the end of 2019, there should be more than 440 interventions, with approximately 100 kilometres of laneways turned green. Chicago, Los Angeles, Vancouver, Washington, just to name a few, all have laneways and have initiated green lane initiatives of their own.2

Crucially, economics has not been the sole driver of contemporary urban transformations such as ruelles vertes and the growth of urban agriculture, as was the case with the community garden movement. This grassroots change in attitude is prompted by several considerations: people are concerned about and want to prevent climate change; citizens want to enhance the quality of urban life, and are increasingly aware about the power of community-based actions; and growing public worry about the source and quality of the foods we consume, to name only a few.

The green lanes analogy

To begin to address climate change, and to counter specific urban phenomena like heat island effects, we should consider generic, ubiquitous, and repeatable points of departure for urban transformations—like laneways. Abandoned public infrastructures and private projects, transitional spaces and buildings, and vacant lands are all worth considering.3 Democratic re-appropriation of the public domain is an exemplary mechanism for urban transformation and repurposing. It can be adapted to any public space in the city. It represents an affordable, modest, and realistic model for assuming ownership of diverse plots of land and various types of projects, not only laneways. In Toronto and in several American cities, a group of citizens can identify a vacant space for a community garden and obtain permission to use it by describing the size, present use, history, access to water, sun, site plans (one plan of the site in its current state, and one of the envisioned project), and the impact on the neighbourhood. Since 2016 in Vancouver, laneways, broadly under-utilized as public spaces, are being reimagined as "people-places."4

Using ruelles vertes as an analog, a guide, and an inspiration, the 25th CCA Interuniversity Charrette challenges young designers to identify a generic space, in Montreal or in their own city, to repurpose and demonstrate the location’s potential for rapid and cheap collective appropriation.


2 According to Simon Octeau, former Director of the Regroupement des éco-quartiers, the umbrella group for the city-sponsored environmental neighbourhood organizations which mediate community initiated and City supported greening activities, the ruelles vertes movement places Montreal on the map of world’s top cities for green laneways.

3 The method of establishing green lanes is well described in the Regroupement des éco-quartiers guide entitled Les programmes locaux d’implantation de ruelles vertes à montréal.


Further Reading

G. Borasi and M. Zardini (2008). Actions: What You Can Do with the City. Canadian Center for Architecture, Sun.

Dehaene, M. (2018). « Horizontal metropolis: Issues and challenges of a new urban ecology ». In P. Viganò, C. Cavalieri, & M. Barcelloni Corte (Eds.), The Horizontal Metropolis Between Urbanism and Urbanization (pp. 269-281). Cham (Switzerland): Springer.

Doron, G. M. (2008). « '…those marvelous empty zones at the edge of cities' : Heterotopia and the 'dead zone' » . In M. Dehaene & L. de Cauter (Eds.), Heterotopia and the City : Public Space in a Postcivil Society (pp. 202-213). London: Routledge.

Freehill-Maye, L. (2016), « Montreal’s green alleyways take visitors backstage », The New York Times, October 27

Marotte, B. (2018), « Montreal’s green laneway trend is paved with good intentions », The Globe and Mail, August 3

Rivlin, L. G. (2007). « Found spaces: freedom of choice in public life ». In K. A. Franck & Q. Stevens (Eds.), Loose Space: Diversity and Possibility in Urban Life (pp. 38-53). New York: Routledge.

Regroupement des éco-quartiers (REQ, 2018). « Les programmes locaux d’implantation de ruelles vertes à Montréal », Ville de Montréal and REQ.

To view photos of laneway activations in Vancouver: «Viva Vancouver»

Videos on Montreal’s green lanes can be found at: « Montreal’s green lanes »

Articles in « Éducation relative à l’environnement »

Émilie Hamou
Vikram Bhatt
Eve Lortie-Fournier, Directrice, Regroupement des éco-quartiers, Montréal.

Brigitte Shim, Shim-Sutcliffe Architects
Olivier Lajeunesse-Travers, Microclimat
Fanie St-Michel, Conscience urbaine
Mikael St-Pierre, Écologie urbaine