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2006 01 13
Free Mountain
image
photo by Nika Vee

by Hugh McGuire

In the mid 1840s, Sir James Alexander proposed that Mount Royal should be turned into a park, and twenty-five years later, 1869, the City of Montreal amended its charter to approve a $350,000 loan to purchase the land. At the time Montreal, population 112,000, was confined to ten city blocks by the river, and many city councilors argued that the Park was too far from the border of the city to be useful. But Mayor Aldis Bernard pushed for the project (as well as Ile St-Helene, and Parc Lafontaine), and the land was purchased, with a final bill of $1 million, an extraordinarily hefty sum for the time.

The park wasn't inaugurated until 1876, by which time the city had expanded significantly. A few decades later, the park was surrounded by houses and development: if the city had waited, the land would have been too expensive to buy. If Montreal had waited, Mount Royal would be a condo development, and not a park.

Yet the value of the Park, however you want to define the word value, is incalculable. The value to ordinary citizens, the values of properties near the park, the value to the city as a tourist draw, as a hallmark of world-class status. If you could quantify the economic returns from the park, I'm certain you would find it had paid for itself many times over. And if you just measured its value as benefit to the people of the city, that million bucks would be a trivial steal.

We are currently at a turning point in the history of human knowledge, and clear battle lines have been drawn. On one side (let's call it EVIL) you have those who think information should be controlled and parceled out based on various criteria: money, for instance, and the ability to pass entrance exams at certain universities. On the other side (we'll call this side GOOD), you have the people who think information should be available to anyone who wants it: the wikipedians, the audiobook makers (disclosure: I am one) and their text-based ancestors, the creative commoners, and the free software crusaders who did much of the philosophical and legal thinking behind this exploding movement of internet do-gooders.

Web2.0 is one of those marketing-phrases that doesn't mean all that much, and annoys those who have been citizens of the net - not just consumers, but creators - for years. But fundamental things have changed: everything got easy, everything got free, bandwidth all of a sudden got cheap, and kind folks made hosting space available for those who wanted to give their content away. All of a sudden we have blogs, and wikis, podcasts, vidcasts, and scanned books. We have universities committing to put everything online; we have scientists dedicated to explaining complicated issues properly, in public; we have communities writing text books; academic journals opening themselves up to the world. Among thousands if not millions of other wonderful projects.

What had been the internet mall (or you could call it Web1.0) was opened up to the people, and they said: we want a vibrant city (Web2.0). And this isn't just about the internet, it's about all the sources of information you might imagine. It's about Universal Access to All Human Knowledge. We're just starting to see what this new city might look like, but certainly it will be a vibrant place, because, so far anyway, it's got a big park in the middle of it. And the value that creates - economic or otherwise - will be, like Mount Royal, incalculable.

Yet there are forces pushing in the other direction. Forces who wish to influence our governments away from letting the internet be a park, and a market, and a sidewalk, and a home, and everything else a vibrant city is. There are forces who want to keep it as a mall.

London and Paris, Rome, Hong Kong, Sydney Australia, New York, and certainly Montreal, offer a mix of commerce, food, art, parks, public space, business, transport, relaxation, all in one place. The components of one add to the others, and make an integrated whole. Each of those cities has its own particularities (the pubs and pin-stripes of London, the Bistros and buildings of Paris, the cafes and churches of Rome, the butchers and chaos of Hong Kong, the taxis and galleries of New York, the terasses and staircases of Montreal). But all these cities give the sense that life is happpening, before your eyes, that you are in the midst of a place alive. Either by design or history, life is encouraged to happen in public.

In his book, The City After the Automobile, Moishe Safdie writes at length about Le Corbusier and other architects of the 20th century city, who laid the foundations for our lifeless, particularly North American cities, designed for cars, not people; arranged around unusable and unused public space, parking lots, highways, and commerce; the desire to close the formerly public within private walls; and the separation of the different bits of life into their component parts. That is, confine big commerce within malls (with no natural light to distort things!), with few controllable entrances, and no life to speak of outside; keep the schools over there and the churches over here, the business parks isolated, and the housing developments somewhere else altogether. And certainly no small shops anywhere near where people live.

In other words, among other things, the design of these cities took all the component bits of life, separated them, removed the "need" for public space, and sterilized everything, killed everything. The result everyone knows: cities no one likes, but which provide relatively large yards.

Public Space, and Public Domain improve life for everyone -- even the rich who can afford to finance their own versions of life as they wish it. This is why vibrant immigrant neighbourhoods (such as Montreal's Mile End) attract artists and students, and subsequently the rich. People like to live in places where life is happening. And life happens where there is public space for all the elements of life to intersect. New York's East Village, for instance, is an astounding place (increasingly less-so, it's being mallified slowly), and nothing is more wonderful than the those spaces squeezed between two tenement buildings that have been transformed into tiny community gardens, some of which have become the home to chickens! In downtown Manhattan.

The planners of Montreal were smart enough to buy Mount Royal when they still could. It was a fantastic amount of money at the time, yet Montreal is unimaginable without Mount Royal - just as New York is unimaginable without Central Park. These public spaces are the foundations on which the wealth of these cities is built. Today, we all need to be vigilant with ourselves, our politicians, our governments, and those who "own" the infrastructure the internet runs on, to make sure it stays a vibrant city, and does not get twisted from our hands again and turned into strip mall.
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