Citywatch: Quebec City uses food as pioneer species of urban revival

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By Wayne Roberts

Citywatch: Whether it’s action or traction in the food world, cities are stepping up to the plate. The world is fast going urban, as are challenges of social, economic and environmental well-being. Citywatch is crucial to Worldwatch. Wayne Roberts, retired manager of the world-renowned Toronto Food Policy Council, has his eye out for the future of food in the city. 

By sheer luck, our family stumbled on a little-known urban success story while looking for a place to crash in Quebec City that offered direct access to the throughway to northern Quebec, where our daughter was going to learn French.

Photo credit: www.wayneroberts.ca

Right next to Quebec City’s famous central core, preserved as a walled monument of an old world French fortress city of the 1700s, the past snuggles up to the future arising from the former slums of the Saint Roch quarter below the hilled fortress, where generations of factory workers lived until their industries crashed during the 1980s and ‘90s.

I’ve long felt that Quebec deserves to be known as one of the world’s best examples of an oppressed minority – commonly referred to as “pepsi’s” and “French Niggers of North America” as recently as the 1960s – who’ve made it economically while enriching their traditional culture and distinctive identity. My chance overnight stay gave me a glimpse of the secret formula behind this success. Ironically, it’s very close to the strategy proposed in Jeb Brugmannn’s recent book, Welcome to the Urban Revolution, arguably one of the most important studies of city possibilities since Jane Jacobs.

Those running as or voting for candidates in municipal elections across Ontario this fall might want to consider ways of translating Quebec’s success here.

Dog-tired and worried about the high cost of rooms in the height of Quebec’s summer tourism, we dragged ourselves into the reception area of a hotel called L’Autre Jardin Auberge, the Other Garden Inn. The first thing we saw was a wooden sculpture from Africa. The second thing we saw was a fair trade gift store, Boutique EquiMonde. Then we saw a sign describing the place as Quebec’s first “social economy” hotel. The hotel, launched in 1996, is the money-making arm of a Quebec charity, Carrefour Tiers-Monde (Third World Meeting Place), devoted to education for children’s rights and international solidarity and to the economic revival of the surrounding neighborhood.

All 28 rooms boasted fair trade towels and rugs, eco-certified writing pads, and nighttime reading booklets on sustainable tourism and responsible shopping. The breakfast nook featured organic and fair trade foods. We knew that at least we would sleep and rise with a clear conscience.

Our early morning walk showed we were in the midst of more than a socially conscious rooming district.

The other garden referred to in the hotel’s name was a block away, where a campus of the University of Quebec abutted the commercial district, serving as a meeting place where students, a few homeless people and other wanderers could share a quiet and green space dominated by a tiny waterfall. This was the project that launched the renewal of this down-on-the-heels district in 1992.

I’ve always had a soft spot for Quebec’s vie en rose approach to life, but where else in North America would we see an urban renewal project inspired by a public garden, la ville en rose, I asked myself.

With one notable set of exceptions, the nearby shopping area along St Joseph Street features the usual suspects of areas undergoing gentrification. Cultural creatives from across North America would be comfortable here. There are artisanal brew pubs and ice cream shops, intimate coffee shops and restaurants repurposed from unlikely storefronts (one was a former garage), one-of-a-kind furniture and gift stores, an artist co-op, art school and bike store.

Food specialty shops are the city equivalent of the pioneer species that burst forth after an area has been ravaged by a forest fire. But very quickly, signs crop up that this is more than a unique shopping experience based on the delightfully spontaneous jumble of cultural creative-and counter culture-inspired hangouts.

A huge church, as was standard in Old Quebec, is at the centre of the street scene. Nearby is a public library that shares a section of the street with a low-end eatery, a budget hotel, regional headquarters for a credit union and trade union. A block away is a provincial office of the ministry of tourism and a large Mountain Equipment Co-op store. Since 2000, the entire street has been pedestrianized, given over to those who jaunt through neighborhood at a walker’s pace.

Almost all the housing in the area comes from Quebec’s iconic balconied triplexes, a mainstay of dense and affordable communities. A typical triplex has one floor for the, who pays a major portion of the mortgage with rental from two triplex tenants, thereby allowing working people to afford to buy handymen’s specials while providing tenants with low rents.

What we see here is a distinctive culture of collaboration, not just a distinctive language group. In Quebec, which has pulled itself up by the bootstraps, people from many walks of life and all levels of government have learned to work together. In French, it’s called “concertation.” It doesn’t cost more. It’s about leverage from partnerships, not money.

With concertation, all assets of a society are put together to see what kind of whole will emerge that is bigger than the parts. What if unions and co-ops — including the mighty Desjardins Credit Union, with over $150 billion in assets and some$60 million a year donated to community projects – join up with libraries, tourism offices, and city planners to see what a strategy could do for a city? The staff alone from these offices can keep a score of restaurants alive, for example. And the social economy-private economy-public sector economy-informal economy mix provides the ten destinations necessary for any up-and-coming hopping public space, according to the New York-based Project for Public Spaces.

Quebec’s traditions lend themselves to what urban expert Jeb Brugmann calls the Strategic City. It’s the antidote to the “crisis city,” torn apart by a two-way conflict that destroys both sides. It’s also the counterpoint to the “opportunity city,” where a jumble of creatives can’t break through to win support from political or economic power brokers. Brugmann, who lives in Toronto, doesn’t miss the chance to describe his adopted as the epitome of an opportunity city.

By contrast, this Quebec City project fits Brugmann’s code to a T. “When mutually supportive activities are located in proximity,” he writes, “their concentration has a further synergistic effect.” He argues that “one of the most basic and least practiced arts of city building today is the creative use of density –proximity and concentration – in the city’s built form.”

Maybe one municipal candidate will learn this language.

To purchase State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet please click HERE. And to watch the one minute book trailer, click HERE.

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