Business Brief: What Jacksonville Urban Planners Could Learn From Montreal

Jun 12, 2017

Light murals are used to revitalize Montreal's historic district.
Credit Ennis Davis / Modern Cities

Jacksonville might have a few things to learn about revitalizing its downtown from one northern city with similar characteristics: Montreal.

Modern Cities co-founder Ennis Davis saw several ideas in action on his recent trip there.


Davis attended the annual Vanguard conference put on by the nonprofit Next City. Every year, the group brings together young professionals to learn about city planning by walking the streets of a new city.

Revitalizing the Waterfront

Like Jacksonville, Montreal has a waterfront that was historically largely industrial. Today, it’s embracing that past by integrating industrial structures into mixed-use planning, as well as embracing cultural activities and the use of green spaces.

Davis sees Jacksonville’s proposed Shipyards project as following that same concept.

Montreal is looking for new uses for vacant buildings along the waterfront.
Credit Ennis Davis / Modern Cities

Bringing the Historic Back to Life

The historic part of town, Old Montreal, was largely vacant on nights and weekends as recently as five years ago. Davis says he was struck by the use of lighting to bring life to old buildings, including churches and warehouses. Uplighting, laser light shows and light murals are all making the area feel more welcoming and becoming attractions of their own.

Davis says in Jacksonville, Council President Lori Boyer is working on a plan to integrate more lighting with the American Institute of Architects.

Shared Economy

He says the most striking difference between the two cities is how much Montreal has embraced the shared economy. By that, he means finding more uses for a building or space that’s only used for its primary purpose part of the time.

An example: While he was in Montreal, he stayed at a college dorm that had been converted during the summer into a hotel, with accommodations nicer than a typical hostel.

Inexpensive Place Making

People use swings on a median in Montreal.
Credit Ennis Davis / Modern Cities

Davis also saw some examples of taking a space that urban planners would consider “dead space” and turning it into an active one. One that really caught his attention was adding swing sets to a grass median.

“It was actually pretty amazing to see office workers during their lunch breaks cross a four-lane highway into the median and hop on a set of swings and swing their stress away,” he said.

Consolidation and Reversal

Like Jacksonville, Montreal went through a consolidation to incorporate the surrounding suburbs, although Montreal’s happened much more recently: the early 2000s. After a few years, residents from the outskirts complained they didn’t have proper representation in city government, and the consolidated government was disbanded into in 15 different municipalities.

“It’s just an example of, if you make a mistake, go ahead and admit it, change and move on to make your community a better place,” Davis said.

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Jessica Palombo can be reached at 904-358-6315, jpalombo@wjct.org or on Twitter at @JessicaPubRadio.