The Quartier des spectacles in Montréal is a good example of a public-private partnership delivering communal good. By building on local heritage, the development has:
- Provided a vibrant contemporary cultural offer
- Made cultural activities accessible through free public programming
- Created a new, expressive and inclusive heart of the city.
The Quartier des spectacles in downtown Montréal is an area of the city where, by an act of policy making and public-private-civic enterprise, cultural and creative activities have been purposely nurtured. Today, the Quartier has 80 cultural venues, 40 festivals, 30 performance venues, and is home to 450 cultural businesses and organisations providing more than 7,000 culture-related jobs. A significant amount of free public programming attracts more locals and visitors to the Quartier. The vision for the area has also maintained a mix of cultural and business constituents, residents and students.
The development programme and the ongoing maintenance of the district have been managed by a non-profit organisation called the Quartier des spectacles Partnership, set up by the municipal government. The Partnership has approximately 65 members drawn from the community, including venue owners, cultural organisations, merchants’ associations, major institutions, citizens’ groups, as well as the Ville de Montréal. Since 2003 the Partnership’s regeneration strategies have encompassed urban design, cultural activity and programming, and place branding to turn the Quartier into a prime destination. Involving the whole community in this way has helped the Quartier programme focus on local needs, and build on existing strengths.
Essentially the Quartier des spectacles builds on a 100-year history of culture and entertainment in this part of the city. Theatres and educational institutions started appearing in the area in the late 1800s. Cinemas followed in the early 20th century. From the 1920s to the early 1960s, the neighbourhood became home to an impressive number of cabarets that headlined famous artists. Montréal garnered a reputation as a fun-loving city, and tourists started to arrive in great numbers. Prohibition in the United States (1920-1933) increased Montréal’s popularity, but also created conditions that led to the growth of organised crime, prostitution and illegal gaming houses. The neighbourhood soon became known as Montréal’s Red Light district.
By the 1960s more mainstream cultural forms began to return, and new developments such as Place des Arts (1963) attracted both greater numbers of people and commercial activity. Although it experienced a decline in the 1970s and 80s, with the first Montréal International Jazz Festival in 1980, the district’s reputation for outdoor concerts began; the downtown area’s natural vibrancy and generous underused space, including many vacant lots, have encouraged the proliferation of festivals ever since. Important cultural events became one of the Quartier’s driving forces and one of the city’s leading attractions for tourists and locals alike.
So in 2002, a more deliberate approach to planning for the area was instigated during the Montréal Summit (aimed at developing a shared vision of the city’s future). Several big players in the city’s cultural scene joined forces to consider what could be done to bring new vitality to their sector. They proposed creating an entertainment district – what is now the Quartier des spectacles. The goal was not to create an entire neighbourhood from scratch, but to give an existing district a name, to showcase its cultural distinctiveness and develop a permanent infrastructure for outdoor events. After much deliberation, the municipal, provincial and federal governments committed to funding construction work in the Place des Arts area – a large public space in the Quartier, focusing on the creation of new public spaces equipped for permanent use as outdoor performing-arts venues. The Partnership then gained its city mandate to promote the destination, and to manage and programme its public spaces.
A shared vision, agreed early on by all stakeholders remains key to the Quartier’s success. The Partnership’s guiding principles include the importance of maintaining mixed use in the area, of nurturing those individuals and businesses who create and originate, of improving and enlivening public space, and enabling easy movement between spaces, of integrating art into the public realm, and developing a strong brand and image for the Quartier.
The vision has been implemented through a mix of urban planning and design, which is largely sensitive to site history and builds on the existing urban fabric; through the development of new cultural venues and activities; and through the deliberate design of an identity for the Quartier – for instance, in lighting, urban design, web design and signage.
The Quartier des spectacles project has generated many benefits. This part of downtown Montréal has been completely transformed and is now recognised as an attractive all-seasons destination. Intended first and foremost for Montrealers, the area has seen increased use by locals and is as inclusive as possible. Working with social organisations, a workforce reintegration programme reaches homeless people. The Place des Festivals, created with festivals and residents’ everyday use in mind, has become the city’s leading public square, recognised by Montrealers as the place to gather and express themselves, regardless of the occasion. Greater use of all public spaces in the Quartier has increased the sense of safety. Moreover, a programme of free cultural activities in the Quartier’s public spaces helps democratise the arts and culture and improves Montrealers’ general quality of life.