Rethinking the City: The L’Ensemble Project Studies New Urban Planning Solutions
Addressing the issue of urban planning in the territory, the L’Ensemble project, led by the architect Alexandre Landry, winner of the winter 2021 cohort of the Civic Incubator, explores solidarity-based urban densification scenarios.
Broadening a discipline’s field of intervention
How is a social innovation project thought up? Sometimes, it takes just a conversation, an attraction, or an experience to provoke a desire to take action. In Alexander’s case, his participation in the Rural Studio at Auburn University was the spark. As an architecture student, he designed and built residential projects in a rural area of Alabama where there is little access to homeownership and decent, affordable housing. He had the idea of putting his discipline, architecture, to the service of a socio-environmental cause and thus broaden the application of his practice, usually reserved for a wealthy clientele.
To respond to the mission he had taken on of making architecture accessible to a greater number of people, he created his own business. Establishing his office in the premises of Young Project — a transitional urban planning pilot project located in a vacant building in the Griffintown neighbourhood until January 2020 — Alexandre got to know the MIS team, which was another occupant of the building.
“I saw a group meeting regularly in the large meeting room and working hard on exciting subjects. I later learned that these were Civic Incubator workshops. When I learned about the program offered by MIS, it inspired me make an idea happen that I’d been thinking about for some time.” — Alexandre
Photo credit: Jérôme Guibord
How can we live together better in cities?
Although he already has projects with a positive social and environmental impact to his credit, Alexandre is still concerned with the evolution of Montréal’s urban territory. In the city’s central neighbourhoods, it is increasingly difficult to find housing at a reason-able cost, and people are deciding to move to peripheral, more affordable areas, and therefore to expand the area of the urban zone. Such urban sprawl has environmental, social, and economic repercussions. It leads to higher dependence on automobiles, be-cause getting around involves greater distances and more time. The result is more traffic jams, more greenhouse-gas emissions, and higher transportation costs. At the same time, the population in central neighbourhoods grows less diverse, reducing the vitality and charm of urban life.
An entire ecosystem composed of private and public organizations is already in place and doing its best to counteract these issues. Yet, the result is mainly large, high-density projects for which there are few parcels of land available, spurring competition with traditional real estate investment companies.
Alexandre imagined a different architectural approach to housing accessibility. One solution would be to densify central neighbourhoods by constructing new housing units on portions of privately owned properties that are not being used to their full potential, keeping them affordable by partnering with a solidarity-based real estate developer. It was a bold challenge – one that he intended to meet through his L’Ensemble project and with the support of the Civic Incubator. He applied when there was a call for projects, but his project wasn’t selected:
“The idea was there, but there were too many blind spots in the form that I came up with, especially when it came to the regulatory framework. The jury identified these and gave me advice so I could get a better handle on this component of the project. It motivated me to do more work on my solution, and my application to join the winter 2021 cohort was accepted!” — Alexandre
From Vision to Experiment
Alexandre began the guidance journey with a long-term vision for his project: collective participation by architects in which L’Ensemble would be positioned as a residential architecture innovation laboratory.
Unlike large-scale rehabilitation projects that do things like transform former industrial complexes, L’Ensemble decided to concentrate on small parcels, roofs, or alleys – in short, unused space that isn’t targeted by traditional real estate investment because of its irregular shape, size, or siting within a plot of land, but that could be made available for construction.
Given this intention, how could a version of the project be conceived in a framework that could lead to a concrete experiment? As the ideas came together, an essential step was to decomplexify the project, then to identify the fields in which to work, sometimes in parallel, to advance things.
“L’Ensemble involves specialized sectors such as financing and regulation, as well as architecture. Bringing these components to the project was a major challenge. Thanks to guidance from MIS, I realized that I had to turn to existing organizations and not re-create them within the structure of L’Ensemble. So, the project evolved to take an intermediary position linking the actors in the ecosystem and initiating partnerships.” — Alexandre
Contacts have already been established with solidarity-based real estate companies, technical resource groups, community organizations, the Ville de Montréal, and other Québec municipalities.
These discussions with various entities and the land-validation process initiated during his time with the Civic Incubator led Alexandre to the Rosemont district. This neighbourhood, which he knew well as he had grown up there, offered potential for new ideas and was open to adapting the municipal regulations as needed to deploy original initiatives. Such concepts, already being studied by L’Ensemble, include evolving cohabitats, micro-duplexes, urban “plug-ins,” and other hybrid architectural types. These approaches will make it possible to revisit non-residential occupied spaces and add an element intended for habitation.
“As a guest professor in the school of architecture at the Université de Montréal, I had an opportunity to develop the architectural aspect of the project with third-year students. The subject was really inspiring for them, and the results are fascinating. Notably, we identified an approach with high potential that could be deployed in 2022 on the Island of Montréal and beyond.” — Alexandre
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