Montreal Urban Politics Theory. Cities Held Hostage


The urban environment is a complicated system that connects politics, economy, architecture, and society. In-depth knowledge of urban politics is essential for an understanding of how these systems work. The example of Montreal can explain the tendencies of the changes in the big cities around the world. The story told in the documentary Cities Held Hostage reveals the truth about the power and interest relationship between urban politicians and businesses in Montreal since the 1970s. The film presents core urban problems caused by industrialization, uncontrolled investment, and capitalist values. The key position of the film creators is to deliver a message about the harm of the money pursuit for the cities and people who live in them as it is the source of diminishing the identity and history of the city.

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Film Summary

The film Cities Held Hostage is based on Henry Aubin’s investigation City for Sale. The book tells the story of how a pleasant city with its own identity turned into a sprawling metropolis and who is to blame for the transformation. The story started in the 1970s when large development companies came to Montreal with foreign money to build high-rises instead of historical architecture that devastated urban identity. Working as a journalist for Montreal Gazette Aubin initiated the investigation aimed to answer the question ‘Who owns Montreal?’ The research proved complicated as it was hard to find information about the owners of the companies that were mostly located in Europe.

Jean Drapeau was the city’s mayor for more than two decades, and most of the changes happened during his term. According to Aubin, Drapeau was a progressive mayor during the 60-s, who supported modernization, built the subway and fairs. The situation changed in the 70s, following the striking levels of corruption around the Olympics infrastructure. These were the years when Drapeau yielded to the needs of developers having no control over the construction of high-rises, shopping malls, and highways. The turning point of the devastation was the moment when he upzoned all the areas of the city to the 40-story level. Since then, Montreal has completely lost its skyline and identity, becoming a tight and congested metropolis. Although the mayor is responsible for the changes, the answer is also in the way the political system of the city worked then, allowing incontrollable investment and little regulation from the governmental side.

Political Theories of Urban Power

The relationships of power between the actors of urban politics, society, and businesses are the key characteristics that define the course of urban development. Different political theories were used to explain such relationships in different periods in history. According to Stone, there is no correct theory that could be applied to any urban environment as the paradigm constantly shifts affected by socio-political and economic contexts. That is why several approaches should be analyzed to conclude which one explains the Montreal case best. It is impossible to define a single theory that would fit the environment of Montreal of that time, as the urban system had the features of several approaches.

Individualist Political Theories

Individualist theories, such as Community Power or Urban Regime, are the theories that base on the cooperation of different actors who influence the urban environment. Such structures are characterized by the focus on the individual, relatively loose, and multiple links between stakeholders. The approach of Community Power bases on the assumption of diffusion between actors that represent different social groups. Urban Regime theory explains the coordination of private and public sectors that work together to pursue common goals. Growth Coalition occurs when economic growth is the primary aim of different actors who cooperate to achieve it. The owners of big corporations invested in the development of the city, pursuing economic profit and disregarding the needs of local citizens, so these theories cannot be applied in the case of Montreal.

Structuralist Theories and Post-Structuralist Critique

Structuralist political theories have a common feature that implies an understanding of the urban political system as a rigid structure with strict connections. Such paradigms as City Limits, Market as Prison, and Marxism focus on the power of businesses in urban politics. City Limits theory is a strict approach that recognizes the authority of businesses and denies local democracy as a threat to growth. The motivation for such a theory is the primacy of economic competition. Business actors, according to Market as Prison theory, have to play by the rules of market economy regarding the urban environment from the capitalist perspective.

Marxism theory has much in common with the former two as it considers cities as sources of income and spaces for the production of material goods. The advocates of this approach support extensive investment and collective production. It should be mentioned that Montreal was ruled by capitalist values that aimed at maximizing produce for the cost of the people. That is why structuralism explains the events that took place in Montreal in the 70s. Post-structuralists, however, argue that such systems cannot exist as they are too radical to account for the complexity of everyday life and urban reality.

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The situation investigated in Cities Held Hostage can be explained by analyzing political power relationships of that period and finding who ruled the city. The facts presented in the movie suggest that those connections had a mostly structuralist nature. Montreal became more successful economically, but the people had to comply with the discomforts. Although Aubin blames the mayors for the uncontrolled investment that lead to devastation, his perspective is missing in the film. It is not evident whether there were alternatives at that time. Maybe the refusal of the investment would lead to economic failure and poverty. Although the effect of massive development on the urban environment is negative, it led to an increase in the economy.

Work Cited

Stone, Clarence N. “Trends in the Study of Urban Politics.” Urban Affairs Review, vol. 53, no. 1, 2016, pp. 3-39.

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