Cities, Climate, Inequalities

Climate change adaptation and urban experimentation in Montreal: Progress and blind spots

November 2022

Hélène Madénian, doctoral student in urban studies, INRS
Sophie L. Van Neste, professor, urban studies, INRS
Geneviève Cloutier, professor, École supérieure d’aménagement du territoire et de développement régional (ESAD), Université Laval
Émilie Houde-Tremblay, doctoral student in land use planning and regional development, Université Laval


Cities are multiplying their initiatives to become resilient to climate change. Yet according to some authors, this new “climate urbanism,” which works toward reducing carbon footprints and securing infrastructure considered essential, nevertheless exacerbates social inequalities (Hodson and Marvin, 2010; Hughes, 2015; Long and Rice, 2019, 2021). Cities are also caught within the paradigm of urban growth and development. Several writings show that municipalities may privilege adaptation measures that align with a certain growth agenda, at the expense of considering their impacts on social and environmental inequalities, particularly for populations living in or near neighbourhoods and infrastructures undergoing transformation (Anguelovski et al., 2016; Long and Rice, 2019).

As part of Labo Climat Montréal, our team was able to study the trend towards climate urbanism in the context of a “living lab,” where challenges are addressed with an approach of co-creation and experimentation. The aim of Labo Climat was to understand the practices and issues linked to the major urban project process in Montreal, in order to generate and document learning on and innovation in the integration of climate change adaptation. The case studied is that of the Lachine-Est sector, a 64-hectare industrial wasteland whose redevelopment is currently being planned by the City of Montréal.

By adopting a critical perspective on resilience, we aim to demonstrate the value of understanding the subjectivities of the actors involved in a planning project in order to advance adaptation to climate change in urban environments. On the one hand, living labs represent opportunities for advancing climate action by directly involving specialists and other stakeholders from the territory in exchanges beyond the usual silos and procedures. On the other hand, such projects of urban experimentation can exacerbate inequalities by having to submit to the expectations placed on them, which we address below.

Literature review

After decades of development aimed at sustainable urbanism, cities’ policies today increasingly focus on climate change with the particular approach that Long and Rice (2019) have dubbed “climate urbanism.” According to their findings (2019), this urbanism is marked by the neoliberal context it operates in and its emphasis on cities’ economic development, through which their  carbon footprint and resilience become associated. In other words, resilience means reducing the vulnerability of urban services considered strategic to climatic hazards as a way to ensure urban competitiveness and attractiveness. But, according to the authors, this also has the effect of perpetuating or aggravating social inequalities and vulnerabilities to climate change.

Numerous authors criticize how this discourse of resilience is presented as a win-win solution while failing to address, or underestimating, the implications and trade-offs involved. It is often difficult to say who or what benefits from resilience (Meerow and Newell, 2016). In terms of social equity, Meerow et al. (2019) point out that resilience plans have enabled some cities to improve distributive equity but not recognition equity or procedural equity. Injustices may arise from adaptation measures due to voluntary acts (e.g., displacing poor populations from cities to protect infrastructure) or acts of omission (e.g., indirectly prioritizing elites) (Anguelovski et al., 2016). Also, this discourse fails to address issues of social justice and environmental justice, which may be exacerbated by the reinforcement of urban segregation, social hierarchies, racial inequalities and “green privilege” (Anguelovski et al., 2018; Meerow and Newell, 2016).

Other authors question the portrait of a homogeneous climate urbanism. Robin and Broto (2021), for example, recommend paying attention to the motivations and experiences of the people and organizations involved in a diversity of contexts and situations. Indeed, the intentions and practices of climate entrepreneurs at the municipal and civil society levels are guided by how they understand their opportunities and constraints in everyday urban politics (Aylett, 2015; Zografos et al., 2020). Nightingale (2017) highlights the importance of considering how climate change adaptation is defined and operationalized within pre-existing political contexts, which differ from place to place.

A new way for cities to take action on climate and transition issues is to set up urban experiments; in other words, pilot projects that enable learning by doing (Bulkeley and Broto, 2013; Huitema et al., 2018; Karvonen and Heur, 2014). Faced with the uncertainties and ambiguities raised by climate change (Sengers et al., 2019), these experiments offer cities the opportunity to test different approaches on a given territory (Evans et al., 2016; Turnheim et al., 2018). They also respond to a desire to establish new ways of collaborating between members of the scientific community, the political class and the population (Evans, 2011). Urban experiments are also popular for fostering co-production in public policy, whereby they attempt to solve complex political challenges through citizen collaboration (Nesti, 2017). Since 2006, there has been a proliferation of living labs, first in Europe, then in North America (Veeckman et al., 2013). These research incubators offer collaborative frameworks centered on the user (Westerlund et al., 2018) where the aim is to stimulate technical, technological, governmental and societal innovation (Dandurand et al., 2014). The creativity and empathy of participants are encouraged, often through workshops, using design thinking approaches (Wrigley and Straker, 2016). According to Marvin et al. (2018, abstract), living labs are “sites devised to design, test and learn from social and technical innovation in real time.” They thus represent an opportunity to set up action research projects that privilege exchanges between the academic world and the world of practice in an attempt to stimulate innovation and mutual learning.

The literature on urban climate experiments highlights two processes that incentivize the design of such experiments but may also constrain their scope. First, they make climate governable, insofar as the state seeks to integrate them into its instruments and procedures, whereby the climate becomes more tangible but also more technical at the same time (Bulkeley et al., 2014; Li, 2007). However, this approach can complicate the inclusion of certain voices and perspectives, notably those of the most disadvantaged segments of the population (Meerow, 2020). Second, these experiments, presented as convincing and attractive projects, can make it more difficult for stakeholders to remain open to criticism and to develop a transformational adaptation approach that disrupts ways of doing things.

Despite the challenges and ambiguities of urban experimentation, these spaces offer an opportunity to understand how climate policies are developed and how climate urbanism manifests itself.

Cases, methods and data from the original research

Labo Climat Montréal was both a research project and a living lab, carried out in partnership between the City of Montréal and Ouranos. It was composed of an inter-university team of seven researchers and nine interns at the crossroads of urban planning, social sciences and climate change adaptation. The project, which ran from May 2019 to October 2020, aimed to increase the integration of climate change adaptation into the development and implementation processes of urban projects in Montreal. Specific objectives were to measure and stimulate coordination between stakeholders, expertise in climate change adaptation in an urban project context, and explanation of adaptation choices.

The case study concerns the Lachine-Est sector, a 64-hectare brownfield site whose redevelopment is currently being planned by the City of Montréal (Figure 1). As part of this project, the team: 1) analyzed over 100 city and borough documents, documentation on the planning history of the Lachine-Est sector and the governance framework since 2004, as well as briefs submitted to the Office de consultation publique de Montréal (OCPM); 2) conducted 26 interviews with professional staff, civil society (groups mobilized around environmental and social issues in Lachine-Est), elected officials and borough senior management; 3) attended and participated in committee meetings and mandated follow-ups; and 4) organized three living lab-type workshops with staff from the City of Montréal and the borough of Lachine as well as members from civil society.

Labo Climat Montréal also took part in some of the meetings of the coordinating committee of the shared project office (Bureau de projet partagé) and took part in the concertation process led by Concert’Action Lachine, an issue table for local social development. The various data were organized and processed with Nvivo 12, a software dedicated to analyzing qualitative data using an inductive approach to answer the following question, co-constructed with the partners (own translation): “How can a living lab increase the integration of climate change adaptation into the development and implementation processes of urban projects in Montreal?”


The research began by documenting the practices and issues experienced by members of the City’s professional staff and their partners in the urban project. Labo Climat then entered a more active phase, organizing three workshops with members of the municipal staff and civil society to reflect on climate interventions and the roles of each party in the governance and planning of the project. Labo Climat also participated in the organization and facilitation of some workshops led by Concert’Action Lachine around the development of Lachine-Est. This series of workshops was designed to encourage dialogue between the various stakeholders on their vision of an eco-neighbourhood adapted to climate change, and to clarify the objectives of the future special urban plan. We present below the main results of two workshops, showing how climate is made “governable” and how experimentation can complicate the expression of different points of view.

The first Labo Climat workshop brought together 27 professional staff from the City of Montréal and the borough of Lachine—a sample selected by Montreal’s Bureau de la transition et de la résilience (BTER) and Service d’urbanisme et de mobilité de la Ville de Montréal, two agencies that work in various departments (mobility, water, parks, biodiversity, urban planning and the BTER). The participants were first given the opportunity to share their knowledge of the main climate hazards in Montreal—the increased risk of heat waves, droughts, destructive storms, freeze/thaw cycles and short, intense precipitation episodes—and then exchange on climate change adaptation strategies to be integrated into the urban project planning process.

From this first workshop onwards, it became clear that the depth of the conversations varied from one climate hazard to another. For example, members of the City’s Service de l’eau (water department) shared information on the increasing risk of extreme precipitation events and explained the City’s vulnerabilities to them. This sharing of information led to exchanges with urban planners, architects and heritage specialists on existing courses of action as well as on constraints linked to urban planning. Of interest is that what the participants mentioned corresponded to the preliminary findings we had made prior to the workshop during interviews and meeting observations. For example, the engineers had a precise metabolic vision of urban water flows (Cousins, 2017) and what it means to physically adapt to increased rainwater: an increasing amount of water flowing towards the City’s low-lying topographic points necessitates thinking about planning differently. The participants then looked for ways to make this problem “governable” in Montreal, notably through regulation and planning. For example, they saw potential for innovation in recognizing the various benefits of greening as well as in pooling infrastructures at the neighbourhood level.

Discussions on other climate-related hazards, such as heat waves, droughts and storms, were not as well-developed. There was talk of the need for more cross-functional collaboration, better planning, more upstream resources and greater citizen participation. Discussions remained at a more general or abstract level without offering specific solutions for tackling the overall problem being put forward. These examples illustrate the difficulty of making climate adaptation governable. Although many professionals feel concerned by the subject, few feel equipped to make a contribution. Furthermore, those working on social inclusion and public health issues did not participate in the workshop and were not identified as key players by the project promoters and professional staff of the City and the borough of Lachine, who felt that this group of people should not intervene until later in the process. In our view, however, their upstream integration alters the conception and priorities of climate change adaptation, which we tried to rectify in the subsequent stage with the participation of neighbourhood community organizations (see synthesis D’Amours et al. 2022).

Rainwater management, quickly identified as the main technical problem to be solved at the first Labo Climat workshop, was then discussed at length during the workshop on ecological innovations organized by Concert’Action Lachine, which brought together various players (city, borough, civil society, real estate developers, research team). For this workshop, the water department gave a presentation on sustainable stormwater management practices where it proposed two redevelopment “innovations”: significantly more greening through infrastructure in order to capture and infiltrate rainwater in situ; and the pilot development of water squares, public squares or parks containing above-ground basins to capture rainwater during heavy, short and intense rainfall events (Figure 2). These interventions were presented as win-win for everyone, as they offer a lower-cost solution than underground retention and bring co-benefits to communities by providing access to parks and public spaces. Local community groups and private developers attending the workshop were extremely interested in these proposals.


In Lachine-Est, adaptation to climate change has taken the form of increased greening measures, green infrastructure and the design of innovative retention basins. Priority is given to stormwater management, with little discussion of other climate impacts. Yet heat waves, already significant in Montreal, are set to increase in the future: the number of days above 30°C is set to triple between 2040 and 2070 (moderate scenarios, Ouranos, 2020). However, the lengthy development phasing of this mineralized industrial wasteland and the uncertainties surrounding the location of public transport infrastructures and other services in the area could result in access difficulties during periods of extreme heat, particularly due to long walking distances. Moreover, although green infrastructure can help reduce the heat island effect, it has received very little attention in the planning process. Indeed, when planning green infrastructure with technical experts or engineers, North American cities tend to focus on water management, at the expense of exploring the optimal implementation of green infrastructure for other benefits such as cooling or equitable access to recreational parks (Meerow, 2020; Finewood et al., 2019). The case of Lachine-Est therefore shows how certain resilience choices are associated with the way climate adaptation is made governable and attractive. At the Labo Climat Montréal and Ateliers Lachine-Est workshops, we addressed not only the structural constraints to adaptation for professionals but also the objectives and means to be set so that these infrastructures and developments can respond to the different needs of the population and of biodiversity protection.

Finally, the Labo Climat results show that urban planners have used the issue of stormwater management as a tactical lever to negotiate more greening and public spaces for the benefit of the whole community in the area. For example, the Lachine-Est special urban plan states that 22 percent of the area is to be allocated to parks and green spaces, and that 60 percent of undeveloped private spaces are to be greened (Ville de Montréal, 2021, p. 40, 111). However, the question now is how the City will ensure an equitable distribution of greenery in and around the eco-neighbourhood. Another challenge lies in the risks of green gentrification associated with these practices and how to address them.


Labo Climat’s research shows that living labs can be a means of highlighting and examining certain adaptation choices, yet can also amplify certain trends. Particular care must therefore be taken to ensure that such projects do not exacerbate or create new inequalities.

Adapting to climate change is still a new phenomenon, and one that requires a great deal of learning. It implies major paradigm shifts both in the development of major infrastructures and in land-use planning. While some climatic hazards, such as stormwater management, are already well understood in urban planning processes upstream of redevelopment and the selection of locations for services and public transport, others, such as oppressive heat, are less so. Finally, concerted, strategic action is also needed, since the impacts of such events have a significant but variable impact on the various populations in a given area.

To cite this article

Madénian, H., Van Neste, S.L, Cloutier, G., Houde-Tremblay,. É. (2022) Climate change adaptation and urban experimentation in Montreal: Progress and blind spots. In Cities, Climate and Inequalities Collection. VRM – Villes Régions Monde.

Reference Text

Van Neste, S.L., Rochefort, M., Dagenais, D., Paquette, S.,Cloutier, G.,Lapointe, D., Duchesne, S., Madénian, H., Guillemard, A., Provençal, J., Fournier, C., Chéné, F., Bonneau, A., Demard, E., Houde-Tremblay, E., Poulin, E. 2021. «L’adaptation aux changements climatiques dans le réaménagement d’un secteur urbain à Montréal : documentation du processus et expérimentations en ateliers». 585pages. Montréal (Québec): Labo Climat Montréal.


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