Cities, Climate, Inequalities

Urban inequality and planning in a context of socio-ecological transition: The Conseil interculturel de Montréal’s action research experience

May 2024

Chloé Reiser, Assistant Professor in Geography, École Normale Supérieure de Lyon (ENS Lyon) – UMR 5600 « Environnement, Ville, Société » (EVS)


A municipal advisory body on intercultural relations established in 2003, the Conseil interculturel de Montréal (CIM) has spent many years addressing issues surrounding urban planning as well as ssocio-ecological transition from the perspective of immigrant and racialized populations.

As Montreal sets about updating its Land Use and Mobility Plan in 2024 and at a time when a growing number of climate events (heat waves, flooding, forest fires, air pollution) are affecting the city’s most vulnerable populations, the CIM has been redoubling its efforts to understand urban inequality and especially the specific challenges faced by immigrants and racialized people in terms of mobility; housing; access to public facilities, services, and spaces; civic engagement; as well as socio-ecological transition. Given the central importance of living standards to climate change adaptation, urban inequality has become a key public policy issue in Quebec as stakeholders seek to achieve a just green transition (Ilardo et al., 2022; INSPQ, 2023a).

Based on its assessment of the situation, the CIM has made 13 recommendations for ensuring the municipal government and its partners do a better job of recognizing the diversity of Montreal’s population and addressing disparities in urban planning, especially those affecting immigrants and racialized people. The aim is to promote a more balanced approach to developing the urban environment while allowing all Montrealers to participate in the socio-ecological transition.

State of the Academic Literature

Urban Inequality and Spatial Discrimination

A study conducted by the CIM has served to highlight various forms of urban inequality in Montreal. In other words, it has addressed how levels of economic, social, and cultural development vary from one area to the next. When examined from a city-wide perspective, such inequality often reflects an imbalance in terms of both the spatial distribution of urban resources and the ways in which residents access and use them in different neighbourhoods (Michel & Ribardière, 2017).

The concept of spatial discrimination goes beyond the notion of urban inequality by emphasizing the role of public authorities and urban planners in creating these disparities (Epstein et al., 2020; Hancock et al., 2016). It further limits the opportunities—including opportunities for social mobility—available to residents of marginalized neighbourhoods that are provided with fewer public facilities and services (Kirszbaum, 2020). Various strategies have been developed for addressing spatial discrimination. They range from legislation allowing complaints against public authorities for unequal treatment to various forms of affirmative action, such as designating areas of prime concern in the context of a city’s master plan or developing special funding programs for specific neighbourhoods (Alessandrin & Dagorn, 2020).

Urban Inequality and Spatial Discrimination in Montreal

Urban studies research has highlighted the marked disparities between Montreal neighbourhoods in terms of housing, employment, food, health care, transportation, environmental quality, etc. (Apparicio et al., 2016; Bélanger & Roudil, 2021; Durocher, 2023; Goyer, 2020; Leloup et al., 2016; Paulhiac Scherrer, 2018; Vallée et al., 2020). Such forms of urban inequality are often associated with income disparity and the geographic distribution of immigrants and racialized groups (Rose & Twigge-Molecey, 2013). Indeed, low levels of development and the lack of public facilities in certain neighbourhoods is closely correlated with the significant presence of these groups in disadvantaged and marginalized areas.

Multiple studies have underscored the geographic disparities in access to public and active transportation infrastructure in Montreal (Lord et al., 2015; Paulhiac Scherrer, 2018). Paradoxically, although they are more dependent on public transit, residents of less advantaged neighbourhoods with large immigrant populations find themselves with the least access (Hammouda, 2018; Walks, 2014). This is partly the result of disparities in development, including a lack of transportation infrastructure and poor network access in outlying neighbourhoods. Urban studies researchers have also drawn attention to geographic disparities in terms of access to active transportation infrastructure, especially the uneven development of the cycling network from one neighbourhood to the next (Houde et al., 2018; Kiani et al., 2024).

Other studies have shown that social and community housing is unevenly distributed across Montreal. Subsidized units are rare in outlying neighbourhoods with large immigrant populations, despite being sorely needed in these areas of the city (Jolivet et al., 2022; Reiser, 2021). The situation makes immigrants and racialized people more vulnerable to widespread rent increases and, ultimately, evictions (Guay et al., 2019). In contrast to the private housing market, the standardized social housing allocation process ensures more equitable access, thereby improving the stability of low-income households and promoting the inclusion of immigrant and racialized populations (Fischler et al., 2017).

Finally, with regard to environmental inequalities, researchers have found that Montreal’s most disadvantaged neighbourhoods have the lowest canopy index values (Apparicio et al., 2016; Pham et al., 2012). Indeed, green spaces are unevenly distributed across the city (Jepson et al., 2022), with socio-economically disadvantaged residents typically having more limited access to parks (Pinault et al., 2021; Tardif-Paradis, 2021). Meanwhile, parks have been shown to provide clear physical and mental health benefits (Crouse et al., 2017). Green spaces also improve resilience to the adverse impacts of climate change. For example, they help mitigate the urban heat islands that disproportionately affect low-income neighbourhoods (Chakraborty et al., 2019). Other examples of environmental inequalities include disparities in exposure to noise and pollution, with disadvantaged neighbourhoods that are home to large immigrant and racialized populations once again bearing the brunt of the problem (Audrin et al., 2019).

Municipal Authorities Begin Addressing Issues of Urban Inequality

The City Vision: Imagining the Montréal of 2050 is intended as the basis for an updated Land Use and Mobility Plan. And in contrast to previous urban development planning documents, it includes a section on social inequalities (Ville de Montréal, 2022, p. 40-43). This content underscores the significant challenges facing immigrant and racialized populations in Montreal, and shows how the underlying disparities increase the vulnerability of people experiencing poverty and exclusion. Such individuals find themselves with limited access to housing and public transit, with few opportunities to engage in public life, and increasingly exposed to the impacts of climate change. But despite this newfound recognition of social inequalities and the apparent willingness to address them from an intersectional perspective, there is still much to be done in terms of putting ideas into action at the political level.

Case, Methods, and Original Research Data

The CIM study was carried out in three phases. The first phase involved analyzing not only the academic literature but also the grey literature (land-use plans, municipal programming) relevant to urban inequality in Montreal. This made it possible to better define the research problem, develop a general picture of urban inequality in the city, identify blind spots in efforts by municipal authorities to address the issue, and define field research priorities in collaboration with CIM members. It was ultimately decided that the study would focus on (1) mobility; (2) housing; (3) access to public facilities, services, and spaces; and (4) public participation in urban planning as well as the (5) socio-ecological transition.

The second phase of the study involved a series of three community mapping workshops offered in three Montreal neighbourhoods selected based on the results of a statistical analysis. Montréal-Nord, Saint-Michel, and Saint-Laurent are all outlying neighbourhoods with large immigrant and racialized populations. And in all three cases, residents face serious issues in terms of mobility, housing, and access to green spaces. The objective of the workshops was to give immigrants and racialized people living in the neighbourhoods concerned with an opportunity to describe the challenges they face in terms of accessing certain urban resources. Each session dealt with a separate theme and relied a large neighbourhood map to help focus the discussion on planning issues. About ten people participated in each workshop.

Finally, with the aim of gathering additional data on urban inequality, the CIM developed an online public survey with questions on mobility, housing, access to green spaces, and civic engagement. Neighbourhood committees and community organizations helped encourage residents to complete the questionnaire. Between November 15, 2022, and January 31, 2023, 287 responses were collected from all of Montreal’s 32 sociological neighbourhoods, with the exception of the Gay Village.


An analysis of community mapping workshop discussions and online survey responses served to provide an overview of urban inequality in Montreal and to lay bare some of the issues affecting access to urban resources for immigrants and racialized people. Workshop participants and survey respondents also proposed a number of solutions.

Improving Public and Active Transportation Infrastructure

Research participants mentioned a number of barriers to mobility associated with aspects of the built environment as well as vulnerability factors specific to residents of the neighbourhoods covered by the study. For instance, many underscored the poor quality of transit services in outlying Montreal neighbourhoods like Saint-Laurent, Saint-Léonard, and Montréal-Nord. These areas are home to large numbers of immigrants and racialized people, who tend to be highly dependent on public transportation. The most common complaints concerned infrequent buses and the lack of shelters or benches at local stops. Others lamented the fact that the current zone-based fare system and the rising cost of public transportation in general places an unfair burden on residents of outlying neighbourhoods, especially asylum seekers and immigrant families with multiple children. Finally, some transit users reported incidents of discrimination and racial profiling. Often undocumented in official statistics, such experiences create a sense of insecurity and exclusion, negatively affecting mobility and integration into Montreal society. With regard to active transportation, especially cycling and walking, many research participants noted persistent safety issues in outlying neighbourhoods due to a lack of protected bike lanes. They also noted problems with sidewalk and bikeway maintenance, as well as with snow removal on local residential streets. Workshop participants and survey respondents offered numerous mobility-related recommendations aimed at fostering equity across Montreal’s different neighbourhoods. Many called for more frequent bus service and investments in transportation infrastructure in the neighbourhoods covered by the study. There were also proposals for making disadvantaged social groups eligible for reduced fares.

Ensuring a Supply of Adequate and Affordable Housing

Access to adequate, affordable housing emerged as a major concern among immigrants and racialized people in Montreal. Amid very high demand, fewer social and community housing options are available in neighbourhoods with large numbers of immigrants and racialized people, including Saint-Laurent and Saint-Léonard. Research participants also described how difficult it can be to find affordable housing at a time when rents are rising everywhere, including outlying neighbourhoods once considered affordable, and when vacancy rates for modestly priced rentals are low, especially in the case of three-bedroom or larger units suitable for families. At the same time, much of the housing stock in the neighbourhoods covered by the study is substandard, unsuitable for larger households, and located far from essential services. For instance, many of the homes available to immigrants and racialized people are poorly insulated. In addition to forcing the households concerned into energy poverty, this situation can exacerbate health vulnerabilities, especially during heat waves and cold snaps. Moreover, immigrant and racialized populations often face housing-related discrimination, both in the private rental market and in the social housing system. Among many other ideas put forward at the community mapping workshops, several participants urged municipal authorities in Montreal to acquire buildings or land in those neighbourhoods with the most severe housing shortages, to ensure an equitable supply of social and community housing across the city as a whole.

Enhancing Facilities and Services While Making Spaces More Inclusive

Research participants highlighted various challenges associated with accessing public services as well as cultural and recreational facilities in the neighbourhoods covered by the study. To begin with, they noted the lack of sports and cultural facilities in relation to local needs. For instance, several residents of Saint-Laurent pointed out how the neighbourhood was underserved in terms of playing fields, multisport complexes, and swimming facilities. The shortage of pools is especially significant in the context of climate change, given how they can help people cope with heat waves. As for residents of Montréal-Nord, they emphasized the lack of cultural activities and facilities in their neighbourhood. Finally, the workshops revealed significant demand for new sports and cultural activities accessible to young people in all three neighbourhoods. From an intersectional perspective, this represents a key issue in the fight against urban inequality.

Comments gathered during the workshops also revealed that immigrants and racialized people often feel a sense of insecurity and face discrimination when visiting certain public spaces in their neighbourhoods. Residents of Montréal-Nord and Saint-Léonard in particular described feeling unsafe, whether due to factors associated with the built environment (e.g., a lack of street lighting) or because they had experienced discrimination in public. When asked about ways of fostering a sense of security in these neighbourhoods, many participants pointed to the need for inclusive and cross-cultural activities organized in collaboration with community organizations, as well as prevention-oriented measures implemented in partnership with organizations specializing in mediation.

Encouraging Participation in Urban Planning Discussions

In terms of civic engagement, although most workshop participants and survey respondents reported being involved with community groups, very few of them had ever attended a municipal council meeting or taken part in urban planning consultations. From their perspective, the main obstacle was poor communication on the part of municipal authorities. For instance, they complained about the lack of information available on consultation sessions related to urban projects. Proposed ways of encouraging the participation of immigrants and racialized people in such discussions included using more varied communication channels, scheduling events at different times, and offering a range of consultation formats. Likewise, research participants emphasized the need for municipal representatives to visit the neighbourhoods concerned. 

Addressing Blatant Forms of Environmental Injustice

The issue of environmental inequalities in Montreal has primarily been considered in terms of access to quality green spaces. Research participants generally recognized that the neighbourhoods covered by the study, and especially Montréal-Nord and Saint-Léonard, had fewer parks and green spaces than other Montreal neighbourhoods. Furthermore, they noted that the parks and green spaces in their neighbourhoods not only lacked facilities and activities, but sometimes suffered from poor maintenance and were often hard to access. Several individuals also complained about the impacts of pollution and heat islands. Many suggested that, rather than adding new parks, municipal authorities should focus on properly equipping and maintaining existing green spaces, as well as on improving access by means of public and active transportation. In any case, greening initiatives need to be designed in such a way that they meet the needs and improve the living standards of local immigrant and racialized populations, rather than fuelling green gentrification in the neighbourhoods concerned (INSPQ, 2023b).


The CIM’s research activities have sought to understand how urban inequality and spatial discrimination are perceived by immigrant and racialized populations in Montreal, especially in relation to environmental issues. The study also served as an opportunity to identify ways of addressing the situation. Indeed, although municipal authorities in Montreal have begun acknowledging issues of social inequality in the context of urban development policy, much work remains to be done in terms of targeted action to reduce inequality, promote equity, and make the city more inclusive for immigrants and racialized people.

The results of the study showcase the key role the municipal government can play in reducing social and environmental disparities between neighbourhoods and create a better living environment for all Montrealers. City authorities and their partners should work closely with borough councils as well as neighbourhood committees and other community groups or organizations to find solutions adapted to local realities. The study findings also highlight the need for cross-functional and cross-sectoral measures that reflect an integrated approach to dealing with pressing urban development issues (housing, mobility, health and well-being, etc.) in a context of socio-ecological transition. Finally, the study has exposed the need for municipal authorities in Montreal to adopt a more participatory approach to urban planning, especial where minority groups are concerned, to gain more direct insight into the needs of residents and to ensure the latter are recognized as experts on their own experiences.

To cite this article

Reiser, C. (2024). Urban inequality and planning in a context of socio-ecological transition: The Conseil interculturel de Montréal’s action research experience. In Cities, Climate and Inequalities Collection. VRM – Villes Régions Monde. 

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