By: Eliza Gifford

6:00 am on the dot. As the sun rises, most of Quebec City opens its eyes to the low hum of the tramway, the city’s pulse. The hum loudens with the awakening of city life for yet another day, adding the rhythms of birdsong at the city’s outskirts, the whirring of coffee machines and idle chatter between neighbors taking out their compost. This is the late 21st century Quebec City, an urban landscape at its most sustainable yet. This Quebec City, known as an eco-city, has developed an ecological web of connections between neighbors, between people and policymakers, between people and their environment for the greater good of the planet. Running through all of this is the network of the city’s tram system, a sustainable and accessible network supporting the circularity of the future presenting a way forward for urban development everywhere.

By 7 am, the morning’s first set of bleary-eyed citizens shuffle onto the tram car docked at their local platform. Even though it’s early, many are just thankful for a morning commute with time to relax a bit, drink their coffee and take in the scenery rushing by. Some passengers still remember the frustration of early morning traffic while commuting in their cars, a relic of the Quebec City that had relied almost entirely on gasoline.

A tramway in Prague. Photo credit: David McKelvey

The tram system represents the development of the city’s environmental policies, now leagues beyond the insubstantial emissions reduction initiatives of the early 21st century. Known as GHGRP1 and GHGRP2, these initiatives sought only to reduce municipal emissions by 21% and 10% respectively, a miniscule fraction of the city’s carbon footprint. City leaders acted on economic incentives to ease industrial spending instead of addressing the root cause of their emissions: people using cars. After decades of campaigning by local environmental groups, city leaders finally passed the Sustainable Mobility Plan allowing for the gradual switch from individual automobiles to the tram system, coupled with a gasoline tax. The SMP transformed the nature of the city’s climate plans for the better, one of its first long-term commitments to sustainability.

Shenzhen in China, a city surrounded by forest. Photo credit: Ken Shimoda

The tram glides to its first stop alongside a leafy green stretch of the city’s outskirts; passengers are greeted by towering pines and twittering birds right outside their windows. Inspired by the urban forestry of China’s Shenzhen city, Quebec City’s planners further greenhouse gas reductions with the re-establishment of defined city edges for the first time in decades. Though it took years to stabilize the indigenous forest ecosystem, city residents now have the restorative presence of nature in their daily commute. Returning (some of) the forest to the urban landscape re-establishes the ancient mutualisms existing between people and nature. The city ecosystem and its adjacent forest ecosystem have grown into a natural cycle of mutual dependence after such an estrangement; humans provide carbon for the plants to flourish, and the plants return the favor, housing wildlife and purifying the atmosphere with the oxygen we need to breathe.

Quebec City now sequesters more carbon dioxide than it produces, a direct result of the developing relationship between the urban landscape and nature. But the tram pushes on past the forest and into the inner city, where council members disembark at the second stop: city hall. Beyond the doors of city hall, representatives for the UN’s Sustainable Development Initiatives discuss monitoring greenhouse gas production, energy usage, and automobile use, tailoring the city’s climate change mitigation plan to their concerns. The climate crisis has not disappeared, but leading eco-cities – including Quebec City – recognize their role within the climate change dynamic. Cities built with traditional urban tenets of linear waste production and energy usage contribute significantly to the problem, but eco-cities present themselves as climate solutions with restorative philosophies upholding the web of connections that life depends on. The Sustainable Development Representatives encourage city leaders to consider restorative design that will not only neutralize city emissions, but positively contribute to the local environment with some of Quebec City’s first meaningful climate plans.

Before leaving city hall for the final stop of the morning, the tram stalls to let a few communal vehicles pass, the fruits of the city’s most recent sustainable development initiatives. Designed after Milan, Italy’s transportation investments, Quebec City supports several car sharing initiatives, equivalent to paying for and borrowing the vehicle for a little while. Bike lanes and clean vehicle zones for electric cars also line the pavement, facilitating several different types of low-emissions transportation. These aspects of city life create a friendlier, more social and accessible urban space. Right as the tram lurches forward to continue its route, a few teenagers hop on to get a ride to the heart of the city, the tram’s last stop of the morning.

Finally, the last few passengers exit at the Citizen Community Development Center. This is where environmental activists meet with city planners and policymakers and citizens can freely air their concerns with city leaders. This center represents the core of Quebec City’s commitment as a citizen eco-city; a city that not only considers its impact on the environment but prioritizes the input of its citizens. Policymakers can utilize the perfect scale of cities with enough resources to influence meaningful change, while having the flexibility to communicate directly with the specific people and environments affected by this change. Most importantly, infrastructure is built and policy is developed with the direct input of citizens to maintain social sustainability, and create the most meaningful connections between people, the city’s leadership, and the environment.

Technically, this Quebec City doesn’t exist. At least, not yet…but it could. I have hope that world leaders will seriously consider the sheer magnitude of cities in the climate crisis, the influence and resources they have to mitigate their emissions while catering to the needs of their citizens. Cities must communicate with one another, following each other’s examples of what a sustainable city looks like. There’s no one right answer, but in order to make a difference, traditional urban philosophies must be destroyed and rebuilt on the principles of restorative design. It’s time to move past our “dreams” of eco-cities, and effectively integrate the policy needed to transform the very nature of urban life.

Works Cited

  • Basiago, Andrew. “METHODS OF DEFINING ’SUSTAINABILITY’.” Sustainable Development, vol. 3, 1995, pp. 109–119.  
  • Bonato, Danilo, and Raimondo Orsini. “Urban Circular Economy.” Sustainable Cities and Communities Design Handbook, 2018, pp. 235–245., doi:10.1016/b978-0-12-813964-6.00012-4.  
  • Kamal-Chaoui, Lamia, and Alexis Robert. “Competitive Cities and Climate Change.” OECD Regional Development Working Papers, 2009, doi:10.1787/218830433146.  
  • Liu, Lee. “A Sustainability Index with Attention to Environmental Justice for Eco-City Classification and Assessment.” Ecological Indicators, vol. 85, 2018, pp. 904–914., doi:10.1016/j.ecolind.2017.11.038.  
  • Scanu, Emiliano. “Climate Change, Urban Responses and Sociospatial Transformations: Th e Example of Quebec City.” Canadian Journal of Urban Research, vol. 28, no. 2, 2019, pp. 1–15.