A lesson in livable cities

This week, we will take a peek over the fence into our neighbor’s yard. That neighbor is Quebec, both province and city, and the contrast with Maine is striking.

First, you are rattling along the roads of upstate Maine, dodging and weaving around humps, bumps and potholes. Cross the border, and suddenly you are riding on a magic carpet, smooth as can be. Your car’s suspension breathes a sigh of relief.

You pass through towns, mostly small, where the sense of community pride is palpable. Lawns are mowed. Window boxes abound. Fresh paint has been applied. Wherever people keep their belongings, it is not in the front yard, side yard, backyard or driveway. There are no piles of cardboard boxes visible through enclosed porch windows.

You reach Quebec City, and behold, the same ethic applies. The old city is rich in stone buildings, cobblestone streets, window boxes overflowing with flowers and, most astonishing of all, there is not a speck of trash on road or sidewalk. None. Zero.

Climb up and down the steep streets or staircases that lead from the lower city up to the environs of the Château Frontenac, and you can look down at the backs of both commercial and residential properties. They are as beautifully groomed as the fronts. Even the trash bags, when they are put out on collection day, are neatly tied up, with the tied ends standing at attention like jaunty little ears on each bundle.

Every Jean-Paul will express pride and delight in your praise for his city. Every Claire will receive your compliments with a smile, but also with a certain dubiousness. It is the same everywhere, no? No.

Depart the city on the Boulevard de Champlain, a gently winding four-lane that travels for miles along the river. Between the road and the water is an off-road, two-way bike path. All along the bike path are benches placed to take advantage of the views up and down the river. There are rest rooms and picnic tables. They are all manicured and trash-free.

There are plenty of access points from the city above to the riverfront below. Bicyclists, walkers, runners and families with babies in strollers make good use of them. Does it not cost a fortune to develop that bike path which stretches for miles beyond the city in either direction? And the maintenance!

Mes amis, this is the reason why there was a favorable stir in Congress when our new president included an infrastructure bill on his agenda. Infrastructure development – and its maintenance – creates jobs. It creates buildings where people work, parks where people play, paths where people walk and bicycle, and a city where people want to live.

Canada learned this long ago. There is hardly a waterfront town in the Maritimes that has not exploited its waterfront, with walkways, boardwalks, cafes and gardens. Water is a magnet for residents and visitors alike.

Bangor is discovering this. The city has turned an unused swath of land along the river into an asset. In Ellsworth, a valiant effort was made to raise the money to purchase a property on the Union River. It fell short, and the opportunity was lost to create an in-town waterfront to capitalize on and promote its beautiful little downtown.

The sloping Agamont Park in Bar Harbor and the pier below it are loaded with tourists all day, every day. The Shore Path is in constant use by visitors and residents alike, who stroll along the seafront, clamber on the rocks or just sit and gaze out over the bay.

Eastport has recently made much of its waterfront, with a lovely walking path behind the buildings of its village center that takes you from one end of town to the other, with plenty of opportunity to step around to a storefront for an ice cream or a cup of coffee.

Too often, we see development of this sort as an extra, a frill that we cannot afford. Au contraire. These assets are the very attractions that make people want to live in or visit these towns. Their development creates employment, and the atmosphere they establish leads to growth in population and visitation.

When more people come to your town, there is opportunity for more shops, more restaurants and the building of new homes. With all that has been studied, proposed and tried to get Maine’s economy moving to little avail, one possibility largely has been ignored.

That is to put beauty and livability first. To the extent we could make our towns be the kind of places that make people say “This! This is where I want to be,” we could create opportunity. Now we concentrate on bringing jobs. What good is that if no one wants to move to a town that looks dreary and dull just to get a job?

Claire and Jean-Paul, we salute you for understanding the value of a beautiful environment in daily life. We will come back to your city. Maybe we can learn a lesson about the economic value of beauty in our own cities and towns.

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.

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