The splendour and misery of urban life
Michèle Dagenais, Université de Montréal, 2007
At the end of the 19th century urbanization intensified. Cities and their factories were drawing people from the countryside like magnets: the land could no longer support all of them. In addition, immigrants were pouring into Canada from all over, hoping to start a new life.
The newcomers ended up in neighbourhoods that, on the one hand, had made no preparations to receive them and, on the other, were unprepared for the industrial and commercial expansion that was taking place there. People were forced to live in filthy tenements in neighbourhoods polluted by the many new factories. Unsafe drinking water and impure milk aggravated their health problems, creating conditions for the spread of disease. The death rate rose, one sign that living conditions were on the decline.
Many reacted with horror to the degradation of the urban environment and the real, or imagined, dangers associated with it. Among them was the Montreal reformer Sir H. B. Ames, author of the famous report The City Below the Hill. Its alarmist tone and apocalyptic illustrations of Montreal and its living conditions was evidence of the scale of the changes brought on by urbanization and industrialization. But the relentless criticisms of observers like Ames eventually pressured municipal authorities into cleaning up working-class neighbourhoods and improving the living conditions of their inhabitants.
Corrective measures were undertaken in Montreal and other large cities, including the organization of communication and transportation networks, the creation of systems for providing clean drinking water and removing waste water, the adoption of building standards, the improvement of sanitation measures and the introduction of vaccination programs. And because cities had been cast as evil for harbouring filth and disease, people began calling for places where they could go to commune with nature. Montreal opened numerous public squares, gardens and parks, as well as playgrounds. These were meant to not only improve the appearance of the city but also provide people with places to go for relaxation and recreation.
At the time it was not easy for the new arrivals to adapt to urban life. Nonetheless, they benefited from the many transformations taking place in urban infrastructure and services. These fundamentally altered both the appearance and organization of Canadian cities.