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Annmarie Adams on Montreal, City of Water

16 December, 2020

This annotation is an extract from Annmarie Adams (2019) review ‘Montreal, City of Water: An Environmental History, Canadian Journal of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, Vol. 41 No. 1, 2019, 73-74

Montreal, City of Water is a welcome translation by Peter Feldstein of Michèle Dagenais’ earlier book Montréal et l’eau (Boréal, 2011). An innovative take on Montreal’s complex history, the book is an environmental, rather than strictly urban history of Canada’s second-largest city. Written for historians interested in a wide range of topics – Quebec, urbanism, architecture, public health, and municipal politics – Montreal, City of Water explores water as both a physical and social/cultural attribute. While engineers, doctors, and other experts, for example, struggled to assess and manage the city’s water supply, H2O simultaneously shaped the city’s image and social relations. Notably, Dagenais sees the relation of city and water as mutually dynamic, avoiding any suggestion that water determined the morphology of Montreal: ‘Montreal’s history is discussed with reference to water as a constitutive dimension of its development’.

Dagenais’ argument for the significant role of water in the evolution of Montreal unfolds chronologically in a clear, almost linear structure. The book begins with a chapter reviewing the main publications on Montreal in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, outlining the ways water has been depicted. Especially important in these early publications is an emphasis on Montreal’s unique location, in the centre of the Hochelaga archipelago at the meeting of the St. Lawrence and Ottawa Rivers. In the subsequent six chapters, Dagenais presents a lineup of significant events and topics that shaped the island-city’s water management into distinctive eras: the demolition of the city’s walls in the early nineteenth century, the design of the harbour, the rise of the science of sanitation and water treatment, ecological concerns, the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway, and even last year’s 375th anniversary of the city. An implicit argument of the book is that water has been a constant, rather than episodic concern to Montrealers for more than 200 years.

The book clearly satisfies the author’s stated intention, articulated in the introduction, ‘to reconstruct the ways in which water and its uses have intertwined with the City of Montreal throughout its history’ and ‘to attempt a reconstruction of the dynamics governing the conception, definition, and lived experience of the collective relationship with water’. Additionally, the book is not a heroic tale of individuals who tamed the river and the city; this is truly a history of the shared/public ways Montreal water has been engineered, controlled, cleaned, moved, harnessed, exploited, enjoyed, and imagined. In the book’s conclusion, Dagenais refers to this as ‘the process of co-construction of the city’, a fascinating concept for architectural historians like me.

Annmarie Adams on Montreal, City of Water

This annotation is an extract from Annmarie Adams (2019) review ‘Montreal, City of Water: An Environmental History’, Canadian Journal of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, Vol. 41 No. 1, 2019, 73-74