Muddy Shore to Modern Port: Redimensioning the Montreal Waterfront Time-Space

By Gilliland, Jason | The Canadian Geographer, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Muddy Shore to Modern Port: Redimensioning the Montreal Waterfront Time-Space


Gilliland, Jason, The Canadian Geographer


Introduction

In Montreal, as in most port cities, the waterfront has long been the primacy interface between the city and the markets of the world. Over the last two centuries or so, since the onset of industrialisation, cityports across the globe have been compelled, over and over again, to redevelop their waterfronts. The focus in this paper is on the (re)development of the port of Montreal from its formal beginnings in 1830, through a period of rapid industrialisation up to World War I (1914). The purpose was to elucidate how and why the primitive pre-industrial waterfront was repeatedly adapted and transformed into a 'modern' port district.

A port is a place where land and water-borne transport systems converge, where cargo and passenger traffic are exchanged across a waterfront (Figure 1). The efficiency of a port, and the health of the urban economy as a whole, is represented by its ability to maximise traffic through this physical space at minimum cost and with minimum delay. The waterfront, therefore, is at once both an interface and an impediment to exchange; its physical configuration may contribute to the efficiency of the port or may form costly spatio-temporal barriers. It has been suggested that the flow of goods and people through a city, like the circulation of blood in the human body, is channelled and constrained by the physical dimensions of its 'vascular system', that is, the entire network of streets, canals, channels, Harbours, tracks, piers, bridges and elevators (Gilliland 1999). In this paper, I argue that for cities to survive and grow, they must, again and again, accelerate circulation and expand the capacity of the urban vascular system; in particular, they must periodically redimension the entire waterfront time-space. While previous studies have described the historical development of individual physical components of the port of Montreal, such as the Lachine Canal (Desloges and Gelly 2002), St Lawrence River ship channel (Corley 1967) and grain elevators (GRHPM 1981), this paper offers a new perspective on port development in that it considers the entire port as a comprehensive circulatory system and examines the (re)development of various components in relation to others.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

Beyond a detailed examination of the physical transformation, or morphogenesis, of the waterfront, this paper attempts to elucidate the formative and adaptive processes underlying its evolution. To understand the processes that continually reshape the landscape of the port, we need to turn our attention to the compelling logic of the urban economy--that is, the revolutionary historical and geographical dynamics of capitalism. Prevailing studies in transport geography view the contemporary redevelopment of cityports across the globe as the spatial outcome of processes of economic restructuring, symptoms of the ever-increasing globalisation of maritime transport (Slack 1975, 1995, 1999; Hoyle and Pinder 1981; Hoyle et al. 1988; Kilian and Dodson 1995, 1996; Malone 1996; Meyer 1999; Rodrigue 1999; Slack et al. 2002). Drawing insights from 'spatialised' interpretations of the rhythm of capital accumulation (Harvey 1985, 1989, 2001; Smith 1990), I formulate a complementary conceptual approach that recognises the circulation of capital as the driving force behind the morphogenesis of the Montreal waterfront. My central thesis is that periodic innovations in transport methods were preconditions for the redimensioning of the Montreal waterfront in the industrial era, and these changes were adopted in response to the perennial demands of local investors to reduce the turnover time of capital. The turnover time (or time necessary to reconstitute the value) of a given capital is equal to the time devoted to production and circulation (exchange) of commodities. The longer the turnover time of a capital, the smaller its surplus value; therefore, by accelerating circulation through more efficient and effective means of transport, investors are able to increase profits. …

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