Montreal's Underground City Is a Mess, But a Beautiful One

Montreal's underground city is the largest of its kind in the world, a subterranean pedestrian network spanning 33 kilometres (20.5 miles) of the city's downtown core.

And it's a confusing, borderline disaster—a comforting disaster when it's freezing cold outside, mind you—offering pedestrians an alternative indoor route from point A to point B. But even locals who've lived here a lifetime still get lost in certain parts of Montreal's underground city. I'm one of them.

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Why Is the Montreal Underground City So Confusing?

The Montreal Underground City is the largest of its kind in the world.
Emmanuel Joly / Getty Images

Linking shopping malls, metro stations, train stations, apartments, condos, hotels, universities, office buildings and an amphitheatre, the underground city is a head-scratching albeit charming, even beautiful mess. Why? Its construction was devoid of a timeline, a master plan and concerted coordination.

The underground city saw its first tunnel project take shape in 1962, setting the stage for the network to grow over the eventual but totally unexpected course of five decades at the hands of developers with competing agendas completing individual commercial projects at different times.

But there's even more to the story than a jumbled timeline. As writer Emily Haines explains, the underground city's inefficient, maze-like connections also reflect the fat ball of red tape various stakeholders had to untangle to get the project off, or in this case, under the ground:

"... the early years of the underground city’s development were characterized by muddling negotiations without a central authority, haggled by fleets of lawyers representing the developers, prospective and existing tenants and the project’s architects and planners.

The ownership of the underground was complicated, with some rights guarded as the preserve of the Montreal Urban Community Transit Commission, others controlled by private interests and the remainder falling under the purview of the city.

In some cases, the negotiations proved so complicated that stretches of tunnel were built with tremendous deviations in order to circumvent uncooperative landowners. The very novelty of the project precluded much expertise by planning professionals, who had no body of regulations, legislation, specialized licensing or historical models to fall back on, so this era of the underground’s extension was often a free-for-all where the most aggressive and creative players could take home the tremendous stakes up for grabs."

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Underground Shopping

Montreal's underground city is one of the largest shopping promenades in the world.
Bruce Yuanyue Bi / Getty Images

Underground Shopping in Montreal: The Largest Shopping Mecca in the World?

From Les Cours Mont-Royal to Complexe Desjardins, your average shopper can realistically breeze through most of downtown Montreal's major shopping malls without hopping on the metro or even going outside.

But it might take a while.

Montreal's underground city connects shoppers to anywhere from 1,600 to 2,000 stores, depending on the information source consulted and the year the data was compiled. That range is comparable to the number of storefronts found among the five largest malls in the world. That's also more than double the stores at the West Edmonton Mall, North America's biggest shopping centre.

In other words, Montreal's underground city is one of the biggest shopping promenades in the world.

Who knew?

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