About the Montreal UNESCO City of Design initiative, 2008-2012


At the November 2007 Rendez-Vous – Montréal, Cultural Metropolis, the City, the governments of Québec and Canada as well as their partners in the business and culture communities made firm commitments to promoting excellence in design and architecture by broadening the use of competitions and asserting Montréal’s status as a UNESCO City of Design.

Motivated by those commitments, the Ville de Montréal’s Bureau du design and the UNESCO Chair in Landscape and Environmental Design at Université de Montréal, both promoters of Montréal’s candidacy as a UNESCO City of Design, launched the Montréal, UNESCO City of Design Initiative in 2009. 

Supported by four major partners—the Ministère des Affaires municipales, des Régions et de l’Occupation du territoire du Québec, the Ministère de la Culture et des Communications du Québec, the Conférence régionale des Élus de Montréal and the Ville de Montréal—the initiative aimed to spur development of the design industry, improving access to public commissions for designers from here and elsewhere through design and architecture competitions. The Initiative’s activities benefited from $1.8 million in subsidies.


At the heart of the Initiative was the intent to “mobilize the different stakeholders of urban development around the project to [better] make [design, build] the city with [more] designers.”

That objective implied three key action strategies:

  • Enhancing creativity through design and architecture competitions for development projects with a public scope;
  • Promoting the local and international visibility of Montréal design through a website, mtlunescodesign.com;
  • Fostering dialogue among citizens, designers and elected officials through public forums and awareness activities.

The objectives of the initiative were to:

  • champion all those who defend quality in design;
  • develop, by the power of example, public interest in and taste for – and consequently its demand for – good design;
  • democratize quality in design: a city is built not only on exceptions (“the spectacular”) but also on the sum of individual efforts (“the ordinary”);
  • open up the awarding of public design commissions and make them more accessible: creating room for the emerging generation, letting new talents flourish by giving them the opportunity to contribute to the city’s future;
  • promote design competitions as the preferred process for awarding public commissions, because of their transparency, openness, educational scope and the quality that they generate;
  • favour projects that contribute to the quality and sustainability of the living environment, and to the development of Montréal’s urban landscapes.

The Montréal, UNESCO City of Design initiative was grounded in the idea that good design:

  1. is an area of concern: design quality is at the heart of cities’ viability, vitality, attractiveness and competitiveness. Excellence in design and its exemplary character are the minimum that is required for objects, buildings and spaces intended for public use;
  2. is the outcome of a process: quality in design is accessible to everyone and is strongly dependent on proper planning of the awarding of commissions and good choices in selecting the contracted designers. It is defined upstream of project execution. Some processes, such as design competitions, are conducive to improved thinking on needs and more informed choices of contracted designers based on concept quality, They foster a competitive spirit among designers that leads to excellence, as international experience can attest;
  3. is defined by certain criteria: design quality is now defined according to a set of criteria that broadly exceed the appropriate relationship between form and function.

According to the U.S. magazine Metropolis (March 2009), “good design” today is dependent on 10 criteria. Good design is: 

  • Sustainable (environmentally responsible)
  • Accessible
  • Functional
  • Well-made (manufactured, built)
  • Emotionally resonant
  • Enduring
  • Socially beneficial
  • Beautiful
  • Ergonomic
  • Affordable

These criteria are supplemented by the idea that good design offers a solution that is sensitive to the context andmakes sense culturally.

To this list can be added other criteria, such as well-being, desire (aspiration), cultural expression, re-use, sensitivity to context, etc. Quality in design does not refer only to the esthetic nature of projects. It corresponds above all to a community’s long-standing desired values. These values may be associated with cultural, social, environmental and economic aspects of a society. They are in flux, because they are intimately linked to the evolution of that society.


The Montréal, UNESCO City of Design Initiative has been a lever for deployment of numerous competitions for development and infrastructure projects, generating significant economic benefits:

For more information, see the report Montréal, UNESCO City of Design in Action and by the Numbers.

The Chair in Landscape and Environmental Design at Université de Montréal previously published the report Chantier Montréal Ville UNESCO de design : perceptions et évaluations des actions in December 2012.  (French only)