Montreal is one of my favorite places on the planet. In fact, if I have one regret in life it’s that I didn’t do my undergrad at McGill University. Living in Montreal as a poor student would have been the best. Though I shouldn’t complain because I did spend quite a bit of time there when I was a poor student.

If you’ve ever been to Montreal, the image at the top of this post will look familiar. The urban landscape of Montreal—at least in the residential areas—is filled with exterior staircases. They’re all over the place. And this always strikes everybody as a bit odd given that it’s a pretty cold and snowy place a lot of the time. Nonetheless, those staircases are quintessentially Montreal.

Some people think it was done to minimize the amount of interior space that needed to be heated, but I’ve never really gotten a definitive answer. Either way, all those stairs are an interesting byproduct of Montreal’s commitment to one predominant building type: the multiplex. A multiplex is essentially a small apartment building containing a handful of units. They’re usually only around 3 storeys high. And they’re all over the Ville de Montréal.

To be honest though, I don’t think I’ve ever really explicitly thought about this defining Montreal quality. But then last night I stumbled upon an interesting blog post called “Les escaliers de Montréal vs towers of Toronto.” (escaliers = stairs) In it the author talks about how Montreal is essentially this city of multiplexes (with stairs everywhere) and Toronto is this, more modern, city of towers surrounded by single family homes.

And here’s the data to back it up:

When it comes to single-detached houses and apartment buildings taller than 5 storeys, Toronto dominates. But when it comes to apartment buildings less 5 storeys, it’s all Montreal. And if you add in apartment duplexes, you’ve accounted for almost 75% of Montreal’s housing stock. Note: These figures are for the city proper and don’t include any amalgamated suburbs.

The author’s explanation for this comes down to zoning and timing. Since Montreal is an older city, the belief is that Montreal was simply further along in its evolution when formal land-use planning came into effect and started to order the city. I generally agree with this hypothesis, but I think it’s also worth keeping in mind that, just because a Toronto house might be zoned as single family, doesn’t mean it’s actually begin used as such.

A lot of the older houses in Toronto have been subdivided into what are effectively illegal multiplexes. Since this is all happening under the radar, nobody really knows what the actual stock of multiplexes might be. Nonetheless, there’s no denying that there are some real differences between the urban fabric of Montreal and Toronto.