Infrastructure Folly

6 07 2009
Rendering of the interchange under construction at 23 Avenue and Gateway Boulevard, Edmonton -

Rendering of the interchange under construction at 23 Avenue and Gateway Boulevard, Edmonton -

Coming back into Edmonton on the airport shuttle tonight I passed under or through several monumental interchanges along the Queen Elizabeth Highway. I took particular note of the progress being made on the interchange at 23 Avenue and Gateway Boulevard. The dehumanizing mess it is making of what was already a pretty dismal intersection turns my stomach.

The massively overbuilt interchange at Anthony Henday Drive and QEH amazes me with its scale, dwarfing even the massive trucks that trundle through it all day long. It amazes me that complaints about Anthony Henday Drive not being a true freeway along its entire length are now to be heard in every conversation about the road. “How could they have been so stupid not to build all the overpasses right up front?” so many people wonder. “Why are the planners so incompetent that they could allow traffic to be so bad?” they cry. As if we have always been entitled to this road, complete and unobstructed. Never mind that Anthony Henday did not even exist as a functional ring road a few short years ago. Never mind that when it is finally completed it will have cost us billions and billions of dollars. Never mind that the ring road does absolutely nothing to ease traffic problems because its raison d’etre is in fact to support and facilitate increased driving to increasingly far-flung and car-dependent suburban areas.

I was returning today from San Francisco. I’ve been awed by interchanges on the highway in from the airport in that city, impressed by them. I’ve had similar responses to even grander interchanges in other US cities such as Houston. But being impressed does not suggest it is something I would like to see repeated. When I see Spaghetti Monuments to the Almighty Car being constructed in my own hometown, I do indeed find my stomach turning. Why are we going down the same literal and figurative road that so many other cities have gone down? Why are we not seeing that other places are turning away from this model of building their way out of roadway congestion? Why aren’t we realizing that they are turning away from it because they have discovered that building new roads actually increases car-dependency and therefore ultimately adds to congestion? And why is it that the Province of Alberta is already planning for the next ring road around Edmonton? I suppose they think that this little game of chicken and rotten egg will just go on forever and ever.

Why did the chicken cross the ring road over and over again? Because he was an unevolved bird-brain who never learned how to fly and didn’t notice how his predecessors all got squished by 18 wheelers.

San Francisco's multi-level Embarcadero Freeway, a bittersweet casualty of the 1989 earthquake - unattributed on

San Francisco's multi-level Embarcadero Freeway, a bittersweet casualty of the 1989 earthquake - unattributed on

Oh all right. I’m ranting. Where’s my evidence? Who says Anthony Henday Drive and the new Gateway Boulevard interchange aren’t necessary, aren’t needed for trade and the movement of people? I can’t honestly say for sure. I don’t have the necessary empirical data to back up my assertions that the City of Edmonton would be better off without them. But other cities are tearing down freeways and interchanges at the same time we are building them. The Infrastructurist recently highlighted four freeway tear-downs that measurably improved life in the surrounding city (two of them in San Francisco) without traffic or the trade of the city grinding to a halt.

I think in these times of change, when the winds are increasingly blowing in the direction of less car-travel, less energy consumption overall and the need for an aggressive shift towards less environmentally disruptive ways of living, that these massive “investments” may soon be seen as a massive waste of taxpayer dollars. When you contrast the $250 million being spent on just one interchange with the $100 million Edmonton will be spending over the next 10 years on cycling improvements and the similar amount over the same period to be spent on pedestrian improvements, it seems clear to me that priorities are out of whack.

It’s not about ceasing all investments in road infrastructure. But it is about planning for a livable and equitable city, and looking forward to a future in which our current assumptions may no longer hold true. I’m not sure how many of my fellow citizens are thinking the same way, unfortunately.


The Urban and the Aboriginal

1 07 2009

I must admit to having a rather limited understanding of the Aboriginal experience in Canada. Certainly I know some of the history, at least how it is told from the perspective of our majority culture. And I know from observation a part of the current urban Aboriginal experience. which appears dysfunctional and troubled. But I would like to know more.

I am currently reading John Ralston Saul’s A Fair Country, his paean to Canadian identity. His description of the dominant culture’s treatment of Aboriginal peoples does not present Canada as a very fair country at all, but it is instructive, and in fact exhorts us to stop pitying and/or denigrating these people, as this is not helpful behaviour, and rather just serves to reinforce the juvenile, subordinate position we have placed them in over the last few centuries. His description of their predicament invokes a definition of the rest of Canada as “urban” and aloof from nature, versus the Aboriginal idea of humans as an integral and inseparable part of nature.

As for what doesn’t work on some reserves, that has to do with the artificial imposition from outside of an urban philosophy, one in which humans are the chosen species. It is the failure of that urban view that has fuelled the environmental movement. So reserves were first pushed to integrate an inappropriate urban concept. They were then condemned, more or less by the same people, for complying.

More precisely, the southern, urban, human-centred “environmental consciousness” is, in the words of the Canadian Museum of Civilization curator Stephen Augustine, “new to Aboriginal society.” Many of these isolated communities had already been struggling for decades to adjust to the bad situations in which they had had to settle because the settlers had taken their land. Then they had to struggle to make sense of the artificial and inappropriate structure imposed on their communities. Then the residential school system was imposed to destroy their societal and family structures. On top of that, the architecture and planning made available to them or simply imposed by Indian and Northern Affairs involved the worst of ideas from poor 1960s southern suburbs. These were literally dropped into the near North or the Arctic, the boreal forest, the barrens or the tundra. What then followed was a sudden influx into these small isolated settlements of waves of urban junk and urban junk food and urban garbage. And we shouldn’t forget the pretentious imposition by provincial ministries of education of a standard urban approach to schooling in communities that will never have road access, let alone be urban. All of this has been deeply destabilizing. Several generations of residential school graduates were then expected to run their communities in large part according to inappropriate urban criteria, without any of the managerial training linked to these artificially imposed approaches.

With so many layered challenges to a way of life that was accorded no value and allowed no space to operate, physically or socially, by a dominant and urban culture (i.e. highly structured, specialized, technological and centralized), it seems no surprise that Aboriginal cultures have struggled mightily to reassert themselves, or that so many of their members have become lost in the cities to alcohol, drug abuse and the other dark temptations of urban culture. But Saul argues that this urban view of Aboriginals, for a great many Canadians their only view, is an unfair and distorted perception.

People who concentrate on what doesn’t work in Aboriginal communities usually haven’t been in any. True, some are in crisis. But lots work very well. I’ve seen many of these. True, some have problematic leadership. But from what I’ve seen, the rising Aboriginal leadership is as good as and often superior to its equivalent in non-Aboriginal communities. After all, they have had to find their way through challenges and crises most other Canadian leaders have not had to face.

I am an urbanist. I love cities and think they have much to offer. So, it is somewhat surprising for me to come across an indictment of greater Canadian society defined as a conflict between urban and non-urban mindsets. Of course, it is less the physical city and more the bureaucratic, philosophical and societal construct of the city that Saul is putting up in opposition here. But I see the logic of the metaphor, and I understand clearly (how can one not) the indictment of this “urban” and paternalistic approach to dealing with Aboriginals, and all the damage it has caused through its inappropriateness and insensitivity to Aboriginal cultures.

Today being Canada Day, proud Canadian though I am, I thought I would share this alternative perspective on Canadianism. We often, pointing to the history we wrote for ourselves, pat ourselves on the back for having dealt with the Aboriginal peoples better than our neighbours to the south. We negotiated with them rather than fought with them, we say. How good of us. How noble. Except that the way we interpreted those negotiations was not fair and we have, sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally, marginalized them as members of Canadian society ever since. I think Canada is a wonderful country, perhaps the best, and in many respects a fair country as Saul goes on to describe in his book. But Canada is not a perfect country. On a day like today I think it is important to reflect on our failures as we also celebrate our successes.

(All quotes from pages 81 and 82 of A Fair Country by John Ralston Saul, Viking Press, 2008.)

The Desire for Community

14 05 2009

In 1985 Neil Postman published Amusing Ourselves to Death, an insightful critique of television culture and its effect on public discourse. Rather than being a predictable blanket slam of television-as-boobtube, it was a nuanced discussion of the pervasive but largely unnoticed changes wrought by a culture based on watching: a lack of depth in discussions about our common future and decay in ties of community and place. Although the internet was just a twinkle in Al Gore’s eye in 1985, Postman’s perspective seems to apply almost equally to this new medium, contributing as it does to a weakening of ties to physical place, and the largely contextless way in which most news is presented via television and the internet. Postman’s prescient thoughts on how the internet would change our lives can be heard in this interview from 1995, which gets really interesting around the 2 and a half minute mark:

Two weeks ago I had my second overwhelmingly positive public meeting experience (the first being this one), a meeting at which most people who attended went home happy and pleasantly surprised. The reason for this, I believe, was that the project being discussed takes a very different approach to development than we have come to expect in our cities. The project is a cohousing development, and the proponents of it actually intend to live there.

Cohousing, in brief, is a form of housing in which residents intentionally create their community. Usually cluster or row housing complexes, cohousing developments are designed with lots of shared amenity spaces that encourage and support interaction between neighbors and with surrounding neighborhoods. According to the Canadian Cohousing Network, cohousing provides:

“…personal privacy combined with the benefits of living in a community where people know and interact with their neighbours. It’s about living in a way that’s responsive to a world that has changed dramatically in the last fifty years-a world in which the home life has changed, women are integral in the labour force, resource limitations and environmental concerns are on the rise, and many people feel over extended. Cohousing offers hope in our often dissociated society.” 

The applicant spoke at great length about the philosophy of the future residents and the design of the project as it relates to the fostering of a real internal community, as well as how that might relate to the existing external community. This is in stark contrast to the standard model of development, which seems to value community only insofar as it works as a trite but meaningless advertising slogan. “Join our vibrant community” can be seen on signs advertising neighborhoods still being prepared by the bulldozer. Most of these “communities” are then constructed to maximize privacy and seclusion (read: loneliness?), packaging up what consumers are assumed to want into discrete lots or apartments. In the pursuit of private comfort and independence, the pursuit of real community of place seems largely ignored. 

Most people seem to crave community, even if they don’t know how to achieve it. I’m not convinced that we planners really know how to create it, either. The responsibility, of course, does not fall solely on our shoulders, but that is an excellent reason why we  should be asking more questions and listening carefully to the answers. The new age may demand new urban forms to suit new ways of living. If we can’t grasp that, then are we really planners, or are we just treading old paths?

What On Earth?

7 04 2009

Aha! I’ve finally figured out how to embed video. It’s not that hard, it turns out. Good thing, because I just rediscovered a great National Film Board animated short that’s well worth sharing: What On Earth?

It is the story of the Martian discovery of Earth, and their mistaken impressions about what exactly constitutes intelligent life on this planet. If you have about 10 minutes to spare, it’s worth a view. It’s quite funny, as well as a bit thought-provoking.

It would seem that not that much has changed since it was produced in 1967.

Wheels Turning : Times Changing

9 02 2009

As a 2008 wrap-up, GOOD Magazine did a survey of the state of our planet. An impossible task, but it resulted in some interesting articles, one of which suggested some big changes in transportation trends continuing into 2009: increased cycling, increased transit use, higher gas prices (though prices have dropped for the time being), infrastructure spending to fight the recession and the rise of electric vehicles.

It also offered another short article on some great examples around the world of places which are taking innovative approaches to cycling, and getting around in general.

Paris’ new Velib bike rental system is the most exciting concept, for my money, with an average of 130,000 bike rentals per day since it was launched in July of 2007. There’s a great overview by the Bikes Belong Coalition on vimeo, complete with cool-hipster narration. I can’t embed the video for some reason, but click on the image below to see it:

Bikes Belong Coalition - Paris' Velib bike system

Paris' Velib bike system - Bikes Belong Coalition

The Needs of Strangers

2 02 2009

Since Michael Ignatieff is the new leader of the Canadian Liberal Party, and might conceivably become Prime Minister one day, I decided to look into his writing a bit. He’s been a writer, a historian, an academic, a cultural personality, and is obviously a man of intelligence, so the potential for interesting reading seemed high. I haven’t been disappointed. I’ve been reading his 1984 book The Needs of Strangers, a romp through the history of western thinking regarding the responsibility of society to its members, and the nature of human need and desire. I know, heady stuff. I wear nerdy t-shirts in my spare time, and I also read nerdy books, what can I say?

If he can apply the same sort of analytical rigor to politics as he has to the subject of this book, then he’s pretty much got my vote already. Some of his observations have been really interesting. Discussing belonging, fraternity and the idea of citizenship in our modern, fractured society (circa 1984, but to my mind even more relevant today) he offers this:

“…our language has not caught up with modernity. We still think of belonging as permanence, yet all our homes are transient. Who still lives in the house of their childhood? Who still lives in the neighborhood where they grew up? Home is the place we have to leave in order to grow up, to become ourselves. We think of belonging as rootedness in a small familiar place, yet home for most of us is the convulsive arteries of a great city. Our belonging is no longer to something fixed, known and familiar, but to an electric and heartless creature eternally in motion.”

The framing of the city as an “electric and heartless creature” seems to me to sell the city short, but the descriptions are evocative. And this is something I have struggled with as a planner-on-the-move, going away for university and now attempting a move to a city “eternally in motion”. Is there not a conflict between my desire to be rooted in place, to plan for places that I am fully connected to and have intimate knowledge of, and this desire to live the life I want to live, in a place that is entirely new and exciting? I seem to want both.

Luckily, Mr Ignatieff also tells me:

“Modern secular humanism is empty if it supposes that the human good is without internal contradiction. These contradictions cannot be resolved in theory, only in practice.”

So, I can have both. And he might become Prime Minister, so he must know what he’s talking about. Okay, but seriously, he’s captured something here that we have either never come to fully understand, or are just too nostalgic to fully embrace. As planners we seem unerringly interested in the creation of a sense of belonging, and yet there are few, if any, uniting narratives of belonging in our lives these days. Religion doesn’t unify us anymore, intense patriotism has been discredited, and our consumable culture is intimately personalized, with most advertising prompting us to define ourselves as unique individuals. 

We are awash in communities of interest, but those communities are rarely geographically-based.

Compromises and Complexity

13 12 2008

A featured article on talks about the health dangers of living near heavily-traffic corridors: high levels of smog (ground-level ozone), particulate matter and other contaminants combine to create health complications, particularly with regard to respiratory health, and especially for the young. Article here.

It was an interesting read for me, as I was confronted with this precise question when I went for my Ethics Exam for CIP certification in September. The examiner presented the following scenario:

You are working on a corridor plan for a major arterial street (i.e. lots of traffic), and the planning study is recommending increased residential densities on the street to take advantage of good public transit service, commercial amenities, services, and so on. However, the local health authority has come forward in opposition to increased residential densities due to the serious health problems associated with living adjacent to heavy traffic areas. The research is conclusive, and they are vocal in their opposition. How do you proceed?

So, mustering my best response, I talked about reviewing their concerns and revisiting our recommendations, modifying where possible and attempting to balance the health arguments with the planning arguments for City Council to consider. And that was all reasonable, considering it was a theoretical scenario: a lot would depend on the details of the actual situation. But the best way to address such a thorny issue in a real planning situation was honestly very unclear to me.

One of the reasons I like planning work is its complexity. It is fundamentally a big picture undertaking. Planners are expected to take all these multiple considerations into account, coming to conclusions or recommendations that balance all the interests. But, how do you deal with big picture considerations that appear to be fundamentally at odds with one another? How do you reconcile the ideal scenario (perhaps high-density living should be clustered along heavy traffic corridors, but perhaps that heavy traffic should be entirely public transit, or bicycles, or some other less-polluting form of transport) with actual conditions (in which the majority of people drive, most people prefer it that way, and for those who don’t the alternatives are poor). And where do you choose to make compromises along the road from current to ideal state, in the interests of bridging that gap?

I guess I have more questions than answers. Some things just need to be muddled through.