Lego and the City

8 06 2009

I’ve been struggling the last few weeks to put together a monster post attempting to explain all the possible urban ramifications of a) climate change and b) Peak Oil, and the related need for c) planned urban shrinkage. It’s ridiculous. It’s going to be the longest post ever, and it’s possible that no one will take the time to read it, except for me. 

So, since I have made little headway on this overambitious project, I offer you a link this week to Don Iveson’s website, Edmonton City Councillor Extraordinaire. His website is generally excellent, revealing a grasp of urban issues that would put many city planners to shame. And his most recent post is classic and fun and dear to my own tiny planner heart:

A Lego Urban Design Primer, by Don Iveson. Check it out, you won’t be sorry.

LEGO's City Corner set. Click photo to link to

LEGO's City Corner set.


Built Well, But All At Once

19 02 2009

You might think that a city whose economy is based on innovative technology might also develop an innovative urban form, but San Jose instead seems to be a prototypical new American city: a downtown bristling with tall towers surrounded by low-density sprawl and strip development for about as far as the eye can see. The creativity of Adobe, Cisco and other Silicon Valley stalwarts seems focused within the walls of their tech campuses, not spilling out onto the sidewalks and into neighborhoods. But that’s not to say that there is nothing to see in San Jose’s suburban hinterland. Since San Jose is home to one of the most affluent populations in the US, there’s money to splash around on high-end shopping, and that has resulted in Santana Row, the most ambitious “lifestyle” retail development I have ever come across.

Turn a mall inside out and put it on steroids, and what do you get? Big box power center development. But reduce the dosage of steroids, hide the cars, add in a residential component and some smart urban design and you get Santana Row. Or, to characterize it somewhat differently, you get a European town center on steroids.

Arcaded sidewalks

Arcaded sidewalks

The design is very smart. Coming in from the surrounding roads, the first thing you notice is the absence of parking. The parking is almost all hidden underground and in the interior of blocks, and the best way to shop is to stash the car and get out and walk. Then you notice the wide sidewalks and the sense of enclosure by the 3 to 5 storey buildings. One block has arcaded sidewalks and mews to adjacent streets and parking areas, another has fountains and small kiosk shops and restaurants in a wide, tree-shaded pedestrian plaza between the lanes of traffic, and another street has a green square, Valencia Park, bordered by roads on two sides and buildings on the other two. Retail or restaurants are the consistent ground floor use, and pricey condominiums and a boutique hotel rise above. In short, it’s got a little bit of everything in a compact and attractive package. Santana Row has a space to please everybody, and though it didn’t appear to be a terribly busy shopping day the afternoon I visited, there were still plenty of people enjoying the space under the big tree, sitting in the green square and strolling the arcades.

A mature tree in a central pedestrian plaza creates a great place to relax

A mature tree in the linear pedestrian plaza creates a place to rest and people-watch

When compared to Westfield Valley Fair, the big traditional mall just to the north across Stevens Creek Boulevard, or to the isolated, asphalt-surrounded shoeboxes of standard power centers, Santana Row is a dream. And a really good one at that. The place focuses on people, de-emphasizes the car, and has some elements that inspire real delight. It’s won awards, and it’s no wonder: this is a very rare form of large-scale commercial development.

But, when it’s compared to a thriving main street shopping district, or to the European town centers it seems to be modeled on, I think it does come up short. All the glitz of the Gucci, Burberry and Diesel wares on display do not make up for the fact that there is a uniformity to the place, a lack of authenticity. And I can’t say that I see this as a slight against the designers, as the creativity, expense and attention to detail is evident around every corner. But it is inescapable that this place was designed and built all at once.

Valencia Park with its astroturf, bordered by palms and restaurants

Valencia Park with its astroturf, bordered by palms and restaurants

It lacks the organic quality of a street that has seen changes over time, with multiple owners taking care of their buildings in different ways, perhaps neglecting them, or perhaps trying to one-up their neighbors. Santana Row is beautiful, but it also feels airbrushed. The grass in Valencia Park was actually astroturf. And for all of its attractive qualities and emphasis on the walking experience, it is still a disconnected oasis of pedestrianism amidst an otherwise auto-dominated landscape.

I can’t say I disliked it. I found it a very interesting place, and it really does represent a huge improvement over the parking lots and blank walls of malls and big boxes. But Santana Row doesn’t feel like a place I could easily take ownership of. Perhaps, like a new pair of jeans, it might just need to be lived in for a while. But in the meantime, I think I’ll probably stick with Main Street.

Planning Saves The World

17 12 2008
Draft development concept presented on Dec. 11, 2008, with transit center and park and ride lot to the north.

Draft development concept presented on Dec. 11, 2008, with transit center and park and ride lot to the north - MVH Planning and Design

Well, not quite the world. But maybe it could, if done well more often. It was my distinct pleasure to help host a public meeting last Thursday night that, contrary to the combative tone of most public meetings I have been involved with, ended in applause and a community that seems truly excited by the results of the design process.

The Potter Greens neighborhood in west Edmonton will see the construction of a new transit center next year, as well as an associated park and ride lot. The rest of the site, all owned by the City of Edmonton, includes a peatland natural area and about 6 hectares (15 acres) of developable land. The plan for the area, an amendment to which I took to Council last year, calls for some form of transit-oriented development in that developable area, the details of which were to be worked out in close consultation with the existing community. The transit center will also likely be the terminus for a future LRT line, so getting the design right now is important to set the framework for the future.

It’s probably not appropriate for me to offer much commentary on the concept that was presented, as there is still a lot of work to be done to get it to the zoning stage. But I will say that my impression of the concept is that it is creative yet practical, appears to balance well the interests of residents and the City, and that it evoked a surprisingly enthusiastic response from area residents present last night, some of whom seemed ready to move in tomorrow. This is quite a switch from the upset and concerned residents who came out to our initial meetings. I think the consultant’s presentation of the concept was a masterfully persuasive sales pitch, though one based on carefully-crafted ideas and attention to the interests of the audience. It was a sales pitch that played to the crowd the right way: through having listened closely.

The powerpoint from last night is available here. It will hopefully go up on as well, but that could take some time. The consultant working on this project is MVH Planning and Design Inc.

Aerial view of the development concept (center right) in its existing context.

Aerial sketch of the development concept (center right) in its existing context - MVH Planning and Design

Transportation (Not Just Automobile) Planning

16 11 2008

Since the cold weather has finally started to settle in around here I’ve started giving in, getting off my bike and switching to transit for most trips. A recent experience I had with transit underscored for me the problems we create when we plan for cars first and everything else a (distant) second.

Waiting for a bus after getting off the LRT, I became convinced that it had gone by shortly before I got to the stop. I get a little impatient in cool weather, so I decided to walk to the next bus stop for something to do and to keep myself warm. This turned out to be a bad idea.

114 Street is now a pedestrian head-ache as a result of LRT construction.

114 Street is now a pedestrian head-ache as a result of LRT construction. There is no sidewalk on the west side and the signal at 78 Ave makes you wait 2 minutes before it changes.

Extension of the LRT has necessitated some rejigging of the transportation functions along 114 Street. The casualty, however, has been pedestrian movement. Although bus stops remain on the west side of 114 Street, sandwiched between the LRT line and the roadway, the sidewalk has been stripped out. North-south pedestrian crossing at University Ave has also been restricted. This means that in order to reach this southbound bus stop from the north, a pedestrian must cross twice at University Ave then again at 78 Ave. Factor in a 2-minute change cycle for the pedestrian-activated signal at 78 Ave and you have a recipe for pedestrian frustration.

It turned out I hadn’t missed my bus at the previous stop. I discovered this when it sailed by me while I was waiting interminably for the 78 Ave signal to change.

Okay, so not all bus riders will be coming to this bus stop from the direction I was coming from, and you might argue that I created the problem myself with my impatience. But it is troubling to me nonetheless, because it seems to me that the imperative of automobile convenience is at work here. LRT extension has complicated left-turning at University Ave, and pedestrians also complicate automobile movements. Since LRT cannot be removed from the scenario and cars are sacrosanct, unimpeded pedestrian access bites the bullet. Considering that every transit trip begins and ends on foot, this seems like a poor choice.

People complain about traffic all the time, but rarely identify their own complicity in the problem. If you are a driver, traffic is not an external problem: you help to create it. Transit, cyclists and pedestrians take up a lot less space, thereby reducing congestion and, ironically, making it more pleasant to drive. So maybe if we make it a little bit less convenient for people to drive by planning for walking, cycling and transit first, it will actually improve things for drivers in the long run.

Well, that may be too much to hope for…

Sad Lack of Beauty

24 09 2008

It is sad that in this age of wealth (really, we’re the richest we’ve ever been, at least in North America) we have such a lack of beauty in our public spaces.

On a trip to Prague this past spring, I saw this on the side of a building. How incredible. So gorgeous.

What do we spend all our wealth on? Home stereo systems? Cars? And for buildings, we slap on some stucco or some vinyl siding and go on our merry way.

On Automobilia

14 08 2008

There have been a few days lately when I’ve ended up driving to work, having had the office car overnight for a public meeting, or a site visit first thing in the morning.

I had forgotten how much I hate driving in rush hour. Or just generally when traffic is bad. It results in nothing but stress, boredom and anxiety for me. And when there is road construction to contend with, I think it actually takes longer than it does to bike to work.

And then there are the landscapes that all this driving results in. I can’t say I’m a big fan of scenes like Gateway Boulevard.

Bike or bus for me. I’m committed.