Vision In Place, Tough Choices Still Required

28 07 2009

Edmonton City Council made a bold decision in the direction of urban densification in early July, voting to eventually close the City Centre Airport, with precise timing still to be determined. The vision that will replace the medevac flights, hobby craft and small charters is a transit-oriented, mixed use, high density green community centred around an LRT station, and an expansion of the Northern Alberta Institute for Technology campus. While there were some understandable concerns about the effect this decision would have on businesses currently located at the airport, Council decided that the benefits of redeveloping the 217 hectare (500+ acre) area vastly outweighed the business and transportation benefits of keeping the airport open.

NAIT's crowded campus, with City Centre Airport hangars in the foreground

NAIT's crowded campus, with City Centre Airport hangars in the foreground

In April I wrote about the choices several other North American cities had made to close their centrally-located airports and redevelop them as model mixed use urban communities. I personally think that the decision Council has made is the right one and that, if realized, the vision for the airport lands could signal a paradigm shift for Edmonton away from its predominantly suburban development form. But while I applaud this particular decision, I question whether this city realizes what will be required to have it become a reality. A shift towards an urban sensibility in Edmonton, even just to the point where urban development is in balance with suburban growth, requires big picture thinking on the part of City Council and planners to see how all the elements fit together, to ensure that support is given to this type of urbanism.

Edmonton is growing surprisingly fast. The 2009 municipal census shows that the city managed to add some 30,000 residents between April 2008 and April 2009, bringing the total population to 782,000. This is a rather impressive rate of growth, considering the difficult economic conditions during that time period, including a collapse of the oil prices which are so important to Edmonton’s economy. Continued growth is an important pre-condition for the redevelopment of such a large site as the airport, and as oil prices creep back upwards the short-term outlook, at least, appears positive.

But while growth usually equals demand, demand is not a homogeneous thing where real estate is concerned. Approximately three quarters of residential development in the Edmonton market currently takes place in newly-developing suburban areas, with urban redevelopment capturing the rest. And there is no shortage of suburban areas being developed. As of 2008, there were 42 neighborhoods under development across the city. The Planning and Development Department keeps track of development trends relative to supply in approved plan areas, using single family lots as a barometer for the overall market. In 2008, there was a 10 year city-wide supply of single family residential lots in Neighbourhood Structure Plan Areas. Taking higher level Area Structure Plan numbers into account, Council approvals were in place for almost twice as many lots, representing an 18 year supply†. With new areas being proposed to be opened up for suburban development through the draft Municipal Development Plan, this state of oversupply seems poised to continue.

While oversupply is good in some respects, moderating the cost of new homes, the question is not just about quantity or cost. Through the Strategic Plan, Edmonton City Council has expressed a desire to shift the city away from the predominant sprawling suburban form. If Edmonton really wants to densify, make better use of existing infrastructure, make a shift to public transit and other alternative modes of transportation and invigorate mature neighborhoods, then Council cannot have its cake and eat it too. If Edmonton wishes to revitalize Downtown, The Quarters, the Downtown North Edge, Alberta Avenue, Jasper Place and the City Centre Airport lands (all of which have seen planning efforts in recent years) through redevelopment, as well as hoping for redevelopment activity in other mature neighborhoods and along LRT lines, then continuing to offer support for new suburban development is naive. If these redevelopment efforts are the brainchildren of City Council, why would Council eat their young?

An important task of City of Edmonton planners should be to understand clearly how much development the city really needs, and make firm recommendations to Council about where to place priorities. This is not to say that development should be halted or artificially constrained. Everyone needs a place to live. But it can and should be directed and shaped so that development occurs in a fashion and the locations where it can support the city’s vision for itself.

People complain so often about developers ruining their neighborhoods, cutting down this, tearing down that, building that other thing that “no one wanted”. We seem to forget that it is in our power to guide developers, through clear regulations and policies, about how we want our city to look and function. We can’t really blame them for looking out for their bottom line, particularly if we are not confident enough as a city to look out for our own.

Note: Calculations for city-wide supply are my own, extrapolated from City of Edmonton estimates for developing sectors of the city.


Thinking About Shrinkage

12 06 2009

Much ado has been made about Flint, Michigan’s long steady decline as a manufacturing centre, with General Motors’ role as corporate bad guy brought to the world’s attention through Michael Moore’s first documentary, Roger and Me. The 1980s and 1990s job cuts in Flint caused it to almost halve its population as people moved on to greener pastures. Similar urban abandonment can be seen about 100 miles to the southeast in Detroit, and has been experienced in other “rustbelt” cities such as Cleveland. But the recent housing crash and recession are now making it a phenomenon that can be seen across the US, with foreclosures and job losses hollowing out neighborhoods in places as geographically diverse as Orange County and Stockton, California, to Cook County Illinois, with those cities and counties struggling to find the tools and expertise to deal with it effectively. In Canada, it is a problem that has mostly affected mill and mining towns in the hinterlands of British Columbia and Northern Ontario, but it could certainly start to be seen on a larger scale in Ontario manufacturing cities as the effects of the recession begin to shake out.

Edmonton's Petro-Canada oil refinery

Edmonton's Petro-Canada oil refinery

There has been more hope for an economic turnaround of late, but the long-term outlook suggests that this problem of urban decay may continue. It was not until 2008’s volatile oil markets that the slumbering public consciousness was awakened to the idea that our fossil fuel energy sources are neither infinite nor indefinitely cheap. Peak Oil is a theory, first postulated by Dr. M. King Hubbert in 1956, suggesting that there is a bell curve-like character to oil discovery and production, and that once past the top of the curve, oil production will not only begin to shrink, but will also become increasingly difficult and expensive. Hubbert correctly predicted the US oil production peak in 1970, and there are indications that the theory is now beginning to play out worldwide. This will likely result in increasing pressures on those living in middle and working class suburban areas as the cost of living in their far-flung and transit-unfriendly neighborhoods skyrockets. Transportation costs will be the biggest issues for residents of these areas, but there will also be other affordability pressures such as increased food costs, and indeed increased costs for everything not locally made, as shipment and production becomes costlier.

The other looming specter, of course, is climate change. While there are still a fair number of skeptics out there, the 2007 IPCC report and media such as Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth have done a lot of work to shift the public consciousness, and we are now seeing climate change deniers start to become a rare political and public breed. What precisely will be done, and how fast, is of course up for much debate, but I think there is little doubt that we are entering a time of action on the issue. And if greenhouse gas emissions from transportation in countries such as Canada and the U.S. generate between 25 and 30% of those countries’ total emissions, and if something approaching half of all other emissions are related to the heating, cooling and operation of our buildings, then it is clear that cities are prime candidates for major change.

It seems likely that some urban areas will face changes similar to those in Flint, as their economies fail and people leave entirely, or simply reposition themselves for less expensive lifestyles by moving into more walkable and convenient neighborhoods. Other places may not feel the economic pinch the same way as Flint has, but will still be compelled to adapt to climate change imperatives. Cities may need to shrink.

Suburban housing sprawls across the landscape in Edmonton, Canada

Suburban housing sprawls across the landscape in Edmonton - will such far-flung areas be in demand in the future?

Many cities have already been thinking about this issue, attempting to densify their existing neighborhoods in order to make more efficient use of infrastructure that has already been built. But most cities have pursued the strategy of densification at the same time as they have been approving new neighborhoods on the urban edge, essentially attempting to have their cake and eat it too. With the cake morphing into a shrinking pie, we may not have the luxury of doing both in the future. Economist Arthur C. Nelson suggested last year that the US already had roughly as much suburban housing as it will need in 2030, but only half as much urban housing. Lifestyle changes and the unaffordability of single-detached housing is already pushing us in the direction of more dense urban living. Energy scarcity and the changes that will be demanded in the fight against climate change will only serve to accelerate those trends.

Flint has begun taking advantage of changes to Michigan law allowing municipalities to take control much faster of properties for non-payment of taxes. The growing land bank now offers opportunities. As there are fewer buyers than foreclosed-upon houses, the most obvious solution is to demolish; a grassy lot causes fewer problems than a boarded up house. But when you have the majority of a block being foreclosed on, or huge swaths of entire neighborhoods, demolition does nothing to repair the social fabric of a neighborhood, and nor does it do anything to improve its affordability, from a municipal perspective. Garbage trucks that stop twice on a block guzzle a lot more diesel and worker time than a fully-occupied block, and those increased service costs (for all services, not just garbage pick-up) are most definitely not going to be met by the reduced tax revenue coming from the area.

Flint’s proposed solution? Selective shrinkage. While the criteria for which neighborhoods will stay and which ones will go are not fully-defined, the idea is that the city will make use of its land bank to bolster the populations of healthier neighborhoods while pulling the curtain down on those they feel will not recover. The choice of which areas will go will no doubt be controversial, but the offer of an equivalent or better house in a thriving neighborhood versus remaining in a neighborhood in permanent decline will likely be a simple choice for most. The city will still have the same amount of land in its inventory after the swap, but it will benefit by concentrating the population in areas that are easier to provide with services. Genessee County Treasurer Dan Kildee, quoted in a New York Times article on the issue put it simply: “Not everyone’s going to win… But now, everyone’s losing.”

San Francisco's Potrero Hill Community Garden

Places such as San Francisco's Potrero Hill Community Garden may become essential elements of future neighborhoods

What to do with neighborhoods that have been slated for closure is the next obvious question. They offer all sorts of potential for urban adaptation that would hitherto have been difficult to achieve. In Flint, Dan Kildee’s suggestion is to create “the new Flint forest — something people will choose to live near, rather than something that symbolizes failure”. But this is only one of many possibilities, another being using the cleared land for urban agriculture, community gardens to allow residents of densifying cities space to grow their own garden vegetables, or potentially a conversion to larger-scale agriculture. When Cuba lost its source of cheap oil, fertilizers and chemical imports with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, they were forced to come up with creative approaches to fill the gap, particularly for food production. The desperate response was ultimately very successful, providing Cubans with greater food security:

The popular gardens range in size from a few square meters to three hectares. Larger plots of land are often subdivided into smaller individual gardens. Garden sites are usually vacant or abandoned plots located in the same neighborhood if not next door to the gardeners’ household. Land for the gardens is obtained through the local government body (the Poder Popular) at no cost, as long as it is used for cultivation. –

Will such drastic changes be absolutely necessary? Will our lives really change so much? I think there is a good chance that they will. But even if change is ultimately more modest, it is important that we begin seriously thinking about the possibilities. The planning profession has been focused since its inception on the rational organization of space, but that organization has, for the most part, been dependent upon growth. Rarely has the profession given serious attention to the dynamics of shrinkage and how to manage change in neighborhoods, or entire cities, that are no longer functional economic and social entities. Sure, planning has worked in declining neighborhoods and sometimes helped to turn them around, but the process has usually entailed an infusion of new money and life; essentially, robust regrowth, a jolt of energy from outside sources. In an era of declining resources, a different approach will be needed, centered around a philosophy of adaptation and the creative and efficient reuse of existing resources.

The alternative may be the depressing conditions one can see today in Flint, or, even worse, in Detroit. Hopefully both cities can make the changes they need in order to rebound from their long, slow declines. Their pitiable fates over the last several decades are demoralizing scenarios we would be wise not to repeat elsewhere.

Flint in Pictures – New York Times

100 Abandoned Houses of Detroit – by smooveb on

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 and Unbuilt Wonders

6 05 2009

History is littered with grand schemes left unbuilt due to changes in circumstance, shifts of power or preference, or imaginations overreaching rational possibility. Urban and architecture nerds will often muse with a faraway look in their eyes about these projects and bold ideas as if they were missed opportunities in a city’s history, the big ideas that would have made all the difference. I recently discovered (via the excellent bldgblog) that an Australian magazine, Architecture Australia, gives out awards every year for the best Unbuilt Work, and it’s quite an interesting collection. 

Among the award recipients is what amounts to a napkin drawing by Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier, sketching out ideas for an ideal urban form for Adelaide, Australia, done entirely from descriptions of the city he was offered by a Dr. Hugh C. Trumble, an Adelaide native, whom Le Corbusier met in Bogota, Columbia. Short article from AA here. This is an appalling thought to me, designing a city without first-hand knowledge of existing form or culture, but for Adelaide it was no problem, as the napkin plan never amounted to anything. But the exploration of ideas may have had a profound impact on another city, Chandigarh, India, for which Le Corbusier developed a master plan in 1951.

Le Corbusier's 1950 sketch musing on the possible future urban form of Adelaide, Australia -

Le Corbusier's 1950 sketch of the possible future urban form of Adelaide, Australia -

I’ve been to Chandigarh. (Spent a lovely day in hospital there, in fact!) It is a largely medium-rise, block-planned city, with each small neighbourhood unit being laid out precisely and repeated over the landscape with surprisingly little variation. It seems to be one of India’s most automobile-dependent and sprawling cities, and its urban culture is almost entirely alien to my experience of urban India: it was orderly, clean, difficult to get around in due to distance rather than congestion, and ultimately devoid of the vibrancy I experienced in other Indian cities. Some visitors may find this to be a blessing, considering the unceasing press of humanity that characterizes most Indian cities; but to me it felt like a botched graft into the culture, one that has forced residents to adapt to its functions rather than serving their patterns of living. Much of the reason for the sprawling character of Chandigarh is the fairly strict segregation of uses pursued in the built form, characteristic of modernist planning but rather ridiculous in India where car ownership is an unaffordable luxury for most. And of course in 1950’s India car ownership would have been almost unheard of. My feeling is that Chandigarh may have been better off left as a collection of sketches on the back of an envelope. 

Looking at the different awards on the Architecture Australia website, I was reminded of original plans I once saw for the University of Alberta campus. The majority of this very formalized and traditional campus plan was never realized, as the university stayed very small until Alberta’s oil boom began in the 1950’s, by which time ideas had changed. But those familiar with the U of A will recognize its legacy in the quadrangle and other open spaces to be found on campus.

University of Alberta campus plan of 1912 -

University of Alberta campus plan of 1912 -

Bird's eye architectural drawing of the 1912 U of A campus plan -

Bird's eye architectural drawing of the 1912 U of A campus plan -

From Eye Teeth to Urban Jewel?

4 03 2009

In June of this year Edmonton will consider the possibility of closing the city-owned City Centre Airport (the Muni) and look at options for redevelopment. While the decision is still a long way off, the debate seems to be ramping up in the media, with Scott McKeen writing two columns in the last week, business leaders making their pitches, and a slew of letters to the editor showing up in the Edmonton Journal in recent weeks.

A small plane flies over downtown on its way to land at the Muni

A small plane flies over downtown on its way to land at the Muni

The future of the Muni, which competed with Edmonton International until a referendum in 1995 decided (by an overwhelming 77% of voters) to consolidate scheduled air traffic at the larger airport, has long been a point of debate. Although the referendum halted most scheduled traffic, it remains a hub of Edmonton’s aviation industry, still serves the small-but-influential business travelling class, and serves as a convenient base for med-evac flights. It’s the business travellers that seem to be the most vocal proponents of not only maintaining the Muni, but also reopening it to scheduled air traffic. Arguments offered are varied, but usually boil down to these two points: that the Muni is a vital economic driver for Edmonton’s connections with northern communities, and that almost any North American city would give its eye teeth to have an airport in such close proximity to its downtown. I don’t really see how Edmonton’s links with the north would be severed by the closure of the Muni any more than Edmonton’s links with the rest of the world were severed after consolidation. But it’s the second argument that interests me most, as there are actually some North American cities that have shut down major inner city airports in the last 10 years, and have made real urban development success stories out of the choice.

Denver’s Stapleton International Airport and Austin’s Mueller Municipal Airport were closed in 1995 and 1999, respectively. Both were huge sites (Stapleton – 4700 ac/1850 ha; Mueller – 709 ac/279 ha) and in both cases the existence of neighboring residential communities was a major factor in the decision to relocate. Both cities took their time developing master plans for their sites, and both chose to select a single master developer to take charge of construction. Stapleton has been under development since 2001, while Mueller has been on the go since 2004. Both master plans exhibit all the best of current planning thought, focusing on mixed uses, higher but mixed densities, pedestrian and transit orientation (both have rapid transit stops planned or under construction), significant open space components,  and an overall emphasis on social, economic and environmental sustainability. The developer at Stapleton, for instance, is grinding up old infrastructure for reuse, stating sensibly: “It’s cheaper to mine the runways than to go mine the quarries.” Both sites have garnered significant interest in planning circles, and Stapleton in particular has received numerous Smart Growth awards, one from as far away as Sweden. An interesting analysis of Denver’s Stapleton redevelopment here, and a comparison of Denver and Austin’s approaches by Austin’s Chamber of Commerce here.

The other notable Canadian urban airport debate would be over Toronto’s Island Airport. Closure of this airport has also been considered in recent years, and the current mayor David Miller was elected in 2003 partly on a pledge to nix plans to build a bridge to the island (currently served by a ferry). Similar arguments have been made in that city, with a swelling downtown residential population arguing for closure or restrictions for quality of life reasons, and the business community citing the need for expansion for reasons of economics.

So Edmonton is not alone in this. Arguments on both sides still need to be made, and the final word will be heard from City Council. But it seems clear that the “eye teeth” argument, that Edmonton is a bush league city if it thinks that closing a central airport is a good idea, does not hold water. Some very dynamic North American cities have made the tough choice to close their airports, and then have gotten busy constructing a progressive urban vision for them. Taking planes out of the downtown skies may not necessarily mean that the sky is falling.

Shantytowns: Successful Social Environments?

8 01 2009

Happy New Year! A few things that have come my way in the last few days have related to shantytowns or slum areas, both as planning inspiration and a source of reflection. The first, a short piece on Good/Magazine about architect Teddy Cruz designing an affordable housing project in San Diego that takes physical and functional cues from shantytowns in Tijuana, Mexico. The 30-unit project will offer homes that are “jammed together, with any leftover space commandeered by taco stands, market stalls, and gathering places”. The rationale offered is that shantytowns, while being the loci of highly-concentrated poverty, offer a rich and supportive social environment.

Without knowing the urban context within which such a project will be built, it is impossible to say how successful such a small project will be in its hoped-for role as a center of social activity. Slums, in my experience, are densely-packed agglomerations of humanity. The argument can obviously and easily be made that they are too dense, considering their characteristic dearth of amenity and public services. Regardless, if density can be a positive aspect of shantytowns in terms of the vibrancy it offers, how could a 30-unit development ever hope to generate a similar social environment? It also seems odd to me that Cruz talks about gathering spaces in shantytowns, as my experience has been that such areas are usually just a warren of narrow pathways and cheek-by-jowl huts, the only spaces staying unoccupied for long being garbage dumps or drainage channels (sometimes one and the same). Perhaps Tijuana shantytowns are less chaotically and compactly built than Mumbai slums?

The idea is intriguing nonetheless. Architecturally, there seems no reason that we need to be wedded to the modernist ideal of straight lines of construction and highly-formalized social spaces. From a planning perspective, mixing homes and places of business in an intentionally social environment has been an increasingly orthodox ideal since Jane Jacobs wrote Death and Life, but rarely does the ideal seem to be successfully put into practice. So perhaps emulating the organically created environments of economically impoverished but socially vibrant shantytowns is just the ticket.

To seesaw back again in my discussion, however: one wonders whether the concept idealizes shantytown social life a bit unrealistically. Boingboing also linked to the piece and a comment from “Guidodavid” there declared gross naïveté on the part of the architect:

“[A shantytown] allows plenty of unwanted social contact that gets on your nerves. Have he ever lived sharing the same bedroom with 5 more people? Or the bathroom with 10 more? Maybe it is an overreaction, but to me, that live surrounded by shanty town, and that can see its hideous effects, someone to stand up and call this a good thing is deeply disturbing.”

Honestly, I am skeptical that this project, considering its small scale, will ultimately recreate either the best or the worst social aspects of shantytowns and slum areas. But I would still be very interested to stroll through it a few years down the road to see the results.

The other shantytown observations came my way from a co-worker, currently on leave for a year with her husband and children, and spending the time living in Namibia and India. They shift to India later this month, but Sue had this to say about Namibian neighborhoods on her travel blog:

“There are mostly white neighbourhoods – usually right along the beach, then coloured neighbourhoods – next to the white neighbourhoods with not such nice houses and very little landscaping, and then there are black neighbourhoods that are usually on the edges of the town and have shanty houses.  I find it difficult to see the substandard shanty areas.  Though from an urban planning perspective, they are at least walkable, there is street life, and there seems to be a real sense of community.  Hopefully, eventually neighbourhoods will be more integrated here.”

Lawrence (Beasley) of Arabia

28 10 2008

Like California cousins L.A. and San Francisco, Abu Dhabi and Dubai are poised to become two diametrically-opposed peas in a geographic pod, at least as far as their urban form is concerned.

Everyone must have an idea in their heads of Dubai. It seems very much like an Arabian Las Vegas to me: everything absurdly bigger and brighter than anywhere else (the tallest skyscraper, the largest indoor ski hill, a hotel shaped like a giant sail). It’s bold, but the place seems to be out of proportion to people in every way and, when you throw in the ridiculous car-dependency of the place, probably not very livable. I honestly don’t know for sure, as I’ve never been, but I’m not quite sure if I really want to go, either. Would it be worth a visit halfway across the world just so I could be gapingly horrified at what I saw?

On my last flight to San Francisco I came across this article in En Route Magazine about Abu Dhabi, the city down the coast, taking a very different path. Abu Dhabi hired Larry Beasley, Vancouver’s former Director of Planning, to come up with a development plan. His first order of business was to convince the Sheik to scrap plans for a 27-lane freeway. Sounds like a good day’s work to me.

It’s hard to say at this point how successful an alternative to the Dubai model will be in Abu Dhabi, but I have to hope for it. A video you can find on the Squint/Opera website visually illustrates the conceptual idea (really slick! well worth watching!). Beasley’s plan proposes an intriguing identity for the city:

“Abu Dhabi has the rare opportunity to offer a special combination of features in its urban identity: an authentic and safe but also progressive and open Arab city; a personality garnered from the desert and the sea; a traditional way of life but with the latest 21st century options; and a place of business but also of government and culture. The city should be defined as much by the natural islands and dunes surrounding it as the infrastructure, streets, and homes to be developed.”

If it lives up to this vision, maybe a trip to the UAE would be worth it after all. Here’s a copy of the plan for those who are interested (5 Mb).

April 2009 update: Christopher Hume, architecture columnist for the Toronto Star, recently wrote a really interesting critique of Dubai and its “ruin-in-waiting” form of urban development.