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.


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?

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.

Rumors of the Garneau’s Demise Are Greatly Exaggerated

18 01 2009

Going out to see Slumdog Millionaire tonight offered a very agreeable urban experience: hundreds of people lined up down the block to get into Edmonton’s early-modern 1940 Garneau Theatre. It was unseasonably warm today (several degrees above freezing), so people seemed very happy to be waiting outside in the night and there was a lot of sidewalk conviviality. Some strangers in front of us in the line even offered to share their pizza with us.

Rumors suggest The Garneau may be redeveloped.

Rumors suggest the Garneau may be redeveloped.

The theater building itself was a topic of conversation while standing in line for tickets. A January 7th blogpost by Dave Cournoyer reinvigorated rumors about major changes coming to the Garneau. A local lawyer, John Day, purchased the building a few years ago, and ever since there have been fears that he intended to raze the entire site and replace it with condos.

Day is actually responsible for some of Edmonton’s most contextually-sensitive recent architecture: the Sobey’s building on 104th Street and Jasper Avenue that succeeded the troublesome low-rent Cecil Hotel, and the replacement for the Albert’s Restaurant building on Whyte Avenue that burned in 2003, both landmarks in their own right. The Garneau, however, neither a beer-sodden troublespot nor (knock on wood) burned to the ground, appears commercially healthy, so rumors of its redevelopment are less likely to be met with easy acceptance.

A January 10th Edmonton Journal story dispelled some of the worst fears. Mr Day’s intentions appear to be to redevelop the commercial units facing 109 Street, possibly adding a second storey, but not to tear down the theater. Reconstruction of the commercial units would require the removal of the 68-year old wood-framed marquee, likely necessitating its reconstruction. As Day stated in the Journal story: “I don’t think we can just take it off and put it back.”

The Garneau Theatre from 87 Avenue circa 1960 - City of Edmonton Archives

The Garneau Theatre, seen from 87 Avenue circa 1960 - City of Edmonton Archives

But isn’t a building like this protected? Can he really just do that? The answer, unfortunately, is yes he can. Although identified on the City’s Register of Historic Buildings, the building has not been designated as a Municipal Historic Resource. The City of Edmonton provides incentives to property owners who wish to officially designate their property, usually in the form of grants for renovations, in exchange for the right to ensure that the essential heritage characteristics are retained, that the building is maintained in fair condition and that the building will not be demolished. Designation, however, is voluntary, and while City Council can choose to designate a building against the wishes of a property owner, this is not a power that Council is quick to exercise.

So, the fate of this landmark is in Mr Day’s hands. Judging by his past successes, those hands appear to be sensitive and capable. Ultimately, if his intention is to remove but then faithfully reconstruct the most essential heritage element of this building, the marquee, then it can be argued that there is little to complain about. The landmark will be renewed and ready for another 68 years of service, and most Edmontonians will soon forget that the reconstructed marquee is not an original piece. But the trick will be in doing it exceedingly well, and I would be willing to bet large sums of money that Mr Day will be unable to avoid significant controversy once his plans are finally revealed, regardless of the merits of his design. At the very least, the fact that the beloved Pharos Pizza will not return post-renovations will result in nostalgic heartache on the part of many. This will be interesting to watch.

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

Learning from Lerner

18 11 2008

I went to a panel discussion this afternoon on “What Makes for a Great City?” The discussion was part of the University of Alberta’s Festival of Ideas celebration, put on for their 100th anniversary. Jaime Lerner, of Curitiba, Brazil fame, was one of the three panelists, and although he was obviously at a disadvantage in a panel discussion speaking in what must be his third or fourth language, I still felt that he was the most compelling and passionate of the three speakers.

Curitiba has become a poster child for its transit-oriented development and well-used public transit system, as well as for a host of other innovative approaches to civic governance. For a quick overview of what it is known for, look here. For a more in-depth investigation, check out the Curitiba Urban Research and Planning Institute’s website here.

A few ideas stuck with me from the discussion:

  • Culture is not simply about support of the formal arts. It is also, perhaps more importantly, about fostering creativity among individuals and offering them opportunities for expression. It is also, in a broader sense, the manner in which a citizenry conducts its urban life.
  • A city can be measured by how it treats its youngest citizens, and how capable they are of participating in its culture.
  • Quality of life investments will do much more for a city’s long-term economic competitiveness than fiscal incentives to lure new business.

Jaime Lerner also opined that three things are essential to get right in making a great city: transportation, sustainability and co-existence. The first, he made very clear, does not consist of simply planning for cars; at one point he suggested that cities that want to improve must first stop allowing their urban form to be dictated by traffic engineers. The second point he expanded on in a number of ways, but to him sustainability seems to be as much about social issues as it is about the environment.

The third point was perhaps the most interesting, but also left me with the most questions. Co-existence means people engaging with others in the city. It means, ideally, the enjoyment of others in the city, the celebration of human diversity. He related a conversation he once had with a woman who was a passionate believer in protecting animal and plant biodiversity but who also preferred to live in a low-density, use segregated and exclusive suburb to whom he posed the question (I paraphrase): “If you believe so strongly in biodiversity, why do you not support human diversity where you live?”

It’s a great observation. But how do we engage people to start believing in the beauty of other people again? I mean, apart from the packaged and mediated “other” we view on television or the internet? Lerner spoke about a city where people engage in a dialogue with other people about the kind of city they want to live in, what matters to that society, and what it is that characterizes that culture. The people of Curitiba, in Lerner’s description, shape their collective identity by engaging with their environment and with each other.

How do we foster such an interactive civic attitude in a culture that values independence, privacy and the consumption (rather than the personal creation) of culture, and that seems to have come to mistrust the “other”?

Mar 09 update: I just discovered a Q&A with Lerner on Metropolis from May of last year. It has the same title as my blog piece, so hopefully they won’t come after me. I had no idea!


12 09 2008

There’s a lot of debate about expansion of light rail transit here in Edmonton. A lot of money is being invested (or it’s being considered, anyway). And the mayor wants to make sure LRT goes where the people are (or where the potential for the most redevelopment is, anyway). The Transportation Department seems to be focused on putting LRT where it will offer the fastest commute times for people out in the far suburbs to downtown. This, unfortunately, is not the same place as where the people are.

So the mayor sent them back. He wants to see the feasibility of his idea. Costs, benefits, etc.

I’m with the mayor. But, I worry that if you try to put a big, fast, wide suburban-style LRT through areas with narrow roads, you’re going to end up having to destroy big chunks of those areas in order to offer them the service.

I don’t see why we can’t think a little more creatively and choose a technology that suits the context. European tram service works pretty well, offers higher capacity service than buses, can offer relatively fast service if you provide it with its own (narrow) right of way. And it’s low-impact. It can run on existing roads. It doesn’t require the demolition of blocks and blocks of housing and businesses.

I prefer not to think that there is only one solution and that it will be rammed through regardless of the cost (by which I don’t just mean dollars and cents).