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?

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.

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.

Telephonic Brush with an Icon

26 01 2009

I once tried very hard to meet Jane Jacobs. Her writing, as for innumerable planners before me I am sure, helped direct me towards the profession.

My opportunity was absolutely engineered by me. Schemed, you might say. While in planning school in 2005, I discovered that a friend of my father’s had grown up with the Jacobs children, and was still close with them. I pounced, of course. I was going to Toronto in a few months for a student planning conference. Would Sheila help me get in contact with her? Of course she would, Sheila was very encouraging.

I felt a little odd about it. Sheila was a friend of my father’s, but I didn’t honestly know her that well. And Jane must have had this sort of thing happen all the time, eager young planners wanting to make a pilgrimage? But it was a chance to meet an icon, so I forged ahead. Sheila gave me the number at the house, and she let Jane’s son James know that I might be getting in touch.

I called when I arrived in Toronto. I talked to James, who was very nice. I let him know the scenario, that I was a planning student who knew Sheila and who was very eager to meet his mother. He told me that she had just returned from a period spent in the hospital (she had broken her leg, I think), so was just settling back in. But if I called back later in the week, he thought it possible that we could arrange a meeting.

Jane was, as you would expect, a very industrious lady. Her time in hospital had put her behind on various projects (she was likely working on Dark Age Ahead at that time, her final book). Who knows how many other engagements or projects she was involved with? When I called back later in the week, James told me the bad news: she was indeed very busy and didn’t feel she was ready for visitors. But he got her on the phone so we could speak.

The conversation, from my perspective, was a little awkward. How do you have a conversation like that? I was a wide-eyed planning student, hoping to meet someone I’d placed on a pedestal. I had imaginings of sitting down to tea with her (or maybe beer, she apparently really enjoyed beer) in her living room and talking about cities, soaking up big heaping gobs of juicy planning thought. I imagined impressing her with my own thoughts, my interest and drive. Coming away with the Jane Jacobs Stamp of Approval for my career aspirations would have been the ideal outcome.

But that was not to be. There were some apologies offered by her for not being able to get together, expressions of disappointment from me (masked, of course, so as not to seem too eager), a bit of discussion about why I was in Toronto, and then we started talking about: Sheila. Jane, with the tone of an interested mother, wanted to know all about her recent activities. Mild panic on my part. Those were tough questions for me, not knowing Sheila very well. But how could I tell Jane that, after I’d tried so hard to work the connection? I did my best not to let on, and luckily I knew (just) enough to answer her questions.

And that was it, my claim to planning fame. She died in 2006, so I never got another chance. I was disappointed at the time at how it had turned out, but not anymore. I chatted on the phone with Jane Jacobs about her family and friends. How many planners have done that? Pretty cool, I think.