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.


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.)

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.

The Desire for Community

14 05 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

What On Earth?

7 04 2009

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

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

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