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.


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.

Bold Statements

5 08 2008

My father took this photo when the CN Tower was under construction in 1974. The Burj Dubai recently surpassed the CN Tower as the world’s tallest structure, beating it out by some several hundred meters. Too bad for Toronto.

The CN Tower under construction in 1974 - photo by Robert Young

The CN Tower under construction in 1974 - photo by Robert Young

But it makes me wonder what it must have felt like in Toronto in the ’70s to see something like this go up. What must it have done for civic pride? How did it change the identity of Toronto?

I suppose some people inevitably don’t like this sort of thing. Many Parisians apparently hated the Eiffel Tower when it first went up, before it became the unimpeachable symbol of the city.

But it seems like a tremendous statement about a city and its attitude, to me. Bold cities make statements like these.

Of course, I suppose foolish cities might also make these sorts of statements.

A city like Edmonton would need to change a lot before it could ever convincingly pull off a statement such as the CN Tower. But it could certainly use an injection of that daring and inventive spirit.