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

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.

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.

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