Some thoughts on the future of 17th ave

One of the great things about current journalism and social media is that we get to have conversations and engage with ideas. The Sprawlhas started a fantastic conversation about the future of 17th ave and I have decided to weigh in with my $0.03. (This received positive feedback on Twitter.)

Over the years I have spent a lot of time on 17th. First as a teenager in junior high school when we strayed across the river from the north to this magical seeming place. 17thseemed so cool and big. The entire city did.

We mostly stuck with the bits between 4thst and where Steeling Home is today. We'd go to Blue Light Special, that cool store where The George apartments and the Best Buy are now. We'd go to the thrift store on the second floor at the building by Reid's. I don't know if it's there anymore. We'd go to Divine and look at the shoes and flip through shirts.

I was never good at pulling magical outfits off of thrift store racks but it was fun anyways. Mostly I bought t-shirts including an Expo 86 one with an astronaught on it and thought I was super cool. Really I was just an awkward tomboy who didn't know what they were doing — who knows how much that has changed.

Nowadays 17th doesn't seem so mysterious or magical. It's a place I am used to instead of somewhere I am discovering.

I love the Beltline. It's probably my favourite community in Calgary. I like urban and diverse places. I feel more at home amongst high rises and townhomes than in the suburb where I grew up or the suburb where I live now in Vancouver — I am visiting Calgary at the moment so I can add that credibility to my opinions. If I were to live anywhere in Calgary the Beltline would be at the top of my list. Bankview and Lower Mount Royal would be up there too.

There's something special about this place.

So here are some of the thoughts I have based on listening to the podcast episode and the coverage that's happened so far:

1.

The redo is a huge missed opportunity. It's very car-centric and could be so much more.

2.

I don't understand the Robson St comparison. What does that mean?

What qualities of Robson St are they referring to? What built form is this suggesting? Does this comparison include the pedestrianized block of Robson Square?

3.

How gradual is this change going to be?

I worry that if too many buildings are redeveloped at once it could really disrupt what makes 17thspecial while resulting in homogenous construction. Jane Jacobs remarked in The Death and Life of Great American Citiesthat areas should evolve over time and have a diversity of ages of building stock. She also warned that if areas evolve too quickly and there is too much pressure for a popular area to redevelop that it can cancel out what made it good in the first place.

Will that be lost on 17th? Will what has made the area so successful result in it losing it's spark?

I'd recommend that the developer be careful to ensure that buildings look different and to partner with different architects to ensure diversity. It would be a huge shame for the street to look the same.

This is an opportunity to partner with various talented local and international architects to get creative and do great work on this street.

4.

I bristled at Rollin Stanley's remarks about his comfort level riding in traffic. On both a personal level and as an aspiring built environment professional I take issue with much of what this statement says about the future of 17th and who it is for.

How we design our streets is very important. Built environment professionals decide how people live and how they die. If they get it wrong then it can cost people their lives. I may be a bit intense at times but I care a lot about this stuff and I do not take road design lightly. We have a responsibility to ensure that our streets are safe, equitable, inclusive and accessible.

We should not design our streets for the small minority of people who feel comfortable cycling in traffic. We don't build cycle tracks for middle-aged white men who will ride regardless of infrastructure design. We build cycle tracks for people like me.

I am an anxious and timid female cyclist. I would never ride on 17th. Ever.

I wish I was more comfortable and confident. I wish I wasn't freaked out by stuff as much as I am. I got into cycling activism in large part because I didn't feel safe riding on my city's streets but I wanted to.

The cycle tracks have opened up large parts of the city to people who have never had that chance before. I can now ride my bike to the Beltline.

We should design them for those with vulnerabilities and those who would otherwise be excluded from accessing them. This is about freedom and choice. It is about inclusive and accessible design. Everyone should be able to feel safe and comfortable on 17thnot just those with the most privilege.

The 8 to 80 approach to city building is one that I think should guide everything we do. It argues that if you design roads, spaces, cities, etc for an 8-year-old and an 80-year-old you will end up designing a road that does a good job of serving everyone.

If you design a road to serve the needs of middle-aged white dudes who feel safe riding in traffic you're going to design a space that doesn't meet a lot of people's needs. It certainly doesn't meet mine.

I also wonder about vision zero, the idea that no number of traffic deaths is acceptable. By designing 17th as a car-centric space we are saying that a certain number of pedestrian and cyclist fatalities and injuries will occur. Safety and well-being should be put above parking spaces. We should fully commit to vision zero and stop making excuses for anything less. 

5.

Back to Jane Jacobs I think she'd love 17th. It's everything that crazy chaotic cities should be. It's what happens when you don't have rules forbidding most things and let a place evolve naturally.

The Beltline is diverse and dynamic. You can find so many different types of things all together and that's what works.

We should let the flexibility and randomness continue instead of forbidding it as so much planning does.

6.

How many malls are struggling because the anchor tenant model is dying? Is this really the best idea for how to plan the future of 17th?

7.

12–15 stories totally count as midrise. I've been told that 6 stories is basically a highrise and I'm like uh no. I will be referring to this the next time someone tells me modest midrise is a highrise.

8.

Midrise offers a fantastic opportunity to transition between the highrise character of the Beltline and the lower heights in Cliff-Bungalow Mission and Lower Mount Royal. This is a great strategy and I am excited to see how it plays out.

9.

If people aren't comfortable with fully pedestrianizing 17th there is potential for part-time closures. Calgary should consider a summer streets program where certain streets are closed on Saturdays or Sundays in summer. It would also be worth considering closing part of 17thto traffic on Friday and Saturday nights to allow nightlifers to meander between bars. I have suggested this for 10thave as well.

When I was in Edinburgh I lived near a street called the Cowgate. It was home to a high concentration of bars and was closed to traffic on Friday and Saturday nights.

This would be a good way of introducing folks who are a little bit timid about pedestrianization to seeing the street differently and to imagining what it would be like if it was more about 17thas a place than 17th as a way of moving cars.

Stephen Ave serves as the heart of Downtown. 17th is the heart of a handful of other communities. I think it would be a more vibrant and successful place if we gave more space on it to pedestrians and less to cars. This could include wider sidewalks or full pedestrianization.

Many cities around the world are making bold moves in giving road space over to pedestrians and cyclists. Will Calgary be joining them with a reimagined 17th?