A quote from a Therapy Thoughts interview.
Our spaces and our places matter. They decide how we live and how we die. It’s easy to get stuck in one way of doing things. Like single family zoning and car dependence. Our world can seem fixed even if it’s ever changing.
What if we built our cities around choice and movement? What if we made space for simple mobility solutions like bikes and better transit? What if we built mid rise courtyard buildings for real instead of just idealizing them?
Good urban design is simple. Getting it built is hard.
These are some really cute pencil bollards outside Arts Common. A good solution for our security and public realm.
I got interviewed for Radio-Canada's coverage of AHV's Mount Pleasant walk this weekend. I enjoy this crew of people who care about zoning and this city that I've found. And I speak French so apparently I am useful to them.
Published 11 February 2018
I posted this on my Wordpress back when this was before yyccc. I found the draft and am reposting here in case anyone finds it useful.
I've been following the Highland Park redevelopment proposal, mostly from social media, and I'm not very impressed by what I see. The process has been highly dysfunctional and it makes me wonder about the state of planning in Calgary. By applying the basics I learned in my program last year I could easily come up with a better development proposal.
The opposition to the Highland Park proposal hasn't been classic NIMBYish. It's been a community opposed to a development that fails to respond to its needs and that fails to apply the most basic urban design principles. The community isn't upset about density. They are angry about green spaces, drainage and watersheds. They are angry about TOD that is in no way TOD.
Two really easy things have been missed: context and putting the public realm first.
Context and assets
The first place I'd start when planning a development like this is context.
I'd study the history of the area and the site. How has it evolved over time? What previous uses have been in place there?
I'd look at the community it's in and those around it. What is the character of that community? What is good about it? What can be improved? What do residents want from a new development?
Here there are some concerns that I'd ignore. Generally people opposed to mid-rise development in single-family home communities need to be told that density is not up for discussion. The way it happens is but the concept itself is not. In this situation the community isn't opposed to density, at least not from the objections I'm hearing. They're opposed to badly done density. That is fair. Badly done density serves the needs of no one.
Then because this is an old golf course on a sloped site I'd look at the ecology and geography of the site. I'd look at waterways. I'd wait for the watersheds study to come out. I'd look at the sad buried stream that can be brought back to life. I'd look at flooding and seasonal rain. Given how prone to flooding the stream in Confederation Park is this should be a serious concern for any development here.
At the charette the community favoured a park in the middle with housing around the edges. Instead the proposal is clumsy with housing shoved in the middle of the valley and poorly thought out green spaces dispersed between. This type of green space will be neglected and used by no one.
Context tells you what a development should be like. You take the history, community character, and the ecology and geography of the site and you build something around that. The public realm, in this case the park, should be designed first. Then you plan the buildings.
The proposal before council fails to do these basic things. They have not listened to the community association. They started with buildings instead of the public realm.
The proposal also commits the horrible blunder of running a road through a green space. Why in 2017 we would even consider this is beyond me. Buildings around the edges would mean that existing roads can link to new buildings. Instead of daylighting the stream they want to pave it over.
An urban design approach would see the stream as an asset to be cherished. If Jane Jacobs taught us anything it's that development should enhance what is already good about a place, a community, a site. It should be used to make it better, not worse.
Why not create a sustainable urban drainage system centered on a stream and floodway? There is a great opportunity here and we are missing it.
Precedence and examples
It's always a good idea to look at similar developments in Calgary that have been done well and what can be learned from them. Confederation Park has a similar geography and housing around the edge of a park. Bridgeland can be an example of how to introduce new built form around a park and public space considerations. What are other examples in the city that we can learn from?
Just say no
No development is better than bad development. If you say yes to anything you get bad development. That is a bad development and it doesn't have to happen. Once it does it's too late. The opportunity is gone for at least 100 years and probably forever. The City of Calgary needs to start saying no and expecting development of a high quality. If it's not good enough it's just a waste of opportunity and resources. Quality should be the rule, not the exception.
An urban design approach is about looking at how buildings fit into the communities and spaces around them. It means taking a wholistic approach to them and demanding quality.
Council has the power to demand more and set higher standards. They have the ability to change guidelines.
Calgarians have the obligation to insist on better like we are with this awful proposal. We can do better than this.
Relationship to broader policies
This proposal is impacted by a lot of broader policies in the city including the Green Line, the densification of the Centre Street corridor, the watershed study, other parks and the pathway network.
Intensification of use in the area will mean more people using the same amount of green space. Taking away a green space instead of creating one means they have even less park space. Again density is only good if you do it well. Has the city considered how parks and potential green spaces fit in with the plan for the Green Line? Why not use this as one of those spaces?
If you are aiming for TOD why put a road through a green space? Why widen McKnight? It's 2017. Other places figured this stuff out decades ago and we're still doing it wrong.
How does this space fit in with the pathway network and linear parks in north Calgary? Can it not be an extension of those? We are known for our pathway network and green spaces that enhance quality of life. Why not use that strength here? Again Jane Jacobs would say that we need to enhance what is good rather than destroying it.
How does this space fit in with cycling networks and active living strategies?
How does it relate to parks right next to it like Confederation Park? What impact does a change here have on Confederation Park?
Form and existing areas
The sad thing about this whole debacle is that I really like the buildings, urban design failings aside. They are the type of development I'd like to see in Calgary. If done on an existing paved block this wouldn't be an issue, it would be great. Unfortunately it's really hard to do blocks and buildings of this type in existing communities. We are so stuck with single-family homes and big setbacks that we make it nearly impossible to do good development in existing communities.
Lack of area plan
This is the second development in a very short period of time where a lack of area plan has created difficulties in assessing a proposal. The city needs to commit to area plans. They need to define what sort of development should take place in every community in Calgary. They need to be engaging with community groups to create long-term visions. Starting with an area plan and then having developments that fit in with it will prevent this sort of development that completely ignores the needs of the community and is very badly done. The golf course site could be clearly defined as a park with development around the edges.
In Edinburgh planning is done differently. They don't have strict land use rules. Instead they have suggestions for what type of development they'd like to see proposed in an area or street as well as what areas are being targeted for what types of development.
We need to start defining what the characters of communities are and what we want to see happening in them. The city needs to commit to hiring staff to do long-term area plans and to engage communities in this process. It's not that hard to do we just have to decide that it matters.
The city also needs to take an urban design perspective to proposals. Vancouver has adopted this approach and it has paid off. We can do it too but it means hiring someone with a background like mine to look at developments and have a say early on. A lot of the issues with the proposal are painfully obvious to me. The solutions are simple as well. You could do something really great on this site. Will we?
I came across an article this morning called "Mansplaining the City" on Twitter. I find it frustrating being a part of a field where dudes make a whole lot of the choices. I've been to events where every last person including the emcee was a dude. When this happens I always want to ask whether they've could've gone and found one female city hall employee or stakeholder to just read the names and bios of the dudes. That way at least one woman would be there.
When a friend of mine who works for a feminist organization asked me who I'd recommend for a female built environment panel I told her that I couldn't think of anyone in the city. I could probably come up with a better answer now but that moment was a bit sad.
The article blends these traditional concerns about how male dominated the built environment field is with questions about gentrification. I appreciate the comments on the need for some dudettes in the industry. I feel less comfortable with some of the comments about gentrification. The author has her own perspective but she is also dismissive of groups I think are doing good work and the role for middle class individuals caught in a crazy housing market. Walker calls out lots of people and waxes nostalgic for the neighbourhoods of yore. Some of these concerns are valid but I also think they lack nuance.
Gentrification is complicated. It is also not inherently a good or a bad process. It is a process characterized by changes in class. That can be from super duper poor to less poor. It can also be a process that makes even the worst neighbourhoods unaffordable for people with lots of money. A lot of it depends on other factors and how this process unfolds. As Walker notes it originally described an influx of intellectuals, students and artists. This group, which I am a part of, are often initial gentrifiers. They are drawn to places with cheap rents. As the neighbourhood improves the initial wave of gentrifiers are pushed out, too poor to enjoy the changes they have brought about and seeking the next spot where they can afford to pay rent.
While on the one hand I am a gentrifier I also live in poverty. I will likely spend my entire twenties either in poverty or as a student. I am white, my family is upper middle class and I am well-educated — probably over educated. I have more choices than many but I struggle to figure out how to pay rent. I struggle to see where I can go in my city. I have a friend who charges more for a one bedroom condo in a nice inner city neighbourhood that I love and want to be a part of than I earn in a month. There were moments when I lived in Vancouver when I'd buy groceries on my credit card unsure whether or not I'd have enough money to pay for them.
We are all a part of cities that are increasingly unaffordable. We live in a world where even tech workers struggle to afford housing. This is a sign that something is very wrong. Housing in any major Canadian city is a nightmare no matter what class you belong to. The issues of gentrification are tied up in market forces and development processes that treat housing like a bank and an investment rather than a basic necessity. New attitudes towards housing and different ways of building cities are as important as preserving character.
Managing change is one of the most important parts of planning and urban design. You want to keep what is good while still allowing communities to change. You need to find a way to ensure that nice communities are varied and accessible to all, not just people who earn enough to rent my friend's condo. You also want to find ways to have run down neighbourhoods become better. The biggest problem I see in places like Vancouver and Calgary is the market forces that have overrun our cities turning them into places we can no longer afford to live combined with zoning bylaws that prevent the construction of a diverse range of housing.
We are all coming up with our own responses to cities and how they should change. Groups like the YIMBY movement in San Francisco want wealthy homeowners to allow the construction of more housing. They may come from some privilege but I look around me and I see the same problem. We build mostly one thing, it's low density, unsustainable and really unaffordable. Maybe if we built something else we'd have more affordable housing? Maybe if we relied less on the market to provide housing and more on our government like they do in large parts of Europe then gentrification wouldn't be putting such a squeeze on people and housing wouldn't be so unaffordable?