urban planning

Mansplaining the City: An all male panel again and how housing markets hurt all of us

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? 

Best sentences I read this week: Vol. 11

“Citi expects this combination of factors to slow the power sector’s use of coal, pointing to a possible flattening or peaking before 2020, although many global energy agencies continue to expect high coal demand in the years to come.”

Peak Coal In China

“In a poll of 875 likely voters in New York City’s upcoming mayoral election, 67 percent of respondents (including 65 percent of those who own cars) said they support “bringing protected bike lanes and pedestrian islands” to their neighborhoods, polling firm Penn Schoen Berland showed Monday.”


“Calgary found that by adopting a denser growth pattern that used 25% less land, it could save $11 billion in capital costs alone.”

The Cost of Sprawl

“EVERYBODY who knows me knows that I love cycling and that I’m also completely freaked out by it.”

Is It O.K. to Kill Cyclists? by DANIEL DUANE

“Interestingly, this visionary imagination works in conjunction with a hyperawareness of reality.”

Why Creative People Sometimes Make No Sense

“A demand for roads can be tied to the design of a community. Seeking efficiencies in a system designed for automobiles through the provision of additional road capacity does not resolve the underlying issue. If traffic congestion is to be ameliorated, supply shouldn’t be addressed. Address demand. By focusing on supply (i.e. building more roads), and not demand (i.e. augmenting a city to lessen vehicular demand), the production of an auto-centric city continues.”

The Irony of Ring Roads by STEVEN SNELL

“In the third year of his term, Peñalosa challenged Bogotáns to participate in an experiment. As of dawn on 24 February 2000, cars were banned from streets for the day. It was the first day in four years that nobody was killed in traffic. Hospital admissions fell by almost a third. The toxic haze over the city thinned. People told pollsters that they were more optimistic about city life than they had been in years.”

http://www.theguardian.com/society/2013/nov/01/secrets-worlds-happiest-cities-commute-property-prices by Charles Montgomery

Multi-use and grocery stores

I have begun reading The Life and Death of Great American Cities by the great Jane Jacobs. So far one idea that jumps out to me is that of multi-use. As she discusses the evolution of ideas that have killed and discouraged multi-use planning I think about the three cities I have lived in, usage zoning and grocery stores.

In Calgary our grocery stores are exemplary of the idea that you live on place and then shop another. I cannot walk to the grocery and the same is true of most Calgarians. We have a small number of very large grocery stores rather than a large number of smaller groceries stores. As a result going out to buy some milk is a burden and impractical. Most people drive to the grocery store and make large trips stocking up for the week.

CVS stores were a nice discovery when I lived in DC. They are a cross between grocery stores and convenience stores. They also sell really good frozen chicken wings. The district was filled with them so that the most basic needs like a carton of milk or a snack were easy to fill. There were also larger grocery stores that you could walk to, though it was often farther. Luckily I lived near a Target and Safeway as well as a CVS so all of my bases were covered. I made small trips to pick up supplies never buying more than I could fit into a backpack. These stores were tucked in alongside residential and commercial areas.

In Copenhagen you are pretty much always within a five minute walk of a grocery store. There was a large grocery store across the street from me, a small one in the building next door (a daunting one minute journey) and one four minutes away if I felt like a jaunt. The smaller stores were the size of CVS but stocked everything you could need. They go with the model of fewer choices but more stores. Copenhagen is a prime example of good planning. It’s the goldilocks of density. Not density alone but density with shops, kebab stands, transit, bike lanes, libraries, schools, parks and of course lots of grocery stores.

In Calgary I have over 300 choices of toothpaste but it’s inconvenient to shop. I would rather have five choices and have a ten minute round trip. I would love to live within walking distance of everything I could possibly need. A good solution here would be to require grocery stores in new developments and to promote smaller stores in the inner city.


The best sentences I read this week: Vol. 10

“The important thing is that you can’t let that stop you from trying. Be brave, little toaster.”

Rejection 101: A Lesbian’s Guide To Getting Turned Down, Keeping Your Head Upby Intern Grace

“Modern urban planning was a mass exercise in ‘organising universal isolation’ that shackled and oppressed the human spirit. The primary solution to combat this attack was to walk.”

Why is the act of urban walking so revolutionary? by JOHN ROGERS

“They eschewed dreams – journalism, art, entertainment – for safer bets, only to discover that the safest bet is that your job will be contingent and disposable.”

Surviving the post-employment economy by Sarah Kendzior

“A total hoser, Ford talks hoser and acts the hoser lifestyle.”

Rob Ford and the triumph of the new hosers by John Doyle

“Design is an intensely political act. Through the stroke of a pen, or these days a mouse, one can delineate exactly what people will see, hear and feel, how and where they will move. Within the context of the inefficiency and inequity of today’s Joburg, it is incumbent upon all of us who are engaged in shaping our built environment, including policy makers, planners, engineers, and designers, to challenge existing paradigms. We cannot think merely in terms of the way things have always been done and what has gone before, because these ways of thinking are behind much of what is wrong today.”

Urban Inequality: Joburg United

“In March Johnson and his cycling adviser, the former journalist Andrew Gilligan, announced a hugely ambitious plan to increase cycling in London, promising to spend around £1bn on schemes such as a completely segregated east-west bike route which would, in one section, take a lane from the Westway elevated urban motorway, as well as bike-friendly “mini-Hollands” in some outer suburbs.”

London expands protected cycle lane scheme by Peter Walker

The best sentences I read this week: Vol.9

“It was everything bad about everything, all at once.”

7 Ways to Be Insufferable on Facebook

“Researchers found that for every kilometer traveled by bike instead of by car, taxpayers saved 7.8 cents (DKK 0.45) in avoided air pollution, accidents, congestion, noise and wear and tear on infrastructure. Cyclists in Copenhagen cover an estimated 1.2 million kilometers each day –- saving the city a little over $34 million each year.”

Denmark Is Considered The Happiest Country. You’ll Never Guess Why.

“Stationery has historically pertained to a wide gamut of materials: paper and office supplies, writing implements, greeting cards, glue, pencil cases and other similar items.”


The best sentences I read this week: vol.8

“According to research funded by Audi, driving in chaotic urban traffic can be nearly as stressful for some people as skydiving.

For some, driving is more stressful than skydiving by Isabella Shaya

“They are ‘multimodal,’ meaning they choose the best mode of transportation, such as driving, transit, biking or walking, based on the trip they are planning.”

Young people driving less, embrace other transportation by Larry Copeland

“Sadik-Khan has plucked the city from under the chassis of the automobile and distributed it, Robin Hood — like, to runners and cyclists and mothers with strollers and large men with small dogs.”

Janette Sadik-Khan: Urban Reengineer by Lisa Taddeo

One down, fourteen to go

Three years ago I came back from Europe to find Calgary in the throws of a municipal election. The old mayor had retired so there was no incumbent. Instead there was a wide-open field filled with more names than could fit on a ballot and none of them were particularly inspiring.

It reminded me of the race in California that elected Arnold Schwarzenegger who probably won in large part on name recognition. It was overwhelming to follow but two front runners were clear. There was Barb Higgins, a local newscaster, who had name recognition covered and Ric McIver who had being conservative covered. Not much of a choice.

But the seasons changed and so did the tide. Slowly but surely the leaves fell and purple begin to colour the city. A third largely unknown candidate who taught at Mount Royal was making a go at the front-runners. Buttons started to appear all over campus and people started to hear about this Naheed Nenshi fellow.

He liked to paint things purple, a rare and innovative colour in politics. It wasn’t used by any of the major political parties or any of the other candidates. His headquarters on Macleod Trail — that now serve as the Improv Guild’s home — were painted purple and stood out to road traffic and C-Train riders. In the northwest an old car dealership on 16th ave became a part of the little purple machine that could.

Still this was before the surprise victory. There were still some leaves left on the trees. A profile of Ric McIver appeared in FFWD, a local alt-weekly. One of my friends dumped beer on a newsstand full of copies at his birthday party. Barb Higgins remained uninspiring. She seemed okay but what did she really want to do with our city?

A couple of weeks before election day I ran into my favourite professor near the “Prairie Chicken.” He was the type where when you went to his office hours to get a paper topic approved you ended up talking about the best place to buy poutine in town, your favourite TV shows and inevitably the horrible season the Flames were having.

After chatting for a while he asked me what I thought would happen in the election.

“Nenshi, all the way,” I said.

Surprised he replied, “but everyone thinks it’ll be Higgins or McIver.”

I shook my head and said, “People like Nenshi. They believe in him. When I get into an elevator on campus everyone has a purple button on their backpack. When I talk to my friends about the election they don’t tell me to shut up, they tell me how exciting Nenshi is. They’ll go out and vote for him.”

A couple of weeks later he was congratulating me on being right. I don’t say I was right to be smug but because I’ve observed a few elections in my short lifetime and done a careful reading of Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail. Elections are about a feeling. They are about making people believe that their country or province or city or ward will be a better place if you vote for them. It was what Obama and Jack Layton had and it was what Nenshi exuded as well. He made us feel like Calgary would be a better city if he ran it.

Three years later it is hard to believe that there was ever any doubt that this great man was destined to lead our city. He was the leader we needed and he made us care. He was not only charismatic but good a winning battles and picking the right fights. He lead us nap free through the flood. He will win handily again.

Our city is filled with a sense of optimism that is hard to find anywhere else. We are forever evolving and changing. A lot of the people moving here everyday are young and in their 20s. Some of them are even born and raised Calgarians coming back to make something of themselves. There is a sense of possibility; that anything can happen.

This election is just as exciting as the last one but in different ways. Our city is three years older and wiser. We have different concerns. It’s not about an airport tunnel and a feeling. This time around it’s about everyone except Nenshi. There are 14 wards where the 14 other voices on council will be selected. Each ward has its own race.

This election is about how our city will grow and develop. It is about whether or not we will find solutions to how hard it is to get from point a to point b and how expensive sprawl is. It is about bike lanes and public art. It is about being able to walk to the grocery store. Some people find this boring but they couldn’t be more wrong. This is democracy as close as it can possibly come to what it was in ancient Greece. With voter turnout expected to be low each vote will be wonderfully consequential.

In my riding it’s about the bike lanes on 10th street and the Peace Bridge both of which I use on a daily business. This is not about big grand ideas but about how we want to live our lives. We get to decide what kind of communities we want to have and the type of houses we want to live in. It’s about politics at it’s smallest, most local and in many ways most consequential.

With this much on the line staying home on election day is simply not an option.

Best sentences I read this week: Vol. 7

“Even that most basic obligation of prime ministers, to secure and maintain the confidence of the House, has been stretched to the breaking point of late, recent holders of the office having clung to power for days after losing a confidence vote, or prorogued Parliament rather than face a vote that was certain to end badly.”

REPAIRING THE HOUSE: How to make Members of Parliament relevant again by Andrew Coyne

“President Bill Clinton said that Republicans were holding the country hostage; Republicans excoriated Clinton for playing golf.”

Take a trip back in time to the 1995 shutdown. Trust us — it will help. by Dan Zak

“This blurred process of change is known to urban dwellers across America, especially to those who move to Brooklyn, many of whom play a role in the process, tacitly or actively.”

THE INS AND THE OUTS by Vinnie Rotondaro and Maura Ewing

“In her teens, Elysia Turner competed in dressage, and would jump over hurdles on horseback. Driving, however, causes her such anxiety that she has recurring nightmares of having to drive a family member or loved one to the emergency room.”

Why The Kids Don’t Drive by OMAR MOUALLEM

“I am no more an avid cyclist than I am an avid walker or avid eater. I am someone who often uses a bicycle, simply because it is the most civilized, efficient, enjoyable, and economical way to get around my city.”


Back in the saddle

One of the best things about being back in Calgary is that I have a bike again. While I was in Washington, D.C. I missed riding dearly. I would glare at all the cyclists and resent them and their beautiful bikes. Now I have my bike who I loving call Doris after the moderately functional bus in Almost Famous.

Despite my excitement I find it easy to make excuses to not ride my bike. My parents car is fast and easy to use. This city can be frightening to ride in. There are lots of hills. Too many hills. There is the endless rain.

But no these are just a bunch of lame excuses. I rode to Eau Claire today because of my blanket refusal to park downtown and remembered how much I miss riding. It is so much more satisfying to ride there than it is to drive. The river valley is beautiful and I have bike lanes most of the way. Why don’t I always do this?

Riding home along the pathway as the sun was setting I was reminded of how nice it is to get somewhere with the wind in my face, using the power of my own legs. It is extremely satisfying to peddle as hard as I can and glide along. This was something I felt everyday in Copenhagen. I find I am much happier when I feel this instead of the stiffness in my legs as I press the peddle and sit still.

Later I ran into a friend and mentioned to her that they are putting in physically separated bike lanes on 7th street.* She was supportive then I said it’s just a start they should have them on every street downtown, and everywhere else for that matter. Then I got that look that says you’re crazy, that will never happen. People won’t go for that. Part of me knows she’s right and another part of me knows that there’s a reason Copenhagen is touted as the world’s most liveable city while Calgary isn’t even considered for the list. It’s because driving an hour or more each way to work doesn’t make people happy, walking to the grocery store shouldn’t be a luxury and riding your bike to a friend’s house is way more gratifying and healthy than driving. If more people looked at the 10th street bike lanes and saw the future not an exception then we would be a happy, healthier more liveable city. If you disagree with me give riding your bike a try. Once you get over the sheer terror of rolling stops by motorists at stop signs you might just get converted.


* I have my reservations about physically separated bike lanes. They have their upsides and downsides. I am personally a fan of the ones that are just on the road. They are a lot cheaper and ultimately no amount of concrete will protect cyclists from drivers who have unsafe habits and attitudes that endanger cyclists. I think we spend too much time debating what type of bike lanes to put in and not enough time putting them in.