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urban design

The world wants Vancouverism. Shouldn’t Canada?

Fantastic column on density by Doug Saunders

Yet we need it more than ever. The Vancouverist ideology solves a number of serious problems.

First is sprawl: According to a recent projection, the population of the Greater Toronto Area will rise from six million today to almost 10 million in the next 28 years. Vancouver will go from 2.2 million to 3.4 million in the same period. Most of those people intend to move downtown or into inner-ring suburbs. But if housing there is in short supply, they’ll push out into the outskirts.

Second is the housing shortage: If we cannot increase the supply of housing, and at least double the population density of our big cities, then our children will have little chance of becoming homeowners. If foreign investors buy the new condos, all the better. We even more seriously need an increase in rental stock, to push down rents and give people an urban entry point.

And third is quality of life: That doubling of density isn’t just needed – it’s highly desirable. With twice as many people per square kilometre, there will be sufficiently large markets (and tax bases) to justify subway lines, parks and cultural venues. At the moment, density-increasing development is being blocked in the neighbourhoods that most need these things.

It’s not just governments. Canadian city-dwellers need to adopt a Vancouverist mindset. I’ll never understand why downtown homeowners, who often rail against the horrors of farmland-destroying, carbon-speawing urban sprawl, then turn around and oppose midrise condominium projects in their own neighbourhoods. Not only do those developments add neighbours and thus demand for nice services and better schools and shops and transit routes, but they are the only solution to urban sprawl. You get one or you get the other. “Density,” writes the Vancouver developer Bob Ransford, who consulted on the Melbourne report, “is the antidote to sprawl.”

Density Done Well

Urban Planner Brent Toderian speaks about density done well in downtown cores.  This is going to be a huge challenge for Saskatoon as we try to increase density in downtown Saskatoon.  It’s interesting that he speaks of designing downtown for kids because if it works for kids, it will work for everyone.  In Vancouver where they have 7000 kids, they build daycares and schools downtown.  Saskatoon has really no amenities other than River Landing for families.  We have a long way to go.

The other thing is that if you agree with Toderian and most other urban planners, Saskatoon is making decisions right now that will hurt our city for generations.  It’s almost as if as a city and city council identify best practices in cities and do the opposite.  They talk a great game about Transit 2.0 while putting bridges all over Saskatoon.  In the next decade we will have a new bridges south of the city, two north of the city, and I have heard some talking about adding one along 33rd Street or another one south of the city.  You can’t do both folks and to be honest, we are probably at a point where we should just give up on the dream of living in a livable city and just admit that we are all about cars and sprawl.

A new grand US strategy includes walkable streets and sustainable communities

From Foreign Policy

“America has never confronted a global challenge of the type or magnitude it faces today,” concludes Doherty. “If it does not change course, the United States will be racked by violent storms — both figurative and literal — as the global order breaks down. The country cannot delay. For a few short years, it has a window in which it can choose an incredibly prosperous 21st century, but that window will close. It is time once more to lead the world through difficult change.”

As Planetizen summarizes it

The U.S.’s economic engine, foreign policy, and infrastructure are all out of date, argues Doherty, and to meet the interdependent challenges of the 21st century’s strategic landscape – inclusion, depletion, depression, and resilience – the country will need to develop a new strategy: to “lead the global transition to sustainability.”

As part of that strategy he envisions a new economic engine for the United States oriented around walkable communities, regenerative agriculture, a revolution in resource productivity, investment in regional growth, and the transition to a reduced carbon emitting energy sector. This strategy will have major implications for the country’s foreign policy and governance structures.

Some lessons for Saskatoon and Saskatchewan in there as well.

Five of the world’s most livable cities

Not a lot of these cities are designed around the automobile.  Here is what makes Vienna such a great place to live.

Austria’s most populous city – Vienna – has won the title of the world’s best city for quality of life since 2009. It is also one of eight European cities to make the top 10 list, showing the region’s dominance in the survey.

Vienna is the cultural, economic, and political center of the country. It has the highest per capita GDP among all Austrian cities at over $55,000. Vienna’s ability to transform old infrastructure into modern dwellings won the city the 2010 United Nations urban planning award for improving the living conditions of its residents. Under a multimillion-dollar program, the city refurbished more than 5,000 buildings with nearly 250,000 apartments. Vienna is also the world’s No. 1 destination for conferences, drawing five million tourists a year — equivalent to three tourists for every resident.

Pocket Parks

A Bellingham Parklet

The parklet was installed in a day and could be taken out just as quickly …

“That’s what the businesses are valuing – creating space for people instead of cars,” said Rose Lathrop, green building and smart growth manager at Sustainable Connections …

Before parklets can become a local trend, the city’s Williams said staffers will have to draft policies for their installation for City Council approval.The first one was installed using the city’s existing right-of-way use permit system, which in the past has been used by businesses that wanted to park a trash bin in a city space to hold remodeling debris, Williams said.

Bothman and Lathrop said reaction to the parklet has been almost completely positive.”I’ve heard maybe one negative comment from the mailman who used to park there,” Lathrop said.

Another amazing idea that Saskatoon would be wise to take a long look at.

Walkable Streets are just for the rich?

From Good

Most Americans want to live in walkable neighborhoods, but only a fraction can afford it. Housing in places with easy access to stores, restaurants, jobs, and public transit is in short supply, and only about a third of those who say they want to live in walkable neighborhoods actually do. Aaccording to a new study, the people lucky enough to live in the most walkable neighborhoods are often also be the most well-off.

Brookings Institution researchers Christopher Leinberger and Mariela Alfonzo set out to create metrics for judging a neighborhood’s walkability and monitoring its progress. They picked a sample of neighborhoods in the Washington, D.C., area and, by examining several aspects of each one, assigned each a walkability score between one and five.

Once each neighborhood received a score, the researchers began exploring what distinguished high performers from low ones. They found that the most walkable communities boasted the strongest economies—and the most costly housing. Moving up one walkability point came with a $300 monthly bump in rent. Those living in the most walkable communities spent a greater portion of their income on housing and tended to be wealthier. As Leinberger told Atlantic Cities, “Only the wealthiest among us can afford to live in [these neighborhoods]."

Of course the problem is that if you invested heavily on 33rd Street, it would gentrify Mayfair and the north part of Caswell Hill.  It’s not the fault of the street or urban planning, it’s just the process of investing in really liveable streets; once you build them, people will come.

Geoffrey West: The surprising math of cities and corporations

Physicist Geoffrey West has found that simple, mathematical laws govern the properties of cities — that wealth, crime rate, walking speed and many other aspects of a city can be deduced from a single number: the city’s population. In this mind-bending talk from TEDGlobal he shows how it works and how similar laws hold for organisms and corporations.

Poor Urban Design in Saskatoon & How to Do It Better

Sean Shaw has a great post on the new Holiday Inn in Saskatoon.

How can this type of development be avoided? It will take a conscious effort by City Council to mandate more stringent and enforceable development guidelines, not just for the Warehouse District but all new developments within the city – this hotel would be a poor addition to any street, let alone one where there has been an intent to provide a better interaction between buildings and the street.

These efforts should include a mandate that parking be put underground, that buildings over 3 stories include setbacks from the street to  maintain the human scale, and that a minimal amount of street-level interaction be constructed between the ground-floor and outside traffic (be it through commercial/retail space requirements or better design using more inviting materials). Furthermore, enforceable guidelines are needed to prevent the construction of large blank walls along major thoroughfares. These are not revolutionary ideas by any stretch of the imagination. Many Canadian and North American cities have such development bylaws in place.

While some will argue that putting these development controls in place will increase the cost to private industry, potentially discouraging some development, if done correctly it can instill a sense of pride by developers in the City street-scape. Moreover, the long-term benefits of building areas that are inviting and attractive to people will attract higher through traffic beyond 9-5pm. Finally, as Saskatoon is currently the fastest growing city in the country, we have some latitude to impose expectations on those looking to reap the benefits of investing in our city.

Last week on my way home from work, I was testing out my new Fuji XP 20 camera and I was so dumbstruck by the horrible design that I found myself walking down 22nd Street just take a closer look at the building as I tried to figure out how city planners and city council could allow a hotel placed on top of a parking garage to get the go-ahead, especially right across the street from TCU Place which cries out for the need for street level shopping.

A decade ago I was in Chicago when Mayor Daley decreed that he would freeze all new buildings if architectural guidelines weren’t met.  The developers grumbled but complied.  The same thing would happen here but council doesn’t want to take a stand against new development.  The bigger problem is that the architecture has been so bad in Saskatoon for so long that as citizens we are used to really bad projects going forward (Galaxy Theatre, The Sturdy Stone Centre, Cooperative Building, Radisson Hotel, The Remai Art Gallery of Saskatchewan), what’s another parking lot with suites? 

Great downtowns are built one great building at a time.  Mediocre lifeless downtowns are built pretty much the way Saskatoon’s is created.