Friday, November 27, 2009

Ah yes First Snow in Calgary

Actually it was the second significant snow fall of the winter and the City says it was ready. I am posting at 9:55pm and my wife still has not made it home from work because of road conditions. A visit to the city's website, which features and snow and ice control page says that the city was launching into proactive responses but there is little indication that much was done or is being done with the weather conditions.

I'm sure this page will be altered or updated so here is a pdf of the site I printed at post time.

I am astonished on the eve of my 7th winter in Calgary that this same fiasco has to be revisited. Somebody with the city has to come up with an explanation why the city cannot even do what paltry snow removal they offer in a timely manner. If the answer is that the city cannot afford it, or doesn't want to overtax the citizens for it, then again it has to look at its priorities and the sustainability of its planning.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Sidewalks and Jaywalking

Today's post is not going to be one of my better efforts, more of a rant really, but I'm hoping to get myself back into the routine with the blog.

Recently, I started work in the Marlborough area, a block west of the LRT station and the behemoth divided thoroughfare that straddles the trainline. There is an array of strip malls, bigbox stores and car dealerships and a few light industrial enterprises. All indications are that it is a car-oriented neighbourhood, despite the fact that there is an LRT.

I walk in this area and it is a bit of a struggle to find sidewalks in the area. The only one runs on the south side of 9th Ave NE for one block. That gets me past the car dealership but there is still a bit of distance to cover to get to the office. If I am going to get to work it is necessary to walk on an area that has no sidewalk nor is mandated to be cleared when it snows. I could try to negotiate my way on the road itself but that would be even more dangerous than walking on the icy slopes. The best option is to jaywalk and find parking lots to cut through for a less treacherous walk. Taking my life into my own hands I judge the traffic, look both ways and make my way across to parking lots.

On one of these occasions I happened to cross the path of a patrol car driven by one of Calgary's finest. She stopped and honked for my attention and instructed me to cross at the crosswalk at the intersection. It was true that I broke the law by not crossing in the between the white lines, but it was in an environment where the lack of sidewalks makes jaywalking the safest option available.

Hmm, yeah, I'm ranting a bit. Hopefully I'll get back into the routine with something more constructive.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Critical Mass Bike Protests in Downtown Calgary

As I was heading down 14th Street in Calgary on Friday night, there was a rather substantial peloton of cyclists going south in a substantial pack. The group was large enough to merit some consideration as a group of some sort and I wondered what they were cycling for. There were no colours, pamphlets or other indication of the cause they were cycling for. After a bit of research though I made the connection between yesterday's group in Calgary with a growing series of protests that are held on the last Friday of every month by a group called Critical Mass. Vancouver has also experienced these cycling protests, which have been leading to concerns in there about violence between car drivers and the cyclists.

Will the movement peter out in Calgary each winter? Will they actually find a route that draws them more attention? Hard to say. The movement has actually been in action for five years and they have managed to sustain a bit of momentum through the winters, believe it or not. Drivers seemed to be patient with the group during the ride on July 31, but they were not riding the busier thoroughfares of the city. It will be interesting to see if anything comes to a head between the cyclists and their four wheeled brethren.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Sigh: Calgary's Bridge Debate

The city of Calgary has decided to go ahead with approval of a pedestrian bridge across the Bow River. The ongoing debate over the bridge, its expense and design have already exhausted the patience of many Calgarians has probably been exhausted by the drawn-out process that has gone on at City Hall. The caterwauling of many of the aldermen has helped make the issue a bit more opaque than it ought to be.

Expense: The current price tag on the bridge is $24.5 million. Several engineers and architects around the city, with the university, the city and other organizations have said that the project is reasonably priced. Some have even gone so far as to say that it is a bargain and it has been cited as cheaper than bridges recently built or about to be built in London, Winnipeg and Edmonton.

Necessity: This is where things get a little muddied. Several people have said that the bridge is there to serve roller bladers, a pejorative spilling of ink into the debate that suggests that the expense is merely for recreational use rather than a part of the transportation system that the city uses. There is a large population living in the downtown area and there are a large number of commuters who would use the bridge on a regular basis. There are two other pedestrian bridges in the immediate area: one connecting Prince's Park Island to Memorial Drive, another under the LRT bridge parallel to 10th St. For argument sake a third bridge could be noted running under Crowchild. All three of these bridges are relatively narrow and it is a struggle at time for cyclists, pedestrians and stroller pushers to negotiate the space on any of these. The current bridges are at capacity.

Calgary needs infrastructure, but that does not require infrastructure to be limited to highway construction. The expense of the pedestrian bridge would easily be dwarfed by the expense of the ringroad, if not a budget overrun on the ringroad. It will be pretty easy for the people using it to have a front row seat to the bridge's progress

Design: A valid point of contention. There is a risk in the design of the bridge as many city in North America have fallen over themselves to sign up a starchitect to use their city's landscape as a canvas for their faulty interpretation of how our environments should look and respond to us. The design does not impress me and architect Santiago Calatrava does seem to have the body of grandiose or impractical work that would brand him a starchitect. I'm sure there are architects in Calgary who could have provided compelling designs for the city to consider and silence one group of dissenters over the bridge. One thing that will certainly reignite the bridge debate would be the project going over budget. Calatrava's projects are notorious for this and while it may be a problem for project managers to take the blame for people in Dallas for instance are not so sure. If the city could be faulted for anything, it would be a lack of due diligence before signing on Mr. Calatrava. Wait, see and hope it turns out more solid a structure than London's Millennium Bridge.

The Name: A bridge by any other name... The name has become far too much of an issue and there is little about the actual visual design of the bridge that indicates an homage to fallen vets. Slapped on at this last minute, yes, but hardly reason to sustain the debate the way some Aldermen have attempted to do.

Friday, July 24, 2009

How about the Urban Walker Diet?

Barely 3 1/2 months after moving to the inner city from the suburbs, I am happy to report that I am 12 pound lighter than I was in April, despite the new plethora of dining options that are suddenly outside my door and my constitutional two pizzas a week with "the guys." Granted, the coming of spring has contributed to the dent in my waistline, but a few other factors have contributed to this. I am now walking to and from work just about everyday - even the rainy ones - and I get a few more walks in tending to the dry cleaning, groceries and even walking to the cinema as well. I now have four cinemas within a 45-minute walk, a far cry from the lone coffee shop that was within a 55 minute walk from my previous digs in the 'burbs. (I will not even attempt to count the coffee shops that are within 45 minutes of my door.)

So big deal, right? It would be obvious that living in a more walkable neighbourhood would help contribute to a healthier lifestyle and that car-reliant lifestyle in suburbia would eventually turn your T-shirt into a gut-sling.

Fritz Steiner, in an article titled "We Knew It Along" in Planning magazine, makes a direct link between the design of automobile dependent communities and the increase in obesity. It is a long overdue acknowledgment of the connection between the communities we live in and the habits that we form. Steiner goes on to add a few suggestions to create communities that will encourage more active living.

It all fits together...

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Marda Loop and Garrison Wood: Permeability and Liveability

In the great discussion of what shape Calgary ought to take in the future Marda Loop and Garrison Woods have often been cited as examples of how the city could develop itself.

The first thing that I noticed was the complete absence of borders separating one neighbourhood from the next. There is little visible separation between Altadore, Mount Royal and Richmond and that borderless permeability from one community to the next has to be part of its charm and liveability.

The word permeability continues to echo as so many aspects of the Loop and Garrison Woods added definition to the concept in a way that sharply contrasted to suburbs like Rocky Ridge, Royal Oak and Tuscany, which are all separated from one another and from their closest amenities.

A walk down 33rd Avenue SW saw residential neighbourhoods blend into a pleasant commercial and retail area. For the most part the businesses were local rather than parts of chains. The few chains that were represented were usually fastfood outlets that were tamed from putting their most garish signs in the middle of the streetscape. As I got closer to Crowchild Trail, there was a Petro Canada and a turn south took me into Garrison Woods.

Among the pleasant touches in GW were the way the Safeway and its parking lot were hidden from view by a small commercial/retail strip. (I should add that "strip" does not do that building justice.) I have nothing against supermarkets, but their parking lots create a bit of dead space, no matter how full they happen to be. The placement of the retail space allowed it to share the parking with the Safeway rather than distance itself from the sidewalk with another parking lot of its own. The neighbourhood was quite busy with pedestrians for a Friday morning. The coffee shop was a convenient place to get the kids out for a walk and a snack before plotting the rest of the day or weekend. People knew one another on only a casual basis but were willing to reintroduce themselves and maintain or build connections.

Getting beyond the tonier new businesses in Garrison Woods, it was interesting to see how others had transformed a handful of houses from another era into quaint boutiques. Too small to suit modern appetites for space, a string of houses have found extended life as business establishments selling crafts, pet supplies, and such, preserving a bit of the neighbourhood's heritage and diversity while providing new entrepreneurs a toehold in the area.

That diversity again brings me back to that theme of permeability. There is no appearance of an insisted-upon standard to assert an ideal of what the neighbourhood ought to be. There are homes that immediately conjure thoughts of gardening grandparents and others a block away that suggest that young urbanites have found their suitable starter infill. If they wish, the diversity is such that if they are inclined to move to a bigger home as their needs change, they can do it without looking too far away.

The various diversities in this neighbourhood, with the age, style and purpose of the architecture, types of businesses, age groups and income levels of people are ample reason for it to be the example that it is for the rest of the city to consider.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

A quote re Oil

The following quote is from Shah of Shahs an account by Ryszard Kapuscinski of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979. Maybe, just maybe, people will find echoes of this in their own experiences with oil-sated governments closer to home...

Oil kindles extraordinary emotions and hopes, since oil is above all a great temptation. It is the temptation of ease, wealth, strength, fortune, power. It is a filthy, foul-smelling liquid that squirts obligingly up into the air and falls back to earth as a rustling shower of money. To discover and possess the source of oil is to feel as if, after wandering long underground, you have suddenly stumbled upon royal treasure. Not only do you become rich, but you are also visited by the mystical conviction that some higher power has looked upon you with the eye of grace and magnanimously elevated you above others, electing you its favorite. Many photographs preserve the moment when the first oil spurts from the well: people jumping for joy, falling into each other’s arms, weeping . Oil creates the illusion of a completely changed life, life without work, life for free. Oil is a resource that anaesthetizes thought blurs vision, corrupts. People from poor countries go around thinking: God if only we had oil! The concept of oil expresses perfectly the eternal human dream of wealth achieved through lucky accident, through a kiss of fortune and not by sweat, anguish, hard work. In this sense, oil is a fairy tale and, like every fairy tale, a bit of a lie. Oil fills us with such arrogance that we begin believing we can easily overcome such unyielding obstacles as time.... Oil, though powerful has its defects. It does not replace thinking or wisdom. For rulers, one of its most alluring qualities is that it strengthens authority. Oil produces great profits without putting a lot of people to work. Oil causes few social problems because it creates neither a numerous proletariat nor a sizable bourgeoisie. Thus the government, freed from the need of splitting the profits anyone, can dispose of them according to its own ideas and desires. Look at the ministers from oil countries, how high they hold their heads, what a sense of power they have, they, the lords of energy, who decide whether we will be driving cars tomorrow or walking.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Could the Calgary Herald Be Promoting Its Own Demise?

I take a break describing my walks today to discuss the pages of the Calgary Herald, the city's lone broadsheet and a member of the floundering Canwest media duchy.

I am not a regular reader of the Herald, but I have been struck by some rather odd coverage that they have devoted over the last few months. As the debate surrounding Calgary's Plan-It document preoccupies a few people in Calgary and moves through the mechanisms of city hall, the Herald has become an unabashed champion of suburban development. In May 17th, 2009 the Herald's front page headline trumpeted praise for suburbanites who get a modicum of exercise creating their very own bucolic backyards replete with fountains, ponds and such. Deeper into the paper there was an article warning about the threat of elevator breakdowns. The combination makes for a very transparent bias in favour of continued sprawl. Any reading of the paper's "Homes" section on Saturdays would promote the home builders' polls that people want cars and backyards - the price of oil, the environment and reality be damned.

For all the glory that the Herald wants to heap on suburbanites for their backyard exertions, and two-car garages, they seem to be overlooking some persistent trends.

The opposition between the suburbs and inner-city living is a misconstrued one. The fears that people have of city life are grossly exaggerated in the name of justifying the move to the suburbs. The exodus of people from inner cities to the suburbs has fostered a false belief in the private domain rather than the public domain. Those people building their backyard vistas are glorifying their own little private space as a refuge from the rest of the world rather than engaging in it. The desire to close oneself off from the rest of society has reared its head in a variety of forms in Calgary and Alberta over the last few months.

- Protests against a methodone clinic in the Calgary neighborhood of Braeside.
- The Alberta government's passing of Bill 44 giving parents the option to pull their children out of school if they object to the subject being taught.

These are just the two highest profile examples of this desire for people to escape from each other or the issues that ought to be shared, discussed and dealt with in the public domain by the largest number of people possible.

So, you ask, "What does this have to do with the possible demise of the Herald, or newspaper readership?"

While the first culprit for the demise of the print media might be the presence of the internet as a source of information, it is not a particular solid argument if we are talking about media arms that have an internet presence. The bigger challenge that newspapers face is that of providing a product that appeals to the audience it has targeted in a certain geographic area. If the people in that area are all pursuing ever-more-private lives, detached from the community and uninterested in the issues that face it, why would they choose to read newspapers that may only have a handful of interesting and relevant articles.

Picture if you will a domain of individuals sitting in their suburban homes in front of their computers, safely enclosed behind their garage doors once again to surf the net for news of interest to them. If they are not interested in the well being of a community that they only visit for employment and a few commercial activities such as the groceries and picking up the latest new release at Blockbuster, what reason is there for them to take interest in the gang wars that are taking place, the state of the city's schools and hospitals or anything else that forms the fabric of the community? The weaker the fabric of the community, the smaller the audience for news and information about that community. If that is what the Calgary Herald wishes to so unabashedly promote then its commitment to its advertisers is nothing short of a painful irony.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Sprawl Defined

The City of Calgary is in the process of passing a plan for managing the city's future development. The document, named Plan-It, has continued to be the subject of controversy as the city goes through public hearings to discuss the plan. Plan-It is aimed at developing more mixed-use neighbourhoods and communities in the city and get away from the on-going suburbanization of the city by building further and further away from the city's core. It is all but self-evident that the continued expansion of Calgary's already substantial footprint with place further strain on the city's overwhelmed infrastructure.

Throughout the hearing that have taken place this week, however, Alderman Ric McIver made a point of challenge participants in hearings on the housing supply and the definition of sprawl. He made it clear with his line of questioning that his position is against Plan-It. Mr. McIver is apparently a low-tax, small-government oriented politician and his stands on these issues is apparently in keeping with a laissez-faire approach to the future development of the city.

The aversion to Plan-It because it will impose limits and direction on the development of Calgary is specious. The aversion to the plan out of a desire to keep taxes low is illogical.

One of the main arguments against Plan-It is that it will restrict the housing supply and drive up the cost of housing. Calgary is already among the least affordable cities in the world for housing and it seems necessary that the city take some intervention to reduce these costs rather than let developers continue proceeding without guidelines. One of the components of Plan-It is take bring together people from a variety of income levels to share the neighbourhoods that will evolve under the plan. Currently, the construction of suburbs allows people to insulate themselves in communities of people with similar incomes. Another factor that has contributed to the rise in the cost of housing is the conversion of rental units in to condominiums for purchase.

There is a possibility that Plan-It may induce a short-term squeeze in the supply of housing but this could be a consequence of a slow response to the plan by building developers. However, there have been several good models for the type of community development that will help ease this problem, some even in Calgary.

The other problem is Alderman McIver's quest for a definition of sprawl. Throughout the hearings he cited Calgary's move to increase density from 4 to 10 units per acre. This is an improvement but another component of sprawl is distance and again the demand on infrastructure. For example, a house fire in Royal Oak, one of the furthermost suburban communities in Calgary, resulted in the fire spreading to two neighbouring houses. This is a consequence of the close proximity of the houses with that higher density and the distance from a fire station.

Allowing Calgary to continue expanding its footprint and building mono-use suburban communities into greenfield areas will result in a need to expand the city's infrastructure or place more demands on it. The consequence is going to be higher taxes, whether Mr. McIver can complete that equation or not.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Walking Downtown Calgary - The 1st of

It is a well known fact that the downtown area of Calgary, or the Central Business District to define it more accurately, is all but dead outside of the 9-5 Monday to Friday workday. It is easy to cite the fact that the business orientation of the downtown area as part of the problems with the level of activity that exists there.

Stephen Avenue, at least from MacLeod Trail to 4th or 6th Avenue South is an active pedestrian area that has a wealth of restaurants and cultural assets the keep people there after work, even with the loss of McNally and Robinson bookstore last summer. The problem, however, is that Stephen Avenue is a small island of activity in the downtown area and little trickles from there either north or south.

While there is some pedestrian traffic from Stephen Avenue to Eau Claire to take advantage of the facilities at the Eau Claire YMCA and the Bow River Trail that has regular recreational and commuter traffic. The avenues between Stephen Avenue and the Bow River do not have sustained east west pedestrian traffic.

One of the biggest problems with the downtown area is that Stephen is isolated somewhat by the trainlines on 7th Avenue S and just south of 9th Avenue S. In the case of the LRT running on 7th Avenue a great deal of pedestrian traffic is brought downtown needless to say, but there is little on the street to invite people to stay and walk the area. The C-Train stations bring a lot of traffic but most of it gets off 7th Avenue rather quickly. This is not the fault of the stations themselves but rather the places that are accessible via 7th Avenue.

Centre Street station for instance faces the back of the Telus Convention Centre and there is little reason to stick around that area. Moving west from there, the rundown pawn shops and convenience stores are more likely to scare off than invite pedestrian traffic. However, even the more reputable businesses invite traffic. The Bank of Montreal building on the north side of 7th is a dead space that fills nearly a whole block except for the cemented "park" just to the east of it. Further west, other office towers provide little access to 7th Avenue. One tower on the NW corner of 7th and 7th offers a blank wall to that corner and pedestrians have to head north to enter that building. Even without the construction that is currently taking place there, the blank wall and trees give people no reason to stick around.

Combined, the elements on 7th Avenue give little reason for pedestrians to walk along the east-west stretch of the street. Most of the traffic would tend to head north-south or head inside to take advantage of the Plus 15 system. It seems very much like a psychological barrier (at least) to walking along 7th Avenue. It might be enough to influence the direction of pedestrian traffic on the other avenues to the north as well.

The newer configurations of the C-Train platforms are much airier and open than their predecessors and that has already shown promise of meaningful integration into the street life, especially at Art Central, but there still needs to be more to be done to make 7th more attractive and inviting to pedestrians.

I'll continue to examine other parts of the downtown area in other posts.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Century Gardens: Keep the Chess Player, Lose the Park

The title might give people the notion that I am against parks. The case I want to make is that parks placed in cities need a bit of planning, foresight and sensitive design in order for them to be a healthy part of the community environment that people would actually want to spend time in.

Century Gardens, to help the 99% of us (me included) who would not know the park by its name, is located between 7th and 8th Avenue SW in Downtown Calgary. It is just east of 8th Street, which is known for its "Scary" Mac's convenience store. The neighbourhood is often rife with drug dealers and I have regularly had to walk the gauntlet of weed? whisperers who bide their time there.

Currently Century Gardens is not in the best shape it has been in but that is not to say that there has been a sudden demise. Quite simply there is construction pending north of the park along 7th Avenue and the water that once ran through the park has not been turned on. Despite that and the preparations for the seemingly imminent demolition of nearby buildings, the park has never struck me as a friendly and welcoming place.

Despite the chess player and playing family statuary, the cement walls of the fountain that presents the park to most passers-by do not make the park very welcoming. The towers to the immediate east and south of the building keep it dark for most of the morning as well.

When I visited the park at 10am on a Saturday morning I was presented with the sight of a man public urinating against the cement. The cement fortress that separates the west end of the park from 8th Street also has enough nooks and crannies for people to hide if they so choose. During the time that I hung out in the park, two couples happened to enter the park, but neither of them were motivated to actually sit and pass some time there. When I left to head east on 8th Avenue, I noticed a homeless person sprawled on the grass, his sleep about to be interrupted by two of Calgary's finest who happened to be walking the beat.

While Century Gardens might have a bit more activity in the afternoon when the light hits it and perhaps even during weekdays when there is more pedestrian traffic in the area, there might be more life in the park. People might also argue that the impending construction might have also discouraged visitors from coming, but I really haven't seen a lot of pedestrian traffic in the area. There are at least three apartment towers within a 25 metre radius of the park but it does not seem that any of those residents are drawn to the park.

Whatever the good intentions for Century Gardens when it was built, it probably has not served its purpose effectively. If the construction in that area fills the park with something else I for one won't miss it. If on the other hand the construction leaves it untouched, I doubt the park itself will be revitalized.

Rocky Ridge

For about a year and a half I lived in Rocky Ridge. The development is on the northwestern edge of Calgary with a spectacular view of the mountains and the sunsets as well. City limits are in sight as well, with 12 Mile Coulee Road dilineating the division between Calgary and the municipality of Bearspaw, which has often been the subject of annexation rumours.

Like the view from the window, however, Rocky Ridge is much more oriented toward the west and to Cochrane than it is to the rest of Calgary.

Linked into the rest of the city, however, by the transit system the neighbourhood is indeed still part of Calgary, though perhaps only because the amenities of the Rocky Ridge area are so limited. There is a strip mall nearby with a supermarket, gas station, Subway shop, video store hairdresser and dentist. All of these are about a 5-7 minute walk away. The nearest coffee shop to escape to is about a 55 minute walk away, hardly close enough to invite a regular visit.

Rocky Ridge is getting a bit more connected to the rest of the city. The C-Train line has moved a little closer to the development and the Ring Road when it is completed is also supposed to make things more accessible as well. However, people are unhappy with the changes to road access that will occur as a result. The design of the community, is focused around car use and that fact that there is no public school anywhere in the area, makes everyone's day and commute that much longer as they have to get their kids to school as well.

When looking at a community like this and assessing its remoteness from the rest of the city it is easy to jump on the sustainability bandwagon by talking about how much time and energy is spent commuting. Too easy. Other aspects of sustainability, however, would relate to the actual survival of the community. Many of the people live where they do because they indeed want to get away from it all. But how much time do these suburbanites actually have to enjoy their surroundings. Without the time to put into their homes and their community, how close-knit will these communities become? Will people in this community be as attentive to their communities needs as residents in downtown neighbourhoods? These questions raise the more significant issues about sustainability in these parts of the city.

Introduction: Where I'm Coming From

I have lived in Calgary for the past six years and have made a point of remaining carless throughout the time. It has been a point of wonder or consternation among friends and others I've met but there has been few difficulties or challenges despite the litany of complaints people have made about the city and its transit system.