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.