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.