How well do you know your city? (Part 2)

This is a continuation of a series focused on getting to know places off (my) beaten path in, Victoria B.C.

Set in the Downtown Harbour Front area this post is focused on planning for mixed use and walk-ability in the Inner Harbour as well as the future of an industrial working harbour.

Considered to be a well rounded approach to balancing social economic and environmental challenges, “Mixed Use” has become a dominant ethic in development and planning literature denoting an ideal of a commingling of live, work, recreation, retail/commercial and occasionally industrial space. To foster socialization, access to businesses and provision of parks and natural areas, mixed use developments in Victoria’s harbour-front have often included walkable public spaces/parks along the waterfront. Despite some goals for a continuous waterfront walkway as set by community members and in public planning documents issued by the City of Victoria, the waterfront walkway on the east side of the inner harbor gets disconnected by industrial areas beginning at Rock Bay and running north of Bay Street bridge.

View of Inner Harbour from Bastion Square

In light of it’s nature as public space, it is perhaps the nearly complete waterfront pathway that provides the most readily accessible experience of development in Victoria’s harbour. South from Bastion Square, this walkway runs in front of the Empress Hotel and Parliament, through to fisherman’s wharf and even around ogden point to the trails along Dallas road. To the north this walkway is partially severed by the Johnson Street Bridge. The Victoria Harbour Plan stated that a pathway would be established under the bridge by 2010, however the completion of this section will likely happen with the upcoming construction of a new Bridge at Johnson street.

Pathway Terminus on South Side of Johnson Street Bridge.

Pathway resumes at mixed use developments to north of Johnson Street Bridge.

A cousin to the above mentioned mixed use area, the Selkirk Waterfront is a recent mixed use development situated immediately north of the Upper (“Working”) Harbour. For it’s part the Selkirk development has created spacious pedestrian and cycling capacity along the waterfront. The waterfront access restored in Selkirk has the potential to connect the harbour greenway extending all the way from Dallas road to the major regional Galloping Goose and Lochside trails, but the path abruptly ends at an industrial site to the south housing pacific steel recycling. The Selkirk Planning Manual – used as the de-facto official plan in the Victoria Harbour Plan – states: “Continuous public access along Victoria’s is highly desirable [however] connection … is now precluded by either heavy industrial use along the shoreline, steep topography or private occupancy.”

If existent, it is exceedingly difficult to find any substantive published discussion of options for creating a publicly accessible waterfront through the private and public properties to the immediate north and south of Bay Street Bridge. This includes any discussion of the future of the pacific steel recycling site which has been the source of multiple noise complaints from nearby neighbourhoods. One other major stumbling block to connecting through this area with a walkway is the fact that the City’s public works yard is situated in this area. The yard has a massive amount of gravel barged into it and, even if GHG emissions don’t mean much to you, from a pragmatic cost and infrastructure perspective the idea of trucking the same amount of gravel in through Victoria’s roadways is markedly less appealing than the existing “working harbour” method. That said a City of Victoria Planner has been quoted as saying that a walkway could be integrated with some industrial use in the area.

View of the City of Victoria's Public Works Yard to the South of the Bay Street Bridge.

In the absence (for now) of viable options for a waterfront pathway in this area it is useful to note that pre-1900s, prior to the heavy industrial use of the area, there existed a bridge across Rock Bay connecting to the suggestively named Bridge Street. Map 1 shows that bridge street does in fact connect directly to the Selkirk development and if the bridge were re-instated could provide a workable link to the rest of the waterfront pathway.

 

Rock Bay Bridge once opon a time (Source: Victoria Heritage Foundation, http://www.victoriaheritagefoundation.ca/burnsidehistory.html)

Map 1: White line depicts potential connector route via Bridge Street (I generated this map using the CRD Regional Communities Atlas)

This suggests that the real key to achieving a connected regional waterfront greenway lies in Rock Bay. Since the Government of Canada and BC Hydro announced in May of 2004 that they, “are working together to clean up Victoria Harbour’s Rock Bay, one of the most contaminated sites in BC,” (Transport Canada, 2004) little work has actually been done on the ground (see Illustration 6). However, David Anderson, Minister of Environment said, “Once the cleanup is complete this will provide a great opportunity to plan and redevelop this site.[which will be sold to private developers or the City]” (Transport Canada, 2004). The City of Victoria is currently drafting a new Official Community Plan (OCP) to replace the antiquated 1995 OCP. Judging by a media release from August 27, 2010 (from The City of Victoria) regarding the upcoming OCP, walkable neighbourhoods will be an important focus of the plan. With the OCP and the growing propensity for mixed use development in urban cores, it is nearly certain that any new development on the remediated rock bay site would be mixed residential and commercial space and thus able to realize the provision of public space for a connecting section of harbour-front greenway.

Rock Bay Remediation Project. Panorama on right shows that the water has not yet been pumped out of the bay to allow remediation work to begin.

In November of 2007 a Times Colonist article noted that the City of Victoria was considering re-establishing a bridge across Rock Bay. This article spawned a fairly active discussion recorded online in 2007 where the public’s opinions can be more or less summarized by two excerpts:

I don’t know why anyone would want to walk to Rock Bay but this is a cool idea nonetheless… they should [also connect to] the Selkirk Trestle & beyond.(“amor de cosmos”, on VibrantVictoria.com)

“… who ever walks to Rock Bay? I did [from James Bay] just the other night.”
(“Barra”, on VibrantVictoria.com)

Map 2: Downtown Core Area Plan Draft

Seemingly sympathetic to the views described above, the City of Victoria has recently shown increasing support for a connected Harbour Pathway in it’s 2010 draft of the Downtown Core Area Plan. The City of Victoria’s website states, “The completion of the Harbour Pathway as a key public amenity is supported through urban design guidelines as well as through the new Density Bonus System.” (City of Victoria, 2011) While the portion of the draft plan explicitly dealing with the Rocky Bay Area “[c]ontinues to support the location of marine-dependent industrial uses and activities along the waterfront,” it does propose the re-establishment of the Rock Bay Bridge (See Map 2) as well as mixed residential, high tech industry and commercial development (City of Victoria, 2010-B).

All of this being said, Victoria’s waterfront walkway remains incomplete, and despite the goal of connecting Selkirk via a waterfront path, the latest greenway plans only extend to Rock Bay. None the less there is potential to establish some viable link between the mixed use communities via the proposed Rock Bay Bridge. The first step will be the Rock Bay Remediation and development of a mixed residential and commercial community on the site.

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How well do you know your city?

For me, the answer is “not well enough.”

I have begun to realize that my sense of the city I live in, Victoria BC, is very limited save for the the few places I regularly go (e.g. University, the grocery store, cafes, downdown etc.) and the strips of scenery along the way. This is, in essence, my mental map of Victoria, and it’s too small! Like most university students here, I have lived in a few different locations through my degree and each time I move my entire sense of the city expands and changes. I like this.

So, I have decided to try and continue expanding my sense of this city. And, lucky you, I am going to do by best to take good pictures and share the places with you as I go.

First, I should confess something though. The desire to know my city better, is honestly mine. However, the impetus to get out of my chair and actually bike and walk around the city did not entirely come from me. I am taking a course (Planning and Urban Development) in which we are doing a number of classes in the field. So, finally, indulging my interests doesn’t conflict with going to class!

So over the next couple months, and beginning with today’s post, I will be sharing my newly expanded sense of place as I get to know the various neighborhoods we look at in this planning course.

Without further adieu,

The Uplands

This is a neighborhood I had only seen from the street as I passed through on occasion. I will admit that from what little impression of this place I’ve had over the years I have built a decidedly negative opinion of the place as a very functional neighborhood.

This opinion was not built on very much. Mostly my Jane Jacobs inspired sense of what a vibrant urban landscape should look like. This neighborhood didn’t have people out on the streets, nor even anything in it but houses. At first glance I had hastily put uplands into my failed neighborhood column.

This was clearly ignoring the facets of it that have made it so immensely desirable to those select few who chose to live there. (Speaking of those people, I’ve heard off hand mention that the Uplands has the highest density of millionaires per square km in Canada… make of that what you will.)

The affluent nature of Oak Bay is actually tied into the history of the Uplands. Over the better half of the 20th century the Uplands, and more specifically the deed restrictions placed on the properties by the developers, has played no small part in defining the greater character of development in the entire Oak Bay Municipality. Oak Bay did something relatively unheard of and took over managing the deed restrictions which discriminated what houses could be built based on a minimum price ($5000 at the time).  In 1934 Oak Bay incorporated similar restriction in their general zoning.

Undoubtedly the history of the Uplands and it’s impact on the planning of the municipality has worked to shape the greater character of Oak Bay. Whether the exclusivity of Oak Bay is a good thing is more open to debate.

Regardless, some are quite pleased with this neighbourhood and I would be remiss, despite my quandaries, not to give it credit for the degree to which greenery and trees are a prominent feature in this neighbourhood. I chose not to say natural areas, or nature because this is an extremely modified landscape which does not, with notable exceptions, really function as the ecosystem it once was.

You see the forest meadow feel? (despite the gloomy weather)

Walking through the Uplands I began to have a much easier time imagining a city where natural systems were more integrated with the built environment. Rather than concrete and glass being the norm for a city feel, I felt a forest and meadow asthetic, even while simply walking along people’s front lawns (there are very few sidewalks in the Uplands – another issue.)

Speaking of sidewalks, a rather comical situation was pointed out by our professor which I was actually quite pleased to see in one respect. In short, a sidewalk ran into a tree and the tree won. This comes from the will of the mastermind behind the Uplands, John Charles Olmsted. At the turn of the century, he remarkably mapped every tree existing on the site of the Uplands development before drawing up any plans. It was paramount for him to preserve the trees and the aesthetic they created. Though much of the soil and the rest of the ecosystem (not to mention First National cultural harvesting) is effectively gone, many of the trees remain. It is this commitment to the trees and mimicking the original aesthetic that guided Olmsted to create such a distinctly park-like feel to the Uplands.

Patrick Condon’s book has really brought me around to the idea of streetcars as an extremely practical means of urban transport for North American cities. One of the reasons streetcars make so much sense here (North America), Condon argues, is because to a large extent our older cities are already built around the streetcar.

You wouldn’t realize it at first glance, or at least I didn’t, but this is true of the Uplands. The proof is embedded right in the round-about at the centre of the neighborhood.

This track is proof that a streetcar line once ran to the heart of the Uplands.

Although the streetcar line only ran infrequently and was geared more toward picnickers than commuters, this built in potential makes me think he Uplands might not be as bound to the personal vehicle as I initially thought. As fuel prices rise, values shift, densities grow and we begin to look for alternate means of urban transport the memory of a streetcar line could prove useful.

While I must admit that I’m not interested in living there, I do have more of an appreciation for the design of the place. It has left me imagining how other, more functional, neighborhoods might move toward the restoration of their original ecosystems.

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If it were up to you?

What if, rather than only being consulted after a plan is submitted, the public came to the drawing table earlier in the game?

I think everyone is pretty familiar with the tired old cliche that plays out all too often between property developers and environmentalists at public consultations. I’m sure you’ve heard the narrative where the corrupt developers destroy a pristine natural landscape in order to sell high priced properties to the rich and exclude everyone else. Recently though, I’ve come across some things that have really challenged that cliche. The point is not that this cliche is wrong and doesn’t really happen, rather, the point is that bits and pieces are beginning to show of a much better way.

I recently came across an interesting idea, presented by Lisa Helps (click to watch) at a community consultation on the plan to build 279 cabins on the Juan de Fuca trail on Vancouver Island’s Wild Coast. She describes a vision for quite a novel approach to planning developments:

“Everyone participates. Not in a ‘let’s drive this development’ or in a ‘let’s oppose this development’ kind of way, but let’s imagine for a moment… that Marine Trail Holdings asked people before the beginnings of any development proposal… ‘What is the best possible, most blended bottom line, most sustainable use of these 583 acres over the next 20 years and beyond?’  – ‘What’s the best possible sustainable use?’ This would be a really good conversation for everyone to have. Now it doesn’t mean that Marine Trail Holdings can’t find a way to make a profit in the whole endeavor. They’re a company, that’s part of the point, but it’s not the only point…  I don’t think this is fanciful, unrealistic dreaming, it’s actually all possible. What’s needed? Someone, or more likely a group of someones, needs to convene the conversation.”

Those words really stuck with me.

They came back when reading The Smart Growth Manual which makes a point of saying,

“Wise governments and developers understand that the time to seek community participation is at the outset, using public opinion to help guide the project rather than to dereail it at a later date.”

Now, this implies a greater separation between developers and public opinion than Lisa did above, but it still calls for a kind of consultation that seems radically different from the old and tired model of developer vs. environmentalists.

I should clarify here that the authors of the Smart Growth Manual are considered by some (i.e. Kaid Benfield) to be,

“in the world of development and profiting handsomely from it, have a reputation for pursuing greenfield development, and have rather visibly slammed the environmental movement on more than the odd occasion.”

I don’t post that to diminish the Smart Growth Manual authors’ point, but simply to clarify that they are not commonly considered radical environmentalists. So, if this form of consultation seems like a good standard to those on both sides of the fence, why don’t we see developers retooling their advertising campaigns to run before any plans are drawn up? Have you seen advertising campaigns asking the general public to draw up preliminary plans? (I can think of but scarce few)

Even if we haven’t realized the blended bottom line Lisa was talking about earlier; even from a shallow, purely profit oriented perspective, it seems like this kind of consultation would be a hugely successful way to create a buzz, spark interest and find out exactly what the market is demanding.

So why aren’t developers going back to the drawing table (literally) with communities at the wheel?

Well, first off, some are – to great success. Undoubtedly however, there is entrenched practice in the business community which is to hire professionals, but perhaps that role is changing as well. There is far more to answering this question than simply an entrenched practice though, and really engaging with that question brings me back to the note Lisa left off on. Recall when she said,

“… it’s actually all possible. What’s needed? Someone, or more likely a group of someones, needs to convene the conversation.”

What really interests me is asking who is now taking up the challenge of facilitating this drawing table conversation? How do they get all parties with (in)vested interests to come to the table on equal footing?

Can municipal governments and regional planning commissions facilitate this conversation before hand rather than (as is commonly, and rightly, done) seeking consultation on after a plan is submitted?

Perhaps with nothing to submit, the government cannot yet get involved. In which case it must fall to a private sector agent to facilitate the process. Who is that?

If any thoughts or examples of this happening come to mind please comment!

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Book Review: Seven Rules for Sustainable Communities: Design Strategies for the Post Carbon World 

Seven Rules for Sustainable Communities, by Patrick Condon, is a concise, yet convincing, homage to the streetcar city. In the book, Condon does not attempt to throw out history for an inventive re-imagining of urban design. Rather, the principles he puts forward embody the resurgence of those sustainable design strategies already proven in the North American context. Condon offers an updated synthesis of this wisdom appropriate for our modern challenges. Condon’s depth of research (he has quite an illustrious CV both academically and professionally) and skilled writing makes his robust arguments an effortless read.

At the outset (page 2) Condon addresses his book to “designers, policy makers, developers, regulators, and ordinary citizens in the hope that it will arm them with an understanding of the ways our cities are failing and offer them very specific actions to cure them.” This is a difficult audience to bridge, and the author achieves a commendable balance between academic and journalistic styles to achieve his intent. Neither the breadth of the book nor any individual argument is exhaustive (an impossible task for 164 pages). However, even as someone who is environmentally minded and fairly well informed, I found the arguments quite compelling. To great effect, Condon’s writing has distilled extensive research and firsthand experience into an strong, if preliminary, set of strategies for designing the sustainable North American city.

Condon’s 7 rules are centred on “the streetcar city,” which he describes as a vibrantly mixed use neighbourhood built around the walking trip. Within the streetcar city, the multitude of transit options available simply serve to extend the walking trip. Contemporary urban planning, Condon argues, has focused too much on developing nodes, and city centres. For example, drawing on Vancouver’s Livable Region Strategic Plan, the author shows that rather than concentrating in nodes, as planned, the majority of jobs are spreading in a decentralized pattern throughout the majority of city space, which is seemingly ignored by node based planning. Noting that most people live away from nodes but close to “streetcar corridors,” Condon believes that we must focus on corridors as the locations for jobs, around which a mix of housing forms can be located within a five minute walk (extendable by streetcar) from all the amenities of daily urban life. Perhaps the most important point of Condon’s model for the sustainable city can be summed up in the author’s final caveat, “Love one rule, love them all.” In this Condon means that the principles mutually constitute the streetcar city model, and thus cannot be taken in isolation from one another.

The author’s discussion of sustainability places explicit focus on a “three pillars” notion of sustainability; to balance economics, social equity, and ecology. Condon acknowledges the need for a holistic approach to sustainability, recognizing that, “even absent the climate change problem, our way of building cities is unsustainable,” (page 161) and, “the secret lies in designing for all the sustainability issues at the same time” (Page 128). While carbon neutrality forms the bulk of discussion on ecological sustainability, Condon does engage in detailed discussion of watershed sustainability (Chapter 8). Condon also devotes considerable space (Chapter 7) to preserving and enhancing ecosystem function through the creation of a linked system of healthy natural areas. The objectives and motivations for this design principle range from scientifically defined ecological function right through to Frederick Law Olmstead’s embrace of transcendentalist values of nature for spiritual fulfillment.

The economic arguments for Condon’s contemporary streetcar city are effectively crafted; however, the discussion of the social equitability and affordability of Condon’s urban design solutions is comparatively brief. This forms perhaps the weakest point of Condon’s otherwise robust streetcar city model; especially when examples are drawn from Vancouver, Condon’s host city. The author poses the legalization of secondary suites in single family homes as a key means to provide affordable housing. Despite the ubiquitous nature of these suites in Vancouver, however, the inaccessibility of the urban core to non-wealthy demographics remains a key force driving income segregation in central Vancouver neighbourhoods.

Within the discussion of each principle Condon contextualizes the problems being addressed using effective, if brief, descriptions of the formative processes underlying the problems. I found these descriptions particularly useful in understanding how cities have taken form and why planners have tended to focus on the wrong things. The scope of this discussion is understandably limited, but based in a compelling legacy of design wisdom, this discussion formed the most compelling aspect of Condon’s arguments. The extensive illustrations, arranged in a text book like fashion, play an indispensable role in presenting the reader with an image of the city designs discussed therein. It is due to this seemingly firsthand experience instilled by Seven Rules for Sustainable Communities that

The recent publication of Seven Rules for Sustainable Communities as an 8 part series in The Tyee, a prominent B.C. newspaper, coupled with a concluding article which adapts the seven rules to the local context of B.C.’s lower mainland, makes the book freely available (online) and relevant to a diverse local audience. In breaking from the confines of academic readership, this book shows potential to make a much greater impact on the zeitgeist of urban communities.

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An Urban System of Natural Areas (in Calgary?)

One of the things that interests me most when it comes to issues of environmental sustainability is the question of how to go about planning sustainable cities. How do we even decide what we consider to be a “sustainable city”?

I’ve been reading a very compelling book by Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods. In general this book looks at our departure from “nature” into the modern world full of technological distractions, busy schedules and regulations on how we play (especially if it’s outside). Obviously this discussion is centered around what this means for kids these days, but I find it every bit as relevant to considering how I (want to) live my life.

In one section later on in the book Richard Louv talks about where he thinks we need to go with our cities and urban plans. To my delight he has introduced a couple of exciting movements in urban planning which I hadn’t heard of (the “Zoopolis movement” and “Green Urbanism”). One of the things they both seem to be working toward has been really exciting my imagination.

Richard Louv states it pretty clearly:

“Preserving islands of wild land – parks and preserves – in urban areas is not enough, according to current ecological theory. Instead, a healthy urban environment requires natural corridors for movement and genetic diversity. One can imagine such theory applied to entire urban regions, with natural corridors for wildlife extending deep into urban territory and the urban psyche, creating an entirely different environment in which children would grow up and adults could grow old – where the nature deficit is replaced by natural abundance.”

For any of us who are lucky enough to be quite familiar with the makeup of healthy wild ecosystems, it is very easy to understand the need for a regional system of connected natural areas. To understand this personally, I’ve been thinking about what “ecological knowledge” I’ve come by in the time I’ve spent hunting in the woods. In trying to predict where deer will congregate, what paths they will use, and then sitting for hours at a time intently listening to every twig crack and scrutinizing every possible natural trail, I have learned more than I ever expected to about the ecosystems in which I’ve hunted. Same goes for the water patterns, lake and riverbed formations and marine food chains of the fish I’ve pursued.

I know you can’t, and shouldn’t expect to, hunt in cities. So it’s an unrealistic goal to plan urban parks around hunting, but just bear with me. I only use that example because it’s been such an important means for me to connect with and learn about my surrounding ecosystems. Of course you might feel differently than I do about hunting and fishing as a means to connect with nature, but likely you have your own set of experiences from which you’ve learned things about the natural world. Whatever those experiences are I’m sure they’re enough to make it abundantly clear that fragmented parks with manicured lawns and thin strips of trees and bushes do not support the kind of diversity and vibrancy of life in which I would hunt, and you would do… what you choose.

So, you’re not going to get deer in city block sized athletic parks surrounded by pavement, traffic and houses. You’re not going to have a healthy trout population in channelized urban streams and especially not in the concrete storm water and sewer systems of modern cities.

As you read that though, I bet some pretty amazing counter arguments probably came to mind. Citing the example of Calgary you’d be absolutely right to challenge what I’ve just said. As I’ve been reading this part of the book and imagining a city with a healthy ecosystem supported by natural areas of varying sizes, all connected by corridors allowing free and safe movement of wildlife, I’ve been picturing Calgary.

I began wondering if I was just biased (and I likely am), and so I Google Map’ed Portland, and other cities mentioned by Louv, and compared them with Calgary for large enough, unpaved areas to support real and interconnected ecosystems. I also put Victoria in the comparison. That is when I realized that Calgary, despite its urban sprawl – or maybe even because of it, is in an amazing position (at least the portion of Calgary west of Deerfoot Trail).

With the Bow River and the Elbow running through it, Calgary is already set with two fantastic corridors penetrating right to the heart of the city. In the North West of the city, the Bow (especially on the south side of the river) has survived with a larger ecological buffer than most urban rivers in other major cities. The elbow, downstream of the reservoir is flanked with golf courses and mansions which are not ideal for ecological integrity, however there is still a substantial buffer of green space around the waterway. Nose Hill also provides an amazing expanse of “natural area” which is big enough that some core areas exhibit different ecosystem assemblages than what is seen closer to the “urban edge.” This difference means that there are some different ecosystem processes happening, and suggests a greater integrity in those interior ecosystems. This is rather commendable for an urban park! Nose Hill, however, is completely walled off by major traffic arteries at each edge, enclosing the hill with a noisy and fatally impassable mote of concrete and tons of rushing steel.

Fragmentation is a term used in ecology to describe the disruptive effects of agriculture or highways/railroads cutting through ecosystems whereby a species or ecosystem on one side of the barrier becomes isolated from the other. Clearly the fragmentation of little isolated parks is great enough to render them mroe or less sterile.

As that need for defragmentation and connection of natural areas applies to urban planning, Louv says the following;

“Rather than accept a parcel-by-parcel, park-by-park approach, we need to call for broad, regional strategies – and for new ways to form them.”

Louv also recognizes that it is communities who direct their leaders, and so it falls to the community of Calgary (I’m thinking civic camp) to find innovative ways to create natural areas and connect them as part of a regional plan. Just looking at Google maps, I easily picture a corridor extending from the river up along the slope below Crescent Road all the way into SAIT. A few blocks north is the treelined creek in the valley of Confederation Park which extends into Queens Park Cemetery, only a hop and a skip from the southeast corner of Nose hill park. That omits of course the huge stumbling blocks of 10th street, 16th Ave, 40th Ave, 14th Street and John Laurie Blvd… All the same, I can see the stepping stones in place.

As Calgary combats urban sprawl with densification of the urban core it will be paramount that the success of both urban communities and urban ecosystems are held to be mutually reinforcing. Therefore, to pave over a wildlife corridor in the urban core for the sake of building a dense high rise development in the name of “sustainable development,” would be tragically foolish.

So with that in mind: Keep that amazing set of natural area’s you’ve been endowed with Calgary, and run with them!

Malcolm

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