Density Can Be Done Well

Issues in North American cities today include housing affordability, unpredictable energy costs, climate change, aging population, public health, placelessness, and identity. There are answers and they are part of city building. This is the main message of Brent Toderian’s presentation today at the Canadian Institute of Planners. 

Doctors and health practitioners are starting to speak loudly about the importance of walkable and dense neighbourhoods to public health. Sprawl has real economic cost too. Even conservative analysts now admit that sprawl costs more in terms of delivering services like sanitation to municipalities.
Cities and suburbs are changing, not because of ideology but because of better math. 
Simple innovations will save our cities, like wheeled suitcases and wheeled shopping bags. This much more so than driverless cars.
Demographics are pointing toward more urban living for families and for millennials. The narrative that families don’t want to live in urban situations is simply not true, if the appropriate services are provided. 

Vision, will, and skill are the basics that cities need in order to innovate around providing increased density. Vancouver is proving in scores of ways, that density makes good cities. Calgary, though, too is making a lot of the right decisions. 

Medellin and Bogota have good transit and increased attention on urban mobility, public space, and social equity. But the key urban problem in all these cities is sprawl. The key problem with sprawl is automobile dependence. If you can’t get anywhere except by car, you live in sprawl. 

Brent is working with aging malls to retrofit dense urban living on these properties. 
“Adding highway lanes to deal with traffic is like loosening your belt to cure obesity.” – Lewis Mumford, 1955

Vancouver and all the other ‘cool’ cities are tearing down freeways to restore neighbourhoods. Toronto had the opportunity but failed recently [with the Gardiner Expressway].

Vancouver has changed the prioritization of modes; it designs for pedestrians first, bicycles second, transit third, moving goods fourth, and cars last. If you design a city for cars it works for no one. If you design a street for people, it works for everyone, including cars. 

Density done well includes consistently high quality of design both in terms of landscape and architecture. Vertical sprawl is car reliant neighbourhoods with taller buildings. This is not urbanism. Great design creates value (see photo). 

Brent Toderian talking about how great design creates value in cities.

Density done well requires a diversity of amenities. These should be requirements for good development. Density done well requires innovative green development. Vancouver’s South False Creek with its district energy plant is a great example. 

Neighbourhoods change. This is a reality. We need housing types that fill in the gap between single family and mid-rise development. 
We need to get from NIMBY to QUIMBY – QUality In My BackYard.
Brent closed by saying that making it real takes vision, will, skill, and follow though!

In The Q & A, one of best questions was about adding requirements for three bedroom units in developments. The person asking indicated they didn’t have a legal basis to make this a requirement, yet it’s broadly known that families would be more likely to move into the city if there were larger units available. Brent responded by talking about how when proponents request zoning changes, Cities can absolutely set requirements that are backed up by facts.

Toderian UrbanWorks


Toronto Is Getting Transit Right

The assumption in Toronto today is that a 45 minute commute is ok. We shouldn’t accept long commutes. It takes hours out of our day, and has serious negative health and community impacts.
Jennifer Keesmat, Chief planner of the City of Toronto spoke yesterday at the Canadian Institute of Planners Accent on Urbanism 2016 conference in Quebec City. 

Image: Toronto street cars. James Bow, photographer.

Her talk was called “Transforming your City by Getting Transit Planning Right.”, and she mainly discussed her own experiences with transit issues in Toronto. This was my first planning conference; ( I’m attending because I presented earlier today) and I have to say I found this particular topic fascinating. Toronto is growing very rapidly and this inside view of how Jennifer’s group is tackling the challenges that come with that reality was instructive. I’ve captured some of the more the salient points of her talk here.

20 years ago in Toronto, being near a transit station was seen as a negative. Today it’s exactly the opposite. Today’s thinking is directed towards actually pre-zoning areas for development before transit gets built. 82% of Canadians live in car oriented suburbs, according to Professor David Gordon.
Toronto is working to actively engage youth and the disenfranchised in community consultation. Toronto’s ‘Feeling Congested’ campaign was directed at drivers, specifically. They’re not an easy group to engage, compared to cyclists, for example. Discussion guides were created to help leaders engage with their community. They built tool kits for discussions with community leaders. Handed out packages of tissues to citizens in order to drive web traffic. Kleenex provided sponsorship. Media picked up the story en masse. The brand has taken on a life of its own. City councillors regularly refer to ‘what we learned from feeling congested’.

The greatest risk to the city is that we continue to make decisions as we have in the past. 
Jennifer asked; “what are meaningful responses to feedback and consultation?” First of all, informed opinions are valuable and need to be sorted out from the other opinions that are so often received. You need data and evidence to bring to the conversation, in order to inform the public, in order to receive informed responses. 

Eight evaluation criteria are used to de-politicize decisions around transit development. 
A transportation network is about access. Providing a one trip transfer for all is the current goal. All transit modes are part of the evaluation. Today the City of Toronto evaluates the entire system when making decisions. 60% of transit trips in Toronto begin on the bus, so it’s impossible to ignore this mode (as is often done). Today’s realization is that we need to all be like Paris; with constant and consistent transit development. This is not radical thinking, except in Canada.  

This conference session was well attended and there were some great questions. I’ve captured a couple, along with Jennifer’s responses here:

Q: Is pre zoning working? A: Yes, but there’s a lot of backlash around rezoning and construction disruption that can really derail projects.
Q: How to deal with the challenges that the speculative environment provides? A: In Toronto, we need stronger policy tools to deal with those who are not ‘city builders’ and want to make a quick dollar. The capitalists amongst us who only want to make money provide a real challenge to those who care about neighbourhoods and the quality of the urban environment.

What Is A Smart City?

The city of the very near future will be a place where citizens are both content users and providers. It will be a place where street lights and fire hydrants and transit systems communicate back and forth with smart phones. It will be a place where decision making is shaped by all kinds of streaming data from traffic conditions to weather to pedestrian movements. It will be a much more sustainable city because of innovations in technology.

One of the best presentations I attended at last week’s OAA conference was the “Toronto: Smart and Connected” tour led by Waterfront Toronto’s Kristina Verner, Bill MacGowan of Cisco,  and Joy Henderson of Cityzeen. Together they introduced the architects in attendance to the mind expanding ways in which Toronto’s waterfront is developing.

Kristina Verner compares the scale of Waterfront Toronto with other similar developments. Photo by the author.

Kristina talked about the role of Waterfront Toronto in these developments. They currently require what she called LEED Gold ‘plus’, for new buildings, bringing their requirement close to Platimum. Their new CEO, William Fleissig is an architect from California and has experience leading cutting edge  sustainable developments. Watch this space for innovations in the sustainability realm. 

Waterfront Toronto housing has 1 gbs upload and download speeds to ensure that residents can be both content users and providers.
The Toronto lakefront has become an innovation corridor stretching from the Central Waterfront to Pinewood Studios
Public space is key to the new waterfront and 24 new parks have been created. 
Queens Quay has been updated to feature a new bike lane, dedicated streetcar lanes, and granite paving. Surprisingly, it works better today than when it was four lanes. 
So far, $1.26 Bn investment has generated new private sector development valued at $9.6 Bn.

The smart city is literally under development at Cisco’s  new Innovation Centre on Toronto’s waterfront. Bill MacGowan showed us some of the high tech ideas they’re working on including smart fire hydrants, remote charging for devices, smart lighting that is controlled by a smart phone. 

Cisco’s Bill MaGowan talks about intelligent infrastructure.

Two Competing Visions For LeBreton

The last two days have seen a fever pitch of interest in the future of LeBreton Flats. The two consortia competing to develop this 55 acre site in the core of Ottawa’s Capital revealed their proposals at the Canadian War Museum yesterday and the day before. DCSLS‘ proposal and that of Rendezvous LeBreton, the two teams vying to build at LeBreton differ in interesting ways, but they both propose exciting new ideas for this part of Ottawa.

The public came out in droves to see the proposals and news coverage was extensive.  

Two artist’s illustrations, below, show competing visions for the future of LeBreton Flats.


How To Build Canadian Cities Back Up

I’m working on a white paper about fixing Canadian cities. The last ten years have left them shabby and investments have been sorely lacking. With a new government in place that has signalled an interest in infrastructure, it may be a good time to rethink some of our policies. So far I’m thinking that the outline might look something like this:

  • Invest 
  • Build Infrastructure – bridges, more rail, and housing that addresses the broad demographics that Canada boasts
  • Focus on making Canadian cities great; figure out what makes each particular city uniqueand figure out how to build on that
  • Focus on transportation types besides the automobile
  • Put our money where our mouth is on design excellence. 
  • Consider enhanced protections for our built heritage
  • Consult the public especially on the big moves
  • Build consensus 
  • Do real sustainability that meets high international standards
  • Learn from Quebec City; one of the most visited cities in Canada that has set a high standard for caring for and building on what they have

This is a start. Feedback welcome.

Image is a photo of Toronto by Klaus Lang on 500px.


It’s Time to Look After Cities

North American cities face unprecedented challenges today on three fronts. Infrastructure is decaying, transportation investments have not kept up with growth, and housing is costly and in many cases not suited to those who need it. Michael Enright hosted a CBC radio conversation on this topic yesterday that addressed many of these issues that both the US and Canada share, and some that are specific to Canadian cities. His guests included Ken Greenberg a Toronto architect, Don Iveson the mayor of Edmonton, and Jill Grant a planning professor at Dalhousie in Halifax. 

Canadian cities consistently feature in the top five of The Economists top of the world’s most livable cities. However, Canada’s infrastructure deficit is an estimated $123 Bn and rising, and this poses a serious challenge to Canada’s status as home to the world’s best cities.

The guests on this radio show talk about how the model of the city that features endlessly expanding suburbs is simply no longer sustainable. The idea of the automobile as the answer to every transportation need has run its course, says Ken Greenberg. Today, a modest house in Toronto costs $1m and this is why urban low income families are being pushed to inner suburbs where access to transit is limited.

Halifax has its own issues according to Jill Grant who points out that that city is tending toward sprawl and fragmented pockets of development outside the core.

In discussing strategies to develop cities in a way that works today, Edmonton’s mayor, Mr. Iveson talks about a model development in his city where an urban airport is being replaced by a medium density low carbon neighbourhood that features district energy and other sustainability initiatives. I’m pretty sure he’s talking about Blatchford redevelopment which has been featured in this blog, and according to the mayor, is back on track as a highly sustainable development. 

Questions do remain however about whether the project is on track and whether sustainability objectives are being honoured. The original designer was Perkins & Will, but the city’s site features different images than the ones that were prepared by this leading design firm.

Nevertheless, panelists agree that if the federal government doesn’t become involved once again in supporting cities that they will continue to be strangled by infrastructure, housing, and transportation issues. The panelists also agree that on the flip side, government spending led to the post war period of prosperity, and could be a model for a way forward today. I’m curious whether readers agree.

Listen to the radio show here.

Images are from Perkins and Will’s Blatchford Redevelopment site.


Combine Transit Oriented Developments and Focus on People to Make Better Cities

When people have access both to transportation of various types and enhanced opportunities for social interaction better cities result. The new standards for Transit Oriented Development published by Treehugger are certainly exciting from the point of view of providing a new and fairly sophisticated tool for promoting density near transit. However they are very focussed on mode of transport and types of density and don’t adequately address people and enhanced social interaction as an important role of the city. Author Charles Montgomery’s recent book highlights an approach to city building can be formulated by combining these schools of thought.

We Need To Reframe The Congestion Debate

In the North American context when we think about our congested cities we immediately picture people idling for hours on our freeways. However it is increasingly becoming clear that balanced solutions to getting around our cities can create cities that really work and are ‘dense’ or even ‘congested’ at the same time.