Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Sidewalk Citizen

I'm so thankful for people who are doing their part to make this city more vibrant, adding life to the street. I'm even more thankful when they can bake a beautiful loaf of bread. One such person is Aviv Fried, creator of Sidewalk Citizen Bakery. Inspired by none other than the urban planning guru Jane Jacobs and her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Aviv set out to build a business that engages the citizenry on its sidewalks –To add a new step to the distinctive dance of the city.

I paraphrase here from Jane's book:

Under the seeming disorder of the city, is a marvelous order for maintaining the safety of the streets and the freedom of the city. Its essence is intricacy of sidewalk use, bringing with it a constant succession of eyes. This order is all composed of movement and change, we may liken it to a dance — not to a simple-minded precision dance with everyone kicking up at the same time, but to an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole–The ballet of the good city sidewalk.

Sidewalk Citizen Bakery is not a place - but it's part of the sidewalk ballet. You don't go to it, rather it comes to you, through Aviv's niffty bike delivery service. Once a week, Aviv bakes scrumptious artisanal bread using local, organic ingredients (more on this later) and drops it off at your inner-city home or office at its peak of freshness. All you have to do is email or call to have your name added to the list of happy customers. Having savoured many a loaf of Aviv's bread, I can attest to its fantastic flavour and perfect texture. It's a loaf that you are more accustomed to seeing in France - all rustic and earthy. A bread that time may have forgotten, but is seeing a resurgence with a rise (pardon the pun) in more unique offerings by European-style bakers who want to satiate the desires of serious foodies everywhere.

Aviv's bread is made with Red Fife wheat. Unless you are in the artisanal baking business, you've probably never heard of it. The Fife family heritage wheat has been grown in Canada since 1842. Red Fife wheat was slowly phased out over the years, replaced by higher yielding varieties, but it took one women in B.C. to bring it back – Sharon Rempel. Searching for a higher quality grain that she could grow locally, Rempel was able to get her hands on some seeds and reintroduce the grain to Canada. Made into flour using the natural stone milling technique, the wheat is flavourful and full of healthy nutrients. Just as the wine industry identifies the 'terroir' where its grapes are grown, the artisanal baker is smartly starting to market the type of grain used in creating their bread. It does not come cheap. Organic Red Fife flour made from a stone mill costs three times more than it's industrially made 'enriched' equivalent. But it's worth it.

As Aviv put it, the goal of a good baker is to try and extract as much flavour from the wheat as possible. They do this by first grinding the wheat using a stone mill, an ancient process that slowly rolls and peels the grain, maintaining the wheat's nutrients and flavour, unlike the commercial process where metal edges sharply tear the grain, depleting it of important vitamins. Then the fermentation process must be allowed to take its time naturally (in commercial processing, they just add more yeast to speed it up), and finally, to use only the best, simplest ingredients. That means no extra yeast, sugar or artificial ingredients can be added. That also means taking your time and baking in smaller batches. It's doing things the old fashioned way!

Aviv could talk for hours on the science behind his bread (he does have a masters degree in biomedical engineering) but its the art of bread making that seduced him into a mid-career shift. Having studied under bakers from Vermont to Paris, he has discovered that it is the many intricate and subtle details that make the difference between creating an average loaf of bread and a loaf of bread of the highest quality. With careful trial and error, the use of the best ingredients, and feedback from some of the word's top bread bakers, he's finally found his stride.

Speaking of stride, it's his unique delivery system that really adds to the sidewalk ballet. His choice of bike for transporting the bread is deliberate. First, he does not want to add to an already growing number of cars on the street, and second, he is able to better interact with the street, to engage people in his activity. He's not hidden away behind a dark car windshield, but out on the sidewalk engaging in conversation, adding to the street life. And like the ubiquitous milkman of the 50s,what could be more sociable than someone delivering directly to your door?

I've noticed a growing number of articles cautioning us about the next potential global crisis –food shortages. With fires raging in Russia, and Canada experiencing some of the coolest, wettest temperatures on record – because of changing climate patterns, we may be at a point in our history where farmers cannot meet the world's grain needs. Grain prices are rising. Arable land is growing more and more scarce. I know I sound a bit alarmist here but wasn't it the high cost of bread that tipped off the French Revolution?

I think we take the abundance of food we have for granted and that's never a good thing. I also think we underestimate the need for vibrant, social engagement on our streets. Companies like Sidewalk Citizen Bakery enrich and nourish communities on the micro (nutrients) and macro (engaging street) levels. And most of all, its people like Aviv who add to the dance of the street, making the city a better place to live.

Making me, and many others, happy urbanists.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Give Peace a Chance

When I first found out that Santiago Calatrava was building a bridge in Calgary I was ecstatic. The world-renowned, award-winning, Spanish architect, famous for his bridge structures, was coming here, and building a bridge!

In my naivete, I thought the entire city would be as thrilled as I was.

In hindsight, I can see that if you had never heard of the architect Santiago Calatrava, what may have stood out instead in the press coverage were the words "foreign" "expensive" and "unnecessary pedestrian foot bridge". Hmmm....what a different picture formulates in one's mind.

Has ever a piece of infrastructure caused so many arguments/hate blogs/fodder for political posturing as the Peace (can someone say misnomer?) Bridge? There has been so much misinformation about this project that I don't even know where to begin. A big concern now, is that even if Calgarians get the correct information, they've already made up their minds about it (and they're stubborn, like me).

But I can't be the only one who thinks this is a great opportunity for Calgary to get a much-needed tourist-friendly landmark bridge built in the city center? I think we can all agree that the neigh-sayers have certainly had their opinion broadcast loud and clear. Now its time that all you Calatrava fans in the house get a bit loud.

Briefly, Santiago Calatrava - engineer/architect/artist is someone you should want to build your bridge. He's garnered an international reputation for designing and building award winning bridges (among other things) beginning with his 1984 'Bach de Roda Bridge' in Barcelona (pictured below). He's got the eye of an artist, giving his structures aesthetic appeal, and the PHD in engineering to give them physical staying power. With a self-titled coffee table book by Taschen and a solo-exhibition at MoMA , this is someone you should want associated with Calgary. If you haven't already, I urge you to visit his website to see the long list of projects/awards/publications under his belt. How lucky we are! I applaud those inspired enough in City Council and transportation to suggest him.

I do wish however that more information about him (and his huge talent) got out to the general public in a clear and concise way. Right from the start.

But that was not meant to be. What it became instead was an opportunity for those in politics and the media who were against the bridge to run amok, using it as a symbol of fiscal irresponsibility by City administration. This issue became more than the sum of its parts. Following is a quick review of the parts.

Part one: the City Centre Plan, unanimously supported by City Council, identified the need for two additional pedestrian bridges along the river. In the fall of 2008, the majority of Council members (that's right, the majority) approved construction of one of these bridges which would be located west of Prince's Island. The bridge met both Council's and the Transportation department's desire for more sustainable transportation options. And with a growing number of pedestrian commuters in the core, a smart addition.

Part two: We've got some excellent local talent here (some of my best friends are architects!) but even they, for the most part, are thrilled to be getting a Calatrava Bridge. It has been noted, but I'll mention it again, that this project is not devoid of local talent. Take for example Graham Infrastructure, the local construction company who, over a five month period, will be assembling the bridge pieces once they are shipped here from Spain. The majority of the project sourced local talent and was tendered through competitive processes, including construction, geotechnical investigation, hydrotechnical reviews, and input from lighting designers. Only the design of the bridge was single-sourced to a well-respected architect who wasn't born here.

Try this test. How many buildings in Calgary do you think were built without the use of outside talent or materials? Not many. This is a global economy allowing for the free flow of goods and services across countries. To hear the talk of protectionism from the right is so ironic. More proof that this issue is not about ideology but about cheap politics.

Part three: The story that your property taxes are paying for the bridge is misleading. 99.5% of the money came from an Alberta Municipal Sustainability Initiative grant. Awarded across the province to municipalities that would be building infrastructure that tackled the demands of growth in a sustainable way, with a side benefit of stimulating a lagging economy, this provincial money could have gone to Edmonton or Rocky Mountain House. But our City was awarded it. Only a tiny portion (0.5%) came directly from City funds. (all those worried about someone dipping into their snow removal funds, take a sigh of relief)

Lisa Rochon who writes a column on architecture for the Globe and Mail back in December 2009 took a positive stance when she wrote "...his red-and-white torpedo-shaped pedestrian and bicycle bridge designed to shoot across Calgary's Bow River is a necessary step toward building the culture of architecture there". Obviously it's a culture that still needs a bit of cultivating. (I salute Encana for hiring Norman Foster + Partners to design their new office tower - a giant step in the cultivation)

Part four: Even if you're not fond of the "look" of the red and white (chosen as Canada's colours) tubulur design, you have to be impressed with the feet of engineering this bridge displays. Unlike almost every other bridge on earth, the steel helix supports itself, needing no beams, arches, or cables for lower supports, other than embankments hidden in the river banks. So the entire bridge seems to float just a few feet above the water, like magic. It's an impressive display of technical mastery. I've noticed that Calgarians get nervous around anything that smacks of aesthetics but they are quite comfortable with the world of engineering (we have a high percentage of engineers in the city). This bridge gets points on both sides.

Let's not forget that there were many who wanted the Eiffel Tower demolished because it was considered an eyesore in 1889. Aesthetics are so subjective and they change over time.

And I haven't even mentioned my favourite part – that the bicycle and pedestrian lanes are separate - no jostling for position! And at over 6 meters wide, this pedestrian bridge allows for more elbow room than most downtown commuters are used to. It's like the autobahn of pedestrian bridges.

Part five: It's nice to see infrastructure money going towards something other than a standard suburban freeway overpass, but really, isn't that the biggest problem here? No one ever talks about the cost of summer road construction going on right now. They just talk about its inconvenience. For once some money is going towards a highly visible bit of pedestrian infrastructure! In Calgary this is a news item in itself! You can bet this wouldn't be an issue in many world cities.

Budgets are just values expressed. If you don't value an inner city pedestrian bridge designed by an award winning architect, it won't matter what the price tag is. It would be too much. Perhaps this issue has brought out the need to consider what we value. What does it say about a city that is only comfortable putting money into suburban overpasses?

Ignore the political posturing. Politicians are famous for using projects like this to gain political points. And try and read between the lines of media output. Controversy sells more papers than articles on boring city infrastructure.

Try and make peace with the Peace Bridge.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

A grocery store of one's own

My husband and I decided to check out Sunterra's new urban market at the base of the Keynote condos on 1st Street S.E. between 11th and 12th avenue. As I squeezed the squash and sampled the fresh baking, my body tingled with, I'm afraid to admit this, raging envy. A real urban grocery store – nicely designed, full of fresh produce, pedestrian friendly, stocked with some of my favourite brands, complete with cafe/restaurant. In my three year old voice I cried out "Why can't I have one?"

Why, I thought, do I still have to drive to get my groceries? (readers, you know how much I love driving).

Perhaps it's because I come from a family of grocers that I've become so obsessed with this topic. My Mom's family owned a wonderful well-stocked general store in a small town in Saskatchewan. (not the one pictured by the way) My Mom has been feeding people her whole life. She knows all about the power of good food. And so do I.

It's a basic need. If we are talking about designing a true walkable, vibrant, liveable urban neighborhood what is the one thing that is absolutely necessary? A grocery store. Unlike other commercial retail establishments, a grocery store is a necessity. Not a corner convenience store where twinkies are a major food group, but a real grocery store with fresh produce, healthy options and all the necessities in one spot. A store that is easy to access for those living in the neighbourhood not just by car but by foot/train/bus/bike/wheelchair. Because food is the basic element that ties us all together, rich or poor, young or old, black or white, employed or unemployed, sport fanatic or fine art lover – everyone needs to eat.

It's happening all across North America. There's a name for this phenomenon – 'the urban grocery gap'. The shortage began when many supermarkets left mixed-income central city locations in the 60s and 70s, relocating to the shiny, new and potentially more profitable suburbs. (Sadly grocery store developers are unaware that even though many urban communities do tend to be made up of lower income populations, the density of these neighborhoods means that they tend to have more income per square foot than suburban areas).

There is an obvious 'catch 22' situation at work here. Potential retail developers will not set up shop in an area without significant density and would-be inner city dwellers will not move into a neighbourhood that does not have basic services like a grocery store. Add to this the sometimes misguided fear of crime and deterrence caused by expensive real estate and you've got avoidance on the part of (grocery store)developers.

But times they are a changing. Statistics show that inner city communities are starting to lure people back with their proximity to urban amenities, walkable streets and smarter design. It's not uncommon now to hear negative comments about cookie-cutter-style big box grocery stores with their lackluster customer service, fronted by miles of pavement. There is a real need out there for a more European style store, where shoppers purchase smaller amounts, more regularly. Where customers walk or take public transit to buy food. Where, dare I say, a charming atmosphere prevails.

The fact that grocery stores had been avoiding setting up in certain areas for decades caused pockets of 'food deserts' (that's desert not dessert) some even referring to this issue as 'food apartheid'. More seriously, not being able to access good healthy food has been linked to obesity, diabetes and other health problems, with higher percentages of these diseases found in lower income neighbourhoods where the community often rely on corner convenience stores for their sustenance.

Many cities in North America are waking up to this problem and are trying to do something about it. Pennsylvania passed the first U.S. economic development initiative aimed at improving access to grocery stores that sell healthy food - this initiative included $41 million to build new grocery stores in under-served locations state-wide. New York city created a supermarket commission to aid in identifying policy solutions to the urban grocery gap and other issues around access to healthy food. Their city council has partnered up with groups like the food trust and the food industry alliance to pool resources. Even the farmer's markets and the united food and commercial workers union have joined in to help.

But one of the biggest changes is coming from cities that are willing to offer incentive packages like utility discounts, low interest loans and tax credits to grocery store developers who set up shop where they are really needed, not necessarily where profits are at their premium. City planning departments have become advocates for these businesses, acting like account managers, they offer subsidies and a streamlined approval process to encourage growth. It comes down to the belief that, because food is such an important issue, it shouldn't be left to the whims of the market.

Bridgeland, the place I call home, has won numerous design awards for its forward thinking plan, and indeed it is a nice looking neighbuorhood, but for me it has not lived up to the dream. That missing link is the missing grocery store. Indeed that might be one of the reasons why we were not selected as one of Avenue's top 15 places to live in Calgary. Don't underestimate the power of food.

Maybe this is the place that could offer a little incentive package to would-be grocery store developers out there?

Some urban grocery stores that I love include Meinhardts, Urban Fare, Sunterra Market, the Urban Fresh concept stores by Sobeys, Whole Foods, Dean + Deluca ...and would be very happy if anyone of them decided to set up shop in my neighbourhood. I also think that Bridgeland would be an excellent location for a local farmer's market. Hint-hint.

Eat. Pray. Love. Notice which word comes first?
Enough said.