Monday, June 28, 2010

The beautiful city

If you are like me, you've had your eyes glued to the FIFA world cup, taking place this summer in the enchanting South Africa. While certainly intrigued with the beautiful game, in my role as happy urbanist, my attention is divided between football and Johannesburg's recent inner city renewal. An article by Geoffrey York in the Globe and Mail on June 5 introduced me to Gerald Olitzki, a visionary Johannesburg resident and businessman who has almost single handedly re-invented the city core.

Joburg or Jozi as South African hipsters call it, has certainly changed in the last 20 years thanks to people like Mr. Olitzki who had been sadly watching it's slow and steady deterioration and decline. As the largest city in South Africa, Johannesburg's metropolitan area has a population of over 10 million people. Racial segregation goes back to colonial times but more recently, Apartheid (1948-1994) wreaked havoc with this country and certainly put a strain on the inner city, with mass migration out of the city center into the more affluent all-white suburbs. The empty city became a haven for gangs, squatters, drug dealers and other undesirables who quickly became responsible for giving the city the disconcerting title of 'murder capital of the world'. People became afraid to set foot in the downtown.

One of the key players associated with the turn around, Gerald Olitzki, a lawyer and property developer, did not flee. He stayed put, determined to turn the inner city around. Concentrating around Ghandi Square (formerly Van der Bijl Square) where the city's central bus terminal resides, Olitzki started buying up worn out abandoned buildings, some of which were historic, and, along with the city, began the slow but steady necessary clean up. One of the more visible public/private partnership revitalization projects, Ghandi Square, once home to a host of crimes and a holding area for city buses, is now a thriving, safe, cafe-lined urban square.

Mr. Olitski had dreams of changing this area for years and thankfully stuck to his ideals after being turned away year after year from local governments who thought he was crazy. It was not until 1994, that watershed year ending apartheid, that the Greater Johannesburg Metro Council took Olitzki up on his offer. Now after over 15 years and millions of Rand spent, all are in a agreement that the project was a huge success. The Ghandi Square face-lift sparked further inner city re-development. Slowly business began returning to the central core.

With technology making it easier to work from anywhere, central city buildings no longer need to be workplace-only facilities. Olitzki knows that the next step in rounding out the inner core is to provide vibrant residential spaces to turn it into a place with 24 hour activity. He wants to provide options for both singles and families who want to live in the urban core. (Calgary take note) and is making safety a major objective towards this goal.

He hopes world cup visitors will venture further than the affluent mostly white shopping-mall-filled suburbs to see the real Africa in places like downtown Johannesburg, Newtown and Yeoville, (other up and coming inner city neighbourhoods).

Olitski is by no means the only Joburger with great inner city aspirations. People like Neil Fraser (Central Johannesburg Partnership) and Isaac Chalumbria (Lionshare Holdings) know that they are part of a positive trend. With events like the Halala Awards (Halala means 'to celebrate') established to recognize the acheivements of people who have changed the face of Johannesburg, Jozi's inner city is on the cusp of something special. Don't just take my word for it, read Laurice Taitz' amusing city guide to Joburg blog.

If the wise folk of Jozi were able to turn around 'the murder capital of the world', (the centre's murder rate has dropped by 27 % since 2005) doesn't our own inner city renewal seem simple in comparison? People like Mr. Olitski had to change the perception of the inner city as much as he had to change the physical infrastructure. People have to understand that it is worth renewing.

The tipping point may just have come with the arrival of the FIFA world cup. With international eyes on South Africa, let's all wave the flag for inner city renewal.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Plan it Calgary for Dummies

I wanted to get up to speed with the latest Municipal Development Plan for the city so I popped into the free workshop presented by the Federation of Calgary Communities and the city. I've been to a few of these and highly recommend them - you meet the most interesting people and find out about the workings of your city all at the same time.

Intended to give a general overview on the somewhat unwieldy document (actually two documents) the workshop introduced us to Plan it Calgary - the process (not the document) for developing an integrated Municipal Development Plan (MDP) and Calgary Transportation Plan (CTP) that the city will (may?) be implementing shortly. How close they follow the plan is subject to mayoral election coming this fall.

Some of you smart readers have probably already heard about it, but for those who may not of, or for those who have heard of it but could still use a few pointers to help with navigation, here follows a brief overview.

Back in 2005, the city initiated imagineCalgary, a visioning exercise open to all Calgarians. Here was an opportunity for all those with active imaginations to tell their story about what they wanted their city to be like in the next 100 years. Did you want Jetson-like spaceship launching pads from every home or a wildlife petting zoo downtown? If you could imagine it, it could be documented. I put in a couple of brilliant (I thought) ideas but have noticed none have come to fruition. In their defense, they did say 100 years.

From the ripe imaginations of Calgarians came the more down-to-earth (no Jetson landing pads) integrated land use and mobility plan, which was given council approval in 2009. Can we pause for a moment to make note that this is the first time that the transportation plan and the city development plan were developed together as a unified integrated plan. How, you ask, can you possibly plan one without the other? Good question. Needless to say, I give thanks to those who made this happen. Better late than never.

One of the informed City facilitators posed the question "How can Calgary grow up, not just out?" Amen sister. I'm hoping it's with processes like Plan it Calgary.

Grounded in the philosophy of Smart Growth, Plan it starts with 11 principles: 1/ create a range of housing opportunities and choices, 2/ create walkable environments, 3/ foster distinctive, attractive communities with a strong sense of place, 4/ provide a variety of transportation options, 5/ preserve open space, agricultural land, natural beauty and critical environmental areas, 6/ mixed land uses, 7/ direct and manage redevelopment opportunities within existing areas, 8/ support compact development, 9/ connect people, goods and services locally, regionally and globally, 10/provide transportation services in a safe, effective, affordable and efficient manner that ensures reasonable accessibility to all areas of the city for all citizens and 11/ utilize green infrastructure and buildings.

This might be a good time to mention how it differs from Smart Growth. Even with only 10 key principles, Smart Growth offers a tad bit more. I might add that what is missing may compound some of the same issues currently plaguing Calgary further into the future. Two key principles conspicuously absent from Plan it include providing an urban containment boundary to protect and enhance endangered agricultural lands and to stop urban sprawl. In an earlier blog I mentioned that Portland did this with much success. Why are we so squeamish about making it a key principle?

What might have been an innocent oversight, also missing from the list of principles in Plan it is to nurture engaged citizens, knowing that places belong to those who live, work and play there. Engaged citizens should be encouraged to participate in community life and decision- making.

In general, Smart Growth-ers would prefer that we stop building on Greenfield (fresh land) all together and densify what we've already built. This is a great way to stop sprawl. Alternative development on old Brownfield (former or current industrial sights) or even Greyfield (former or current commercial sights) is another option. Green, brown, grey - are you following me with all these colours? City council, with some say pressure from suburban developers, made a last minute amendment to the original Plan it document, relaxing the density targets for Greenfield development to 60 residents/jobs per hectare down from 70 residents in the original plan. The good news is that the rest of the plan went forward as designed. The bad news is we still seem to be afraid of ticking off those who wish to expand our footprint.

In both Plan it and Smart Growth, the focus is on intensification and diversification of key urban activities, with a huge emphasis on improving the myriad ways in which we move around, be it by bike, foot, public transit or car. Nothing would make this happy urbanist happier than a segregated bike lane throughout the city's urban core! Or how about a five minute wait for the C-train even during non-peak hours?

Plan it Calgary acknowledges an account reporting called the triple bottom line. Where traditional accounting models focused solely on profit, the triple bottom line calculation includes two other key factors - people and the planet- often the bearers of the hidden costs of all that profit making. It has now been recognized that if you don't factor all three into the equation, you have a false economy.

In a 2009 article on Plan it in Fast Forward, Ben Brunnen, manager of policy and research at the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, was quoted as saying if the city doesn't change the way it grows, it will eventually go bankrupt (can anyone say CALIFORNIA?). If you don't know by now, not only are the suburbs unsustainable, they are expensive for tax payers. The infrastructure costs go up considerably, the further out you build. Until we start installing parking meters out there, suburbanites will never know the true cost of their style of living.

You're no dummy. You know that all the visioning and planning exercises in the world does not a city make. Implementation is where the real work comes in. An upcoming mayoral election just might be the right place to make sure implementation happens. Just because Plan it did not include the need for engaged citizens doesn't mean you should let them off the hook. How does your candidate intend to implement the plan? If the next 60 years mean anything to you, find out. Now that's smart.

Monday, June 14, 2010

(PUNK) ROCK Gardening 101

"For those about to rock, we salute you" – AC/DC's famous line plays in my head whenever I think of my friend Stephanie Ferguson, a hardcore urban (punk)rock gardener here in Calgary. She's the real deal, walking in the footsteps of people like William Roland Reader, the well-known parks superintendent who started planting the recently restored Reader Rock Garden way back in 1913.

He was (punk) rock gardening way before punk rock.

Only hardy types need apply for rock gardening. Needing both a hard and a soft touch, prepare your biceps for some heavy lifting of solid rock along with the delicate task of year round tender loving plant care. For all those who say you can't be a good gardener in Calgary, let's talk rock gardening! Our climate happens to be very well suited to plants from the Alpine/Steppe-Dessert region. We share certain geographical characteristics with places like Turkey, central Asia, Argentina, Greece, Spain, China, parts of South Africa, Mongolia and Kazakhstan, not to mention the less exotic western half of North America.

If you can grow it in Kazakhstan, you can grow it here! Above the tree-line, no problem!

The key is in the garden's structure. Stephanie walked me through her 'oasis of slate', giving me the step by step narrative in how it was built. First a layer of water-retaining silt is laid down and sculpted into ridges (cleverly resembling the hogback ridges of Longview). These built up ridges are covered with a thin layer of sand, on top of that, crushed gravel and then on top of that, a coat of broken slate (rock mulch). Hand-cut slabs of Rundle stone (slate/shale) from Canmore's own Kamenka Quarry are wedged vertically into the ground, on a slight slope, creating both a picturesque design as well as those much needed crevices crucial for the plants survival. Once the rocks are in place, each plant is carefully placed, close, but not too close, to other plants. (note to miniturists: you are going to love Alpine plants - designed to stay low in cold windy climates, these plants look like tiny replicas of larger variety plants)

Plants begin as seeds, purchased in the late fall, carefully cultivated indoors throughout the winter, ready for planting in April, and then enjoyed throughout the summer – that's right, the fun never stops all year!

Also known as zero-scaping (xeriscaping), Stephanie's garden takes very little maintenance (once it's all built and planted) with very little water and only natural fertilizer, (in the form of bone meal) needed. Originating in the Czech Republic (or the UK depending on who you talk to), this style of rock gardening also called 'crevice gardening', is extremely eco-friendly, with the north sloping sides of the rock garden staying cool and south-facing slopes retaining heat, the structure is always in perfect balance. Weeding is a cinch because there's very little space for the roots to take hold, and to top it all off, the garden attracts a wide variety of (good) insects like bees and dragon flies. Some plants (like the one pictured below) even attract humming birds!

Did I mention that Stephanie can name all 1,500 species of seedlings planted this year using their Latin names? Told you she was the real deal. In addition to having a green thumb, Steph's archiving skills rival those of a tenured professor. Each plant is carefully marked with detailed information including the aforementioned Latin name and place of origin (first with a temporary plastic marker and then, if it survives a season, with a permanent etched aluminum one). Not for the faint of heart, be prepared to lose around 25% of what you plant. Its all about trial and error, learning from the pros, and swapping notes with fellow enthusiasts.

It starts with seed swapping. Sounding vaguely solicitous, some well known swappers include the Alpine Garden Society in England, the Scottish Rock Garden Club, and the North American Rock Garden Society. A new arrival just launched this month, is the home-grown (pardon the pun) seed swapping website Every fall, conscientious gardeners all over the world harvest their seeds, package them up and send them half way across the globe for others to try out in their own backyard. Planting from seeds is relatively inexpensive, making this form of gardening open to everyone, not just those with an account at the garden center.

I'm not even going to attempt to tell you all the plants that can be found in this 70' x 30' space, but if you are interested, the garden is located in Mount Royal at 1412 Premier Way S.W. Although a private garden, because of its location in the front yard, it has become a bit of a public spectacle. If you are genuinely curious and extremely polite, Stephanie is a wealth of information with a good 15 years of experience under her belt. If you are lucky, she might even teach you the Latin names.

Rock on.

more links for rockers:

The Calgary Rock and Alpine Garden Society
Chandigarh Rock Garden in India
Brooklyn Botanic Garden- designing a rock garden

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Lost in Transition

Change is good, at least that is the message I've been picking up at the Cities and Towns in Transition two day conference, jointly organized by the faculties of Social Work and Environmental Design at the University of Calgary held June 4-5. My head is buzzing with ideas of how I can transition into a lifestyle that is both more sustainable and kinder to our kicked-around planet.

As we are all well aware of by now, mother earth has reached a period in existence where all the things we've taken for granted Рoil, water, food, cars, unlimited consumerism (I could go on here - what hasn't reached its peak?) are on the endangered species list. If you haven't started thinking about ways in which your own lifestyle should be altered, you might want to put that latt̩ down and start now.

I was intrigued by the message brought by Portland Metro Council member Robert Liberty who founded the influential 1000 Friends of Oregon organization that has helped to make Portland a model city, sought out by urban planners all over the world. That message was that Calgary is not that much different from Portland, up to a point. Up until the mid 70s they were pretty much on equal footing, with a similar population base, values, and physical city structure.

But then something happened. An influential forward thinking governor named Tom McCall decided he didn't like where Portland was headed. With an unlimited space for building, the city was sprawling beyond a reasonable size, making life for its inhabitants more and more dependent on cars to get around. The waterfront view was often marred by large roadways, and people were moving out further away from their place of work. The city was losing its grip on building a sustainable system. This wasn't going to be a model city that world leaders would look up to until he did something to change its course. And he had a group of willing citizens to back him up.

Why are we always so resistant to transition? Is it partly because we all just want to live a 'normal' life? Afraid to act in a way that may not be acceptable today?

The thing is, 'normal' changes.

Take the incredibly well designed Brama Project, a Platinum LEED® semi-detached inner city townhome in Calgary completed this spring. Designed by the talented David Ferguson and built by the forward-thinking Coley Homes, The Brama Project should be considered a normal house.

But right now, its not. It's spectacularly special because of two things - it's smart and beautiful. It's smart because it takes into account the fact that resources are limited, be they material or energy. Its beautiful because David Ferguson (David Ferguson Architecture) and Nicolle Pittman (Coley Homes) decided that just because a house is net-zero doesn't mean it has to be net-elegant.

The Coley Homes website is chock full of details and documentation on the design/build of this pioneering project. They've built with R-2000 construction technology, a Canadian based construction standard that goes way beyond typical building codes, 'with a worldwide reputation for energy efficiency and environmental responsibility'.

The R-2000 standard is based on the concept that a house is a system and the flow of air, heat and moisture within the home is affected by the interaction of all the components – if you make changes in one area it will affect other areas. Sounds like common sense (and a lot like how the entire ecosystem works).

The national LEED® Canada for homes rating system promotes the design/build of green homes. Since sustainability can be quantified and measured (up to a point), the Leadership in Energy and Environmental design standards were created. They comprise nine minimum conditions over six different categories and are awarded in silver, gold and platinum.

The Brama Project is one of the first LEED® certified homes in the city. Yup, one of the first. They've not been timid about embracing the new. This is what normal should be. Right now it really stands out. I'm looking forward to the day when it doesn't stand out on the block. When it's just one more house, built to a standard that we can all be proud of and that our planet will thank us for.

Let's all be more like Portland and the Brama Project. Just 'normal' places that have decided that they will not do more harm to the planet then they can help. Places that are not afraid to transition.

Come on, don't be shy. Change is good.