Sunday, June 5, 2011
I don't really like packing. Inevitably I bring either too much or too little. Shoes never pack well, have you noticed? Emptying large pots of cream into tiny travel containers is a bore. Right now I should be packing for an upcoming trip to London and Sweden, but I've been avoiding it.
Now I have a perfect excuse to avoid my empty suitcase waiting by the door. My dear friend Jeffry Haggett is in town and he's asked me "So, what's new in Calgary?"
Jeff hasn't lived here for years so by "new" he's referring to the last decade or so. Being the hip urban designer/city planner/world traveler that he is, I know he won't be interested in any of the new edge suburbs or peripheral freeway overpasses. He wants to know what's new in the city.
I contemplate Calgary as of June 2011. This is so good for me! I love to think about it from a visitor's perspective. It forces me to stop taking it for granted. How would an outsider perceive this place? I should note here that Jeffry has lived everywhere from Halifax to Fort McMurray and traveled extensively all over the world. As a progressive independent thinking city planner, he has honed a discerning eye for all things urban. This can't be your average city tour.
I know just where to begin.
Not deterred by the drizzling rain and cool temperatures, we wander onto the spanking new river pathway of the yet-to-be-built East Village. A city planner's dream - nothing but wide open potential here – Like a stage set waiting for the actors to arrive (not to mention some additional sets). Standing on the carefully honed stone steps, we imagine what might take place on the expanse of open plaza beside the red brick Simmons Mattress building. An Arts festival perhaps? An organic food market serving mouth-watering sandwiches on french baguette? Sunbathers fretting about their tan lines? (ok that might be a stretch today). It's all there just waiting for something to happen.
While Jeff and I dream up how to fill in this perfect site, we head out to our next stop – Inglewood. I have fallen in love with Inglewood all over again. I had started taking the charming local businesses and authentic heritage buildings along 9th Avenue for granted. That is until recently. A few weeks ago, while devouring a perfect thin-crust margarita pizza at Without Papers (located in the Befus Block, above SUGOs) I was reminded of the great vibe here.
Had to see if Jeff would agree.
We begin at The Befus Block building, specifically outside the window of blue hydrangea floral boutique. You can't walk by this place without stopping dead in your tracks. There are always the most perfect flower arrangements here. Points for making the city just a little bit prettier b h!
A few doors down, we enter the chock-full Bite Groceteria, currently my favourite foodie shop in the city. Now Jeff and I have perused many a grocery store and this one certainly measures up. With its over-sized chandelier and Liberace wallpaper hung behind the espresso counter, Bite teases you inside. Come on, don't you just want a taste of that marzipan cookie? How about a container of vanilla sugar from Israel? Or a cleverly striped Paul Smith water bottle filled with evian? Everything is a temptation. Don't come here hungry. We end our visit with a quick sip of tiny but potent espresso, and on this caffeine high, contemplate our next move.
Here I must stop the tour to make note of how frustrating Calgary's park plus parking system is. Having visited/lived in various cities throughout the world, Jeff could not think of one with a more complicated system. I make a mental note of the four digit street code while Jeff memorized his license plate number and together we attempt to key in what we've placed in our short term memories into the park plus machine. We squint to read the tiny gray screen with way too many numbers and options, hit a few buttons until we assume we're done. This takes full concentration and a team effort. Why we ask? Why? Sure on many occasions I prefer to walk than to drive, and then parking isn't an issue, but we've got an entire city tour to get through. Calgary loses points here - thanks park plus! (update here: I have been told the smart phone version is much, much better)
With a quickly dwindling espresso-buzz, we proceed to our next destination – the Beltline. We start at the newly refreshed Central Memorial Park on 4th Street between 12 and 13th Ave. Its lunchtime so we step into Boxwood for a quick bite and conversation about Calgary's latest updates. We're both impressed with the park's facelift, its human scale and central location (side note: Boxwood's gooey raspberry brownie should win some kind of an award). We take a few photos and cross the street to Shelf Life Books, Calgary's latest independent bookstore conveniently located right beside the park. You may be aware that I took the closing of McNally Robinson Books rather badly (that's an understatement, I was ready to skip town) and maybe hadn't fully recovered from it –until now. Bookstores come close to grocery stores as dispensers of basic necessities as far as I'm concerned and Calgary just doesn't have enough of them (especially downtown). This is such a welcome addition. We sniff out the impressive selection of art and design books in the far back corner, peruse the eclectic staff picks, then depart for our next destination–Holt Renfrew and the Core downtown.
The white, white floors and endless white walls of Holt Renfrew instantly make you feel fresh. Jeff begins to spray the air with 14 different Hermes fragrances. We move on before the smells overpower us. Indeed, this is a place to come to if you want to feel like you are in a city. Its chic and cosmopolitan and loaded with great shoes! It never fails to improve my mood. Up the Holt's escalator and into the new mall known as the Core, a small gasp escapes as we look up at the huge expanse of glass above our heads. Ok, this is an improvement. A great city show-off spot for all your out of town friends!
There's just one last stop to make and that is the neighbourhood of Garrison Woods/Marda Loop district. We do a quick tour around to get a feel for the streets, the perfect width walkways and mixed housing types. Most of our comments are positive with just a few negative thoughts concerning the architecture. Must there be so many styles so close together? Was this because they didn't want it to all look the same even though it was all built at one time? Some of the contrast is a bit jarring, but this aside, another great improvement to our fair city.
We end with a cup of Phil +Sebastian coffee on 33rd Ave (in the building with the shoppers drugmart on the corner). A good city can never have too many well-designed cafes. You may feel slightly naked without your mac book air here, as it attracts a home-office-worker-but-I-need-to-get-out crowd.
The cafe's high ceilings give us lots of room to think about our tour. So how does Calgary rate? Pretty good. In fact, I feel quite proud of the recent urban design accomplishments. Sure I've focused on the positive and ignored our obvious offenses (I just can't talk about sprawl one more time, let's just hope one day we won't have to!) We both agree, there's been some great additions to the city.
Perhaps the best part of this trip was that there was no heavy luggage involved. Which reminds me, I need to go pack...
Friday, May 6, 2011
The weekend of May 7-8 marks the celebration of one of the most influential writers and urban activists in North America – Jane Jacobs. (Had she lived, Jane would have been 91 May 4). You may know her by her book "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" which marks its 50th anniversary this year. The New York Times Book Review calls it "Perhaps the most influential single work in the history of town planning...a work of literature."
If you've ever used the phrase "eyes on the street" to refer to how streets become safer as more people congregate on them, that was from Jane. She lived in Greenwich Village in New York during the Robert Moses years– that is the years when proposed super-highways were threatening to destroy vibrant urban villages like the neighbourhood Jane lived in. With fights like the one to save Greenwich Village and the demolition of Penn Station (this one didn't work out so well) Jane became the go-to-person for all things urban planning related. Moving from New York to Toronto in the late 60s, she brought her strong civic engagement to lucky Canadians. And it was in Toronto where the idea of the Jane's Walk originated.
I love the idea that ANYONE can start a walk ANYWHERE in the world! The idea is that who knows your street/neighbourhood/city better than you? And what better way to celebrate your urban surroundings and civic engagement than to get out for a nice spring walk? (or if you're so inclined, jog - more about this later). Jane's Walks have spread throughout the world and are now on almost every continent (someone, get on Africa!). This is big. You can even get a Jane's Walk iPhone app now.
Some of Jane's more influential ideas include:
• the 24 hour street- she called it "the ballet of the street"which should go on past the typical 9-5
• designing cities for people rather than cars - walkable streets
• the importance of dense, compact communities to create intensity and vibrancy
• the essential quality of diversity- mix of uses, buildings, people all 'jumbled' together
Perhaps we've taken all these ideas for granted 50 years later, but this weekend is a chance to get out and see how Calgary measures up! Here is a listing of all the Jane's Walks happening in Calgary. If you are particularly curious about what's going on in the inner-city neighbourhood of Bridgeland, you can follow me on a quick 10 minute chat starting at the Community Centre at 12:10 this Saturday, May 7.
This is one part of the larger Jane's Jog (sorry, this happy urbanist does not jog, she strolls) organized by Noel Keough (Sustainable Calgary +University of Calgary) and Garrath Douglas (The Running Room). The jog starts at the Eau Claire mall's north plaza at 11:00 am that day and runs through Eau Claire, Kensington, McHugh Bluff, Bridgeland (where you can find me), Inglewood and the new East Village.
Not only will you get your exercise for the day, but you'll get some intersting talks from the likes of architect Marc Boutin (Kensington), Phil Cox (McHugh Bluff), Alderman Gian-Carlo Carra (Inglewood) and Chris Ollenberger (East Village). Can't promise sunshine, but I'm sure it will be above zero! (is it wise to put that in writing?)
Make sure you check out all the listings in Calgary because they're happening all weekend. Whether exploring the city's edge in Tuscany, or ambling through historic Chinatown, keep this in the back of your mind –"what would Jane think?"
Monday, April 4, 2011
Once again, I'm putting up one of my class assignments, this one a precedent case study on the innovative High Line Park, situated in the heart of the meatpacking district in New York. The entire area inspired me to think about ways of transforming the Chinook C-Train Station and surrounding industrial area right here in Calgary.
Why New York? High Line Park and the Meatpacking District
Some would say that Calgary and New York have very little in common. So why use a case study in New York when considering the transformation of the Chinook C-train station and surrounding area? The answer is that much can be learned from best practices all over the world. The key is to adapt them to the local context, make them meaningful to Calgarians.
Like the Chinook area in Calgary, the Meatpacking District in New York, where the High Line Park is situated, is a post-industrial community with a strong commercial (retail) focus. They both have a freeway as part of their neighbourhood – the West Side Highway in Manhattan, Macleod and Glenmore Trails in Calgary. Where they diverge is where the learning comes in. The New York experience demonstrates how a single use commercially zoned industrial Brownfield area can transform into a vibrant livable mixed-use community.
Once an area of slaughterhouses and industrial meatpacking facilities, a 1933–built elevated railway track serviced the meatpacking district into the 1980s by which time transporting goods via trucks became more viable. The railway stopped running and the elevated tracks were abandoned to deteriorate as a relic from another time. Because no one took ‘ownership’ of the structure, it was never dealt with, and then in the 1990s, several local business, landowners as well as mayor Giuliani threatened to tear it down. It took two local residents – Joshua David and Robert Hammond – who met at a community association meeting, to save the elevated tracks that eventually became the High Line Park. At first they concentrated on preservation until they realized it could become much more – a greatly needed public open green space for the neighbourhood.
Along with the suspension of railway service during the 1980s, this area on the west side of Manhattan underwent significant gentrification, transforming into a hotbed for art galleries, fashion/design shops, cafes, restaurants as well as new residences and boutique hotels. The downside to this gentrification and redevelopment is that the area became less affordable. One of the well-known and much loved restaurants – Florent, who were on the leading edge of this trend, had to move out by 2008 due to an unacceptable rent increase. The increased costs for living in the area excluded less affluent residents.
The Meatpacking District proper includes Gansevoort Street, West 14th Street, Hudson Street and the West Side Piers and is zoned for commercial use (dominated by retail) but not residential. Mostly brick lower-profile warehouse buildings reflect the turn of the last century’s historical roots. Residences abound in the nearby areas of the West Village, and West Chelsea. These areas are generally quieter with tree-lined streets and a comfortable neighbourhood-feel. Housing structures are predominantly townhouses (row housing) and converted warehouses with a mix of rental, and owned (including co-ops) residences.
A local resident notes that the opening of the High Line Park in the area had a democratizing effect “I think early on you kind of got a fashionista, style-only crowd coming to the neighborhood, but now with the High Line you’re getting all walks of life.” In addition, residents have noted an increase of children in the neighbourhood. (Mooney, New York Times, 2010).
About Chinook Station and Area
As noted in the City of Calgary’s 2008 Chinook Station Area Plan, due to the station’s enviable location as a major transportation hub, situated along the busy south LRT corridor, this could be a highly desirable area for experimentation with Transit Oriented Development (TOD).
TOD principles include the following key components: get the land use right, promote density, create convenient pedestrian connections, ensure good urban design, create compact development patterns, manage parking and make each station a ‘place’.
(Best Practices Handbook, City of Calgary: 2004)
In 2006 this station had approximately 15,000 daily users boarding, making it the busiest stop along the southern line. Because this station is scheduled for an update in 2011, augmenting the current platform to accommodate trains with more cars, other important changes could be coordinated at the same time.
Built in 1981,the station area (see map) which is approximately 67 hectares in size includes 58th Avenue to the north, the Glenmore Trail freeway to the south, and 5th Street to the west. There is also an area to the east of the station that includes 60th Avenue S.E. to the north, 62 Avenue S.E. to the south, and 1st Street S.E. to the east. Macleod Trail dissects the area, cutting the C-train station off from the regional shopping mall Chinook Centre. There are 2 industrial parks surrounding the area – Manchester and Fairview. Typical of developments from this era, land uses were kept clearly separated. As a result of this form of land-use planning, there are no residents in the area. The closest residential communities include Windsor Park, Meadow Lake Park and Kingsland.
Retail forms the dominant land use in the area, but it does not follow a coordinated coherent pattern, rather it is laid out in an isolated and disconnected manner, often with buildings surrounded by a sea of concrete parking lot. This low-density form of development makes it convenient for car users but inconvenient for those wishing to take public transportation or other forms of transport (eg. bike, walk). Other land uses include low-level (1-3 storey) office and light commercial development. Clearly there is an abundance of underutilized land in the area.
The station has a very poor pedestrian environment because roadways have taken precedent. Sidewalks often end suddenly; buildings do not front the street and have huge set backs, the overall layout make it difficult (and unsafe) to maneuver around. In spite of this, there is a lot of pedestrian traffic especially along the 61st Ave corridor, which links the station to Chinook Mall. A local example where the city initiated street improvement and infrastructure upgrades is in the East Village. By offering some street improvements, private developers will be more likely to see the possibilities of an area.
Like the old elevated railway tracks of the Meatpacking District, the current Chinook Station area have many faults but with the potential for transformation. With the successful implementation of a neighbourhood public park in this already high-density mixed-use community, there are some lessons to be learned and potentially adapted to the Calgary Chinook Station context.
An Evaluative Framework for Case Study: High Line Park, NY
The intention of this precedent study is to evaluate the project (New York’s High Line Park and surrounding area) in terms of best practices, some of which may be adapted in the Chinook Station Area Sustainable Transformation plan. Using an evaluative framework, the park and surrounding area have been examined in terms of the following criteria: diversity, efficiency, accessibility, environmental responsibility and social equity/health. Each element is rated from 0 to 3, with 0 being insignificant and 3 being highly significant. The evaluative framework is derived from an adaptation of two sources – Sasha Tsenkova’s Planning Sustainable Communities: Diversity of Approaches and Implementation Challenges, University of Calgary (2009) and the Ontario Professional Planners Institute’s Planning by Design, Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing (2009).
Efficiency (Density, Shared Use of sites, Connectivity and Proximity)
The Meatpacking District offers a fine example of high-density, mixed-use buildings all with good connectivity to each other as well to the rest of Manhattan (and beyond) via multiple forms of transportation, most obviously by subway and bus (closest subway stop is at 8th Avenue and 14th Street). Future commercial development will make use of the elevated park in a new way – as a roof structure for new development directly beneath it.
The Chinook Station’s central location in close proximity to a well-used regional mall offers an opportunity to increase C-train rider-ship (and therefore decrease car usage) by altering the existing area to be a more attractive, safe and pedestrian-friendly place to visit more in line with the High Line and surrounding area. Clearly the current low-density single-land use urban design is lacking in proximity between, and shared use of, its disparate elements.
Diversity (Mobility Options, Housing Types, Mix of uses and sense of place)
If you look at current photos from the Chinook station area - along Macleod Trail for example, it is almost impossible to determine what city you are looking at. It could be anywhere in North America. In contrast, the High Line Park and surrounding area is quite distinct.
Part of the distinction has to do with architecture and creative land use. Innovative design of structures like the park itself, offer a clear sense of place. The diversity of elements is there, but it is laid out in a coherent fashion, amenable to pedestrians and other non-car users. Residential housing is not offered directly in this area but in nearby surrounding neighbourhoods. As stated earlier, mobility options are plentiful.
The Chinook station area offers mobility options with the C-train, but is dominated by large- scale roadways (eg. Glenmore Trail, Macleod Trail). Adaptations are necessary to create a more distinctive sense of place, making it more desirable for people to potentially live there. This includes creating a mix of residential options and amenities like desirable public space.
In terms of housing, there is a great opportunity to offer affordable housing as part of the new residential developments. Offering incentives for developers such as bonusing is one option to ensure a certain percentage of housing is retained for lower-income families. The proximity to the C-train makes it easier for such families not to have to own a car with all is accompanying expenses.
Accessibility (Within Activity Centres, Street Design and Streetscape, Recreational opportunities)
The High Line Park is the area’s newest and most-loved recreational attractions. In addition to offering a place to walk in a natural setting, there are numerous public programming options offered by the Friends of the High Line including commissioned cultural events. In terms of the greater Meatpacking area, traffic calming measures and upgrades to the street lighting and furniture have made the area more pedestrian friendly. Recently a bike lane was added on 9th Avenue. Access to the park itself is excellent, with 5 different entrances, two with wheelchair accessibility via elevators. Cutting-edge urban design offers a safe and effective pedestrian realm.
The Chinook Station area comprises an activity centre in terms of its proximity to a large regional shopping centre. The current recreational opportunities are isolated within Chinook mall itself (eg. movie theatre, bowling alley, shopping, restaurants) but beyond its interior, there are much less opportunities. Outside, streetscape and street design is non-existent. There is an assumption that most of the mall’s customers will arrive by car (and not the C-train station), so street design is allocated to this priority. Little is done to connect the Chinook C-train station to this mall in a creative, attractive and safe way.
Environmental Responsibility (Building Design, Green Infrastructure, waste management)
One key element of a sustainable and healthy community (TOD included) is the integration of green infrastructure and construction into its plan. There are now entire communities that can be awarded LEED ND (neighbourhood) certification for their commitment to strategic environmental objectives. Although the High Line has not acquired this distinction, it does offer much needed green space in an area dominated by buildings.
“Another factor driving the spread of green (infrastructure) is our changing idea of the city. It’s no longer wise or practical (or ethical for that matter) to think of the city as the antithesis of nature. Finding ways to naturalize cities – even as nature itself becomes more urbanized –will make them more livable …” (National Geographic, April 2011 by Verlyn Klinkenborg)
The addition of this public amenity has improved the livability for residents as well as offered a new destination for people from all over the world to enjoy. Public programs such as “The Great Pollinator project”, educates users of the park on its bee population, studies of the natural environment not normally found in the middle of Manhattan. And by offering multiple transportation modes for accessing the park, automobile usage (and its accompanying negative impacts on the environment) is decreased.
Green roofs are now popping up in the Meatpacking District, like the rooftop of the international headquarters for the fashion designer Dianne Von Furstenberg. Built in 2007 by WORK AC Architects, in addition to the greenroof, the building uses geo-thermal heating and cooling and uses limited artificial light.
The Chinook Station area, with its abundance of underutilized land, offers multiple opportunities for higher density mixed-use development that includes green buildings and infrastructure. This may include a public green space in the vicinity close to the C-train station as well as residential and office buildings with green roofs. Sharing infrastructure by accommodating mixed-uses, increasing density as well as developing a better pedestrian realm, will automatically make the area more environmentally responsible.
Social Equity and Health (Affordable Housing, Interaction and social inclusion, exercise opportunities)
“I think the High Line is going to create a really valuable social centre for a neighbourhood that is economically stratified, and create a place where everyone can come together regardless of income and age or background, and all have a shared public environment that’s welcoming to everyone. That is missing from this neighbourhood now.” (Robert Hammond, co-founder of Friends of the High Line in Inspiring Case Studies Leave it Better: Looking Up, Parks and Recreation).
As this quote mentions, the High Line Park offers an opportunity to attract a more diverse crowd. The disadvantage to the gentrification and redevelopment that has taken place in the Meatpacking District is that it has excluded possibilities for affordable housing and has alienated those who can’t afford it. The best part of the park is that is a free amenity open to all members of the public, so provides a more democratic opportunity to enjoy the area.
Any redevelopment of the Chinook Station area should measure the cost of amenities against the ability to keep them available to a wide section of the population. Offering affordable housing, and therefore maintaining economic and social diversity, must be a key objective in any transformational plan. Potential partnerships with Calgary Transit and many social agencies offer possibilities here. A careful balance must be undertaken to ensure social inclusion in the area.
In terms of social interaction and inclusionary programming, the Friends of the High Line offer ongoing public programming at the park including activities for children like the “Dancing in the Sky: Creative Movement for Kids” program which offers participants a fun way to exercise. The budding dance choreographers get to show off their skills at the park’s 10th Avenue Square viewing area. Beyond the formal programming, there are numerous opportunities to exercise simply by taking a casual stroll.
The Chinook Station area could be a hub of activity with diverse public programs as well as a centre that advocates for local retailers (eg. live/work opportunities). As the regional mall offers international retailers the spotlight, the Chinook Station area could give smaller, local merchants a chance to show off their wares. Better design of the pedestrian realm (such as better lighting, street furniture, and safer road crossings), could offer more opportunities to get exercise by getting people to walk rather than drive.
There is much that can be taken away from the experience of the High Line Park and the redevelopment of the Meatpacking District that can be applied to a sustainable plan to transform Calgary’s Chinook Station area. Using an evaluative framework like the one here, assessing an area in terms of its efficiency, diversity, accessibility, environmental responsibility and social equity/health, offers a framework to calculate a community’s sustainability. Redevelopment must consider the long-term view, rather than quick easy fixes. Options for cost sharing must be investigated, as well as incentives for enticing innovative developers interested in creating more inclusionary developments (such as housing options that include a percentage of affordable housing or public amenity like a public plaza). Developing around a transit station offers an important opportunity to increase public transit usage while increasing density, mix of uses and beautification of the surrounding area.
The High Line Park’s story can offer a cautionary tale in terms of the downside to gentrification (eg. excluding opportunities for affordable housing), but it can also offer possibilities for Calgary. If you can turn an abandoned elevated railway into a much-loved innovative urban park, anything is possible.
Wednesday, February 2, 2011
The following is a paper I submitted for the EVDS 601 Interdisciplinary Seminar in the fall semester of my MEDes (master of design) program. I think it may be informative to those outside of the classroom, so I'm putting it out into the blog-o-sphere.
One of the indirect consequences of Alberta’s growing energy sector is an expanding population with increased spending capacity, many of who wish to upgrade their lifestyles with larger houses on larger pieces of land. Business too is seeking considerably larger plots of land in which to accommodate their growing companies. As in other parts of North America, as cities expand, much of this type of development takes place on the outskirts of metropolitan areas, where land is less expensive — on unused Greenfield space. Greenfield is defined by a piece of land that has never been developed before. The 21st century has seen an increase in Greenfield development with out-migration of the population from city core to outlying areas. (Benfield, 1999, Swickard, 2008). This land tends to be less expensive to develop in the short term, but more expensive in terms of long-term infrastructure costs. It is also associated with an increase demand on the car as the major form of transportation. It tends to be built to a lower density (eg. single detached home on an individual plot of land), with low numbers of inhabitants in relation to the relative size of the area itself. This is commonly referred to as sprawl (Lozano, 1990). The result of this out-migration is decreased Greenfield land that could otherwise remain as natural open space, an increase in non-renewable energy use (eg. more commuters using cars), and higher infrastructure service and maintenance costs for municipalities. In contrast, there is Brownfield space, which is defined by the City of Calgary as:
An abandoned, vacant, derelict or underutilized property where there is an active potential for redevelopment. Brownfield sites include parcels of all sizes from corner gas stations to large areas encompassing many properties (City of Calgary Brownfield Strategy, 2007).
The redevelopment of Brownfield sites that tend to be located in built up city centres or older parts of an urban area, are one solution in countering this trend of out-migration expansion into undeveloped land. Redeveloping this type of land could provide the space for new housing, public space, commercial facilities and much more. This form of urban regeneration recycles space. It often is a catalyst for community revitalization (Adams et al., 2009). There are many who advocate halting development on Greenfield land by promoting the redevelopment of Brownfield sites:
The two most significant sources of urban environmental degradation faced by government policy-makers today are the historical contamination from past industrial activities and the current consumption of irreplaceable Greenfield open space by suburban sprawl growth. Resolution of both environmental problems created by historical contamination and non-sustainable land use can be achieved by private sector redevelopment of Brownfields (Swickard, 2008).
Although I agree with this policy, there are limitations to the redevelopment of Brownfield sites. I will discuss both the need for Brownfield redevelopment as an alternative to Greenfield expansion, as a necessary step to creating more compact, energy and land efficient cities, as well as the limitations to this strategy, by referring to relevant research in the field. I will look into the Alberta context by examining the way Calgary is currently formulating a strategy for Brownfield redevelopment.
Sprawling cities – the environmental impact of urban spatial structure
There are a variety of negative effects that result from the expansion of cities into peripheral Greenfield areas. They include the loss of valuable un-touched land that could be used to promote biodiversity, recreational activities and maintain the quality of necessary resources like clean water (Anderson et al. 1996). In addition, the kind of low-density development that tends to be built on Greenfield land creates residences that are further away from core activities. This results in an over-dependence on car usage and the need to build costly roadways. This kind of development also increases the cost of other infrastructure (its set up and maintenance) by increasing the distances for which the necessities such as gas, water, sewage, and electricity must run.
According to Anderson (Anderson et al., 1996), urban sprawl is characterized by:
1. an outward expansion of the metropolitan boundary that separates urban from rural land uses;
2. a general decline in intensity of all forms of land uses, as measured by population and employment densities;
3. transport networks that provide high connectivity among points, even in peripheral parts of the city: and
4. the segregation of residential from other land uses, with the greater part of residences locating in the peripheral suburbs.
(Anderson et al. 1996)
This form of urban structure is costly and unsustainable. Sustainability (and sustainable development) was first defined in 1987 in a report by the World Commission on Environment and Development (often referred to as the Brundtland report) as “Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” (Gaines, Jager, 2009). In the case of unchecked expansion into Greenfield areas, this form of urban development is unsustainable, without thoughtful consideration of the future generation’s needs.
Since the end of World War II, the development of Greenfield areas have been heavily promoted by government regulation and planning policies globally, but particularly in North America where it developed hand in hand with the promotion of the automobile (Locano, 1990, Anderson et al. 1996). For the most part, policies have only promoted and not deterred this type of development, with the exception of the more recent trend in setting urban containment boundaries in, for example, Portland, Oregon (Adams et al., 2009) as well as a European-led interest in building more sustainable cities (Gaines and Jaeger, 2009).
The trend towards expanding urban form into the edges of cities has resulted in ten times faster suburban growth than in more central urban growth. In 1990, suburbs in the U.S. held nearly 60% of the metropolitan population compared to inner-city neighbourhoods (Benfield, 1999). Cities are not getting smaller, they are getting bigger and with that, an increased demand for space and infrastructure. Along with people seeking larger houses, businesses too are seeking this (perceived) less expensive land to build larger enterprises. An average grocery store in the suburbs takes up 60,000 sq ft. (Benfield, 1999). Inner-city land can no longer accommodate these needs and therefore Greenfield development becomes the only perceived option.
Because of its low-density land use, one of the more significant impacts of suburban sprawl is in its inability to offer affordable and efficient public transportation. These services become prohibitively expensive for a municipality to offer until a certain threshold of density is met. This leads to the less energy efficient over reliance on the car to get from residence to other key locations throughout the city (Lozano, 1990, Anderson et al., 1996). “Trends in urbanization have boosted demand (for driving). Growth on the outer perimeter of cities requires greater reliance of personal vehicles” (National Energy Board report, 2009) all of which results in a larger impact on the environment. It is important to note that an integrated approach to reducing environmental impact should be advocated:
…public-transit infrastructure projects will not, in themselves, achieve environmental ends ... They must be accompanied by an integrated approach to land-use and transport planning that restricts the use of cars and orients development to transit nodes (Anderson et al., 1996).
Urban structure (eg. urban sprawl) plays only one part in an increased use of energy with a detrimental effect on the environment. It is noted in the article by Anderson that much of the research completed in this area has major flaws. They include the inability to design a realistic simulation model that takes into account the myriad elements that go into urban form and therefore makes much of the research recommendations less valid. Trends in urban form cannot be addressed in isolation. Equally important factors to calculate into the equation are the land use policies and public attitudes toward the environment (Anderson et al., 1996).
The potential of Ecological Design to effect urban space
Ecological design is defined as any form of design that minimizes environmentally destructive impacts by integrating itself with living processes. It provides a coherent framework for redesigning our landscapes, buildings, cities, and systems of energy, water, food, manufacturing, and waste (Van Der Ryn and Cowan, 1995).
Van Der Ryn and Cowan explain the need for connecting culture and nature by integrating planning policies with knowledge about the natural ecosystem. Much can be learned from integrating the two. Bringing conservation and stewardship into the equation of urban structure, could assist in a movement away from Greenfield development. Ecological design considers the possible negative impacts of the built form and sees opportunities in redeveloping existing built form (a type of recycling). The environmental movement that gained strength in the 1960s has had some effect on contemporary urban designers who advocate ecological design principles. For example Peter Calthorpe and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk who took up the challenge of designing a town with the pedestrian at its center, not the car. Understanding more the importance of the land, they chose to build compactly (Van Der Ryn and Cowan, 1995).
The alternative to sprawl is simple and timely: neighbourhoods of housing, parks and schools placed within walking distance of shops, civic services, jobs and transit…it is a strategy which could preserve open space, support transit, reduce auto traffic, and create affordable neighbourhoods (Calthorpe, 1993 as cited in Winston, 2009).
The challenge for future ecological design will be to weave the many diverse insights from various disciplines (science and design for example) to create more sustainable urban structures. The emphasis will be on looking at nature (ecosystem) and culture (the built form for example) as not opposites, but elements that work in tandem to reinforce mutual benefits.
Alberta has a long history of pioneer thinking that includes attitudes about land. That is, the more the better. For some, there remains a negative attitude about densification and the right of the individual to live on their own personal plot of land. These attitudes need to be looked at if we want to truly change the way cities are developed. The market is a key variable in the success of any city design, so it is vital that their needs be considered (Garvin, 1996). There is still an opportunity to expand social awareness on issues such as sustainable design. (Mak, 2006) (for a comprehensive summary of key factors in the decision to redevelop Brownfield sites in some of Calgary’s inner-city neighbourhoods, see the matrix on page 32 of her thesis).
Without a stronger cultural antagonism to urban expansion, there will be little basis for the dialectic necessary to move from political interest to political will and commitment (Adams et al., 2009).
Go Brownfield not Greenfield
Just as public policies like the subsidization of the highway system in the 1950s and 60s, or the National Housing act in the 1930s that enabled those with lower incomes to afford a house in the suburbs, current policies could encourage a shift from the overuse of Greenfield development towards Brownfield redevelopment. It is important to remember that those responsible for designing cities do not do so in a vacuum. They must work with others, like public policy makers, to accomplish their goals (Garvin, 1996). Worldwide, there have been significant positive strides in policy and regulation towards the redevelopment of Brownfield sites:
…unacceptable conditions (left by abandoned Brownfield sites) have galvanized concerned lawmakers and regulators to action across the public and private sectors to encourage and assist in the remediation and revitalization of urban communities and to halt sprawl development on bordering pristine Greenfields (Swickard, 2008).
It is estimated that given the current growth of cities in the U.S., there are enough Brownfield sites to meet the space demand for housing and businesses. The problem is that it is still easier and less expensive for developers to build on outlying Greenfield land. Until that changes, the current trend in building on Greenfield sites will probably continue to go on unchecked (Swikard, 2008).
It is through effective land use that we can build a more sustainable city. Looking at examples of Brownfield usage for accommodating more sustainable housing, Winston points out the importance of land choice in making housing truly sustainable:
In terms of location, sustainable land-use planning is required, which entails a shift towards more housing being built within mixed-use developments. It also means resisting scattered settlements and a preference for Brownfield rather than Greenfield sites. Finally, sustainability demands that housing be built closer to good quality public transport and, ideally, employment. (Winston, 2009)
Another important benefit of redeveloping Brownfield sites includes the sustainable re-use of pre-existing infrastructure. It typically costs less than building completely new infrastructure (The City of Calgary Brownfield Strategy, 2007).
Limitations of Brownfield Redevelopment – the Alberta Context
Currently there are significant limitations to the redevelopment of Brownfield sites:
Environmental laws assigning liability to site owners, operators and tenants, irrespective of their responsibility for the contamination at the site, create a substantial disincentive to investment by new parties in the reuse and redevelopment of (a Brownfield) site (Swickard, 2008).
In some parts of the world there have been amendments to the laws concerning Brownfield redevelopment that place the responsibility of clean up on those who cause the problem, not (innocent) future owners of the land. Unfortunately, this is not necessarily the case in all parts of Canada, where commitment to Brownfield redevelopment efforts is sporadic. On the positive side, in 2001 the federal government established the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy (NRTEE) to, among other things, create recommendations in the area of Brownfield redevelopment. But despite the efforts of the federal government, responsibility for Brownfield regulation has been placed squarely on the shoulders of provincial and municipal governments. And in general, it has been found that there is an overall lack of coordination between all three levels of government around this issue (Adams et al., 2009).
A significant obstacle is in fully understanding the complex issues around Brownfield redevelopment. Adams proposes a three stage ‘policy maturity model’ to clarify issues concerning Brownfield redevelopment and in doing so, make it a more favourable option. The model is essentially concerned with the “…temporal stages through which what is initially conceived as a policy problem is re-conceptualized over time as a development opportunity.” (Adams et al., 2009).
It is important to look at the local Alberta context by reviewing The City of Calgary Brownfield Strategy’s five key issues affecting Brownfield redevelopment in Alberta:
1. liability risk
2. uncertainty with regulatory approval processes
3. environmental site investigation and remediation costs
4. financing availability
5. public perception
Further to this, the document points out that:
The current legislation in Alberta with respect to liability, risk assessment and regulatory approval poses significant challenges to Brownfield redevelopment in Alberta municipalities. There are significant gaps in legislation and further coordination with provincial authorities is needed to shape the Brownfield Strategy… There is no Brownfields Act in Alberta Law. Provisions dealing with Brownfield or contaminated sites under the Alberta Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act are incomplete and evolving and there is a lack of clarity of municipal roles in that regard under the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act (The City of Calgary Brownfield Strategy report, 2007).
In addition to the lack of clarity from provincial mandate, and the disincentive of legal liability, there is the one-size-fits-all documentation and clean up process that can be too labour intensive and time consuming, especially at smaller scale sites. The vast majority of Brownfield sites fit into this category. Often this results in the time and emphasis being placed on the administration rather than on the clean up itself.
But despite these limitations, the findings of this research completed by The City of Calgary Environmental and Safety Management team (among others) still see the benefit in pursuing this strategy:
The oldest Brownfield sites are likely to be centrally located in established areas with existing built infrastructure and transit access. The redevelopment of these sites can reduce vehicle use and associated greenhouse gas emissions, and may improve air quality in the city. More Brownfield redevelopment means less Greenfield development, which reduces net environmental impacts and the city’s ecological footprint (The City of Calgary Brownfield Strategy, 2007).
Future possibilities and the need for more research
There is a lot to be said about the benefits of taking on a new process for developing cities. The early adoption of new forms of technologies and sustainable planning strategies may put these developers in a more advantaged position, placing them as leaders in a new field:
Adams contends that speculative housebuilders who enthusiastically build up core competencies in Brownfield housing are likely to emerge as the market leaders of the future, while those who continue to rely on past practices and technologies will face an uncertain future as Greenfield development opportunities begin to reduce (Adams et al., 2009).
In terms of the Alberta context now could be an opportune time to pursue this strategy because of “the confluence of financial incentives, regulatory liability closure, and the possibility of increased taxes make it more advantageous than ever to look at Brownfields as an opportunity” (Meadows and Schube, Lexology website 2010).
But there are still a number of conflicting values when it comes to designing and building sustainable cities and they include:
1. the “growth management” conflict (between livability and economic growth) is due to competing views on the extent to which unmanaged development can provide high quality environments;
2. the “green cities” conflict (between livability and ecology) is due to differing views on the primacy of the natural environment over the built environment;
3. the “gentrification conflict” (between livability and equity) is a result of competing views on preserving poorer neighbourhoods for the present population versus redevelopment to attract middle and upper classes back to city centre.
(Godschalk, 2004 as cited in Winston, 2009)
More work is needed to help synthesize the information that comes out of these various camps and to proceed ahead with this strategy. Hula et al. point out the need for further study in the area of urban structure on energy use and environmental impact:
…our current level of understanding concerning the generation of urban emissions and the influence of urban form on them — is relatively weak. It is difficult to find consensus on even the most basic issues….the body of rigorous empirical work on urban form, energy and the environment is quite small (Hula et al., 1996).
Alberta’s growing energy sector has in-directly affected the way our cities are planned and built. With an expanding affluent population, there is a growing need for a place to house and service these people. Current development emphasizes the use of untouched Greenfield areas for their ease and short-term financial benefits. An alternative to this type of development is the re-use of current Brownfield sites, often situated in the established city core or built up urban areas. With the growing awareness of preserving the vital link between nature and culture, of maintaining a percentage of untouched areas, and the importance of re-using existing space, there is a need to build more compact, energy efficient cities that take into consideration sustainable land use, while leaving parts of the landscape in their most untouched form.
There are a number of negative impacts that building on Greenfield sites introduce, including an increase in the distances between vital activities (work and residence are often spread further apart), the increased use of energy through excessive reliance on the car, the increased cost of infrastructure to municipal governments to build out to the periphery (and at this low density), and the loss of wildlife and biodiversity caused by the use of natural land for a predominantly human need.
Brownfield sites offer an alternative to building in this way. They are often abandoned and unused, in the heart of other urban activities, and offer a more ideal location for sustainable housing, open public space and other amenities. Rather than using unused space far from the city centre and core activates, they offer an opportunity to revitalize a neighbourhood and to decrease energy use through increased density and compactness where for example, people can walk rather than drive. Benefits of reuse include the recycling of pre-existing infrastructure. There are some issues with remediation in terms of costs to municipal governments. But in some cases, the increase in property values due to the clean up will result in increased taxes going towards the government, helping to offset the cost of remediation.
It is important to note that there are a number of limitations to Brownfield redevelopment. It is more likely that a developer will view a Brownfield site as an opportunity rather than a threat by understanding the financial upfront costs, what is involved in an environmental remediation, how the land-use re-designation and planning permit process operates and the importance of social awareness to remediation (eg. the stigma attached to a contaminated site) (Mak, 2006).
Further research is required on the impact of urban form on the environment as well as the barriers to implementing Brownfield redevelopment. In order to move from the current trend in Greenfield development towards Brownfield redevelopment, there needs to be a public policy shift towards renovation rather than demolition (Winston, 2009). A shift in attitudes and beliefs are required concerning the importance of natural space — its vital connection with human culture, and the need to build cities more compactly with less reliance on expensive infrastructure and over dependence on the car. Keeping limitations in mind, Brownfield redevelopment is still a worthwhile strategy to pursue in offering an alternative way in which Alberta’s cities like Calgary are currently planned and designed.
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