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Back to the Future: A Vision for the Edmonton City Centre Airport Lands

Born in the right time and place, I might have been one of the most successful urban planners of the 20th century. That’s not to say I would have produced good work. Rather, I have a personality trait that seems to have also manifested itself in the most successful trends in urban planning: I overthink things.

I’ve realized this over the past few days, as the tendency to overthink has caused me all sorts of problems of late. Some things in life are simple, and best dealt with as such. Urban planning is one such thing.

It is instructive that Jane Jacobs, who we now recognize as having one of, if not the best mind for urban planning in the 20th century, had no formal training. She relied on observation and intuition about what made cities work. Some things are best dealt with that way.

This is not to disparage planning as a profession (though I considered calling this post “I Blame Le Corbusier”), which I have great respect for, and has produced many great ideas and works. A theoretical framework is needed, as communities will not always develop organically (and even if they do, they won’t always work out). The real problem has not been the theories themselves, rather the headlong rush to embrace them. The urban form is always malleable to a point, but often hard to reverse. Urban planning demands a conservative temperament, to be willing to experiment, but to do so cautiously. Today’s trend could easily be tomorrow’s punchline.

Brownstones at Port Imperial

Good redevelopment: infill row housing in Hoboken, New Jersey.

I’ve been thinking about this since the City of Edmonton officially kicked off the design competition to redevelop its City Centre Airport Lands.

At this time last year, I was deeply immersed in the airport debate. Towards the end, I wrote a paper (nicknamed “The Abboud Report” by Councillor Dave Thiele) summarizing my thoughts on the issue (close it), and my thoughts on a future use for the land (family-oriented, low-rise high-density housing). I’ve uploaded the paper here (the urban planning/future use stuff starts on page 13).

The redevelopment of this site is a huge opportunity for Edmonton. We could build a model community, one that adds great value to our city. Or we could blow it. If we do, it will probably be because we ignore the time-tested things that make communities successful, and rush headlong into something trendy, or futuristic. Good urban design should marry the proven best practices, with the best design that technology will allow.

There are five principles that I see as key:

1. A successful city/region offers a diversity of communities and housing options. Whatever we do with the ECCA lands should compliment what our existing and planned developments offer, not duplicate it.
2. There should be activity in an area throughout most of the day – this is a concept I’ll call 16 hour spaces, and will be elaborating on at a later date. In a nutshell, it means there is activity through all waking hours (6 or 7 in the morning until 10 or 11 at night).
3. Most people still want a family-friendly home (read: something with a bit of space, and a yard if possible).
4. Often, it’s best not to reinvent the wheel, but to look for exactly what makes communities (in Edmonton and elsewhere) popular.
5. Fundamentally, communities have to be interesting. You get this by having different uses, and a mix of people and amenities, and by offering things not found in most other areas.

How does this fit in with the ECCA lands? Here’s what I wrote in the report last year:

Density and Development: High­ Rise and Low­ Rise Density

Roberta Brandes Gratz, an award‐winning urban critic and journalist, has this to say on the subject:

High­rise or even low­rise density is not by definition, bad and, in fact, it is the only thing that makes feasible a cost­effective and efficient urban infrastructure. Cities must have sufficient density to function well. In fact, downtowns are at their most productive when density is high. The form of the density can vary. The high density of low­rise neighbourhoods, former streetcar suburbs, contributes significantly to their appeal.

– From Cities Back From the Edge: New Life for Downtown

There are two facets to this that must be addressed. The first is downtown living. Our downtown population has doubled in the past decade, and is now approaching 15,000 residents. Still, it has been demonstrated that we need another 40,000‐ 50,000 residents in the downtown to reach the critical mass that most truly successful downtowns have. We are committed to seeing our downtown succeed; removing the airport overlay and height restrictions by closing the ECCA benefits Edmonton on two counts: first, by removing the restrictions themselves, but second, by creating predictability for developers. No longer will they worry about accommodating height restrictions, or whether the rules might change a few years down the road. Edmonton will finally be able to maximize its high‐rise density growth.

Which brings us to low‐rise density. There is only so much demand for high‐rise density, and much of that can be met by undeveloped or underdeveloped land in Downtown, The Quarters, and Oliver, along with nodes such as Station Pointe, Stadium Lands, and Century Park, to name a few. Introducing minor high‐rise density into communities, such as the Vision for the Corner in Glenora and the Strathearn Heights redevelopment, is also likely to become more common, as is redevelopment that leads to high‐density (and likely mid to high‐rise nodes) around future LRT stations.

To complement the high‐rise density growth, the focus should be on creating low‐ rise density, especially the kind that can appeal to families. In‐fill communities such as Griesbach andTerwillegar Towne in Edmonton, along with Garrison Woods in Calgary give us a model that can work. This means smaller lots and narrower streets, along with a greater focus on row housing and other types of attached housing.

Many cities across North America boast mature, desirable neighbourhoods of this type. To name a few, Mont Royal in Montreal, Park Slope and Brooklyn Heights in Brooklyn, and Back Bay in Boston are all characterized by their brick or brownstone row housing, some fitted for singles and seniors, but much of it fitted for families.

This type of neighbourhood has demonstrated appeal It is also an efficient use of land density‐wise. Within Edmonton’s context, it compliments and offers an alternative to our biggest supply of housing stock – the suburban‐style single‐family detached home. A diversity of housing and neighbourhood types will enhance Edmonton’s desirability, as people look for different things in neighbourhoods and housing; it will thus help the city attract and retain a greater scope of residents.

I stand by this. There are two good examples of airport redevelopment Edmonton can follow: Stapleton in Denver, Colorado and Mueller in Austin, Texas. Both are family-oriented, and lean towards traditional design principles.

Brownstone / Greenstone

Park Slope in Brooklyn: we could build this on the ECCA lands.

If you were to ask me what the ECCA redevelopment should look like (in addition to the land offered for NAIT expansion), I would offer six points:

1. Low-rise density.
2. Preserves and incorporates the existing building stock.
3. Traditional look – brick and brownstone (row) housing.
4. Family-oriented housing.
5. Uses cutting-edge environmental technology (and often building smaller is the best thing for the environment).
6. Serious consideration should be given to form-based zoning in some, if not all areas.

Stapleton, CO

Mixed-use development in Stapleton Denver.

This would complement what Edmonton has to offer, and embrace the principles of communities popular throughout North America. To any design firms entering this competition: I’m willing to give up my evenings and weekends to help make this vision a reality.

The ECCA redevelopment is a tremendous opportunity for Edmonton; let’s avoid the temptation to embrace the next big thing, stick to what we know works, and make sure we do this right.

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