Thursday 26 January 2012

It's Our Choice: People-Friendly Urban Design

Cities normally grow incrementally with small changes and additions over a long period of time. But sometimes the change is transformative, fundamentally affecting the way people move or occupy the space.

Saskatoon was a quiet, slow-moving city during the Depression, but the end of World War II brought major changes. There was a housing boom as soldiers returned home, got married, and started families. And families expected to live in single-family dwellings, to own a car, and to drive to work every day. The municipal government supported these cultural norms by developing new residential neighbourhoods and roads.

After several decades of incremental change, Saskatoon is once again on the brink of a fundamental transition. The population is expanding, new businesses are coming to town, and there is increasing discussion about the sort of city we want to live in.

Ryan Walker is an Associate Professor in the Regional and Urban Planning Program at the University of Saskatchewan. He has conducted extensive research on Prairie cities and the forces that are shaping their future. Walker believes that the pre-conditions of population growth and economic prosperity are setting the stage for a dramatic change, but he is not sure that there is an alignment of vision, public demand, and political will. He suggests that the transition may be partial with a new urban vision awkwardly superimposed on top of the current structure.

Outlined below are some of the forces that Professor Walker believes are shaping the conversation.

Transportation Options
Almost 2.5% of Saskatoon residents ride their bike to work, twice as many as in Regina, Edmonton, Calgary, or Canada as a whole (1.0-1.5%).* And yet, our road system is designed for cars not cyclists. Dedicated cycle lanes are patchy or non-existent.

“The traffic bridge debate was a good example of the tension between transition and path dependence,” Walker says. Public demand for a pedestrian/cycling bridge appeared to be supported by a traffic study indicating that the city had an adequate number of bridges for vehicle traffic but insufficient cycling and pedestrian connections between the east side and River Landing and downtown.

However, City Council wasn’t ready to endorse this shift in urban strategy, and they removed the pedestrian/cyclist bridge from the list of options and increased the width of the vehicle lanes on the new bridge design.

Saskatoon may lead the way in the number of cyclists, but we finish last when it comes to using public transit. 16% of Calgarians and 10% of Edmontonians take the bus to work, but only 4% do in Saskatoon and Regina.*

Unfortunately, the structure is not in place to support public transit. “There are only 14 bus shelters in the city centre, including downtown, large segments of City Park, Broadway Avenue, 20th Street, and College Drive,” Walker says. “And none of them are heated.”

In a recent essay on Equitable Urbanism in Saskatchewan’s Large Cities,** Walker argues that, “At present, we plan for the efficient movement of private automobiles but give only secondary consideration to public transit, and a very distant third consideration to bicycle networks.

Much like building new traffic lanes only induces further traffic – confounding our efforts to relieve congestion – better cycling and transit infrastructure will predictably induce further use of these alternate transport choices, which will effectively relieve automobile traffic congestion.”

Housing Options
In 1945, the average Canadian house size was just over 800 square feet. By 2000, it had almost tripled to 2,266 square feet. And yet, the number of residents in each home had decreased.

While some families are deliberately choosing to live in older, well-established neighbourhoods where they can walk to work and shop locally, low-density suburban neighbourhoods are dramatically expanding the city’s footprint. Saskatoon has doubled in size since 1999.

Walker observes a similar tension in some of Saskatoon’s new neighbourhoods, which attempt to combine old and new styles of community design. On one side of the street, there are small lots, front porches, and pedestrian-friendly street lighting; on the other side, there are conventional suburban houses with two-car garages dominating the street frontage.

Low-density development comes at a cost. An Edmonton study documents the high price of suburban sprawl - $500 million over the first 30 years, rising to over $3 billion as the city starts replacing aging infrastructure.

A recent municipal report indicated that Saskatoon’s roads will require an additional $10 million per year just to keep them in their current state and an investment of over $120 million over 5 years is required to bring Saskatoon’s roads back to a 2005 level of repair (as reported by Sean Shaw).

Walker points to 33rd Street, west of Idylwyld, as an alternate form of urban development. The neighbourhood commercial strip includes an abundance of retail and community outlets – restaurants, grocery store, pharmacy, hair salons, law offices, library, and more. Walker believes that the current mix of residential housing could be enhanced by increasing the residential density on the streets adjacent to 33rd Street.

“There’s an advantage to higher-density development along commercial corridors,” Walker says. “The density supports regular public transit and local businesses, and there’s a mix of people who live and work there.”

Urban vs. Rural Options
Agriculture has always been front and centre in Saskatchewan. And yet urban sprawl and a larger number of families choosing to live on acreages in order to enjoy a more rural lifestyle is reducing the amount of land available for agriculture and increasing energy consumption through longer commutes.

Walker says that other provinces have used various tools to discourage urban sprawl and protect agricultural lands. Growth boundaries define the urban/rural border and ensure that agricultural land surrounding the city remains highly productive as landowners are not anticipating its sale for residential development. British Columbia has established agricultural land reserves in the Lower Mainland, a tangible statement of the value of food production.

Policy Options
Municipal and provincial regulations can shape our urban future. In the past, the focus has been on zoning to create distinct boundaries between residential, business, and industrial districts. Little or no consideration has been given to the quality of the streetscape, its environmental sustainability, or its integration with transportation systems.

If we want to encourage more pedestrian traffic, we need to ensure interesting urban design – trees and benches rather than strip malls, small stores and restaurants rather than ground-level parking garages (i.e. the new Holiday Inn across from TCU Place).

Community development and transportation planning must go hand in hand. Public transit only becomes a viable option in high-density areas, with the conventional minimum target set at 12 units per acre, and yet even Evergreen, Saskatoon’s most ambitious neighbourhood concept plan, envisages only 8.6 units per acre.

62% of Saskatoon residents live in single-detached dwellings (compared with 43% in Vancouver and 52% in Halifax) that require more energy, land, and materials to construct and maintain. A revised Building Code could incorporate green building standards and a greater focus on health and safety.

Looking Ahead
Saskatoon is currently prospering. Will we take advantage of our prosperity to make the transition to a people-friendly city that sits lightly upon the land? The choice is ours.

See Also:
Sean Shaw: The Opportunity to Make a Difference

Resiliency: Cool Ideas for Locally-Elected Leaders (Cities in Transition by Ryan Walker)

*   Many of the statistics quoted in this article can be found in Public Spaces, Activity and Urban Form, Phase 1 of Saskatoon's City Centre Plan. You may also want to read the City of Saskatoon Strategic Plan 2012-2022 (priorities include environmental leadership, sustainable growth, and alternative transportation options).

** New Directions in Saskatchewan Public Policy, David McGrane, ed. (Regina, SK: CPRC Press, 2011).

Photographs are of Barcelona, Jumilla, and Valencia (Spain)