Tuesday, April 20, 2010

An Urban Revolution

In past decades, North Americans turned their back on downtown areas and moved to the suburbs. Jennifer Keesmaat, an urban planner who specializes in mid-size Canadian cities, speaking at last night’s Great Places lecture in Saskatoon, says that this trend has been reversed.

Young people are choosing to live in an urban environment that offers vibrant culture and commerce, human interaction and a sense of authenticity. Suburbs, regardless of the city or the province, all look the same. But the downtown core of each city is unique.

Keesmaat says the time has come to reinvest in the downtown core of mid-sized Canadian cities. But how do you do it?

1.  Be intentional. You need to develop a policy framework that will ensure predictable outcomes. You need a vision that is large enough to inspire and mobilize with leaders who are prepared to go beyond consensus so as to expand the possibilities. You need to nurture champions, political and community leaders who will advocate for urban living and establish partnerships among all sectors.

You need to recognize that downtown planning is multi-facetted so you should have several eggs in several baskets and be operating from several different directions.

2.  Build on existing strengths. The majority of Regina residents work downtown so the theme for their downtown renewal project is Walk to Work. They’re going to focus on developing residential neighbourhoods that surround the downtown core and encourage a pedestrian and cycling culture. They’re going to build on the downtown parks and provide facilities for grassroots arts and culture festivals. They hope that restaurants, cultural activities and unique shops will be drawn to the downtown core once it’s a more people-friendly space.

Keesmaat emphasized that one of the biggest risks for a small city is to be too spread out. It’s better to have a small downtown with amazing activity rather than spread it out and lose your critical mass.

3.  Integrate the downtown with the surrounding areas. Halifax is focussing its attention on transforming the gateways to downtown. Rather than freeway ramps that leave the buildings isolated and deter pedestrian traffic, there are plans for street-front development and tree-lined boulevards.

4.  Halifax is also building on the great streets that are already in place and making them more pedestrian friendly. This will be done by introducing:
     • Wider sidewalks
     • Crosswalks with increased visibility
     • Pedestrian lighting and furnishings
     • Fa├žade remediation with step backs to minimize shadowing and lots of openings to make it more interesting to walk along the street
     • Weather protection through awnings and building design to protect against cold winds

For another take on the evening, see Sean Shaw’s blog posting: Saskatoon, I have a crush on you . . . .

Photo: downtown Cordoba, Spain

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