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Archive for May 11th, 2010

Seven Rules for Sustainable Communities

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Patricks Condon launched his new book yesterday at SFU. I was there – and I was also one of the first to get out my credit card. I am proud to have a first edition signed by the author.

The organisers had moved to a bigger room due to the level of interest but even so I felt crowded: there were lots of people standing around talking, drinking and schmoozing. A number of former politicians were invited including Gordon Price (of course) Darlene Mazari and – to my delight – Anne Edwards who was Minister, when I worked for Energy Mines, and (back then) gave me peppermint tea at the leg. No other minister of my acquaintance has ever done such a thing.

Former Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan spoke first: I wrote down his main points

“Anything I ever said I copied from you. Thank you for this gift. It will provide guidance for cities across the country and we really need some guidance.”

Brent Toderian, current Director of Planning said that the book shows Patrick’s deep understanding of the Vancouver model. He thought the book would be of value to many different audiences – students and practitioners – and was “completely relevant to urban issues”. He also thought it important for citizen activists – very complex issues being covered in an accessible way. “I don’t necessarily agree with everything the book says but I am sure it will be quoted on the UBC line corridor … You do us a great service”

Patrick Condon responded by contrasting our political culture to that of Boston. There, he said, decisions are made by groups entrenched since the pilgrims. This is a region where there is vibrant dialogue about what sort of region it should be – and that dialogue been going on for 40 years. While we may feel less than successful, everyone else [in North America] sees us as the great urban hope for other places to emulate – and that is what is happening in St Louis, San Franciso and even Minneapolis!

We have created a powerful force. He said he felt “quite anxious: since the work was done in charrettes and communities – by thousands of people. His aim had been to keep the book simple and organised “to be read on a cross country airline trip”. He noticed that in airport book stores “fully half of the books were self help manuals” so he chose to follow the same formula – chapter 1 theory, chapters 2 to 7 – rules. This method was originally adopted as the 12 steps to sobriety but now gets applied to almost everything we need to achieve.

He hopes that is has reduced the complexity into one theory and seven simple rules that we can follow. But he cautioned that at best it will only be partially successful but all the issues connect.

I want now to address the people who regularly comment on this blog and who have seized on Chapter 2 to once again rehash the very stale debate about streetcars versus skytrain that seems to obsess us. I suggest that they reread the title first. Patrick has produced a manual for urban planning “Design Strategies for a Post-Carbon World.” While the first one of his rules is “restore the street car city” that is only one of seven, and mainly applies to the areas which used to be streetcar cities. He also says “concepts that presume extremely high density urban areas linked by rapid transit systems seem inconceivably at odds with the existing fabric of both prewar and postwar urban landscapes and beyond our ability to afford”.

I would add that we have singularly failed to adopt such a concept – despite what the Livable Region Strategic Plan and Transport 2021 said. Firstly, the language they used was emollient – and wide open to interpretation by people who had no sympathy at all for the plans’ objectives (though mostly they kept that quiet). Secondly, the regional bodies who produced those plans and who were charged with implementing them had no powers to do so. The decisions were also made by entrenched groups – who felt little responsibility to the people who lived in the region, but served the interests of the developers and other large corporate investors. This had much more to do with continuing the processes of turning “raw land” into profits as fast as possible that has characterised the European approach to what they call BC since they got here. Developers decided they wanted the Olympics, the Sea to Sky, the Canada Line, the Gateway program and all the rest. The choice to go for grade separated rapid transit was more about leaving car traffic as untrammelled as possible. But that was not the most – or the only – decision that mattered. Regional town centres are not high density – higher in spots maybe but overall we are still a low density region. Most of Vancouver is still “single family” designation and density – even though that now includes lots of secondary suites. The region as a whole has become more like every other North American suburban area than the distinctive place that the LRSP sought to make it. Above all, we still mostly drive everywhere for everything. Those who choose to be car free are the exceptions. And it is the accommodation of those cars that still decides what sort of places get built – even where there is some good quality transit service nearby. Mostly the region does not have high speed rapid transit – and if you ignore West Coast Express (which only serves commuting to downtown Vancouver) – the map of rapid transit coverage is very obviously only a small part of the region. And mostly not the part that will be absorbing the next million people.

So we need to follow not just Rule 1 – restore the streetcar city. We need to read and understand all seven rules.

2   Design an interconnected street system

3   Locate commercial services frequent transit and schools within a five minute walk

4   Locate good jobs close to affordable homes

5   Provide a diversity of housing types

6   Create a linked system of natural areas and parks

7   Invest in lighter, greener, cheaper and smarter infrastructure.

And it is those last six I want to see discussed below. We have had quite enough discussion about rule 1, thank you very much, and that can stop now. If your comment on this post does not address issues other than rapid transit technology choice it will be deleted as off topic

And for everyone who can go buy this book – that link goes to the $60 hardback version: here is the $30 paperback

Make sure your local library buys them too!

Written by Stephen Rees

May 11, 2010 at 10:39 am

Posted in Urban Planning