Urban Next Summit – Livability

Continuing on my discussion of the Urban Next Summit last month in San Francisco, Allison Arieff, New York Times Opinionator columnist and contributor for GOOD, lead the session on Livability.  The ambition:

“Everyone in a city can enjoy beauty, nature, and art everyday”

Livability is a difficult thing to pinpoint – simply because it can mean many different things to many different people.  And while this ambition may seem like it is only a matter of preference and aesthetics, in reality it is tied to issues of access, housing, and development as well.  A key tenant of this ambition that we focused on was the idea of making cities, and where we live/work as meaningful as possible to as many people as possible.

It is clear that current patterns of development are influenced by socio-economic, historic, and political trends of the past, however these patterns of development are not always compatible with current trends and more importantly they are not always compatible with current and future needs.  So the challenge really is to make all areas of a city work for everyone.  For example, while we can debate whether or not current suburbs should exist or not, the real issue is that they do not work for everyone.  If you have limited transportation options, suburbs don’t work for you as well as they do for someone who owns a car and can readily leave to get what they need – livability has not been fully realized in these areas.   The case could also be made about inequal access to green space and affordable housing.  Really, the livability ambition dovetails nicely with the need for multiple transportation models (walkability, bikability, transit) as well as the need for increased density and diversity of development – again, with the goal to make it meaningful for more people.

Our group discussed how having art, nature, and beauty in our everyday life could impact development as well.  One person in our group noted how the definition and role of “home” varies greatly in different areas of the world.  While in some countries “home” is where you eat and sleep, in North America our definition of “home” has expanded over the last 50 years to include relaxation (home as your sanctuary) and entertainment as central elements.  This vision is likely the reason that we have continued to build bigger houses on larger lots – we want home to provide everything.  One participant noted that due to this trend, lenders do not fund one-bedroom homes anymore though people may be interested in them.  This is in contrast to past development, found in many older neighbourhoods including those in Regina, where smaller homes were quite common.  We asserted that if art, nature, good design, and amenities were available to more people, smaller living spaces (denser development) would be more prevalent and desired. Allison joked that she has yet to see the “multi-family dream home”presented on the market – however, this could be possible with both better access to services, art, and nature as well as a change in mindset.

So how do we get art, nature, beauty, and livability more ingrained in our cities?  We can encourage development that creates/maintains green corridors through cities (Wascana park and the bike path are both great examples); we can offer incentives for developers to include art and innovative projects as part of their developments; we can do walkability/bikability audits to see what spaces need to be improved; we can create bold gathering spaces that combine architecture and natural elements (envision public seating that doubles as garden planters); we can identify and care for buildings and built features that contribute to the local history and culture and set design standards for future buildings to ensure beautiful architecture into the future.

We also discussed the current role of city planners and how it may need to change.  Many argue that the role of planners has been greatly reduced over the last few decades – away from actually planning and designing spaces to simply carrying out zoning regulations.  Many students go into planning with the desire to create vibrant spaces that will propel cities forward, but end up enforcing zoning codes and processing development applications.  Our group discussed the importance of bringing planners back to the forefront of how our cities develop.  We pictured returning the public right-of-way to planners.  They would envision and create public spaces around new developments as opposed to developers including it in their blueprints (i.e. plantings, art installations, seating).  In this way, there would be equity and justice consistent throughout public rights-of-way in the city.  Thoughtful planning of public space can greatly improve livability and access to art, nature, and beauty so it seems fitting that this should be within the public realm.

Our discussion about livability was very diverse, however the two ideas that stuck with me the most were 1) that increasing access to art, nature, and beauty could drive the desire for smaller building footprints and denser development; and 2) the need to return planners to a role of creating and being stewards of the public realm.

However this ambition really is so much greater than what we could cover in 45 minutes.  This is the full inspiring vision of The Livability Challenge taking place in Indianapolis this week:

Imagine a city where every citizen can enjoy art, beauty and nature every day. Where an investment in the community’s parks, artistic expression and architecture for the ages is considered a smart value-add for everyone. Where citizens’ attachment to their community is solidified by the pride they feel in their community’s aesthetics.

You can read more about livability in the latest issue of the CEOs for Cities newsletter ReThink and on The US Initiative website.

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Urban Next Summit – Livability

2 thoughts on “Urban Next Summit – Livability

  1. wourliem says:

    Great Post Laura.

    Transportation is certainly one clear example of where Regina is behind. I would describe transportation livability as having multiple options that allow people to move comfortably and efficiently. Right now, Regina is largely auto dominant with some transit that is also essentially auto in type (ie not boat or train/subway/tram). With more variety more people can participate and new comers will not be put off by limited options (‘I don’t want to drive, therefore living in Regina will be harder than…Central Calgary’).

    I agree that spaces must also be multi use and of a sufficient size to promote comfort. I like the idea of an outdoor room, like the plaza in your last photo. I feel that space is only so large, boxed in by the ‘walls’ of the office towers, that it fits. I recall Churchill Square in Edmonton, a conceptually similar plaza-mall in front of Edmonton’s City hall and how something about it didn’t feel right. It is probably too long and wide to be a nice place to eat lunch, though it would be good for a concert. Instinctively I want to sit in the pictured plaza above more than Churchill Square. Why?

    I think we know what works when we see it. In Regina, an example of too small is the triangular plaza with the geese statue and some concrete seating in front of the former Canada Life building (Hamilton and 11th). No one is encouraged to be in that space.

    Recently, just South down Hamilton, they removed buildings to make way for Hill Tower 3. After the buildings came down there was an at grade space left that I found very attractive. It makes no sense for a plaza to go there with Victoria Park a block away, but the space and scale surrounding it seemed perfect to me.

    Wascana is often described as Regina’s jewel because, I believe, that it fulfills so many roles and provides so many options. It can be a nature corridor (though I would say it is not natural, at least not the large lake sections) recreation node, political space, celebratory nexus, and even a dance club:

    CBC Video
    http://www.cbc.ca/video/#/News/Local_News/Saskatchewan/1317911675/ID=1615769033
    Facebook DDP Regina Site
    http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=156813967685000

    Planning lacks something today that probably would not have been lacking in Regina at the beginning of the city: a vision of what the city should be. I have no doubt the likes of Dewdney, Darke and Davin all wanted a green slice of England (or in a pinch Ontario) on the prairie. Prestigious masonry buildings, lawns, ordered streets, trees and sidewalks seem to me to be the desired physical elements for the community.

    Now, the City has a Vision statement, but there is no broad agreement on what it means or how to get there. Are suburbs bad or a sign of progress? Are lawns a sign of good neighbours or are wild grasses/zero-scaping better for environment? What about a front lawn garden? Should sidewalks be on every road, or just main roads? Should sidewalks run on both sides of the street? Do historic buildings retain value with renovation or is there a 40-year building cycle and new is better? Do streets need to be connected and have multiple access points or should the lot sizes of houses dominate, requiring bays, curves and dead ends?

    Today, I think individual desire rather than a collective consciousness is dominant in the city, largely because of how much larger and more culturally diverse Regina is. The situation is not good or bad rather it suggests an increasing complexity and difficulty creating broad changes. The city administration is designed to take on projects one at a time. There is a broad context but as you say, the bylaw and Sector plans are administered by planners, taking private proposals and evaluating/facilitating them rather than creating proposals. Their only creative means is in designing red tape that may bind, contort and restrict proposals into the desired shape.

    I realize none of the above provides the sort of positive options and examples of how to make change that you like to see. Perhaps I am discouraged after a year of following Regina planning closely and learning about how it all works. Certainly, the responsibility for change is mine; my answer to what we should do is advocate for changes we want to see. Unfortunately, I am not sure I understand the intricacies of some of those changes yet. How could I make a presentation in front of council, to advocate for urban outdoor rooms and not be able to describe them, as I’m unable to above? I’m not even sure how to present an objection to council on a development or new roadway on a broad conceptual point like higher density or transport accessibility. I could do make such a presentation, but it would be met with indifference. I guess I should study up more, but of course, as the past year has unfolded and I’ve gained knowledge issues have only become less clear and solutions more complex. In the end, the only real attempt at a strategy I can think of is to continue the dialogue. RUE is a big step in that direction. I guess I should start writing posts huh?

    1. Martin – thanks for the comment. You touch on a lot of important topics. Yes – Regina could do better with transit, however, after going to the session on Connectivity at the Summit (now also posted) I was reminded that Regina transit is not as bad as it could be. Some cities have whole sections cut off by transit with no other option for citizens but to own a car! I definitely think Regina needs to work on transit improvement and more importantly, facilitating other modes of transportation, but it could be a lot worse.

      Regarding the City’s vision statement and concrete steps to achieve it I think either you are spot on in that they haven’t thought about all of these details with respect to the vision, or they just don’t make them widely known. During my current job as a planning assistant I am working with the planning department as well as planning commission members and members from other commissions to rework the Town’s subdivision bylaws. All of the details on what are required for development are outlined there (setbacks, provisions for sidewalks, sewer, etc). Here, they have not been updated for 30 years. I have no idea when Regina’s would have been updated, but perhaps they need an overhaul, and for specific steps and design guidelines to achieve the vision to be fleshed out.

      Lastly, on your thoughts about how to get involved… just start. Really. Everyone feels like they don’t know enough to really say something, or question, or ask, but if you feel uneasy about something it is worth talking about it and bringing it up. No one starts with knowing all of the intricacies, in fact, lots of people who’ve been working in the field don’t know all of the intricacies of each issue, but it is the dialogue that brings them out. People worry that they don’t know enough, or that someone else would be better suited to speak up. It keeps people immobile and nothing changes. I would think that given the time you have taken to observe the process and formulate questions about it, or about specific projects gives you pretty solid ground to stand on. It doesn’t mean that you don’t sit with your thoughts and try to articulate what it is that you are trying to convey, but it is important to then present it. Sure the planning commission or city council could be indifferent, but think of it like the teenager who pretends to ignore their parent’s advice…. they are still listening. And, if nothing else, it is on the radar as something that a citizen has mentioned as important. If a topic is never broached, how are they to know that it is important? Many cities struggle with the same issues that Regina does (or worse), but having citizens engaged in how things are developing, and questioning the process to better understand it and to improve it really is what brings about the turnaround.

      I am currently reading Getting to Maybe: How the World is Changed and it has solidified my belief that when you get that feeling that something needs to change it is important to contemplate, discuss, but also act. Remember even Jane Jacobs, someone who caused great change and shaped new urbanism, had no background as a planner – she started with her personal observations.

      It can take a long time for change to come about but it has to start somewhere.

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