Looking at the city you live in and sifting through the challenges it faces can become overwhelming. It is easy to think that somehow only your city struggles with issues of density, mobility, and sustainability and react negatively or with tunnel vision. At one point or another, we’ve likely all fallen into the trap – I know that I have before. But visit a really “progressive” city and you will quickly realize that they faced many similar struggles. Attending forums/conferences and talking with people from different urban centres quickly confirms that many issues are consistent across the board – depending on your general outlook on life this will be depressing (why is everybody dragging their feet on issue X?), reassuring (oh good – we are all trying to overcome this thing together), or a combination of the two.
Case and point, after speaking with Nick Bowden of Community ReDesigned in Omaha Nebraska at the Urban Next Summit, this is what he had to say about their transit system:
“As a Midwestern community that values private space (big lots), Omaha has grown up to be a community with very low density. The density is particularly low in some of the faster growing areas of the community. As the community has grown out, the city continually faces the decision / conundrum about building more and wider roads vs. better public transportation. Naturally, given the low density, the city has continually chosen the path of more and bigger roadways. As a result, Omaha has developed into a personal vehicle city, one that is difficult to get around without your own car. This in turn, results in a very low ridership on the bus system, further leading to the belief within the community that “no one rides the bus so why would we expand / improve the system.” This perpetual cycle continues to worsen itself with each new development on the fringe of the community.
If you replace a few site specific words from his statement he could be talking about Regina, or Winnipeg, or Halifax, or any number of other cities. The cycle he mentions that keeps transit service from expanding is certainly spot on regarding past debates I’ve heard in the Queen City. Issues such as designing complete streets, battling sprawl, and many others are common in many cities. However it is important to not simply assume that we can look to each other for quick fix solutions, thinking that if it worked somewhere else surely it will work in our city.
Many urbanists caution the broad overuse of “best practices” when it comes to finding solutions for cities. Even though the struggles may appear the same, they are nuanced and the solutions must reflect each city’s particular assets, vices, strengths and weaknesses. We need to see what is working in other centres and then adapt each solution into our own local reality. What works well on the gently rolling prairies will need to be rethought for places with more drastic elevation changes. But even cities with similar geographic or climatic characteristics will have different political histories and socio-economic constraints.
The same goes when wanting to increase economic development and investment in cities – not every region is going to be (or should be) a Silicon Valley, or head office central. Cities are at their best when they play on their defining assets. In the end, no best practice will work for all cities – they are each unique and should be treated as such in order to reflect local history, culture, and character.
In the end context is key.
** Photo by Daniel Paquet