the renewed city.

proactive action on air pollution and congestion? the GTA is leading by example
July 17, 2008, 9:47 am
Filed under: commentary

the dire situation of increasing congestion, air pollution and squandered suburban land facing many canadian cities and regions begs the need for proactive solutions not complacency or band-aid action plans. perhaps surprisingly, toronto and it’s surrounding municipalities appear to be making the most headway in this regard.

the toronto star has reported numerous times over the past year that metrolinx, greater toronto’s transit authority, is detailing a series of scenarios for reducing car use, in the latest stage of developing a regional transportation plan. the most ambitious vision would cost $90 billion over 25 years. initiatives include a focus on making active transportation opportunities easier and more accessible, road tolls, parking fees and an influx in spending on creating a more cohesive and efficient transit network. together and, really only together, would these initiatives make it easier, more appropriate and cheaper to switch to more sustainable modes of transportation.

these types of action plans are controversial. that’s because they attempt to go beyond mere band-aid initiaties, those that strive to remedy a problem without tackling the real source or underlying cause. when it comes to air pollution and congestion, the problem is car use not highway capacity.

in this sense, metrolinx has the right idea. but what about vancouver? it too is suffering from increasing traffic congestion and air pollution. and translink’s (metrolinx west coast equivalent) solution to this? sweeping investment in new bridges and highways. their rationalization? give people more space to drive will means less congestion and less idling-related air pollution.

many studies have disproved that logic. yet it maintains a standard option for regions suffering from rising congestion and air pollution. and, really, why wouldn’t it? it’s an easy solution that keeps the voters happy. they get brand new highways that will be all but clogged again soon enough and the car maintains it’s status as the preeminent cheap, convenient and accessible mode of transportation.

air pollution and congestion are tough, intricate problems that require tough action plans to mitigate. the more we make vehicle use easier, the less headway we will make on creating a more sustainable region. toronto’s bold steps to tackle the problem at the source should be seen as a positive example that other governments could follow. hey, nobody said this would be easy ….


thoughts from portland
July 15, 2008, 9:43 pm
Filed under: commentary, ideas

portland is dubbed the mecca of urban planning in north america. i got the chance on a recent trip down united states way to see it for myself.

i’ll start with this: the mecca moniker certainly suits it well. the city has the smallest blocks on the continent (even putting new york and vancouver to shame). pockets of mixed use extend beyond the downtown where shops and everyday services like pubs, post offices, grocers, banks and laundromats are scattered throughout housing tracts in the city’s neighbourhoods and corridors. medium density development characterizes the entire town. even the swanky homes on nob hill are, to swipe a verse from thom yorke, packt together like sardines in crushed tin box.

and those are just the big ticket items. the city even gets the little things right. street art and pedestrianized intersection are very common. public drinking fountains are found at almost every intersection (perfect for those 100 degree plus days!). there are big, bright and readable maps setup throughout the city for pedestrians and bike route signs that give you an estimated time before you reach major intersections or destinations. even the (very neat) MAX light rail transit system gets in on the action. all of the system’s platforms are at-grade allowing for better access for all kinds of people. the system extends throughout the city and is not just limited to a one or two corridors. did i mention it’s free to ride in the downtown as well?

throw in a firm urban boundary keeping new growth contained and a geographically small city and the result is a very walkable, well-planned and most importantly, accessible, community. i was in heaven.

and so my girlfriend julie and i took advantage and walked. we walked everywhere. hawthorne, downtown, nob hill, 21st/23rd avenue, and the pearl district. but, here’s the kicker. aside from the tourists, it seemed nobody else was. the weather couldn’t be blamed. it was the most gorgeous weekend of the year with temperatures in the 90s and not a cloud in the sky. what gives? why doesn’t it work?

some recent writing by bill mckibben lends some ideas to why this is the case. in an essay entitled “if you built it, will they change”, he questions whether our built environment has the capacity to bring about real change in our behaviour, travel or otherwise. he writes: “has it [a more pedestrian-friendly urban form] managed to bring out the part of [human] nature … that likes the public world, the world of parks and plazas and ballrooms and theaters, that likes to rub shoulders with the rest of the city? change like this is essential if we are to deal with the environmental and social questions we face.”

culture is a funny thing, very malleable. our current culture of paranoia, self-centered mindsets is the product of the media, terrorism, consumerism, the economy, plastic surgery. but, the built environment certainly helps too. suburbs mean more driving and less social interaction. as planners, our work and communities provide the medium for cultural change to happen. it’s certainly not a panacea. portland is a good case in point. but everything helps, right?