Thursday, July 26, 2007

Planning Department in Shackles?

A comment on a previous post has been made that it appears that the City of Windsor has no clear goals or objectives relating to the future of its built environment.

Navigating through the cities official website, there are many pages devoted to how important good urban design is to the quality of life of Windsor residents. Clearly, by publishing these pages on their website, they know there are better ways of developing Windsor. Now, let's see if they are following their own advise.

Windsor SEEN is described as being a "...Municipal Urban Design Agenda For The Windsor Community". It was adopted by city council over three years ago. Quickly glancing through this six page document will reveal just what this city means by Urban Design. Throughout, it stresses "image" and "impressions", focusing on what people will think of us "(b)y the time the 2006 Superbowl draws the visitation and global media attention of millions to the shores of the Detroit River, we must be seen at our best". It is a document whos clear intent is to "manage (our) identity". Form over function. (there's a headline on page two that actually uses a James Howard Kunstler reference - "Avoiding the 'geography of nowhere'" - in support of their plan!) In all the years in which I studied Urban Design at the post secondary level, I didn't come away with this description as being the main driving focus of the craft.

It was during soon-to-be mayor Eddie Francis' "Town Hall"-type campaign meeting in ward three, prior to his first term win, when I heard him call the Legacy Park big-box development Smart Growth. It was then that I knew we were in for a long, uphill battle. But, I digress...

Wikipedia describes Urban Design as a discipline "concern(ing) the arrangement, appearance and functionality of towns and cities, and in particular the shaping and uses of urban public space. It has traditionally been regarded as a disciplinary subset of urban planning, landscape architecture, or architecture. However, with its increasing prominence in the activities of these disciplines, it is better conceptualised as a design practice that operates at the intersection of all three, and requires a good understanding of a range of others besides, such as urban economics, political economy and social theory." This encapsulates what I spent my time studying. Yes, a successful community design is aesthetically appealing, but that is but one portion in a complicated recipe. Yet, it is the only ingrediant our planning department is allowed to use.

It was during the 2005 community meetings for the Huron Church Road Urban Design Master Plan when it hit me - the city is interested only in making this street prettier for motorists. It has nothing to do with urban design. Their design did nothing to address the lack of function of this "Civic Way". It did nothing to address the environmental concerns of the abutting property. It did nothing to address our ever expanding reliance on the private automobile. What it did do was plant a few gardens, berms and pretty ornamentation for the motorists stuck idling behind transport trucks to admire. Yet, this is their idea of what constitutes "urban design".

What is even scarier is that these "urban design" ideals are now firmly ensconced in our Official Plan. You know - the Official Plan that basically guides everything that the city does from now on by law!

My definition of urban design is more focused on the day-to-day life of the cities residents, instead of putting simply on makeup for the guests. By increasing the quality of life for the everyday users of our infrastructure, we are investing in our own future. For as the residents begin to develop a pride-of-place, they start losing the attitude that Windsor is disposable. Urban design is an organic process, and one that is continually building upon little successes over time. Jane Jacobs hated the idea of putting all our eggs in one basket and relying on mega-developments to "save" a community and so do I. The sense that I get when reading through the cities online documentation is just what a previous writer noted - we have no clear direction as a city. We are ambling along - as our Mayor attends Wrestlemania events on behalf of his citizens - grabbing at each and every new, shiny thing we come across. Hoping that "pretty" will be "enough". Hoping that we can build a "brand" that will fool people into visiting and investing here. Hoping that the taxpayers continue sleepwalking through life and don't start demanding better.

Well, it's not. We must identify our municipal destination and devise a clear path to get there. What kind of city do we want to be? What kind of residents do we want to attract? What kind of economic development do we want to inspire? In what kind of neighbourhoods do we want to raise our children? These are all aspects of my urban design. Elements of daily urban life that build confidence in one's elected officials and their leadership skills. One that recognises the learned expertise of our municipal administration and allows them the flexibility of suggesting alternatives without an iron fist driving them back to the plan of subdivision that they are working on.

Good planning will not be the silver bullet for our current economic and social woes, but we will definitely not be healed without it.

'Sidewalk contacts are the small change from which a city's wealth of public life may grow.' Jane Jacobs


Anonymous said...

The guidelines in these other cities (eg. Guelph, Kitchener-Waterloo, Markham ...most of these plans can be found on their websites) are very detailed.
They are usually in the form of a secondary plan or an area plan that meet the Official Plan criteria. They are provided as design guides or site plan criteria.
They cover everything from the look of the building to its height to its location on the from the street.
They looked at most of the details and force you to compile with the guideline. The guidelines are usually established by an outside firm with expertise ...not in house by the City planners. This makes a big difference when its given the proper time and attention and not done as an exercise to say "we did it".
Any variations of the plan go through a very exhaustive process to ensure they still meet the intended criteria.
I think that our City Planners would love to have this kind of
thing in place and the authority to
implement it. The movement toward this type of planning should become a priority for this City.

Topher Holt said...

These types of guidelines were put in place for the redeveloment of the City Centre West Urban Village planning area, and assembled by city staff.

At the public open houses, a friend and myself were very impressed at the level of detail implemented in their plan. Everything from building height, massing, orientation and setbacks, to building materials facades and ground floor design were outlined in this comprehensive package. It even had an emphasis on pedestrian usage and public transit as a driving factor.

It is here that I got a shimmer of hope that we may be headed in the right direction when it comes to revitalizing our downtown core.

You know what has happened (or, to be more precise, hasn't happend) since...

If we could only, like you mentioned, make this level of detail a priority for the rest of the city, we would all be better off for the effort. We would just have to do something out of the ordinary and follow through with our own plans. But that's a different story.

blog jumper said...

I was able to attended and sit in on several of the CCW planning meetings. While I was not on the committee I was request to participate. I agree the plans and potential were good. We now even have a plan for offering incentive to developers. But alas we are now considering alternative plans and everything is up in the air again. We need to have more of the plans in place Wyandotte Village, Ottawa Street, Drouillard Road should all have plans that would encourage new development in existing area instead of pushing the limits of the City outward. Community Improvement Plans (CIPs) are good but they need to show people the vision spell it out and be clear and the hold true to it.

Topher Holt said...

So, perhaps by strengthening the BIA's by providing them with some REAL power over the neighbourhood they know so well would lead to better planning.

Grassroots CIPs, initiated by the residents and business' together, drawn up by a third-party consulting firm through the charette process with the same level of detail exhibited by the CCW process.

I like it.