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