I first visited Vancouver  for a few days of vacation in 2012.  It is a place that I’ve always known that I would return to. That opportunity arose when I was asked to attend the Placemaking Leadership Forum conference in September, which I will talk about in a minute.  First, a few observations about Vancouver.
waterfront-smallIt’s all about the feeling that you have been invited to participate in the daily life of a city that makes one feel so welcomed.  Upon my arrival, the first place I walked to was the waterfront. Everyone is drawn to the waterfront. Water and mountains define Canada. Vancouver doesn’t have a big public square, so people gravitate to the edge of the water. Waterfalls, big and small, are scattered throughout the city.  The city is even adding water fountains to fire hydrants so that less privileged areas can have waterfalls. The goal of the city is to have all streets end at public spaces with a view of the harbor, but there is still a lot of work to be done before that is reality. In order to achieve this, a very complex undertaking of private investment and public support has been ongoing to build a climate of cooperation and understanding.

vancouver-hornby-streetVancouver has amazing street edges – bike lanes, trees, and curbs – giving you a sense of protection as you walk or bike in the busy downtown. I very quickly identified Hornby Street as my favorite street, and on every outing, even if I had to go out of my way, I made sure that street provided a thruway to wherever I was going.

Although I have never been a big fan of glass architecture, I’m beginning to understand the role it plays in connecting people to its buildings. You see slim towers with low rise podiums, which have rooftop patios and trees, (to attract the suburbanites). The towers are separated and seem to float above the podiums. Images of people and places can be seen through these buildings, creating a relationship between the people and the buildings.

With this backdrop, two main events took place during the week of September 12-18:  the Pro Walk/Pro Bike/Pro Place Annual Conference, and the Placemaking Leadership Forum, building on the Project for Public Spaces (PPS) Placemaking Leadership Council and the discussions on the outcome of the three Future of Places conference series. (The New Urban Agenda, the agreed upon outcome of the three Future of Places conferences, was adopted in Quito, Ecuador, in October 2016.)  I only attended the Placemaking Leadership Forum, but both conferences took place at the same venue and overlapped, providing an exhilarating hub for placemakers around the world.
ethan-kent-smallThe discussions at the Placemaking Leadership Forum certainly reinforced for me that the power of placemaking continues to grow and spread around the world, and its impacts – socially, environmentally, and financially – are too significant to ignore.  An especially proud moment was when Ethan Kent, senior vice president of PPS, recognized Michigan as a leader in placemaking governance.  He emphasized that as placemaking becomes institutionalized, we must guard against the tendency to create new gatekeepers. The roots of placemaking came from taking power, not giving power.

Although I have been attending placemaking conferences for several years now, I always leave with new ideas and concepts to add to the conversation. This conference was no exception.  Listed here are some notable takeaways worth thinking about:

  • “We don’t want a masterpiece but a great canvas – it’s the layers afterwards that matter.”  (Eduardo Santana-Pershing, executive director, Pershing Square Renew)
  • “The system isn’t broken, it was built this way.” (Husam Alwaer, professor of Urban Design, Scotland)
  • “First life, then spaces, then buildings – the other way around never works.” (Jan Gehl, Danish architect and urban design consultant)
  • “People change their habits according to services and infrastructure provided.”
  • “The new generation wants to consume experiences.”
  • “From a health perspective, there is nothing more important than placemaking”
  • “Placemaking for peacemaking.” (Rony Al Jalkh, visiting fellow, PPS)
  • “At their heart, cities are the absence of physical space between people.” (Ed Glaeser, American economics and author)

 

 

Hazel Park 5 around table.For the past two years, several of us at the League have had the privilege of participating on the CNU24 Local Planning Committee with a passionate group of urbanists.  As the one clear voice for cities and villages of Michigan, the League is in a unique position to reach out across the state to our members to bring awareness to CNU and illustrate the common vision and goals both organizations share in building great communities.

With the annual CNU Congress fast approaching,  there have been several events leading up to the conference, including the Legacy Charrettes.  We made sure that staff attended the multi day workshops at its various stages, so that we could help support and create some buzz for these projects.  The first one I attended was the Hazel Park project.  Along with two of my colleagues, we came in on the third day of the “reveal” which followed two intensive days of public input and work.  My colleague, Matt Bach, attended the first day of this workshop, so check out his recap.

The anticipation of the crowd of local leaders, residents, and business owners was palpable.  Moule & Polyzoides, a firm of architects and urbanists out of Pasadena, California, along with Planners, Bob Gibbs, Peter Swift, and John Zanette, led this enthusiastic group during the three day workshop.

Hazel Park crowd around tableThe first day they shared a big vision of creating a walkable and connected downtown for Hazel Park.  The goal was to make people a priority over cars; leverage the existing buildings and open space, and enhance the quality of life.  Street calming, landscaping, and adding several gateways into the city would all play a role. Two days later, this collective vision came into focus as a plan was presented to make a place to create a pedestrian oasis and revitalize their downtown. This would be accomplished by creating three distinct districts of the downtown:  the Culinary District would be their town center, the Civic Center, where city hall is located, and the Arts District, that would include the conservation of buildings.  Although these seem like lofty goals, they are realistic ones.  Simple modest changes can be a good place to start and can begin to have a huge impact.

Hazel Park plan on tableJeff Campbell, Assistant City Manager and Planning and Economic Development Director of Hazel Park expressed his view of the process. “It has been an amazing experience working with CNU as planning and economic development coordinator and I have been humbled and stunned by the citizen participation and how much they care about Hazel Park.”

Will Herbig, CNU Program Director said, “This is just not about Hazel Park – it’s about the conversations, ideas, and a model for southeast Michigan.  I couldn’t be happier.”

Join us, along with over 1500 participants from around the world, in Detroit, June 8-11. There will be a feast of learning opportunities and experiences for anyone interested in cities and you will also have the opportunity to see the finished design product of all four of the charrettes!

Although there was lots of activity outside on a beautiful warm spring Sunday afternoon in Southwest Detroit, it was inside the Cristo Rey high school where some of the real excitement was taking place.

Vernor Crossing 1

Vernor Crossing is one of four Congress of New Urbanism (CNU) Legacy Charrettes – hands-on public design events – that were held in Detroit, Pontiac, and Hazel Park, last week. This work, called “Building affordable and market rate housing in Southwest without displacement,” is being done as a lead up to CNU24. My colleague, Rob Ferrari and I attended the last day of the Vernor Crossing workshop to see the culmination of two days of hard work that included significant public input from the neighborhood residents. This was led by Dhiru Thadani from Washington D.C. with support from NederveldZimmerman/Volk Associates and City Form Detroit. My colleague, Luke Forrest, attended the first day of the workshop discussion, so check out his blog, which set the stage.

Southwest Detroit is ripe for change. Home to a diverse and immigrant population, it is made up of artists, entrepreneurs and crafts people. Local leaders and residents were brought together to envision  a transformation of an area that would potentially become much more pedestrian friendly, provide a more diverse housing stock, enhance existing businesses to attract new businesses, and create more open green space for recreational activities. To achieve these goals, several tangible recommendations are being proposed.  Here are some of the ideas that are beginning to lay the groundwork:

  • Reroute truck traffic
  • Open up and repair Livernois and Military streets
  • Identify vacant sites that can be transformed into various activities
  • Renovate the Public Works building (which would act as a town center) to create an arts and culture center; put in 500 housing types (5 year plan – 100 per year) which would include apartments, single family home; create a playground and soccer field; civic space for recreational activities; farmer’s market
  • Provide a diversity of housing through rehabilitation and new – carriage houses, bungalows, single family, row houses, apartments, cottages
  • Provide free WiFi; encase antenna tower and use as a landmark.

These ideas and concepts will be shaped into a cohesive design plan and unveiled during the CNU in Detroit. Optimism filled the room for all the potential that hung in the air.  Of course, it will take a few years to accomplish many of these changes, but there are incremental steps that can be taken that will have huge impact. Participating in the workshop, Steve Maun, Principle and Founder of LeylandAlliance LLC, said that rerouting the trucks alone will already be a major improvement and smaller scale physical changes will begin to attract developers.

Be sure and check back in June as my colleagues and I continue to follow the progress of all four of the Legacy Charrettes.

Sprawl – we know it when we see it.  We all live with sprawl in some way or other, but do we ever stop to think how it impacts our lives?  Or do we just go through the motions of everyday life and become comfortably numb to our daily activities and surroundings? And it impacts us financially, as well.  We pay a lot more for sprawl development than for compact development.

Sun City West Sprawl 300x225A recent trip to the Phoenix area, hit me harder than usual.  It wasn’t my first time there, but my awareness and critique of how we build communities become increasingly unforgiving as time goes by.  If I were asked to describe Arizona in a few short words, it would go something like this:  cement pavement, strip malls, franchise restaurants, multilane roads (in one direction), boundless traffic, breathtaking views, soothing mountains, relentless sunshine, blue sky, rich history. Talk about divergent narratives – and all of them are true.  I’m not going to espouse why everyone should experience the beauty of Arizona once in their lifetime, I will leave that to the travel books. I just want to share (or vent is more like it) a few thoughts on poor planning – the bane of our everyday life.

I’m not a trained traffic engineer or certified planner, but I don’t have to be – and neither do you – to know what’s working and what’s not.  We just have to stop and think about how we go about our daily lives, and ask ourselves a few basic questions:  how much time do we spend in a car?  Do we have a local coffee shop or restaurant that we can easily get to?  What do we consider to be the heart of the community?  Can we walk to the library?  (Check out Strong Towns, an organization advocating for vibrant and resilient communities, which offers ten simple questions called the Strong Towns Strength Test to test the strength of your community.)

Most of us know someone who has fled the frigid north for the year-round warmer climates.  On my trip to Phoenix, I visited a friend who lives in a senior community, west of Phoenix.  It is an award winning community development which has separated the housing from shopping, restaurants, and cultural venues.  Sound familiar?  With an aging population, there should be less reliance on a car, not more.  So why are they building and expanding (construction can be seen everywhere) the road system?  The lanes are already confusing, and it’s difficult to access stores and restaurants that you see on the other side of the median.   At all hours of the day, traffic is heavy.  I saw no evidence of traffic calming devices or alternative modes of transportation.  That means you have to get in your car (or take your life in your hands in a golf cart) to get anywhere.  Even though a Starbucks coffee shop was only 2 blocks away from where I was staying, there was no way that I or anybody else was going to feel safe walking over there.  Even the most foolhardy would not risk crossing the multilane roads which lacked any clear markings for pedestrians

verrado pic 300x225I did, however, see an example of a planned community, which has all the potential for great community living. It is called Verrado, in Buckeye, Arizona, west of Phoenix. It is built on the principles of New Urbanism.  Once you get off the freeway, you truly enter an oasis of peaceful, walkable neighborhood living, with the presence of bike and walking paths everywhere.  Although there were a fair amount of people in the small town center on a Sunday, a second visit during the week, showed a lot less people.  It was clear that this community is in its infancy.  More businesses and restaurants need to open to attract more people before it becomes a true destination.

Of course, we don’t have to go to Arizona to find examples of uncontrolled sprawl.  We can go anywhere in this country and find it, including right here in Michigan.  We are becoming an older nation, and unlike previous generations, as boomers age, they are choosing to age in place.  That means that communities will have to be ready to meet their growing needs. There is no time to waste.  We need to build more mixed-use communities, retrofit our suburbs, and consider alternative modes of transportation that will accommodate these challenges.  And in the end, we will be providing a great quality of life for all generations.