Mistakes not made. Yet.

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged and I’m not making any more promises to blog more. Since I last wrote though, this town just keeps on piling-up issues that warrant some kind of comment or push me to pull out the soapbox at any rate. New Issues same as the old ones London is constantly leaping from big idea to big idea, rarely pausing to look down and see what’s actually happening on the ground. Cities are built on a day-to-day basis, from house-to-house, neighbourhood to neighbourhood. Cities are not the result of cataclysmic spending that uproots communities, plops down single-use facilities in a frantic grasp at economic development. Successful City building is the result of building networks, creating connections between people and by supporting success in every neighbourhood.

I recently checked out a book from the London Public Library called “Urban Renewal in London, Ontario.” I say book because it’s bound but it’s actually a City Planning document from 1960, the highpoint of slum clearance and the times that kicked off a generation of urban thinkers like Jane Jacobs. In this case, the City of London, together with the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) wanted to raze the neighbourhood west of Wellington to Richmond and from Horton to the Thames to build massive social housing projects. Thankfully, the plan died somewhere along the way because it didn’t just end with the housing projects which would have been expropriated using eminent domain and most likely, flipped to builders/developers or built by government itself. Sadly, the thinking didn’t change for many of the other massive single-use housing developments in London (ie, Limberlost, Kipps Lane, Huron Street.)

One other massive mistake (actually 4 of them) that wasn’t made was the proposal in the above-noted plan to create urban expressways that would weave through the Thames Valley Corridor “bringing people to the parkland that lines the river” (not mentioning that parkland would be under an expressway of course.) Expressways were planned most audaciously, working north along the Thames from Kent/Maple Street to the University (imagine Gibbons Park with a highway through it) along Central Ave east of Adelaide (chopping neighbourhoods in four because the railway already divides it in two.) Another was planned to go from Highbury Ave, along the south fork of the Thames, to Wellington Street, where an interchange was planned that would either dump you out on Grand Ave or put you onto Wellington heading to downtown. And some form of bridge would have been built from Woodman Ave on the top of the western escarpment, over the Blackfriars neighbourhood, over the river, into downtown, dumping traffic onto Maple and Kent.

It’s important to know about such plans and I think to consider the kind of City we’d have if the plans had been successful. We can look at Cities all around North America where entire swaths of neighbourhoods were plowed over, people uprooted, communities destroyed for a ‘public good’. We can also look at those Cities to see that traffic congestion has not been solved by urban expressways, rather it’s been made much worse. We can look at our own sprawl and wonder how much worse it would be with expressways cutting through our parkland. We can look at our natural ecology, the beauty of our green space along the river corridor and thank our lucky starts that we didn’t run highways through our greatest assets.

However, we should also remember that people who opposed such plans were counted as heretics and opponents of progress. We can recall that ‘Planners’ proposed and supported these modernist Radiant City concepts that have proven to be a massive failure. Such is the science of urban planning. While urban planning has largely changed to reflect the ideas introduced by Jacobs, who’s “Death and Life of Great American Cities” was published in 1961, 50 years ago, yet still identifies concepts we’ve yet to fully introduce or embrace.

I will write more about a few ideas and projects that are bumping along in London. Our City seems to be in a phase of navel-gazing and stagnation. Lots of great ideas, exciting new businesses are popping up, a younger generation seems more interested in creating and living in diverse communities that create new economic activity, bring different people together and build a local identity. However, our City continues to sprawl at an alarming rate, daily undermining our ability to create a vibrant, economically sound and self-regenerating City. No one I know wants a house in the suburbs anymore – most have realized that suburban life was sold on a false image of safety, security, privacy and peace. Sadly, all of those are provided (to some degree though I’m not sold) at the expense of the kinds of random interactions in a City that actually create new economic activity. London is a City where people choose exactly who they are going to interact with (if not by individual, by demographic) and where they are going to interact – the majority of community facilities in London are privately owned and operated and there is a general lack of community centres in all but the most marginalized community. London is a City of ghettos and single-use pods. Sure, some of the ghettos feature mansions and Beamers in the driveways but they’re ghettos nonetheless.

As a more positive note on which to close this blog article, I was encouraged to meet London’s first Urban Designer (hired in 2007) Sean Galloway who seems to absolutely understand many of these ideas. I’ll say many because I do suspect he likes “Ebenezer Howard”-like idyllic parks that no one uses and eventually become the kinds of places no one goes. However, he’s clearly a supporter of civic beauty, of dense, compact and transit oriented development and he absolutely understands the idea that there is ‘No Free Parking.” My question (and challenge to Londoners) is how to get him more power and authority over development decisions in our City? I ask this because it’s clear from hearing his presentation and contrasting it with the kind of development that is still predominantly going forward (ie, Meadowlily Smart Centre/Wal-Mart) that are not in keeping with his views or that of a vast majority (notwithstanding their shopping habits) of citizens and urbanists.

How do we take charge of our fiscal, economic and environmental future from the makers of sprawl? I’ll attempt to provide some possible suggestions and answers in coming weeks (I hope.) OMB reform (abolition) Planning Act reform and financial reform (development requires finance, which is often based on safe/proven and single-use concepts) are just a start. (added, May 18) As you see, these are not spheres of City power. What is in the City’s power is the ability to secure payment for parking rather than allow it to be free thereby creating economic forces required for intensification of land-use. It’s also within the City’s power to create a Land Use Planning document (Official Plan) that citizens can read clearly and understand by residents of London. And the City needs to be more transparent and open about the cost. Citizens need to be shown clearly the economic and financial consequences of our decisions. Someone needs to present a view and a vision that illustrates a viable future, where import substitution and innovation (not just elite innovation but everyday innovation) occurs randomly in an organic and self-sustaining fashion.


1 Response to “Mistakes not made. Yet.”

  1. May 13, 2011 at 9:26 pm

    I liked what I read. Not just this particular article, but the attitude behind them all. Like you, I thought a seat on Council was the best way for me to help MY city. Unlike you, I am going to do it. You sound like a person I would enjoy sharing ideas with, as well as gaining some education. I am going in fairly cold, planning to learn along the way. 3 years to the next election, so I figure I have the time.
    I am glad I “found” you. See you on Twitter.

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