What is urban living and who really cares?

By Richard White, November 27, 2014 

80% of Canadians live in cities, but only a small part live urban,” reads one of the tweets in a recent tweeter debate by a few of us urban nerds.

This got me asking myself “what really is urban living anyway?”  Can you live in a city and not live “urban?”

I tweeted the author asking what his definition of urban living was, but got no answer.  Indeed, too often people – including urban designers planners, architects, engineers, politicians, developers and yes, even myself use terms that even we don’t really have a shared meaning of and/or doesn’t make a lot of sense to others.

I have often thought the term “urban sprawl” should more aptly be called “suburban sprawl” as what is being referred to is the sprawl of low-density predominantly residential development at the edge of a city, areas commonly thought of as suburbs. But, I digress; perhaps a topic for another time.

  Urban living is about diversity? Young and old? Bikes and pedestrians? Residents and retail?

Urban living is about diversity? Young and old? Bikes and pedestrians? Residents and retail?

  Is this urban living?

Is this urban living?

What is urban living?

I admit – not only did I not have a handy definition, I could not recall ever seeing one.  It begs a number of questions, including:

  •  Do you have to live in or near downtown to “live urban?”
  • Do you have to live in a community with a certain density to be considered urban living? 
  • Is urban living measured by the percent of time you walk vs. take transit vs. drive?
  •  Does urban living mean not having a car? Or, is it driving less than the Canadian average of 18,000 km/year?
  • Is urban living about the size of your house, condo and/or vehicle?
  • Is urban living about residing in communities with a diversity of commercial and residential buildings?  

I thought a Google search might help, but I struck out. Unable to find a nice clear and concise, definition I went “old school” and checked some dictionaries. They all just said something about “living in a city,” much too ambiguous to satisfy me.

  Urban living is about living on the streets?  Food carts in Portland's suburbs encourage street dining.  

Urban living is about living on the streets?  Food carts in Portland's suburbs encourage street dining.  

  Urban living in Calgary's West Hillhurst?

Urban living in Calgary's West Hillhurst?

 

Statistics Canada says…

 Not one to give up quickly, I turned to our government, specifically (and logically) Statistics Canada.  I found out that, in 2011, Statistics Canada redesignated urban areas with the new term "population centre" a new term was chosen in order to “better reflect the fact that urban vs. rural is not a strict division, but rather a continuum within which several distinct settlement patterns may exist (their words not mine).”

Stats Canada went further, identifying three distinct types of population centres: small (population 1,000 to 29,999), medium (population 30,000 to 99,999) and large (population 100,000 or greater).

They go on to say, “It also recognizes that a community may fit a strictly statistical definition of an urban area but may not be commonly thought of as "urban" because it has a smaller population. Or, functions socially and economically as a suburb of another urban area rather than as a self-contained urban entity. Or, is geographically remote from other urban communities.”  Have I lost you yet - it is getting very muddy for me!

For example, Airdrie, with its population of 42,564, is a medium size population centre, but it is socially and economically a suburb of Calgary.  On the other hand, Medicine Hat, with its population of 61,180 is also a medium size population centre, but because it is the largest population centre for a large geographical region, it could be thought of as “urban.” 

Despite its change in terminology, Statistics Canada’s current demographic definition of an urban area is “a population of at least 1,000 people where the density is no fewer than 400 persons per square km” (which would include all of Calgary’s 200+ communities).

Dig a little deeper and Statistics Canada defines low-density neighbourhoods as those where 67% or more of the housing stock is composed of single-family dwellings, semi-detached dwellings and/or mobile homes.  A medium-density neighbourhood is deemed one where the percentage of single-family, detached or mobile homes is between 33 and 67%, while high density is where these types of dwellings comprise less than 33% of the housing stock.

By this, Stats Canada identifies six high-density neighbourhoods in Calgary (they didn’t name them), by far the least of any of Canada’s major cities.  Perhaps the author of the tweet meant only those Calgarians living in Calgary’s six, high-density neighbourhoods are living urban?

  Urban living is about great public spaces, like this one in Strasbourg, France.

Urban living is about great public spaces, like this one in Strasbourg, France.

YYC Municipal Development Plan

Still not satisfied, I moved on. I wondered if the City of Calgary’s Municipal Development Plan has a definition of “urban living” or a related term in its glossary of terms. The best I could find were the following:

Intensity: A measure of the concentration of people and jobs within a given area calculated by totaling the number of people either living or working in a given area. 

Complete Community: A community that is fully developed and meets the needs of local residents through an entire lifetime. Complete communities include a full range of housing, commerce, recreational, institutional and public spaces. A complete community provides a physical and social environment where residents and visitors can live, learn, work and play. 

So, where does that leave me and others who are interested in a meaningful debate about how we work together to build a better city. What would be a useful definition of “urban living” that professionals and the public to agree upon as the on debate how best to “urbanize” Calgary continues?

  Brookfield's SETON mixed-use community on the southern edge of Calgary will offer many of the same urban experiences as living in Calgary's City Centre. 

Brookfield's SETON mixed-use community on the southern edge of Calgary will offer many of the same urban experiences as living in Calgary's City Centre. 

  Calgary's new suburbs are being as complete communities with both a density and diversity of residential dwellings (single-family, town homes and multi-family) that would make them a medium to high density community. It will take 15 to 20 years to achieve this; don't be too quick to judge!  

Calgary's new suburbs are being as complete communities with both a density and diversity of residential dwellings (single-family, town homes and multi-family) that would make them a medium to high density community. It will take 15 to 20 years to achieve this; don't be too quick to judge!  

Possible working definitions

One potential definition of “urban living” might be, “living in a place where you can comfortably walk, cycle or take public transit to 80% of your regular weekly activities (i.e. work, school, shop, medical entertainment and recreation).

As for The definition of “comfortable,” I leave up to the individual. For some, a comfortable walking distance might be 15 minutes; for others it might be 30 minutes. I know Calgarians who take the bus or even drive the two kilometers from Mission to work downtown, while others cycle 15+ km to work (and back). I myself used to walk 50 minutes to and from work downtown for 10+ years.  

A second possible “urban living” definition might be, “when you regularly use at least three of the four modes of transportation (walk, cycle, take transit and drive) to engage in your regular weekly activities.”

  High-rise living in Edmonton's downtown.

High-rise living in Edmonton's downtown.

  Downtown Calgary's West End.  Are condos just vertical suburban dwellings?

Downtown Calgary's West End.  Are condos just vertical suburban dwellings?

  Low-rise condos on a residential street in Mission.

Low-rise condos on a residential street in Mission.

Last Word

But really, does the average Calgarian even care if they a live urban or suburban? Thanks for indulging me.  I hazard a guess to say most don’t. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I highly suspect they just want to be able to get to their activities in a timely, affordable manner.

Yet for us urban nerds, we are always thinking about how can we build a better city for everybody, one that is more cost-efficient, environmentally-friendly, affordable, integrated and inclusive. It’s what turns our cranks!

By Richard White, December 4, 2014

Reader Comments:

GG writes: "Initially the definition was applied to the rural/city divide, and has since become a true city ‘divide’. It doesn’t seem to matter than many of these ‘urban inner-city communities’ were the suburbs of a few decades back, and the reasons that people built there and moved there are no different than those today.  By virtue of Calgary’s rapid growth, they are now close to the city center and have developed a ‘cachet’. This was not a result of great urban planning, foresight, or any attempt at smart growth. The densities in many of these communities are less than they are in the ‘reviled’ suburbs that are being built today. They were the product of development methods of the day, and schools and community centers were part of the package.  Families were one car or even no car, and transit was a common denominator. And today, it is all too common to see perfectly liveable houses bulldozed so that the affluent can enjoy a big house but be environmentally and developmentally superior by being an urban dweller, an inhabitant of the inner city."

CW writes: "A most excellent column. Certainly people do care very much about their urban living, yet our language completely fails to capture how we choose to situate ourselves in life. Why would that be? Everybody knows it's not good manners to talk openly about class, but a definition of urban living should take into the account the ability to insulate oneself from undesirable situations of class. Most people love the city they choose to live in, but they also wouldn't be caught dead in some parts of it."

If you like this blog, you might like:

Urban living is in its infancy in Calgary 

Don't be too quick to just the new suburbs?

Importance of comfort, convenience and privacy in urban living 

Urban cottages & Gentrification 

 

 

West District: An urban village in the 'burbs!

By Richard White, November 29, 2014

West District is a proposed new MAC (Major Activity Center) community on a 96-acre site that straddles the southwest communities of West Springs and Cougar Ridge by Truman Developments. The boundaries are north of 9th Ave., west of 77th Street, east of 85th Street and south of Old Coach Banff Road in the southwest.

 A MAC is a term from the City of Calgary’s Municipal Development Plan to describe an “urban centre for a sub-region of the city, which provides opportunities for people to work, live, shop, recreate, be entertained and meet their daily needs.”

West District is a unique infill MAC community, as the land surrounding it has already been developed for several years. Most new MACs are at the edge of the city with no surrounding communities.  As a result, Truman Development’s team of planners and urban designers have been able to respond to what currently exists, as well as what is missing for the West Springs and Cougar Ridge to become a vibrant live work play community.

They were also able to respond to the City’s guidelines for creating successful MACs, which were not in place or not possible given most of the previous developments in West Springs and Cougar Ridge were on small parcels of land with fragmented ownership making master-planning impossible.

Over the past year, Truman Development has embraced the City’s vision of creating a vibrant new mixed-use, mixed-density communities in consultation with the community.

  This image illustrates how West District (the block of land in the middle of the image) is surrounding by low density development.  West District is essentially a mega infill project.  The concentration of trees in the middle will become part of the new communities Central Park. 

This image illustrates how West District (the block of land in the middle of the image) is surrounding by low density development.  West District is essentially a mega infill project.  The concentration of trees in the middle will become part of the new communities Central Park. 

Community Engagement

One of the first things Truman did right was to engage the existing community from the start, not after they had developed a comprehensive plan.  Rather than the old open house format where developers would present their vision after it was completed and then defend it when the individuals in the community raised questions and concerns.

They decided to open what they called the EngageHub in the spring of 2014, a purpose built 2,000 square foot building where people could visit, learn more and weigh in on some of the ideas being considered for West District. Since opening, the EngageHub has been open to the community 130+ hours  (weekdays, weekends and evenings) for people to drop-in to see how the West District plans were evolving based on community input.  

  The pretty little EngageHub looks like a cafe. In reality it is the an open meeting place where the developers and the community can meet and discuss ideas, options and issues that will create a vibrant urban village that will be a win for the community, developer and the City.

The pretty little EngageHub looks like a cafe. In reality it is the an open meeting place where the developers and the community can meet and discuss ideas, options and issues that will create a vibrant urban village that will be a win for the community, developer and the City.

  The EngageHub is full of books that people can read and get ideas from about what they would like to see in an urban village.  For me urban development and placemaking is an art not a science. 

The EngageHub is full of books that people can read and get ideas from about what they would like to see in an urban village.  For me urban development and placemaking is an art not a science. 

Density Dilemma

As with almost every new development in Calgary the biggest issue is always density. Too often the developer is put in an awkward situation as the City is demanding more density, but the existing community doesn’t want it.

For example, West District’s density is envisioned to be 36 units/acre, which is 10 times the current density of the surrounding developments.  However, when you average the density of the existing communities with the addition of West District the overall MAC density would be 5.3 units/acre, which is less than the City’s current goal of 8 units/acre for new communities and not that different from the 3.1 units/acre that currently exists. 

Too often the public hears the term density and immediately thinks 20 storey highrise condos, but in fact the density for West District and other proposed MACs will be achieved with a mix of single-family, town/row housing and some low and mid-rise condo bulidings.  This allows for a diversity of housing options that will be attractive and affordable for first homebuyers, families, empty nesters and seniors housing.

Indeed, vibrant communities include people of all ages and backgrounds. Truman Developments is Attainable Homes Calgary’s biggest multi-family partner and they are keen to see a healthy mix of market housing with some more affordable units in West District.

  This is an example of the scale of the proposed condos with ground floor retail.  You can also begin to see the wide pedestrian friendly sidewalks and clear cross walks. 

This is an example of the scale of the proposed condos with ground floor retail.  You can also begin to see the wide pedestrian friendly sidewalks and clear cross walks. 

Central Park

Over the past seven months of community engagement one of the things Truman heard loud and clear was the need for a park to serve both existing and new residents. One of the community’s desires was to retain many of the existing and beloved Aspen Tree groves. As a result, the design team has developed large central park that balances passive natural areas with programmable activity areas, which will allow for year-round use.

West District Central Park

Traffic / Transit

Another key issue for existing residents when new developments are planned is the ability of roads and transit to handle the increased traffic.  While the West Leg of the LRT does provide improved transit service to the Calgary’s west-side communities, it is unfortunate that is it is surrounded by low-density communities rather than something like a West District. 

To capitalize on the City’s 1.4B investment in the West LRT, Truman Development is proposing a developer-funded express bus between West District and the 69th Street LRT Station, about four kilometers away. Kudos to Truman Development for taking this innovative initiative.

West District shuttle.jpg

Cost Effective Development

West District is an infill development and as such the area has already been serviced to urban standards for water and sewer, which means no addition costs for new infrastructure.   There is also a good network of existing major and arterial roads that will be further upgraded with the completion of the west leg of Stoney Trail.

In addition, West District will add an estimated $550M in new residential and business taxes over the next 50 years, which is significantly more than the $130M that would be generated by a typical low density suburban development. The additional half billions dollars can be used for new or enhanced parks, recreation centres, as wells as new buses or roads across the city – everyone benefits from mega infill developments like West District.

  One of the barriers to creating new urban villages in established neighbourhoods, especially on the west side of the city is the fragmented ownership.  It becomes very difficult to assembly the large tract of land needed to develop an integrated plan of mixed-uses. The opportunity to create a new community like West District on the city's west side is very limited.  

One of the barriers to creating new urban villages in established neighbourhoods, especially on the west side of the city is the fragmented ownership.  It becomes very difficult to assembly the large tract of land needed to develop an integrated plan of mixed-uses. The opportunity to create a new community like West District on the city's west side is very limited. 

  West District calls for low density residential on the south side next to single family homes, with low-rise condos and offices on the north side with a traditional grid street pattern which will server to create the Kensington-like community. 

West District calls for low density residential on the south side next to single family homes, with low-rise condos and offices on the north side with a traditional grid street pattern which will server to create the Kensington-like community. 

NUVO Kensington

In many ways, West District is like building a new Kensington community on the west side of the city.  In fact, the new condos in Kensington - Pixel, St. John’s, Lido and VEN – are very similar to what is being proposed for West District. There are also similarities between West District’s Central Park and Riley Park and West District’s main street and the mix of shops along Kensington Road and 10th Street.

  While it might take a few years for West District to have the urban patina of Kensington, the goal is to create a community that has a wonderful outdoor culture of patios, parks and pedestrians. (there are not pedestrians in this photo as it was taken very early on summer morning.)

While it might take a few years for West District to have the urban patina of Kensington, the goal is to create a community that has a wonderful outdoor culture of patios, parks and pedestrians. (there are not pedestrians in this photo as it was taken very early on summer morning.)

Last Word

One of the criticisms I often hear from new comers to Calgary, especially those from major urban centres is we don’t have enough walkable urban communities like Kensington, Beltline or Inglewood.

No plan is perfect, however, I am thinking the City should be fast tracking the approval of West District if we are serious about providing attractive, affordable and accessible housing for both existing and new Calgarians.

By Richard White, October 27, 2014

West District At A Glance

  • 7,000              residents
  • 3,500              dwelling units
  • 20%                detached/attached homes
  • 80%                4 to 8 floor condos
  • 10                    acres of park space
  • 500,000         sq. ft. or retail (small scale with urban grocery as anchor)
  • 1.2                   million sq. ft. of (office, medical, satellite education)
  • 5,200              workers 

If you like this blog, you might like:

Brookfield Residential: Working together to make Calgary better!

Calgary's MAC attack!

Integration critical to new community vitality

 

 

Calgary's MAC attack

Over the next few months, Calgary’s planners and politicians are going to experience a “MAC attack” as developers present plans for new Major Activity Centers (MAC) on the west and north edges of the city. 

What is a MAC you ask?  The City of Calgary Municipal Development Plan defines it as an urban center for a sub-region of the city providing opportunities for people to work, live, shop, recreate, be entertained and meet their daily needs.  

MAC is not a new idea

In the early ‘90s, the City’s Go Plan called for “mini-downtowns” at the edge of the city and in many ways a MAC is like a small city downtown with a main street and offices surrounded by low rise residential development.  Then in the early 21st century, planners started using terms like “urban villages” and “transit-oriented development (TOD)” for mixed-use (residential, commercial) developments that incorporated live, work, play elements.

The problem with TOD was that in many cases Calgary’s new communities were getting developed years before the transit infrastructure was actually in place. For example, Quarry Park and SETON in the southeast are both being developed today along the future SE LRT route, but the trains won’t arrive for probably another 15+ years away.

TOD also had other limitations, as MACs are not always right next to major transit routes, but more oriented toward major roadways in the city. For example, the Currie Barracks has all of the attributes of MAC but no major transit connections. Its focus is more on Crowchild Trail and Glenmore Trail, with Mount Royal University and the Westmont Business Park and ATCO site redevelopment as its employment centre.   

  Currie Barracks Mount Royal University is just one of several Major Activity Centres (MACs) identified by the City of Calgary as places where vibrant mixed-use urban density developments should take place. The numbers refer to various amenities like parks, schools, shopping etc.

Currie Barracks Mount Royal University is just one of several Major Activity Centres (MACs) identified by the City of Calgary as places where vibrant mixed-use urban density developments should take place. The numbers refer to various amenities like parks, schools, shopping etc.

  An example of a street in Currie Barracks where attached houses are nestled together with shared front lawns, narrow sidewalks and alleys. 

An example of a street in Currie Barracks where attached houses are nestled together with shared front lawns, narrow sidewalks and alleys. 

  MACs have a enhanced sidewalks leading to public spaces and shopping areas, which make for more pedestrian and wagon friendly streets .  Also note the open storm water area which allows for natural water run off for vegetation. 

MACs have a enhanced sidewalks leading to public spaces and shopping areas, which make for more pedestrian and wagon friendly streets. Also note the open storm water area which allows for natural water run off for vegetation. 

  This is a back alley in Currie Barracks with a mix of traditional garages and laneway housing. 

This is a back alley in Currie Barracks with a mix of traditional garages and laneway housing. 

MAC 101

The City’s Municipal Development Plan has some very specific guidelines when it comes to what is a MAC, these include:

  1.  200 jobs per gross developable hectare (a hectare is approximately the size of two CFL football fields including the end zones).
  2.  Provide a business centre/employment center; this could be an independent office buildings or office/medical space above retail.
  3.  Range of housing types – single-family, town and row housing, medium-density condos (under 6 floors), rental and affordable housing
  4.  Large format retail (big box) should be at the edge of the MAC to allow access from other communities
  5. Pedestrian/transit-friendly design i.e. pedestrians and transit have priority over cars. For example, vehicle parking should design to minimize impact on transit and pedestrian activities, ideally underground.
  6.  Diversity of public spaces i.e. plazas, playgrounds, pocket parks and pathways.  Sports fields should be located at the edge of the MAC as they take up large tracts of land and are only used seasonally.  Planners want to keep as many higher uses clustered together near the LRT or Main Street.

While these are useful guidelines, they should not be prescriptive, as each site must be allowed to develop based on its unique site opportunities and limitations - no two MACs are the same.

 

  This is an early conceptual computer rendering of Brookfield Residential's SETON showing the South Health Campus in the background with low rise condos and office buildings and a pedestrian oriented main street with shops, cafes, restaurants and patios.  

This is an early conceptual computer rendering of Brookfield Residential's SETON showing the South Health Campus in the background with low rise condos and office buildings and a pedestrian oriented main street with shops, cafes, restaurants and patios.  

  Early conceptual rendering of SETON pedestrian street.  

Early conceptual rendering of SETON pedestrian street. 

  Conceptual rendering of a mixed-use street in SETON.

Conceptual rendering of a mixed-use street in SETON.

  SETON at might with street patios. 

SETON at might with street patios. 

Coming Soon

Earlier this year the City approved land-use plans for the University of Calgary’s West Campus an inner city MAC that was developed after extensive community engagement. 

Up next for Council’s approval will be West District that links the west side communities of West Springs and Cougar Ridge and Brookfield Residential’s Livingston at the northern edge of the city, both of which will be topics for future blogs.  

  This is an artist's sketch of the central retail area proposed for Currie Barracks. Surrounded by offices and condos, this public space is designed to allow for a diversity of uses by people day and night, weekdays and weekends. Also note that designers are also taking into account Calgary is a winter city. (rendering provided by Canada Land Corporation) 

This is an artist's sketch of the central retail area proposed for Currie Barracks. Surrounded by offices and condos, this public space is designed to allow for a diversity of uses by people day and night, weekdays and weekends. Also note that designers are also taking into account Calgary is a winter city. (rendering provided by Canada Land Corporation) 

  West Campus' main street has been designed as the community's focal point with spaces appropriate for boutiques, cafes, restaurants, pubs, a hotel and cinema. It will be a place that appeals to Calgarians of all ages and be accessible by pedestrians, cyclists and vehicles.  (computer rendering by RK Visuals provided by West Campus Development Trust 

West Campus' main street has been designed as the community's focal point with spaces appropriate for boutiques, cafes, restaurants, pubs, a hotel and cinema. It will be a place that appeals to Calgarians of all ages and be accessible by pedestrians, cyclists and vehicles.  (computer rendering by RK Visuals provided by West Campus Development Trust 

Last Word

As Calgary evolves as a city, so does the glossary of terms used by planners and developers to describe their utopian vision of what Calgary could and should be in the future.

Calgary’s development community has enthusiastically taken up the concept and challenge of creating MACs; this is a good thing for two reasons.  One Calgary needs to speed up its residential development approval process if we want to create affordable and adequate housing for the next generation of Calgarians. Second, more and more new Calgarians are looking for walkable urban communities.

While in the past developers and planners didn’t always see “eye-to-eye” on how new communities should be planned, more and more there is a shared vision of how to create pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use and mixed-density communities.  

Calgary’s planning department use to have the motto “working together to make a great city better.”  I am thinking this would be a good motto for all of the city’s departments, as well as the development community and the citizens of Calgary. 

By Richard White, November 22, 2014

An edited version of this blog was published in the Calgary Herald, titled "Big hopes for mini-downtowns" on Saturday, November 22nd in the New Condos section. 

If you like this blog, you might like:

Brookfield: Working together to make Calgary better!

District: Community Engagement Gone Wild 

West Campus: Calgary's first 24/7 community?

3Rs of walkable communities?

 

A Surprise Playground Lunch

After a fun day of exploring Rome’s hipster Trastevere district, we were getting hungry. So, as good flaneurs do, we started asking shopkeepers where to go to lunch with the locals. Following the suggestion to check out the restaurants along Via G.A. Bertani, we eventually ending up at triangular Piazza San Cosimato. 

 To our surprise, the piazza was animated with a pop-up farmers’ market and a few permanent food vendors.  We quickly spotted a butcher making some great looking fresh sandwiches.  We stood in line to get one.  When our turn arrived, we non-Italian speakers pointed and said “two.” A few minutes of charades later, we found out we needed to go to the bakery on the street behind the butcher to purchase the buns and then return to the butcher who would make us our sandwiches.

 Buns in hand, we were back at the butcher’s in a flash. While he was making our sandwiches, I realized I really wanted a beer, so in another round of charades, I asked if he had one.  At first he pointed back to the bakery/grocery store, but then he nodded, smiled, grabbed a beer out of the fridge (I expect it was his personal beer fridge) and handed it to me.

 After paying up, we went to find a place to sit and enjoy our big fat, paper-wrapped sandwiches.  The only obvious spot was the benches along the inside perimeter of the tiny playground at the tip of the piazza. 

 

  Yes, Dads love to jump too.  This Dad is showing off his jumping skills to the entire family.

Yes, Dads love to jump too.  This Dad is showing off his jumping skills to the entire family.

  One sister is keen, the other is not so sure.

One sister is keen, the other is not so sure.

   Big brother helping sister.

Big brother helping sister.

Playground Fun 

It turned out to be the perfect spot, with dappled sunlight and a front row seat for the Cirque du Soleil-like performance by young children and their parents. As we ate, we were treated to a series of children hopping from one orange stationary, stool-like structure to another, spaced just far enough apart to make the jump difficult for younger children.  It was too much fun to watch as dads helped their kids and older siblings helped the younger ones.  We even had a couple of amazing performances by the dad – interesting to note that none of the moms gave it a try. It was amazing to watch how long the families jumped back and forth on this simple, low-tech playground equipment.

 The playground was also a great people-watching place. Locals of all ages and backgrounds came and went – it was a cast of characters.  I was even befriended by a little guy with a soccer ball who wanted somebody to kick it back and forth, which we did for few minutes until his Mom said they had to leave (or at least I think that is what she said as she smiled and said “thank you.”) As we left, I discovered what must be one of the largest blackboards in the world. Somebody had cleverly turned the concrete retaining wall along the edge of the piazza into a huge blackboard, probably close to 100 feet long.  I wish I had brought my sidewalk chalk.

 

  The seven stepping stools, who would think they could be so much fun.

The seven stepping stools, who would think they could be so much fun.

  The spectators bench. 

The spectators bench. 

  The world's longest blackboard?

The world's longest blackboard?

  A good public space attracts people of all ages. 

A good public space attracts people of all ages. 

  Our friendly butcher, sandwich maker. 

Our friendly butcher, sandwich maker. 

Last Word

This was definitely a far cry from the $250,000+ mass-produced, mega colourful playgrounds being constructed in parks in communities throughout Calgary.  This playground was integrated into the community’s everyday pursuits with shops and restaurants surrounding it on all sides.  Yes, there was a fence around the park, but there were no Playground Zone signs and no isolating the playground in a park far away from pedestrian, bike, motorcycle and car traffic. Rather, it was an integrated part of the everyday activities of a community that embraced outdoor urban living.  It truly was a community meeting / hangout place.  

 We love urban surprises and the Piazza San Cosimato ranks high as one of the best surprise of our 7 days in Rome.

 If you like this blog, you might like:

Plaza design: Dos & Don'ts

Public Art vs Playgrounds in the 21st Century

Vegas' Crazy Container Park

Florence BFFs: Best Flaneur Finds

Florence with its 10+ million visitors annually is full of touristy places to shop, eat and people watch. You really have to dig deep to find the “real” Florence.  As avid flaneurs, we are always on the lookout for locals who have a hipster, modern, funky or designer look about them, as they are good bets for having the best insights into the city’s true culture. 

Once you have sussed out such people, good questions to ask them beyond the usual “Where is a good place to eat or shop? “are:

  •  Is there a design or galley district in your city.
  • Are there any retro, second-hand, antique or used bookstores nearby?
  • Where do the locals like to hang out?” 

After 10 days of flaneuring in Florence, we found three streets that offer a more authentic Florence experience – Niccolo, Pinti and Macci.  Yes, there are still lots of tourist traps on these streets, but there are also great local hot spots.

Borgo Pinti District (from Via Egidio to Via dei Pilastri)

Even though this street was just a block away from where we were living, it took us a couple of days to find it.  As there are no cars, it is a popular pedestrian and cyclist route into the core from the edge of the City Centre.

Here you will find several upscale shops (from kids to high fashion), bakery and restaurants catering to locals and off-the-beaten path tourists.  We loved the three vintage/retro boutiques – Mrs. Macis (#38), SOqquadro (#13), Abiti Usati & Vintage (#24) and a funky hat and jewelry shop, Jesei che Volano (#33).  Note the numbers in brackets are the street numbers, but Florence has a strange way of numbering homes and shops with different coloured numbers; even by the end we were not sure we had figured it out.  

The big flaneur find on Pinti was FLY (Fashion Loves You), which looks like a high-end fashion store, but is in fact a boutique run by students from the fashion department of the Florence University of the Arts. FLY has very trendy, well-made designer purses, jewelry and clothing created by the students.  It also has some of the friendliest and knowledgeable staff we have ever encountered.  We were immediately given information about other places to check out including their cooking school/restaurant on Via de Macci (more below).

 

  This wall of scarves at FLY had the feel of contemporary art exhibition. 

This wall of scarves at FLY had the feel of contemporary art exhibition. 

  Mrs Macis is a colourful, playful vintage shop. 

Mrs Macis is a colourful, playful vintage shop. 

Jesei che Volano is dominated by wall of hats on fish head hooks.

Niccolo District

On the other side of the Arno River, away from the main tourist traps, is an up and coming area anchored by Via di Niccolo, at the base of the hill to the Plazzale Michelangelo.  Already home to several good restaurants and artisan studios, and lots of construction, it might be too late to call this a hidden gem, but it is definitely worth checking out.

Vivaldi Cioccolateri (Via dei Renai, 15r) has a “North American meets Florence” atmosphere. The high-ceiling back room salon with an eclectic assortment of big comfy antique chairs and couches and classic music oozes relaxation. I had perhaps one of the best chocolate desserts I have had here - an unbaked chocolate torte, garnished with thin chocolate leaves.  Though we didn’t taste the gelato, it sure looked good!  And, while sitting enjoying your coffee and dessert, you can also enjoy some voyeuristic fun as the pastry chef’s kitchen is in the loft space above the salon.

If you are into luxury and love shoes, a visit to the Stefano Bemer studio is a must.  Here they make custom shoes from scratch and promise a perfect fit for both of your feet (few people have both feet the same size or shape). The front of the shop is both a showroom and workshop where you can see young artisans at work and view some of their samples (mostly men’s shoes, but some women’s flats). Don’t expect to walk away with new shoes; there is a six-month waiting list. Rumor has it Salvatore Ferragamo’s son buys his shoes here. Note: Be prepared to shell out 3,000 euros of a new pair of shoes, but this also includes the one time molds.

We were amazed at how friendly all the artists in this district are. Don’t hesitate to go in and chat. They all speak some English, were happy to talk about their art and often had interesting tips on what to see and do in the area. 

Stefano Bemer's wall of foot moulds each with the names of the owner created a visual delight.

Vivaldi Cioccolateri's cozy back room oasis. 

  CLET is a Florence street artist who creates these fun street signs around the city, especially in the Niccolo District where he has his studio. 

CLET is a Florence street artist who creates these fun street signs around the city, especially in the Niccolo District where he has his studio. 

  Collage of CLET signs.

Collage of CLET signs.

Via de Macci District

We found this street after checking out the area’s Ghilberti Market. Here you will find interesting artisan shops like Ad’a’s Studio (#46) with a great selection of knitted and crocheted handbags, hats, mitts and scarfs made right on site.

Brenda loved the L’Aurora Onlus charity (thrift) shop (#11) located in the decommissioned San Francesco al Tempio hospital, church and convent complex built in 1335 (open Wednesday, Thursday and Friday). Part of the church space has been converted into the most amazing thrift store space we have ever encountered, with its intact cathedral ceilings with their religious paintings on them.  Unfortunately, the lighting is poor so you might have to use the flashlight on your phone to look at things. And the fitting room is a tiny, back storage room with poor light and no mirror. Brenda says, “it is like shopping in the twilight zone!”

At the I Mosaici di Lastrucci (#9) workshop and gallery, you can watch amazing artisans painstakingly create amazing realistic mosaic artworks from very thin slices of different coloured rocks.  The art of natural stone inlaid work dates back to 15th century Florence. This is truly is a walk back in time, when everything was handmade by local artisans.

Danda Necioni’s (#27) is an etching and map shop that is literally jam packed with historic works – a great source for a unique souvenir from Italy. All of the works come with documented authentication, making them real collector items.

Based on the hot tip from the staff at FLY, we lunched at GANZO (#85), the restaurant owned by the Florence University of the Arts and run by students.  If you are looking for a break from dark spaces and ancient architecture, its bright white walls, contemporary furnishings and large black and white student photography provides respite from the dark and decaying places outside.

The food is “stellar,” says Brenda.  Her tuna steak on polenta cake with autumn pesto had us both wanting more. I loved my pumpkin puree soup with floating candied pumpkin; mint scented ricotta and an olive powder. The desserts were a work of art; mine a pumpkin tartlet and Brenda’s Sorrento lemon, Sicilian orange and tangerine scent mousse on a chocolate cookie base.  Our sweet teeth were happy!

GANZO: pumpkin dessert combined with salted caramel and balanced by the creaminess of goat cheese. Served in a cinnamon-flavoured pastry tartlet. Looks like a work of art to me!

Ad’a’s Studio is a fun place to explore.  Check out the surprise at the back?

Can you believe this is charity/thrift store? 

Other Finds:

We found Trattoria Ciacco after a morning of strolling one of the world’s longest flea market (3+ kilometers) in Le Cascine Park on the far west side of the City Centre. We were hungry. So we crossed the river, as that is where most of the people seemed to be headed and were willing to take more or less the first place we found. Lucky us, it was Ciacco!  The place was full of locals but we were welcomed and took the only table available.  (Note: if you are looking for a good restaurant, we always find the busier they are the better.) Noticing what the couple (our age) next to us ordered, we thought it might be a good idea to do the same (the only Italian menu board wasn’t helpful to two non-Italian speaking tourists).  Again, lucky us, as it was pasta with fresh truffles and it was delectable.

When our lunch arrived, the couple smiled and said “good choice” and we continued chatting getting lots of hot tips, including the name of another good restaurant popular with locals near the Piazza Della Passera called il Magazzino.

The Florence University of the Arts also has a photography school which we visited thinking they would have a public gallery of student works. Wrong! But the staff was extremely friendly and we learned the university offers cooking classes for small groups. There we got two hot tips for restaurants – IL Santo Bevitore and Dilladarno.

 BFF (Best Flaneur Find)

One of the great things about Florence is the vibe of its thousands of young university students.  One of the first things you notice about Florence restaurants is that they cater to the students – many offering discounts.  Every night while roaming the streets and alleys for on our daily gelato fix, we would run into a street where there were dozens of students all eating sandwiches and drinking beer or wine on the street.  After a few nights we realized (yes, sometimes we are slow learners) this must be the place for sandwiches and indeed it was.  If you are ever in Florence you have to check out All’ antico Vinaio located at 65/R Via De’ Neri.

students
All' antico Vinaio

 Last Word

The golden rule of an everyday flaneur is “Look for a local and when you find one, don’t be afraid to ask.”

By Richard White, November 9, 2014

If you like this blog, you might like:

Flaneuring Fun in Maple Creek SK!

Downtown Salt Lake City: More Than A Temple!

Street walking in Portlandia

 

 

 

Safety + Segregation + Space = Sterility

I have a theory. In fact, I’ve had it for some time. Simply stated, it is Safety + Segregation + Space = Sterility. I’m inspired to publicly share it after my recent conversation with Mel Foht, President and COO of Royop Development Corporation. Having just returned from his trip to Europe, we began talking about safety, segregation and public spaces as well as how Calgary differs from European cities in its approach to urban design. 

Street Safety

“Are Calgarians obsessed with safety? Are we making our urban spaces and places too safe?” These are questions I’ve often wondered. Though many readers may well disagree, I’d hazard a guess to say Mel and I aren’t the only ones who think we are correct.

If we want our streets to be safer, the first step might be to get all walkers, joggers, cyclists and drivers to unplug from their headphones.  We need to take a page from the peewee hockey players’ manual – “keep your head up if you don’t want to get hit.”  Whether on the sidewalk or street, we all need to look ahead and around to be aware of our environment.

Street safety is a shared responsibility.

  In Salt Lake City, many of the cross walks have a reminder to look both ways. 

In Salt Lake City, many of the cross walks have a reminder to look both ways. 

Salt Lake City takes cross walk safety as step further by providing bright orange flags for pedestrians to use as they cross the street. Is this going too far?

Four-way stops are easier for pedestrians, cyclist and drivers to share the space and are a lot cheaper than round-abouts and speed bumps.  

Calgary roads for the most part have lots of room for pedestrians, cyclist and drivers if we respect each other and share the road. Share The Road signs are a good reminder that EVERYONE is responsible for sharing the road. 

Food Safety

And then there is food safety. Foht gives kudos to Mayor Nenshi and Council for fast tracking the licensing of food trucks a few years back. Calgary has about 45 food trucks (Portland, a city renowned for its street food culture, in comparison has over 500). It should be noted that Portland’s food carts are permanent street vendors (not trucks) and are often clustered on under-utilized parking lots. In fact, their downtown even has a block-long, surface parking lot ringed with food carts which creates a festival-like, outdoor food court. But as Portland, unlike Calgary, doesn’t have dozens of major office buildings each with their own food court, it is hard if not impossible to make any apple-to-apple comparison.

I am told Calgary once had the reputation for having some of the toughest food safety laws in North America. While on one hand that’s important and good, it basically restricted the food options by street food vendors to mostly hotdogs. If other cities can have rules that ensure food safety yet enable a wider variety of foods to be cooked and served on the street, we surely can too.

Portland has become a mecca for foodies partly as a result of the numerous food carts that transform surface parking and vacant lots into outdoor food courts - not just in the downtown but around the city.

Public Transit Safety

Safety also plays a key role when it come to the dominance of the car as the preferred form of transportation, not only in Calgary but I suspect in most North American cities. 

We experienced this firsthand in Memphis one morning this past winter when my wife Brenda planned to take a 20-minute bus ride from downtown to a shopping area. When ATM issues forced her to go into the nearby bank to talk to a teller, conversation ensued (which included an informal poll of all four tellers as to if she should take the bus or a cab) and a decision was made (solely by them) to call a cab - without Brenda’s permission and at her cost of 25 dollars! (Note: she took the bus back with no concern whatsoever re: her personal safety and at a cost of $3.)  This was not an isolated case – another day she was warned by locals (including a female tram driver nonetheless) to not take public transit alone. Clearly to us, whites in Memphis feel safer in their car than walking the streets or taking public transit. We also now better understand the current situation in Ferguson, Missouri. 

And safety is even shaping Calgary’s suburbs. The popularity of drive-thru coffee shops, ATMs and fast food stores is not only about convenience but also perceived safety.

Segregation

In many ways, by segregating the modes of traffic in Calgary’s downtown core - for example, 9th Avenue for cars, 8th Avenue for pedestrians and 7th Avenue for transit - we have virtually eliminated the urban vitality that comes from diversity and critical mass.  It is interesting to note that while in the early 20th Century, 8th Avenue accommodated street cars, vehicles and pedestrians, a century later we are arguing whether even pedestrians and cyclists can share the space.

 We have also segregated our activities in a way that chokes off vitality. Think about it. Most of Calgary’s cultural activities are clustered in the east end of downtown, creating a cultural ghetto away from the banks, offices, shops and restaurants. With most plays, concerts, shows, gallery events, festivals, etc happening on weekday evenings and weekends, there’s little need for most to go there during weekday days – other than to simply use it as a pass-through block to get to and from City Hall.

As well, most shops have been segregated to the +15 and +30 levels between the Hudson’s Bay and Holt Renfrew. Few small shops dot Stephen Avenue Walk itself. This stretch of 8th Avenue has become a restaurant ghetto, with vitality basically just around weekday noon hours. Recently, when touring a visiting architect from Holland and his family in the area, they couldn’t believe how the Walk changes at noon hour on weekdays. It is a phenomenon – not necessarily a great one though.

  Early 20th century postcard of Stephen Avenue with street cars, vehicle and pedestrians sharing the space. 

Early 20th century postcard of Stephen Avenue with street cars, vehicle and pedestrians sharing the space. 

  Salt Lake City allows cars, LRT and cyclist to share the road.

Salt Lake City allows cars, LRT and cyclist to share the road.

  In Dublin, as in most European cities, the streets and sidewalks are shared by everyone. The sidewalks are narrow and the roads are crowded with pedestrians, cyclists, motorcycles and cars all interacting at close quarters. 

In Dublin, as in most European cities, the streets and sidewalks are shared by everyone. The sidewalks are narrow and the roads are crowded with pedestrians, cyclists, motorcycles and cars all interacting at close quarters. 

Space

Foht speaks of how Europe’s sidewalks and streets are animated with people doing lots of different things, going in lots of different directions and using lots of different modes of transportation.  It is not unusual, he says, “to see pedestrians, cyclists, scooters, trams, buses, cars and trucks all mixing and mingling on the same street at the same time.” Urban guru Jane Jacobs referred to this as “sidewalk ballet;” others call it “messy urbanism,” while yet others call it “critical mass.” Regardless of what you coin it, great urban spaces are crowded with people who access the space by a variety of transportation modes.

He also noticed that in Europe people were able to share the smallest space that allow “a zillion scooters and bikes to co-exist.” In Calgary, we can’t even seem to get the fact that the sidewalks on in the Peace Bridge are for pedestrians while the middle roadway is for cyclists.  And while European streets may look like a free-for-all to us, they in fact are very safe.

Does this mean they have more or better signage? Not necessarily. In fact, many European cities are experimenting with removing signs, allowing roads and public spaces to be self-governing. We seem to enact the polar opposite approach, ie. more signage and more complicated signage. Perhaps we are too busy trying to read and understand the signs instead of just having some basic signs and rules and then just using common sense.

For some reason, it seems that part of Calgarians’ psychological DNA includes the need for lots of space around us – big houses, big vehicles, big streets, etc. Granted, it is what we have had and in most cases, what we continue to have; it is what we are used to. For us, the extent of “crowded spaces” experience consists maybe of rush hour transit rides and at Stampede or major street festivals.

If we want to create street animation, we need to learn how to share our space. I am a big fan of “Share The Road” signs, four way stops and painted bike lanes as cost-effective traffic calming measures vs. speed bumps, roundabouts and separate bike lanes.  Why is it that Calgary always seems to find the most expensive way to manage the sharing of our streets? 

Last Word

If we really want urban vitality in Calgary, we can’t live in our own individual bubbles. If we really want a sense of community, we have to be aware of and connect with others, embrace sharing public spaces and avoid “safety-phobia.” Safety + Space + Segregation = Sterility – it’s definitely not an equation I want for Calgary.   

By Richard White, November 1st, 2014. An edited version of this blog appeared in the Calgary Herald's New Condo section on November 1st, 2014. 

If you like this blog, you might like:

Drivers, pedestrians and cyclists need to learn to share.

Calgary: A Bike Friendly City?

Design Downtown for Women and Men Will Follow?