Urban Planning is not a science!

Recently, I have been criticized by several planners and urban lobbyists for saying; “urban planning is more an art than a science and vibrant streets, public spaces and communities happen more by chance than master plans.”  Ouch! 

My critics tell me current urban research on best practices around the world means planners today can develop plans that have a high probability of creating vibrant streets, spaces and new communities using accepted good urban design principles.

But I counter with the fact that for decades urban planners have been telling Calgarians they have the recipe for creating urban vitality. In the ‘60s, planners thought the idea of clustering a new hotel, museum, convention centre, observation tower, office and retail at Centre Street and 8th and 9th Avenues SW was just the ticket to revitalize the east end of downtown.  I trust they were using what they thought were the best urban design principles at that time. Today the blocks of 8th and 9th Avenue near Centre Street are still devoid of street life most of the time.

Calgary's 7th Avenue Transit corridor was recently enhanced with new stations and sidewalks, but it still lacks an urban vibe. 

This is the entrance to Calgary Telus Convention Centre and Glenbow Museum taken at Stampede time in 2015.

Marriott Hotel's 9th Ave entrance across from the Calgary Tower at Stampede 2015.

Let's Try Again

Then in the ‘70s, new planners (again presumably based on current best practices thought) transforming 8th Avenue into a pedestrian mall, 7th Avenue into a transit corridor and building a huge indoor shopping centre with a winter garden and two office towers above it would boost downtown vitality. 

Toronto was doing it - Eaton’s Centre, Vancouver was doing it - Pacific Centre, so Calgary should do it – hence TD Square. Later, we added our own mini Eaton’s Centre and more recently we combined the two renaming The Core.  Hamilton, Winnipeg and Edmonton also tried the downtown indoor mall experiment to create urban vitality with little success.

Eaton's Centre in Toronto is a major tourist attraction. 

The Core shopping mall in downtown Calgary is the city's fourth busiest mall. 

Two More Times

In the ‘80s, planners once again turned their attention to the east end of Stephen Avenue with a mega block development - the Performing Arts Centre (Arts Commons). Surely, building one of North America’s largest performing arts centres (five space and 3,200 seats) with a new civic plaza would be just the ticket to create some vibrant downtown nightlife.  

Then in the ‘90s, urban revitalization best practices indicated the key to adding urban vitality to a neighbourhood was to include a mix of uses.  The Eau Claire plan included a market, an IMAX, a (multi-screen cinema), restaurants, shops, the Eau Claire Y recreation centre, new condos, a new hotel, a promenade along the river and upgrades to Prince’s Island Park.

All of these ambitious plans were based on current urban planning best practices at the time yet all met with limited success in creating a vibrant and attractive urban sense of place for Calgarians over the long term.

Stephen Avenue Walk today.

Unfulfilled Promises

And it’s not just Calgary.  For decades, urban planners around the world have researching and creating new best practices theories for creating vibrant streets, public spaces and urban communities, but in most cases the promise of urban vitality is unfulfilled.

More than one planner has admitted to me that much of urban planning today is about undoing the bad planning of the past. Personally, I don’t think it is actually bad planning, but the fact that urban planning is more like an experiment, where you have a hypothesis and to test it you have to build something to see if it works.

And, like most experiments they fail (or don’t work out exactly as planned) more often than they succeed.

However, I wouldn’t get too depressed. Calgary’s isn’t as bad as some urban planners would have us think. 

Barclay Mall is an enhance pedestrian street linking Stephen Avenue to Eau Claire, Prince's Island and Bow River. 

In fact, Calgary is very healthy!

Every year the Calgary Foundation produces what they call Vital Signs. It is a report card on how Calgarians feel about their city as opposed to how urbanists feel about our city.

Each year the results indicate Calgary is very healthy city. For example the 2015 reports states:

  • 87% enjoy their quality of life in Calgary
  • 91% describe themselves as happy
  • 78% are happy with their job and satisfied with their work
  • 75% participate actively in their community of interest
  • 90% report they are surrounded by loving family/companions/friends
  • 83% rated their physical well-being as high
  • 86% rated their mental well-being as high
  • 77% rated Calgary as a vibrant, lively, appealing place to live

These are pretty positive numbers and tell me Calgarians overall are pretty happy with the quality of life Calgary affords them. What more can you ask for?

Olympic Plaza in winter attracts a few skaters. 

Last Word

 In 2012, Scientific America published Sarah Fecht's paper titled “Urban Legend: Can City Planning Shed Its Pseudoscientific Stigma?” The opening paragraph reads:

 “In 1961 urbanist Jane Jacobs didn't pull any punches when she called city planning a pseudoscience. ‘Years of learning and a plethora of subtle and complicated dogma have arisen on a foundation of nonsense’ she wrote in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Fifty years later the field is still plagued by unscientific thought, according to urban theorist Stephen Marshall of University College London. In a recent paper in Urban Design International, Marshall restated Jacobs's observation that urban design theory is pseudoscientific and called for a more scientific framework for the field.”

Cities are very complex organisms, with way too many variables to be a science. City building is an endless experiment in adapting to new realities – economic, technology, citizen demands and urban design thinking.  

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