by hans peter meyer
"Does anybody really think that we can reduce congestion on a long term basis by building more roadspace? Its like trying to lose weight by buying bigger trousers!"
"Ooh, not more roads! Extending or adding to the road network is such a band-aid solution that creates unattractive eye sores, inevitably getting choked themselves.... Here's what I think...Higher density zoning: people are generally too spread out to make investment into public transport feasible. ...[C]heaper [public] transport: this would encourage more people to use it. ... [A] holistic cycle lane network: the ad-hoc lanes that are around at the moment have a tough job recruiting new cyclists..."
online blog posts, January 29, 2008 Syndey Morning Herald
As I write this, two important events are unfolding in Courtenay: thoughts about what will fill the gap left after the demolition of the Palace Theatre in our downtown are beginning to circulate; and an Open House has been announced for a "third" crossing of the river that divides the city.
The quotes (above) from Syndey, Australia pretty much sum up my attitude towards the bridge idea. Our friends in the antipodes face real (as opposed to imagined) traffic congestion. But the questions, for us and them, are not about traffic. Instead they are about why we (as taxpayers) are being asked to invest big money into systems that aren't serving us well? And why we aren't aren't being asked to this money into healthier, less taxing (financially, environmentally) transportation and settlement options?
Examples of this kind of investment are near at hand. Both the City of Vancouver and the Village of Ucluelet are buying vacant urban land to direct development that enhances community quality of life. In downtown Vancouver this has created a dense, very attractive place that is also considered one of the world's "greenest" cities. Yes, traffic is hell – for drivers. But more and more people are walking. It's practical – given proximity of homes, public transit, work, and shopping. And, it's healthy – for the walkers and for the rest of us who breathe the air they aren't filling with auto emissions. In Ucluelet civic ownership of land (and a strong civic vision) is one way they are maintaining "village life" in the face of (very) rapid growth.
Our city is an excellent position to follow these examples. There are now a number of large vacant properties within walking distance of downtown. These could all see medium-rise buildings (5-8 stories), residential/commercial developments to sustain our vibrant downtown. The price of gas climbing (and the cost of pumping carbon into the atmosphere with it). We are a rapidly aging population. More of us are looking for ways to get downtown more cheaply - to work, to shop, to see the doctor, to take dance classes. We may still dream of mowing the large lot lawn. But downtown is where our quality of life compasses are pointing. Putting up a new bridge for more traffic is a bad investment at a time when the future of even small cities is going to be measured in quality of life indicators -- walkability, access to practical and affordable transit, small carbon footprint, proximity to services and natural amenities. Our town already has some of these qualities. We need to be thinking of how to enhance them, rather than erode them (rather than eroding our valuable "small city" experience with major road/bridge development).
The building that emerges on the old Palace site could be a testament to civic leadership on these issues. It could bring residential density downtown and with it a host of amenities (underground parking, street level retail, a small movie theatre perhaps, maybe a "green" building with "healthy" and highly productive offices). The many (4-7?) floors of residential could be a mix of rental apartments and condominiums, some available as "affordable" housing. All of it smack in the middle of downtown.
Alternatively, we could see a single-story commercial/retail development that adds nothing of significance to the site or to the community. We already have an abundance of this kind of low-end development. It maximizes footprint with minimal return. At the very least these buildings should be including 2-3 stories of residential (a quick way to start dealing with affordable housing).
The Orchard Gate/Stonecroft Village buildings are an example of adding (moderate) density while fitting into the neighbourhood. On the other hand, a recent example of mixed-use (good) and multi-story (good but could be better) fumbles because it's just plain ugly (very bad). Buildings that are attractive, even if they're 5-8 stories, encourage interest and investment, even neighbourhood pride. Putting them into already-built areas (infill, redevelopment) is one of the best ways we have of recouping the cost (our tax dollars) of our very expensive investments in roadways, sewer and water systems, transit systems, etc that are used inefficiently by dispersed populations. Attractive buildings make our town look good and feel good. They help our local economies (reducing infrastructure costs, attracting outside investment), and they are an investment in long-term quality of life.
My city is currently presented with incredible investment opportunities for future prosperity. Choosing to spend money on becoming a sustainable, compact, carbon neutral community means choosing community quality of life. Putting money into old (and damaging) technologies is choosing the old "business as usual" -- getting broader and broader every year, our arteries getting clogged, building roads and bridges as arterial bypass surgery, wasting land and taxes. Like the man whose quality of life deteriorates belt-notch by belt-notch, at every opportunity we can choose to either risk losing some of the qualities of life we cherish, or we can choose to
"get fit," and build on our "competitive advantage" as an attractive community.
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(c)hanspetermeyer.ca / 2008