Thursday, April 24, 2008

Amazing Possibilities; Potential Realities

To a nearly packed house in the University of Guelph’s MacNaughton Building, a distinguished panel discussed ways in which the Royal City can implement a responsible development strategy.

The Guelph Civic League and the U of G’s School of Environmental Design and Rural Development co-sponsored the Amazing Possibilities III conference. The series, which was started in 2005, has been a progression from discussing better ways to address change, to how the city can implement that change to how everyone can be brought together and engage the community.

The keynote speaker was Larry Beasley, a proverbial rock god of urban development not just in Canada, but around the world. Beasley popularized the “Vancouver Model,” the revitalization of the city’s downtown core by transforming it into a vibrant and liveable residential community.

Beasley’s methodology is the primary reason for Vancouver’s rapid growth over the past 25 years and as such he’s been asked to consult with cities across Canada, the US, China and Australia.

Two of the key points to Beasley’s address were that cities need to be creative, using what they have and actually designing the city rather than letting it be “the result of random economic activity.” He quoted Brazilian urbanist Jaime Lerner, “Every city has to have a design; a city without a design doesn’t know where it’s going; doesn’t know how to grow.”

One of the things that Beasley wanted to emphasize was that what worked for Vancouver will not necessarily translate to other municipalities; “no tried and true formula,” he observed. But the underline theme is always the same: a city should always look to “a policy of residents-based growth.”

It’s called a living first strategy, you’re not just buying a home, you’re buying a neighbourhood as well. So within the same relative area you should have parks, schools, libraries, day cares, community centres, walkways, bikeways and places for public art. You also make the street aesthetically appealing, thereby toning down “harshness of modern architecture.”

“Density is our friend,” said Beasley, who added the need to also create a vibrant social mix through intense development and increased diversity. On the one hand, this means creating an economic mix through including social housing in a development and on the other creating a place that’s appealing accessible to seniors and children. In other words: “A place that works well for children works well for everybody.”

Finally, Beasley re-enforced the fact that this kind of development can happen quickly so long as all parties can agree on the direction. The recipe is strong planning policies, architectural guidelines and community involvement, with the city, citizens and developers working in tandem with common goal.

Following Beasley’s address, Mark Reid of Urban Strategies discussed some of the consultation his firm has done in working with the city as it looks to revitalize Guelph’s downtown core.

Reid began by saying that Guelph was ideally located. Our sprawl can be controlled thanks to our relative location to the protected Green belt and that by keeping surrounding farmland we maintain a tight urban boundary. According to Reid, the main potential of Guelph is to reinvent the things that aren’t working within the current city borders.

For Reid, one area of “significant potential” is around the area between Wellington St. E. and the Speed River. In place of the plazas and fast food eateries that currently stand in this locale, Reid proposes that downtown be “lowered” and the river view be opened up to be seen from the street.

He made a similar suggestion for Guelph’s other riverfront along Woolwich St. and the Eramosa Rover. But another more interesting concept by Reid is to bring a piece of the University of Guelph onto downtown in order to bring “youth, energy and tolerance” into the heart of the city.

On display outside the lecture hall was a model of Guelph’s downtown Reid’s group made in consultation with citizens during a 2-day visioning in Old Quebec Street Mall. The first stage in what will be an ongoing consultation process with citizens, according to Reid.