Jan 3, 2014

Mawson was Quite the Thinker

It is always a good read with the benefit of hindsight, looking over historical plans that predict the future.  In Metropolis, Fritz Lang’s pioneering 1925 science fiction film, the vision of the future city was one ruled by wealthy industrialists. Certainly there were examples of this across the US northeast, in the form of steel towns.  The movie Slap Shot is equally pioneering in showing the impact of the one industry town (not really but it is a great movie).

The Mawson Plan as it has become known, released in 1914, (we celebrated the 100th anniversary last year for some reason) was not really a Plan as some believe. However like Fritz Lang, it has a vision of the future, in this case YYC.  And it is a vision very much entrenched in the physical form of the great cities of Europe of that time.  It is noteworthy for what it predicted, as well as where it missed.  But first, let’s consider the title, “Calgary, A Preliminary Scheme for Controlling the Economic Growth of the City”

The most important words, “Economic Growth”, are certainly something that has been missing in the growth discussion of many cities for far too long, and here was Mawson’s team highlighting the importance of economics and future city growth in 1914.

The “Scheme” has plenty of good quotes that have certainly stood the test of 100 years.  Mawson writes it was not necessary for him to explain “... the benefits to be obtained by planning and ordering in advance, instead of leaving development to proceed anyhow, just as it will; and then spending enormous sums of money to right the wrong instead of doing the right thing first”.

This was the poster ad for growth management 100 years prior to the discussions we are having today. He strengthened the rationale for growth management by writing that his preliminary scheme was  “intended to direct into proper channels, and to present in their logical order, these questions of the future development of your city which are so rapidly becoming extremely urgent, so that reliable detailed plans may be made..”.

Profound stuff for 1912.  And as if to show he was writing today, he follows with these quotes.  “As we have said, the development of a city is too serious a subject to permit of anything short of the most exhaustive and minute consideration, and the impetuous haste of over- zealous enthusiasts can only do irreparable harm and finally damp the ardour of the sanest civic reformer”.

This is the stage in the city’s development when a full and candid discussion of the several co-relative questions should be encouraged so that the representatives of the various interests whose future may be vitally bound up with your decisions, may be given the opportunity of placing their views on record”.  And that is in fact what City staff have been undertaking for the past two years and which City Council considered last month.

The direction Council has endorsed is sound fiscal and land use planning. In short, it is about “economic growth” just as in the Mawson Scheme with the added benefit of 100 years of planning knowledge leading to better land use decision making.

The growth management discussion is focused on how we grow and how we pay for that growth. Just like any business, the City must make sound business decisions and our growth management approach provides administration with a framework for giving the best “business case” to Council on how and where we should invest in infrastructure to lead growth in the path that meets the direction of both the Municipal Development Plan(MDP) and the Calgary Transportation Plan (CTP).

Why we are doing this is best summed up, again, 100 years ago by Mr. Mawson.  “In fact, it must be obvious to everyone, that until your city is more closely populated, the problems of sewering, road making, lighting and the provision of other public services for its whole area is a financial impossibility, and this alone, apart from all other considerations, is sufficient reason why a great effort should be made to create a public sentiment in favour of limiting the area over which development as house property should proceed”.

Here we are, a century later, basically doing just that, except we are not “limiting the area”, but simply providing a framework within which informed decisions are made on the logical investment in those areas to create growth that builds on each civic investment. This keeps us within our fiscal capability not just for the costs of building the growth, but in operating it and replacing those things that wear out over time.

This is an exciting time to be implementing the tremendous civic vision the MDP defines.  Coupled with the interest in building here, few places in North America can match the energy and opportunities for creating exciting change that benefits our residents and the residents yet to come.

Over the next few weeks I will be bringing ideas and updates on specific things we are working on to hopefully engage more people and raise the level of public dialogue.  And as a prelude to an upcoming blog and to get the discussion going, I leave you with another Mawson quote.

There is of course a marked tendency to congestion and the creation of abnormally high buildings, which we are very pleased to find your Council are determined shall proceed no further, and that the height of buildings shall be limited to ten stories or thereabouts. This will be good for the City in every way, not only because it will prevent congestion, but because it will place a larger area of land on the market as a part of the great business centre, thus compelling it to spread outwards instead of growing upwards which is a far better and more convenient, as it simplifies problems as well as of allowing free access to light and air”.  Well nobody says Mawson was right on everything.


- Rollin Stanley,  January 2013

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