Mar 4, 2014

The Walkable Neighbourhood

Tonight (March 5), we will host our bonus edition of Baconfest. Dan Burden is coming to speak about walkable neighbourhoods.  While this may seem like an obvious way to live for many, achieving the character of such places is not always easy.  I often say “we are where we live,” which means many things based on the types of communities people choose to live in. Choice is significant, because if cost or availability restricts your choice, then maybe living in the Beltline or Tuscany might be out of reach.

This infographic from Melbourne, Australia is a clever way of highlighting the basics of a walkable, 
and what some would call a complete, neighbourhood.

The Melbourne infographic is a great way to think about the components of the walkable neighbourhood. Recently, Council has been discussing complete neighbourhoods, referred to in our Municipal Development Plan (MDP).  The term complete neighbourhood is a concept that means different things to different people.  For me, it lines up pretty much like the Melbourne infographic. For some, it is living in the Prairie Sky Co-Op on Edmonton Trail around 30 NE where one still has a bit of a hike to services but the lifestyle and close living are a real asset.  For others, it is living in a single-family neighbourhood where multiple cars are a necessity.

The Prairie Sky Co-op is a great example of how infill can be achieved at
sensitive higher density & provides a compact lifestyle. Yet location
and land costs may mean that the walkable community might still be a
challenge until the full range of services catches up with the density.

YYC is in the fortunate position of having areas that are being reinvented like the Beltline and Mission along the corridors. There are plenty of infills, as well as new communities.  Our challenge is bringing the concept of the walkable community into all of these areas where the concept may mean higher density and a range of uses some may find a bit beyond their expectations for where they live.

In a neighbourhood walkabout I did last summer, a group of residents took me around their community between Centre Street and Edmonton Trail near the Trans Canada. They expressed the desire for new services like a small coffee shop.  However, the market realities are that a small coffee shop will not locate in too many places along that corridor unless the height and density make economic sense. The abundance of corridors aligned in a terrific grid street pattern means getting back to some of the great walkable neighbourhoods we had 50 years ago. That will take some time, given there is so much infill to be explored and the challenges that exist in every city of balancing economic realities with community visions.

Can we create walkable neighbourhoods in our greenfield areas, such as Currie Barracks? Can another Garrison Woods evolve? While Calgary is a young city, it is home to many seniors, and in some of the suburbs we see the first folks who moved in reaching an age where they desire to be closer to health care, recreation and shopping. That is equally challenging to the infill situation along our established corridors.

How can we retrofit our suburbs to create more walkable places?  It is a lot more than some of the examples recently written about old strip malls. Strip malls are very profitable. Cancelling leases is costly and it usually takes drastic economic circumstances to see these places morph into something else. Often incentives do not even work.

A recently approved strip mall in the northwest is a good example where planning staff tried for months to change the design into something that could encourage walking. Yet, the market realities expressed by the owner are such that it was deemed not do-able, because, for example, retailers want their storefronts to face parking areas. This is old thinking and any trip to a power centre along a major highway shows this is changing.

Achieving the walkable community means allowing for a broader range of building types and a mix of uses and densities in strategic locations around the city. North of the airport, a developer built a four- floor condo right next to single-family houses on a cul-de-sac and the units sold very quickly. This mix of unit types offers a senior citizen a housing choice as they age, as well as a young new person entering the workplace an affordable new home.  Unit mix can create demand for new services, perhaps even presenting a new business with the economics to take a chance opening a new store.

I live in Mission, but I also lived on 29th Avenue NW and 21st  Street SE.  I loved them all, in no small part because I could walk everywhere. I walked a bit farther to Lina’s for my bread and to Shoppers Drug Mart and the Safeway in the NW than I do now to go to the same types of places. The Chinese restaurant in Ramsey was very close, and I look forward to the day where more places like Red’s will open on 8th SE.

YYC has amazing potential but it will mean owners, entrepreneurs, citizens, politicians and the administration will have to focus on the outcomes we want to achieve.  A recent local poll of 1,483 readers resulted in a 44 percent response blaming pedestrians for the “dangerous” Calgary streets. The walkable community can and will evolve, although it will mean different things to different people.

I want to continue to encourage people to sign up for our 1000 Friends of YYC email list to stay informed and help shape the future of our city. We are almost half way there - so please sign up now and help us reach 1000. 

Enjoy the final night of Baconfest and I look forward to seeing you at our future events. If you have not given us your feedback yet please vote on what topic/event we should hold next on our Baconfest page. 

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