Sunday, 29 April 2012

The Condominium Mentality

In the continued drive to be more energy efficient and walkable, cities are increasingly adopting the condominium as the preferred choice for city living. So it was with interest that I found reference to a specific 'condominium mentality' in a recent article (see here).  The phrase is attributed to the literary critic Northrop Frye, who originally developed the concept of a 'garrison mentality' to describe the closely knit Canadian communities with unquestionable social and moral values.  As described in this article by Kyle Carsten Wyatt, the 'condominium mentality' has similar characteristics to the garrison in that it forces people to huddle together in a defined space. But, as Wyatt astutely describes, the major difference is that the condominium building only gives the illusion of a social unit and in fact facilities isolation and loneliness.  Describing his condominium near Toronto, Wyatt writes: 

We take the elevator to the lobby or the underground parking garage, fiddling with our iPhones instead of visiting with the person standing next to us. We post complaints about our neighbours’ barking dog on “community-building” Facebook pages, rather than knocking on their door andhaving an actual conversation. We threaten to call the cops when our neighbours enjoy their balconies, instead of joining them for a beer. We flip our units as soon as we can afford a better one in a better building, or as soon as our view is destroyed by a rival development down the street. We’re all alone with our high-speed Internet and embarrassment of social networks, as concrete walls mute the existence of our real neighbours.
Clearly, the 'condominium mentality' is not a positive one. But the first thing that struck me was that it is unfair picking on condos per se.  I have no doubt all of the above are issues which are more connected to modern times and are equally applicable to the suburbs or other types of urban form.  Robert Putnam did not call his noted work on sociology 'Bowling Alone' without reason; describing the decline in social capital across America since the 1960s - in both downtowns and suburbs alike. To some extent we get the housing that we want.  I do believe that architecture can have transformative powers, but the dominant urban forms also strongly reflect the type of people and communities we are and aspire to. 

No Starbucks in Recoleta, Buenos Aires!
Secondly, Wyatt sees the solution to this North American malaise in the urban patterns of Buenos Aires.  Having just returned from Buenos Aires myself, I agree that the city provides a host of lessons for creating walkable neighbourhoods, active and lively public spaces,and a tasteful mix of contemporary and heritage architecture.  However, Wyatt suggests that the specific lesson from Buenos Aires is that high-rise condos should be built without retail or commercial space at the street level.  This is an interesting perspective because ever since planning school I have had it beaten into me that city builders must promote life at street level by encouraging mixed-use communities with active frontages, i.e. shops beneath residential. Wyatt's reasoning is that the distinct lack of retail units directly below condos will force residents into the larger community. Unfortunately this ignores the major differences between a city like Buenos Aires and Toronto. In Buenos Aires and other South American cities, locals will bring out chairs and sit outside their buildings in the evening and throughout the day.  This creates the authentic socializing that eliminates the need for a coffee shop under each condo building. Unfortunately this spontaneous social life is less apparent in the residential areas of NorthAmerican cities and the need for ground floor commercial space is more pressing.  If we want to focus on overcoming the 'condominium mentality', I suggest we focus more on the mentality and less on the condo.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Musing Urbanist on Tour: Toronto

Vancouverites are not meant to like Toronto.  Putting ice hockey obsession aside, there is plenty to differentiate the two cities.  Toronto is home to big finance and media; Vancouver home to the 'good life' of mountains and beaches.  In my short introduction to Candian life I've been told on more than one occasion that in Toronto you "live to work", but in Vancouver you very much "work to live".  What I didn't expect was for this generalization to become so clearly obvious on my short visit to Toronto recently.

Having lived in Vancouver for 8 months I was caught unaware of how different a 'big city' can make one feel.  The difference between rural and urban life is obvious, but the changes that occur when comparing a mid-size city like Vancouver to a truly big city like Toronto are unexpected (at least for me on this occasion).  Vancouver punches above its weight no doubt and has built a successful brand of sustainable urbanism that is now internationally recognized.  But do not be fooled into thinking that Vancouver is a big city - it isn't.  Being in Toronto made me realize this more than ever.  Jumping from London to Vancouver last year led me to think that many of the differences I noticed in city life were because of the change of country.  This still holds true, but a lot of the changes also stem from departing a global city of 13 million to a city of approximately 2 million. 

Planning in a short-term world

Working as a long-range planner I am no stranger to the roadblocks caused by other people or agencies adopting a more short-term approach.  This is not to say that a healthy tension is created between differing attitudes, but it can often feel as though the commitment to long-term planning can suddenly be shelved for short-term benefit.  Often this is found when planning locks horns with political strategy and no better example can be found than a few weeks back when the Premier of British Columbia rejected the local Mayor's calls for a new tax to pay for transit improvements (see here).  With a by-election to win and a Provincial election around the corner, the Premier does not want to be associated with any new tax rises, whatever the long-term benefits they may obviously bring.  So it was with relief that I read Chris Shepley's thoughtful article in a  recent UK planning magazine on the vital role of long-term strategy.  

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Bridges - who benefits?

I recently came across two interesting stories on how new bridges are planning to change their respective city’s.  The Bridge of Knowledge in Rio de Janeiro is just one sign of the insatiable growth of the Brazilian economy (now 6th largest in the world) and at $35 million will link the Federal University with the Red Line motorway.  Yet, this article in The Guardian focuses less on the economic boosterism and more on how the construction of the bridge required bribes be paid to pacify local drug gangs.  Furthermore, the new bridge and road has required noise barriers to be constructed, according to the article, in order to hide the surrounding slums from view – possibly with an eye to the influx of visitors for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics.  

In a similar story the Washington Post reports on how the Baluarte Bicentennial Bridge in Mexico could end up aiding rather than hiding the criminal drug gangs (see here).  The bridge is part of a wider $1.5 billion super highway which will connect the states of Durango and Sinaloa and provide a link between the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean.  Yet, unfortunately the new infrastructure could be used as a convenient route for drug smuggling.  It seems bridges and roads can be a vital tool for economic development, but who benefits is a different question.

The Baluarte Bicentennial Bridge

Friday, 10 February 2012

Front Pages News - Planner Sacked!

I have quickly understood that the planning profession is more high profile in Vancouver compared to other cities I have lived and worked in.  But the sacking last week of Director of Planning Brent Toderian really emphasized the point.  The news that Mayor Gregor Robertson had sacked Toderian was just that – it was news.  Lead story on the CBC radio news.  Front page of the Vancouver Sun.  What would it take for the Director of Planning in London to make the front page of the Evening Standard?  More to the point, who is the Director of Planning in London?

Partly this situation stems from the differing governance structures, where in the UK the head of planning is less visible in articulating a vision for the city and it is normally the lowly ‘case officer’ who presents development schemes to Council.  In a discretionary system I would argue the UK planner has less influence on proactively setting policy compared to the US and Canada where land is actively zoned and rezoned. 

The other reason Toderian’s firing got such extended media coverage was the emphasis placed on city planning in Vancouver.  The city likes to take planning very serious, as shown by the premium placed on urban design reviews, substantial amenity contributions and the development of a ‘Vancouverism’ model.  Because the city lacks a longstanding urban form (especially compared to European cities), Vancouver has seen significant change over the last 25 years.  This has allowed the planning department to masterplan large tracts of brownfield land, including Coal Harbour and South East False Creek.  It should also be remembered that Toderian has followed in the footsteps of Larry Beasley who raised the profile of planning both locally and internationally through a sustained branding of what Vancouver urbanism entails.  This has meant that real estate and development are highly visible to locals on a day to day basis and, by association, the Director of Planning is hard to escape from.

Either this or it was just a slow news day.