Toward Regaining Confidence in the Ability to Plan Cities

By Ryan McGreal
Published April 04, 2013

A comment yesterday by Jason Leach in my blog post about Vancouverism and Hamilton caught my attention. He wrote this about Vancouver's urban development plan:

It's no different than our master-planned suburbs. They master-planned an urban city. And did a fabulous job.

I found myself cringing a bit when I read this - not because I disagree with the argument that Vancouver has generally been very well planned, but because most cities have done such a thoroughly appalling job of planning over the past century that I can scarcely imagine how a master-planned city might succeed.

When did we lose confidence in the idea that it is possible to plan, and indeed govern, a city well? How can we restore that confidence?

Paris, the Planned City

It occurs to me that Paris is among my all-time favourite cities anywhere on earth, and it was not merely master-planned but master-planned by a single powerful bureaucrat:

Georges-Eugene Haussmann: The man with the master plan (Image Credit: Wikipedia)
Georges-Eugene Haussmann: The man with the master plan (Image Credit: Wikipedia)

If you're not sure what I mean, start with this excellent photo essay on the streetwalls of Paris.

It's easy to forget that the city we know and love is for the most part a wholesale and thoroughly modern invention, crafted on a gargantuan scale less than 150 years ago and micromanaged right down to the materials, proportions and ornamentation on a given building's facade.

Paris building facade (Image Credit: Wikipedia)
Paris building facade (Image Credit: Wikipedia)

When you scratch the surface, the idea of a planned community goes beyond built form to the embodied ideas of what constitutes the role and function of a municipality. We consider things like fresh water and sewer infrastructure to be a basic municipal service, but Haussmann had to struggle and fight the landowners for decades to get Paris' infrastructure built and paid for.

Of course, once it was built, the quality of living improved so drastically that everyone's property values went up and the same landowners who had opposed the advancement became major beneficiaries.

Bear this in mind when someone insists that a given service is not the city's job - every municipal service cities provide today is the outcome of an earlier argument between people who wanted to improve urban quality of life and people who didn't want their taxes to go up.

Urban Innovation

Cities are centres of innovation - and that includes innovation in how and why to plan and run a city a given way.

For example, municipal public health departments are increasingly recognizing that the obesity epidemic is best understood as a land-use epidemic. Living in car-dependent sprawl is bad for your health, and a city interested in good public health is compelled by the evidence to foster a built environment that allows and encourages healthy lifestyles that include walking and cycling.

Yet a narrow, conservative view of municipal responsibilities would argue that it's not the city's job to get people walking, just as the conservative view of the 19th century held that it wasn't the city's job to provide fresh water or manage waste.

The role of a municipality has been expanding steadily for the past several hundred years as we have come to understand more fully what makes for a good quality of life. Dogmatic opposition to any proposal that a city's role should shift encompass that understanding is worse than unhelpful.

Cities have always been places of sheer opportunity compared to rural hinterlands, but before the 20th century, cities provided that opportunity in exchange for measurable reductions in life expectancy and quality of life - especially in the early days of the industrial revolution, when urban air quality was terrible and disease outbreaks were endemic.

However, cities are innovation engines and tend to produce the solutions to their own problems. The world-class cities of today provide a positive-sum combination of the best opportunities and the best quality of life.

As recently as the 1980s, life expectancy in New York City was several years lower than the rest of the United States. Today, it is a few years higher thanks to a number of improvements in health care, disease control, air quality, lifestyle and violent crime rates.

Continuous Improvement

Another take-away from Paris: it would be a big mistake to assume that the city adopted a "set it and forget it" approach after Haussman's work was finished. While Haussmann's distinctively Parisian white limestone six-storey streetwalls are considered sacrosanct, the city as a whole remains a work in steady incremental progress.

Over the past two decades, Paris has undertaken to become a bicycle-friendly city, making rapid and dramatic changes to its street infrastructure and rolling out a massive bike share program to encourage more cycling. I was amazed the last time I went to Paris to see all kinds of people riding bikes - including women in Dior suits and heels on their way to work. (A good measure of how equitable a city is for cycling is the gender ratio of cyclists, where a more balanced gender split implies a more welcoming cycling environment.)

Similarly, it's easy to forget that the Louvre Courtyard, now home to I.M. Pei's glass pyramid, was a parking lot for ministry of finance employees as recently as the 1980s. As Nicholas Kevlahan points out, "It used to be okay to use the courtyard of the most important museum in the world as a parking lot. Now it's not."

Likewise, Paris is currently undertaking to convert some of its one-way thoroughfares into two-way streets on the recognition that fast, one-way automobile traffic is bad for pedestrians and harms street retail.

A recent article in the Atlantic Cities notes that Paris is also undertaking a massive expansion of its metro subway system to connect the central city more closely with its suburbs, a $30 billion euro project that will add 200 km of lines and 75 new stations.

This is over and above a set of planned improvements to the existing system that are themselves more expansive than the Metrolinx Big Move projects in southern Ontario, which our politicians are terrified to support despite the overwhelmingly obvious need to do something about highway congestion in the GTHA.

A Prison of Our Own Making

We tend to assume European cities are great because they sprung fully formed from the forehead of Zeus. That assumption betrays the never-ending work of leaders in those cities to shape and reshape their communities based around new evidence and new ideas. It gives us an excuse not to bother making the series of decisions that could nudge our own city onto a new and more promising trajectory.

It's a remarkable thing: the oldest, most steeped-in-history cities in the industrialized world are steadily and courageously reinventing themselves, while unremarkable car-dependent North American cities that essentially took shape in the past several decades continue to behave as though they are imprisoned by their previous decisions.

James Howard Kunstler calls this the psychology of previous investment but it amounts to the sunk cost fallacy. It's time to walk away from the slot machine that is 20th century conventional urban planning.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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By Greg Smith (anonymous) | Posted April 04, 2013 at 19:09:36

I really enjoyed this article and it got me thinking about how reform is achieved by connecting a great many ideas into one vision. I feel as though several promising projects in Hamilton are done in such a disjointed manor that they do not achieve the ultimate goal. One example of that is the York two-way conversion; limited turning from James, start and stop bike lanes, ends at Victoria, and on and on and on. I worry that people against two-way converstion and complete streets will then use this as and others as examples of no positive coming from the action.
I read Raise the Hammer on a daily basis. I find myself in agreement with 95% of the posted content. I'm hugely in favour of complete streets, two-way conversion, LRT, by-law and zoning reform, etc. My concern is that in order for Hamilton to thrive, all reforms will need to be implemented in conjunction with one another.

A complete street through an area such as Barton will not succeed without changes to laws governing zoning and restrictive red-tape that prevent fledgling start-up businesses from opening up. I recall reading that business owners receive a break on taxes when their retail element is not occupied. This seems counter intuitive to business creation. A break on taxes to get a new business off the ground is reasonable, but an ongoing break is unacceptable. This is just one example, cost of rezoning and other issues related to small business are often reported as being extremely complicated and expensive.

Similarly if we do not achieve significant two-way conversion before the implementation of LRT what will be the incentive to get out of ones car when you can still speed across town riding the Green wave? A complete street that continues to allow double container transport trucks will also not work.

These are just a few examples that lead to my question of what can we do to further encourage rejuvenation? While this blog does an admirable job of bring these issues to the forefront, I believe we need a civic leader to step forward and push for collective reforms. 2014 is just around the corner, are there people out there who will stand up and fight for a better Hamilton? Anyone, anyone, Bueller, Bueller?

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By jason (registered) | Posted April 04, 2013 at 23:30:28 in reply to Comment 87667

you are right on the money. I'm aware of a brand new business on Barton that was told they can't have any seating (it's a food establishment) because they don't have a parking lot.

All facets of city hall MUST get on board if we ever hope to revive the city and see the quality of life, and business dramatically improve.

Comment edited by jason on 2013-04-04 23:30:41

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By Robert D (anonymous) | Posted April 05, 2013 at 03:36:28 in reply to Comment 87676

Maybe that's why Burrito Boyz has so few seats for such a huge floor space...

If I were them I would politely say "okay" and install the seating anyways. It's not like a bylaw officer is likely to stop by...are they?

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By jason (registered) | Posted April 05, 2013 at 12:32:31 in reply to Comment 87677

remember a couple summers ago when you could sit at a table out front of Bread Bar and Chuck's Burgers? Like any normal city on the planet, small sidewalk patios are a wonderful addition to urban life. Both places had bylaw officers stop by and tell them they aren't allowed to have people eating on those tables. People could sit there, but with no food....only in Hamilton. The city's zoning code mandates that every business look like this:

Comment edited by jason on 2013-04-05 12:34:28

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By simonmangan (registered) | Posted April 05, 2013 at 15:50:43

Excellent article. I grew up in London,England and walked,cycled,subway-ed, bus-ed and drove a van as part of my job for my first 30 yrs. London did not get the same level of urban planning as Paris and lacks its boulevard system of mass horse transit, so it reached saturation point a long time ago.

London's solution to reducing congestion (and its massive $ cost) was to reduce 'traffic'.If you physically cannot fit more cars on a road, the only way to make the cars flow better is to have less cars on that road. Car drivers are intelligent and make decisions about their journeys. So the mayor changed their habits, a toll to enter the centre of London, insulting parking rates, bus lanes, bike lanes, speed humps, and bump outs just to slow you down. It cost, maybe $50 a day to use and park a car, but you were getting over-taken by buses and bikes travelling for $1 or free. Now all you see in town are work vans and taxis and the 1%-ers.

This little ramble is relevant to your article in that the concept of 'life-sucking-grid-lock' being attached to complete streets will in itself reduce traffic. If downtown becomes 'un-driveable' drivers will simply 'go round' on any of the multiple 'ring roads' QEW, Burlington St, Linc, 403. I have never lived in a city, anywhere in the world, where the quickest way across town is through the city centre in a car, except maybe Dakar. It seems undesirable, and putting such a heavy investment emphasis on cars discriminates against those that cannot afford to run one, who are therefore more likely to live in the 'walkable' neighbourhoods, most affected by these ugly incomplete streets.

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