Thursday, October 20, 2011

Submission to Vision Nanaimo

Urban Planning -- and what has become referred to as New Urbanism -- offers a useful viewfinder to examine Nanaimo's challenges and opportunities. Mike Harcourt mentioned in his presentation Jane Jacobs and Richard Florida. There is a great deal of research being done which builds on Jane Jacobs' seminal work which began in the 1950s and 1960s.

As Canadian architect Ken Greenberg (a long time associate of Jacob's when both found themselves American ex-pats in Toronto) writes in his Walking Home -- The Life and Lessons of a City Builder, that the new urbanist imagining of the pedestrian friendly, safe, compact, diverse city is, in fact, exactly what future prosperity and sustainability look like for cities large and small.

It occurred to me later, after absorbing the insights of your 2 excellent presenters at the Vision Nanaimo Rally, the question I would ask both is, "Can the environmental sustainability goals you envision be achieved in a city with such low population densities?" Safe to say the answer would almost certainly be "it would be extremely difficult if not impossible".

While other small cities are applying principles of density and diversity, integration and inclusiveness, Nanaimo seems to be stuck in an old-think rut of car oriented infrastructure, sprawl and big box retail. I don't see the transformative ideas that are successful elsewhere taking hold here. (Successes documented in Ken Greenberg's book and Canadian architect Witold Rybczynski's recent Makeshift Metropolis.)

Against expert advice and best practices elsewhere, we eliminated our Urban Containment Boundary to green light ill conceived projects across our southern greenfields that never did proceed. Our large institutions like VIU and the Regional Hospital don't integrate successfully with their immediate neighbourhoods or the city as a whole. We continue to approve stand alone projects without designing and planning their physical  and social integration with their surroundings. Port Place Mall, the Quennell Square assisted housing building and City Hall Annex, the cruise ship pier and visitor centre on the assembly wharf lands are the most recent examples. All are opportunities lost.

OK, that's all somewhat negative. But I accept that you can't have a clear view of where you need to go if you don't first understand where you find yourself. The Nanaimo of 2011 is the product of the urban planning and economic development orthodoxy of the 1960s and 70s and this mind set is still locked in place here. Across North America it's clear that this model has run its course. Cities stubbornly sticking to this model clearly are going to take a beating. The future does not look like Nanaimo's suburban sprawl with multi-lane arterial roads that join clusters of shopping malls and big box retail stores.

So, what will the city with the best competitive advantage look like as the future fast approaches? What will attract the creative and innovative talent that will create future prosperity for this small city?

I -- mistakenly, in retrospect -- thought that the development of a conference centre here was part of a broad understanding of the quickly emerging knowledge based economy, that it heralded a fundamental shift from resource based development. This would include such things as full integration with our university and marketing Nanaimo as a centre of education and training, changing both the wider world's perception of this place, and as importantly, our own. I would suggest the conference centre should not be just a rental hall but proactively develop and market programs of interest to specific sectors of the economy.

Let me offer specifics here: based on the experiences of the 2 Canadian architect/planners mentioned earlier and others (I track and record my interest in urban planning and design at where other resource material can be found.) in both the Port Place and Quennell Square instances here is how they should have been handled. Two main principles come into play: collaboration and design competition tendering.

Port Place: the City could have said, "we think that connector road you suggest is a good idea but we don't want a private strip mall downtown if we can help it. We'll expropriate the property and create a properly integrated city street and subdivide the property so it can be develop over time in a comprehensive way. Now that we are at the table as an equal partner to develop this site to its best potential, let's explore the possibility of bringing other substantial participants into the picture. Let's use our award winning Downtown Design Guidelines as a framework to identify the goals of both the property owner(s) and the City and invite proposals in a design competition. The results are going to be much better for all involved".

Quennell Square: This large underdeveloped inner city site (bordered by Albert, Selby, Franklyn and Dunsmuir) would be the envy of any small city in the country. The City and the Provincial Dept of Education are large primary property owners here. The School District has maintained a presence here and a private trade school is currently using its facility on Selby. The precinct includes the Law Courts Annex and the City-owned Franklyn Street gym. Imagine the redevelopment of Quennell Square as the subject of a country-wide Design Competition, as other cities have done. Imagine incorporating into this precinct a strong element of education and training, designing and incorporating the supporting infrastructure and encouraging the location of private and public education facilities into this block. Critical mass where we now have this growing economic sector, education and training,  spread thinly throughout the city. Where we had dislocation we start to see integration and cross-fertilization. The site would probably include some public space perhaps the entire site designed around a central zocolo creating a very desirable, diverse, residential neighbourhood as well.

It's hugely difficult to change course but that is what I believe we need to do. Here's the bold stroke that would send the message near and far that Nanaimo is serious about taking a prominent place among the most innovative small cities in the country. -- Now, I know this is not about to happen, but you folks invited some brainstorming. -- The world looks very different from the one in which we eliminated our Urban Containment Boundary and entrenched a vision of residential sprawl, big box retail, and destination golf course resorts. (Whistler Mayor Melamed and many others including our own former CM Berry point out that growth will return only 70% of its costs if you're lucky.) We should recognize that these projects have not proceeded and the Urban Containment Boundary should be reinstated, the lands involved zoned back to something like they were years ago: semi rural, 5 and 10 acre lots encouraging small farms and market gardens. Meanwhile, having shown we're serious about a new vision for a 21st Century Nanaimo, we get to work on developing collaboratively integrated, pedestrian friendly, diverse, multi-use neighbourhoods (Quennell Square, the DND lands to the south of the VIU campus, the Assembly Wharf Lands) in a more compact city. A city which has positioned itself regionally, nationally and internationally as a centre for excellence in the education and training services that are in demand world wide.

Here's a modest, affordable project that would pay for itself and advance the goals of downtown revitalization, economic development and contribute to community building: the City should work with the Port Authority to build a public market facility on the underused Pioneer Waterfront Plaza site. Of particular interest: the contribution to economic development; start up entrepreneurs with a modest amount of capital can get their business up and running and tested without huge risk. There's interesting research being done on public markets at the US based Project for Public Spaces. For instance 60% of market shoppers surveyed said that they visited nearby shops when they went to the market and if they hadn't been visiting the market they wouldn't have stopped into to those shops.

Congratulations to everyone who organized and supported the Vision Nanaimo Rally. It's a good and constructive contribution to a badly needed public conversation about how to make Nanaimo a city to be truly proud of because of our social, economic and environmental accomplishments.

Frank Murphy

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