Making new urban space in Northdale
Today’s Record carries my community editorial board column on new urban space and the Northdale university-area neighbourhood. Below is my original text:
Making New Urban Space in Northdale
In the last half-century the Region of Waterloo has seen tremendous growth. We’ve built a university on farmland. Subdivisions upon subdivisions have sprung up at the outskirts of town. Industry has been pushed out to “parks” accessible only by car. We’ve put up office building wastelands and power centres galore. We’ve torn down parts of our downtowns to put up parking lots and inward-facing malls with blank walls facing the street. And we’re still going strong, with plans to demolish industrial buildings in Kitchener’s warehouse district to turn it into a parking district.
At least we’ve decided to somewhat curtail the building of widely spaced houses on inaccessible crescents and cul-de-sacs, and new policies call for intensification and reurbanization. However it seems our thinking stops at a strange one-dimensional notion of density, one of condo towers, parking garages, and monster developments of all kinds. Where are our lively new city streets? Where is our walkable city built for the street level? If we seem constitutionally incapable of building new urban space, one reason is that our planning policy makes it essentially impossible.
The late Jane Jacobs, renowned urban activist and thinker, wrote in The Death and Life of Great American Cities: “There is a quality even meaner than outright ugliness or disorder, and this meaner quality is the dishonest mask of pretended order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and to be served.”
Northdale is a rapidly growing area in Waterloo adjacent to Wilfrid Laurier University and near the University of Waterloo, Research in Motion, and the Research and Technology Park. Growth of the universities has resulted in a student residential monoculture there, with its attendant problems of overcrowded houses and rowdy students. Waterloo city planners recently completed a report to allow City Council to decide between the staff vision for Northdale and an alternative vision brought forward by community members unsatisfied with the current approach.
That current approach forces high-demand land in the interior of the neighbourhood to remain as low density detached housing (to attract hypothetical families) and allows for only residential use without provision for neighbourhood amenities. There is no liveliness save for keg parties, no public space, and nothing to attract outsiders in. The corridors chosen for higher density are growing duller and drearier with every new student housing building added – either parking-oriented barracks or stucco towers.
The alternative is to allow and encourage the built form of our streets to become urban, and this requires considerable changes to zoning: removing minimum parking requirements, setting minimum densities, limiting heights to street-scale (e.g. six or eight storeys), and – most importantly – permitting mixed uses. The city of Kitchener is implementing new mixed-use zoning, and Waterloo’s planners should take note. For all the housing sprouting up in Northdale, there is no grocery store in sight. City planners require parking so that we can all drive to the mall, but in their infinite wisdom they do not see fit to allow streets where we might have reason or desire to walk. (The only exceptions are grandfathered in.)
Northdale is within walking distance of two universities, many major tech companies, busy transit corridors, future light rail, as well as Uptown Waterloo. Currently it is prime land for students without much choice, but it could easily also be attractive for students with choice, for university faculty and staff, and for RIM employees. Add commerce and a few academic and office buildings to a diverse mix of housing, and you have a great alternative to more suburbs.
We should plan for neighbourhoods in which people enjoy living and enjoy walking – where we not only live, but also work, shop, and play. Neighbourhoods where we have welcoming streetscapes, good transit routes and service, shops on our way, useable public spaces, and a built environment that supports community instead of hindering it. Northdale is a perfect opportunity to create new urban space.
Michael Druker is a graduate student at the University of Waterloo. He is a member of the Tri–Cities Transport Action Group (TriTAG) and of Help Urbanize the Ghetto in Waterloo (HUG Waterloo). See more of his opinions at http://psystenance.com.
Parking lots are worth more than you think
There’s two points in this post, one that is relatively conventional and one that isn’t. If you already know about the high cost of parking, skip to the second one.
So first, parking lots are actually quite expensive. There is the cost of the land, the cost to build them, and then the maintenance cost, which is at least $500 USD per surface parking spot annually. But more importantly, there is also the opportunity cost of what is not in the place of the parking lot: commercial use, retail, residential, public space, anything. By spreading out destinations with asphalt padding, various uses take more space than they inherently need. Most deleterious, however, is likely the social and urban form ramifications of mandated free parking (whether through by-laws or culture). Free parking is part of the larger equation that makes driving very attractive by making most its costs invisible, and it is one of the major building blocks of the sprawl of post-war North America. This high cost of free parking has been written about extensively.
But, in a slightly sinister way, parking lots can be worth more than even the New Urbanist might think. In particular, it may be worthwhile to sometimes let parking lots win against proposed downtown development — especially if that development is not of a high caliber. Once a development or park or any such use is in place, it will be there for decades. Parking lots, on the other hand, are an excellent placeholder (just don’t tell their owners). I think cities may soon be getting caught up in a rush to urbanize, intensify their downtowns, and all that jazz, but in the process may allow too many subpar developments and uses of space. They might also miss out on some uses, such as for public spaces like squares and parks, playgrounds, schools, train stations, or anything that wasn’t easily planned for with the current mindset. When cities realize their missing uses, they would do well to have a strategic stash of parking lots to sacrifice instead of needing to tear down something more substantial.
The recently opened public square in the heart of Uptown Waterloo is a good example. If that parking lot had not been there, a public space in such a central area would have been infeasible to obtain. Development is not always better than a parking lot, because the latter retains possibilities that the former shuts out.