Thursday, October 29, 2009

Lower the drawbridge

Ross Bay Cemetery, Victoria, BC

The last blog got me thinking about cemeteries. With a little imagination, they can be a fascinating community asset.

Back in the 1990s I was asked to join a team of talented design colleagues to do a preliminary concept plan for the historic Ross Bay Cemetery in Victoria, British Columbia. Thinking about my gardens-in-a-cemetery story last blog, Ross Bay brought all sorts of interesting innovations to mind – innovations that yield cause for optimism in spite of warnings from the fearful who auger catastrophe.

Ross Bay is one of Canada's most famous historic, and beautiful, cemeteries. Overlooking the glistening waves of the Georgia Straight and the snow capped Coastal Mountains of British Columbia, Ross Bay had persistent problems with gravestone vandalism.

The damage to Ross Bay Cemetery suggested to some we should control access to the property. We easily could have. 1st Generation CPTED tacticians often push people away with target hardening, fencing, and access controls.

Yet a cemetery is not a warehouse; it is a place for remembrance and reflection. So we developed a concept plan for the cemetery perimeter incorporating new memorial spaces into the design solution. We programmed a bike path and walking trail through vulnerable areas of the cemetery along with seating areas. We capitalized on the magnificence of large sprawling trees and proposed an elaborate pedestrian stairway linking walkers to the nearby beachfront.

Our view was not to shut people out. It was to attract people in – people to walk, bike, tour, and visit the cemetery to celebrate the lives of its inhabitants and the history it represents. Unfortunately the project wasn't built for various economic reasons. I'm told it is now underway. No matter. What matters is that this project, and the Indianapolis garden-cemetery, reinforces how innovation can make places interesting and safe.

With assets like cemeteries we should not raise the drawbridge. We should lower it.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The garden and the cemetery

Urban Community Gardens

What kind of imagination do we need to activate communities and support positive street activities? I heard a great example last week while working in Indianapolis.

Community gardens are a thing of the future growing out of our past. Gardens have always been that sort of hobby urban retirees do to pass time. At least that was the image. Even if it were true, it is not so today. Urban gardens are the kind of community asset we can no longer do without. They are sprouting up in cities across North America.

Indianapolis is no exception. One report suggests that Indianapolis needs 300 active community gardens to help feed itself - an interesting project. Locally grown food will not only help reduce our carbon impact, but it will get more neighbors outside their homes interacting with each other in a positive way.

One of the more interesting locations for a community garden is the Pot of Gold Comunity Garden located in the Indianapolis Washington Park North Cemetery.

Community gardens in a cemetery?

Imagination, it seems, is limited by our ability to think outside the box. And thinking outside the box is impossible if you give the box power it doesn't deserve.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Oshawa and Whitby Part 2 - the Jekyll and Hyde story

Downtown Oshawa at Night

Oshawa and Whitby are by no means the only twin cities with Jekyll and Hyde personalities. Examples abound. The question is why?

Though the same police agency patrols both cities, they seem to have very different downtown crime profiles. Policing, though important, does not determine safety or crime. Same thing with population size - both cities have similar populations (though not demographics). Perhaps economics or jobs tells the story? After all, Whitby is just east of a burgeoning Metro Toronto and surely draws more commuters. Oshawa hosts a large GM plant and a blue collar workforce. Yet a countervailing example is found on Toronto's western boundary where a city of similar size, Oakville, also hosts a large automotive plant, yet looks nothing like Oshawa.

The deck of causation cards

Criminologists play with such theories like they are shuffling a deck of causation cards. Police tactics here, economics there. Urbanization here, population density there.

As Jane Jacobs told us, you don't really get a clear picture until you get out of theory-land and get onto the street for a closer look. That's where you begin to see how planning and development decisions make a big difference.

Look at social assistance facilities, or more importantly the density of those facilities in the downtown of both places. You'll see a difference right away. Ask a few land use questions and you'll see the picture come more into focus: What is the population diversity in each downtown? Can people of different incomes live comfortably downtown? What services are available for residents, for example can you buy milk? Where is the bakery? Is there a Laundromat? Are there coffee-shops, bookstores?

Here is what I saw: Little population diversity, no middle income residences, pawn shops and check cashing stores, vacant storefronts, no convenience stores or shops for locals, and a number of social assistance facilities. Guess which downtown I am describing?

Don't misunderstand - social assistance facilities like drug and alcohol rehab, welfare assistance, and halfway houses serve a vital role. Some locate downtown due to access to public transit. Others cluster downtown due to NIBMYism from ostrich suburbs.

Bad decisions = bad results

Whatever the case, bad decisions trigger bad results, like decisions in land use, planning and development. These decisions (and these decision-makers) bear the greatest culpability for the Hyde’s or praise for the Jekyll’s. Next time you see a Jekyll and Hyde story in your city, ask who makes these decisions:

* Decisions to help (or not) floundering downtown business.
* Decisions to build mixed use zoning with residential above storefront commercial.
* Decisions to give tax breaks and renovation stimulus funds to places that build community not tear it down.
* Decisions to help turn vacant buildings into artist’s lofts and historic properties into landmarks.
* Decisions to hold absentee landlords and slumlords accountable for their properties.

No doubt government programs, quality policing (or lack thereof) and big-E economics play a role. But don't look for Big Gov or Big Corps to turn communities around. We've done that far too long and look where it got us. The spark for positive change rests elsewhere.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Oshawa & Whitby Part 1: The Jekyll & Hyde story

Good news! While crime rates in some large urban places have turned upwards, it is not so for smaller cities. Case in point: The region of Durham near Toronto, Canada where crime rates have declined for the past few years.

Bad news! Crime and disorder is not distributed evenly. Two similar sized cities in Durham - Whitby and Oshawa - border each other along Lake Ontario. I've spent the past few weeks working here and driving them. You would barely know they are in the same country, much less region. They look completely different!

Downtown Whitby is charming, has a wide range of shoppers, stores, and landscaped streets. It looks appealing, well used and historic at the same time.

Downtown Whitby

Oshawa storefronts look unsightly, some are vacant. Strip malls blight blocks. Other blocks host drug addicts and the indigent. One recent newspaper account describes it as "little more than a hollowed-out downtown surrounded by sprawl."

Downtown Oshawa

It is not pretty.

Last summer, at the start of the Recession, Oshawa downtown was in a state of transition - a new courthouse, a restored historic theatre, and a new university satellite. It seemed things were finally on the mend. Today, not so much. With hard times falling on employers, it's difficult to know if that recovery is dead. Local youth told me they don't go downtown for fear of druggies and crime.

Jane Jacobs once told us we ignore streets at our peril. Someone has been ignoring downtown Oshawa for a long time.

Rehabilitating such areas is a monumental job. But seeing these two very different downtowns...I wonder? How is it that Oshawa and Whitby share the same regional government, the same regional police agency and a similar geography, yet live such a Jekyll and Hyde life?