Creating People Friendly Communities

Written by Harold McNeill on September 21st, 2016. Posted in Editorials


1297433287268_ORIGINAL

Photo (Web Source): In 2013, this small Alberta town was seriously damaged by a massive flood.
The residents did something unusual in their efforts to rebuild their community and spirit.

NOTE: September 30, 2016   The Sidney Section of this post is being re-written as a result of further information being received.

Harold

Contents

  1. General discussion on building people friendly communities.
  2. Have we mended our ways in how we build communities?
  3. Two new mall models from within Greater Victoria.
  4. How one small Alberta town changed the way they do business.
  5.  Are we capable of holding out for a better form of development?
  6. Sidney by the Sea and North Saanich: (This section is being re-written as a result of new information being received from various parties in Sidney and North Saanich)

Appendix

  1. Topical Links
  2. Two Alberta towns with and amazing amount of unrealized potential
  3. Another thing about malls

1. Moving to the realm of possible: Building people friendly communities

Is it possible to develop or redevelop our communities into people friendly places rather than communities defined by cars, traffic flow, parking lots, malls and nondescript suburbs.? While the development of commercial and residential land is essential for the continued financial health of our cities and towns, it is obvious developers lead the way in both design and scale. With few exceptions, we have completely missed the experience of other parts of the world where creating people friendly cities is a priority.

Planning in most communities seldom goes beyond dealing with zoning requirements and creating building restrictions (e.g. height, footprint and, in the past 100 years, “is there enough parking?”). Once the zoning is approved the developer takes over, provides a plan and if it meets all statutory requirements, they start clearing the land and pouring the concrete. Other considerations such as ambiance, liveability and ability to bring people together as a community, isn’t of much concern. A few cities and towns do, but most don’t, and some work toward community plans, but many don’t.

We see this happening across CRD everyday as large swaths of land are gobbled up for commercial and residential use. This is not a bad thing per se, as under the existing financial model of our country, cities and towns, we must grow or die, as we have not yet found the ways and means to maintain zero growth. That may eventually happen, but it is a long way off.

Neither have we found a way to gain control over whether our cities and towns will become a friendly, welcoming oasis for people or whether they will continue along a path of tangled streets, highways and traffic jams were the majority of residents must drive in order to connect with all aspects of their lives (e.g. shopping centres, work place, medical, entertainment, visiting family and friends and to simply get away from the rat race (heavy traffic either way).  The classic by Joni Mitchell expressed it rather well, “you pave paradise and put up a parking lot.”  Go ahead, listen to the song if you are to young to have heard it back in the day.

Travel around Greater Victoria and look at the major malls (e.g. Hillside, Mayfair, Tillicum, Broadmead, etc.) and feast your eyes upon those massive parking lots. Sure, over the years some improvements were made, but for the most part malls are not people friendly places and, for that matter, neither is the suburban sprawl where large tracks of land are given over to houses that look essentially the same.

2. Have we changed our ways in building communities?

Pictured below is just one of the dozens of ever expanding suburbs in Edmonton. Calgary, Toronto and other large cities in Canada are expanding in a similar manner. Is it possible to create a sense of community (a village if you will) in subdivisions such as the one below? Probably not.

In order to service these subdivisions, dozens of nondescript malls will be sprinkled throughout various areas city and those malls will all be built in the traditional form we have come to expect in Canada. Nearly every person – man, woman and child – in those subdivisions will need to drive or take a bus many hundreds of kilometres each week just to attend to the essentials of life.

Edmonton Subdivision2

Photo (Web Source) We see the results of this type of planning over the history of most cities and towns and although new developments are fresh and clean, they are not usually people friendly places.

Given we are among the most fortunate people in the world here in Victoria, it somehow seems petty to complain about how the CRD continues to evolve around the use of cars, yet this will continue as homes are being built further and further away away from other aspects of our lives (e.g. shopping and all those things named above). We are becoming disconnected in cities rather than being draw together.

While Greater Victoria has escaped the worst of big city life, that is only because we are very small (350,000 people in 13 communities) and live in the most climate friendly area of Canada. However, what will the CRD become when our population reaches one million or more?  (Population Estimate: With a modest 3,5% annual increase in population, in 25 years the CRD could move to 600,000, and in 50 years to 1.2 million). This is a very short time period and planning for this future requires serious consideration today.  Greater Victoria will become a very different city for those starting a family today.

Will there be any ALR left in the region? Even at present, people around Greater Victoria travel hundreds of kilometres every week as part of their routine. While our malls, schools and some workplaces, have tried to become more people friendly, have they succeeded?  Not really.

Vancouver Traffic

Traffic congestion in Vancouver is reported to be the worst in Canada.

Following is the first paragraph on how the Automobile Shapes a City

“Modern American cities bear a powerful physical imprint of automobiles and other motorized vehicles. It is estimated that as much as one half of a modern American city’s land area is dedicated to streets and roads, parking lots, service stations, driveways, signals and traffic signs, automobile-oriented businesses, car dealerships, and more. Equally significant, space allocated for other forms of transportation ultimately shrank or disappeared.”

Now back to those malls which first of appeared in Canada back in the late 40’s and early 1950’s.  Over the past 65 years those malls have not changed very much.

3. A couple of new mall examples from within Greater Victoria.

While the Uptown in Saanich attempted to create a greater sense of community inside its walls, in essence it is just walled commercial space (2) that includes one small people friendly place. The upper level remains a parking lot surrounded by businesses and even the narrow, open sky lower part is nothing more than a single street with angle parking around which dozens of cars drive in and endless search of for parking. After a couple of turns around, most give up and head to the underground parking. Why did the developers make such a good start by building a large underground parking lot, then compromise the ideal by including above ground parking? What if they had taken the entire upper area dedicated to parking and turned it into an oasis?

new5_3baffb44-5056-a36a-0ae715f850429360Uptown Mall: In the above photo is a rather nice, people friendly, outdoor place. On a warm afternoon it is a pleasant area in which sit and have coffee or lunch.  Below is what greets the visitor just around the corner. As with the upper parking lot, this is a traditional mall without a roof. Perhaps they added the parking stalls as below to make it look like a downtown street.

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Eagle Creek Village, (photo below) the new mall in View Royal across from the Victoria General Hospital, looked fresh and new on paper, but basically it is just another parking lot surrounded by business outlets with names like those in every other mall across Canada.

Drop someone into that mall, take off their blindfold and ask them where they – they wouldn’t have clue. It’s the same across Canada. Sure, there may be one or two ‘mom and pop’ outlets at Eagle Creek, but nothing, other than the store name, differentiates them from every other shop. People drive into that mall, park, shop and leave. There is nothing in or around the outlets that encourages people to hang around and mix as a community and while you might see an eagle flying by, there is no creek and there is no village.

eagle-creek-village-jpg

Above is an artists sketch of the $100-million Eagle Creek Village that won rezoning approval in View Royal. It looks pretty green around the outside in this rendition, but not so much so since being completed. What dominates is that big parking lot in the middle that takes up over half the developed land

What if that parking lot was a green space filled with people friendly outdoor activities (a park for children instance). Do you think people might then be more inclined to see it as a community gathering place, a “village” as the name implies?  There is much more that could be said about this type of “stand alone” project built some distance from the community it serves, but that discussion goes beyond the scope of this article.  (Photo rendering by Omicron – See more at: Eagle Creek (Note Omicron is the developer setting the plans for the airport lands in Sidney, BC)

After all these decades and with so many examples of things we don’t like about city planning, why can’t we (the people) acting through our community associations and elected representatives, take the lead and tell developers we want a people friendly city and town? They could easily made a start at Uptown and Eagle Creek Village, but didn’t. Cars and people can live together (we must live together), but cars don’t need to be given all that prime real estate. Really, those cars don’t care if they are relegated to a nice, cool, underground parking lot. (2)

Now, let’s take a quick trip to that small community in Southern Alberta and see what they’re trying to accomplish.

4. How one small Alberta town changed the way they do business.

bowness-lorraine-hjalte-calgary-herald-high-river-june-12

HIGH RIVER, JUNE 13, 2014 (Calgary Herald photo from Web) — High River mayor Craig Snodgrass and his wife Lindsay with their dog Simon on the banks of the Highwood River.  Mayor Snodgrass, a self acknowledged traditionalist, turned out to be the driving force of the change taking place in High River.   

In 2013, when High River was all but washed away in the massive floods that hit the Province (opening photo), the entire community was evacuated and many thought they might never return. While several commercial buildings and homes throughout the town could be salvaged, must was permanently lost. But, something happened that is not the norm in most communities. The Mayor and Council of High River began to think about what they wanted their town to look like when it was restored. They essentially had a blank slate and wondered if they could do better for the people in their community. Clearly hope was not lost.

As a first step, the town hired a number of Calgary firms under the umbrella of O2 Environmental Planning and Design, to make suggestions as to how they might transform the town in a more people friendly place. In a recent CBC Radio the town’s mayor explained what was happening and how it came about.

Planning in High River

Web Photo: A planning session in High River brings the community together. While Mayor Snodgrass seemed a bit ‘old school’ in the CBC interview, he was clearly a driving force in getting outside advice.

“The thing I absolutely love about when you do something like this, and you have people from outside of High River come in, is they take a completely different look at it than I would growing up in this town,” he says. “No fault of anyone, but you do, you just get narrowed, you can’t see outside far enough as you’d like to.”

Now this plan didn’t evolve overnight. It was not until the Mayor was fully committed that the majority of Council began to change their view. Then O2 came in with a draft plan that looked at people first, then businesses and cars. In the old High River, it was the opposite – cars, business and people. Mayor Snodgrass continued:

“All of our underground infrastructure was damaged downtown. So we’re on the third year of aggressive construction to get that repaired, and taking the opportunity to redesign and redefine what the downtown in High River looks like and what it’s all about.

This is where it gets really exciting for me, because when we started all of this, it was very important to us that we didn’t lose any of the opportunity that comes with going through a disaster. There’s a lot of negatives that go with it, obviously, but there’s a lot of positives you can take from this.

The number one thing we’re doing is focusing on people rather than vehicles. There’s a lot controversy that’s going around that, but it is the right way of doing things, creating an environment in downtown High River where the people feel comfortable and safe, rather than a massive parking lot.

There needs to be balance. When you focus strictly on vehicles and on having parking galore everywhere, you kill your retail and your restaurants.”  (Link to Story)

With draft plans in hand the Mayor and Council then involved the entire community in making suggestions for changes that would benefit every area – residential, retail and hospitality.  It did not take long to get the entire community on board.

An interesting comment was made by Mayor Snodgrass in one of his many interviews: “I think Municipal Affairs Minister Danielle Larivee has done an exceptional job.” Considering all the flake that was directed at the new NDP government, it seems High River and a number of other communities affected by natural disasters have given the government two thumbs up at every point along the way.

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Above, one of the many community planning sessions. Below, before and after photographs of one nearly completed streetscape in the downtown core.

A High River Street Before

HR DOWNTOWN STREET

And After

4-ave-high-river.jpg.size.xxlarge.promo

As the town moves forward there is clearly a great deal of confidence that it is no longer the ‘same old game” and with the change comes hope for a better future in a town that was dying.

What has emerged in High River is similar to that which happened in the Vancouver Island community of Chemainus, a town that re-invented itself after the collapse of the forest industry late in the last century. While the impetus for change that compelled High River was a natural disaster, the path the community has taken demonstrates what people can accomplish when they dare to open their minds to new ideas.

Included in the footer are comments about two of the prairie towns in which I grew up, Lac La Biche and Cold Lake. Those two towns have been gifted with a lot advantages over the past several decades, yet the core of those towns looks about as bleak today as they did 60 years earlier.

5. Are we capable of holding out for a better form of development?

While Greater Victoria is acknowledged for its beauty, in many ways that beauty is only skin deep. We can point to dozens of centres around the city that are nothing more businesses surrounded by parking lots. In new malls, the businesses now surround the parking lot, but that changes nothing. A parking lot is a parking lot.

While some areas have worked to make themselves more people friendly, only one of the thirteen communities that comprise the CRD have done much to encourage business and residential developers to move along a different path. The community is Langford, the fastest growing community in the Capital Region.

LangfordPalmtrees

For those who don’t know the history, Langford used to be the Dog Patch of Greater Victoria. Worn out buildings and houses, dead streets and little in the way of landscaping – in short, nothing that would attract and hold people, but then it all changed when a new Mayor and Council took over.

Over the past fifteen years, Langford has become the show piece of the West Shore and is the up and coming area to live. The streets have been re-designed in a more European style, off street parking is a priority, and businesses abound around people friendly spaces. Sure, they still have big box stores, but those are relegated primarily to out of the way areas. In many ways Langford and Chemainus have done what High River is now doing and what others can do.

6. Sidney by the Sea: A cozy little community  (this section being re-written)

 

Harold McNeill

Topical Links:

From the Times Colonist September 21, 2016:  “The future is rail links, not more highways”

McNeill Life Stories on Amalgamation:

Local Communities: Keeping the Spirit Alive:  Young people who love their communities might wish to have a read of this post.  If they are not careful, one day they may wake up and find their community has disappeared and with it their ability to influence outcomes at the local level.  (November 3, 2014)

Amalgamation: Searching for the truth:  While browsing the web in search of information about amalgamation, I came across a number papers researched and written by Dr. Robert L. Bish, who, at the time was a Professor at University of Victoria School of Public Administration. The papers answer almost every question I had on the topic. (October 27, 2014).

Amalgamation: Questions and Answers:  Frustrated with the only the pro-amalgamation being given all the press time, I pulled together a number of statements from various amalgamation supporter web sites and FB pages and created a Questions and Answers post.

Footnotes

1. What about other small towns in the Prairies?

LacLaBich, one of the towns of my youth. While the town it sits on the edge of a beautiful lake in North East Alberta and is the last stop before that massive oil sands development in Fort McMurray, it simply has not found a way to break free from its past. Having travelled their a couple of times in the past five years, it is still much the same as it was in the 1950’s when I was attending Grade 5. There is not doubt the town could attract and hold tourists if there was a willingness to re-invent themselves.

Mainstreet_Lac_La_Biche

Virtually no prairie town is cramped for space, yet few have thought it necessary to use streets for anything beyond parking cars and handling the flow of traffic, a challenge that affects a great many cities and towns in Canada.

Cold Lake, Alberta is also another town of my youth that sits one one of the most pristine bodies water in the Prairies.  A deep water lake with amazing fishing and white sandy beaches that stretch for miles yet Cold Lake, like Lac La Biche, has struggled to break free from the past even though it has been gifted with all manner of natural and man made resources.

downtown cold lake

(Web Photo) Looking East along 50th Avenue in Cold Lake South. The addition of new sign, a few trees and sidewalk bricks is not going to much alter the street and it will take even more work to
improve the streets adjacent to 50th.

While the town has now become a city with the merger of Cold Lake, Grand Centre and the CFB Medley, the business area on south side away from the lake (the old Grand Centre) remains much as it was 50 years ago (photo above). New malls were built, but those malls are just large, dusty parking lots surrounded by outlets stores that can be found in every other city and town across Canada.

No one would choose to drive to the old part of town or to one of the malls just meander around, enjoy the sites, relax and have a coffee on a sidewalk café while chatting with passing friends. You likely wouldn’t wouldn’t do that in the winter in any event, but even in the winter there are much better ways to make the town centres and residential areas more people friendly.

In North Cold Lake, an area that skirts the lake, the city that boasts one of the finest Marinas in the prairies, yet doesn’t offer that much for a visitors in the way of welcoming streetscapes. Sure, there is a trendy old cafe, a bowling alley, a few B&B’s and that stylish marina, but move back a half block and the business district remains the same as it was during my High School years. Today, you still park your car, do your shopping and head home.

Cold Lake Marina

ColdLakeMarina2

2. Another thing about malls:  Malls are are private places to which the public is invited (to spend their money or otherwise transact their business). Now, when we speak of the ‘public’ we are speaking only of people with money and standing.  If you don’t have money or standing, you’re not welcome and if mall security take exception to your presence, you will soon be bounced out on your ear.

When a mall puts a parking lot around the mall (e.g. Tillicum, Sears, etc.) people can access the mall parking lot and generally won’t be hassled by security, but let them step one foot inside with their raggy clothes and start asking for change, they won’t be around long.

Now that malls such as Uptown and Eagle Creek are putting their parking lots inside the mall, they have become much more private.  Set up begging on the upper portion of Uptown or on the sidewalk by the parking lot in Eagle Creek and you won’t be there long. That is where streets and boulevards differ.

In any city or town, people can walk around and do pretty much as they please (within the law). People can express their opinion by carrying a sign saying the world is ending tomorrow or they can beg if they wish. While some might applaud the absence of street people, when we start building communities to which only certain people in our communities have access, we are walking down a slippery slope.

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Comments

  • Harold McNeill

    August 21, 2019 |

    For those who followed the earlier post about the cost of ICBC Auto insurance coverage in British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Manitoba (linked in comments) here is another follow-up article.

    This article again confirms earlier assertions that public-private insurers such as that which ICBC provides, is among the best in Canada in terms of rates and coverage. A link is provided in the original story.

  • Harold McNeill

    August 16, 2019 |

    Many thanks for reviewing the article Elizabeth. There are so many areas of our society in which populism carries the day, although I think what is happening with the ICBC is that groups having a vested interest in private insurance would dearly love to dislodge ICBC from their preferred position. That being said, I think was a good move to have only portions of the insurance coverage in BC being held by ICBC and other portions being made available through private enterprise.

  • Elizabeth Mary McInnes, CAIB

    August 15, 2019 |

    It’s a breath of fresh air to see a resident of British Columbia look to review all the facts over believing what is reported in the news or just following along with the negative stigma of the masses. Your article truly showcases that with a little reform to ICBC’s provincial system – British Columbia could be a true leader for other provinces in Canada. Very well written article!

  • Harold McNeill

    August 13, 2019 |

    August 13, 2019. The Insurance Bureau of Canada (IBC), a private enterprise group not unlike the Fraser Institute, is again on the campaign trail. They state ICBC rates are the highest in Canada, but, thankfully, Global BC inserted a section indicating the Insurance Bureau cherry-picked the highest number in BC and the lowest numbers in AB, ON and other Eastern Provinces. If you take a few minutes to check reliable sources you will find BC rates, are the lowest in Canada.

  • Andrew Dunn

    May 14, 2019 |

    Thank you so much for all your help thus far Harold, aka. Tractor guy! I could not have done without you!

  • Harold McNeill

    April 25, 2019 |

    I find it interesting to contemplate how a small community evolves in general isolation from the rest of the world. We have a similar situation in the northern communities in Canada to which access is limited. The inclusion of the world wide web and mass media has changed things, but these communities are still left pretty much to their own devices when it comes to personal interaction.

  • Harold McNeill

    March 19, 2019 |

    Hi Dave. Not that I am aware and I have a fairly comprehensive family tree for the McNeill side of the family. I will pull it up and scan. Cheers, Harold. Great chatting with you and I will give Ben a nudge.

  • Dave Cassels

    March 16, 2019 |

    Were you related to Guy McNeill who owned the Bruin Inn in St. Albert in the late 40’s or early 50’s? Guy was a close friend of my father-in-law who was the first President of the Royal Glenora Club. My phone number is 780 940 1175. Thank you.

  • Harold McNeill

    March 15, 2019 |

    So glad you found the story and enjoyed. Indeed, they were memorable times. I did a fair amount of searching but never managed to contact any of the Murffit kids. However, it was neat to make contact with the Colony and someone I knew from back in the day. I have enjoyed writing these stories from back in the 1940s and 50s and have made contact with a lot of friends from those early years. I will give you a call over the weekend. Cheers, Harold

  • Yvonne (Couture) Richardson

    March 7, 2019 |

    I enjoyed your story. I too, lived in Pibroch in 1951, as my parents owned the hotel there. I was a very close friend of Bonnie Murfitt at the time. I moved to Edmonton in 1952, however, and have not seen her since. I would like to be in touch with you to talk about your story. My email is listed above and my phone number is 780-475-3873.