Building Better Suburbs

It may not seem like it, but I spend a fair bit of time thinking about how we can make our suburbs better. Really, it’s only fair. I spend a lot of time thinking about how we make our city better, so I should make sure I’m thinking about how to make the entire city better.

Naturally, my first inclination is to think that we should start building the suburbs like we urban areas. They should be walkable, sustainable, mix-use…all that good stuff. It’s pretty common in urban planning circles to hear people note that we’ve been surbanizing our urban centres, and its about time we start pushing back, and expanding urban areas.

Now, I tend to believe this is true. And I tend to think it’s the just thing to do. And I reject the argument that people demonstrate that they prefer the suburbs. Not only is there a strong cultural imperative to embrace the suburbs for the last, what?, five decades? The suburbs are also heavily subsidized by urban neighbourhoods. Don’t tell me that people are merely demonstrating their true preference, when we’re actually paying them to move to the suburbs.

But it seems like it’d be a bit concern troll-y of me to say that I want to build better suburbs when I really want to turn them into urban areas. (Even if it’d be absolutely true, a moral imperative and the most benevolent thing the city could do.)

No, it’s fair to say that if we’re going to improve the suburbs, we should try to improve them within the suburban framework.*

Interestingly, Ottawa has been doing a lot to try to improve the suburbs, and, in fact, it’s been the case of bringing a bit of urban wisdom to the suburbs. When you look back over the past few years, you’ll notice a few different initiatives undertaken by city hall and city staffers.

We’ve slowly, but surely, increased density in our suburbs. Lots are getting smaller. We’re moving away from bungalows, and embracing tall, narrow houses, semi-detached homes and townhouses. New suburbs are fitting more people into smaller areas. This is a good thing.

Further, we’ve been working to improve density in older, established suburbs (including “the bungalow belt” as areas like Alta Vista and Bel-Air are sometimes called). City staff are working to allow corner lots to be split, so that more units can be built on a block. This is the sort of gentle density that can be very palatable but also helps achieve some pretty important goals.

This won’t be a radical change. It’s nothing the city will impose. For it to happen, the lot owner has to want to split the lot. Until that happens, the status quo remains.

A significant policy change occurred when the city decided to allow small businesses to move into residential neighbourhoods. Again, this isn’t going to be a tidal shift in the nature of these neighbourhoods, but adding more corner stores (or what have you) that can be walked to, that can liven up the street and that can demonstrate that mix-use zoning isn’t some urban hellscape is a benefit to both the local communities and the city, as a whole.

There is more stuff going on. The Stittsville CDP is a huge leap for bringing urban planning to the exurbs. Attempts to bring businesses to Orleans could, at the very least, help keep some commuter traffic in Orleans. And if we’re ever able to hold the line on development boundaries, that will create pressure to build up and intensify.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s still a lot of work to do. Decades of suburbanization and car-centric have taken a massive toll on the city, as they have on most of North America. It is still very important to hold the line on our urban neighbourhoods and to push the urban environment further outwards, but there are hints that we can be doing suburbanization right.

*Personally, I think as we improve the suburbs, they’ll naturally shift to a more urban framework, but that’s a side topic.

Patios in the Glebe

Yesterday, the city’s transportation committee approved an application by Erling’s Variety for a patio on Strathcona Avenue. They actually approved three patios, but this was the only one that seemed to cause any problems. Residents spoke forcefully against it, almost begging for accusations of NIMBYism. It was a stereotypical Glebe performance.

In the end, the committee (rightfully) approved the application but (rightfully) imposed some some ground rules. The patio can only stay open until 9:00 pm, not 11:00. There must be a privacy barrier on the residential side of the patio. Smokers, both staff and patrons, must be discouraged from smoking near private homes, and the restaurant must put out proper butt-out infrastructure (to use a rather inflated word).

Some of the criticisms from residents were understandable (noise, smoking), some were less so (more drink and driving). Personally, I found two of the objections to be interesting–the danger from parked cars and a question about Orleans.

The parked-car objection seems odd. Restaurants often have patios near parked cars and no one has ever died. But if you look at the layout, you can understand the concern (even if it remains a tad overblown). At that point on Strathcona, there is no parallel parking. The city has a cutaway area that offers angled parking. Cars will be pointed directly at the patrons sitting on the patio.

I don’t find this interesting because of the possible danger. No, I find it dangerous because of the proposed solution–no patio. If I were to choose which I would have at the corner of my street, a nice restaurant patio or a row of parked cars, it’d be a no-brainer. Give me the life and liveliness of a patio any day (especially on closing at 9:00). Not only would it be more aesthetically pleasing there would be fewer cars that would be driving down my street coming or going from their parking spot.

As an added bonus, if the city did away with those spots, the sidewalk could be expanded out. This would alleviate another common complaint about patios, that they take up valuable sidewalk space (see: Elgin Street).

Maybe it’s just a case of status quo bias, but it seems like residents have their priorities mixed up.

Another objection was raised in the form of a question, would such a proposal in Orleans be approved? The implication being that residents in the Glebe aren’t treated as well as residents of the suburbs.

This is a weird complaint. How many people want the Glebe (or Centretown or the Market or Hintonburg) to become Orleans? I would be horrified if city council started treating the Glebe like a suburb. That’s not a dig at the suburbs (though, to be fair, I’ve been known to take digs at the suburb). What is attractive about the Glebe is its very un-suburbanness. It is a neighbourhood based on walking, storefronts, mix-use developments and, to a certain extent, nightlife. Any complaint that the Glebe should be treated like Orleans is missing the entire point. (In fact, it is the suburbs that should be treated more like urban neighbourhoods, facilitating more walking, biking and mix-use development.)

So Erling’s gets a patio, but with restrictions. A compromise has been reached, everyone has given a little and the decision isn’t permit; if Erling’s wants to open their patio again next year, it will require a new application, so they have an incentive to cooperate with the neighbourhood.

This is, in fact, a case of city council working really well.

Don’t Vote For Mike Maguire For Mayor

Ottawa’s mayoral campaign is now officially a two-horse race. Mike Maguire, who finished fifth last time around, launched his campaign on Thursday. So far, he is the only challenger to incumbent Jim Watson.

Maguire has built his campaign on four pillars: debt and taxes, traffic, trash and hydro. These are probably wise topics to focus on (though politicians fetish for ever-cheaper hydro and an increasingly polluted environment irks me), but–despite being intrigued by his candidacy four years ago–his platform would be bad for the city. His impulses may be wise (control spending! ease congestion!), but his actual proposals would be harmful, and his overall platform is incoherent, lacking in vision and self-contradictory. There is also a clear demonstration that he doesn’t fully understand some of the issues upon which he is commenting (plus, perhaps, a tad bit of convenient dishonesty).

Overall, he has a general goal, but he seems to be applying a high-level political philosophy that works well on talk radio (and, to be frank, blogs) but doesn’t translate neatly to the intricacies of municipal governance. It was never my intention to do a point-by-point fisking of his platform, but, well, here we are.

This appears to be his fiscal discipline pillar (his main concern, from interviews and reports, appears to be the city’s debt, but he doesn’t have a plank titled “debt”, so everything goes here). Maguire wants to “rein in spending and lower taxes to foster growth”. It’s a nice idea, and maybe it’s workable. At this point, his site doesn’t have any further specifics, so we don’t know what will get cut.

He has stated that he’s not going to give a specific promise in terms of how much he’ll lower taxes. I respect that. Larry O’Brien got scorched for his “zero means zero”. These sorts of things always lead to a “read my lips” scenario that’s open for easy mockery during and after a campaign (*cough*MillionJobsPlan*cough*).

Unfortunately, he also has an odd definition of taxes:

The City directly taxes residents through property taxes. However, the current City Council has increased indirect taxes by increasing the cost of parking, public transportation and electricity.

Parking prices, transit fares and electricity rates aren’t taxes. They’re prices.

I’m willing to hold off on judgement on this part of his platform until further details arise. All things being equal, lower taxes and more growth would be nice.

This is a pretty big issue right now, with the LRT, bike infrastructure, Lansdowne and sprawl, there’s a lot to deal with. Unfortunately, despite his (quite true) opening statement, “[g]ridlock in Ottawa has a huge negative impact on our quality of life,” he doesn’t have any sound suggestions for easing congestion.

Further, the very second statement is either dishonest or ignorant. He states:

The Complete Streets Approach to transit, favoured by the current administration, favours pedestrians and cyclists at the expense of cars and drivers.

While it is true that the Complete Streets model purports to favour pedestrians over cyclists and cyclists over cars, the implementation of this model has done no such thing. Ottawa is just in the process of unveiling our first Complete Street, Churchill Avenue. It is a raised cycle track adjacent to the sidewalk with no buffer from the road. Driveways and pseudo-parking lots still intersect the raised cycle track, and there are clearly instances where everyone just has to learn to get along.

In reality, the Complete Streets approach does not favour pedestrians and bikes over cars (even though we should, as these are both the more vulnerable users of the road, and the ones more likely to be using the surrounding neighbourhood as more than just a cut-through). Ottawa’s Complete Streets seek to favour no one. It’s about creating balance between bikes, walkers, cars and buses.

Further, if he is so worried about economic growth, he should acquaint himself with the literature detailing how walkable neighbourhoods help businesses.

Even though Maguire will claim to not be pro-car, he has this to say about transportation infrastructure:

Mike Maguire will focus on relieving congestion for the average commuter in Ottawa, the car driver with common sense solutions. [sic]

That’s pretty blatantly “pro-car”.

Maguire claims that the Laurier bike lanes have created congestion in the downtown core. This is patently absurd. Expanding Laurier back into a four-lane road will do nothing for congestion. Road expansion just leads to traffic increases. This is pretty basic city planning. Only die-hard conservatives with a culture war axe to grind make claims to contrary. Maguire can increase traffic lanes downtown all he wants, it won’t solve congestion (well, until he makes downtown so undesirable that no one will actually go there).

You see, this is where he demonstrates that he does not have the proper knowledge of municipal governance to be mayor.

Maguire seems a little more bullish on OC Transpo than he does on cycling (even though he likes to bike, he swears!). He doesn’t like the current system, and argues for a “hub-and-spoke” system. I’m ambivalent. Generally, I haven’t been swayed by arguments for hub-and-spoke, but I’m open to being persuaded.

Another suggestion, which is a little worse than hub-and-spoke, is cutting away at our sidewalks and bicycle lanes. Oh, he doesn’t say that, but he wants to create more bus lane “pull-ins”, so that buses aren’t stopping on the street blocking traffic, ie cars. As someone who walks, bikes and buses to work at various times, street stopping for buses isn’t a big deal. It slows Bank Street a tad, but not much. It has no effect on Albert or Slater, because those have dedicated bus lanes. Carling has ample space to get around, as do roads like Innes and Merivale. And, really, the further you get from downtown, the less of an issue this becomes.

I don’t think this is a serious policy; I think it’s a statement: Cars come first, buses second. No need to worry much past that.

However, the absolute worst suggestion Maguire has is to open up bus routes to competition–because having one bus line filling our streets isn’t enough. We need multiple bus companies running amok. I get where Maguire is coming from. Generally, competition is good and the government should get out of the way as much as possible, but the infrastructure demands (not to mention the barriers to entry) in the mass transit industry makes it a slightly different beast.

We don’t want multiple transpo garages. We don’t want to worry about multiple fare types, passes and tickets. We don’t want buses getting cute with their routes or their levels of service. As much as OC Transpo should attempt to cover all its costs through fares and advertising (and it should!), there is still a public service aspect to it, and we grant buses a lot of non-monetary subsidies to operate (the transitway, bus lanes, special road laws). The city is a pretty direct stakeholder in the transit system. A wild west isn’t going to help anyone.

Maguire isn’t a big fan of the LRT, and that’s fair. As he says, “[c]urrent projects do not address gridlock on the Queensway or arterial roads, and will not be completed for years.” He’s absolutely right! And, unfortunately, residents regularly get a sold a bill of goods about how improved mass transit will reduce traffic congestion.

It won’t. Additional mass transit will, in the short term, take some cars off the road, but as the roads become clearer, more people will be encouraged to drive (and move to the middle of nowhere while commuting into and through the city). It’s just like adding additional lanes to a road. Build it, and they will drive.

Of course, the ship has kind of sailed. Chewrocka is already underground. Contracts are signed, and the LRT is being built. Throwing up your hands and saying, we’re done! isn’t truth telling, and it isn’t fiscal responsibility. Also, good luck getting council to agree.

Well, even if his promise to scrap the LRT is pretty worthless, at least he understands that expanding mass transit doesn’t actually address congestion issues.


He wants to build light rail, just different light rail. On tracks that are already there. Because somehow this will magically make no one want to drive into the city.

And, though he’s “not for or against cars”, he wants to make it easier for people to drive everywhere. He would roll back the price increases for parking. Free or under-priced parking is good for nobody. It is an incentive for driving, and, therefore, increases congestion. Make no mistake about it, Maguire is pro-car.

And you can’t be pro-car and anti-congestion. It just doesn’t work that way.

One last thing about transit, he promises to do nothing for pedestrians.

There seem to be two basic elements to Maguire’s trash pillar (which is great imagery for cynics like me), scrapping the Green Bin program and returning to weekly trash pick-up.

Maguire has some interesting slides with a lot of (seemingly sound) back-of-the-envelope math demonstrating that we’re paying a lot for the Green Bin program, and it’s not really achieving what it is intended to achieve (extending the life of our landfills). His arguments are somewhat compelling, but I’m inclined to think that there’s more to it that what he’s presented. Unfortunately, this issue is outside of my wheelhouse (though I recall there being a lot of issues with the roll-out, which meant higher-than-expected up-front costs, so extending the program won’t re-incur those costs).

One thing I will say in favour of the Green Bin program: it’s not just about a cost-efficient prolonging of a landfill’s useful life. There are other environmental benefits to composting and a city-wide program might get more people thinking in terms of not destroying the environment. That’s a good thing… though not necessarily at the cost of the program.

Maguire also claims that we are currently paying as much for bi-weekly garbage pick-up as we paid for weekly garbage pick-up. I find this hard to believe, but if it’s true, then I’m all for weekly pick-up. At this point, Maguire does not have any further details on this on his website, so I can’t judge the veracity of the claim. The site states that more information will come.

Maguire wants cheaper hydro. If I combine with his support of driving, his antipathy towards cycling and walking, and his desire to axe the Green Bin program, I’m inclined to think he doesn’t give a whit about the environment.

Maybe that’s unfair. Still, it’s my impression.

Maguire claims that through some really odd accounting (a $200M promissory note from Hydro Ottawa to the City of Ottawa, the sole owner of Hydro Ottawa), Hydro customers are being overcharged. He has a nifty slide show to back that up.

Personally, I’m unconvinced. His argument against the promissory note (which seems to have been issued for no tangible reason) seems thin. I can imagine a perfectly valid reason why the city would demand $200M from Hydro Ottawa (even though it is wholly-owned by the city): getting to be the monopoly provider to Ottawa hydro customers is a damned sweet deal. The promissory note, I would imagine, ensures that Hydro Ottawa pays significant dividends to the city.

This isn’t just a tax grab like he says (though I understand that argument). This is the city selling something of value–the rights to hydro delivery–while maintaining control over an essential service. Maybe it would be better if the government was out of the electricity game, but if that’s the argument, Maguire should make that case. Currently, he’s merely arguing for the city to establish lower costs–and therefore lower rates–for hydro.

Personally, I don’t think hydro is egregiously expensive. I think people who waste hydro (including through heating, cooling and lighting massive homes) are essentially stealing from the rest of us. Their consumption puts an incredible burden on the rest of us in terms of pollution. Lowering hydro rates is merely rewarding environmental degradation. Further, considering how hydro consumption tends to increase with wealth and income, it’s a giveaway to the rich. Conservation is an issue that addresses inequality, and politicians who don’t recognize that are transferring wealth and utility from the poor to the rich.

Contradictions and Summation
Since I’ve wound up at over 2000 words, I think a bit of a TL;DR recap is in order.

Mike Maguire has as his focus a very worthy goal, fiscal discipline. We should concern ourselves with the city’s debt. As much as Jim Watson hasn’t been some crazy-spending liberal, we have embarked on some pretty expensive projects in the past four years. Now, Maguire doesn’t offer convincing arguments against those projects, but having someone hammer on the fiscal discipline bell is useful.

Unfortunately, for Maguire, his campaign doesn’t actually represent fiscal discipline.

He wants to lower taxes and lower spending. OK, if you lower spending more than taxes, you should be able to get your house in order. However, he’s not just talking about lowering property taxes.

Maguire wants to lower hydro rates and erase the dividend the city receives from Hydro Ottawa. He wants to cut the price of parking, selling this precious city asset at a below-the-market rate. He also thinks the city needs to lower bus fare. That’s a wealth transfer to the rich and a way to increase city spending!

At his campaign launch, Maguire noted the very stale anecdote of an Ontario businessman losing a city contract to someone from Quebec (xenophobia is ugly, even just inter-provincially), so he wants to make sure city contracts go to good ol’ Ontario residents, regardless of price. Protectionism is bad enough, but when you’re running on your fiscal responsibility bona fides, it really undercuts your campaign.

Maguire also rails against congestion and gridlock, but he offers no actual solutions. Do you want to get rid of congestion? You’ve got to attack driving; make it expensive. That means road tolls. It means aggressively pricing parking… that is, when you’re not eliminating parking. The carrot of good public transit (or bike lanes) is all well and good, but you really need a stick.

You also need to abandon the suburban bedroom community dream. You need to create real Garden Cities that are self-sufficient. You need mix-use zoning and intensification to make it work. Not only do you need to deter people from driving, you need to make sure that you have the necessary amenities nearby so that they don’t have to drive.

Maguire does none of that. He just wants different transit expansion.

Make no mistake, Maguire’s platform is bad. His heart may be in the right place (and he certainly seems sincere) but his policies are scattershot. There’s no continuity and there’s no clear method as to how his policies would actually get to his goal. Of all the critiques one can make of Jim Watson, he has displayed a competency that just isn’t present in Maguire.

It would not be good should he become mayor.

Urban/Rural Synchronicity?

I stumbled across the South March coalition yesterday. They’re a movement dedicated to saving the South March Highlands. It’s an interesting movement, but about an issue of which I know very little. I don’t travel out that way much*, and I won’t claim to know if what they’re doing is wise or not.

That being said, it seems like worthwhile advocacy. There is always pressure to increase development further and further out. It’s not about evil developers trying to destroy pristine nature. It’s about people looking for places to live. It’s good that we have an advocacy group that is pushing back against this pressure. Even if we should be sprawling out further, we need people keeping that impulse in check, making sure we sprawl properly.

But that’s not really what I’m interested in, right now. The group got me thinking about how the mechanisms of urbanism and rural conservation might intertwine. Continue reading

Quote of the Day

Extraordinary governmental financial incentives have been required to achieve this degree of monotony sterility and vulgarity. Decades of preaching, writing and exhorting by experts have gone into convincing us and our legislators that mush like this must be good for us, as long as it comes bedded with grass.

–Jane Jacobs on the evitability suburban life and urban decay, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

“Hudak’s vision is a divide-and-conquer approach to our cities”

Writing in The Ottawa Citizen, I argue that the provincial Progressive Conservative Party is trying to play suburbia vs. city centres as a cynical ploy to gain power. It’s following the (successful) “Ford Nation” gambit. It’s great for sucking up to (some) voters, but it’s horrible for actual governing:

Unfortunately, the Tory plan is aimed primarily at supposed “prosperity” rather than community; in fact, the PC white papers carry the heading, Paths to Prosperity. Leader Tim Hudak’s introductory message is focused on enterprise and wealth, not livability. MPP Bill Holyday’s introductory message focuses on infrastructure for automobiles and commuters, not cyclists, pedestrians or residents. It is a message tailored to those who will live outside of urban centres but seek to travel into the city for work (primarily) and leisure (occasionally).

Despite claims of eschewing the typical urban vs. suburban split, their policies are predicated on just such a divide. Regarding Toronto, the Tories write: “Toronto needs jobs, and better roads and transit so people can get to those jobs. The downtown core needs more subway capacity to relieve infrastructure built for the 1950s.” This is not in order to create a better city for the residents within Toronto. It is because the city “needs to manage its growth so that our suburbs are not treated as afterthoughts.”

We shouldn’t fall for it. If the Tories have a robust vision that can make stronger urban, suburban, exurban and rural communities, it’d behoove them to actually make them known.

Read the whole thing.