We are falling far short of our goals on ‘dysfunctional’ urban sprawl

Bernie Slepkov, founder and chairman of Sustainable Niagara, member of the Smarter Niagara Steering Committee and St. Catharines' Downtown Development and Revitalization and Integrated Community Sustainability Planning Committees, recently published an editorial in Bullet News Media regarding the achievement of smarter growth in Niagara.  An abridged version is reprinted here: Communities and regions the world over share similar objectives: To reverse the progressively unsustainable costs of maintaining dysfunctional urban sprawl.

This evolutionary reversal places a greater design emphasis on the needs of people rather than cars, therefore aspiring to create more vibrant, dynamic communities.

The key intents of this evolution in community planning and design are threefold:

  1. Clean up and give rebirth to contaminated abandoned industrial sites. called ‘brownfields’;
  2. Inject residential life into large retail wastelands, called ‘greyfields’; and
  3. Intensify housing, and wherever feasible, economic activity, on vacant and underutilized areas - referred to as ‘infilling’ or ‘intensification’.

Common to each of those is the desire to end up with attractive, livable neighbourhoods.  That calls for integrating into them people-oriented design.  Compact, walkable, more complete communities are the ‘smart growth’ objectives toward which we are attempting to alter our long-term thinking and policy directions.

So how do we get properties throughout St. Catharines and Niagara to be developed, or redeveloped, so that residents can live, work, learn and play in them or in areas immediately nearby?

Convincing developers and builders to change their thinking calls for financial incentives which are then reclaimed from the increased tax bases thus generated. But in some instances our rates of return are not nearly as high as they could be. In almost all cases we’ve only encouraged token window dressings to the same old-style plazas and cookie cutter subdivisions. Those aspects needed for establishing vibrant pockets of daily living or giving people any special ‘sense of place’ are still missing.

St. Catharines got off to a great start at the old burnt out Independent Rubber Company building on Glendale near Merritt Street. The industrial contamination was removed from the site and the original stone-brick building was transformed into The Keg.

That in itself was an internationally acclaimed brownfield success story, immediately followed by another at an adjacent corner. The old Lybster Cotton Mill fronting Merritt transformed into Johnny Rocco’s Italian Grill and Stone Mill Inn“Niagara’s newest luxurious inn, resort and spa”.

Then we fell tragically short of our objectives.

The large brownfield site behind Stone Mill morphed into an uninspiring standard, single storey retail plaza.

A basic ‘smart growth’ development would have included at least one, mid-to-high rise residential unit above the stores. Same thing across the street beside The Keg. The new bank building and retail plaza wall enclosing a large parking lot should also have included a residential building?similar to what you would see by doing a Google Image search on 'mixed use buildings.'

These failures are not limited to the blatant lack of additional taxes the city and region would have garnered from such developments – as much as $4,000 a year per unit according to one confirmed estimate - but also include the exclusion of on-site consumers for all the newly established businesses, as well as for downtown Merritton just around the corner. Absent is the population density to bolster capacity for nearby schools, ridership on four bus routes, and visitors for Mountain Locks Park directly behind The Keg.

We’ve also fallen short of our longer-ranged expectations in several new residential ‘infill’ subdivisions. Certainly from the perspective of generating property taxes from where almost none existed previously, these intensifications can be declared a success. But that’s the total extent of it.

A google image search of ‘traditional neighborhoods’ – American spelling intentional – illustrates something other than the many drab, lifeless cookie-cutter subdivisions we’ve gotten. Mature trees aside, you’ll see ‘homes’ rather than nondescript houses with garages. You can almost envision people sitting comfortably on their porches, casually chit-chatting with passersby. You can imagine someone saying, “What a lovely home.”  On quiet evenings the strains of children playing in the nearby park or backyard might be heard.

If porches exist at all within our latest of developments, they’re far too shallow to be usable. Front stoops are much too small to even hold a chair. With a built-in garage and driveway available for every unit, these subdivisions literally contain more concrete than vegetation.

Undermining livability ever more so, not one of these developments includes a park for residents to gather and socialize, or for children to play in. And cars? They’re still needed for obtaining the most basic of daily essentials.

Despite our genuine hopes for encouraging something far better for people, our latest developments contain no attributes capable of inciting social intercourse, or ‘sense of place’. While we can’t dictate good urban design, we can certainly define the criteria for which graduated incentives are awarded. Since we’re going to invest in attempting to reverse the myriad costs of sprawl, we must ensure we’re getting the biggest bang for our bucks.

Adapted from http://www.bulletnewsniagara.ca/2012/06/29/column-we-are-falling-far-short-of-our-goals-on-dysfunctional-urban-sprawl/