Planning at Macro and Micro Scales

Posted on Wednesday 11 November 2009

Let’s say you are a planner, architect or urban designer and I am a developer or owner or representative of an owner of an important piece of urban property. The property could be owned by a for-profit organization or a Government Agency or a Not-for-Profit. Whatever the case, I give you this assignment: create a superb urban design for this key piece of property.

It is an island connected to the downtown core. Dirty industry has left the land in a devastated condition. All you see is the plan I give you below.

Blank Slate
Blank Slate

Now what do you do?

Well, you as an architect (say) have been taught to:

a. First of all, you walk the land.
b. You are trying to develop an over-arching vision and gut feel (at the quantum level of thinking) for the property.
c. You look at the context for the property.
d. What do the adjacent properties look like?
e. What type of development surrounds the property?
f. What structures do you see on this property and adjacent ones?
g. You look at the water features and the topography of the land.
h. You think about soil conditions—their bearing capacity and you think about environmental contamination and related issues.
i. You examine aerial photos of the property to see and understand the history of the area and specifically the property you are concerned with.
j. You talk to the neighbours to get a feel for what their vision is for this property.
k. You talk to the former owners of the property if you can find them.
l. You talk to the urban planner(s) responsible at the municipal level for this property.
m. You meet with local councillors to get their views.
n. You meet with the local community association and as many members of the local community as you can.
o. You understand traffic flows—pedestrian as well as vehicular.
p. You take lots of photos and makes lots of hand-drawn sketches.
q. You see not only what is there and what is around you but also what could be there.
r. You are beginning to formulate a functional program—a list of possible uses which the site could be put to that will produce the highest and best uses for the property.
s. At the same time, you see in your mind’s eye and in your photos and sketches a form (actually, a series of forms) taking shape—they appear to have grown out of the land as if you had planted a series of seeds and stood back in wonder and watched buildings grow and spaces between them develop.
t. You understand that form follows function (at least, from a developer’s point of view) but that function follows form—you know in your bones that buildings which are designed for one use often house other uses within their lifetimes so while the developer may be more interested in the functional program (what uses are for the property) and especially in the revenue streams that flow from them, you are satisfying (at least) two constituencies—the need of your patron to realize commercial benefits from the development and your need to create an enormously complex piece of public art through your design skills and intellect.

Now you reach a fork in the road—are you designing this for a single development or will this be open to participation by many groups? Are you trying to develop a fine scale plan with many development blocks or are you going to treat this site as a whole?

Since many cities are redeveloping and rediscovering their urban cores, this question is important to all stakeholders. And this question may also arise for other properties that are not located in the core but are of region-wide importance—there could be arenas, stadiums, airports, trade show centres, convention halls, casinos, employment hubs, shopping hubs, universities and colleges and many other facilities that are key economic generators where intense, synergistic development is warranted but they aren’t downtown.

In my view, it is almost impossible to obtain a highly variegated, interesting, micro scale plan that produces maximum benefits for an urban group of stakeholders if you treat a piece of property as if it was a ‘flat, treeless plain’ subject to a mono-cultured urban plan and one single development.

The reason that urban cores can be interesting spaces is that over the years, we have had many, many architects, developers and public enterprises have a go at designing and building variegated structures on often tiny pieces of property and thereby making unique contributions to the public room and the public good

What you get when you permit something like this to take place, what you get is… the Byward Market in Ottawa.

Fine Scale
Byward Market

What you get when you allow mono-cultures is an unimaginative redevelopment of places like Lebtron Flats in Ottawa (by the NCC), which may easily become a modern no-place.

A New No-Place

Now let’s return to our Island project. What if instead of Condition 1, I gave you a base plan that had many different blocks and a road pattern that was sensitive to the land forms?

Bounded Condition
Bounded Condition

What if, as a result, you allowed many different types of uses and structures to be developed on this micro scale plan? Maybe you would come up with something that attracts more people (11 million per year) than every other attraction in Canada except for Niagara Falls… Well, you would end up with:

Fine Scale Result
Vancouver’s Granville Island

Ottawa has some sites of region-wide importance that are eminently suited to re-development or more intense development. These include the lands at Rockcliffe Air Base, Lebreton Flats and Lansdowne Park, the lands at, around and adjacent to Canadian Tire Centre, the airport, Algonquin College, Carleton University, the University of Ottawa, the Domtar lands and the Byward Market. These sites, even if owned or controlled by a single entity should be opened up to many potential developments—that way they will generate an optimal stream of benefits for all stakeholders including ownership.

Prof Bruce

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