CITIES AS CRUCIBLES: Reflections on Canada’s Urban Future

By Francois Lapointe

Invenire Books, 2011, softcover, 266 pages

 “…’place’ is the dominant feature of civilization.”                 

-John Ralston Saul

“Across Canada, people are awakening to urbanism…..Let us commit to rebuild the ‘city by design’.” 

-Larry Beasley

This new book by urban planner Francois Lapointe is many things: it is a kind of journal of his professional experiences in urbanism; it is a kind of text book on getting cities and their governing structures right; it is a type of call-to-arms; it is most importantly a cogent, comprehensive volume outlining the fundamentals of a Canadian ‘urban agenda’ and why it must be a collaborative national imperative. Lapointe, currently Vice-President, Capital Planning, for the National Capital Commission, has a broad urbanism background in public and private sectors. His style is not “preach for on high”; it is personal yet professional.

The book itself is a kind of crucible – a melting pot of ideas and reflections, of wisdom and challenges. While it is never polemical or provocative, it does form into a kind of manifesto for urban change and for a process to deploy that change. This work reads as an accessible treatise on our complex urban world: it emphasizes dialogue and specific, deliberate, participative action to improve upon our cities and therefore ourselves and our country. Lapointe understands that broader issues like climate change, public debt, citizenship and immigration are part of the necessary global viewpoint from which we must act. He comprehends that sustainable, healthy, resilient communities are the only way forward. Most importantly to the success of this book, Lapointe demonstrates that the discipline of urbanism ‘wears many hats’ and to be effective must be vision-driven, integrative in collaborative processes, and in synthesizing social, economic, environmental, technological and political components, and in merging local, national, and global concerns.

Similarly, the main elements of the book blend a wide range of direct drivers for this discourse. For example, in a discussion on the notion of “change” (a fundamental urban quality), Lapointe examines social, economic, environmental and institutional change and their implications, and then funnels it to urban change and transformative actions at hand including:

-priority of urban design quality improvement;

-preservation of heritage assets;

-intensification, mixed-use and optimizing existing infrastructure;

-key investment areas such as waterfronts;

-sustainability strategies;

-downtown/inner suburb development/re-development.

 

Likewise, in the chapter on emerging issues, the menu is interlinked to greater effect with interpretations of:

-cities & globalization;

-reconciling short and long term decisions;

-community resources, dialogue and learning;

-fiscal/financial resources of cities;

-municipal governance;

and each is discussed with specifics that interconnect with the others, which in itself portrays the value of integration and collaboration to find effective solutions. For example the section on municipal governance is detailed with inter-related issues such as inter-governmental collaboration, context-sensitive policy-making, public involvement in change management, consensus-building and conflict resolution, and opening processes to new perspectives, frameworks and roles/responsibilties to reflect change and increasing interdependence.

 

However the book is not at all a dry tome on ponderous problems. On the contrary, it is generously interspersed with photos & graphic illustrations, key quotes from recent relevant literature, theme viewpoints & vignettes and strategically placed ‘articles’ on leading practices and case studies that illustrate or extrapolate many concepts in the book. These latter “descriptive highlights/bonuses” are excellent. Among my many favourites of these is the piece on Montreal’s Lachine Canal Heritage Rehabilitation. This article succinctly describes this 10+ year waterfront revitalization project and how its success is largely based upon many of the principles and actions championed in the book, through a brief analysis of achievements, limitations and lessons learned. Spacing would benefit from more articles like this!  Excerpts:

“An increasing number of Canadian cities are espousing heritage conservation and rehabilitation as priorit(ies)…in charting…their (near future) development. However, the legislative and organizational underpinnings to heritage interventions and strategies are often absent, e.g., knowledge base, technical expertise, fiscal and financial incentives, investment capital, creation of partnerships…designation(s) …and protection.”

“Leveraging and capitalizing on past investments in…infrastructure…and other built forms…is a critical ingredient to smart….development of cities….part…of the balancing and integrating acts involved in…urbanism, between…contradictory forces and factors, e.g, valuing old vs. new; short-term vs. long-term; simple vs. complex; core vs. periphery;….incremental vs. (quickly) transformative.”

“…a collaborative effort between different levels of government…allowed the project to move forward and…to put in place the necessary conditions to unlock private sector investment and re-investment…”

Identifying the problem of a lack of an overall shared urban perspective, Lapointe  proposes a challenge to Canadians to rally around a new momentum, a “grand-projet” for cities that suits the urban nation we are (after all, why is it too much to ask for a citizen-centered collaborative common vision for making Canadian cities great? …we did it with hockey; can we do it with urban design?).  Lapointe  sets out his proposed steps toward the implementation of the vision, based on described values and synergies. He suggests any action plan must be grounded in the full range of driver types: issues, principles, realities and priorities. He then well-defines his proposed “five themes for an urban agenda”:

  1. Connections
  2. Resources
  3. Generations
  4. Collaboration
  5. Institutions

Each of these themes is then well-articulated in distinct chapters – the well-considered core of the book, really. A proposal for growing a broad-based appreciation and commitment to a common urbanism mission is put forward and it is all “pulled together” with a call for transformation in how cities are perceived and approached in Canada, including in all processes, policies and actions. Even this proposed transformation is carefully plotted out in a dense agenda for change.

In fact, it may be a bit too dense. Although the book’s carefully controlled structure and introductory “how to use” section mitigate this issue, there are moments, especially in the final chapters, when the reader can get slightly overwhelmed by the plethora of facts, figures and the colourful quilt-weave of ideas and postulations, especially for a book that nobly sets out to have very broad appeal, beyond professionals and academics.

Nevertheless, most Canadian urban enthusiasts will deliciously enjoy Cities as Crucibles. This is an important book that intelligently weaves together the many urbanism complexities in terms of both understanding the challenges and in terms of a workable, positive and well-founded ‘action plan’ to re-position, revitalize and re-create Canadian cities over the next decades, despite the many obstacles and disparate voices in the mix.

 Mark Thompson Brandt is Senior Conservation Architect & Urbanist with MTBA Associates, Ottawa.

5 comments

  1. It’s interesting that he talks about “key investment areas such as waterfronts” when the NCC has a poor record on waterfront investment.

  2. The NCC has a poor record on just about everything.

  3. “after all, why is it too much to ask for a citizen-centered collaborative common vision for making Canadian cities great? …we did it with hockey; can we do it with urban design?”

    What exactly did “we” do with hockey? I have no idea what you’re getting at.

  4. Virginia,
    as a hockey fan I hesitated to use it, but…..I wanted to give an example of a citizen-centered common vision in Canada – wanted it to be “popular” as I believe urban design should be in Canada (but isn’t; not yet anyway) and there were few that came to mind. In the 1970’s, after Euro-hockey put a dent in the Canadian hockey-pride consciousness, there was a broad, citizen-centered dialogue across the land about how to regain hockey supremacy. While hockey power is more globally balanced now, the edge goes to Canada once again – in part due to that process.

Comments are closed.