If this article is the first you’ve heard of the Council for Canadian Urbanism, you’re not alone. Its board is a veritable who’s who of the field, however, boasting centuries of experience in the public and private sectors – Vancouver’s Director of City Planning, Brent Toderian, serves as President and Toronto’s Director of Urban Design, Robert Freedman, is Chair.
Its relatively low profile is a conscious choice as it builds up its organizational capacity before broadening its base; last weekend’s meeting in Vancouver was only its third annual gathering, and the agenda revolved around finalizing a draft charter and setting up working committees. The group is, at this point, essentially invite-only, though they happily opened their doors to Spacing Media.
Several keynotes and a variety of panel sessions started off the conference like many others. Among the highlights were Gordon Price‘s scathing analysis of the suburban predicament – motordom, it seems, is now his preferred term – and Pamela Blais‘ critique of the misdirected financial incentives that created that result – perverse cities, or pervurbia for short, in her parlance. The weekends’ main attraction for Spacing was, however, the insider’s view of this nascent alliance of urbanist giants.
Over its first few years of existence, CanU (pronounced like “canoe”) has been engaged in a few lower profile advocacy efforts. Sadly, neither supporting the long-form census nor calling to inject smart urban policy into federal politics and formulate national housing and transportation plans have made much of a stir, however.
Its draft charter speaks to loftier, often intangible goals such as sustainability, regionalism, diversity, and place. Breaking down institutional silos to engage in physical city-shaping and collaborative change is the order of the day. Its objectives to create change, to lead, to educate, and to convene are relatively benign, but the fifth – to advocate – is already challenging some members’ expected neutrality.
Paul Bedford, former chief planner for Toronto, was in attendance as a keynote speaker. He first directed the room’s ire at a particularly absurd magazine article entitled “Exodus to the Burbs.” His rousing speech recalling the battle in defence of Port Lands planning and Waterfront Toronto drew perhaps the most applause of the weekend, but also a stark contrast with CanU’s official causes.
Robert Allsopp of DTAH, also relatively free to speak his mind, pointed out that Toronto’s top civil servants – or those of any city for that matter – would hardly be in a position to wage war against the Fords. Stacked as it is with active public employees, CanU is not in the same position to advocate politically as, say, the Congress for the New Urbanism’s private sector founders.
And thus emerges the first of the inevitable comparisons with CNU, a topic that occupied a sizable chunk of Sunday’s working sessions and seems to invariably fall out of any attempt to describe CanU and its goals. It’s an apt one: CanU was approached early on by CNU to join it as something of a subsidiary as in Australia. The general mood in the room was one of respect for CNU’s achievements at influencing institutional machinations in the US, but caution that in doing so, they had acquired significant baggage.
New Urbanism is also heavily associated with a brand of development that includes so-called Traditional Neighbourhood Developments. “Traditional,” in this sense, reaches back into a vaguely inter-war era and a suburbia of relatively functional neighbourhoods between the arrival of the automobile and the beginning of its dominance. Narrow tree-lined streets, garages accessed off alleys, and a relatively coherent grid are some of its horizontal hallmarks.
While those general points are hard to argue with, the usual reliance on a pastiche historicist architecture from a similarly vague era – simultaneously retro and kitsch – gives home-buyers the warm fuzzies and modernists the creeps. The aesthetic almost inevitably dominates the final product – emphasis on product. Developer cooperation is key to avoid compromising principles, like filling up the walkshed with lagoons, loops, and lollipops. Even then, greenfield development to spec is still easier than coaxing the needed rapid transit service far out into the suburbs.
New Urbanism, to be fair, does operate at larger scales. Its relatively tailored form-based codes are increasingly popular, though it is hard to name an entire city, let alone a region, that can be conclusively identified as “New Urbanist” in brand. This, however, was hopefully never the intention, given that cities are in so many different ways the delightfully fickle outcome of countless incremental decisions and a particular social culture, and it seems that CanU is attempting to skip directly to this higher order of challenge.
Among the obstacles it may face are a relatively disengaged population that don’t know what the organization means by urbanism, let alone identify themselves with the cause. Andrew Pask, director of the VPSN, called for the group to bring new Canadians’ perspectives into the group, and to recognize that these are no longer solely experiences in city centres, but also in increasingly ethnic inner-ring suburbs and other areas of Canada’s metropolitan regions. CanU would also do well to acknowledge their own, unsurprising, lack of demographic diversity.
While Pask’s point may indicate a problem, Marta Farevaag pointed out that while greenfields don’t have an existing constituency to speak for walkability and good design, that disappointed new residents would be a powerful voice to be harnessed. As the symposium’s theme points out, urbanizing the whole region – leaving the comfort of core cities in the process – is the key to bringing the systemic change that CanU aims for.
In this difficult goal, fighting decades of subsidies and development inertia, CanU faces one of our generation’s greatest challenges. The short-term plan they mapped out – including hiring the staff that could allow greater freedom in advocacy – can’t come soon enough.
Brian Gould is a transportation planner, urbanist, advocate, and recent graduate of the Master of City Planning program at UC Berkeley.