Spacing contributor Ian Malczewski spent last week in Niagara Falls at a joint conference held by the Ontario Professional Planners Institute and the Canadian Institute of Planners. He is sharing some of the lessons he learned there and reflecting on their implications on public space, livability, and sustainability in cities.
My visit to Niagara Falls last week to attend the OPPI / CIP Conference, Building a Better World, was my first time to the city in a few years. I always find visiting Niagara Falls to be a bittersweet experience: the falls themselves never disappoint – especially in the cooler months when the number of tourists shrinks and you can stand in front of them in relative peace – but the city itself usually leaves a sour taste in my mouth. I feel like the touristy streetscapes, with their wax museums, houses of horrors, and fast food joints, reflect something sad about our society and the way it uses the built environment to theme park-ize places of natural beauty.
I had hoped that during my four-day visit I would have the opportunity to explore beyond those tourist-traps and find a neighbourhood where people lived and worked, to find a public space that wasn’t dominated by a giant robot pharaoh cracking wise in a faux English accent. But a conference program packed with intensive workshops kept me inside most of the time, and by the end of a sometimes twelve-hour day, I only had the energy to walk to the falls to recoup some strength. (I should note that there were â€œmobile workshopsâ€ that offered attendees an opportunity to explore some of the region, but these often conflicted with a session I wasn’t willing to miss).
Niagara Falls was an appropriate (if unintentionally ironic) setting for the conference theme, Building a Better World. Many of the issues we face in cities in Canada today are the result of previous generations of planners and policy-makers deciding that building things like highways, sprawling communities, mega-malls, and theme-parked cities, would create a better world. Can we use the same thinking that created these unlivable and unsustainable environments to reverse their ill effects?
I attended sessions educating planners about LEED Neighbourhoods, climate change action plans, food security, creative public engagement strategies, and several other topics that gave me both hope for and concern about our prospects for adapting our current habits and environments to meet the challenges facing cities. It also provided me with a snapshot of where the planning world sits on many of these important issues, both in Ontario and across the country. Over the next week or so I’ll share some of these stories with Spacing readers, hopefully continuing some of the dialogues that began at the conference.