In the Parking Lot of Walmart I Sat Down and Wept

By the rivers of Babylon,
There we sat down,
Yea, we wept,
When we remembered Zion.
– Psalm 137

A few days ago I went to get my hair cut at my usual place, which is in one of those suburban “outlet malls” which plague North America. After I parked, I realized I needed a bathroom break. The only obvious place for a discrete trip was the Walmart in the distance. The fact that it seemed necessary to get back into my car and drive to the Walmart at the other end of the parking lot should have been a hint of the epiphany to come.

Anyway, after seeking and finding relief, I walked back out into the sun. I faced west. The mid-morning sun was behind me and to the left. A vast treeless plain of asphalt dotted with a few cars stretched away before me. Around the edge of this desolation stood the low retail blocks done up in stucco and architects’ memories of childhood Lego projects. The haze of distance softened the contrast of faraway objects.

And suddenly I realized that the faraway objects weren’t a distant city on a hill or mountains or forests away at horizon’s edge. No. The haze of distance hung over the other end of this lifeless, horrid, inhuman parking lot.

Images of suburbia came into my mind. Of entire residential neighbourhoods turning their garage doored backs on the streetscape. Of rows upon rows of puce coloured boxes, no windows to the street, postage stamp yards. Or, next development over, monster houses with one acre foot prints on one acre lots with ubiquitous garage doors, as welcoming as closed Hell Gates, here four or five to the house, the public face of whatever family might try to find joy within.

I immediately said to myself, with a small and joyless internal laugh:

“In the parking lot of Walmart I sat down and wept.”

Then I tweeted it, because that’s what is done.

There is a tragic inhumanity about the architecture of North American cities. This inhumanity stretches from the design of the home all the way up to e the neighbourhood plan. The car is the reason for the layout of the home. The car’s room is the part of the house that greets the visitor. The car is the intermediary, the gate keeper, between the family and the outside world.

The streets are wide, the sidewalks narrow. I have seen couples our for walks in the suburbs unable to walk side-by-side on the single-file afterthought sidewalks. The parking lots are obscenely large and desolate, the parks, particularly in newer developments are pitiful token bits of green. There is no school or even space set aside for a school in many of these new developments.

I am writing this sitting at a table on the small patio at the front of my inner city house. This outdoor office/dining room is what welcomes visitors. There are trees filled with singing birds and chattering squirrels around me. Cyclists pass by in the bike lane. A car goes by now and then. People are walking side-by-side, chatting and smiling at each other on the wide sidewalks. Every house has a front facade punctuated by many windows and the front door. This is the open streetscape that is both welcoming to and engaged with the community of people who inhabit it.

Later this afternoon some neighbours will be getting together in the back alley, thankful that the warm weather has finally returned. Tables and chairs will be brought out, the doors of small detached garages thrown open. More neighbours will gather to chat.

Before that get together, I may walk over to the book shop seeking a second-hand Golding novel. I could walk to anything I would normally want or need: the grocer, the baker, the butcher, live music venues, live theatre, restaurants, bars, all manner of shops and parks and schools. . . .

When I stood outside Walmart and thought of Psalm 137, I certainly didn’t feel the shattering desolation of the Israelites taken in bondage to Babylon. But I did feel very strongly that with our unthinking automobile-driven suburban sprawl, with our simple lack of foresight and human sensitivity, we have exiled far too many urban North American’s from a truly humane urban existence.

Living in a large garage with attached house a short drive – but a long walk – from a giant parking lot with a scattering of indistinguishable chain stores built of polystyrene and ticky-tacky – appropriately termed “big boxes” – and working an hour’s commute away is decidedly not a humane urban existence.

I began with a Psalm. Let’s end with a song:

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A few amateur thoughts on Edmonton, infill, zoning, and city planning

City dwellers react to the architectural forms and spaces which they encounter: specific consequences may be looked for in their thoughts, feelings and actions.  Their response to Architecture is usually subconscious. Designers themselves are usually unconscious of the effects which their creations will produce.

— Hugh Ferriss, The Metropolis of Tomorrow, p.142

There’s a thing going on in Edmonton about Infill.  Personally, I think infill of various types is vital to our city. Personally I think that increasing density through infill can build more vibrant communities and continue to make Edmonton the exciting, inspiring place to live that it has been as long as I can remember.  But I think there’s been some misleading rhetoric in the debate.

First, a definition

To me and, I expect, to many in Edmonton, a “neighbourhood” is a geographical entity with a name and probably a Community Hall and a Community League. Parkallen is a “neighbourhood”. The 100 block of Whyte avenue is a “block” not a “neighbourhood”.  A number of blocks is “a number of blocks” or an “area”, not a “neighbourhood”.

There’s been a line trotted around in various forms that no neighbourhood in Edmonton has a right to be exclusively single-family houses.

I agree. When I first heard this line I thought of the outlying suburbs where single-single family houses are the overwhelming majority of the residential dwellings.

But no neighbourhood in Edmonton, not even the most exclusive, is exclusively single-family houses.  Not a single one.

Sure, there are blocks, numbers of blocks and areas within neighbourhoods which are now exclusively single family houses.  My side of the street is exclusively single family houses. The other side of the street is a mix of duplexes, basement suites, single family houses. Across the alley from them it’s all walk-up apartments. And across that street is commercial. This area is a vibrant community within the perhaps equally vibrant neighbourhood called Strathcona.  It is decidedly not exclusively single-family houses, but areas of the neighbourhood decidedly are. This patchwork, this mosaic of areas is, I think, part of what makes and maintain the vibrancy and liveability of our neighbourhood.

Edmonton does not need a residential infill development free-for-all. Edmonton needs incentive to increase density through infill guided by conscientious zoning of all  residential types, including single-family houses to create a mosaic of blocks, groups of blocks and areas within a neighbourhood – within a community.

Take a walk through Parkallen

Take a walk, a ride or a drive through Parkallen sometime and you’ll see what I think is a terrific neighbourhood made up of zoned residential types. If Parkallen’s areas of RF1 (single-family houses) were simply removed, the neighbourhood would be quite simply destroyed by chaotic redevelopment.

Density could be easily increased through a judicious use of rezoning, juggling the mix, decreasing the total area zoned RF1 so that the transition is orderly, organic, and retains the essential overarching character of the neighbourhood.  This course would be planning. Simply eliminating RF1 would be the abdication by the City of the responsibility for planning and, indeed, the ability to plan.  Neighbourhoods would, in the end, become more dense, but homogeneous and chaotic, grey and unpleasant.

I must thank my good neighbour and good friend Charlie for the conversation this afternoon which really focused my thoughts on this subject.

Please also see A few more amateur thoughts on Edmonton, infill, zoning, and city planning.

Update, August 22, 2014:

First I want to thank Councillor Walters for engaging in conversation both here in the comments below and also on Twitter. And thanks to Paul, as well.  It’s a fine thing to live in a community in which elected officials are so accessible. As a matter of fact, yesterday, as well as the online conversation with Councillor Walters, I was fortunate to have pleasant face-to-face conversations with Councillor Michael Oshry and Alberta Cabinet Minister Heather Klimchuk. It’s so encouraging to be able to simply chat with our elected officials.

Second, in the interest of transparency, I must mention that I don’t have a personal neighbourhood dog in this fight. Strathcona, the happy neighbourhood in which I live, is considered “Central Core” and so is not the subject of the “Infill Roadmap”.  The Roadmap is directed at Edmonton’s “Mature” and “Established” neighbourhoods, one of which is Parkallen, which I use above as an example of a very liveable neighbourhood which could be destroyed by injudicious, sweeping zoning changes.

Third, Edmonton seems to like to have pilot projects. There’s one happening right now about backyard beekeeping. There’s one coming up about backyard chickens. I wish our City’s Administration, instead of conducting studies and then implementing the infill plans, would consider a pilot rezoning project.  Why not rezone a single street or the end of a block within a neighbourhood and see what happens?  We do pilot projects about relatively small issues. Why not do one or two to investigate this major change in our urban landscape?

Update, December 7, 2014: In the comments below there has been mention of the house in my neighbourhood which has unfortunately been given a “tear down order” due to a number of violations, not least construction without permits.  The neighbourhood came together quite strongly to ensure that the planning authorities took notice and action.  As a tonic to any suspicion that our neighbourhood is filled with anti-infill NIMBism, here’s a story about the infill house underconstruction kitty-corner from the unfortunate tear down house.  From the beginning, the owners of the property, a husband and wife, have been visiting neighbours to discuss what they plan for their house and have listened to concerns expressed. The contractor has posted on the property a large “artists conception” of the finished house.  The construction has proceeded smoothly and with little disruption.  Unfortunately, a few weeks ago, the ATCO excavation for the new gas line for the new home ran into some trouble and ATCO has closed one end of our back alley.  This is a bit of an inconvenience, particularly after the big snowfall.  Last night, one of the neighbours engaged the contractor on Twitter:

urbanage1 urbanage2

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It’s tremendous to see this sort of engagement and neighbourliness from infill contractors and from the established community.  About twenty years ago a contractor knocked on my door to show me the plans he had for the vacant lot next door.  He pointed out details like his window placements which were carefully arranged to be out of alignment with the windows on my house thereby maximizing privacy for both of us.  That contractor (shout out to Centennial Homes), now my friend and neighbour, has since built two other immediately neighbouring infill homes as well as my new garage. He and his family are now well-established members of our neighbourhood community.  Our community has embraced infill development.  The last thing we want is for residential infill to get a bad reputation because of the unfortunate actions of a few unneighbourly contractors.

Update October 14, 2015:  Last week I got a message on Facebook from Chris Hutton about trouble residents are having in Westbrook Estates and Aspen Gardens with what seems to amount to blanket zoning in their neighbourhoods which now freely allows redevelopment of properties in ways that would have been disallowed just a year ago because they’d be “not consistent with the rest of the neighbourhood“.  As Chris puts it, “All city planning is now in the hands of the free market.”  Concerned residents of the neighbourhoods are getting organized and have created a web page titled Edmonton Lot Subdivision.  Definitely worth a visit for homeowners, developers, planners and City Councilors in Edmonton.