Roberta Brandes Gratz on Urban Development

In celebration of Edmonton’s designation as the Cultural Capital of Canada for 2007, the city has been holding a number of special events, including a speakers series inviting experts from a wide variety of areas to offer their opinions on municipal life, arts, and culture.

Roberta Brandes Gratz, an urban critic, journalist, and consultant based out of New York City, spoke to a crowd of over 200 gathered in the Maclab Theatre at the Citadel on Thursday night. My knowledge of urban planning is murky at best, and while it took me a while to really get into her speech, by the end, she had me convinced of her philosophy of growing for the local as opposed to the transient, and optimistic, based on some of her cited examples of cities reborn, for what is possible.

She clarified the difference between density and overcrowding, and alongside the well-worn idea of building up and not out, emphasized the need for areas that are not only walkable (i.e., services available within a reasonable parameter), but that also incubate local economies. I really responded to her example of a visit to a new Home Depot in what must be mid-town Manhattan. Constructed like the department stores of old (utilizing several floors in a confined space), she mentioned passing by a small boutique on her way back to the subway, and ended up buying something from the store. If not for Home Depot, she said, she likely would not have “found” the store at all. Ms. Gratz did cite Whyte Avenue, which she visited that afternoon, as Edmonton’s own successful application of this concept – where larger retail enterprises can coexist with smaller businesses.

On the topic of affordable housing, all of her observations seemed very much to be common sense – it is up to the city (and ultimately, the people who will be living in the area) to force developers include more units of affordable housing (within mixed income buildings) and create spaces with a diversity of uses (e.g. parks). Too much is at stake – the sustainability, growth, and with time, rebirth of neighbourhoods – to be left at the charitable whim of developers.

Ms. Gratz also touched on the idea of marketing and nurturing for the local as opposed to tourists. In her research on Edmonton, she came across an article about the controversial renovations to the Art Gallery of Alberta and its $88 million dollar price tag. Had the consultation process been done right, she said, residents would not have had to choose between the lesser of several designs, but would have been asked whether or not this was a worthwhile project at all. Similarly, she questioned the need for the proposed welcome gates to greet drivers coming into the city – the money is better spent for people who already live in the city; visitors are drawn to vibrant, thriving municipalities.

Ms. Gratz was gracious enough to field questions from the audience for forty-five minutes, and likely could have continued if the host did not pull her off stage. She was asked at one point about the idea of building a new hockey arena downtown. Earlier in her talk, she had mentioned that stadiums and entertainment centres were black holes of sorts for locals, and really only stood to attract visitors. To answer this question, she drew laughs by first insisting that she knew enough not to mess with the Canadian love of hockey. But that said, she indicated that it was possible to develop a harmonious arena, as long as it was right for the community and visitors were not of the ‘get in, get out’ variety. We’ll see what the newly (re)elected city councillors do with this proposal in the coming months…

All in all, it was a stimulating evening of thoughts, ideas, and precedent that left me with a sense of optimism, and a desire to learn more about urban (re)development.

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