Thursday, May 15, 2008

Saving suburbia: a fantastic plan for a neglected suburb

OK. Sorry guys, this is long. But is brilliant, so if you are concerned about sprawl, and such, please read it. I'll make pictures soon. That will hurt your eyes less. Let me know what you think.

A fantastic plan for a neglected suburb.

1 Objective:

To find a way to make an intervention in the urban fabric of Rundle that makes it actually livable.

(Rundle is somewhere you stay for a while, till you can sell and buy somewhere else… much like the macrocosm of Calgary in relation to the rest of Canada…hmm. I want to find a way Rundle can be a PLACE to be, to live, to enjoy life, to feel like you are somewhere – not stranded, in a moon-like topography, wondering how the hell you are going to get back to civilization!)

Oh, and I’m trying also how to figure out how to help the good old environment, benefit residents (especially stay at home mom’s cuz I have an affinity for them…) for business to financially succeed and to create a hub for culture. Ambitious? I know.

2 Description of Rundle

If my objective didn’t state it clearly enough...

Rundle is a lower income community in the North east of Calgary. It is a very “planned” community, on a square section of mostly flat prairie land. “Planned”, meaning it has post war ideal density. It has schools and green space, footpaths, back alleys, and curved suburban style roads, I think you know what I mean. It is about 30 years old. There is a c-train and bus routes, leisure center and Sunridge mall, all good amenities, but the place still feels like a no-man’s land. It is almost entirely made up of R1 lots, with the exception of some dense multi family housing closer to the train and main roads. I don’t see a ton of crime, but the reputation is that it is there. The majority of the people living in Rundle are immigrants, from India, Africa, Vietnam… and everywhere else.

The thing is, although Calgary has a major sprawl problem, the North East communities (and others) are unique in that they are poorer neighborhoods, and are older than many of the other suburbs. The houses are a little smaller as are the lots, and there is actual infrastructure, like transit. Although, the stigma is that it is far away from downtown because it is on the east side of the freeway, the fact is that it is much closer than many more expensive communities in the South, West and North. My feeling is that places like Rundle, as they are old enough to be out of sight of new developments, and new enough to not need major renovations or to have appreciate land value to deserve infill housing, are completely out of the radar of the city’s future plans.

Oh, and if you walk around Rundle for a while, especially with a toddler in a stroller, you feel like you may be the last person on earth, or an alien dropped in a strange land. It’s barren, placeless, and isolated. Did I get across that it’s generally unpleasant? Good.

3 Why consider fixing Rundle up?

The first reason is that Rundle, being a prototypical suburb can provide a framework for other communities to follow. Sprawl is a known problem. The city can just stop sprawl by committing to city boundaries, but then what? There are these communities that are left as the debris of post-war urbanism that really need to be revitalized, as it is where the majority of people in Calgary live. Fix up the core as well, fine, but the fact remains that we live in a sprawling, low density, suburban city. How can we fix the mess we have made of developer style suburban development?

Another reason is that Rundle is cheap. Houses are less expensive, as is property, and it is easier to make in intervention. If it works, then the model can be applied elsewhere with less risk. Also, the community, being older, has existing infrastructure. As opposed to new suburbs where people have just bought their big new house, are waiting for the local leisure center to open, and cant get around without a car, Rundle is ready to go.

Also, did I mention I live there?

4 What are the problems I want to address?

My family drives across the city, to Kensington, on a Saturday morning. We buy a coffee, and walk to the little park where we hang out with other parents, playing with their toddlers on the playground. There are big trees, planted flowers in the green space, and we feel like we are “somewhere”. There is a lot of green space in Rundle. Granted, not as many trees, but there are playgrounds a plenty. None of them feel even remotely pleasant to spend a Saturday morning in. I don’t know the people in my community. I am assuming they also go elsewhere on the weekend. I would love to know what an African woman likes to do on a Saturday morning, or to meet an Indian neighbor. Although I have never even seen them outside their homes, let alone in a public space.

Of course the bigger issues – like detriments to the environment, reliance on cars, and dependence on huge warehouse stores are all on my list. I’d love to eat food that’s grown locally, have a place to hang out, walk somewhere pretty with my kids, where I can buy a lunch or cup of coffee, and see some neighbors. Wouldn’t you? I don’t think I’m all that unique.

I’d like to add that asphalt is ugly. If I want to leave Rundle and drive anywhere I am faced with a heck of a lot of asphalt. That just isn’t good for the soul.

5 My Fabulous Idea

Did I underline that this idea is fabulous?

Good. So here it is. I’m gonna draw some pictures just to make this explanation easier. My idea affects ten houses that are side by side, five on one side of a back alley, five on the other. The idea is to amalgamate the ten houses, destroy the back alley, remove the fences, and renovate like crazy. Then resell five of the houses to families, with a tight property line to those places, create a functional outdoor space in the middle, and use the other five houses for a variety of commercial or dense housing uses.

OK, so here’s the scenario in a nutshell. A developer (with incentives and back up from the city) buys the ten properties. They fix the place up. They do the landscaping, making a little creek, bridges, hills and play areas, a gazebo, and small paths. There is a lot of space for garden plots and greenhouses. This is not “open green space”. There are football fields a plenty for that. Every piece of this land is used, and since its semi-private, its not all bullet proof and cinderblock. In the night there are lighted burning torches, in the day a creek. The raised bed gardens can grow all sorts of vegetables. There is a little screened gazebo.

Now all this sounds idealistic, but the idea is that the place is run by a management company. The houses, like condos, pay fees for the upkeep of the gardens, and the gardens are private for the ten units. The management company hires gardeners and runs the little farm. There are four houses that the management company also owns and leases or rents. Their offices would be located in one of these homes. Some of the homes are divided into rental units for low income houses, and others provide commercial amenities, like a store to sell the grown produce. Optional leasers could included a Montessori school, offices to lease, artist studios and residences, a café/deli, seniors housing and city run services like a drop in center, or gallery.

So the developer, after building the huge yard, and renovating the houses would sell the five to individual home owners at a profit, and the other five to the management company. The management company maintains the property, and stays afloat by “condo fees” from the residents, rent and lease payments from the commercial houses, and from selling produce from the gardens.

Residents get a great amenity in their own back yard, are in walking distance to work or services, and still own their own home, which should appreciate in value.

6 Depends on what?

Now as far as I can see, (which could be limited) there are a few things that would need to happen for this to be a success. This would include: the developer would have to make money. Based on initial land cost, raised land values etc, there would have to be an incentive to make the investment.

The managing company would have to financially stay afloat, and be responsible to the project for really keeping it great. Growing food, maintaining the gardens, and keeping things afloat would mean having the head and heart in the right place.

There would have to be appropriate businesses in the leased spaces that would be viable and serve the residents. The park and house renovations would need to be manageable to maintain, beneficial to the environment and good for growing food. Residences would have to be great places to live. The owners would pay fees, and would have to make a sacrifice in some of their living style – i.e. less back yard and change in parking/garbage removal, so the incentives would have to outbalance these changes.

Oh, and there would have to be a significant change to the land use designations….any city planners out there?

And what about those alleys? Well, have you walked down an alley in Rundle? Not a pretty sight. Granted they provide access for services like garbage, but hey, how important is that garbage truck – like does it really deserve a two lane paved road? Some existing houses still have front garages, while others are accessed at the back. In this scenario all vehicle access would be moved to the front. But the fact remains that people just do not maintain the backs of their properties. Fences are broken, there is garbage strewn about, its not lit at night. Perhaps burying some wires, parking at front and having some combined garbage collection wouldn’t be so bad after all…

7 What are the major benefits?

I like this idea. As far as I can see, if the world ran like it does in my mind, the developer would make money (and we all know that’s what’s important to them…) There would be a great place to live for residents, small business could be supported locally. There would be an increase in low-income housing and density, without affecting the existing layout of the community. Good for the environment, there would be little government spending, provide space for small business and artists, people would have access to fresh food in the summer, and it could be a repeatable model in other neighborhoods. Umm, anyone got a few bucks to spare?… Have I got a plan for you!


Roxy said... sounds like it could be a little tiny bit like the community housing projects in Vancouver.

Lindsay said...

Umm, so, I really like your blog and now it seems I'm going through and leaving lots of comments. My toddler is now in bed so I can do that. :)
Anyway - love the idea! #1 - I would lease a space for my store in there (we sell baby slings, cloth diapers, natural and locally made toys... etc). #2 - this is indeed a lot like co-op housing. Have you looked into the Sunnyside Co-op, Ramsay Co-op or any of the others in town? I have friends who were trying to start a housing co-op and could probably get you some info if you want. There are grants and such to be had. #3 - you could just move to Ogden instead. It's pre-war housing, very cute and well-built, quite central but off the radar as well, with much of the demographics in common with Rundle. There were 5 (5!) houses for sale on my street this year, and I tried to talk all my friends and people from my parenting group into buying them so we could make what you described, but no one was up for it. There is still one for sale and it is super cute. :)
Okay I'm going to stop now before you start to think I'm creepy or something.
Wait one last thing - you might want to look into the attachment parenting group, if that sounds like anything you're remotely into - there are lots of people there you would get along with.