This is the next in a series of posts building on the Downtown Moves articles I did in late December at the www.SpacingOttawa.ca site.
The Downtown Moves team did a sort of crowd sourcing exercise to identify the problems and some solutions for the downtown enviornment. City staff, consultants, and amateur planners/keeners like myself heard three prominent speakers on urban issues, then sitting around tables of six to ten people cranked out solutions to perceived problems. The consultants then sorted these ideas into major clusters.
This is a perfectly legitimate method of finding a bunch of things to do, quickly. I am not surprised they used this technique since it is strongly advocated by Ken Greenberg, one of the speakers, author of Walking Home (you can get it from the OPL), and consultant who floated, rather like a hovering godfather, from table to table.
Nonetheless, this approach misses some of the things a more formal approach could have found. The traditional approach identifies problems, an array of solutions, tests then selects the measure. It is the approach best suited to bureaucracies and those attached to linear, systematic thinking. As such it works well with process-oriented civil servants, such as those that run the city.
The Greenberg crowd-sourcing method was quick but will the results be simply one-off project ideas or will they get incorporated into the slow and steady march of bureaucrats? I used to be strongly attached to the Greenberg method, wishing the city would just “do something” rather than fuss forever about process. But I now understand more the value of getting something ingrained into the city policies so that for every future project the staff is supposed to look at things like main street designations, etc.
So what do I think Downtown Moves missed?
A number of speakers and participants emphasized the fine grain, the mixture of businesses and storefront sizes that makes for a lively downtown. And lamented the dead spots. Sometimes these are inadvertently dead, like the front of the CBC building. Other times they are dead by design, for example those large building complexes with interior malls. Some are old thinking, the tower in the plaza of Place de Ville. Sometimes they suffer the dead hand of the NCC which combines so much built creativity with killer marketing that sterilizes what should be lively. Everyone agreed the downtown suffered from excessive city focus on moving cars in and out rather than that what the people do once they are downtown.
So what can we do about the dead sidewalk zones? This is the actual interface area between people and buildings.
Jan Gehl cites a popular measurement tool he has used in many cities. Developed in Stockholm in 1990, it applies a five point scale to “rate” every bit of building frontage in the downtown. This gives a score to every bit of sidewalk, and by mapping * all the scores you can see at a glance how the downtown rates, where the good parts are, and where the disaster zones are.
With such a simple map at hand, it becomes easy to show developers and property owners, planners and politicians, that their next project or renovation needs to build on the high score or “fix” the low score. The City can also do some things itself to improve the low scoring areas, perhaps with street furniture, or encouraging a pop-up cafe to replace a curbside parking spot.
The actual scoring of the buildings is easy to do with volunteers; the entire downtown could be done in a Saturday morning. The map construction should be doable in just a day by someone skilled in e-mapping.
Once the core has been measured, and the map produced, the city can set goals for improving the core. Goals might include a x% increase in rating 1 zones of the next four years, or a x% decrease in low-rated zones. Mayors and politicans and BOMA would then find themselves being assessed over time by how well they improved (or ruined) the core.
We can improve what we measure. Thus far, we are not measuring.
Here is the rating scale, from Gehl, Cities for People:
* Technique: the Gehl book seems to indicate that every section of sidewalk / building interface is rated A through E. The scores can then be mapped. An easy way is to assign a line thickness to each letter, then show the lines along both sides of the street. At a glance, the deadest areas are visible, as are the “winners”. It is easy to understand and sell to politicans, planners, and architects.