Last week, I had the privilege to attend the 2017 National Planning Conference (NPC). Each year, city councillors are allocated budget funds for professional development which can be used to attend courses, conferences and/or other learning activities related to our role as members of Council. Each year, I try to choose something different, based on the needs and challenges facing our city. Over the past few years, as we grow ever upward and outward, I took the opportunity to learn more about how cities like Guelph are doing things differently from a planner’s perspective.
During the second day, I was sitting with a small group of planners and was asked “why is a city councillor at a planning conference?” My response, “we are your partners in city building. We need to speak the same language.” In other words, when our city planners bring us ideas and recommendations, it is essential that we, as decision-makers, understand their vision and the lens through which they see our city. We have more in common than we realize.
Cities across North America are facing similar challenges:
- how do we build resiliency in the face of climate change?
- how do we rebuild our aging infrastructure for sustainable and alternative energy?
- how do we encourage active transportation and improve transit ridership?
- what are the current best practices in developing and redeveloping public space?
- what types of public space best contribute to social interaction?
- how does public space generate and contribute to economic prosperity?
- how do we provide affordable housing when we gentrify our downtowns?
The NPC provided some great innovative ideas and inspiration. Over the next few days, I will reflect on what I’ve learned and share it here, with a bit of added Guelph context.
The Value of Public Space
When planners look at a new development, the need for quality public space is always top of mind. The social interactions and economic benefit of high-quality public spaces (streets, parks, trails, squares, boulevards, libraries, recreational facilities, etc.) are, in many ways, more important that the private portion of the development. Public space is the glue that holds it all together.
Humans like to gather in public places. If we provide the basic essentials, the people will do the rest. What are the essentials?
- places to sit (ie. benches)
- places to eat (ie. food cart)
- places to reflect (ie. greenspace)
- places to work (ie. wifi)
- places to look (ie. public art)
Bryant Park (NYC) is a great example of all five components working in tandem. It’s also one of the most highly-used public spaces in New York City. Once a neglected urban space plagued by drug deals and other criminal activity, Bryant Park is now a hum of activity for all ages and an economic driver for businesses located on its perimeter. It is located adjacent to the New York Library, so outdoor reading areas and free lending libraries have been added to promote literacy. Games (bocce, ping pong, chess to name a few) keep visitors engaged for hours. Loose park furniture (yes, even in a big city) allows for visitors to shift with the sun and find shade under a tree, alone or in large groups that can congregate and talk about local politics.
In Guelph, our next significant public (and private) space development will happen along the river lands on the site of The Metalworks. The opportunity to link our rivers and trails is something that our planners (and councillors) were really excited about when we saw early plans for the massive redevelopment of the 5 Arthur Street site. The city will play a role in planning for a bridge linkage over the Speed River, and connecting the future “river walk” with our existing trail infrastructure. At NPC, we heard about successful projects where riverfront lands were reclaimed and restored for public space.
Planning a great city — and great public space — must always engage the community. Build in layers. Keep intact what our citizens currently value in our public spaces, and build upon that. Add amenities here and there. Test ideas and innovations. Adapt and evolve. Watch how people interact. And then adapt and evolve again.