Big Design in Small Cities: How Architecture Helps a City Grow

Edmonton is one of Canada’s fastest growing cities. Fuelled by a robust and diverse economy, Edmonton is the sixth largest metropolitan centre in Canada. The city is struggling with growing pains that are common to almost all cities. Problems of suburban sprawl, lack of public transit, an almost lifeless downtown, and the blight of “power centres” all require innovative solutions. The solutions must also be affordable, as like other cities, Edmonton struggles with a huge infrastructure gap. Ideas of place and identity are of importance, as Edmonton tries to find an identity that will distinguish itself from Anywhere, North America.

Last June, the Media, Art and Design Exposed (MADE) in Edmonton Society in collaboration with The Works Art and Design Festival hosted a symposium entitled “Big Design in Small Cities.” The intention of the symposium was to address architectural and design issues that are faced by small cities in particular, and to show how good design can provide a catalyst for positive development. The focus of the symposium was on four Canadian architects and two city planners who shared their thoughts about working in small centres and how it impacts their design and practice. The speakers included Jack Kobayashi from Whitehorse, Larry Beasley from Vancouver, John Brown and Marc Boutin from Calgary, and Tom Monteyne from Winnipeg, all of whom presented projects addressing architectural and urban design issues in their respective cities. The keynote presentation was given by Keith Orlesky, an ex-pat Canadian working at the architecture and urban design firm of Cooper, Robertson & Partners in New York.

The symposium continued the momentum in Edmonton around the discussion of cities and current challenges that began in the fall of 2003. In September of 2003, Edmonton’s Mayor Bill Smith hosted a conference for municipal leaders on urban sustainability. At this event, Jack Diamond delivered a message reinforcing the fact that a compact city is good for both the environment and keeping infrastructure costs down. Diamond noted that “Canadian municipal leaders are acting like a factory owner who is running the production line at half-capacity but still planning a costly expansion… you’d say he’s a very stupid factory owner.” In May 2004, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities held their annual conference in Edmonton. The most memorable moment of this conference was when Colin Jackson, President of the Epcor Centre for the Performing Arts in Calgary, described the drive into Edmonton on Gateway Boulevard as “freakin’ depressing.” He wasn’t trying to fuel the Edmonton-Calgary rivalry, but rather to draw attention to the lack of good urban design found in the region. Discussion about cities, design, infrastructure and economic development seems to have become a hot topic across the country, particularly in light of the Canadian government’s announcement of a “New Deal for Cities.” Or perhaps everyone has just read Jane Jacobs’ recently published book, Dark Age Ahead.

Keith Orlesky, who worked in Edmonton prior to moving to New York, brought an American perspective to urban design. In presenting his work from Watercolour, Florida, campus masterplanning at Trinity College, and the urban design of Honolulu, Hawaii, Orlesky showed that planning and flexibility are not mutually exclusive. Nor does size matter. He noted that during its time of greatest influence, Florence was a city of only 30,000 people. Cities should be places that nurture its citizens. And they should be places of authenticity and delight, not mediocrity.

Larry Beasley, Co-Director of Planning for the City of Vancouver, provided a good case for embracing density and congestion in cities. He showed how Vancouver has avoided building freeways into the city core and how it has helped public transit thrive. Beasley also demonstrated how Vancouver’s City Planning department encouraged density and high-rise development in its downtown core. In Vancouver’s case, massive economic development can equal great urban design. Developers must submit their designs that are reviewed by the best architects and urban designers in the city, thereby ensuring a high standard of development. In June 2003, the Greater Vancouver Regional District won the Grand Prix at the International Sustainable Urban Systems Design competition in Tokyo for their Planning for Long-term Urban Sustainability initiative, a 100-year plan for achieving urban sustainability over the long term.

Marc Boutin explained how the Prix de Rome provided a structure to study a city as a dynamic process, rather than a static form. His idea of a Texture City (see CA, August 2004) mapped the Roman piazza though its daily cycle of events and programs. Through this mapping and analysis, Boutin was able to design a framework for the revitalization of an underutilized public square in Rome. This work went on to inform ideas of place, stage and detail which was illustrated in a proposed renovation to the Varscona Theatre in Edmonton.

Whitehorse is definitely a unique environment. Not only does its high latitude present building challenges, but its public space occurs in the open and vast great outdoors. With a population of about 22,000, it struggles with creating density and mixed-use environments. Whitehorse has a significant suburban development that Kobayashi has rebelled against, and he presented his own house in the context of a new suburban development as a model of what a duplex home could be. His firm also designed and developed artist’s condominiums above commercial spaces, in order to prove the viability of mixed-use developments in Whitehorse.

John Brown roused the crowd with a call to arms for architects to take back the housing market. Housing represents the largest land use in North America, yet architects have made an impact in less than 3 percent of those projects. With his company housebrand, Brown provides real estate, interior design and architectural services using an approach called the “Tailored Home” (see CA, August 2004). This results in fresh, modern houses that are renovated from older housing stock that keep people living closer to the heart of the city. He facetiously stated that his real estate license was more valuable than his architecture degree in terms of the tools required to crack the housing market.

Is Winnipeg really Canada’s most pitied city, as Tom Monteyne would argue? With the upcoming Museum of Human Rights and recent city property tax innovations, it is becoming a place of innovative thinking and considered design. Monteyne opened with an ironic video montage accompanied by the song “I Hate Winnipeg” by the Weakerthans. The practice of Syverson Monteyne aims to create architecture that is a rational response to the environment. In projects such as the River House and Fort Whyte Reception Centre, Monteyne clearly demonstrated how the local context creates opportunities for formal expression while benefitting the environment.

During the forum at the end of the symposium, the idea of the “village architect” was raised. For big and small cities, is it possible for an architect to be proactive within his or her local community and work street by street to improve the urban condition? The architect would act as a facilitator for good design, being a person passionate about solving building and city scale issues. Cities are striving to differentiate themselves from each other, and are trying to attract a highly creative and mobile workforce. They are also attempting to find solutions to their enormous infrastructure gap. John Brown stated, “This is a great time to be an architect.” To be sure, our cities are looking for creative solutions from us. Edmonton is gearing up to host the 2005 RAIC Festival of Architecture whose theme is Architecture, Art and Urban Design: Celebrating the City. MADE in Edmonton will continue to raise public awareness about “Big Design,” and will provide a forum for the ongoing discussion about urban issues.

Shafraaz Kaba works with Manasc Isaac Architects and is a founding member of the Media, Art and Design Ex
posed (MADE) in Edmonton Society.