Seeking Out Experts: Jeff Speck and Walkable City

On this blog I have frequently been attacked for not being an expert, which is fair – yes, there seem to be few flaws in your logic, but how can we know what we don’t know? We aren’t experts. So I asked around for all the best books on cities (I had read a couple years ago, such as Walking Home, but they were all so so). One of the recommendations was Walkable City, which I just finished last night. It was amazing.

 

Walkable City is a book by Jeff Speck, who is widely regarded as one of the leading thinkers and practitioners on this subject. This was also the most highly recommended book I received, and has received all 5 star ratings on Amazon. You can find it here: http://www.amazon.com/Walkable-City-Downtown-Save-America/dp/0374285810/

 

Long story short, it was an absolutely incredible book. Now to be fair I was reading it with a bias. I already knew the answers I wanted to learn. But I was surprised by just how aligned the book was. Below are some of my choice parts.

 

On trains:

 

This is the part of the story that the train boosters don’t want you to hear: investment in transit may be investments in mobility or investments in real estate, but they are not investments in reduced traffic. The only way to reduce traffic is to reduce roads or increase the cost of using them, and that is a bitter pill that few pro-transit cities are ready to swallow. … Why take the train when you can drive there just as quickly and park for a dollar an hour?

 

On buses, and how we should think about transit:

 

Or more to the point, how do you create a transit-and-walking culture in a place where driving is so easy? It may not be possible. In some of these locations, the bus is destined to be to remain the “loser cruiser”, the mode of choice for those who have no choice: the elderly, poor, and infirm. … If it is to become widely used, transit has to be ruthlessly reconceptualised as a convenience, not just a rescue vehicle. … The system needs to focus on those rare opportunities where it can offer a superior experience to driving.

 

On building a single dense node:

 

[City officials] are also optimists – they wouldn’t be in government otherwise – so they want to believe that they can someday attain a city that is universally excellent. This is lovely, but it is counterproductive. By trying to be universally excellent, most cities end up universally mediocre. Walkability is likely only in those places where all the best of what a city has to offer is focused in one area. Concentration, not dispersion, is the elixir of urbanity.

 

It was an extremely powerful book, and I can see why it is considered one of the greats. I hope some of you will read it. But either way, here is one expert that seems to agree.

35 thoughts on “Seeking Out Experts: Jeff Speck and Walkable City

  1. Michael Shao

    I’m actually kind of surprised that those involved in the planning committee for this LRT thing haven’t read this book. I’m a huge fan of these kinds of books – I’ll have to pick it up at some point in the next few months. I still have a stack of books I need to get through!!

    I just finished “Superfreakonomics” after finishing “Freakonomics” in July of last year. These kinds of “correlation != causation” arguments are so valid that it’s even worth thinking about the long-term effects of this project (not just 20 years down the road, but one hundred!) before they even start buying all of the land/materials required.

    Coming off of an internship in NYC, I found the biggest inconvenience in Calgary (who just built an LRT, mind you) was the transit system. The lack of variety, timings, bus/LRT routes when compared to a place like NYC was insane – especially since (this is just what I learned at the transit museum there, so fact-check me if you like) NYC started almost one-hundred years ago with four separate private companies (two of which were mostly funded by the government). As they expanded and grew, the coverage and convenience of the system got better and more efficient. The only times I took a cab somewhere was to get to and from LGA / Newark (I took LGA in, Newark out), since there was no direct path there. Everything else, from my grocery shopping, getting to work, finding entertainment, were all almost within arm’s reach with this kind of transit coverage.

    I think the project they propose in Waterloo is ambitious. As the book and you claim, the transit system in general is for those who cannot find any other way – poor university students (yes, we’re poor, get over it – the government is already lowering their subsidies by the year, and I need to take out even bigger loans, despite working co-op… I’m not a genius who can work at Google or Facebook, since I suck at interviews) like myself sometimes have no other option if they’re unfortunate enough to live far off-campus and had no ability to get any other form of transportation (some can’t even afford bikes these days… especially when they keep getting stolen).

    I was only fortunate because I came off of a pro career in gaming and could buy myself a car to support myself. I won’t give that up (and sell it, obviously) until the transit system can prove to me how I can access everything I do with my car without having to walk an unreasonable distance.

    Reply
    1. Ted Post author

      Ha, another good post 🙂 Ps, what game? We have a lot of Dota players here at Kik…

      NYC is awesome because it is a network of walkable nodes. Wherever you find yourself, you can find everything within walking distance. But once that area gets boring, you simply hop on transit and go to a different walkable node.

      Today, Waterloo has ZERO walkable nodes. Instead of pointlessly connecting them together, why not build just one walkable node to start? As it expands and the node becomes too big to walk, then and only then should we split it into two nodes and connect them by transit.

      Reply
      1. Michael Shao

        I used to play League of Legends competitively; unfortunately, due to academic and extracurricular commitments, I resigned my post — a decision that still haunts me today. The reason I say “haunts me” is because my little brother (3.5 years junior) has made almost as much money as I have in all of co-op in a little under 6 months after playing for multiple professional teams. 🙁

        What you described is basically what I did – and I was living and working exclusively in Brooklyn. Whenever I got bored and had a coupon to go somewhere nice in Manhattan, I would always take that opportunity to go exploring. Sure, it was easy to get lost, but it was even easier to find your way home, especially considering how many systems overlapped and how frequent the trains were. I still waited up to 20 minutes at night, but at least the trains were on the schedule they said they would be on.

        I like the idea of the walkable node – it really brought to light the “Walkable Waterloo” that this site is named after. If it were entirely walkable – or at least dense enough to do things without having to inconvenience myself, I would definitely re-evaluate the cost efficiency of gas and insurance per year for my car.

        Reply
        1. Ted Post author

          Not only *could* you save money by giving up your car, but you would *want* to give up your car because walking was simply such a better experience.

          This is what I experience when I go to Toronto to the room I rent there. I park my car Friday night, and I pick it up Sunday, walking almost the whole time in between. Not because I have to, or because I should, or because it saves money, but because I WANT to.

          That is what I want for Waterloo, a city where I don’t give up my car because I should, or because traffic has gotten so bad, but simply because I would have it no other way. And best of all, I think it could be economical enough that anybody that wants this life could have it.

          Reply
          1. Andrew

            Quick question on your example.

            While in TO for the weekend, do you ever take the Spadina streetcar up to the Annex to explore and walk around that ‘hood? Or the King Car out to Liberty Village, walk over to Williams Landing? Maybe even take the Bloor Subway to High Park (Shakespeare in the Park is happening right now, definitely a great “date night” with the right girl), or the Danforth for some kick-ass greek? Maybe explore some of the Parkdale Hipster Bars and Restaurants after a short jaunt on the Queen Car?

            Maybe I’m beating a dead horse as I already made the point in another comment about LRT and walkability NOT being mutually exclusive, but isn’t it nice to live, walk, and play in one distinctive hood, hop on reliable efficient transit to get to another ‘hood, jump off and walk around and explore that area? Certainly Waterloo Region isn’t as large and filled with neighbourhoods as Toronto, but I think one of those things that makes a city a great place to be is that diversity. Isn’t there a chance we’d lose that with your proposed “super-node”?

            Reply
            1. Ted Post author

              Hey Andrew,

              This is a good point. I guess there are two strategies.

              One, take our 4 most dense neighbourhoods and connect them together by LRT (what we are currently planning to do). I like this strategy because as you mention it gives us a convenient way to get between them. My fear however is in line with the Jeff Speck quote above, that by focusing on all 4 spots (or all 16, if you look at all the stations) we will be spreading ourselves thin, greatly increasing the time it takes to create even a single great, walkable neighbourhood.

              But perhaps there is another way? What if instead we focused 100% of our efforts on a single neighbourhood? I think it could be done with all private money, so no cost there, and it would greatly shorten the time to getting a single great neighbourhood where it would be a blast to live. Then, with this momentum and as the node grows, at some point it would get big enough where it would naturally split into two, and then into four, etc, almost like cells splitting, where each sub node would evolve to its unique personality. THEN, at that time, we could connect them with an LRT (or something even better), and save our money in between.

              What are your thoughts on this?

              Reply
              1. clasher

                Private money?! LOL just like private money was supposed to come flooding in and help build Toronto’s subways?

                The thing is we aren’t “saving” any money. It’s either spend it on transit or it goes to some other city to build transit with, or worse it goes back into general revenues and get spent on anything and everything else. Then we’ve got to keep building more roads for every other area in the city outside of this one node you want to focus on. I don’t think the rest of the region will just sit on their hands and accept going without.

                Reply
                1. Ted Post author

                  Hey Clasher,

                  Yes, this is a great point – we only pay one third of the cost, so might as well take the free handout.

                  I think in the short term the LRT will actually delay us getting a single, amazing walkable node by spreading all the development so thin, but in the long term there is no question that we will need transit. So at 66% off, maybe we should take it now.

                  That said, the region is 100% on the hook for any cost overruns and for any reduction in ridership revenue. Neither analysis has been done yet on the financial risk here, because we simply don’t have the proposals yet. For that we need to wait for spring.

                  Reply
              2. Andrew

                I’ll disagree with clasher below in regards to private money, but it could be due to the vagaries of this discussion (i.e. the private money we’re talking about is for the actual “development” and not transit, in my interpretation).

                I think we’re, in a very high level, on the same page here, but the details are where it becomes an interesting discussion.

                I don’t think that all 16 “nodes” need to necessarily be walkable. I think there will always be the extremes on the spectrum. There will always be, on the one end, people who love the idea of a walkable area, hate having a car, love density, etc. On the other end, there will always be people who love the idea of suburbia, their front lawn, garage, etc.

                If we picture the “where people choose to live” spectrum as a bell curve, how do we move that bell towards the walkable, intensified neighbourhoods?

                I think this is where various planning techniques (of which I am most definitely not an expert) could come into play. And with those various planning techniques, we start bringing more private money into the intensified nodes. Private money in terms of people in general are either (or both) incentivized to live in an intensified neighbourhood, and are dissuaded from living in non-walkable areas. I lean a little more towards the incentives, because I personally don’t favour overly punitive measures when I can’t necessarily conceive of all the reasons someone may choose to live where they do.

                But, if we go back to that spectrum, as we shift the bell towards intensified neighbourhoods, ideally we’ll have lots of growth, jobs, etc in those areas. Then, people who don’t live in those areas (maybe one family member works in the core, the other in Brantford, so living in the “suburbs” of KW makes sense) can still take the LRT into them for work, or for play, and people will want to visit, and maybe decide hey, this place isn’t so bad, maybe I want to live here.

                Or, perhaps a University professor loves to live in Downtown Kitchener, because that walkable neighbourhood speaks to him in some way that Uptown Waterloo just doesn’t. Or maybe his significant other works downtown, so they decide to live within walking distance of one job. He can still choose to live in this walkable area, walking to get groceries, grab a drink or dinner, go to the park, movie, play, whatever, but can still take the LRT to work at the University.

                The more I read and discuss, the more pro-LRT I’m becoming (which, in full disclosure, I already was, which I don’t think is a secret). To me, it really seems as though the LRT would only be complimentary to your goal, not mutually exclusive from it.

                As a personal matter, I also favour organic growth in neighbourhoods, versus some large, master planned, community. I think it leads to a much more interesting and character filled neighbourhood. I personally choose to live in the Roncesvalles neighbourhood of Toronto, versus Liberty Village…but I do still like to visit Liberty! And I think it’s relevant to the discussion, in that I have bars and restaurants, shops, grocers, a movie theatre, High Park, everything except my job here, for which I hop on the streetcar.

                And to FINALLY address your question head on, I think spending money on LRT now makes sense in that a) it’s more difficult to put it in after development has occured, that b) it will help drive the kind of development you’re (and I’m) after, and c) the function of the various levels of government can be debated ad nauseum, but the Region would not be “saving” $800+ million by cancelling the project. It would have wasted some significant portion in sunk costs pertaining to planning and procurement, and a major portion of that money is coming from senior levels of government, and would be otherwise spent elsewhere. This is of course not the best argument for LRT, however when coupled with the other ones, gives a strong indication that we should continue forward.

                Who knows? With the forward thinking, risk taking nature of the Region, the nature of some of these nodes could be remarkably different by 2017-2018!

                Reply
                1. Andrew

                  I forgot the other form of private money, that of developers, that could be enticed to build great intensified places to live through “friendly” regulation, incentives, and of course demand that could somehow be encouraged.

                  Reply
                  1. Ted Post author

                    PS Andrew, would love to know you a little more. Whats your story? Why do you care about Waterloo?

                    Reply
                2. Ted Post author

                  Yes, it is the nuance of the discussion that I am really joining as well 🙂

                  A couple thoughts on your points.

                  On a), why would it be the much more expensive later? We are basically just ripping up pre existing roads and rail right of ways. Feels like at most it would cost incrementally more later.

                  On b), I agree that travelling between all the great neighbourhoods in Toronto is fantastic. But we don’t have a single walkable neighbourhood yet. Yes, a couple are close, but even then all will be far great. If you were to plot the two strategies – LRT today vs concentrate on a single node and expand – how long under each strategy until we have a single GREAT neighbourhood, comparable to Roncesvalle? I think that if already all development in KW was focused on one node we would already have it, but now we are spreading it out even further (witness all the condos going up almost evenly spaced down King). But maybe you see another way?

                  c) On cost, yes we are getting a 66% off coupon for our LRT. In some ways maybe that means we should do it now, because we will need transit one day, and I believe that even if the LRT goes in a private development could still be created that focused all development around a single station. So same end product, just different way of getting there. But my fear is that we pick up 100% of cost overruns, and already we are stretching ourselves thin assuming it comes in exactly on budget, so any overruns could literally bankrupt us. We don’t get the proposals to spring though, so we can’t know to then. Up until, I am told the cost to cancel the project is close to nothing (ie we would spend almost or exactly $0 of the $818mm – it was designed this way since we dont have the DBFOM proposals yet).

                  Finally, on your bell curve, I think this is a really interesting way to visualize it. But instead of trying to shift the curve, shouldnt we be trying to polarize it? So whether you want suburb or urban, you will can find an absolute world class place in Waterloo?

                  Reply
      2. Andrew

        I would argue with you here that the region has at least 2 walkable nodes, Uptown Waterloo and Downtown Kitchener. (A quick preface, I am all for walkability, love walking as much as possible, and fully agree with the boring Brick Brewery stretch, and think we should absolutely be looking at complete streets and walkability and development.. Additionally, my apologies to Cambridge, maybe Galt is walkable? I’ve just never spent any time there.) I’d say though that with the developments coming in across from Bauer and behind it, things are starting to get more interesting. Keep in mind with the context that the Bauer building is currently on, what I would say, is the extreme edge of UpTown Waterloo. By that I mean you’re only going to walk one direction from Bauer.

        And look at Downtown Kitchener! Name another North American city of Kitchener’s size that has big green bike sharrows down main street! Even the committee looking at revitalizing Yonge St in Toronto is using Downtown Kitchener as an example.

        Now, I’ve also got to argue that UpTown and Downtown both have distinctive feels from one another. Wouldn’t it be nice if, like you’re NYC example, we were able to connect these walkable nodes, that are unique and interesting, by some sort of transit so that you don’t need a car to get from one to the other? I’ve done the MidTown walk, but I doubt many people would choose that, especially as a daily “getting to work” activity.

        As someone who grew up in the area (and then moved away in the early 2000s), the amount of change that’s occurred both UpTown and Downtown in such a relatively short time period has been amazing! Who remembers what Downtown Kitchener was like in the 90s? Or the Waterloo “Town Square” mall atrocity? I’d say that both cities have been bold and forward thinking with their push for walkable, livable, cores. Especially in the context of government, where there is a general tendency for anything to take forever, especially something bold!

        Today, walking in both areas during the day, there are lot’s of other people walking around, from the offices to the shops to the condos. I just don’t think it’s fair to say there are zero walkable nodes.

        I guess what I’m really driving at is this:

        1) Why is LRT and walkability mutually exclusive? Why do we (taxpayers/government) have to spend $100s of millions on making nodes denser and more walkable? Can’t we achieve the same goal with stricter planning regulations and incentives? Certainly I’d argue that building some sort of super expensive monument won’t do the trick (go walk around the Skydome and CN Tower and tell me that that’s a “walkable” neighbourhood – it isn’t).

        Reply
        1. Ted Post author

          Hey Andrew,

          This is a great post, thanks. Lots of good points and perspectives.

          I agree that while both uptown and downtown aren’t walkable yet, they are getting close to crossing that line. That said, to become vibrant I still think they have a ways to go.

          I would actually say there are 4 “almost walkable” nodes in Waterloo (again, like you, sorry Cambridge, I just know KW): downtown, uptown, all the development at King/University by Laurier, and all the development East of UW.

          My fear is that, as the Jeff Speck quote in another post said, that by concentrating on all 4 we are basically guaranteeing that all 4 are mediocre, because we are spreading out all the resources and momentum across 4 places. What are your thoughts on this?

          On creating a single walkable node, what if it could be done with all private money? So there was zero cost to the tax payer?

          This is a good vector of discussion, so thank you for bringing it up.

          Reply
  2. Adam

    Hey Ted,

    Thanks for the great discussion on transit and mobility in Waterloo Region. I’ve greatly enjoyed following your posts and the ensuing commentary. I have a couple questions for you though because I’m not sure I exactly follow your reasoning on some key items.

    First, what do you define as a “walkable node?” I’m only asking because I don’t understand why Uptown Waterloo wouldn’t constitute one in its current form. I get the feeling walkable node implies being able to achieve the majority of one’s daily life activities within a certain walkable radius (which I would also like to be defined if you have a specific number in mind), but I could be wrong.

    As a follow-up, if my definition is mostly accurate, what in your opinion limits Uptown from currently being a walkable node? What elements would you remove, modify or add to achieve the status of walkable node for Uptown?

    Thanks for your clarification. Keep up the great discussion.

    Reply
    1. Ted Post author

      Hey Adam,

      Thanks for jumping into the fray! Any points of discussion or clarification really help.

      On walkable node, I agree with your definition: a place where all of your daily activities are within a walk. The actual radius according to Walkable City is hard to define, as it has been shown people will walk much farther as long as it is interesting, where interesting is basically defined as continuous shops. This is the problem with Bauer. I have one super uninteresting walk past Brick Brewery and the retirement home before I get to the action in uptown. If my condo was right in uptown, say above Chandlers, then I probably would walk for everything but work (maybe this is about to be built – apparently it was just bought in what was the region’s most expensive deal to date, although I cant find the link right now).

      So to your second question, I think the only thing uptown is missing is a) a condo right in the heart of it and b) a place where local companies fight to locate, which I think we could convince them to do because they know it will be an important factor for anyone that lives there who is choosing where to work.

      What are your thoughts?

      Reply
      1. Adam

        I’ll agree with you that the walk on that section of King is rather bland, although I do enjoy picking up a cheap local 24 from Brick occasionally so I don’t mind that it’s located there. Still, four minutes walk is hardly anything and I find it hard to believe that on most days, people would rather drive than walk Uptown from Bauer. I truly think you’re an exception in this case (I even know some of your elderly neigbours and even they walk to LCBO and Valu-mart!)

        Putting that issue aside though, if all that’s really missing from Uptown is a central condo tower and some upscale, trendy office space, I’d say we’re essentially at “walkable node” status already. Condo towers are being developed all around Uptown (plus I’d say Seagam Lofts already fits the bill for the ideal residence you’re describing) and it’s only a matter of time before some more interesting commercial space arrives . The master plan for the CTC has commercial development of this variety sketched into it in areas such as the current WTS parking lots so these concepts are not just my invention.

        And this all, of course, leads back to transit and LRT. If we agree that Uptown is a walkable node give or take a few coming developments and we agree that Downtown is (or is likely soon to become in much the same manner as Uptown) a walkable node then we should be looking at ways to better connect them because people will inevitably need to travel between them for a myriad of reaons (people already do such as working at the Tannery and living in Uptown). Indeed, add on the universities and you now have multiple nodes that need some form of transit to bring them together. Cars obviously can be part of this transit solution, but something else is needed since walkable nodes by definition lack the space for everyone to drive and park due to the density of development.

        Is LRT the best answer to solve the transit need between nodes? That’s a question we debated as a Region and it seems the answer that experts and politicians came to after years of study and debate is “yes.” I tend to side with them with a dose of skepticism – especially since LRT meanders out to the malls for no real reason if you look at densities – but I think the core route between UW and Downtown is quite sound.

        Reply
        1. clasher

          The LRT goes to the malls because those are already walkable “nodes” in their own right, in fact the only way to move around the mall is by foot or mobility scooter. They’re also already transit hubs in their own right. I don’t know if you’ve noticed all the tall apartment buildings around Fairview mall but there are a lot of people living in that area. There’s also a lot of industrial jobs around Conestoga mall that people already walk to. There’s no reason that parcels of the parking lots couldn’t be sold off and redeveloped.

          Reply
  3. clasher

    I haven’t read this book.

    I don’t particularly enjoy walking but I’ve done it for errand running before I had a car and didn’t feel like using the bus. I walked from Vic Park to Highland Road’s plazas for most of my shopping needs. I walked to downtown for banking and other stuff like that. The train station is a 20 minute walk, maybe… so that got me out of town. The bus terminal is right there too.

    The areas around Conestoga and Fairview are walkable for everyone that lives in the residential towers, especially along Fairway there is a trail (that needs to be improved) that runs from the mall west just behind all those plazas. I agree that it isn’t very nice walking nor are the sidewalks and signals really set up to be of much use to pedestrians… everything is built and designed to make it easy for cars instead of people to get around.

    I find the area from the university through waterloo park down to Uptown to be extremely walkable. I used to work for the university of waterloo over 10 years ago now and always enjoyed going to campus.

    “If it is to become widely used, transit has to be ruthlessly reconceptualised as a convenience, not just a rescue vehicle. … The system needs to focus on those rare opportunities where it can offer a superior experience to driving.”

    I think that point is pretty salient for the region of waterloo and pretty much exactly why we chose LRT instead of any of a myriad of other options.

    Reply
  4. Ted Post author

    I think that is the problem. The world’s cities have been designed for cars. And so now, realizing their mistake, these cities have to go in and do surgery, layering in transit over top. This is absolutely their only option.

    But Waterloo is different. We don’t have years of legacy that we need to do surgery on. We don’t yet have a problem. We still have tons of untouched space. And to top it all off we have the best tech school in the world. I think this gives us the opportunity to design parts of the city that are first and foremost built with the pedestrian in mind. Where every “rule” that comes from the car city era is thrown out, and is rethought for the post car era.

    Reply
    1. clasher

      Dude, there’s over a 100,000 people living in Waterloo… that’s a lot of legacy and buildings that aren’t going anywhere. The city of Waterloo is pretty much out greenspace to develop as well, save for the strip along the Wilmot Line that is part of the morraine and shouldn’t really get turned into subdivisions… it likely will anyway but otherwise the city is full. Check out google maps if ya don’t see it in your mind’s eye.

      Reply
      1. Ted Post author

        Ha yes, lots of space is taken up. But what I mean is that if you wanted to buy a block in NYC to “start again”, you would have to knock down a bunch of skyscrapers. But in Waterloo, usually at most it is a couple of houses.

        You already see this happening all over the place. Developers buying up a couple houses and starting from scratch. But instead of building something great. Something that will create walkable neighbourhoods, most of the time they are putting up the simplest, cheapest thing possible with no shops or street life at their base.

        Reply
  5. Brett Hagey

    Of course, due to the fact this blog is labelled Walkable Waterloo, the city with the smallest population in thr Tri-City area, the discussions are very very Waterloo-centric. If LRT was a K-W only tax expenditure that would be one thing, but it’s not.

    Ted, do you have some viewpoints yet regarding the other two cities, and townships, when it comes to how your ideas would unfold, in regards to more pedestrian traffic within the 5 major cores, Cambridge itself basically having three, itself?

    Reply
    1. Ted Post author

      Hey Brett,

      This is a very valid concern. I am very pro Waterloo. But I think it is unfortunate reality. It is like the Jeff Speck quote above, that we wish the entire region could be great, but by focusing on everything we will be guaranteeing that we are universally mediocre. It’s nice to think that a strategy exists that could make our whole region great, but I just don’t think it is possible.

      The reason I focus on Waterloo is because I think it is UW and RIM (BlackBerry) that have given this community the opportunity to compete on the global stage. Everyone knows UW coops, and RIM single handedly created the current era of technology (mobile). Take these two things, and combine it with our young city which has plenty of wide open space, and I think it gives us an opportunity that literally no other city in the world has to create something great.

      If there was a solution that could make the whole region great, I think that would be awesome. But I don’t think there is, and I definitely don’t think it is the LRT – it is like the other Jeff Speck quote above, why take a train when it takes less time by car?

      What are your thoughts?

      Reply
  6. Brett Hagey

    Waterloo’s not so young,actually, it’s has been around for a while; Germans started settling here in the early 1800’s.

    You’ve got a hall up there at UW named after my great great uncle, another was Waterloo’s first mayor, and another was it’s second Mennonite Bishop so I have a kindred connection to your neck of the woods. Hagey’s and Eby’s are pretty significant to the history of your town. Still, with that in mind I have to consider the needs of not only this part of the Region, but all others as well.

    Advocating a better transportation infrastructure for only one area of our community is what transformed the LRT into the region-wide debacle it currently is; so to be advocating better solutions for only Waterloo, such as what is being presented here, is part and parcel to the type of mindset that has made the LRT such a hotly disputed capital expenditure in the first place.

    Dare I say, unless you are willing to propose solutions that encompass all of Waterloo Region, the considerations you are presenting are no more equitable to the rest of the residents of our Region, or different then the considerations the Regional Council, the Councils of Kitchener and Waterloo, have already mandated will happen, and are just as isolationist in nature.

    You’re kinda preaching to the choir, as it were.

    Reply
    1. Ted Post author

      Hey Brett,

      Really appreciate all your comments. They definitely help move the conversation forward. Thank you.

      Yes, Waterloo is old. All land on this earth is. I am saying that Waterloo is metaphorically young. That we could do things here by knocking down a couple of houses, that in New York or San Francisco or Toronto would require you to knock down a couple sky scrapers. We basically have a clean slate.

      On fairness, this is where I really feel for cambridge with the LRT. That they are paying for a system that they will get zero access to. Yes, we (they) hope there will be a phase 2, but I haven’t heard that either the provincial or federal government has yet sent us a cheque, but maybe I missed this? And if ridership comes in low, which it almost certainly will (again, expert Jeff Speck agrees – see earlier quotes from his acclaimed book on trains), why would the province or feds do so?

      If I were proposing spending regional money to improve just Waterloo, of course this wouldn’t be fair. But I am not. I am proposing spending all private money to build one killer neighbourhood in Waterloo. Because I am suggesting that the only way to actually get people out of their cars is to, in the words of “expert” Jeff Speck, concentrate all our efforts on one spot. Because otherwise, in his words, we are guaranteeing universal mediocrity. At that helps no one.

      Reply
      1. Michael Druker

        Are you familiar with Northdale? Virtually all of the space bounded by King, University, Phillip, and Columbia in Waterloo just got rezoned for high density, urban, low-parking development. The old neighbourhood is already gone, but a new one hasn’t really been developed. It is wide open for the kind of private sector investment you’re talking about. In fact, I would suggest that there is nowhere else in Waterloo Region that permits anywhere near the urban redevelopment possibility that Northdale does.

        That, of course, doesn’t mean that investing in Northdale is an easy sell compared to investing in downtown Kitchener near King/Victoria.

        Reply
  7. Ted Post author

    Yes… Too bad everything going up is incredibly boring/ lame. No walkability at all!

    But it is interesting. Do you know the story behind it? Why’d they change the zoning? Why Northdale?

    Reply
    1. Michael Druker

      The street grid is plenty walkable, and the Sage developments along with the ones at Columbia/Phillip and others should help get the ball rolling for a more urban form.

      A wholesale zone change in a large swath is a very rare thing. Northdale was a residential subdivision that was built just after World War II. After UW was established and both universities grew, it became a natural location for student off-campus housing, leading to severe tension between the aging owner-occupants and temporary sometimes-rowdy students. The city tried a number of policies to preserve the neighbourhood character and keep the students out, or, notably, limit them to “nodes and corridors”. Essentially, the policies failed. (Worse, the “nodes and corridors” is ultimately responsible for the crap student towers that have recently gone up.) With very few owner-occupants left and with public support for a more urban solution (for which I advocated), the city went back to the drawing board for what the area could and should be. The result is zoning that is urban in form, generally mid-rise, high density, low parking requirements, and with commercial along larger streets — albeit, without much office use.

      There’s not that many ways to get a massive zoning / official plan change in a large area like that. One is the “urban renewal” of the post-war period — you get the area declared a slum, expropriate the land without fair compensation, kick everyone out, and demolish. That is fortunately generally no longer being done. A second approach is if someone with confidence and/or connections buys up all of the properties and convinces the city that changing everything is in line with its official plan. Another way is if you have a neighbourhood that is not satisfied with its own status quo, which is the Northdale case. Upzoning is attractive to landlords and commercial property owners, but is opposed by residential owner-occupants (if any) who have no interest in either moving or having a higher property assessment value. Which is why the Northdale case is such a rare one.

      Reply
  8. Moe

    Hey Ted, glad to see you are interested in Transit/City planning. It is something I have loved observing on my travels.

    To give some perspective, I joined waterloo the same time as Ted. I hated the city (UW was okay). I did my best to get away as much as possible. I am lucky to have lived in Waterloo, Ottawa, Seattle, San Diego, Lausanne, Turin, Geneva and Grenoble in the past 5 years (a little less than a year in each). Some of these places have no transit (Waterloo, San diego), bad transit (Ottawa, Seattle), or Amazing transit (Grenoble, Montreal, Lausanne). The ones with amazing transit all have light rail/metro systems with at least one very dense node.

    One thing I am not sure you have abstracted enough: What is the goal? I see the goal as turning Waterloo into a world class city. What makes a world class city? I see two things: history+culture (older cities), or strong leadership + cash (new cities).

    Ex. Historical cities: Montreal, Paris, Tokyo, etc.
    Ex. Strong Leadership: Dubai, Singapore, etc.

    Waterloo definitely is not a historically cultural city, so it will have to fall into the strong leadership section. Unfortunately, there are not so many examples in North america. So to compete with the up and coming world class cities, will be challenging, as they have virtually unlimited funding. Which leads us to the question, does Waterloo have the strong, long term leadership to become a world class city? Is the mayor the leader of the city? If the mayor is against the plan, and the plan passed, I am not so optimistic. Who will be the driving force, as we have seen in Dubai or Singapore?

    I totally agree with your perception that Waterloo is a blank canvas. Canadian cities have a rather rare problem, that no matter how walkable your city is, people will drive in the winter. Winter is terrible for transit. Montreal is the only city that I have seen that can remotely combat this problem, by building a huge underground city systeme, but this is tied directly to their transit system, and is focused on a few central nodes (see map). It also nearly bankrupted them. This means that there is room for real innovation. Canadian cities have a big winter problem. Why has only one tried to fix it (at a HUGE cost). We need a successful model.

    Some things that I think might assist is dissuading criticism may be to explain a few of these questions more concisely, as I am still confused as to the problem.
    -Why are the current regional transit plan, and a walkable city mutually exclusive? I know you say it is too expensive, but how expensive is too expensive?
    -You say we will be spread too thin, but why can’t private investors focus one node with the current plan?
    -What leadership is necessary to fix the problem?

    Not sure I added any insight, but I am glad to see there is a serious discussion going on here. People will never wait 5+ minutes in -20C weather for transit. Waterloo’s light rail seems like a good start to me, but to turn it into a world class city is going to take: 1. a lot of money, and 2. good leadership. I see neither at the moment.

    Moe

    Reply
    1. Ted Post author

      Hey Moe,

      This is a great post, with great questions. Thank you.

      Waterloo certainly isn’t a historic city. The only reason I think our city has a shot to be that leader + cash city is because of UW. Right now one of the few bright spots in the economy is tech, as software continues to “eat the world” (in the words of browser “inventor” and top VC Marc Andreessen). And the rare “commodity” in tech is not money, but talent. And for talent, I believe UW, because of their co-op, is literally the best source of tech talent in the WORLD. See here for an article by Kahn of Kahn Academy, one of the top online education start ups, talking about education and UW (it is great): http://cacm.acm.org/magazines/2013/1/158766-what-college-could-be-like/fulltext

      I think this, combined with the blank canvas that is Waterloo region, is our opportunity.

      Winter and an overall boring city is our threat, but I think that we could turn this into an opportunity by building something really unique.

      On a single node and transit being mutually exclusive, I agree that one day we will need both. But I worry that by putting transit before the node we are putting the cart before the horse, only delaying the time it takes to get to the one amazing neighbourhood by trying to build 5+ at once.

      That said, this makes some assumptions, which will be the topic of my next post 🙂

      Reply
  9. Pingback: Could the LRT Cause a (Good for Us) Real Estate Bubble in Waterloo? | Walkable Waterloo

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