By: Ezra Lipton
A question I like to reflect on is ‘Where are we going?’ The significance of this question for me was derived from Ronald Wright’s 2004 Massey Lecture and book A Short History of Progress. This question is prefaced by the questions of ‘Where are we?’ and ‘where did we come from?’ This series of questions is open-ended in its subject; from the personal to our entire species, and just about everywhere in between. It is a foundational questioning of our existence and ways of knowing or locating ourselves. I like these questions because they beg the respondent to create a story, some kind of semi-functional narrative to connect the dots of past, present, and future.
This week I had the opportunity to give a lecture to a third year architecture class on urbanism at the local technical university in San Jose del Cabo, Instituto Tecnologico de Los Cabos (ITES). It worked out perfectly that I stalled the date of my presentation to this week, as my lecture followed students Pecha Kucha presentations on urbanism throughout history, and it prompted my reflections on Wright’s questions.
My lecture was maybe inappropriately titled “Urbanismo en Canada”. While I did inform them about the shift to an urbanized population, that 75% of the country’s population lives within 160km of the USA, and showed some unblemished photos of the various downtown areas of cities across Canada, I then veered into a narrative that captures not just Canada. I delved into the narrative of how cities across Canada have sprawled, creating places that depend on the car to access basic goods and services, and about how this type of growth and development has been indoctrinated into our culture and manifested in our infrastructure, our physical realities, through government subsidy (support through financial policies or construction of infrastructure) that favoured a low-density, sprawling form of development.
Luckily for the morale of the room, I didn’t end my lecture there. I shifted from the narratives of where are we, and how did we get here, to the narrative of where are we going. And this is where I again I may have slightly mistitled my lecture. I presented initiatives that are starting to happen in Canada, but for many of them, I found myself specifying my google image query with “Canada”. That is because while community visioning, tactical urbanism, and community groups do exist in Canada, they have been inspired by similar practices in other cities across the world.
I stressed the importance of communities, a word that’s definition, while remaining the same, has profoundly expanded in scope in our recent history. This scope is evident in the fact that my lecture on Canadian Urbanism borrowed ideas from across the globe. During the lecture I focused on the potential for communities at a local level, and the role that the individual or community of individuals can have on the city though tactical urbanism. Pointing to projects such as temporary separated bike lanes, I explained that their demonstration prompted the local government to make that temporary lane a reality. From here I suggested that similar kinds of projects while they may not result in a permanent adoption, can do so much to provoke people to think about their community and the urban environment as something that can be affected.
One discussion point that reverberated was questioning which public we create public spaces for. My example for this was the creation of cricket pitches in public parks in Canada. Municipal governments doing so, acknowledged and supported the many new immigrant communities in Canada that did not come with their hockey equipment in tow. Creating public spaces that reflect the culture of the people that live there not only support that community’s health, but also create an opportunity for cultural exchange. One of my fond memories of a trip to Calgary was spending a couple hours sitting in a park watching a cricket match. Creating infrastructure that is representative and supports the activities and culture of the public beyond the conventional public is a step forward in developing a sustainable community. This point is important in Canada, but is also important in Los Cabos, where well over 50% of the population is from other parts of Mexico. It started a conversation about what infrastructure or amenities could be made to support the culture of people from other parts of the country and promote an exchange developing the culture and community of Los Cabos.
Another theme I discussed was the significance of seasonality on Canadian cities. The need to create public spaces and infrastructure that is adaptable for + and – 20 degrees Celsius is important for the functionality of Canadian cities. One example I gave of good urbanism in the face of seasonality is the City of Edmonton’s Winter Design Guidelines. These guidelines use environmental design, psychology, and urban design to suggest how outdoor public spaces could be designed to be more hospitable when the mercury drops. The connection I made here was for this kind of progressive thinking to be adopted in Los Cabos, but by flipping Edmonton’s guidelines on their head, by designing for spaces with shade, wind and anything else that could keep you cool in a place where I am sweating during the ‘winter’ season.
Towards the end of the presentation I explained one of the projects I am working on at the Instituto Municipal de Planeacion (IMPLAN) Los Cabos. As a way to promote a denser urban form and to create housing for some of the projected 400,000 additional people that will be living here in just over 20 years, I have proposed the creation of a guide to help with and promote the construction of secondary suites. Secondary suites, or additional dwelling units are part of the conversation in many cities across Canada as a strategy to develop density while maintaining neighbourhood character. I also like secondary suites because they are owned by homeowners, essentially enabling a much larger amount of the population to benefit from the increased density and new development through the income of renting these additional units (in addition to other service-based benefits of density).
The idea to create a guide for secondary suites stemmed from my interest in the zine community and the project by the Centre for Urban Pedagogy (CUP) in New York. CUP creates posters and pamphlets that explain overly technical concepts relating to urban planning, economics and law. While writing these guides in a clear, simpler language, packed with many clear visuals, they also translate them into other languages for those communities, which are particularly at the mercy of our complex urban reality.
I admit, I had another motive for sharing this project with them. I opened the project up to them, and suggested that if they are interested in the project, they could help me by creating flexible architectural designs for secondary suites that would be included in my guide. There was interest from a few students, who could work on it as part of a thesis project, a professional practice, or as a community service, which students at the university here have mandatory hours for, as part of repaying Mexican society for the (what I am told is) significantly subsidized university tuition. Now maybe that’s an idea for me to bring back to Canada.