Reinventing Alberta’s Inner Cities

Reinventing Alberta’s Inner Cities

There are moments in a city’s development that provide the opportunity for a rethink. What kind of place do we want to build for future generations?

Here in Alberta, that time is now. Stunned by high levels of office vacancy and restrained economic growth in Calgary and Edmonton, the urban life and spontaneity of Alberta’s major cities are at stake.

Economic summits are planned to stir up debate about how to stimulate a turnaround. How we choose to tackle these issues have great power to shift the trajectory and future success of the quality of life for residents, our urban environments, and economies. The path to reinvention will not be easy, but it is essential.

Where do we begin? First, it’s important to examine the key traits of successful cities. In great cities where adaptation has become the norm, a constant layering of uses and historic mix of identities is what contributes to their complexity and vibrancy. Many places with once problematic Central Business Districts have transformed into vibrant, pulsing, world-class centres with genuine street-cred.

Let’s take Melbourne as an example. Blighted by a slow decline, rising vacancy and automobile-centric planning it was described by a local newspaper as having an ‘empty and useless city-centre’. To combat this, the City of Melbourne set in place ‘The 1985 Strategy Plan’ which transformed its centre into a 24-hour activities district. Melbourne broke free of its old mindset and set a precedent through visionary planning and through nurturing of local creative ambition.

To do so, it reclaimed underutilized areas of the city for redevelopment and introduced incentives for residential uses under the planning policy Postcode 3000. The city pioneered demonstration projects, initiated a media campaign and provided streamlined approvals and tax relief to revamp older office buildings into residential uses. Recognizing there is embedded carbon efficiency in retaining existing building structures, it even published building recycling guidelines for residential and mixed-uses to ensure developers were able to maximize their value.

While not all structures would be suitable for preservation, there was a concerted effort to target vacant buildings, as well as introducing a new mix of uses into the core. The City also revamped laneways and arcades and underperforming high streets. Significant investment was made towards design, arts, community programs, public events, and street infrastructure upgrades. With the emphasis on the new activities district, a design renaissance flourished. As a result of its transformation, from 2010-2014 Melbourne was voted the world’s most livable city.

In Alberta’s current context, the recent revival of downtown living presents new opportunities for our city centres to capitalize on location. There needs to be a focus on repurposing our inner city core to catalyze new and varied uses and shape the identity of the city.

The whole life of the community needs to be seen holistically, from streetscape to public services and programming. When a city shows it cares about the design of its environs, the people will flood in and the economic benefits will follow. This is because the design of our built environment is tangible – it is an investment people can understand.

Will Craig on behalf of DIALOG 

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