Katie on Downtown Revitalization

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One of my favourite planning anecdotes is that the inventor of the modern shopping mall ended up despising his invention. In the wake of the suburban boom, Victor Gruen saw a need for a safe and engaging place that was not one’s work or home, where participation and interaction could thrive. The mall was a hub for culture, entertainment, and commerce. It was an exciting and lively idea, especially post-war. As malls began to pop up all over the country, Gruen grew to hate what his invention had manifested into. Shopping malls have resulted in disconnected cities and have contributed to suburban sprawl; a detriment to social activity and to the environment.

Think about your city, especially if it is a smaller city of less than 100 000. If you have a mall, where is it located? It is probably located near your highway. Why is that? What do you think it’s doing to your city? Compare your mall to your city’s downtown. Can you name ten businesses located in your downtown? You can very likely name ten businesses located in your mall.

If you were driving down the highway and got off an exit to a city, you would very easily find its mall. You might shop, and maybe you would get some food, and you would want to be on your way. There is no purpose for you to continue into the city, you have done what you needed to do at the mall, and the highway is so conveniently placed that you feel welcome to leave. Hidden in the shadow of the city’s mall is its downtown, forgotten especially by tourists and often only supported by inner-city dwellers.

The disconnect that the mall has created between itself and its city has negatively impacted local economies, small businesses, and has picked at the social activity of a city over the decades of the mall’s existence. Without a primary focus on the city’s heart and core, the city slowly dies! Its life is found in the outer suburbs that thrive off of the malls and vice versa.

So what do we do about this disconnect and deterioration? Downtown revitalization has been the answer to this issue to cities across North America, and for good reason. So many cities have been able to start the process of reversing the negative effects of the mall’s existence through downtown revitalization.

What is downtown revitalization? Well, what isn’t it? When you think of those words, you may think of loud construction, but it isn’t always so disruptive. A primary non-physical aspect of downtown revitalization involves better marketing strategies – for example, consider London’s Get Down! campaign that took advantage of this age’s social media boom and put their downtown in the spotlight. Marketing strategies such as this are often only part of a much more involved strategy that aims at re-energizing downtowns.

Cities invest millions in their downtown cores. Belleville has just completed Phase 2 of its downtown revitalization process, having polished off a major commercial section of the main downtown street, Front Street. As a part of the Belleville Downtown Improvement Area during the summer, I was in the front seat for the bulk of it. After a major facelift for Belleville’s downtown, it is a much more welcoming place to be. Aesthetics play a major part in city planning, as it’s so primary to one’s perception. With newer and more welcoming city infrastructure, more people and activities are accommodated. Downtown revitalization is also an excellent tool for keeping cities up to date and with the times. For example, more people are turning to bikes than cars – especially millennials – and Belleville’s new Front Street is now a safer place for cyclists.

If cities spend millions on their downtown centres, what comes out of it? The refocus on downtowns stresses the importance of the local economy and of communities that are socially active and invested. In many cities, downtown revitalization takes on a new urbanist form where living accommodations are mixed with cultural hubs and local stores. This puts an emphasis on walkable neighbourhoods and encourages social activity and welcoming environments.

But why is downtown revitalization relevant? Are cities better with these new urbanist motifs unfolding in their downtowns? What difference does it make? This brings us back to the shopping mall. First consider a social, walkable, accessible downtown with a mix of transportation – cyclists, pedestrians, cars, public transit – with business owners and residents who naturally encourage and support each other as part of a community. Compare this to a hollow shopping mall placed near a busy highway and surrounded by a sea of pavement and cars, cradling big name stores that do not rely on excellent customer service to keep their business running. This mall is completely disconnected from the outside world. What is a more interesting and engaging environment between these two options? Downtown revitalization is happening to compete with the convenience of malls and to bring people back to not just the city, but to the heart of the city.

Interestingly enough, malls are becoming more desolate as online shopping becomes a bigger and even more convenient trend for people all across the world. North American malls are beginning their decline, and there are more and more malls – especially in the United States – that are becoming hollow holes of what once was a booming feature in the suburban glory of the 50s going forward. So while downtown revitalization is currently competing with what energy malls are left exerting, it is also beginning a huge competition with the new age of purchasing something from the comfort of your bed and having it arrive at your house in less than 48 hours. Is it realistic for downtowns to compete with this advancement of technology? What will cities become as we turn to online interfaces for almost every social interaction? Will downtowns – or even cities – become obsolete the further into the future we go? Or will there always be insurmountable value in seeing a friendly face as we open a local store’s door?

You can look back at past experiences to consider how attached you are to your city and to your city’s downtown. You can also anticipate your involvement in your city as technologically evolves around it. I think I will always appreciate downtowns as a social hub of interaction and interest, and being able to interact with a friendly face in indoor and outdoor settings. Downtown revitalization is a process that cities must take to remain competitive in today’s technological atmosphere, but it’s up to how the public reacts that would ultimately determine whether or not the revitalization was worth the investment. So ask yourself, do you appreciate malls, computer screens, or downtowns as your go-to avenue of social interaction? What are the social consequences of your choice? How does this choice affect your city?

Some interesting links to ponder:

The Father of the American Shopping Mall Hated what he Created

Kitchener’s Revitalization Success

Strategies for Downtown Transformation

Get Down! Downtown London

Belleville’s Phase 2 is Complete

 

 

Katie on Transit: Belleville on one hand, Waterloo on the other…

Over the summer, I was working in the Belleville Downtown Improvement Area office, located on Belleville’s Front Street. I don’t drive, so it was either a 45 minute walk, a 15 minute bike ride with a seemingly constant flat front tire, or I would take the bus. I rarely rode my bike, I walked maybe 60% of the time, and the rest of the time I would take the bus.

In Belleville, I live right next to one of the most major arterial roads, Dundas Street. Whenever I took the bus, I had to walk across the highway, stand alongside it, and wait on the grass as trucks whizzed by me constantly (that rant comes later), and the bus route would take me in the complete opposite direction of downtown, and whiz through many of Belleville’s East end residential avenues and then finally pull up in front of the library, which luckily left just a couple minutes’ walk to the office, right on time for work.

No one was forcing me to take the bus or that route, I’m very aware, but the problem I have with the bus system is its haywire inefficiency that would otherwise inhibit me to even take the bus and support Belleville’s transit system. One thing that really irks me is, compared to the Region of Waterloo — and plenty of other cities around Canada and the world, Belleville does not have any alternating routes that complement each other. For example, if there was a bus riding the same route in the opposite direction (going towards Front Street), I wouldn’t have had to cross the highway and I would be at my destination within minutes. Creating complementing routes would make the system far more efficient for the ridership, and would have the potential support a large ridership because it just makes sense to have buses going each way — someone who would have taken the bus might end up walking instead because it’s much more efficient for them to do so in a certain situation, leaving them to disregard the bus and its one-way system, like I did some mornings.

Of course, so many things come to question in this speculation of efficiency. Sure it may be more effective in some situations similar to mine, but Belleville’s bus terminal as it is is definitely not big enough to support literally double the amount of busses that are on the road currently. (Additionally, if anyone has noticed the public’s impatient attitude with the Downtown Belleville Revitalization, there would definitely be some vocal negativity towards such a project). Also, is Belleville’s ridership even that big enough for it to be of concern? I remember going to the mall on a Saturday afternoon a couple years ago with my friend, taking the bus that was travelling on a major street connecting many of Belleville’s neighbourhoods. We got on the bus that takes you from popular East end Belleville to the mall and there was one other person on the bus – on a Saturday afternoon! Similarly, over the summer going to and from work, there was never a time when there weren’t plenty of seats to choose from. Belleville’s manager of transit Matt Coffey claims that ridership is up, however these fluctuations of numbers are common. Also, take note that Belleville transit eliminated a route and combined some of its old stops with an existing route, proving that in some areas of the city, the need for bus transit is very little. (But some need still existed, and that’s the trouble!)

Now for my rant: safety. Belleville’s bus stops are not safe; at least, some of them are not. Waiting alongside Dundas Street East for the bus in those mornings when I wished I had woken up early enough to walk really woke me up in a different way. The image below shows you how close you are pushed to the road, constantly full of trucks that whizz by (especially at 8:30 in the morning when I stood waiting):

buskatieoncities

…And I can only imagine what that would be like in the wintertime.

This is definitely not the only bus stop like this in the City of Belleville that makes you afraid (city infrastructure should not make you afraid!); the stops all along Dundas Street past Herchimer Avenue are all like this one. The next closest ‘comfortable’ bus stop along Dundas’ Eastbound lanes is in front of Shoppers Drugmart (about a kilometre away), with seats and a garbage can.

It’s funny – I’m complaining, but I am a healthy, capable young woman who only experiences some discomfort. What if I were elderly or using a walker? What if I had a stroller of young children with me? I probably wouldn’t take the bus at all, considering the vehicles that oftentimes speed down the highway I would have to cross. There is nowhere for me to rest my legs as I wait for the bus, and I would feel so unsafe having kids waiting with me at such a dangerously located and exposed bus stop. Also, what if I didn’t know Belleville’s bus system at all? The lack of information on the bus stop signs completely alienates new users from taking the bus who wouldn’t know the fare, what bus stops here, where it goes, and when it would even come. I shouldn’t even have to mention this, but of course there is nothing like an app to download – the bus route system and schedule can only be found on the City of Belleville’s website.

The problem: Belleville’s infrastructure is lacking, resulting in an unsupported bus system. These gaps alienate new users and make people feel just plain uncomfortable. I want to be able to compare Belleville to Waterloo on this topic, but it’s actually very difficult because transit really depends on the demographics that shape it. Take Waterloo, for example, where the huge influx of students going to and from class on an hourly basis Monday through Friday simply demands for their to be busses going to and from campus at every hour of the day, to all areas of the city where they live. The bus scheduling system has been modified so that there are more buses on the route at peak times – missed the 202 iXpress going home? No problem, another one comes in less than 15 minutes. Back in Belleville, it would have been quicker to walk home for the 45 minutes that it took me.

I know I said it would be invalid to compare the two bus systems, but I’ll take a moment to discuss Waterloo on its own so you can come to your own conclusions. Waterloo’s bus system is actually also Kitchener’s and Cambridge’s: the Region of Waterloo took advantage of economies of scale in 2000 by amalgamating Kitchener-Waterloo’s and Cambridge’s then-individual transit systems into one regional transit system: The Grand River Transit, or ‘GRT.’ The connection between the tricities is an excellent opportunity for people to explore the region fluidly. So, as you can imagine, the ridership and bus fleet are both huge (in comparison to Belleville’s – sorry!).

My experience of the transit system here has been a more comfortable one compared to Belleville’s in general. There are many bus stops (around where I take the bus, at least), that have enclosed or at least protective coverings that protect you from the rain. (Raining in Belleville? Sucks! And the next bus comes in another 20 minutes, too. Have fun!) Also, many of the more populated bus stops have digital screens highlighting the current time and when the next bus will show up, which also let you know if a bus is delayed. Another big thing: the iXpress bus line, which takes you to designated central and highly populated areas only. It is a blessing to be able to take the bus straight from campus and have only one stop in between where I get on and get off. Of course, the buses here are much more populated, but interestingly enough it makes me more comfortable to be surrounded by people than when I boarded the near-empty bus in Belleville. I also take the bus because I am environmentally conscious, so why take it and end up being the only one on there? There was always this weird ping of environmental guilt in Belleville when the bus was near-empty, but in Waterloo (around my travel times, mind you) that pang of guilt will never hit me because the bus is constantly populated, often full of students my age.

Please take my arguments with a grain of salt. I am only one woman experiencing the bus system as I experience it in either city! Also, you just can’t compare Belleville to Waterloo with a high level of validity to your argument because of the wildly different variables. However, that doesn’t mean that Belleville can’t learn some things from the GRT: bus stops that make you feel like the city actually cares about your wellbeing, for example. (Okay, I can’t rip on Belleville too much, apparently there are plans to add some bus shelters in the near future.)

Interesting anecdote: many of my colleages who come from bigger cities complain about the GRT when I find it an absolute blessing. It makes me wonder how much more advanced their system is, which in turn makes me wonder just how much farther Belleville’s transit system has to go to achieve these levels of efficiency and comfort. Public transit does not have to be a gruelling task, Bellevillians! Please see the light, even if that means you have to visit another city.

Some interesting reads to suit your fancy:

Citizens make big impact with low-cost bus stop seating

It’s time to vote for the sorriest bus stop in America
(does the fourth picture ring a bell at all?)

The signal distance factor

GRT Fast Facts

Note: I always welcome and appreciate arguments, discussions, and comments!

Katie on Cities – ‘Velkomin!’

I am not exactly sure how to introduce this blog, because I am not exactly sure of what this blog will become. My intentions lie in discussing cities, but as an undergraduate studying urban and regional planning who has not declared any specific interests in certain avenues of the planning world, there are no limitations as to specific topics that this blog will focus on.

As of right now, I find I am interested in local history and social planning — how people interact with their environment and how their environment influences their daily decisions. However I could and likely will also comment on urban design, land use, and city politics; this blog is a way of exploring what I am interested in within and surrounding cities.

Understanding what perspective I am coming from would be important in assessing why my point of view is my point of view, because everyone experiences a city differently. My name is Katie Turriff, and I am currently in my second year at the University of Waterloo studying Urban and Regional planning. Though I spend my time and money in Kitchener-Waterloo, I consider my home base to be in Belleville, just a five hour drive Eastbound, where I was born and grew up.

Belleville is a city the size of approximately 49 000 people; about 1/10th the size of the metro here (Kitchener-Waterloo-Cambridge). The demographics are very different here, too: Waterloo is so much more diverse and, of course with two university and some-odd colleges, there is a huge presence of students here than in Belleville, which boasts only Loyalist College. Belleville is much more of a baby-boomer town — so you can imagine how much more I fit in here than there.

Because of my Bellevillian roots, anticipate reading about a lot of comparisons between Belleville and Southwestern Ontario, along with commentaries on planning articles and on what is going on in cities around me and around the world.

I will try to update this blog weekly at the very least.