Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Hope for a better future in Detroit

URBAN PLANNING. I spent last night watching an interesting documentary on Detroit, by many described as the worst urban failure in America and perhaps the world.
PBS aired “Blueprint America: Beyond the Motor City” a few nights ago. You can find it here . The film is part of a PBS series about America’s crumbling infrastructure.
Anyone interested in the dilemmas American cities face as they look for a future beyond car dependency will find this film worth seeing.
It paints a grim picture of a city that once was one of the greatest in the country, but now has more or less collapsed. The downfall is blamed on a total reliance on the automobile and the highways that were built for them with the destruction of public transportation as a result.
But the film gives some hope. Plans for a stretch of light rail along the main thoroughfare Woodward Avenue is seen as a starting point for the revival of Detroit.
When I met John Norquist, the former mayor of Milwaukee who now heads the Congress for the New Urbanism, in Chicago last year he talked a lot about Detroit.
“”To build highways in cities, for example, is insanity. It lessens the value of the city. In most European cities they wouldn’t do that, but here we have done that. It’s like dropping a bomb over the city”, he said.
“America won the Second World War, but if you take a city like Detroit today and compare it with Rotterdam, Hamburg, Dresden or Nagasaki you could think that the war took place in Detroit, not in Europe or Asia.”
Now many American cities are at a crossroads, looking for the right way forward. “The change has to begin in Detroit”, it was said in the PBS documentary.
If you are interested in Detroit, I can recommend a year-long project by Time magazine that you can follow in a special blog.

Going for gold in green urbanism

PROFILE OF A MAYOR. This is the moment he has been waiting for, a once in a lifetime chance to step up on the international stage. He seems to be in good shape, and he is going for gold.
Vancouver aims to be “the greenest city in the world” and with the Winter Olympics that open on Friday, Mayor Gregor Robertson will use every opportunity to tell the world about it.
“We would gladly challenge other cities in a friendly competition for that title”, said Mayor Robertson (left) when I met him in Copenhagen recently.
The 16-day games will attract 250,000 visitors to Vancouver and some three billion tv-viewers around the world are expected to follow the spectacle. The opportunities for the city to sell itself are endless.
At the same time any mayor would have some worries when 10,000 journalists invade their city. Mayor Robertson of Vancouver should be no exception.
There will be no profile on Vancouver, written or filmed, without grim images of the poverty, drug-dealing and homelessness in the city’s downtown Eastside. There will be angry protesters complaining that the city could use their tax-payer’s money in a better way.
And in the days leading up to the Olympics, unusually warm weather is creating problems for this festival of winter sports.
But few cities have a better reputation than Vancouver, with 2.2 million residents in the metropolitan area. The amazing setting between the Canadian Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Ocean makes it one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Smart urban growth has made it a pleasant city to live in, unless you are homeless of course. And Vancouver is regularly ranked as one of the most liveable cities in the world.
But Gregor Robertson wants more than that. He wants his city to be a world leader in modern, sustainable urban development.
“I came here to mark the importance we in Vancouver see in climate change and what we want to do about it”, Robertson said at the Mayor’s Summit, held in connection with the United Nations Climate Conference in Copenhagen in December.
We spoke as he finished a short trial run on a new eco-friendly “smart” bicycle that was presented at the Mayor’s Summit. He was thrilled, riding the bike in his impeccable dark-grey suit on a rainy and chilly winter day.
“What an amazing feeling”, said the mayor of the hi-tech bike, perhaps comparing to the old mountain bike he is reported riding at home.
“I ride my bicycle everyday.”
The youthful, 45-year-old mayor is often seen riding his bike to meetings, in suit and helmet. In office for just 14 months, he could perhaps be seen as a model for a new type of “green” politician cut out for the 21st century.
When he ran for mayor representing the new Vision Vancouver, a center-left movement, he was portrayed as “local green businessman” with just a few years in city politics. He had a background as an entrepreneur, co-founding organic juice company Happy Planet.
Before that he worked as a cowboy, sailed the Pacific Ocean with his wife and went into farming in New Zealand.
As Mayor of Vancouver he has tried to deal with the pressing issue of the homeless, an embarrassing stain on the city’s otherwise mostly spotless reputation.
But he is building his reputation mainly on his ambition to make Vancouver a green leader. In October 2009 he announced an ambitious 10-year plan to make Vancouver the world’s greenest city by 2020.
Some of the steps in the plan include:
● Eliminating the city’s dependence on fossil fuels and reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 33 percent.
● Making the city a mecca for green enterprise.
● Making Vancouver a world leader in the design and construction of green buildings.
● Encouraging green mobility by having more than 50 percent of residents walking, cycling or using public transportation.
● Achieving the cleanest air of any major city in the world.
Critics have called the Mayor’s initiatives “irritating greenwash”, but Gregor Robertson will pursue his goals.
The Olympic Games will be an important opportunity to set things in motion. The recession has created problems, like everywhere else. But investments in infrastructure will help the city build on its Olympic heritage.
In an op-ed article in the Vancouver Sun yesterday, Mayor Robertson underlined the importance of showcasing what he sees as the “values of Vancouver”: creativity, compassion, sustainability and business acumen.
“Beaver tails, mini-doughnuts, and hockey sticks at Vancouver House (the city’s pavilion for marketing the city during the Olympics)? Think again. We’ll be presenting local leaders in clean technology, digital media, urban development and green business”, Robertson wrote in his op-ed piece.
When I met him, Mayor Robertson listed some of his city’s strengths this way:
“We are a very multicultural city, one of the most diverse in the world. It is also a good city for entrepreneurs. We have the highest share of entrepreneurs of all cities in North America. It’s mostly seen in the creative businesses.”
Vancouver already has a reputation for its way of managing urban growth. It’s knows as “Vancouverism” and stands for density in urban development, a focus on public transit, walkable neighbourhoods and green buildings.
Time will tell if Gregor Robertson and his “Vision Team” have what it takes to make Vancouver the world’s greenest city. The competition is tough, like in the Olympics.
“Stockholm is probably the greenest city in the world right now. The Swedes put the bar up high, just as they have in ice hockey”, Robertson said to me, leading him to an Olympic prediction.
“But Canada will win the gold in hockey, for sure.”

Copyright: VANOC/COVAN
Vancouver, a mecca for sports and green urban development.