Transforming suburban Saskatoon: Former Vancouver city planner suggests ways to improve suburbia

By Karin Yeske March 20, 2013 - Every 10 minutes, about 2,000 subdivision lots are approved in Canada. A former chief planner for the City of Vancouver says they are all unsustainable. Larry Beasly will be talking about transforming suburban Saskatoon at a free presentation Wednesday night at the Roxy Theatre.

Beasley has a long list of awards on his resume, including an Order of Canada, the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal and the Kevin Lynch Prize from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the most prestigious award in American planning. Currently this year’s University of Saskatchewan planner-in-residence. Beasley is impressed that the city is making change happen, but says  suburbia needs to be looked at in a different way.

“A lot of Saskatoon’s growth is going to be suburban growth. Unless we can reshape that model, Saskatoon is going to contribute to the unsustainable urbanism of the country,” he said after a talk at City Hall about smart municipal action in the modern world.

He said suburban neighbourhoods are not dense enough, their streets are too wide, and they sprawl too much over natural habitat and create a situation where everyone jumps in their car as opposed to walking. Neighbourhoods should be a place where people want to live their entire life.

“All too often in our cities now, if you want to give up your house in the suburbs, you’ve got to move downtown. If your children want to live (in the city) they’ve got to go even further into the suburbs,” he said.

Beasley admits that people are not going to give up their cars for public transit. Therefore, he will not be suggesting transit-oriented development and giving up consumption at his talk Wednesday night.

“No one is going to decide to move into a 25-storey building because we’ve all said it is good for the environment. I think that we can make gentle and delicate changes. We can bring the densities up slightly. We can diversify these neighbourhoods. We can bring in amenities that are just not found in these neighbourhoods in many cases. We can look at the natural systems in which these neighbourhoods exist,” he said.

People don’t buy a house, they buy a lifestyle, said Beasley. At the moment, about 8,000 children live in the downtown.

Beasley and his team transformed Vancouver's downtown area to make it more attractive for families. Downtown Vancouver now has plenty of childcare spaces and schools, walkways no longer intersect major roads, and toxic substances are no longer involved in outdoor play areas. A quarter of the units in housing units must be attractive for families, including number of bedrooms and even the type of flooring used.

Beasley said 40 units per acre net (20 units per acre gross) is good enough.

“At that level, transit works, utilities work, social systems work, the environment is protected, people get out of their cars and it becomes walkable,” he said, adding living spaces need to be interesting, innovative, fun.

The reason many people would vote against high rises in their downtown is that they have a bad reputation for being unpleasant, sometimes dangerous and windy, according to Beasley.  He said to keep the innovation close to the street and spread the energy. He suggested building towers that are sandwiched between ground housing.

As Saskatoon grows, Beasley said the core needs to be denser.

“This is a very good core to repopulate. You have an incredible open space network. You have the river. You have, still, very healthy urban fabric in your core,” he said, adding some cities like Detroit feel dead in their downtown.

“This nice downtown could be made unbelievably attractive for residents to come back and live here.”

Beasley will be speaking at 7 p.m. at the Roxy Theatre (320 20th Street W). A reception hosted by The Two Twenty will follow.

(c) Rawlco 2013