In Praise of Suburban Life: WHAT?!

2012 Diamond-Schmitt Urban Futures Lecture

Toronto – October 30, 2012

As a planner and urban designer, one of the great things about coming to Toronto is that there is so much to talk about.  You have so many interesting initiatives here that deserve their own commentary or are relevant to the rest of the country.  At this point in time, I could talk about the pros and cons of your massive inner-city housing boom or your continuing transit drama or the effects of your dramatic cultural expansion over the last few years.  But I think you have a lot of people already talking about those things and, frankly, that’s what I’m usually talking about.  I think Jack and Don want something different, something more on the edge than that.  So, instead, tonight, I am going to talk about suburbs.  For me this is a perfect forum of national importance to focus on suburbs – you have among the most extensive suburban patterns in the nation and what you do with your suburbs could be very influential in what others right across the country start to do about their suburbs.  And, as you can see, I have titled this presentation “In Praise of Suburban Life”.  What, me, Mr. Vancouver Urbanism, putting the words “praise” and “suburban” together?  Have I gone nuts?  Have I lost my hold on reality?  I mean, it’s often said that I can’t even go east of Boundary Road in Vancouver without coming down with the flu (and I rarely get the flu).   So, let’s face it, I have to fess up before we even get going:  I actually deplore modern Canadian suburbs.  I think most of them are ugly, vacant and dull – and I know absolutely that they are not sustainable.  And, as I say this, I bet most of the people in this room will wholeheartedly agree with me.  But, before we finish tonight, I am going to try to convince you to actually embrace the essence of suburban life – not its current form but its underlying appeal – and  to use it as our guide in transforming this huge part of Canadian cities to be sustainable.  I am going to ask you to embrace the suburbanite and the aspirations these people have for their homes and families.  I am going to ask you if there is not a way to embrace a lifestyle that a vast majority of Canadians prefer and at the same time secure the level of compatibility with the environment, and social harmony, and fiscal prudence, and cultural richness – the pillars of sustainability – that all Canadians will absolutely need for our survival in the 21st century and beyond.

I think this is going to be a tall order.  As the urban cognoscenti, the planning and urban design establishment, most of us have spent our lives trying to pull our cities away from the seemingly inevitable suburban trends of the post-war automobile era in Canada, and throughout North America for that matter, and we have built up a rich and wonderful set of concepts, principles and practices to help us do that.  And, I have to say, we have seen some great success.  In fact, it is not an exaggeration to say that right across the land, we find our core cities in a wonderful revival; we find transit-oriented development nodes coming together out in the suburbs; we find models of dense living that are beautiful to see and public places we have made that are delightful to be in.  We have secured a beach-head in heritage preservation and mixed-use development and, more recently, in sustainable building.  We are finding positive partnerships between government and the development community and citizens.  And, for all of this, we can be very proud – we are in a very good place, compared to what we faced when I came on the scene about 40 years ago.  It feels good.

But, to a greater degree than most of us realize, I think we are also in a fool’s paradise.  We are very deep in a hole about the future of Canadian cities – and much of the success we have enjoyed over the last generation is not going to help us to get out of that hole.  We are in what I call an intellectual cul-de-sac that, if we cannot punch through, will make it almost impossible to do what has to be done for Canadian cities, especially Canadian suburbs, in the future.

You see, I think we are facing a very tough and dangerous contradiction in regard to the future of our cities in this country.  On the one hand, we have to find a way to make our future cities sustainable and affordable; and, on the other hand, the way we have in mind (in the collectivity of the professions of the urban design culture of Canada) is simply not endorsed by the majority of our people.  This is dangerous because in a democracy, after all is said and done, it will be the people who rule the day.  This is tough, because, once the status quo of our current thinking is rejected – as it is being rejected by a vast number of consumers every day – we have almost nothing fresh or new to offer that might be accepted and also effective to transform our cities to the sustainable mode.

To me, unfortunately, the numbers are just so telling.

60% of Canadians live in suburbs.  Maybe about 15% of Canadians live in urban cores and the rest live outside cities, in towns and villages or in rural settings.  We can quibble over these specific numbers – they are shifting all the time – but the reality is that no numbers in the country can challenge the fact that the majority of us have either foresworn or avoided city life.  To address sustainability, we talk classical urban solutions, and everywhere we are showing excellent, liveable, quality examples.  Because of lifestyle preferences and costs and background, most Canadians continue to make suburban choices.  It was a shock for me to realize several years ago that in all my work over a lifetime (and I have been busy!)  – in leading a huge group of very clever people to conceive and put in place the “living first” strategy to re-populate Downtown Vancouver – and with all the success in the market place of this new living option – and with the equal or greater success of people like me and like you in big and medium-sized cities all over the country – with all of this, we have only affected a 5 to 10% shift toward urban living by Canadians.  60% of Canadians still do not want what we offer.  60% of Canadians still prefer their single family home and their one or several cars and their private back garden and their quiet street and what they see as their modest scale, “family-oriented” and safe neighbourhood; their bucolic image of intimate neighbourhood life.  60% of Canadians will tell you in no uncertain terms that this is their best choice – and looked at from their perspective, I think it is hard to argue with them.  I think, regarding their private interests, they are right.

Just for fun, let’s check the numbers in this room.  How many people here tonight live in a single family home?  How many of you usually drive a car to work or school?  How many of you live next door to low-income people?  How many live in a mixed use building (or at least over a shop)?  Now, let’s do the same questions for only those over 35-years-of-age: single-family home; drive a car; have low-income neighbours; live in mixed use?  I hope this makes my point.  We are the most dedicated urbanists in our whole society but, even with us, looking at our consumer patterns, the numbers tell a different story.

Of course, just because the suburbs work for the majority of Canadians, as individuals, doesn’t make them sustainable or mean they work for the community as a whole.  I think we all know they put huge pressures on our collective tax base and are impossible to service efficiently and economically.  I think we all know that they put huge pressures on the ecology around them and are our single biggest national contribution to negative climate change.  We may have founded Greenpeace and we may think of ourselves as very “green”, very environmentally conscious, but the facts of how we live put the lie to all that.  I don’t need to detail the science on that in this room.    And, I think everyone in this room would also agree that if we don’t fix this,  we will be in very deep trouble as a species on this planet within a very short time – in fact, we are already living on borrowed time.

And, I know that everyone in this room actually has a good idea of what it will take to fix this situation.  We all understand and believe in that well-articulated formula for smart growth as the answer for sustainable cities.  Just to remind you, here it is– it covers both the structure and the infrastructure of cities.

From a structural point of view,

-it is about the form of our cities – clustered density and mixed use and all kinds of diversity and protected open space;

-it is about the fabric of our cities – environmentally neutral construction of buildings and spaces; and,

-it is about the character of our cities – placemaking and quality and local uniqueness and cultural richness.

From an infrastructural point of view,

-it is about the circulation within our cities – more and more transportation choices, transit, cycling, with less and less dependence on the conventional private car;

-it is about the community services and social safety net within our cities – recreation facilities and childcare and good schools and all kinds of accommodations for those with special needs; and,

-it is about the utilities of our cities – managing water and waste and energy in a conserving way and where possible accessing local inputs and food.

We are also all confident that this formula works over the range of many challenges we face in modern life – of course it works for the environment; but also to address endemic and growing health problems; and to mediate social isolation; and to generate cultural expression; and to enhance the simple quality of everyday life.  All these things can be addressed through this same city lens.

But, now let me give you the experience of the “eco-density” initiative for suburban transformation in Vancouver that attempted to apply this formula at face value.  It was a total disaster.  The planners talked density and the public hate density and certainly don’t want tall buildings next door.  The planners talked mixed-use and diversity and the public fears crime and strangers.   The planners talked eco-practices for building and infrastructure and the public worries about increased taxes and higher costs.  The planners talked alternatives to the car and the public thinks they are going to lose their cars.  And then, the public talked about impacts and the negative effects they could see in the whole strategy and the planners scold them for “nimbyism”.    The planners and the public were just on totally different wave-lengths.  And, in the end, even though the politicians adopted something – some sort of charter – the issue is pretty dead from a practical perspective and from a political perspective and the whole movement for smart suburban growth has been set back for years.

My point in all of this, and my first theme for this evening, is that the planning and design establishment in Canada are going to have to work a lot harder to find sustainable suburban solutions that will also be attractive to most of our people and affordable for most of our people.  None of our current solutions are appealing to most suburbanites – or I might say to the average person.  These will have to be solutions that can find popularity not just at the level of theory and talk but more so at the level of consumer practices.  These will have to be solutions that find wide-spread endorsement that can start

to make big inroads into that 60% majority of Canadians that has been impervious to our ideas to date.

These will have to be solutions that stay true to that formula of smart growth but that offer it up in a fundamentally different package than we have seen so far in Canada.  So I want to spend the rest of my time tonight talking about some of the solutions that can meet this tough test; that might make this tough reconciliation between sustainable science and consumer preferences.

To start, let’s put on the table several widely held professional planning opinions that I think we have to expose for what they are – widely held myths that are preventing us from being creative, particularly about our suburbs.

The first of these is that the car is on its way out with the arrival of peak oil.  I think the very opposite may be true.  Automobile technology is now starting to move very quickly toward more and more alternative energy sources and I think it could become a carbon neutral machine before too long.  I am now even hearing the idea that it could become a clean energy producing machine.   In fact, it is overwhelmingly evident to me that we will definitely re-invent the car (for price as well as political reasons) long before we wean ourselves from the car as a society.  But, even short of that, my experience everywhere I work in the world is that as soon as people are wealthy enough, the personal mobility of the car is the first of the luxuries that they secure – and they are prepared to pay a very high proportion of their income to maintain its benefits – and they just ignore the impacts that result from their car.  Also, I am very skeptical that any Canadian government that is electable will have the guts to stop subsidizing the automobile infrastructure to shift the full costs back to car users.  So those who are hoping that the car, and all its problems to the humane shape of our cities and the environmental impact of our cities, that all of this will soon be a thing of the past – and that we can move on from there – are just deluding themselves.  They are simply wrong.  My take is that we have to come to grips with the car; we have to tame it as much as we can, keeping the monster at bay from gobbling up the entire cityscape; and we have to plan for it to have a place among a nice attractive array of options for moving around in the future city.  My second thought is that the best alternative to the automobile will not be another device; it will be our feet – walking.  And that will mean that we have to be very clever about proximity and connectivity as we look at the future shape of our suburbs.  I suspect that the whole transportation drama in the future has to be about less mechanical movement:  fewer trips and shorter trips and a lot more trips that use body energy rather than fuel.  And in all of this, there will be definitive answers.  It will be about adjusting probabilities in the right direction.

The second myth is that the single-family home is moving toward obsolescence and very soon we will start to see a natural shift to higher density multiple housing.  Planners talk about the demographic shifts that are underway in the population (people marrying and having children later, living longer, retiring earlier), the affordability problems that are growing and the proliferation of housing alternatives that are now available in the marketplace.  Again, I think the opposite may actually be more probable.  In my view, the fundamental pre-disposition that most Canadians have against density and height and loss of privacy and loss of access to nature – these will all limit the shift to dramatically different alternatives.  And, in most parts of the country, the single-family home in the far suburbs is still cheaper and more available than multi-family options.  As a developer, I tried to fight that battle – and in places like Fredericton, the “split level” wins over the apartment every time.  My take is that the changes that we will motivate will most easily happen within the context of the single-family morphology of the suburbs.  These will be changes of tenure and infill and diversification and other subtle elaborations.  These will be augmented through special opportunities at the neighbourhood margins that stay true to the modest scale and height that most people find most comfortable.   Yes, we will have our TODs and town centres and clusters along arterials, all of higher scale and density, and these will help, but I am convinced that the changes that will accommodate the most people will be the incremental gentle changes.

The third myth that seems to limit a lot of creative thinking is that there are certain laws and standards that just cannot be changed.  After many generations of building codes and street standards and sub-division standards and fire regulations and health regulations, a lot of planners seem to feel these are fixed, immutable laws that if we abandon or change too radically will cause our society to simply fall apart.  Or they feel these requirements are just too vested, in control of powerful forces or made imperative by our fear of liability.  I have come to the opposite conclusion.  I think almost all the standards and laws that have shaped the post-war city have to be abandoned or changed because they reflect a reality that no one really wants.  They also reflect a view of the world of at least a half a century ago.  That’s what we found in core cities and that is what I think is equally true in the suburban context.  Each standard or law or regulation trying to do the most regarding its own area of control has distorted the totality of urban experience to become what people just don’t enjoy or even need.  They provide levels of protection that are just too protecting.  They limit the kind of diversity and serendipity that is just too limiting.  And one of the strangest results that we see in all of this for the modern city is that to do what we really want, having full confidence that what we want to do is not going to hurt other people or create hazards, many otherwise law-abiding  people have to become “outlaws” in their own community.  I bet there are many outlaws right here this evening even though I am also pretty sure that you are all really nice, well meaning, socially responsible people.

Well, I could go on; but, having tabled these myths, what is more important to talk about is what might be positive, acceptable directions for sustainable suburbs in the future.  Also, what might be the process to discover the solutions?

To talk about the process, I can go back to how we approached the dilemma of inner-city revival all those years ago.  Essentially, we took nothing as given, realizing that the entire formula for the inner-city had to be rethought; nothing was sacred.   And, on that basis, we did two things that made all the difference:

-we had to focus on people as consumers; and,

-we had to drill down beyond basic needs to look at the emotional drivers of consumption that really cause people to shift their behavior.

None of these things were natural things for planners to do or to think about at the time.

Even now, because most planners work for government, either directly or indirectly, the tendency is to see the urban challenge as a policy challenge.  In other words, we see people as “citizens”, whose behaviour is directed by laws, and who express themselves as voters, as members of the body politic.  In fact, we are a little skittish about the marketplace and understanding how it works or what effect it has.  Well, those that have been involved with inner-city revival, where the whole strategy was to entice people to freely come back to live Downtown, will remember that the key to our success was to start to see people as consumers, and to spend a lot of time understanding what people think about and want and need as consumers.  We had to know that well enough so that we could start to offer the essential needs and wants but in new ways that fit the potential and reality of higher density inner-city life.  So we did huge programs of public consultation and engagement and genuine empirical research, involving tens of  thousands of people, to find out what people might be pre-disposed to want to consume and how that could be manifest in new ways in core cities.  We used different words, but what we did was not much different from what smart companies do when they want to introduce new products and build new demand.  And the result was that the “living first” strategy was not shaped by requiring consumers to do anything as much as it was shaped by tapping into a shifting sense of what consumers might really want to do by giving them cool new and different options that also met all our civic needs.  The development community joined us in this inquiry and, together, we found new ways to fund what was needed, not depending upon the traditional municipal tax base, and we broke every rule in the book that had previously applied to downtowns (admittedly putting in place new rules so that the trends of growth would be directed to the kinds of things consumers preferred and to the standards they needed), and we created the new urban places and the new urban products that now make our downtowns everywhere in the country incredible market successes.  My theme here is that even a modest shift in trends of consumer demand, being a spontaneous, widespread and positive thing, can have a lot more impact than all the government rules and regulations put together, which, of course, tend to prescribe what people can do in a negative way.  Once we made the consumer the focus of our thinking, we started seeing success.

And, of course, what this meant was that we had to go beyond the traditional agenda of municipal public policy; we had to look deeper at how consumers view the world.  As government planners, we tend to see cities as land-use maps and as the basics of housing and offices and industry and all the rest, and then as the community infrastructure and transportation arrangements to serve these sectors.  We tend to shape all this within a web of policy.  Well, that is just not where consumers are at.  They expect the basics – civic and market offerings and protections – but they are searching for a lot more; they want meaning and relevance and image and those things that make life worthwhile.  They want the emotional side and therefore see the city as potential experience – that meets their emotional expectations.  In modern life, you all know that people will search a lot and pay a lot for wonderful experience – or even just tangible experience in a homogenizing and standardizing world.  Look at the phenomenon of Starbucks where the product costs pennies to produce but is sold for dollars because it is delivered with the rich offering of a hip experience.   People want what is stylish and cool and new and exciting and meaningful; and it’s not just a superficial thing, many go much deeper to what is socially responsible and culturally rich and beautiful and moving and, yes, many people do want what is environmentally sustainable.   So, for downtown revival, we had to build all this back into the urban equation.  In planning circles we often call this “placemaking” but really it goes well beyond that.  My theme is that contemporary planning has to be about offering the fulfilling moment-to-moment experience that people tell us they want for themselves and their children in a way that is delivered on their terms and in their image.  In fact, this became so big in the agenda that I’ve coined a word for it – I call it “experiential planning”.  For core cities, it was about realizing that government or the private developer could not alone deliver the totality of what people want and expect and therefore they had to collaborate to put the package together.  It was about realizing that people themselves have a lot to do with delivery because it is the “society of others” that makes the experience most powerful – and so putting the institutional and social foundations and infrastructure in place for community life at the same time as the physical place was constructed was very important.  And, it was about design – so for the first time in many years, the urban design agenda became just as important as the policy agenda at City Hall and the talents and expertise of architects and landscape architects and other real designers was again honoured in the way it should always have been.  This kind of planning was very different in agenda and process from the planning that went on before it.

And now, these same attitudes and approaches for planning have to be brought to the suburbs.  We have to reach out to suburbanites by the tens of thousands, we have to tap their needs as consumers and we have to search deep into the rich totality of those needs.  And, to do this, we cannot continue to disdain the suburban aspiration and badmouth suburbanites – if we do, they will see and feel that and we will never be trusted.
We actually have to embrace their underlying values.  Then, with the knowledge we get from this kind of process, we have to actually design these communities with all the prowess we can muster, not just draw them up or lay them out as the result of applied standards and regulations and requirements and templates.  And, if we do this, I have faith that we can conceive completely new suburban typologies that will achieve that transformation that we need.

The reason I have that faith, is because of one more recent discovery that I want to share with you.  I have discovered, in my work in places like Dallas and Regina and even in Abu Dhabi and Rotterdam, that the preferred suburban lifestyle that people describe and the suburban patterns that the modern world has delivered since the war are not actually in sync.  People are not living in their definition of paradise in post-war suburbs; they are just living in the best choice they’ve had from the limited choices that have been available since the war – the suburbs that you and I abhor are not the ideal manifestation of the suburban lifestyle.  Once you talk to suburban people, you learn that there are many changes and improvements that they need and want.  So when, at the beginning, I asked you to embrace suburbanites and the suburban lifestyle, I was not asking you to embrace those ugly, vacant and dull places that are out there right now.  I am confident that suburbanites want those places and typologies to be significantly improved and they will collaborate with us to determine how they should change – and I am confident that there is enough room to maneuver in that process to insinuate sustainable typologies and densities and mixes and movement options and all the rest as we bring on the other improvements that people really are asking for and hoping for.

So having thought about the appropriate process for planning, starting with the declaration of a positive support for suburbanites and their expectations, and then getting everyone into the action – citizens, and the development community and civic administrations and elected officials along with the most creative and artistic invention of the design professionals, the architects and landscape architects and engineers and city planners – what might be some directions that people would accept and that would be truly sustainable?   Where do we start?

Well, I think we can take inspiration from a place that most people already feel good about and every city has good examples of, that people can go and have a look at – a place that’s nearby and filled with solutions that planners have been overlooking for too long.  I’m talking about the pre-war neighbourhoods, built between the early 1900’s and the 1930’s, which exist in every Canadian city and in every North American city.  They are close-in now, but in their time they were certainly considered “suburbs” – in fact they are best known as “streetcar suburbs”.  I’m using pictures today of both Canadian and American examples.

Whether we look at these places from a liveability point of view or a sustainability perspective or as a visual statement or at a functional level, the pre-war neighbourhood has two things that pull it all together as an inspiration for the future.  First, it has a sound basic urban structure and scale; and, second, it has been evolved and added to over time to include a richness of activities, people and supports.  It has a charm and beauty that comes from its age, no argument about that, but that attractiveness also comes from the way it all fits together into a coherent logical whole – it offers the complete package that you just feel comfortable about when you are in these neighbourhoods.  These are places average suburbanites would aspire to live in – in fact they are the very image of what people are often describing when they talk about or draw examples of ideal suburban life.  These are places of real financial value and real emotional value.

The typical pre-war neighbourhood urban structure is usually a simple pattern of blocks of apparently single houses extending out from a commercial “high street” of shops (where the streetcar used to stop), with offices or apartments over the shops.  There are often back lanes.  There is always the local park and often some nice smaller greens as well.  Streets are lined with big trees.  There are lots of private gardens and many people even include a vegetable garden in the back.  There is almost always a local community centre and school and other local services.  Over the years, lots of additional housing has been tucked in along the lanes and as houses were converted into suites or a new infill development happened from time to time but just as often, many people have chosen to keep their single family home and that is OK as well.  Overall, though, without anyone really trying, the density and social diversity have increased while the predominately one- and two-storey scale has been maintained.  I remember Jack Diamond saying several years ago that a sustainable, walkable neighbourhood starts to work at no more than 40 units per acre – and many of these older neighbourhoods have that and more, even if most people would not realize it.  The streets are usually quite narrow with parking on one or both sides.  These neighbourhoods are certainly accommodating to the car but they do not let auto standards dominate every other consideration.  I hope you get the picture of what I am talking about – and I bet every person here has a good example in your mind of one of these neighbourhoods; and I bet that you feel quite good about it.  In fact, in this room will be a lot of people who actually have chosen to live in these places over the further out postwar suburbs for the simple reason that, intuitive, you found them so much more fulfilling.

Now, I do not want you to read me as “Mr. Nostalgia” – I’m not saying we can replicate these old neighbourhoods in whole cloth.  We have to acknowledge the limitations of these places as well.  While the houses are usually sturdily built, they do not have what we now call “green building” features – this idea didn’t exist when these places were built.  Also, the utilities are pretty conventional, although the pattern is very amenable to conversion to more sustainable delivery arrangements.  Some of these neighbourhoods have traffic problems and so special traffic management interventions have been necessary.  And sometimes, if there are lots of housing conversions, on-street parking becomes difficult.  They are almost never universally accessible for the disabled and aged.    And, if the neighbourhood has really kept its “polish and shine”, it is often quite a consumer draw so housing prices can become disproportionately high even though the housing styles and layouts are not up to current expectations.

But, you know, we are talking “inspiration” here not a ready-to-wear “model”.  There is no question that we have to build suburbs of the future that are contemporary, not nostalgic; and functional to today’s demanding consumer standards, not out-dated; and with state-of-the-art utility systems and public services.  But the inspiration is still pretty powerful.

My big question is this one.  Why can’t we build in the beginning of the 21st century, with all our wealth and knowledge, something as fulfilling as our great-grandparents were able to do at the beginning of the 20th century?  Why can’t we build something as sustainable but, more importantly, something as suitable for suburban life?

My answer is that I think we can and I think we must.  So, what are the “take-home” features from these classic older neighbourhoods that might work for sustainable suburbs of tomorrow?

Here’s the list that comes to my mind.

First, we can learn a lot from the prevailing scale:  more housing, definitely, but maintaining the one-to-three storey building heights as well as the fine-grained, smaller building pattern.  As much as I personally love the striking architecture of towers and the geometry of big building ensembles, and feel they make a lot of sense in downtown areas and TODs and along arterial routes,  I think most people don’t like to see them popping up just anywhere, especially right next door.  Small is simply better for the suburbs.

Second, the concept of incremental additions over time – very delicate densification – makes a lot of sense, so putting a lot of options for change within the zoning of a new suburban subdivision allows that community to evolve in a natural way as the local people want and need new things – slower or faster as the case may be.  Planners who are thinking about this call this “invisible density” or “hidden density” or “gentle density”.  You start with a slightly higher density than we generally see in recent subdivisions because lot sizes and street space are smaller but you add more as you go along, achieving the 30-to-40 units per acre target in a painless way.  Remember that recent subdivisions usually start at about 6-to-10 units per acre, so it is not a big jump to get to the densities we need.  And because it is incremental and can be done at a modest scale, the profits of change remain with the existing resident landowner, rather than going to an outside developer who takes it out of the area, so there is less resentment and “nimbyism”.   Many who are impacted also benefit.

Third, we can learn a lot from the diversity that you see in the old neighbourhoods on all fronts:  all kinds of households; many lot and house sizes and types (single family homes but also duplexes, back lane units, apartments over shops, home conversions, infill housing); and many architectural styles; a rich socio-economic range from low-income to quite wealthy households; and many kinds of retail outlets and a lot of independent retail potential rather than just strip-mall options and “big boxes”; and many workplace opportunities and live/work possibilities.  This diversity opens up economic opportunity close by as well as providing a plausible framework for a wide social engagement and supportive community life.

Fourth, there are so many benefits of the local commercial “high street” model, with building fronts proud to the sidewalk, parking lots behind, shops at hand and offices and apartments above.  This can also be a good template for conversion of the existing malls and that strip retail that sits within a sea of parking.  This is the “placemaking” form that engenders localized uniqueness and really sticks in the memory but it is also the realm for sustained social relations and interchange.  It offers the economic potential for the start-up operation and fosters walking.

Fifth, the narrower streets and back lanes can be a big bonus.  The traditional lane-and-a half driving area for a residential street naturally calms traffic, is a lot safer for children at play and takes up a lot less land than the current standards.  The back lanes offer utility access and trash handling without compromising the streetscape, and cut the number of vehicle crossings over the sidewalk. The lanes actually give the “front door” primacy back to the façade of a house rather than that ever-present “garage door” image.

Sixth, related to what I have just said, whether you see curvy streets or a straight grid pattern, the connectivity of the whole system, especially for pedestrians, is just so beneficial in the old neighbourhoods.  Many planners don’t like cul-de-sacs but it seems a lot of consumers do like them – so what I think is important is that they not be designed as pedestrian dead-ends, but include walking linkages one to another – that’s what you generally see in the 30’s pattern and it works very well to tie everything together.

Seventh, you will find the old neighbourhoods always work well for transit and the levels of ridership usually make transit viable without much subsidy.  If we can achieve the factors that make transit work in new communities it opens up great opportunities for residents: they can own fewer cars and spend less for their mobility (but this is not about getting rid of cars – it’s about offering other options for many of the trips that don’t need to be done in a car); people are also less victimized by gas price fluxuations; and more people in the household can get around more independently.

And lastly, that whole emphasis on landscape and gardening in the traditional neighbourhoods is really important to bring back to future suburban planning, rather than have landscape be such a secondary consideration with new subdivisions.  Nothing gives a place a more gracious, homey feel than a nice row of street trees.  Nothing is friendlier than an attractive front flower garden, unique to each house and tended by the residents.  Nothing helps local food sourcing more than an individual vegetable garden.  We don’t need wide front yards or even extra-large lots to make these things happen – we simply need more motivation to use landscaping strategically in the first place and to keep it up over the long run.

Well, this list could go on but my point in all of this is not to say that the older pre-war neighbourhoods are the only inspiration for future communities – they are just a place to start.  All I want to do tonight is engender a new kind of discussion.   My real theme is that the smart growth formula can be reconceived in the suburban image.  All the elements of smart growth can be insinuated into existing mundane suburban areas and can be built in from scratch in new suburbs.   My related point is that this is not just an interesting exercise, it is a vital exercise since most of the growth that will happen in every Canadian city over the next 30 years will be growth in these suburbs, so if we don’t get them right in terms of what they deliver in liveability, sustainability, health and economic viability, then we will continue to be in deep trouble.  It is as simple as that.

Everything I have been talking about tonight doesn’t really involve the big bold moves of planning; it is about embracing the essence of suburban living in the little stuff that affects people every day.  Yes, you have to have those major land-use allocations and the complete transportation strategy, with massive expansion of transit, and the overlay of natural assets and a lot more.  But make no mistake, when we take the domestic view, when we pay full attention to the specific features about how suburban communities are going to come together, we will have a dramatic positive impact.  When we change the DNA of new suburbs, we definitely will change the DNA of the whole city.  If we go back to the basic principles of good urbanism, in delicate forms from examples that are handy all around us, then new suburban neighbourhoods can deliver on all the big challenges but they can also have a great chance of being embraced by modern consumers and becoming truly beloved places.  We haven’t done it yet; there are no pictures I can show you because new neighbourhoods that meet this test just do not exist.  But they can – and this kind of re-imagining will truly liberate people to draw out the very best from their home base.  And, it will finally reconcile that contradiction between sustainable science and consumer preferences.  It will provide the gentle urbanism that suburbanites want while supplying the responsible urbanism that all Canadians need.

Thank you very much.

The Dream for True Urbanism in the Middle East: Recent Planning and Development in Abu Dhabi

Presentation to the Chicago Architecture Foundation, March 2009.

Who would have thought that the whole vision of a community could be inspired by a bird – well that is the story I have to tell you.

The community is the Emirate of Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.

The bird is the falcon.

And the motivation for all of this was this man – His Excellency Mohammed Al Bowardi – the Abu Dhabi Minister of the Environment, General Secretary of the Executive Council and god-father, mentor and advisor of this man – His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nayhan – the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi.

You see, Mr. Bowardi is a falconer – one of the world’s greatest falconers and the person who, almost singlehandedly, has brought the sport forward into the modern world from its ancient beginnings.  He loves his birds and he makes sure they are very well taken care of – but several years ago he began to notice that they were losing some of their vitality; they weren’t as robust as he knew they should be – and he realized it was because of the harmful impacts of pollution and degradation of the magnificent desert that is his and his falcons’ ancestral home.

So Mr. Bowardi set off an audacious process, still underway, to revise the very relationship between man and the environment in Abu Dhabi – towards a more sustainable future – and this, in and of itself is a very good thing.

But the fate of the falcon became for Bowardi and many other people – and ultimately for the Crown Prince – a metaphor for the impact of unrestrained growth on the culture and habitat of the people of Abu Dhabi.

-Just as the oil industry throughout the Middle East, unconstrained, has started to despoil the environment, the massive new urban development, unconstrained, has started to press the social tranquility, traditions and connection to the land of the people – think Dubai here, although people in Abu Dhabi would never say it because they always present a positive united front among the Emirates to the rest of the world.

-And this has been compounded by the free importation of North American and European settlement patterns and scale and architectural styles – trends that do not sit well with the landscape, climate or culture of this Arab, Islamic, Bedouin homeland.

And so, a profound – and far reaching – decision was made by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed to go a different way:  to shape his capital city, Abu Dhabi City, and all the settlements in the Emirate to emphasize quality of life for its citizens and sustainability for its setting; opening up the potential for a special model in Abu Dhabi of smart growth and true urbanism, in an Arab, Muslim form.

And that is where I come in.

-In mid-2006, I was the long-sitting Planning Director of the City of Vancouver in Canada, and had just announced my intention to retire after 32 years of public service.  I had spent the previous 20+ years, along with hundreds of other Vancouverites and especially my closest colleague and Co-director in Vancouver, Dr. Ann McAfee, reshaping our city – especially our inner-city – as a more dense, mixed use, diverse and interesting place.  Our work had received a lot of attention and we were increasingly identified as one of the more liveable cities in the world – Vancouver has even been identified as one of the early emerging “eco-cities” of the world, at least according to one writer, Richard Register of Berkeley.

-Well, I went to my e-mail one day and discovered what I thought was one of those scam e-mails from the son of a Minister of some Central African country that wanted investment – I’m sure every one of us has received this e-mail at one point or another.  Frankly, I didn’t even open the note.

-Then I received a second similar e-mail but something about the title suggested it was legitimate; and it was, indeed, from an official from Abu Dhabi and the rest, as they say, is history.

I became the Special Advisor to Sheikh Mohammed and the Government of Abu Dhabi for urban planning – well, actually, all land planning in the Emirate.  Then I discovered, upon assessing the situation in my first visit, that the land was, indeed, suffering like the falcon – we had a very tall challenge ahead of us.

-There were no contemporary plans at any scale for the Emirate or its settlements (all the previous plans were very old, out of date and actually counterproductive in their directions) – look at these pictures; can you imagine the City of Abu Dhabi started at this scale back as recently as the 1960’s?

-There was no planning underway (well, except some very crazy and backward transportation planning).

-There was no affective planning agency.

-There was no planning capacity.

-There was no development management (this was the world of the “computer fly through”).

-There were no development regulations or policies – or, for that matter, even subdivision or land title arrangements.

-In a word, it had become an “accidental” place – developing randomly, in a totally unsustainable way; water hungry, car obsessed; with the most rudimentary public realm.

-But there was a tidal wave of development proposals (some very awful schemes but, admittedly, also several very cool initiatives that I will come back to).

So, the purpose of my talk tonight is to tell you the story about how we have changed all of that – how we are bringing coherent planning and development management to the Emirate – and how we are trying to channel this to the most progressive planning principles in the world but also ground it in the reality of this most unusual place and people.  My other purpose is to highlight some of the inspiration that I have discovered from this work for the problems facing our cities back here in North America.

And as I tell you this story, you can enjoy a backdrop of images meant to give you a tangible feel for the ambiance of the place.  You might think of this as a photo essay to go with my talk.

Let me start by telling you something about this unusual land and its people.

-Abu Dhabi is one of the seven Emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates, which is a relatively new country, having been founded less than 50 years ago; and which is a very interesting place.

-It is a peaceful land of about four million people located on the edge of the Persian Gulf (they call it the Arabian Gulf) – but in a very dangerous neighbourhood.

-It is a relatively liberal Muslim country sitting within a network of much more fundamentalist Muslim countries.

-It is a very rich country, having about 10% of all the known oil in the world – and the Emirate of Abu Dhabi has about 80% of all the oil in the whole UAE.

-Included in the country is Dubai, the next Emirate over, which is much more famous than Abu Dhabi – but Abu Dhabi is the homeland of the UAE’s founding royal family and is the capital of the country.  To clarify a continuing confusion, I do NOT work in Dubai – in fact, I don’t even like Dubai very much.   But I will definitely come back to Dubai time and again in this talk because it is such a defining force for Abu Dhabi.

Abu Dhabi is a place of contrasts.

-While it is a pervasively Muslim society, it is also a modern secular society (you really see that in the various roles of women, from the most sequestered to the absolutely liberated).

-While it is a monarchy, with total power focussed in the royal family, Emirati citizens enjoy extraordinary rights and privileges, including free health care, education, land, housing and support for their many endeavours.  There is no democracy but citizens tell me they strongly prefer this because their royal family respects them and satisfies their needs – in fact, there is a very interesting distribution of wealth that is very fulfilling for most citizens .

-While the native Emirati culture is strong and Emiratis’ sense of themselves is strong – you always know them because they even dress differently than everybody else – they are an extreme minority in their own country.  The native population is only about 20% of the total population; foreigners make up the other 80%.  And this includes a minority of well paid managers and professionals commonly called “Expats” and a huge majority of modestly paid labourers known as “Visiting Workers”, because their tenure is very tenuous.

-Conditions for Emiratis are extraordinarily good but conditions for everyone else vary dramatically – the poorest paid are also poorly housed and, sometimes, poorly treated.  And yet, Visiting Workers widely talk about Abu Dhabi as their “land of opportunity” – even though they can never be citizens and are generally excluded from the discourse of the country.  I guess it is an understandable perspective given where they come from.

-There is also a vivid contrast between the natural environment, with its hot, desert austerity, and the urban environment, with all the modern conveniences – the good, the bad, and the ugly.  They may be “accidental”, but these are not backward or deprived cities – they are not the typical “third world” cities that we have in our mind’s eye.  But one mostly remembers the desert as such a powerful physical and spiritual force and presence in the Emirate.

-There is also contrast between the island environment at the edge of the Gulf, with the complexity of the inter-tidal zone – including those lush mangroves –  and the overwhelming humidity; and the vast inland desert, called the “Empty Quarter”, with its simplicity and dryness.

The thing that makes the United Arab Emirates so fascinating is that they have just begun an extraordinary process of transformation, set off primarily by the hand-off of power from the founding generation to the new generation.

-It occurred first in Dubai, and so that city has been in a vanguard of change that has set the pace but also identified the contradictions for the rest of the country.  Professor Michael Larice, of the University of Pennsylvania, has developed a characterization to compare and contrast modern cities and he calls the Dubai approach that of the “global city”.  Dubai is both a phenomenon of massive development and one of the world’s big messes.  With little oil for the future, it has pursued a strategy of land development to generate its wealth – a process meant to establish the city as the financial and business metropole of the country and even of the whole Middle East – with a global profile and image to match that aspiration.  But it may have gone too big, too fast and with too much speculation, if you look at the current situation of the last few months where the sparkle that we’ve heard endlessly about for the past few years has started to tarnish with the world-wide economic downturn.

-Abu Dhabi, so far, has been more deliberate – either because of the temperament of its leadership or from the lessons of watching its neighbour next door.  It was only about 3 years ago that Abu Dhabi opened up their country for limited private ownership of property by non-nationals.  They immediately also saw a barrage of new development proposals of massive scale, not unlike Dubai, but, remember all that anxiety related to the falcon, they also started asking some essential questions.  Would their environment be ruined through this explosive urbanizing process?  Would their culture be able to survive?  What would happen to the joys of their Bedouin way of life – the intimate engagement with the desert and the sea?  Would their children be as happy and safe and healthy as they were hoping for and expecting because of their newfound oil wealth?  And so they were predisposed to try to shape what was going on to meet a wider set of public and cultural objectives – yes, they were direct about the economic objectives – but they were also clear about wanting a lot more.  Back to Dr. Larice’s characterization, he calls this the approach of the “post modern city”.

Now, just because Abu Dhabi was more deliberate, it does not mean that they were not in a hurry.  In fact, they felt a great urgency, not just because of the natural competition with their neighbour but also because they faced so many proposals of such huge import to the future of their cities.  They didn’t want their anxiety to turn away the schemes that would be good for their growth and they faced – and still face – strong demand for space and services in every sector.  So I set them off on two trajectories.

-First, I urged them to found a proper planning agency and to give it the power and regulatory framework from which to be able to shape a wide array and continuous stream of proposals.  So we designed and set up the agency with hyper speed.  The “Urban Planning Council”, as it has come to be called, directed by a smart, young, well-placed Emirati leader, His Excellency Falah Al Ahbabi, and chaired personally by the Crown Prince, was created just over a year ago and already has over 100 staff, now hard at work on planning for Abu Dhabi’s future.

-Secondly, although they initially wanted a full “master plan” for the Emirate in 4 months, I urged them to take a more strategic policy approach.  I explained that master plans, if they are any good, are not created in a day; but that strategic “urban framework plans” could be put together for each city in about 6 months each, followed by an overarching policy guide for the entire Emirate.  We’ve used a 25-year time horizon for these framework plans and have now completed plans for the capital, Abu Dhabi City, and the romantic royal oasis city of Al Ain; and we are now completing plans for the oilfields, called the Western Region or Al Gharbia, and for the agriculture  district, called the Eastern Region.  In each case, we started with a detailed analysis and projection of the realistic growth potential of all sectors of the economy at play in the particular community or district – all the plans take off from that point of unavoidable realism – the “reality check”.  We came at all this from the demand side, not the supply side.  Then, as soon as the plans have even come to draft form, we have put them immediately to work for the Emirate.  They have been used to evaluate all pending major developments to bring them in line with the realistic economic potential and the future image of Abu Dhabi as it is now gelling.   In fact, many people in Abu Dhabi have said that this process warded off the worst aspects of the global downturn because in almost all cases we have scaled down development schemes to be in line with true end-user demand, which is a novelty in the Middle East.  Secondly, these plans have set the agenda for ongoing planning work.  In the case of Abu Dhabi City, the framework plan set off the design for a new national capital district for the city that will accommodate about 300,000 people and just as many government and private-sector workers.  In the case of Al Gharbia, we are now starting design of 3 completely new cities to serve growth in a way that is sensitive to the local ecology and impacts of the oil industry on inhabitants, rather than the random sprawl that was starting to unfold.  And now a whole process is underway of regulatory development to bring predictability to the development approval process and of area planning to put shape and detail to growth patterns at the community level.

-Now, if you know anything about planning, you know that any planning exercise takes time – to put the process together, to gather data and understand issues, to be creative, to let creative ideas gestate and to put it all on paper with accuracy.  We had to do all of this in breakneck speed in Abu Dhabi to achieve those 6-month targets so we have used what is called a “charrette” process.  This is a highly productive, focussed and intensive, fast and vividly creative engagement among experts and local people to learn the situation quickly and then generate the key ideas and themes of each framework plan.  We were able to get among the world’s finest professionals because His Highness told me that he wanted the best people available regardless of cost.  This includes a splendid “Base Team”, shown here, and some of the leading lights of contemporary urbanism, shown here and here and here – these only being some of the over 40 top thinkers and practitioners that we have brought in so far – including, of course, Chicago’s own John Buck.  We clashed these visitors together with the most senior local authorities and opinion makers, including the personal involvement and direct guidance from the royal leadership.  We added in very wise and involved locals.  And with this mix, the magic just happens.  The falcon soars!  We tap into the genius loci of the place and the spirit of the people by looking and listening carefully.  We mix in the best ideas in the world and challenge these ideas with the specifics of the place.  We integrate it all together into the most progressive concepts we can imagine.  And we press everyone’s boundaries to grasp a new kind of city: contemporary, sustainable, Arab, humane, Islamic, beautiful and a real contrast to Abu Dhabi’s own past and also to that of its neighbour, Dubai.

-Now, I want to be upfront, the process has not been without its conflicts and confusions – and there are still contradictions in the pattern of development and the unfolding of events for change in Abu Dhabi.  Some of the ideas in the plans, even though the plans have achieved formal government proclamation and clear endorsement, remain challenging to past practices.  People are still trying to wrap their heads around some of the themes that deny bad habits of the past.  Some problematic development proposals are still moving forward because they were too far along and some still get approved contrary to the specifics or principles of the framework plans.  Some big initiatives, with powerful sponsors, are still not yet reshaped to their optimum form according to all the creative visioning that has been underway.  But, to some degree, these are growth pains as the transition occurs from a random to a deliberate approach.

But, by-in-large, the Emirate means business.  They are making it happen more-or-less as we have envisioned it.

-The Urban Planning Council has solid and deep powers and is under the personal auspices of the Crown Prince.  It has quickly become the force to be reckoned with in the Government of Abu Dhabi.

-The Abu Dhabi 2030 Plan is totally operational and becoming more influential every day.  Just a few months ago, we used it to stop a freeway proposal, under technical design and development for over 2 years, which would have crashed through the historic inner city and changed forever how people move around the city.  Development sites are already being assigned in the newly designed Capital District.  A completely new and more responsible approach is now being implemented for the design of Emirati neighbourhoods, moving away from those totally inappropriate “Minnesota subdivisions”, as I call them, which had been stretching out at the urban fringe.  And the ongoing planning agenda is a very aggressive one by any standards.

-The Al Ain 2030 Plan, proclaimed just last week, portends to be just as influential.  This is the plan for the royal oasis city that I told you about.  It will set a new standard for the protection and revival of the 5 great historic oases of that city.  It will protect the few heritage buildings that exist in a society without a rich building history.   It has set an unprecedented scale of maximum 5-story building heights for the entire city except for mosque domes and minarets; and already many proposed buildings have been brought down in height to be consistent with this vision.

-Both the Abu Dhabi and Al Ain 2030 Plans dreamed of a new green architecture that would reflect or surpass world standards and start to address the water and energy demands of the Emirate’s aggressive climate.  Now, in a program soon to be proclaimed, called “Estidama”, which means “sustainability” in Arabic, all of this will be made patently real.  Once in operation, there will be no environmental shame in Abu Dhabi’s buildings as they will  compare in green performance with the best in the world – and, like LEED in North America, the same themes are being extended to the neighbourhood scale.

-And now, upon completion of the final plans for the oil fields and agriculture district, the government is starting to consider our idea of doing a strategic plan and implementation program for what I call the “profound sustainability”, including carbon and waste neutrality, of the entire Emirate by 2050.  This builds upon their “Masdar” initiative that has become famous around the world.  This is the project to build a carbon and waste neutral community for 50,000 residents and 50,000 workers that is currently under detailed design by Norman Foster and Partners from London.  Masdar was a forerunner to our work and is a strong start that our Emirate-wide initiative would echo.

-And all of this time, we have been training, training, training – to build up an indigenous planning capacity and sophisticated perspective of cities among both public officials and private business.  My whole idea has been to plan myself out of a job as soon as possible so that the destiny of Abu Dhabi will then be in strong, informed Emirati hands – not just at the level of the leadership, which has always been strong, but at all levels, private and public, so that all the thousands of upcoming urban and environmental decisions that will be made will be very forward looking, with long-term implications in mind.

So what are the substantive themes upon which all this is being shaped for the future?  Let me go back to the Abu Dhabi 2030 Plan as a case in point to show you the personality of our work.  Of course, this is the framework plan for only one city in an Emirate that will ultimately have many towns and cities, but it clearly shows the direction that the Emirate wishes to go in building its settlements and managing its environment as it moves forward.  Here’s a snapshot of Abu Dhabi Plan 2030.

-The Plan is driven by an aggressive environmental protection agenda – we call it the “green gradient” of protected places: channelling development to less sensitive locales; preserving most of the offshore islands and wide desert fingers; and establishing “national parks” to make this all a serious reality.

-The Plan shapes development for major growth, up to a projected population of 3.5 million inhabitants, into two intensive and mixed use focal points that are the big shapers of the whole city: an expanded and revived inner-city Downtown; and that new Capital District that I have already alluded to (with the detailed design, by the way, completed by a great Chicago firm, based upon the conceptual plan done by our Base Team).  And this Capital District is surrounded by urban neighbourhoods and a constellation of smaller, widely separated, outbound settlements that the Plan calls “eco villages” on suitable islands and at carefully selected locations within the desert.  These eco villages, in particular, will accommodate the unending rhythm of migration that has shaped Abu Dhabi life from time immemorial and still holds strong sway today: the move to the sea to fish in the cool, less humid winter months and then the shift to the deep desert to ranch camels and farm dates in the hot summer when life on the humid coast becomes almost unbearable.  Locals are no longer driven by the economic imperative of this but the climatic advantages and the related traditions are still meaningful to them.  Neighbourhoods and villages are shaped for an Arab culture with what is called the “fareej” or clustering of housing for extended families and a focus on the mosque.  There is still a very strong social organization of blood linkages in families and tribes that define the day-to-day life of Emiratis so we wanted their settlements to facilitate that rather than deny it as today’s subdivisions were tending to do.  And the Plan has many more areas of an array of densities and diverse mixes of uses that respond to the urban preferences of the growing population of Expats as well as younger Emirati Nationals for whom a more urban lifestyle has become more appealing with their international education.  Our inspirations here are the fascinating ancient communities of North Africa that have a long built tradition but also share common cultural roots with Abu Dhabi – places like Marrakesh and Beirut.  There are new and better standards for worker housing and worker communities, with more integration into the urban fabric close to where labourers work.

-The Plan pulls Abu Dhabi away from a formerly massive program of freeway expansion and construction; instead, creating a dense network of human-scaled boulevards and streets that widely distributes auto traffic.  It insinuates a major network of new transit, with special provisions for Arab women.  It emphasizes walking and the idea of a street culture that, generally, does not currently exist – remembering that for at least half the year it is very pleasant to be outside, even though the climate can be brutal at other times.  And I have to say, stopping that one freeway link, that was within days of letting contracts, has been one of the high points in my time there.

-The Plan supports a whole suite of initiatives for high culture – such as the amazing set of proposals for museums and galleries in a new island district, by the world`s greatest architects: Frank Gehry; Jean Nouvel; Zada Hadid; Tadao Ando that were already in the conceptual design stage when we arrived.

-The Plan gets right down to the level of the details to show what the emerging city should look and feel like.  For example, in what are called “building blocks”, the Plan outlines a strategy to revitalize inner city blocks that are now overrun by traffic and parking and offer few opportunities for pedestrian life, even though a great majority of the people are pre-disposed from their home cultures to outdoor living.  By decanting the pervasive on-street parking into strategically located parking structures, it will be possible to insinuate a delicate pattern of local streets and walkways, called in Arabic “mushtaraks” and “sikkas”, add finely scaled open spaces, maximize shading and cool areas, mix in desperately needed local services, focus on the mosque and local shopping opportunities and therefore build an attractive nearby streetlife that will cut the trips people now take by car.  In other detailed expositions, the Plan sketches new cross-sections for streets, new ideas for weather protection, and new policies for low water-use landscape and green architecture that has been picked up in Estidama, the building certification initiative that I have already mentioned.

-And the Plan shapes everything to reflect some profound principles rooted in Abu Dhabi’s unique Arab way of life – that it will be an Arab city, have measured growth, be sensitive to the natural environment, manifest a capital destiny and reflect the unique community values of local people.  These are principles that truly respond to the plight of the falcon.

Well, I am sure you might well be asking yourself right now what my experience in Vancouver and what the experience of the many people we have brought from around the world have to do with the unique circumstances of Abu Dhabi.  You might well be worrying as I always do about the effects of globalization in the spread of similar ideas and similar theories all over the world, creating places that are more the same rather than more different as we might all prefer.  I think you can see that we have not been in the business of bringing packaged solutions to Abu Dhabi – we let the place and the people generate indigenous solutions.  Our mission is not to implant a way of life from somewhere else but, rather, to realize the cultural potential of these people in this place and at this time.  And that is where we are quite different from many Expats who are in the design and planning business in that part of the world.

But we do bring an ethos about planning and the need for a community to move forward with a clear vision and a clear sense of direction; we talk a lot about deliberate choices, which is definitely in contrast to the randomness that seems to be more the norm in the Middle East.  We also bring a kind of planning practice that reflects a re-integration of land use policy making and urban design – I call it “experiential planning” – which involves creating the real, direct experiences within any setting that people tell us they want, and making sure our places are accessible to and are fulfilling for people on their own terms.  This means getting beyond the broad patterns and systems of the city.  This means getting down to what people see and smell and hear and feel, at the level of the street, and shaping things in four dimensions to deliver the emotional side for people, not just efficiency or fiscal prudence or even environmental sustainability.  And this is how we stay absolutely grounded wherever we are working.  And, finally, we bring a strong set of dependable urbanistic themes that seem to be applicable wherever humans build cities.  Here in America you call this the “new urbanism” but it carries many different names around the world.  It is about density and mixed use and diversity and human scale and alternatives to the car and character specificity.

But, you know, this is not a one-way street.  I have found my work in Abu Dhabi is very inspirational for our efforts to build better communities here in North America.  Frankly, my work there offers me a cold clear view of where we stand in the United States and Canada when it comes to the best of contemporary city building.

-For example, we are not nearly as far ahead as we think we are on the ENVIRONMENT agenda.  I’ve told you about “Masdar” and “Estidama” and their advanced environmental protection legislation and now the talk of a proactive program for profound sustainability and carbon and waste neutrality for the whole state.  Even with some great and commendable efforts, such as what is occurring here in Chicago, who can say that we are ahead of this thinking in Abu Dhabi?  And remember this is a country where the harsh climatic conditions and aggressive economic development imperatives could easily have given them ample excuse to fall behind on sustainability.  Their forward thinking has brought vividly to my mind the message of Dr. Bill Rees, the professor at the University of British Columbia who invented the concept of the “ecological footprint”.  He has said over and over again that every city must go so much further and our actions have to be pervasive if we are to get our ecological footprints anywhere close to what is our fair share of the earth’s resources.  Can we match the kind of initiatives that this newly minted country is up to there in the Middle East?  Well, I think we have to.

-Abu Dhabi has also taught me something about the extraordinary impacts that are possible with strong investments in CULTURE: growing and supporting a wide array of cultural institutions not just as the best expression of a society but for vital reasons of economic development.   You certainly know something about this here in Chicago; and your experience parallels that of Abu Dhabi, where, as I showed you before, they are bringing a branch of the Louvre from Paris, and the Guggenheim from New York, along with other primary museums and galleries, as part of that cultural island that I was showed you a picture of before. This has to be seen as an audacious move for a small emerging city.  In fact, these initiatives are symbolic of a world movement to support culture – but most cities are still just not with it.  This has to change.

-Many western cities are on the verge of seeing a diminishment of their QUALITY OF LIFE because they increasingly cannot house their people nor offer them affordable housing options.  The spectre of homelessness and inadequate housing is pervasive throughout North America.  It should inspire us all that Abu Dhabi is committed, as a prime government policy, to GIVE every citizen a comfortable home – housing is seen as a basic right of citizens.  I have not seen one homeless person on the streets of Abu Dhabi.  We North Americans seem only to be able to give the illusion that comes with sub-prime mortgages; and the disillusion that comes when those mortgages backfire on a vulnerable family.   And this has starting me thinking more and more about the need for a third sector of housing – beyond the private market sector and the public non-profit sector that is our western tradition.  Like many other people, I’m thinking about a private non-profit sector, where, to keep prices affordable for at least a portion of the population, we will have to find a way to get some housing out of the spiralling value stream.  We might take the Madrid model, where they build and sell the housing and then if a person wants to re-sell, they have to sell it back to the builder at a predetermined rate so it can be sold again and again at an increasingly affordable price as general market prices go up.  People in this housing forego the investment dimension of the housing, although they do build equity, but in exchange they get much better affordability at better locations and more housing for less money.  Surely we can do this kind of thing – as well as invent other models that help our modest income citizens find a way to stay in the city.  What will our cities be like if the range of incomes is not represented?  How will we get our basic services done?  How will we ever achieve sustainability if people are pushed more and more to the edge with longer and longer commuter trips? What will happen to our social diversity? Abu Dhabi may be rich, but so are we – and if they can dare to make housing a human right, we better start to consider this as well.

-And what about SOCIAL EQUITY?  Even Abu Dhabi, who does not have a defensible record on this issue in regard to their Visiting Workers, is starting to face the Emirate’s profound social contradiction between rich and poor – their aspiration is a harsh reminder to us that we have been cutting back on our social safety net for about a generation and the victims are all around us in the drug culture and the mentally ill zombies that float around our streets along with the dispossessed, often abused children.  The struggle just beginning in Abu Dhabi would suggest that we are just too complacent.

These inspirations could go on…. but I want to come back to the situation in the United Arab Emirates – particularly the contrasting reality of Abu Dhabi and Dubai.  It has been said that these two new and growing cities out on the “edge of world experience” actually offer the essential metaphor for the modern process of urbanization.  As I have said before, one is the “global city”, exploding with growth, relevant to the world investor, with high international profile.  This kind of city wants to be big and bold and brash – and it will sacrifice a lot to get there.  This is the Dubai reality that is targeted to create great wealth fast and secure its place in the world from that wealth and the business prestige that goes with it.  The other is the “post modern city”, growing more deliberately, carefully balancing public and private objectives, sensitive to the human implications of what it is becoming.  This kind of city will be the opposite of big and bold and brash – and it will sacrifice just about as much in economic strength to get to where it wants to go.  Of course, this is said to be the Abu Dhabi reality, especially since the environmental frame and our experiential planning have arrived on the scene; and especially because the huge economic strength of the Emirate in not drawn first from civic growth but comes from the ground, from the vast oil reserves.

Well, a metaphor for the world these cities might look like from outside, but the story from inside is a lot more complicated.  Abu Dhabi undoubtedly also wants to be a “global city”, but of a different kind.  It too wants to be known and to be acknowledged for its innovations and to be iconic – but perhaps for a different set of themes.  I think it wants to become a model for a humane urbanism that the world is searching for.  I think it wants to become a model for a sustainable urbanism that the world is also searching for.  I think it wants to become a model for an Arab urbanism that at least the Arab, Muslim world is searching for.  And I think it wants to be a model for achieving a unique, differentiating character in its urbanism that confounds the down side of globalization while taking maximum advantage of its benefits.  And I think that the Abu Dhabi approach may in the end be the preferred approach for smart cities in the future – rather than the “quick fix” that is now represented in what are so often called the “global cities”; but a “quick fix” that is found to be very disappointing when you actually experience what these kind of cities have to offer on the ground.

And this brings me back to what I hope you have begun to see as the pervasive metaphor for my message today: the falcon.   For Abu Dhabi, the falcon is really a metaphor for their aspiration for excellence – and we can all be inspired by that.

William Butler Yates, the great Irish poet, paints a horrendous portent.  In his poem, “The Second Coming”, he says:

-“Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the center cannot HOLD;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…”

For Abu Dhabi, and for all our modern cities, we have to push back this image, this potentiality.  Let us be the falconers that can be heard; let us bring our falcons safely to ground.  I hope Abu Dhabi does become the model that it wishes to be.  And I hope their model motivates us all to dream about – and create – cities that are not only productive but are also fulfilling for all of us on every level.

My dream is that one day that falcon – that beautiful bird – might fly high above the City of Abu Dhabi or any city in the world in tranquility and health as a powerful symbol of our success in making our urban world humane, beautiful and sustainable.

Thank you.

Check out Larry Beasley’s interview with Property Biz Canada

By David Allison:

Uber-urban-planner Larry Beasley writes book

“After decades as one of the most high-profile urban planners on the planet, Larry Beasley — retired chief planner for the City of Vancouver, professor and global city-planning consultant —  along with co-author Jonathan Burnett, have written a call-to-arms for cities and suburbs.”

“Their book, Ecodesign for Cities and Suburbs tackles the two most pressing issues facing our industry: how to build/rethink where we live so that we are making places that are both environmentally sensitive and livable. It is both practical and fascinating.”

David Allison works with executive teams in real estate development and other industries to craft the early-stage vision and brand for projects of all kinds. He crystallizes the most interesting version of any story for early stakeholder engagement, internal audiences, regulatory approvals, consultant briefings and investor recruitment. His award-winning work in the real estate sector alone spans decades and continents. His most recent book, The Stackable Boomer, examines the movement of baby boomers to multi-family homes, and includes research results from a 1,000-boomer survey. He can be reached at and on LinkedIN