City road view graphic illustration from above with cars, bikes, and pedestrians
Illustrations by Madison Ketcham


Reimagining Cities

Today’s challenges and how we address them will shape the way we live

By Gillian Rutherford

Illustrations by Madison Ketcham
August 09, 2022 •

Cities and rural areas around the world are facing big changes and big challenges. A lingering pandemic. Climate change. Access to the food, fuel and goods we depend on to live. If we want sustainable, livable communities, we will have to tackle some of the biggest challenges of our time. Fortunately, forward thinkers are harnessing research and bold ideas to create better communities for all of us. As we explore in this feature and its twin, “Rural Frontiers,” the answer requires examining rural and urban issues alongside each other.

Sandeep Agrawal smiles as he closes his eyes: “Let me stretch my imagination,” he says.

I’ve asked him to envision the next 50 years for Canada’s cities. There are so many challenges ahead — environmental, political, fiscal, demographic — it would be easy to feel discouraged. But Agrawal loves this part of urban planning and it’s not a surprise, given that he is a professor and the first director of the University of Alberta’s School of Urban and Regional Planning.

On social media, Agrawal calls himself “a common sense planner,” but he recognizes it’s also important for him and other U of A urban visionaries to dream big.

“Just imagining the future is very difficult, and yet, it is upon us,” he says. “It has the potential to bring the most significant change that has ever happened to our cities, ever.”

As he casts his mind toward the future, the very first thing that comes to Agrawal has a Jetsons ring to it: autonomous vehicles.

That one factor — self-driving cars — could address some of the daily challenges of city living. If your car can drive itself, there’s no need to park it right outside your house or office. You can send it a text to come get you when you’re ready. Since most of us use our cars for less than five per cent of the day, it makes less sense for everyone to own one, meaning greater use of ride shares and taxis and fewer cars on the road. Suddenly you’ve solved gridlock, shortened commute times and reduced carbon emissions. Cities might even find they no longer need as many roads, saving tax dollars for other priorities and freeing up space for more housing, parks and walking paths.

It’s just one of the many possibilities we need to consider now to plan for a future in which cities meet the many challenges ahead — and also meet our desire for livable, equitable, healthy spaces.

According to the United Nations, 68 per cent of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050. In Canada, more than 83 per cent of us already do.

Cities are the crucible where many of society’s problems come into focus. In Canada, one of the most pressing challenges is a severe housing shortage. Canada would need to build 1.8 million more dwellings to have the same number of homes per capita as the average of other G7 countries, according to a January 2022 report by the Bank of Nova Scotia. Home prices have fluctuated recently but continue to rise in most cities, putting ownership out of reach for many. Every Canadian city has witnessed an increase in homelessness during the pandemic.

These are the kinds of challenges Agrawal and his colleagues at the School of Urban and Regional Planning examine to help municipalities and other levels of government prepare for unprecedented — and unpredictable — change. The school, in the faculties of arts and science, conducts research and provides policy direction on everything from climate adaptation to citizen engagement to transportation safety. Agrawal, who moved to Canada in the 1990s, has travelled the world to hunt for solutions, from India to the United States, United Arab Emirates, Brazil, Sri Lanka and across Canada.

He knows that the solutions we come up with now will shape how we live, play and get around in Canada’s cities over the next half century.

Truly visionary urban planning looks at the big picture. It has to include transportation planning and land use as well as economic, environmental and social goals. Edmonton is a leader in North America with its city plan, a blueprint for how the city will grow over the next 40 years. Spearheaded by U of A grad Kalen Anderson, ’02 BA, ’04 MA, the plan plots the path toward a city of two million residents, double the current population, who will need 1.1 million more jobs. It’s an aspirational document that aims to honour the values of today — economic diversification, social inclusion, environmental responsibility, artistic opportunity — and build a community that feels like home to all residents.

“Long-range city planning is more like casting a spell than writing a prescription — everyone has to buy in and believe and work hard to achieve the vision,” says Anderson, who is now executive director at the developers’ group Urban Development Institute – Edmonton Metro.

Like most cities across North America, from Winnipeg to Escondido, Calif., Edmonton has made it a top priority to reinvigorate the city’s downtown. A strong downtown matters to everyone in a city, whether they live or work downtown or not, because it’s often the economic heart. As of March 2022, there were 261 jobs per hectare in downtown Edmonton, and though the core accounts for only one per cent of the municipality’s land base, it generated 10 per cent of the city’s taxes.

A vibrant downtown requires more people: something like 30,000 more in Edmonton’s case, Anderson estimates.

“We need to build a truly vibrant downtown that is full of people 24/7, with a diversity of housing — from the $10-million penthouse to the most dignified supportive housing we can create — so everybody lives well and people aren’t unhoused on our streets,” she says.

But it’s important to get urban density just right. Too dense and it feels frenetic; in fact, it can be unhealthy. Not dense enough and the community isn’t complete and can’t sustain itself.

Sandeep Agrawal looking beyond the camera with blurred cityscape in the background
Sandeep Agrawal, director of the School of Urban and Regional Planning, has studied cities around the world. John Ulan

Agrawal has seen the effects of unchecked density first-hand in the small town of Ranchi, India, where he grew up. Having been away for 30 years, he set out to find his childhood home one sunny day. After searching all afternoon, it was dusk before he found it.

“The place had completely changed,” he remembers. “There had been large green fields all around my house when I was growing up, and a river flowing nearby, but I couldn’t see any of it. It was absolutely unrecognizable.”

What was once a sleepy town is now a bustling state capital of just over a million inhabitants, an industrial heartland due to its proximity to mineral reserves and forest products.

Canada doesn’t have quite the same issue with urban sprawl as does India, where Delhi almost doubled in geographic size between 1991 and 2011. Still, over the past 20 years, Canadian cities have grown by 34 per cent, while population density has fallen by six per cent, according to a CBC analysis in 2022 based on satellite imagery and artificial intelligence. Every day in Ontario alone new subdivisions eat up the equivalent of a family farm.

Agrawal and other planners agree that urban sprawl is likely to be reversed over the next half century. Places like Vancouver and Montreal are simply running out of room to expand, and there’s a growing recognition that ever-bigger cities are too expensive to maintain. In 2018, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development estimated that urban sprawl triples public service costs, and it tags Canada as one of the places where growth should be checked.

Agrawal says Canadian cities must get denser, not larger. But greater density doesn’t necessarily mean more skyscrapers. It means condos, townhouses, low-rise apartments and duplexes that house more people on the same plot of land than a single-family dwelling, no matter what part of town you live in. The current buzz name for the best in urban dwelling is the “15-minute district.” It’s a riff on the garden city movement first promoted back in the early 20th century in England to make industrial cities more livable. The goal is to find everything you need to live a good life — food, health care, work, exercise and entertainment — within a 15-minute walk, roller-skate, skateboard, bike or transit ride from home.

“It’s the reformulation of a very old idea,” says Anderson, noting the concept is a key part of Edmonton’s new plan. “People have always wanted to live in complete communities. The language has changed over time, but the idea is not new.”

According to a 2021 Statistics Canada report, only 20 per cent of Canadians live within that kind of proximity to the services and stores they need on a daily basis, so there’s plenty of scope for improvement. The 15-minute district concept has taken off in places as varied as Paris, Melbourne, Shanghai and Portland. In Vancouver, old-school shopping malls near SkyTrain stations are being replaced with new shops and denser housing developments. In Paris, the focus is on new bike lanes and better parks. As the pandemic has shown, we can’t always depend on global supply chains, so part of the appeal of a 15-minute district is that it is built around local businesses. Another key element is planning for more green space, not less — and many of us came to appreciate green space during the past two-plus years in a way we had not before the pandemic.

Growing up in St. Albert, a suburb of Edmonton, Karen Lee could never have imagined life without a car. Then she moved to New York City and, as a public health physician, contributed to creating health-promoting amenities along one of the best-used bike trails in the United States. The Manhattan Waterfront Greenway is a 52-kilometre trail that wends its way around the island. At certain times of the day the path is crowded with people with briefcases strapped on the back of their bikes, heading to work, stopping for coffee or a meal along the way, jostling with tourists snapping shots of the river views. People can stop to play basketball or tennis or go for a quick paddle in a kayak. Rather than a path to nowhere, this trail was built purposely to take people places they want to go.

For Lee, finding the perfect balance of urban density is a passion. Now director of the U of A’s Housing for Health project and author of Fit Cities: My Quest to Improve the World’s Health and Wellness — Including Yours, she has devoted her career to promoting health.

She cites growing evidence that our built environment — the homes, streets and communities where we live — can actually make us healthier.

Lee encouraged health-supporting amenities along the Manhattan Waterfront Greenway when she was the inaugural director of New York’s Healthy Built Environment and Active Design Program and deputy to the assistant commissioner for Chronic Disease Prevention and Control. The greenway is recognized as a prime example of urban planning that meets goals in transportation, recreation, economics and health, all at once.

The New York City team also introduced other health interventions such as mandated nutrition labelling in restaurants and minimum active playtime for kids in daycare. And they gathered data to prove it made a difference: better chronic disease outcomes, more active New Yorkers and lower obesity rates in children. New Yorkers’ lifespan even increased faster than the average across the country. Traffic fatalities dropped for both pedestrians and drivers, and retail sales went up in many areas that had been improved for walking, cycling and transit.

Lee is now working to demonstrate how these ideas can work in Canada. She came back to Alberta in 2018 as associate professor of preventive medicine and adjunct professor in the U of A School of Public Health. She’s pulling together 200 people from across the country — city planners, health professionals, developers, architects, academics, even community league volunteers — anyone with an interest in building healthier communities. They’re working to produce the Canadian Healthy Community Guidelines by early 2023.

Lee says it doesn’t cost extra to plan for health from the beginning of a development. First, it’s important to select a location that’s close to grocery stores, recreation, schools, jobs and active transportation options. Then make sure sidewalks and crosswalks are wide enough so that all residents, including those in wheelchairs, can get around safely. Next, design buildings so the stairs are the most obvious option for those who can use them instead of an elevator, and make sure the stairwell is clean, brightly lit and finished with paint so it doesn’t feel like an afterthought. And even affordable buildings should offer fitness facilities. In one of Lee’s projects there’s a golf simulator right next to the exercise room.

Lee says that as we adopt new technologies like self-driving cars it’s important that cities prioritize opportunities to walk, cycle and use public transit — options that are affordable, accessible and promote social, physical and mental health.

“These daily things that we add to our lives, like walking around our neighbourhoods, running into a neighbour, using the stairs in our work and home buildings, can actually make a big difference to our health outcomes,” she says.

That includes supporting people to stay healthy, mentally and physically, as they age. Nearly a quarter of Canadians will be over 65 years of age by 2051, according to Statistics Canada. That presents all kinds of challenges.

“If you have to leave your neighbourhood as you age, it means you’re leaving your neighbours and friends and support systems,” says Lee.

“We want to age in place in all of our neighbourhoods, but to do that, we have to create neighbourhoods where we have the option to walk to amenities or take transit if we’re going further. That means we have to think about different types of housing typologies in multiple neighbourhoods, not just downtown.”

Canadian cities are not even mentioned in the Canadian Constitution; they are creatures of the provinces. And yet they have the responsibility to tackle some of society’s biggest challenges at the level closest to our everyday lives: our neighbourhoods, our jobs, our homes and our families. It’s a big, messy task, and the tools cities have to shape the future are awkward.

But if that seems daunting, think back to Agrawal’s vision of autonomous vehicles.

The best guesses say it could be a few decades before autonomous vehicles rule our roads. For Agrawal, their potential is much like the quantum progress in telephone technology since he left India. In 1990, it was almost impossible for a family to get a landline. Now everyone has their own cellphone and those personal cell numbers have revolutionized society.

“Individual identity in India was formed by those cellphone numbers. That cellphone gave individuals the independence to talk to whomever they wanted,” says Agrawal. “It helped them with employment. It helped them in their mobility,” he adds. “It helped them in so many different ways.”

He is hopeful we will see a similar leap forward in accessibility and equity as our cities of the future develop. His new book Rights and the City: Problems, Progress and Practice is about how cities can improve human rights, whether by removing discriminatory zoning rules that keep certain kinds of housing out of a neighbourhood or by keeping the price of a bus ticket affordable. For him, the autonomous vehicles and other changes coming at us so quickly have the potential to make our cities not only more livable, but also more equitable.

Agrawal sees that as the beauty and importance of considered, informed city planning. He believes necessity will lead to innovative solutions and that practical decisions informed by imagination will help us build safe, accessible, delightful spaces where everyone can find a home.

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