Safe routes to school

Caledon East

Contrary to the popular imagery of quiet main streets, many small communities have large and busy streets running through them. These streets are often the only retail, and social spaces in smaller communities. Yet, the high levels of speed and traffic on these important routes can have a significant effect on the quality of life of smaller communities.

For example, in Caledon East, a town of 2,201 people north of Mississauga, parents feel that walking in the town, which is bisected by Airport Road, is too dangerous for their children. As the Toronto Star reports:

More than 280 residents of Caledon East have signed a petition, recently presented to the Peel District School Board, asking it to keep the current school bus service — set to end this September — which picks up about 49 area children from 36 families and transports them safely to Caledon East Public School at 15738 Airport Rd.

They just don’t feel it’s safe for the children to walk a route to school that includes narrow sidewalks, obscured sightlines and a number of driveways, says Martin-Robbins whose twin 9-year-old daughters, Cassie and Taylor, are in Grade 3 at Caledon East Public School…

“Yes, there are sidewalks but there’s only about a 3-foot gap to the road. This is not a distance issue, it’s safety,” said Cameron. “Nobody is saying it’s too far to walk. The issue is whether it’s safe to walk.”

The Martin-Robbins’ children live about 1.5 kilometres from the 255-student school, with a big chunk of that route along Airport Rd.

And there’s a lot of traffic rolling along 50-kilometre-an-hour Airport Rd. in Caledon East, which is used by an average 11,000 vehicles daily, including about 1,200 heavy trucks, according to data from the Region of Peel, Traffic Engineering, Transportation, Public Works.

It is discouraging when children and their parents in any community are too afraid to walk to school. Yet, it is a common theme in smaller communities. Research from New Zealand shows that the quality of infrastructure and high levels of traffic in smaller communities is a significant barrier to walking and active transportation. This makes sense as the lower densities of smaller communities means they have less resources to provide decent infrastructure.

Entrance to Caledon East Public School

Main Entrance of Caledon East Public School

The issues with the street and infrastructure are also compounded by how the Caledon East Public School is designed and built. It is built on the edge of the town so that it can better serve the wider catchment area, not only the town itself. The consequence is that the school is placed and designed to be accessed by bus or car, not by foot.

Designing schools for buses and cars in any community dramatically increases costs to the town and the school board and negatively affects the health and safety of students. The impact of these decisions are easier to see in smaller communities like Caledon East, but similar impacts can be seen in small towns and large cities across North America. The ability of most communities to pay for busing hides the reality that in many children and adults simply don’t have safe routes to school.

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Better Streets: Fountains Place, Poynton

Photo by SK121NZ

Photo by SK121NZ

In England, the Village of Poynton has implemented a bold transformation of its centre, Fountains Place, which is located at the crossing of three major routes, London Road (A523), Chester Road (A5149) and Park Lane. Nearly 26,000 cars pass through the large intersection in the heart of the village every day. This traffic and the design of the intersection had a significant negative impact on the community. As Hamilton-Baillie Associates write in the Poynton Town Centre Study:

Pedestrian activity on Fountains Place is constrained by the layout of the junction and intrusive impacts of the large volumes of traffic. Street activity is limited to the functional, with pedestrians moving around the margins of the space and opportunities for pedestrians to move through and across the junction compromised by the limited crossing facilities. The church is particularly isolated by the lack of crossings from Park Lane.

Poynton before

From video “Poynton Regenerated”

In order to revitalize the centre, Hamilton-Baillie proposed an innovative solution, a shared space. The result:

Poynton after

From video “Poynton Regenerated”

As can be seen, the intersection was entirely transformed. The traffic lights were removed, the sidewalks widened, the curbs were taken out, and public space was reclaimed in front of the church. As can be seen the new intersection looks better, but does it work better?

So far the consensus seems to be that the intersection is safer. Traffic moves just as well, or maybe even a little better than it did before. But above all, there is more vitality and energy in the centre of the village. Its has become a meeting place instead of merely a place to pass through.

To see an excellent overview of the project and its results I recommend watching the following 15 minute video produced by Hamilton-Baillie. As one commentator in the video observes, people are not crossing with their heads down or focused on waiting for a green light. Instead “Most people crossing the road will wave (to the driver). That goes on to feed all these other small gestures of kindess and consideration.”

A New World

New World Street Party

Last week I had the opportunity to see the film A New World at the Estonian Documentary Film Festival, EstDocs. The film is an extraordinary window into a modern activist movement.

Filming for five years, director Jaan Tootsen is able to provide incredible depth and unparalleled access into the lives of a group of activists who live in the Uus Maailm* (New World) neighbourhood in Tallinn, Estonia.

The arc of the film is well developed, following the New World group from its start to nearly its end. The film is primarily focused around the groups leader Erko, who makes a fascinating protagonist. He is funny, wild, and full of great ideas. His hope, vision, and later, frustrations drive the story.

When the film begins in 2006, the group is energized and radical. They organize a protest during the ribbon cutting of a new road, paint DIY crosswalks, occupy parking spots, and clash with authorities. But, as Erko and the group begin to turn their visions into reality, their house,  a ramshackle old wooden building with a leaky roof, evolves into an unlikely community house, the Uus Maailm Seltsi Maja.

As the story develops the group becomes more and more focused on operating the house. They conflict with neighbours who constantly call the police, the landlord who is trying to sell the property, and the government which supplies a growing pile of paperwork. As a result, the group begins devoting considerably less time to protesting, and more time managing relations with neighbours, applying for grants and permits, and organizing fundraisers to pay the rent.

The results of the group’s efforts are mixed. They are very successful in creating a sense of community and gain a great deal of recognition. Even the President of the Republic, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, drops by for a tour. Yet, they fail to sustain the house financially and themselves emotionally. The wear of working intensely with the same people really begins to show. At the same time, the group’s growing frustration with the reality of operating the house begins to clash with the its initial radical aims. By the end of the film it was clear the group had run out of steam.

The New World group accomplished a lot. It redefined what a community group could do in Estonia. It established a community library, organized communal meals, events, parties and street festivals, and distributed a free local paper. However, its greatest accomplishment was to inspire a generation of Estonians to take ownership of their communities.

Anyone with an interest in community building, activism, and urbanism should see this film.

*The name of the neighbourhood Uus Maailm, or New World, is over a century old. It’s a moniker said to have come from a bar in the neighbourhood called “America.”

It should not be about urban versus suburban

A Changing Suburb

Last month the Brookings released an analysis using the 2011 census showing that cities were growing faster than the surrounding suburbs for the first time since the 1920s. Since then, there has been active debate between those who are hailing the rebirth of cities and those refuting the findings.

The latest to step into the debate is Trulia, a real estate site, declaring “Americans still love the suburbs.” Trulia came to this conclusion by providing a finer level of analysis after using density measurements to distinguish between urban and suburban places. Simplistically, they argue dense places are urban, and places with low densities are suburban.

We should not be reducing the definition of places to one variable because it is easily measured. It needlessly creates differences. Suburbs are far more complex than just density. For example, at least in Toronto, many areas labelled suburbs are denser then central downtown neighbourhoods, and have a higher share of transit user.

The cities versus suburbs debate is getting tired. Increasingly, suburbs and cities are facing the same problems; growing inequality and poverty, ageing infrastructure, longer commutes, and tighter budgets. Furthermore, suburbs are being built differently than in the past. The Washington Post recently profiled the spread of suburban town centres or lifestyle centres, with nearly 398 built in the United States. Walkable communities with apartments, condos, and retail are increasingly being built in low density places beyond the city limits.

Instead of creating a false dichotomy and trying to determine who is winning the “growth race” by parsing data, we should focus on building more inclusive communities that are accessible, safe, and vibrant. The question should not be where we are building, but what we are building.

What I’m Reading

Photo by Tilling 67

There is a lot of great stuff being written every day.  I can’t blog about it all. So here is a list of some of the articles I read this week that you might have missed:

Community

Development

Planning

Transportation

 

What I’m Reading

Photo Credit: Free Light! by gorbould

There is a lot of great stuff being written every day.  I can’t blog about it all. So here is a list of some of the articles I read this week that you might have missed:

Community

Development

Planning

Transportation

What I’m Reading

Photo Credit: Marc Falardeau, One Block

There is a lot of great stuff being written every day.  I can’t blog about it all. So here is a list of some of the articles I read this week that you might have missed:

Architecture

Community

Planning

Transportation