Planner walks the talk
Afew months back, I participated in a walking tour of Calgary’s inner-city Beltline area.
I was joined by members of the Urban Development Institute’s Urban Densification Committee, as well as two Centre City planners from the City of Calgary. It was enlightening to get their insiders’ look at the successes, failures and frustrations of the financing, planning, approval and marketing of condos projects in the area during the past 10 years.
Located immediately south of downtown and named for a former streetcar route, the Beltline includes some of Calgary’s oldest communities, such as Connaught and Victoria Park.
During the tour, I got the dirt, so to speak, from both sides — the city and the condo industry.
The best line I heard that day came from new City of Calgary planner Joe Mueller, who jokingly said: “Planners want to solve the world’s problems; the problem is, it’s only planners who have a problem with the world the way it is!”
I immediately thought; “Did I hear that right?”
I asked him to repeat what he just said and yes, I heard him right. I took an immediately liking to this guy and wanted to get to know him better. A few calls and emails later, I set up a meeting with him to get his thoughts on urban planning and Calgary.
I am always keen to hear what newbies — Mueller has only been with the City of Calgary since July — think of the city,
Such people often see it with fresh eyes and an untainted perspective. If I wait too long, I risk them having become either cynics or cheerleaders.
I warned Mueller I was going to pummel him with tough questions like “What do you like best and least about Calgary? What surprised you about Calgary when you first arrived?”
But in the end, we just had an engaging chat about his background in urban planning, his philosophy and his observations about urban planning projects locally and globally.
Mueller was born in Germany, but grew up in Mississauga. He returned to Germany to attend university because he was curious about what it would be like to live in Europe.
Following that, he joined Albert Speer and Partner, one of the largest and most renowned urban planning firms in the world.
From 2001 to 2008, he worked in Germany, Nigeria, Montenegro, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, working on everything from growth strategy plans and waterfront redevelopment to historical precinct plans and transportation integration strategies.
Given Mueller’s role as a member of the City of Calgary’s Centre City team, I was pleased he and his wife had decided to live in Rosedale close to downtown.
Though not exactly in the Centre City area as defined by city officials (from the Bow River to 17th Avenue and from 14th Street S.W. to the Elbow River, including Stampede Park), Rosedale is certainly an inner-city area by my definition (and I think many others).
I would define such areas as all of the communities within 30 to 45 minute walking distance of the downtown core, or within about a five-kilometre radius.
Call it a quirk of mine, but I have a hard time with individuals who preach everyone should live in the inner city — while they, themselves, live in the suburbs and drive downtown to work every day.
Mueller gets even more kudos from me as he walks or takes transit to work every day. He is literally walking the talk.
I asked about his choice of Rosedale and was surprised at his response.
“We were tired of living in the confining conditions of high-density downtown,” he said. “We’re at a phase in life where we wanted a little house and little yard — more personal space.”
In Europe, his wife lived in Brussels while he lived in Frankfurt. One of them spent every weekend on a high-speed train.
“After over 20 years in European apartments, we love the north side’s quiet, tree-lined streets and access to downtown and Kensington,” he said.
“It is a quantum leap in housing from what most people have in Europe. It is human nature to want your own oasis.”
I was surprised to learn that in Europe, he had to walk five minutes from his apartment to get to where he parked his car. Now he keeps his car in his own garage just behind his house.
Before coming to Calgary, he had been warned “you will hate it there; Calgary has no urban form — the transit system sucks.”
So he was surprised to find a transit system here that is “on par or better than many cities our size; it is clean, with good connections between the buses and trains.” He reminded me that only very large cities have frequent transit service in evenings and on weekends.
He was also pleased to find Calgary has an urban form that is evolving nicely in Eau Claire and downtown, as well as along 17th Avenue and in the Design District (along 10th and 11th Avenues).
But he was most impressed with the numerous public spaces, parks and open places that are available to people living in our city.
Although his biggest surprise was to find East Village lying barren, he sees huge potential there.
The Calgary Muncipal Land Corp. is currently undertaking a massive redevelopment of East Village, including upgrading its streets and raising the land above the flood plain.
In terms of urban sprawl, yes, Calgary has plenty of it — but overall, Mueller says he doesn’t understand why people are so critical of Calgary.
“It is a lot better than most cities in North America or Europe,” he says. “There are many cities in the world that do not provide anything near Calgary’s quality of life.”
He was intrigued and pleased to learn the city was pursuing transitoriented development and had recently completed its Centre City Plan.
The plan aims to create a livable, thriving and caring Centre City area, which is expected to grow by more than 40,000 residents and more than 60,000 new employees by 2035.
While chatting about my concern that Calgary’s downtown suffers as a result of too much density for a winter city, my ears really perked up when he mentioned some cities have a “skyscraper master plan.”
These help ensure that tall landmark buildings have the space they need around them so that their architecture can be showcased properly, as well as minimizing the negative impact of shadows.
Maybe we need to add this to the action list in Calgary’s Centre City Plan.
During our discussion, Mueller continued to fire off great oneliners like: “Never plan anything you’re not willing to live in your- self ” and “a lot of things look good on paper, but they don’t work in reality. It is important as a planner that we see beyond the pretty pictures.”
But the one that particularly resonated with me was: “As a planner, I like to go to the supermarket and take a look around at the people there. Those are my customers, not my peers.” Wow, this guy has got it right! Mueller sees a heightened awareness by North Americans during the past 20 years of the benefits of living in inner cities.
He believes we have become more discerning about the quality of housing we want to live in.
People want urban villages with a mixture of uses — such as residential, office, health and recreational — along with plenty of “amenities such as parks, pathways and open spaces within easy walking and cycling distance,” he says.
“Please, no more single-use, sterile mega-housing developments. People today want lots of architectural diversity and charm.”
While discussing the evolution of cities, Joe reminded me that established European cities evolved because of certain constraints, such as mobility, security, technology and terrain.
They also grew slowly over many centuries.
“Young cities like Calgary — or Riyadh in Saudia Arabia, where I have worked — don’t have the same constraints and are therefore evolving differently,” he says. “This is the 21st century.”
For him, urban planning is about balancing the need for density and space for people of all ages and backgrounds.
He hopes he can use 20 years of global knowledge and experience to bring new insights on how to capitalize on the opportunities to create a thriving and appealing urban environment in our Centre City.
I look forward to the outcomes of Mueller’s influence on the implementation of Calgary’s new Centre City Plan during the next few years.
RICHARD WHITE IS A CALGARY-BASED
WRITER WHO HAS WRITTEN ON ART, ARCHITECTURE AND URBAN CULTURE FOR MORE THAN 20 YEARS. HE IS DIRECTOR OF STRATEGIC INITIATIVES AT RIDDELL KURCZABA ARCHITECTURE AND CAN BE REACHED AT RICHARDW@RIDDELL.CA
A condominium tower under construction within Calgary.