North American Sampler

For week seven of our Change the World novena, we hear from a planner who reflects on the impact of transportation on the development and well-being of several cities.

As architects, we like to imagine ourselves as closet urban planners, perhaps even dabblers in landscape design.  We think that because we design the buildings in a city that that somehow qualifies us as experts in the “negative spaces” (note the condescending way we refer to it) around them as well.  To turn that whole notion on its ear, I asked transit planner Andre Darmanin to weigh in on the way that our roadways, in particular transit systems, define development.  It’s a real reversal in thinking as Andre loves architecture and most likely imagines that he could take on a bit of facade design now and again to enhance his planning work.  Andre has lived and worked in several North American cities, notably Los Angeles, CA and Toronto, Canada, and shares his thoughts on transit impacts on community development in those locations.

Cities each have their own characters, what they have been, what they are and what they wish to become.  Toronto, Andre’s hometown is a major global metropolis and seat of cosmopolitan culture.  However, the limitations of the city’s heavy rail system and inattention to how transit impacts the urban experience has led to problems in recent years. “The biggest physical change to the city has been on the negative side,” Andre states.  “There have been many years of neglect for its public transportation system.  Major subway delays and breakdowns combined with not responding to the growth of the suburbs.  Metrolinx, the Greater Toronto and Hamilton area’s Regional Transportation Agency has responded.  With Metrolinx’s Regional Transportation Plan – The Big Move – and their upcoming Investment Strategy due in 2013,  there are discussions of adding light rail lines throughout the region along sustainable funding measures to build and improve transit.   Quality of life rankings still put Toronto in the top 10 in many categories.   The Toronto Board of Trade had released several reports over the last 2 years regarding the state of Toronto’s economy with regards to transit, infrastructure, IT and manufacturing. Its prominence is slipping to places like Calgary and Vancouver.   Just like New York and London, Toronto continuously has to reinvent itself.”  Andre sees an event-driven impetus to some of that change just around the corner, “Given the Pan Am Games will be there in 2015, it will give the city a chance to reenergize and focus on building the region for years to come.”

Andre lived and worked in Los Angeles between 2004 and 2006 as a Regional Transit
Planner for the Southern California Association of Governments. His work there included championing the 2008 Regional Transit Summit. His insights into LA address how transit is being used to create more local destinations and foster a sense of place.  “[LA] is a city known for its urban sprawl, expansive highway network, congestion and pollution,” he
The Regional Transit Summit sponsored by the Southern
California Association of Governments provided a forum
for the community to interact with its elected officials

begins, then takes his response in a surprising direction, observing how interventions at a variety of scales are working to change that perception. “I lived in Downtown LA.  For the first time in 50 years, a Ralph’s opened a downtown grocery store recognizing the residents’ needs for local shopping.  The revitalization of downtown, increased residential development and has included LA Live.  In 2011, I recently visited LA.  LA Live has become a major entertainment center, which is true to form for its name.  Measure R, which allowed an increase of the sales tax to fund transportation projects as well as the 30/10 initiative, are ways in which the county is looking to improve transportation for the future while relying on a sustainable funding source.  Also from what I have been reading, there are constant improvements to the city such as the Public Plaza in Silver Lake.” 

Edmonton, Alberta, where he lives and works today as a Transit Planner for the city, is committed to family-oriented growth, which also shows in its transportation planning.  “With Edmonton the biggest change has been the constant growth within the suburbs.   There is one Light Rail Transit (LRT) line currently being built with plans to not only extend that line within 20 years, but also to build another LRT line within the same time frame.  Edmonton has developed a 30 year plan with six 10-year strategic goals called The Way Ahead.  The Ways (We Grow, Prosper, Move, Green, etc.) are all part of a long term strategy to grow the city in a sustainable fashion.  Aside from the LRT expansion, there are projects to revitalize older inner city neighborhoods and implement standards for newer suburban neighborhoods.”  

Andre doesn’t see a whole lot of difference between transportation issues in the US and Canada.  In both countries, the roads tends to be the primary means of travel, leading to issues of connectivity, safety and walkability.  “Edmonton’s worst quality would be the city’s road network.  People have equated Edmonton to Houston with its ring road and six-lane arterial roads. Although road and pedestrian safety are being addressed now, it is still a concern for neighborhoods whether it’s connectivity, safety or walkability. I could probably say the revitalization of Alberta Avenue in Edmonton is a successful project.  Alberta Avenue was known for its prostitution and public drunkeness.  It has now been revitalized with local businesses and cultural restaurants as well as a thriving arts community. With the integration of the bike lanes to the western portion of the Avenue, recognizing its connection to the local community college Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) to fa├žade improvements, the area has improved immensely.”

He does see civic engagement as a continuing challenge. Although most cities offer extensive opportunities for public input, most residents of a community fail to grasp how much transportation can positively or negatively impact their lives.  Andre gives an example, “The residents of Edmonton do have a voice.  There are plenty of opportunities to engage citizens when projects arise.  It is a pretty extensive process to say the least. When it comes to bus transit service changes – positive and negative, the citizenry isn’t engaged. LRT service receives plenty of feedback.  There isn’t much you can do for engaging people for bus service.  There is a public feedback mechanism that occurs and we take those seriously.”

Andre’s work in transit places him closer to the community than most architects get the opportunity to be.  As both a policy-maker and a planner, he has had the opportunity to see initiatives from both the perspective of the community and that of a city trying to make a change.  His blog, The Urban Strategist, blends that perspective as he gives his take on cities he has visited, critiques and assessments of policies and politics related to effective placemaking. By it’s very nature, transit shapes cities, defining corridors of pedestrian activity and fostering development or redevelopment of districts within walking distance of transit stops.  Andre’s work to advocate for better planning is based on a firm belief that we need to be visionary shapers of our cities because they in turn shape the quality of our lives.

Andre Darmanin is an "urban strategist" who thinks innovatively and has never been afraid to challenge the status quo.  He is a professional urban planner, born and raised in Toronto, where he is a strong believer of collaborative multi-disciplinary planning.  He has worked as a transit planner with Edmonton Transit for the last 2 1/2 years. Previous to that, he also worked as a transit planner with Mississauga Transit.   He also has experience with long range transit planning while working as a regional transit planner for the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) in Los Angeles.  Some of his accomplishments included championing the Regional Transit Summit in 2008 and authored the Transit Section of the 2008 Regional Transportation Plan.  He has degrees in Urban Planning and Public Administration from Ryerson University in Toronto.

Andre has a blog titled "The Urban Strategist"  where his musings range from transit, to city building to placemaking to education.  He has also authored or co-authored several published reports.  Most recently, he co-authored with several planners from Southern Ontario "Plain Transit for Planners" which was released by the Ontario Professional Planners Institute in 2011.  Other journal entries have included "Public Transit in Canada" (Mobility Matters, 2011) and "Where Do We Go from Here - Reverse Commuting and Spatial Mismatch in the Greater Toronto Area" (OPPI, 2006).  

Andre is an avid user of social media where he engages in discussions on Twitter (@urbanpolicyplnr) with fellow urbanists on various planning issues, local politics, and sometimes his support for his hometown sports teams.  He also displays his passion for urban planning and great architecture through his Pinterest account - Urban Strategist. Although secretively he does miss living in Los Angeles, he would love to return to Toronto one day soon where he can share his broad international insight on community building with better transit and urban planning in the city that he loves.