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Igniting the pilot light

Edmonton embraces small-scale projects in hopes of sparking public's interest in planning ideas

Pedestrian scramble crossings, installed by the City of Edmonton as a pilot project, tested traffic control designs to reduce or eliminate pedestrian and vehicle collisions. (City of Edmonton)

This fall, Winnipeg voters spoke loudly and clearly on the night of the city’s municipal election — they did not want Portage and Main to be reopened to pedestrians.


A sobering thought crossed the minds of many urbanists the day after 65 per cent of Winnipeggers voted to keep the intersection closed. "What went wrong?"


After all, leading up to the plebiscite Vote Open Winnipeg, a coalition of individuals, businesses and organizations promoting the merits for reopening Portage and Main, buffered hundreds of questions raised by residents. One of the recurring arguments revolved around pedestrian safety. Yet, despite a nearly 100-page transportation study and expert opinion from Canadian urban planners proving otherwise, Winnipeg citizens remained resolute that keeping Portage and Main closed would be a safer option for people and better for vehicular movement.


"Despite addressing each of their concerns, fears and hesitations, Winnipeggers refuted the facts," said Susie Erjavec Parker, one of the Vote Open Winnipeg organizers. "We showed visuals of what could be possible at Portage and Main, and articulated the advantages for its reopening, including the support of the property owners at each corner of the intersection.


"There’s no doubt people have great ideas for the city, but there are times when we should leave infrastructure planning to the experts," Vote Open Winnipeg organizer Susie Erjavec Parker said. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Free Press files)

"There’s no doubt people have great ideas for the city, but there are times when we should leave infrastructure planning to the experts," Parker added. "There is significant evidence outlining the necessity for making Portage and Main more walkable, accessible for people with mobility challenges, and a lively destination. It seems like city planning isn’t quite embraced here, and I think that’s one of the hurdles we need to jump over if we want to truly realize our city’s ambitious goals. I think and hope we can get there soon."


In other cities, small pilot projects have moved into the spotlight and are beginning to resonate with people. City visionaries, planners, architects, developers and officials have turned to this temporary, pop-up phenomenon to demonstrate how an urban idea can manifest into something with permanence.


Cities often use pilot projects to facilitate buy-in from the public, as their temporal nature often provide a level of comfort — it is assumed opportunities for adjustment and adaptation are available. As the organization Project for Public Spaces notes, pilot projects are "lighter, quicker, cheaper" and provide risk-averse cities cost-effective opportunities to fail faster and adapt quicker to the needs of residents, rather than spending millions on permanent infrastructure at the outset.


Would an incremental approach have been better in selling the vision of Portage and Main’s reopening to pedestrians?


In Streetfight, New York City’s former transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, writes about car-clogged streets and how their transformation can be accomplished without heavy machinery, construction, or funding.


"Planners can reorder a street without destroying a single building, or building a streetcar, light rail system, or highway interchange. It can be accomplished quickly by using the basic materials that every city has access to — in New York City’s case more than six thousand miles of street — and the basic stock all city transportation agencies already have in their supply depots or available through existing contracts."


In Streetfight, New York City’s former transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, writes about car-clogged streets and how they can be transformed without heavy machinery, construction or funding. (Olugbenro Photography)

Sadik-Khan was referring to paint. Paint can help refashion streets, turning them into vibrant destinations.


In New York, paint was used by Sadik-Khan and her team to reconfigure unused spaces into bustling "people places." For example, the transformation of an unsafe, car-oriented street into a lively plaza at Times Square. People seemingly abandoned their attachment to vintage notions, such as cars over people, and began to embrace the physical changes they were witnessing — the vibrancy of the space, the increased economic development and the throngs of people.


New Yorkers and tourists began to see streets as inclusive places, and soon after began to frequently comment on what they’d like to see permanently installed at Times Square in the future. This simple pilot project evolved as quickly as it was embraced, becoming a permanent fixture that community members, neighbourhood agencies, artists and activists could make possible in their own spaces and places — through the addition of municipal funding and grants from private-partnerships.


While the City of Winnipeg has ventured cautiously into the practice of pilot projects, urban activists have given them a shot. For example, Wins and Rae Bridgman collaborated with the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ this past summer to illustrate the need for public washrooms with strategically placed, highly visible pop-up toilets in the core. A complementing awareness campaign featuring Winnipeggers (#toiletlesswpg) and their stories of solidarity advanced a conversation around the economic and social rationale for public washroom access. As people used the pop-up toilets, they were asked to share their experiences through in-person surveys. Input was also gathered online to identify where community members envisioned permanent public washrooms working well.


Edmonton has generated buzz around its approach to planning — as planners continue to translate 20- to 40-year master plans and vision statements into bite-sized prototypes to show what is possible. The results have been largely positive. For Hani Quan, a senior planner with the City of Edmonton, pilot projects have been a useful tool in getting the public to buy into the bigger picture, with less investment from the outset.


Edmonton uses pilot projects to enliven spaces with art and light. (Geoff Wagner photo)

"For the public, it feels like less of a leap of faith. It’s more of a hop," said Quan. "Over the past several years, we have seen great success in communicating large change through small-scale projects. It has helped ease people to the changes that are anticipated, and also affords the City of Edmonton an opportunity to iteratively refine and revise the plans according to public feedback and results of the pilot projects. When the change and its benefits are clearly demonstrated, reviewed and assessed, there is a lower likelihood that the public would reject the broader plan."


Quan and his team spearheaded small-scale initiatives through a project called CITYlab. Similarly to how Sadik-Khan transformed areas like DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass in Brooklyn) into vibrant "people places" with just a few cans of paint, the CITYlab team partnered with business associations, neighbourhood groups and volunteers to add colour and artistic expressions to otherwise drab and underutilized infrastructure, such as concrete paving or back alleys.


CITYlab’s rainbow crosswalks pilot project, launched in 2015, transformed traditional black-and-white pedestrian crossings into a splash of rainbow-coloured pride — bringing awareness to Edmonton’s Pride Festival and providing an opportunity to monitor motorist behaviour. This pilot project improved the public’s perception of safety at crosswalks for pedestrians, and weren’t noted as a major impediment for car drivers — issues that were hotly contested prior to the project’s introduction. These positive results led to the installation of colourful crosswalks throughout the city.


CITYlab’s rainbow crosswalks pilot project brought awareness to Edmonton’s Pride Festival and improved the public’s perception of safety at crosswalks for pedestrians. (City of Edmonton)

Marco Melfi, one of many planners on the CITYlab team, said collaboration between city departments — in this case, planning and transportation — was a compelling return on investment. "It not only illustrated teamwork across departments, it also showed a willingness to try something new to be responsive to the community. The positive reaction from Edmontonians, and other cities that took notice, showed that we were on to something."


Other civic departments took note of CITYlab’s success, and began to adopt the pilot-project approach. More recently, the city launched a pilot project to determine if flag-shaped lots were feasible for an average lot in Edmonton. In this scenario, a lot resembles a flag and a pole. The flag-shaped lot is often the remnant shape that is left over once a smaller subdivision has taken place to separate from a principal dwelling.


Currently, under the City of Edmonton’s zoning bylaw, a flag-shaped lot subdivision is not possible. Instead of a wide-spread policy change, a more gentle approach was adopted. City planner Stuart Carlyle solicited applications from residents, ultimately choosing three lots to test for feasibility.


A pilot project of the City of Edmonton aimed to determine if flag-shaped lots are feasible for the average lot type in the city. (City of Edmonton)

"We wanted to collaborate directly with members of the community who showed interest in trying something new like the flag-shaped lot subdivision," said Carlyle. "It wasn’t just the community hearing from city staff, it was the community hearing from one of their own. It really enhanced the discussion."


For Shalaka Jadhav, a planning student with the city, leading a pilot project aimed at revitalizing vacant lots offered a unique opportunity to liaise with citizens interested in urban agriculture. A small project tested out a licence that would allow citizens to cultivate food or flowers on municipal lands used for utilities.


The City of Edmonton offers vacant lots for citizens to engage in food cultivation and urban agriculture. (City of Edmonton)

"Edmonton’s short growing season often means access to land is highly competitive," said Jadhav. "By creating and providing increased access to land, the hope is that underused lots of land may be available to produce food or flowers for personal use, increasing local access to food. Many of the pilot participants used these lots as an opportunity to gather the community around conversations of food access and reconnecting with how food is grown."


At the heart of the city between downtown and the North Saskatchewan lies the River Crossing area, an area dominated by arterial roads, an abandoned power plant, functioning water treatment plant and vacant lots. Edmonton City Council wants to see the area transformed into a vibrant mixed-use community and destination that honours its long, layered history as a gathering place for Indigenous people and the birthplace of the city. With a heritage study completed, a new land use plan is currently underway, but actual redevelopment is still many years out. Here, too, planners are using pilot projects to shape future change, specifically in the area of heritage and place-making.


"One thing we heard during our conversations with Indigenous nations and Edmontonians during our heritage study was that we need to start telling the stories of this place and not wait until construction," said Olive Bailey, principal planner with the River Crossing team. "Piloting low-cost, community-led heritage projects in the area allows us to build on the momentum of our community conversations and raise awareness and support for the exciting changes that will transform the area over the coming decades."


An interactive sculpture based on Cree teachings. (Olive Bailey photo)

So far this year the team has worked with local organizations and artists on projects ranging from an interactive sculpture based on Cree teachings to a projection that illuminated the old power plant with giant animations of native wildlife.


Pilot projects can also serve as helpful springboards for public engagement. According to one of the City of Edmonton’s senior public engagement advisors, Jane Purvis, engagement creates opportunities for people to contribute to city decisions, and communicates how public input was collected and used. Pilot projects, then, allow citizens tangible opportunities to experience how something looks and feels before they provide feedback and before policies or projects become permanent.


Recently, pedestrian scramble crossings were added to Edmonton’s streets seemingly overnight, but were several years in the making. In 2015, the city adopted the Vision Zero strategy to reduce serious injuries and fatalities from traffic collisions to zero. As part of the strategy, Edmonton placed a priority in testing and studying traffic control designs that reduce or eliminate pedestrian and vehicle collisions. One of those traffic control designs, pedestrian scrambles at major four-way intersections, were installed at two intersections: Jasper Avenue and 104 Street, and 82 Avenue and 105 Street — with the majority of Edmontonians generally supportive of the change, while expressing some concerns related to safety. The pedestrian scramble crossings will operate for a full year so data can be collected on its effectiveness. Plans to extend the pilot project to three other locations in the downtown are underway.


"Pedestrian scrambles at major four-way intersections have not been used in Edmonton since 1959, when they were removed to accommodate rising vehicle demand," said Olga Messinis, director of network operations for the city. "Edmonton is now transitioning from a city focused on vehicles to one focused on pedestrians and other vulnerable road users."


When asked why a pilot project was necessary, Messinis added, "Traffic and pedestrian patterns have changed significantly as the city has grown, and it is not always certain if newer traffic safety systems will impact as intended. Pilot projects may or may not always lead to permanent solutions, but they always provide learning opportunities that help administration and council inform their decisions concerning traffic safety."


Robyn Webb, senior environmental project manager for the City of Edmonton’s energy transition unit, and a former Winnipegger, agrees, noting how pilot projects provide valuable insight and feedback — good or bad.


The City of Edmonton’s Green Home Energy Toolkit pilot project offered thousands of Edmontonians with tools to measure household energy efficiency. (Jason Syvixay photo)

In 2016, Webb launched a home-energy-toolkit pilot project, which offered Edmontonians tools — from infrared thermometers to kilowatt meters — to measure household energy efficiency. After analyzing feedback for a year, the pilot was turned into the full-fledged Change Homes for Climate program and now provides residents with rebates for EnerGuide home evaluations, energy efficiency renovations, and rooftop solar.


"The City of Edmonton knew that we needed to design programs to reduce emissions in residential homes but we were unsure of what the demand for these programs would look like from residents. Once launched, the toolkit was instantly successful, racking up hundreds of holds at the library in weeks. This small test gave us the confidence that Edmontonians were hungry for more information and recommendations on energy efficiency and became a building block for our full scale program."


As Streetfight’s Janette Sadik-Khan argues, while pilot projects can help communicate the tangible benefits of a particular vision, pursuing larger-scoped plans and policies further requires political will and community support. These endorsements are critical in turning pilot projects into permanent programs.


While Edmonton and New York are different tales, on a local level, "the pilot project approach allows us to be bold, with less risk," Quan says.


"We get to try out our ideas, throw them to the wall, so to speak, and to see what sticks. When we run these projects, we’ll get a sense real quick whether it is something we should continue to do, or adjust or refine. At the heart of it all, is ensuring what we all have envisioned, whether it’s in plans or in policies, can be demonstrated, and can show what is possible. From there, it takes continued support to keep the ball rolling."


As funding for larger infrastructure initiatives continues to be constrained, pilot projects offer an incremental approach to planning cities. As urban theorists Lilian van Karnenbeek and Leonie Janssen-Jansen assert, incremental planning helps to reveal the wide range of public, private and civic players who negotiate urban transformation. As demonstrated by Edmonton’s ingenuity, Winnipeg could possibly benefit from pilot projects, as they would not only highlight the intention and spirit behind a plan or civic-vision statement, but they would also instigate a conversation and negotiation between those who would be impacted, co-ordinating their feedback as they begin to see what is possible.


Prairie cities like Winnipeg can take great urbanist leaps in the form of pilot projects to "hack" the city. Perhaps all we have to do is start small.


Originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press on December 29, 2018.


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© 2017 by Jason Syvixay