“Watch out, watch out, watch out!” a toddler yells, hoisting a toy truck to his shoulders. I step out of the way as he zooms down the sidewalk. I’m in Share-It Square, a revamped intersection in a verdant Portland, Oregon neighbourhood. The main street – lined with antique shops, shady porches and front yards resembling mini botanical gardens – is mere blocks away, yet Share-It Square is the true heart of the community. On one corner, the boy runs in and out of Kids Klubhouse, a play space decked out with a Plexiglas roof, a table and chairs, toys and a lending library. Across from that, a guy straddling a bicycle holds out a mug as I walk past. “Want a cup of tea?” he asks, pointing to a 24-hour tea station with a stash of cups and a Thermos of hot water. (A neighbour restocks it every morning.) It’s like a self-serve Starbucks without the Wi-Fi.
About 20 neighbourhoods in Portland have undertaken similar “intersection repairs,” thanks to a community group called City Repair. When the mayor’s office realized that City Repair’s inexpensive, community-driven renos helped make neighbourhoods safer, city council officially paved the way for collaborative urban planning. Today the Office of Neighborhood Involvement is only an elevator ride away from Mayor Sam Adams; locals can take seminars such as Communities Creating Change, and Building Leaders, Building Your Board; and last year Adams launched a CivicApps design contest, turning residents into open-source city planners. (The Best of Show Award went to an app that provides bus and light-rail arrival times.)
People want their cities – like their banks and corporations – to be more transparent and accessible, and mayors are responding by bringing citizens into what was once a closed loop. In Chicago, the Metropolitan Planning Council offers training in community building, and sprawl-happy Edmonton put on an Open City confab for feedback on its Open Government project (a sort of Wikipedia approach to government data). Britain’s capital even held a series of debates on such existential questions as “Can London Be Both Big and Beautiful?” and “The 2012 Wish List: What Do You Want for London?” while the Dutch town of Smallingerland crowd-sourced the development of a new neighbourhood for what might be the world’s first “wiki-hood.”
In Portland, the affable mayor has been talking lately about “20-minute neighbourhoods,” where all the services you need – food, schools, transit, parks – are a short walk from your house. The idea is that if people become less mobile, they’ll spend more money locally and interact more with neighbours. But to get around a city that’s spread out like a quilt stitched together with the Willamette River, I follow Radcliffe Dacanay – a planner from the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability – into a Subaru Outback that he has borrowed from Zipcar. “We’re a city of neighbourhoods,” he says as we cruise along tree-lined streets. I quickly discover how different a city looks through an urban planner’s eyes: Weathered single-family houses along busy roads become obstructions to urban renewal; plots of bare land between buildings become grey space. When we drive by a triangle of land in one tired neighbourhood, Dacanay says casually, “This area could be piazzified.”
In Kenton, the mayor’s own 20-minute ’hood, we’re greeted by a hulking 10-metre-high statue of the mythological lumberjack Paul Bunyan – a fitting symbol for a city with the nickname Stumptown. Sleepy Kenton has all the makings of a hipster haven: cutesy moniker (No-Po, for North Portland), a light-rail station, a US$3-million investment from the Portland Development Commission and a smattering of hangouts, including Posies Cafe and Kenton Station Restaurant & Pub. Like many neighbourhoods, it has a website, Facebook page and e-newsletter. “I absolutely think it can be replicated in other cities,” Adams has said to The Atlantic magazine. “I do not think it’s anything in our water, as wonderful as our Portland water is.”
He’s right. Portland’s DIY approach to urban planning has spread to a place you might not expect. Calgary, the economic engine of a province that’s been described as “an experiment in fast, cheap and out of control,” has created Plan It Calgary. The 60-year visioning project aims to curb the city’s legendary urban sprawl, save $11.2-billion in infrastructure costs (mostly on roads and utilities) and reinvest in neighbourhoods to create transit centres, live-work spaces, plazas and parks. As one urban designer warned me before I headed to Cowtown, “Realize that our second industry after fossil fuels is suburban sprawl.” But Calgary also ranks high on livability studies, placing fifth on The Economist’s 2010 list. (Vancouver took top spot and Toronto came in fourth.) Locals are finally starting to think about their future.
It couldn’t come soon enough. As I consult the GPS on my rental car, I miss the pub where I’m supposed to meet two organizers from CivicCamp, an ad hoc group started by regular Calgarians to discuss urban issues and whose first project was to advocate for the Plan It initiative. But before I can turn around, I’m faced with the vortex of Crowchild Trail, one of the terrifying labyrinths of highways that spew visitors into a suburban expanse stretching toward the Rocky Mountains. I check for cops, make a U-turn at the on-ramp and loop back to the parking lot of Mickey’s Juke Joint & Eatery, where I find Cheri Macaulay and her fellow CivicCamper, Peter Rishaug.
“People felt a collective grumpiness when we hit the 1-million mark; we knew the city had to change,” says Macaulay, explaining that the need for citizen involvement is even greater with Calgary expected to swell by another million inhabitants in coming decades. “Suddenly, people wanted to have different conversations.” So CivicCamp used social media to bring Calgarians into the debate while Plan It was wending through City Hall. Then it fought for, and won, a seat on Plan It’s implementation committee and created outreach programs like its CivicCamp-in-a-Box workshops, which gather neighbours for good old brainstorming sessions on community campaigns and projects similar to Portland’s City Repair. “Only in the last three years have we come to grips with what Calgary needs to do,” Rishaug says later as we stand at the Pumphouse Theatre, looking out over the Bow River close to where the West Village development is planned. (Along with homes for 12,000 residents and dozens of offices, there’s talk of including an Alberta College of Art + Design campus.)
Strolling along the Bow and imagining Calgary 20 or 30 years from now brings to mind an experience I had in Portland. I was ambling up Alberta Street to a monthly street fair, and community spirit was everywhere. At one stall, two women were selling pink T-shirts printed with “The People’s Republic of Portland.” Near the end of the thoroughfare, a guy in waist-length dreadlocks and a karate-style outfit was breakdancing to “Thriller” streaming from a boom box. Stepping closer, I noticed he wasn’t performing for the crowd; he was dancing for a child sitting on the road. The toddler wobbled to his feet, busted a few moves and plopped down on the asphalt. As “Thriller” ended, the boy tottered toward his father, who took him in his arms and swept him high above the crowd. The sun was starting to set, the cafés were still full and everyone was out enjoying the city. And why wouldn’t they, when people were literally dancing in the streets?