Plan View is sexy

Plan View is sexy

In my day job as a Planner, that I certainly won’t be quitting unless this blog really takes off, I do a lot of work in Plan View. Looking at things from 10,000, 5,000 or 1,000 feet above ground level is just what planners (and birds) do. It’s supposed to give an overall picture of what you want to achieve at 10k feet, then you go down to closer elevations and start working through the details – aka the urban design. All the while being consistent with what decisions you made at higher elevations. I’m pretty sure I could have explained that better, but I have to protect my job and make it sound super specialized.

Up High

Anyway, there’s a grocery store that I frequent located in downtown Edmonton that is on a site has done some fantastic work towards increasing the pedestrian experience. Which is great, considering the amount of people that live nearby and use the same mode of transportation that I prefer. Here’s a photo of the site, in Plan View (at 5,000 feet, let’s say):

circulation patterns around the commercial site

What a great map. Planners love maps, you’re going to get a lot of these. But I’d have failed the map making class in planning school (I’m serious about this) because the map is missing key elements. No north arrow (north is up), no scale legend (not to scale and doesn’t matter), no credits (Google), no legend (below paragraph), and no date created (April 29, 2018). Dr. Milgrom would be embarrassed by this map.

Anyway, the grocery store is labeled, and the site has dedicated bicycle (highlighted in green) and pedestrian (yellow) infrastructure in place throughout. Having a dedicated pedestrian sidewalk through a commercial site doesn’t seem like it should be celebrated, but I’ve seen so few good examples in Edmonton that this is worth getting excited about. As you can see there are two prominent north-south pedestrian linkages that go directly to the grocery store. Here’s a zoomed-in look at them:

zoomed in view of two pedestrian paths

As you can see, the two paths are different widths. For reference, the one on the right leads directly to the entrance/exit of the grocery store.

1.2m is the minimum width a pedestrian sidewalk can be per the City of Edmonton’s bylaw, and in most circumstances it works. It’s tight, but can comfortably accommodate two people passing each other.

Down Low

The problem isn’t the width necessarily. It’s that whoever drew this up only looked at it from 1,000 feet and didn’t think about the ground-level experience. This is common, I’m guilty of it myself. Here is what it looks like at ground-level (looking south):

urban design failure - cars encroaching a pedestrian sidewalk

Cars use the pedestrian sidewalk as a wheel stop when parking their vehicles. You know, to let them know they’re all the way into the parking stall. This results in the front of vehicles hanging over and into the sidewalk. Combine that with Edmonton’s preference to drive large trucks, and this pedestrian sidewalk could close up entirely and pretty easily. In this picture, thank goodness the cars on the right stopped short from pulling completely in. I may not have had as clear a path otherwise.

Personal Opinion

In planning theory, after high-level design decision are made, the ground-level experience is supposed to be designed to align. This is what urban design is – the aesthetic of the pedestrian experience. In European countries, urban design is its own profession and discipline. In Canada, urban design is one component of the city planner profession. But engineers are the ones implementing the designers plans. With little to no input from urban designers or those specialized in the design of pedestrian experiences. Or those that made the decision to include pedestrian-friendly infrastructure at the beginning of the process.

I’m not shitting on engineers here, they are important. But their goal for this sidewalk is to get water off of it as fast and as efficiently as possible. Not to worry about how much space a pedestrian has. They’re just doing their job.

The design process should follow this narrative:

“We should make sure to connect to external pedestrian/cycling networks surrounding the site” (10,000 feet)

“We should have a dedicated pedestrian network internal to the site.” (5,000 feet)

“We have 4.2m of room left over after putting in all the parking, let’s use it to create two north-south connections.” (1,000 feet)

After the last discussion, the designer should have switched from plan view to ground-level, avoided the standards manual and thought about the width and the impacts in more detail. But that’s not what happened. Plan View is great, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Working in Plan View exclusively leads us to this situation.

Possible Solutions?

Honestly, the solutions vary. Instead of having a 3m and a 1.2m path, there could be two 2.1m paths, which would give more space to allow for the vehicle encroachment. Or, installing curb stops short of the sidewalk to prevent vehicles from pulling all the way in. The sidewalk could be higher to prevent cars from overlapping. But, the real failure here is that the site design was in Plan View.


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