The Streetscaping Plan
You can actually count on one hand the number of Atlantic Canadian communities that have shown the leadership and embraced the ideals of streetscaping which are the secret to building beautiful cities, towns and villages. These Cities and Towns have created Municipal plans, or Bylaws or at least required streetscape elements in their development agreements which have directed developers to underground utility lines and plant street trees.
These Cities and Towns are not the largest in Atlantic Canada, but they are the leaders. Saint John, Rothesay and Oromocto New Brunswick and Kentville and Wolfville Nova Scotia are the only five communities in all of Atlantic Canada that are building world-class residential and commercial streetscapes.
Everywhere else is pretty much an orgy of utility line ugliness. There are a few exceptions to this orgy of ugliness, like the spectacular Dartmouth Crossing Development in Dartmouth, NS, the recent streetscaping of Paul Street in Dieppe NB and Main Street in Summerside, PEI, but these cities do not require undergrounding of utility lines or the planting of street trees in new developments and their municipalities continue to diminish in urban design beauty.
The Town of Rothesay, New Brunswick has long been regarded as one of the most beautiful communities in our most beautiful of regions. The architecture is always noted as is the natural beauty of the Kennebecasis River, however it is the glorious mature street trees that truly set Rothesay apart from most others. Here are two excerpts from the Municipal Plan.
12.5. THIRD PARTY UTILITIES
12.5.1 CONTEXT Other organizations are responsible for the provision of utility services such as telecommunications, cable, and electricity. In Rothesay these services tend to be located outside the street rights-of-way and other easements, either underground or on a series of utility poles. The installation of these services causes, on occasion, damage to the Town infrastructure or detracts from the aesthetic appearance of the Town.
12.5.2 GOAL • To seek the cooperation of third-party utility providers to ensure that highest quality services are provided to the residences and businesses in Rothesay while minimizing negative effects.
12.5.3 POLICIES (a) Council shall encourage third-party utility services to be located in a manner that minimizes aesthetic and environmental impacts. This includes such options as: i. requiring use of existing easements and rights-of-way ii. encouraging underground placement of third-party utilities iii. encouraging rear lot servicing for above ground utilities iv. encouraging sharing of existing infrastructure among utility providers v. encouraging consistent standards and upgrades to new and existing infrastructure. (b) Council may seek impact fees and/or site restoration costs from third-party utility providers when these utilities are placed in Town rights-of-way or easements. (c) Council shall request the assistance of the utility companies serving Rothesay to achieve the goals of the Plan and shall seek to coordinate infrastructure work with third-party utility operators so as to avoid unnecessary costs and inconvenience to the public.
Regarding trees, the Town of Rothesay Municipal plan says:
3.9. STREET TREES & BEAUTIFICATION
3.9.1 CONTEXT One of the characteristics that sets Rothesay apart is its well treed lots, road rights of way and public spaces. Rothesay residents are justifiably proud of the mature trees that line its main roads and canopy its lanes. Policy in this Plan is intended to protect and enhance the street trees in the community and to ensure that newly developed areas and the commercial districts also are provided with trees at an early stage in their development. Of course there are areas where additional trees are not desirable since they would obscure views of the River or other significant features. In these cases low growing plant material will be selected. The cooperation of the utility companies in maintaining trees in the public rights-of-way is essential and should be sought on an ongoing basis. Overall beautification of the community includes the addition and maintenance of floral displays and turf areas. These areas need to be limited in number and scale to ensure their upkeep is affordable. Other opportunities for adding landscaping to the visual amenity of the community includes cooperative arrangements with special interest groups, businesses and particularly residential property owners. In addition to landscaping, topography and architecture, the appearance of the community is influenced by the manner in which public and private property is cared for. Elimination of litter, promotion of beautification efforts and enforcement of minimum property standards are among the means available to the municipality to maintain a high quality community appearance.
3.9.2 GOALS • To maintain and enhance Rothesay’s reputation as a heavily treed community. • To protect the existing street trees from damage and disease. • To protect ecological diversity through the planting of different native tree species which are street hardy. • To augment existing street trees through the addition of trees and other vegetation. • To ensure that street trees are an integral component of newly developed areas. • To significantly increase the number of street trees in the Hampton Road commercial district. • To encourage beautification of the Hampton Road.
(a) Council will set standards in the Subdivision By-law that require the planting of trees of appropriate quality and diversity of species in the public street right-of-way when property is developed for any use. (b) Council will direct the preparation of an inventory of existing street trees and ensure a proper urban forestry plan for their protection and replanting. (c) Council will seek funding in the form of grants and participation in special programs to supplement funds from the operating budget for planting trees. (d) Construction of roads and municipal utilities will be designed to avoid loss or damage to street trees. (e) Council will undertake to expand and enhance public open space. (f) Litter containers will be placed along the most heavily travelled pedestrian routes to encourage casual collection of litter and provide a convenience for walkers. (g) Rothesay will cooperate with not-for-profit groups and businesses to promote beautification of the community.
There are three elements to urban design beauty; natural beauty, architectural beauty and streetscape beauty. In Atlantic Canada we have the first two elements in staggering quantity, but seem to be blind to the importance of the third. Streetscapes are precious public spaces that we have allowed to be dominated by utility companies and their ugly utility lines and poles, and this has severely diminished the architectural beauty and natural beauty that so many of our cities and towns have in such abundance.
For example, look at Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. As the attached photos show, the glorious natural beauty of Lunenburg’s harbour as seen from the golf course across to the town and from the town across to the golf course, are truly two of the most lovely vistas in the world. But the following photos show how civic planners and leaders have permitted utility companies to significantly diminish this beauty. Indeed Photo Six shows how civic planners allowed a utility pole right in the center of the most important tourist vista. Photo Seven shows a more complete view of a Lunenburg streetscape and how utility lines have significantly diminished this street. Photos Eight and Nine show one single streetscape in Lunenburg that has been streetscaped with very distinctive lighting and undergrounded utility poles and lines. This street, however, was done privately by a visionary developer who also renovated several extraordinary buildings. The visionary private developer has unfortunately been the only source of streetscaping in Nova Scotia for several decades. The stunning commercial development of Dartmouth Crossing also falls into the “Visionary Developer” category. Unfortunately there are far too few visionary developers!
There has been practically no streetscaping in all of Nova Scotia since the golden age of streetscaping in Canada during the 1970s and the Main Street program in the 1980s. This extraordinary Federal infrastructure program helped cities and towns across Canada to streetscape their Main Streets and their central business districts. Since the wonderful success of that program however, no new streetscaping has occurred. Halifax is the best example of this and the worst example. The downtown central business district was streetscaped and beautified (Photo Ten) as were the main streets of Dartmouth, Yarmouth and several other cities. Most new developments in the Halifax, however, have been staggeringly ugly.
Photo Eleven shows a very important commercial or “Big Box” development in Halifax and the streetscape can only be described as one of the ugliest in the developed world. While cost is always given as the reason for limited streetscaping, the incremental cost to undergrounding utility lines and planting trees in new developments is much smaller. Indeed when maintenance costs are truly accounted for undergrounding in new developments is usually the same. Furthermore costs can be reduced for developers if we move away from curbs and rain gutters and instead adopt grassed swales and storm drains. If cost is a concern and beauty is a concern, the photograph at the top of this webpage shows a beautiful street in Rothesay, NB that has buried utility lines and lots of street trees, but does not have curbs and rain gutters. A beautiful street can even have exposed ditches!
Building beautifully is not necessarily more expensive. Bio swales and road side swales reduce excessive water run-off and the pollution they may cause and are less expensive to build than curbs.. Indeed new “Sustainable Development” guidelines recommend bio swales vs. curbs and gutters in streets and parking lots.
Another community to consider is Mahone Bay Nova Scotia. Mahone Bay is certainly one of the most beautiful communities in the world. Photo Twelve shows the wonderful unity and balance of architectural beauty, natural beauty and even streetscape beauty offered by the three sisters or the three waterfront churches of Mahone Bay. This waterfront park and the streetscape that follows the shoreline, was also created in the 1970s under the Main Street Program. In this case most utility lines were placed behind the three churches and decorative street lamps and poles were installed.
However, even in this most beautiful community the streetscape in its central business district is dreadfully diminished by the utility poles and utility lines. This very narrow street right-of-way even has utility lines in the paved street surface and parking lanes! If ever there was a street crying out to be streetscaped Water Street Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia is it!!
The lack of vision and leadership that has allowed the urban design outrages as demonstrated in this article to occur must change. Leading communities throughout Canada know how to change this unfortunate reality and slowly but surely improvements are coming. We need to accelerate these changes and the only way forward is to step into the past. The 1970’s and 1980’s were a golden era in streetscaping in Canada with the National Main Street Program. We need it again.
Streetscape Canada recommends the reintroduction of a new national Streetscaping Program called Signature Streetscape Canada. The word Signature has two meanings. First it connotes superior or premium value, but it also indicates that a signature is required to qualify for these precious infrastructure funds. The Signature Streetscape Program will require Cities, Towns and Villages attest to the implementation of urban design standards in Municipal Plans, By-Laws and Development Agreements. Similar Plans like those shown by Rothesay, NB would be necessary to qualify for Signature Streetscape funding and would demand a higher level of Municipal planning than what we see in many communities today.
Now is the time to implement a new National Streetscape program as we can put thousands of Canadians to work in a Geographically dispersed, skill diverse employment program. Streetscaping is literally a “Shovel Ready Infrastructure Program” maximizing economic value, intensity and multiplying GDP growth throughout our economy. And we get cleaner air, reduced city heat effects, improved utility reliability and wonderful streetscape beauty all at the same price!