What ideas shape urban planning and community development?

Join the Conversation: Richard White shares expert recommendations for the best reads and views on the topics.

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In today’s world, many of us are armchair planners. Yes, it seems everyone has an opinion on how to make their city and/or community a better place to live, work and play. Community engagement is essential to urban planning today, but does the average citizen have the knowledge to understand the complexities of building a city and balance the wants and needs of their community with those of the city as a whole?

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I thought I would reach out to a few urban influencers in Calgary and Edmonton to find out what books they would recommend to the layman interested in learning more about urban planning and community development. I had surprising suggestions.

Ali MacMillan, who was Community Champion for Calgary’s Bridgeland/Riverside community for many years, was quick to respond, “May I suggest a Ted Talk instead?” I thought why not, so she suggested Beware of a group of devoted amateurs, which she saw at BaconFest, an urban planning film festival in Calgary a few years ago. After hearing Jason Roberts’ speech, a light bulb went on for MacMillan that citizens at the grassroots level know better what changes are needed to make their community thrive. “I realized that if we could empower community members to lead change in their communities, what an amazing city we could have. This video took me from dream to action.

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Erick Backstrom, Senior Urban Planner with the City of Edmonton, suggested two books on Aboriginal-related urban construction, Old Stories, New Ways, by Edmonton architect Vivian Manasc, and Avenue of Champions, by Conor Kerr. Backstrom’s thought is that “after decades of cultural erasure, Indigenous peoples are reasserting their place in their city. Urban construction in Edmonton and cities across Canada is changing accordingly. Manasc’s book is a personal reflection on how working with diverse Indigenous cultures has shaped his design practice. Kerr’s debut novel is a gripping portrait of young Indigenous people navigating Edmonton’s colonial structures. Backstrom says, “Together, these books illuminate recent actions in Edmonton to ‘re-Indigenize’ the city with projects like the ᐄᓃᐤ (ÎNÎW) River Lot 11∞ Indigenous Art Park and the ceremonial kihciy askiy (Holy Land) and land-based learning. to place.”

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Mike Wilhem, President of the Shaganappi Community Association, and I are constantly discussing the pros and cons of various infill projects in Calgary and the value they bring to established communities. When I asked him if there was a book he could recommend to the public, he replied, “I find it difficult, a lot of the pure planning stuff is too dogmatic for the public. However, I think City Comforts: How to Build an Urban Village by David Sucher is a great pocket primer, with good visuals on the basics of urban design. For community leaders who want to survive development committee politics, I would recommend Tom Bethell’s The Noblest Triumph. This gives a good understanding of property rights and helps everyone stay focused on positive results.

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Chris Ollenberger, managing director of Quantum Place Developments Ltd., which orchestrated the development of Calgary’s East Village master plan, recommends reading The Great Neighborhood Book: A Do-it-Yourself Guide, by Jay Walljasper, at Project for Public Spaces. It’s packed with practical advice and real-life examples of how concerned citizens have tackled issues ranging from crime and safety to creating community gardens and gathering places. FOR YOUR INFORMATION: The project site for public spaces has many “How to…” guides that you can download for free.


If I had to recommend one book, it would be Walking Home: The Life and Lessons of a City Builder by Ken Greenberg. It’s very readable. It tells the story of the lessons learned by Greenberg over the past 25 years of work in Canada and around the world. Things like the importance of collaboration, the design of public space, how to create dynamic streets, the management of infill projects and nimbyism, as well as the suburbanization of cities. Although it was written in 2012, it covers the range of current issues in urban development.

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