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Road Trip – Kitchener, Ontario

I found myself up in Kitchener for their Oktoberfest celebrations for a couple days and I thought I would report back with some of the interesting and quite functional urban design features that their city has produced. Good urban design should be simple, functional and everywhere. It isn’t something reserved for the Seattles, Chicagos or Torontos of America but could, if we desired, be found everywhere.

A little background about Kitchener. It is a city of approximately 204 thousand in a region of 451 thousand. It has three main municipalities that make up the region, Kitchener, Waterloo and Cambridge and had an industrial based economy in the past that has fallen on hard times. The two main universities for the region are located mostly in neighboring Waterloo. Kitchener was for a long time considered the blue-collar town.

It was settled and founded in a similar time period to Buffalo and its
neighborhoods are full of lovely brick and Victorian style houses. The
main difference between Kitchener would be its population growth. It
has seen a slow continual growth since its inception. Not a boom, bust,
spread, pattern that US cities have gone through.

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This leads me to the main reason for this post, Kitchener’s King Street (Main Street) has recently gone through a reconstruction. In doing so it created a very friendly environment for everyone. Whether you are in a Bus, Car or on foot, the design of King street has been thought of to accommodate your needs. There are simple and nice bus shelters, with a system composed of buses where 90% of them that I observed had bike racks. The stations where transparent, small and unobtrusive to street.

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There were bike racks all along the street, at least two per block. This gives people ample opportunities to ride and park close to their destination. The result were a lot of bikers around, even on a chilly October weekend. Benches could also be found, and unlike our streets they faced down the street instead of towards it. I never understood why our street engineers think people want to sit facing cars and exhaust, sometimes just inches away from them.

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Those three features, while nice are certainly nothing new but some of the more interesting design elements were the flexible bollard system, storm water retention basins, paving system and an accessible curb. The accessible curb is basically concrete on an angle that allows cars, strollers wheel chairs, easier access up to the sidewalk. It allows people to cross to where they have to go easier and safer.

The flexible bollard system is intriguing. The whole of King Street was lined with bollards to help delineate where cars are allowed and where they are not. Maybe this was needed because the curbing is not as restricting but the results was very nice. They could also be moved to either the road edge or into the sidewalk. What this allows is either the creation of off street parking or pedestrian spaces. If the businesses along a block want on street parking they could have it. If one of them wanted and outdoor patio for a restaurant or cafe, you could simple move the bollards and that business now has extra space on the sidewalk for their needs. You could see it change from block to block. No need to waste money or materials reconfiguring roads, curbs etc.

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The sidewalk was completely paved with what looks like granite, or maybe some other stone, paver. This helps to reduce the scale of the street and blocks to a comfortable level for human beings. It was also widened a bit. Monolithic concrete sidewalks feel awkward and uncomfortable for pedestrians. Especially without trees or urban features to break them up. See Hertel Avenue as an example. Lots of sidewalk but where there are not cafes or patios…. it feels like a concrete desert.

Lastly the storm water runoff features along the street were quite beautiful. Every block had two storm water diversion basins at the corners and incorporated trees, grasses, public benches and flower pots into their design. They divert the water down the block, into these basins, and then to the storm water system. Ideally capturing the water before it reaches the larger sewer system. Buffalo is teasing the idea of a pilot project to see if this works. Well, they already have them built and functioning here, maybe they should give Kitchener’s planning department a call to learn from their experiences. Invite them to town for some wings.

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What I find most refreshing about this visit was not the details but that a city, with snow, plowing needs, parking needs, road salt, in a car society and with less population, can do this. If they can do this, there is no reason we should not be able to either. This is not Toronto with a million businesses or a booming economy but a small-ish city with an industrial past and half our regional population, recreating itself to be a better city than it was. Our politicians and government departments come up with excuses on why we cannot do these types of things, yet Kitchener has figured it out.

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