Antonio Gómez-Palacio knows that transit isn't just an efficient way to get people from place to place. The Principal Architect at DIALOG Design sees public transportation as a crucial city-building opportunity for growing urban areas that are facing crippling congestion and the consequential reduced productivity. By marrying urban design with sustainability, and mobility with community improvement, transit projects have the potential to revitalize neighbourhoods and catalyze business. A thought leader of what he calls "transit urbanism," Gómez-Palacio has been involved in some of Canada's largest and most innovative infrastructure projects in recent years, including the highly anticipated 27-kilometre Valley Line LRT in Edmonton. The question that Gómez-Palacio and DIALOG have been tasked to answer is this: How will Edmonton's new low-floor LRT be integrated with its surroundings? And how can this essential piece of civic infrastructure create livable communities? There are no easy answers and the vision that is laid out now certainly has broad implications for the future.

Gómez-Palacio approaches each one of his projects from a "double background" in architecture and urban planning. He has a particular passion for projects that drive a city-building agenda. Since transit has the ability to link disconnected neighbourhoods and create prosperous communities, new and improved transit routes are essential city-building mechanisms. He describes how Edmonton, the most northerly North American city of one million-plus, has been gripped by a renewed interest in the city-building potential of transit initiatives. "Seven or eight years ago we really started to look at the opportunity to use the next transit project as a way of delivering a series of other city objectives," said Gómez-Palacio. "If you're going to do that you need to do it right. If you're going to deliver the big-city objectives, you need to do it in a way that transforms the streetscape and the whole environment around it."

The Valley Line LRT will be constructed in two stages, image via City of Edmonton

Edmonton's steady and systematic adoption of urban planning principles is reflected in every swinging crane that is erected downtown. With a refreshed focus on the vitality of the core, officials are exploring ways in which the transit system can be more flexible in order to meet the needs of diverse demographics and densities. In contrast to Edmonton's existing suburban-style LRT system, which was designed to move masses over large distances, the urban-style Valley Line will have shorter distances between each station, and therefore, will make more frequent stops. It's not a class of transit that Edmontonians are particularly used to, so DIALOG's work in understanding how the project will relate to the changing social and environmental context of each area it travels through is part of the larger city-building narrative that is being established.

A rendering of Wagner Station, image via DIALOG

In trying to grasp that urban interface, the team created a set of design guidelines called 'Sustainable Urban Integration' (SUI). "The term implies something much larger than simply the building of rails and the catenary system," said Gómez-Palacio. Indeed, it implies the creation of a landscaping program to visually enhance the project's built components; it focuses on passenger accessibility and connections to pedestrian and cycling infrastructure; and SUI even emphasizes the importance of design elements — railings, columns and paved surfaces — in reflecting the distinct character of each neighbourhood along the route. It's these principles, with the goal of fostering safe and attractive neighbourhoods, that Gómez-Palacio said "caught the imagination" of City Council and planning staff.

The low-floor LRT will be manufactured by Bombardier, image via City of Edmonton

DIALOG examined the 500 metres on each side of the corridor in search of unique opportunities and community enhancements. "In some areas the opportunities were about supporting the existing character and identity and function of established neighbourhoods," said Gómez-Palacio. "In others, the opportunity was about utterly transforming the urban context, views, adding density, and transit-oriented development." The heterogeneity of the built environment surrounding the route presents a myriad of challenges that precludes a one-size-fits-all approach to transit planning. As construction begins, the conversation continues at full speed, travelling alongside the "rigour of opportunity for the project to be a city-building initiative."

DIALOG remains actively involved in the Private Public Partnership (P3) as the development steadily jumps out of the planning phases and into the implementation stage. The 13-kilometre southeast leg of the line will be constructed first, connecting Downtown to Mill Woods. The remaining portion will ultimately stretch to Lewis Farms in the west. But in seeing the project through to completion, the City should not lose sight of transit's ability to catalyze physical and societal change. "Too often a transit project is sold on a city-building opportunity and once it gets built that piece is value engineered out of the equation; you are left with less than what was really possible," warns Gómez-Palacio.

The Valley Line LRT will traverse all kinds of terrain, image via DIALOG

While Canadian cities in general may be slow to adapt to the prevailing attitudes around mobility and sustainability, it's impossible to put the brakes on progress. "I think it's inevitable that what you see in the built form of a city is always ten years behind where the politics and the population is," said Gómez-Palacio. "Because people are already having ideas, there's projects in the works and there's policy that's driving for a very different type of city."

The path that Edmonton's planning officials are setting on is one of dense, mixed-use, and walkable neighbourhoods. "They're really thirsty for transit and lifestyles that are less car-dependent. Whereas in the past anyone who had those aspirations had to move out of Edmonton." This policy drive is taking the physical form of new residential projects and urban initiatives that are changing the landscape piece by piece. The tough choices that need to be made along the way to attain that lifestyle — including eliminating lanes of traffic — are a necessary part of the big-picture reprioritization of transportation. The Valley Line LRT will become the backbone that healthy communities depend on, stimulating new public and private interventions that are essential to the creation of a city that works for everyone. 

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