18 July 2008

Lucrae ante populus

Jill Browne
McKenzie Towne is an olde-new ‘village’ in Calgary, surrounded by the flat and densely packed acres of new houses that make up the subdivisions collectively thought of as McKenzie. When I asked a few people about living in McKenzie, they were quick to point out that McKenzie Towne is just a small part of McKenzie world.
I remember reading about McKenzie years ago in the newspaper, when it was a gleam in the architect’s eye. The vision was of a pedestrian-friendly place with a village feel. More fool me for thinking that would include local jobs.
Recently I’ve made a couple of trips out to McTowne (their community association was advertising using this name) and have been mulling it over.
It’s easy to be negative and critical about the tweeness of the olde bits, but there are some positives about McKenzie, including the green spaces. Despite the fact that many of the houses are unbearably close together, McKenzians have visible pride of ownership. They were not the ones who designed their homes and took them from lot line to lot line. In Calgary’s new subdivisions (and most of Calgary is new), homebuyers pick from what the developer offers. If it’s not on the menu, you can’t have it.
The thing that gets most to my point is found in one of the children’s playgrounds. There are some play structures set up like a little town. At the pretend bank counter, the sign says ‘BANK. Lucrae ante populus’. The intended meaning is, ‘Wealth before people’. I think it is a sophomoric ironic statement unsuccessfully mocking bankers. The irony is terribly misplaced to the point of being mean.

‘Wealth before people’ is how McKenzie works. The people who live there can’t actually afford if they were dependent onwages available locally, in McKenzie itself. This is not because the residents want it that way, it’s because their employers do. The cost of commuting - both the direct costs of driving, and the much larger indirect costs in terms of quality of life - are borne by the residents. The city planners and council have no apparent motivation to change things.
If McTowne had an economic centre beyond the retail outlets that dominate its northern half, the village life of the vision might just be possible. I don’t see how a place can justifiably be called pedestrian-friendly if the would-be pedestrians are depleted after commuting two or more hours daily to make a living. What kind of village is that?

Browne, Jill. 'Lucrae ante populus' On Site review no.18 Fall/Winter 2007/2008
© Jill Browne and On Site review

No comments: