A few years ago my aunt told me about my cousin’s friend’s term (are you still following?) for the new suburbs popping up in Calgary: ‘dozer bait’. As in — they are so poorly planned and constructed that they are just going to be bait for bulldozers in the coming zombie apocalypse.
I always liked this term, and it often popped into my head as I looked at ‘crap’ architecture popping up in Edmonton. All that stucco and vinyl would crunch satisfyingly in the wake of the bulldozers during the next building boom, ready to be torn down and reborn as something….awesome and world class! Or not.
Last month, on a roadtrip in PEI, I brought ‘dozer bait’ up as we stared out at big box stores on the edge of Charlottetown, and one of my car-mates said “you mean like Fraggle Rock?”. We all laughed at the thought of giant Fraggles coming down into urban Canada, chewing on slapdash buildings like Fraggles eating Doozer sticks on our favourite 1980s show. Okay, so it isn’t exactly a direct correlation between these two thoughts. Dozers, Doozers — two different things.
This got me thinking, though. Is modern Canadian urban planning and development really just real-life Fraggles and Doozers?
Yes. Yes it is. At least on a certain level. We are basically at the mercy of developers and construction companies (and all the associated actors) who need one another to keep their respective industries going. Tearing down old buildings and replacing them with new awesome iconic world class ones drives a lot of our economy. We’ll ignore (for the moment) that much of this building, destruction and rebuilding is happening on tenuously or outright illegally obtained Indigenous land. (Now that would have been a real twist to Fraggle Rock!). However, the question becomes — isn’t it a little silly that we’re so beholden to the idea of building and growth for their own sake? What about conscious building? And attempts to build things that last, you know, so that they don’t need to be eaten by Fraggles? Isn’t it a little embarrassing that it isn’t that much of a stretch to point out our collective attitude to property, land, development and construction is actually pretty comparable to that on a 1980s puppet show?
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the pop culture reference I’m making, this Muppet Wiki article explains the delicate symbiotic relationship between Doozers and Fraggles here:
“Their building materials, Doozer Sticks, are made of radish dust. Doozer Sticks are the Fraggles’ favorite snack, and they love to eat the buildings that Doozers build. The Doozers don’t mind their buildings being eaten; if the Fraggles didn’t eat the constructions, the Doozers would run out of building space, and if they ran out of building space, they would have to move away from Fraggle Rock or else they would die.”
The difference between the show and real life (okay, well one difference) is that this symbiotic relationship is a closed system. Only Doozers and Fraggles are affected by the follies of Doozers and Fraggles. Nobody else is impacted when Fraggles unceremoniously tear down Doozer towers with glee. And Doozers might be initially upset, but at the end of the day this means they get to do what the do best: BUILD ALL THE THINGS!
Now in real life, like here on the prairies, things get messier: tearing down perfectly good buildings is actually kind of a bummer. It means that property values might be artificially raised. It often accompanies (or exacerbates) gentrification that further marginalizes vulnerable parts of Edmonton’s population. Often we, the public, get no real say in what is built. Hence the proliferation of ‘crap’ despite our best efforts. In other words: in real life it isn’t a closed system. When developers and construction companies run the show, we get a lot of growth. But it isn’t always good growth. And as always, let’s remember that bacteria and cancer are also very good at growth. That doesn’t mean we should be modeling our use of space on their behaviours.
So, when we see another house or tower or apartment complex or school or grocery store being torn down; or a piece of sacred Indigenous land being developed or redeveloped or argued over by multiple developers; or another mega-infrasctructure project touted as solving all the problems (cough arena cough) — let’s think about Fraggles and Doozers. And let’s imagine a better model as we move forward. Because I’m pretty sure that with all the smart folks living in our city, we can come up with one. Or even several. We’re that good.
I’ll leave you with this heart-warming Doozer song. If only building and property development on the prairies were so noble and whimsical: