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Feature Article

THE FATHER OF THE TRAFFIC CIRCLE

Written By: Lawrence Herzog
Published By: Real Estate Weekly
Article © Copyright Lawrence Herzog
2007-03-01

The next time you drive around an Edmonton traffic circle, you can thank " or curse!" Noel Dant, Edmonton's first full-time urban planner. Dant came to the city from London, England in the late 1940s and championed new ideas about how the city should grow.

He established the practice of "neighbourhood unit" planning. And, borrowing a popular urban design feature from his native England, he implemented the first traffic circles.

Before Noel Dant, Edmonton was designed on the grid system, with streets running north to south and avenues east to west. That system, with its block upon block of identical streets, made for easy route-finding, but also encouraged traffic to flow through residential areas.

Dant's visionary "town planned" design approach, which can be seen today in communities like Sherbrooke, Dovercourt and Parkallen, employed curvilinear street patterns leading to school and community league sites at the heart of the neighbourhood. Crescents and cul-de-sacs replaced row-upon-row streets. Housing included a mixture of 75 per cent single family dwellings and a quarter row houses and low rise apartments.

A 1990 fact sheet from the city planning department notes that although such features seem commonplace today, Sherbrooke was cited by the American Society of Planning Officials as a model of good subdivision design. The inspired design kept through-traffic away from the heart of the community, making the streets safer for pedestrians and reducing noise and air pollution.

At the same time, the street and laneway pattern was a more efficient use of land than the traditional grid pattern, but the design wasn"t so convoluted that you would get lost looking for an address. The design encouraged walking and social interaction, and it worked masterfully.

I grew up in Sherbrooke, and it was a fabulous place to call home. In those days, we used to play road hockey for hours on end, and seldom had to contend with cars because Dant's design limited access points.

The neighbourhood had as its boundaries arterial roadways: 118th Avenue to the south, 125th Avenue to the north, 127th Street to the east and St. Albert Trail to the west. That made travelling to and from the neighbourhood easy and convenient.

The intersections at the northwest and southwest corners of the neighbourhood had Dant's traffic circles. We used to marvel at their simplicity, and the drivers that couldn"t seem to grab onto the concept that vehicles inside the circle had the right of way.

When he came to Edmonton, Noel Dant brought with him not only lessons learned from his native England, where he studied architecture and town planning, but also a North American perspective. He graduated from Yale and Harvard and then went to work designing stations for the new Toronto subway system and, in 1949, was hired as a Senior Town Planner for the Chicago Planning Commission.

That's when the offer from Edmonton came to establish and head the city's first planning department. In 1949, Edmonton was a city filled with promise and the excitement of a prosperous future.

He was just 35, eager for a new challenge, and Edmonton was it. The discovery of oil east of Leduc two years previous and the post-war baby boom were stoking the engines of growth and major industries were expanding and drawing workers by the thousands. Not unlike these days, the boom was putting pressure on the city's infrastructure, and planning and development decisions would have ramifications for decades to come.

The city's fathers, anxious to avoid the excesses of wild land speculation and the expenses that would come with inefficient infrastructure, were open to cohesive planning. The city owned much of the vacant land at the edges of the already developed neighbourhoods, giving it control over new urban development from initial planning through sale and construction.

A profile written in support of his nomination as an "Edmontonian of the Century," awarded in 2004, notes that Dant found his niche in his new city. "By boldly championing new ideas about how the city should grow, he quickly became a leader in Edmonton's development."

He publicized Edmonton's planning achievements in professional publications. Soon planners across Canada were looking at designs of Sherbrooke, Parkallen and other Edmonton neighbourhoods and trying to emulate their success.

The Federal Building, completed in 1955, was originally slated to be built on land donated by the city at the west end of market square (where the Stanley A. Milner Public Library now resides), but Dant convinced decision makers otherwise. He envisioned a government centre stretching from the legislature between 107th and 109th Streets north to 100th Avenue. History shows that his vision would be fulfilled.

In the early 1960s, Noel Dant became the Provincial Planning Director with the Department of Municipal Affairs. He presided over the maturing of the province's urban planning system and created innovative legislation governing its work.

"I tried to be literally a civil servant, but I refused to be a bureaucrat," he was quoted as saying.

In 1977, Dant was recognized for his professional contributions by being named a Fellow of the Canadian Institute of Planners. He worked as a private building consultant and was a member of the Alberta Planning Board for many years.

Noel Dant passed away, in Edmonton, in 1993. A decade after his death, he was named in 2004 as one of the 100 Edmontonians of the Century.


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