Road warriors

November 13, 2012 at 10:11 am | In cities, education, just_so | Comments Off on Road warriors

The other day I saw a car with New Hampshire license plates and a school sticker from a nearby private school parked in my neighborhood. I surmised that the driver, an attractive early-40s woman who was fiddling with her phone, was in all likelihood the parent of a student at the well-regarded school. The school is about five minutes from my house, but the closest New Hampshire town is about 30 miles away.

Gotta say, that lady really gave me pause.

Warning: boring personal stuff ahead – go to below the map to skip…

[Also, see Addendum at bottom of post]

In 2002, my family and I moved away from the same neighborhood and city on Boston’s North Shore to which we then returned in 2012. We had begun homeschooling in 2000, and by 2002 we opted to live in Victoria, Canada (the capital city of British Columbia). One of the great benefits of moving to Victoria was that it got us out of the car.

Before we moved I used to spend a lot of time driving my kids around: to school, to extra-curricular classes, to other people’s houses. It was a lifestyle that continued even after we started homeschooling. It seemed that any place anyone wanted to go to required a car (not least because, aside from the commuter rail into Boston, public transportation isn’t exactly a great alternative around here).

After our move to Victoria in 2002, all that stopped. The children instead walked, biked, or bused to most of the places they needed (or wanted) to go, whether it was the Victoria Conservatory of Music (VCM), the YMCA, the library, or, later, a year of high school or university.

Downtown was just a few blocks from our house in one direction, and in the other lay densely populated residential neighborhoods. We could walk to three full service grocery stores, a couple of bakeries, a spring-through-fall farmers market, movie theaters, live theaters, the opera, the art gallery, parks and beaches, shops, restaurants and coffee shops in “villagenodes, Chinatown, Old Town, and more. If the walk was too far, there was a bus, and if that was too limiting, there were bikes. And of course there was also the car, and we used it. But not excessively.

I am dead serious when I say that getting out of the car was the best thing we did for our kids. Seeing the road warrior with the New Hampshire plates and a kid in a North Shore school hammered home just how different our ten years in Victoria were, compared to the nonchalant embrace of pavement that’s so common here.

If I pick South Hampton NH as the closest point across the state line, the daily trek to that private school in Beverly Massachusetts is ~33 miles. The drive will take between 45 minutes to an hour, if conditions are favorable. The parent may or may not be heading to points further south, adding to her journey. At any rate, the road-warrior-in-training kid has almost two hours of vehicle time per day, five days a week.

Hard to comprehend.

Equally difficult to fathom from a more urban perspective is the no doubt low-density, probably homogenous, possibly wooded-but-suburban enclave this youngster is growing up in. When my kids walked downtown to the VCM, they encountered the homeless shelter next door, and, sadly, the junkies shooting up outside the music building. And along most of the downtown streets, they often ran a gauntlet of panhandlers. This wasn’t a good thing, but it gave them a perspective on life choices – and life disasters. They developed a feel for how to engage (or not) with street life, and how to feel safe (and not paranoid). You sure didn’t want to engage the tweaking meth-head falling down on the sidewalk, but it was ok to respond to the panhandler’s sometimes sarcastic passive-aggressive/ sometimes genuine “have a nice day” with “you, too, man,” …even when you didn’t give him or her any money.

It’s not the case that my kids only saw junkies and beggars on Victoria’s streets (although the downtown seemed to have more than its fair share): my point is that they saw many people who were not like them, who were different. Admittedly, Victoria (which is an expensive place to live) is predominantly white, and if not white, then Asian. Minorities really are a minority. But even within that mostly white population, there’s diversity – in age, income, outlook and lifestyle.

If, on the other hand, you live a good chunk of each day in your car, you’re perforce isolated from other human beings. The car creates a bubble and barrier around you, cuts you off from experiencing the humanity that’s past your windshield. That’s why drivers can be so rude: it’s like being online – you do things you wouldn’t dream of doing to someone close up, face-to-face.

If on top of that your home is a house in an area without sidewalks, where you must drive to buy basic necessities, your contact to “different” people is even more limited. And until you’re able to drive yourself, your dependence on mom or dad for any sort of mobility is cast in bronze – or whatever extruded material car makers use these days.

I’ve often wondered why parents drive their kids to school – there are so many reasons. Now I wonder why someone would drive their kid +/- 33 miles to school. And maybe I can guess why: because at this particular school, the student will find all the lovely qualities missing in other areas of her life:  a sense of belonging to something larger, a well-curated feint at diversity, community outreach (soup kitchens, etc.).

This school will produce a well-rounded graduate with all the right extra-curricular achievements – like community service in diverse social settings, so crucial to the college application. Why those good things aren’t baked into our built environments, however, is a conundrum. Something is backward here.

Addendum, Nov.14:

Just a thought, but you know how we’ve been hearing that sitting down for large chunks of our daily 24 hours is shaving years off our lives? And you know how recent reports say that life expectancy is actually declining for (some) Americans (i.e., young people today will live shorter, rather than longer, lives than their parents)? Maybe all that sitting around in cars – starting at very young ages – is a contributing factor to bad health in more ways than we ever suspected.

Plans for Salem’s Harbor Power Station: Realpolitik or Missed Opportunity?

July 9, 2012 at 7:54 pm | In cities, green, health, innovation, jane_jacobs, land_use, leadership, NIMBYism, politics, power_grid, real_estate, resources, silo_think | Comments Off on Plans for Salem’s Harbor Power Station: Realpolitik or Missed Opportunity?

Last year, when I was still in Victoria BC but considering a move back to Boston’s North Shore, I read about the impending closure of the Salem Harbor Power Station and immediately thought,”Wow, what a fantastic redevelopment opportunity!” Suffice to say that my optimism may have been premature.

Bedeviled by a Dirtball

The Salem Harbor Power Station is one of the region’s dirtiest coal- and oil-burning power generators. For six decades, the plant has occupied sixty-two acres of prime waterfront real estate, cutting residents off from all other historically and economically significant maritime uses on shore. Its hulking facility, topped by two smokestacks that pierce the skyline, has visually dominated the coastline not only for its Salem neighbors, but also for folks in Beverly and Marblehead.

(Photo, above, from Dominion’s website)

Zombie Infrastructure

And it has spewed tons of pollutants into the air. As the Denver Post put it in an article about these many long-in-the-tooth dirty power plants, “Utilities dragged feet”:

These plants have been allowed to run for decades without modern pollution controls because it was thought that they were on the verge of being shuttered by the utilities that own them. But that didn’t happen.

Indeed. The Salem station was one of those zombie economy necessities that refused to die: a lot of people shrugged and accepted it as an unavoidable evil that had to be borne. After all, the region is famous for being bedeviled, right? The struggle to force either a clean-up or a closure of the Salem station was epic – but now it’s finally happening.

Or is it?

There’s a dearth of information about how the situation went from “the plant is closing” = “really new opportunities” to “the plant is dead” = “long live the plant,” but some weeks ago, the latter option grew in strength when the station’s current owner, Dominion, began negotiations to sell the property as-is to New Jersey-based startup Footprint Power. The latter wants to operate a natural gas-burning power plant at the site. Admittedly, natural gas burns cleaner than coal or oil – but wait! There have been hints that the backup fuel could be …diesel oil. Because, you know, depending on the markets, natural gas might become too expensive and we’d have to go back to something a little dirtier.

It seems zombies are hard to kill dead.

Why has there been no recent public input on the plans?

On June 26, Andrea Fox of Green Drinks of Greater Salem moderated a discussion of current plans for the station. The three presenters – Healthlink‘s Jane Bright, State Rep. Lori Ehrlich, and attorney Jan Schlichtmann (whose work has often focused on environmental issues) – questioned the plans now on offer. Schlichtmann in particular pointed out that, while there was a surge of interest initially in what would happen to the site, the recent negotiations between Dominion, Footprint, and Massachusetts politicians have effectively put a kibosh on any further public input. The Green Drinks discussion was essentially meant to breathe some life into the conversation. It seems that as soon as the corporation(s) decided on a course of action, the people rolled over and went quiet.

The lone voice speaking in favor of Footprint Power’s plan was Shelley Alpern, a Salem resident and member of SAFE – the Salem Alliance for the Environment (but she made it clear that she wasn’t speaking on SAFE’s behalf). Alpern’s cred as an environmentalist goes way back, so it was surprising to hear her question the vision for a sustainable redeveloped waterfront site and instead pleading Footprint’s case.

The arguments at Green Drinks revolved around the following:

  • how much will it really cost to clean up the brownfield site? Some put the price tag at $75m, others argue that this number is inflated and meant to scare people into accepting Footprint’s option, lest the alternative be “the padlock” (meaning the site just gets shuttered and turns into a decaying eyesore versus a toxic waste spewing eyesore). See also Speaking alternatives to power
  • is the lifecycle of natural gas really that much better than coal or oil? Sure, it’s cleaner (somewhat) and currently cheaper (somewhat), but no one knows how the markets are going to shape prices in the future, near or far. And what about the externalities and costs consumer don’t directly see when the natural gas is extracted, such as the enormous environmental cost of fracking? What about the dangers of putting pipelines, which will inevitably break down and leak, through watershed areas? There are already pipelines running from Nova Scotia in Canada, through Beverly, and into Salem. What’s their “lifecycle”?
  • will Footprint Power keep its promises? Some stakeholders have been told by Footprint that a natural gas-burning plant might need to use diesel fuel as a back-up; some were told that the existing plant might have to stay on for some time (vs being dismantled). Other stakeholders have heard no such thing when they sat down with Footprint – but we’re dealing with corporations, and with energy corporations, to boot …not exactly always the white-hat guys.
  • what of the missed opportunities to develop something truly amazing?

That last point – missing opportunities because vision is lacking – strikes me as the most compelling. Rep. Ehrlich made the case in a Marblehead Reporter op-ed on May 14, 2012, Vision still lacking at Salem power-plant site (also available on her website, here). The column sparked a flaming letter-to-the-editor in response, Get over the aesthetics; think clean energy, whose author compared opposition to off-shore (and backyard) wind turbines to a kind of la-la-land NIMBYism that wants a “pretty” picture without facing the inescapable reality of our energy needs. His point was that Ehrlich and those who think like her are in la-la-land because we pussy-foot around the fact that we still need to get our energy from somewhere, while he is a realist who understands that Footprint’s proposal is the region’s best bet.

I think it’s a false choice.

Macro / Micro

Consider for a moment perspective. What the critics, especially Ehrlich and Schlichtmann, have is a fine-grained, close-view perspective. It reminds me of Jane Jacobs‘s analysis of neighborhoods at the street level. She looked at the details and decoded what she termed a street ballet, understanding that how people use a thing (a street) – and how they are able to use it – determines the whole, irrespective of how much planning-from-above tries to predict outcomes. This was pretty much in opposition (at the time) to the thinking of professional planners, who believed that streets must be rationally planned (preferably according to the needs of the automobile) and that buildings, placed according to mostly “ideal” reasons, would determine uses. If Jacobs had a micro view, the planners of the day had the macro view.

It strikes me as ironic that the micro-view is actually the Big Picture “vision” view, and that the macro approach, which tries to account for a larger perspective, has a blind spot about the “users” or people on the ground. The Realpolitik view defaults to the macro – and I count Alpern’s approach here. Expert knowledge about hydro-fracking regulations in Bulgaria and Pennsylvania is good to have, but it’s not enough to impel local people to act differently. Local inertia is a strong force, and if you build another power plant, you will have another power plant. For another sixty years. But if you give the people who actually want change the power to control their destinies, they can move the rest of us out of our inertia. That’s the claim mocked by the letter writer who thinks a power plant alternative is la-la-land thinking – but what is the alternative? Another planned-from-above mega-project that repeats many of the same patterns established by the old project?

Deep waters, old uses

Schlichtmann made the truly relevant point that Salem’s history was built on maritime industry. The current site of the Salem Harbor Power Station is Salem’s only deep-water port – what passes for the city’s tourist harbor is a shallow pond, incapable of harboring bigger vessels. The original coal-burning plant was built on that prime spot because of the deep harbor, which allowed ships to offload coal. It’s an incredibly shortsighted move willfully to dismiss an opportunity to reclaim that harbor for what it represents (Salem’s fantastic seafaring history). All around the industrialized world, cities are reclaiming waterfront that was savaged by mono-uses (waterfront freeways, power plants, factories, etc.), and reintegrating them into a more sustainable urban fabric. Why should Salem shut itself out from that renaissance?

Well, because we need energy. But consider this: ISO New England has said that there’s no longer any need for a power plant in Salem. As Ehrlich noted in her column, “The old plant is barely running, and ISO, the region’s reliability-cautious grid operator, said that power production on that site is no longer needed. Why such an enormous plant?”

More references

For more images of the Salem Harbor Power Station, see Healthlink‘s photostream, here.

For an informative PDF, see Repurposed Coal Plant Sites Empower and Revive Communities.

Sierra Club, Victory! Salem Coal Plant Announces Closing.

ArchBOSTON forum discussion (brief) here.

City of villages

December 19, 2011 at 7:08 pm | In cities, jane_jacobs, land_use, Portland | 1 Comment

A city of villages: that’s what they call Portland, and it’s true. Clustered along most major corridors, it seems, nodes of vibrant market activity suddenly appear – and if the shops are indies, they look to be thriving and attracting lots of customers.

I wrote previously (here and here) that the city strikes me as a predominantly yin sort of place, with not too much yang energy. But following up on the whole yin-yang analogy, I should add that it’s all about balance, right?

Portland has its edgier, more yang-energy infused places, and they’re exactly where you’d expect to find them: downtown, in a busier commercial district that includes industrial areas in transition; plenty of tall buildings, old and new; and great stores, including department stores that actually have a good selection of merchandise (full disclosure: I love department stores).

Downtown is a contained area, though, with the Willamette River on the one side and the West Hills on the other. If you leave the downtown core to head east to cross over the river (perhaps passing a couple of freeways and railroad tracks), you will quickly find yourself in one of the many “villages”: in the Northeast where I’m staying right now, there’s Mississippi Ave., N. Williams, Martin Luther King Jr. (aka MLK), Alberta, NE Fremont, and NE Killingsworth for starters. In the Southeast, there are more and larger clusters, particularly along Hawthorne and SE Division (haven’t yet explored Broadway, Steele or some of the others yet).

The economic range of these nodes is interesting. You could argue that N. Williams in the 3700-3900 blocks was …well, what’s the right word? gentrified?, yuppified? But those words suggest that people were displaced, although I’m not sure that was the case. (The 3-story condo-plus-retail building I’m living in right now was built in 2009 on a vacant lot. The surrounding streets look like a pretty mixed bag in every respect.) Instead of displacement via gentrification, commercial clusters like the newest one on N. Williams, or more established ones like Mississippi or Alberta (not to mention really established ones like SE Hawthorne) provide entertainment (pubs, cafes, restaurants) and recreation (need I say yoga?) and services (lots of bike repair shops!) and goods (locally-sourced fashions, books, and food) for both its nearby residents as well as for people who come from outside the immediate neighborhood to sample the vibe.


A focus on lifestyle can get a bad rap. I remember watching a video of a tech event in Seattle where Mike Arrington railed against the (in his opinion) lazy Seattle bastards and their fixation on lifestyle. He excoriated the lot of them (in what I gather is the Arrington way), and his criticism suggested that you can’t eat your cake (lifestyle) and have it (be economically ahead), too.

It’s a valid critique – up to a point. But if all you’re doing is having your cake, while you never get to eat it, what’s your quality of life, anyway?

Hungry and hungrier

Looking at the economic activity generated by Portland’s neighborhood clusters, it struck me that the more “indie” a node was, the better that cluster seemed to be doing. And it massively attracts people from outside the neighborhood – precisely because it embodies lifestyle.

I’ll voice an observation: in neighborhoods that appear to be less economically resilient and less vibrant, commercial activity reflects a more mass market retail bent: from relatively upscale-ish Starbucks (I have nothing against Starbucks, but the chain doesn’t deliver the way a really stellar indie cafe can: Ristretto on N. Williams beats the pants off anything from a chain) to 711-type corner stores, the retail is more generic and depersonalized – the sort of thing you can find Anywheresville. It serves the residents of that neighborhood well enough, but it’s not interesting enough to draw outsiders to the street.

Does that mean that the cake is more nourishing and better for you (and your neighborhood, your community) if it’s a lifestyle cake, versus an economically more fast-food-mass-produced-all-work/no-play-bottom-line kind of cake?

The indie businesses seem to be doing a better job at feeding the people, and the people seem to be willing to pay more for that particular kind of nourishment. I don’t know how else to explain to myself what I see here: cafe upon cafe upon restaurant upon bistro upon brewpub upon hand-made-local-vegan-shoes-and-screenprinted-t-shirts-artisan-letterpress-learn-collage-classes shop full of people actually paying for what looks like a pretty interesting lifestyle.

I’d love to hear from people in the Boston area – especially on the North Shore (Cape Ann, Gloucester, Beverly, Salem), which seems to be less resilient/ more economically depressed than some other Greater Boston areas – whether that sort of return on investment in lifestyle is happening there. I don’t remember seeing it when I lived there, and I don’t see it when I use Google maps to “travel” virtually along those streets. What makes the difference, what creates the tipping point in favor of lifestyle? Is it temperament? Age? Weather? A municipality’s support for non-car infrastructure (i.e., biking and public transit)?

As long as Portlanders have it figured out, though – and they keep supporting indie businesses – they might just be able to eat their cake while actually having the bulk of it, too.

Some photos I took today on Alberta Street, in the blocks around 16th to 18th: an indie commercial node, no chain or outlet in sight, but even on a grey Monday afternoon, cafes and shops were doing alright. Go there or to any of the other clusters on a weekend, and the streets are clotted with people.


There are a few other photos – I’ve created a public album on Picasa for them. Will try to keep adding to it (always difficult to take photos with a dog leash in the other hand…). Picasa adds geographical data, so you can see a Google street map location of each shot, too.

Should downtown parking be (partly) free?

August 3, 2011 at 11:02 am | In cities, victoria | 1 Comment

I’ve been harboring a heretical thought in the wake of spending some time in the Bay Area this June: maybe cities of a certain size do better if they make at least some free parking available for downtown shoppers.

Stopping in Palo Alto often during my Bay Area visit, I finally figured out that Palo Alto owns a parking garage or two …and that the first two hours of parking are free.

Bear with me, gentle reader, if you think free parking is a gimme, for you should know that I live in a city renowned for what we locals lovingly (that’s sarcasm) call Parking Nazis. Actually called Commissionaires, they seem to be paid via a bounty system, for they are nothing if not avid in their pursuit of parking law laggards. Consequently, downtown parking has become a source of endless local complaint.

Until now, I never had too much sympathy with those issues. First, I live close by and can walk downtown. Second, I know where all the city-owned parkades are and I don’t mind paying a couple of dollars to park there if I do happen to drive in. I share the common dislike of parking meters, mainly because I can’t trust myself to get back to the meter in time (and I know the Parking Nazis will strike if I don’t).

What changed my mind?

I started to feel a little uncomfortable when I heard rumors that our city council (like many, always hungry for more revenue with which to pay its comfortably-salaried upper management at City Hall) might put parking meters into “village” (neighborhood) centers (like Cook Street Village, a neighborhood node). That just seemed greedy – and wrong. Especially since a neighboring municipality like Oak Bay, which has a thriving shopping area, charges nothing for parking. Downtown Victoria shoppers, in contrast, seem harassed and tortured – and now the city wants to extend that anxious climate into the neighborhoods? Not the way to go, council.

But the clincher to my change of heart came yesterday when I drove to another neighboring municipality, Saanich, which is now home to a brand-spanking-new shopping center called Uptown. (Note the name’s positioning, a challenge to Downtown…)

I needed to buy a gadget …and the stores in Uptown had the best selection. And when I got there, the underground parking garage was full and everywhere I looked I saw shoppers. It was like a bustling little mini-downtown – pretty much the opposite of what our dying downtown looks like these days.

For an eye-popping “fly-through” of what the mall is supposed to look like when fully built out, take 4 1/2 minutes for the following video:

While there weren’t (yet) as many people milling about the open spaces (too much still under construction), it was lively and bustling. Full of people.

And that brings me back to my heretical thought:

Maybe, if you’re not Manhattan or any truly large city that actually has a functioning CBD (Central Business District) versus a relatively poky tourist-and-government-offices downtown as Victoria has, you should lay off the draconian parking rules.

Like Saanich’s Uptown (or even, on a good day, Oak Bay’s main street), Palo Alto’s streets were also filled to the brim with people spending money and keeping the economy humming along. While bus service (and commuter train service) and bicycles are popular there, so is the car. The city recognizes this and makes it easy for those people who do drive into town to find parking – and it lets them park for 2 hours for free, right downtown. Here in Greater Victoria, too many people say they avoid downtown because the Parking Nazis and the city’s general unfriendliness to shoppers (whose suburban mindset means they bring cars) infuriates them.

But at the same time, we don’t have a downtown residential population capable of sustaining the downtown economy – which means we still need that suburban shopper with his or her suburban mindset. So why not make those shoppers feel more welcome? Right now, they’re heading to Uptown in droves – as are some businesses formerly located downtown, because they need to go where the shoppers are.

Yes, in an ideal world we wouldn’t be catering to cars – and if we were a real city, we wouldn’t need to cater to suburbanites either, and we could afford to skin them for parking. But we aren’t, and we can’t. When your downtown is dying, it’s probably not the smartest thing to make it even more impenetrable to convenience …especially when the suburban mall is “conveniencing” its ass off to grab thousands of shoppers who now have even fewer reasons to come downtown.

I know this is apples and oranges, but I can’t help but be reminded of arguments around the debt ceiling/ economy debate. The idiot Republicans want to stand on principle, saying we must “balance the budget” by cutting it (while not introducing any new taxes – this is voodoo economics 2-dot-zilch). Some saner folks are arguing instead that we should forget the cuts and focus on getting the economy going again – and then we can deal with the debt.

I feel that way about our downtown: let’s see if we can get an economy going down there again, and forget about standing on the principle (enforced by Parking Nazis for the benefit of the City’s coffers) that cars are bad, that we should all be happily jogging or cycling downtown, and that we should pretend we have a decent public transportation system that makes using a car unnecessary (we don’t).

A parking garage in downtown Palo Alto, California. First 2 hours free parking.

Soundscape in San Jose

June 22, 2011 at 6:18 pm | In cities, urbanism | 2 Comments

This morning I was walking along South Market Street in San Jose, California. I didn’t see a market on this street in the south end of downtown, but instead a generously laid out linear park, almost the width of a city block, running north for about two blocks from the convention center at its south end. It’s named for Cesar Chavez.

On either side of the park, there are at least two lanes of one-way traffic, northbound on the right, southbound on the left. Paralleling the roads, two walkways run the length of the park, separated from traffic by wide lawns planted with trees. In the middle, there’s another wide swathe of lawn and trees. The walkways are lined with barrier-free benches (meaning: it’s possible to lie down on them).

To the south (where the public toilets are), the benches are populated by men – homeless, sleeping, waiting, listening to radios. In the middle of the park, there’s a ground level water feature consisting of about twenty-two water fountains shooting straight up from the pavement. They create a pleasing, regular (if impermanent) architectural feature. But best of all, they’re a fantastic playground for a growing horde of children on this pleasantly warm day. The parents (mostly mothers) come to the downtown specifically for this, and the park and water feature are clearly a success. Since the fountain is placed in close proximity to the tech museum (which draws school crowds) and the art museum, and is in the middle of a pedestrian thoroughfare, it gets both actual traffic and eyeballs. The latter is very important.

But the reason I really stopped to write about it has to do with ears, not just eyes. San Jose airport is nearby, and the roar of jet engines regularly interrupts the soundscape as low-flying planes descend immediately overhead. Sweetly, the sound of continuously gushing and splashing water provides great aural comfort, and is better than any set of ear plugs.

An ice cream peddler with a pushcart hung with brass bells on its handlebar makes his way to the fountain area. The jingling of his bells is easily heard above the water, children, road and air traffic.

When I pass the fountain again in early afternoon, the peddler is still there, standing under a tree for shade. By now, every social and ethnic group has increased in number: children, adults, skateboarding teens (no anti-skateboarding metal braces on the low walls or steps), tourists, and more people who are homeless, including a few women.

A great public space all around, Cesar Chavez Plaza successfully draws a diverse community together for play and recreation.

Worse than Katrina? Anti-density bombs over Detroit

September 28, 2010 at 11:25 pm | In cities, futurismo, land_use, politics, scandal, social_critique, urbanism | Comments Off on Worse than Katrina? Anti-density bombs over Detroit

Caught a Sept.23 post by David Byrne today, Don’t Forget the Motor City (found via a tweet by Richard Florida). Byrne writes:

This is a city that still has an infrastructure, or some of it, for 2 million people, and now only 800,000 remain. One rides down majestic boulevards with only a few cars on them, past towering (often empty) skyscrapers. A few weeks ago I watched a documentary called Requiem For Detroit by British director Julian Temple, who used to be associated with the Sex Pistols. It’s a great film, available to watch on YouTube, that gives a context and history for the devastation one sees all around here. This process didn’t happen overnight, as with Katrina, but over many many decades. However the devastation is just as profound, and just as much concentrated on the lower echelons of society. Both disasters were man-made.

That film Byrne references – Requiem for Detroit – occupied a chunk of my evening. It’s truly haunting – unbelievable, except it’s true. (The link Byrne gives goes to Requiem for Detroit in 10-minute segments; the link above goes to the entire 1hr.16min.45sec. film – not sure how that was uploaded to Youtube, but I hope it stays up).

Byrne includes this photo, a google maps overview of a couple of “city blocks” in Detroit today …no density, hardly any houses (most have been razed, the city is trying to “shrink” itself), a sorry accompaniment to the more frightening destruction that has taken place in other areas:


I believe it was in his 1740 essay The Anti-Machiavel that Frederick the Great wrote that the Netherlands, with its small land mass but large population of educated citizens, was far richer than Russia, with its vast but sparsely populated land mass – a population furthermore kept in servitude and ignorance due to a feudal system that enshrined serfdom.

People – engaged, educated, integrated – matter more than machines or raw land. Looks like land use policies (racist) and factory practices (automobile production) came together to make Detroit turn into 18th century Russia instead of Holland.

Dirty Wall Project: slums and cities

September 24, 2010 at 11:59 pm | In cities, guerilla_politics, housing, ideas, innovation, land_use, local_not_global, philanthropy, street_life, urbanism, victoria | Comments Off on Dirty Wall Project: slums and cities

I saw an amazing photograph in the temporary gallery Ryan Kane of the Dirty Wall Project has set up on Fort Street.

The photo is one of many that Kane is selling to raise funds for his venture: it’s a flat, saturated, picture-edge-to-picture-edge frontal view of one small piece of a slum in Saki Naka bordering the rail line. Its complexity makes Where’s Waldo look minimalist.

Monday Magazine published an interview with Kane last month. An excerpt from the introduction:

You’ve heard of guerrilla gardening and guerrilla marketing, but what about guerilla volunteering? The concept to “see a need and fill it” without worrying about paperwork, bureaucracy or religious bias is exactly what 28-year-old Kane Ryan strives to do with his one-person, not-for-profit organization called the Dirty Wall Project. Ryan just recently returned from India where he was working in the slums of Mumbai, organizing health camps, distributing tarps for the monsoon season, funding emergency surgeries and building a school for the children living in the Saki Naka slum community, among other initiatives. All of the money he raises—75 percent of which comes from here in Victoria through fundraising events, private donors and by selling his travel photography—goes directly to the Dirty Wall Project. Ryan pays for his own travel, food and accommodation out of his own pocket by working odd jobs during the months he returns to Victoria. The Dirty Wall Project is proof that one person can indeed make a difference. (source)

If you’re in Victoria, make sure you get to 977A Fort St (formerly Luz Gallery).

I can’t find an online version of the photo that grabbed my attention this afternoon. Here’s a substitute, which hints at the complexity:


Visit Ryan’s site, or check out his photo book, Dirty Wall Project (on Blurb). See a need and fill it, make a donation.

Cougar (in Victoria)

September 15, 2010 at 11:07 pm | In cities, just_so, local_not_global, victoria | Comments Off on Cougar (in Victoria)

Late Monday night, my next-door neighbor spotted a cougar on the patch of lawn in front of the townhouse across the street from us on Rockland Avenue. She had intended to move her vehicle from her property to my street (Pentrelew) around the corner, but the cougar – which did not appear frightened by the sudden presence of a human and instead stared her down – changed her mind.

A passing jogger said that he had just passed the hedge in front of The Laurels (a former mansion converted to apartments – and yes, the hedge is laurel), and that the hedge had been shaking violently. The Laurels is directly across a narrow lane that leads to Langham Court Theatre (the lane separates The Laurels and the townhouse where the cougar was seen).

The jogger assumed some animal like a raccoon was in the branches, but then realized it must have been the cougar. After some time, the cougar continued down Rockland and disappeared down the alley that runs behind Linden Street.

We live 3 blocks outside the official downtown/ Harris Green border. Our neighborhood (Rockland and Fairfield) has a population density of several thousand people per square kilometer. But we’re also infested with deer – and we have plenty of rats and raccoons. I’m not surprised that predators move in where there is prey to be found – and somehow I can’t help but think it’s the deer that are really drawing them. I’m not sure why we continue to tolerate deer around here – it’s not exactly a rural scene.

More local stories about recent cougar sightings:

Cougar Sighting (June 30, 2010: this one is from the Westshore; the cougar was seen at the Juan de Fuca Recreation Centre)

Reports of cougar sighting in Oak Bay (July 27, 2010; Oak Bay is contiguous with Fairfield; the area described is hardly “densely wooded,” if that’s supposed to suggest a forest – there is nowhere you can stand in Walbran Park without seeing a house)

Cougar spotted in Saanich this morning (Aug.15, 2010; Saanich is the next municipality over; it has less populated areas, but is mostly built up and densely populated)

Joggers unworried by cougar sighting along Elk Lake trails (Aug.24, 2010; Elk Lake is in Saanich, a bit further away from downtown Victoria)

You can almost discern a pattern here: from the “wilder” Westshore with its easy access to the Sooke Hills; to Saanich / Oak Bay, with its increasing proliferation of rabbits at the University of Victoria and deer everywhere; to Fairfield/ Rockland and basically downtown Victoria.

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On re-reading Biophilic Design: Taking Love to the Street

August 7, 2010 at 11:49 pm | In cities, FOCUS_Magazine, green, johnson street bridge, land_use, leadership, local_not_global, nature, victoria | Comments Off on On re-reading Biophilic Design: Taking Love to the Street

Since I’m fuming in a conversation over on Facebook about the City of Victoria’s Department of Engineering (which seems to me benighted), I was reminded of my 2007 article, Biophilic Design: Taking Love to the Street (the link goes to the Scribd version).

Not to sound too much like I’m tooting my own horn, but that was such a good article, and such a great idea – and it was instantly shot down in a committee meeting of council without so much as a second thought by then-Director of Engineering Peter Sparanese, who told Councilor Pamela Madoff that the scheme floated by me in the above-linked article would be too expensive: as far as anyone could tell, he quoted a $12million price tag seemingly on the spot – amazing, how quickly that particular variation of a Class-C estimate materialized…

In the Director of Engineering’s mind, it was seemingly more expedient to build yet another paved road, …and that’s exactly what happened. And how did the Director get his way? By conjuring a figure that was 3 times more expensive ($12million) than what his conventional fix would cost ($4million). No one ever questioned him on how he came up with his numbers, and from what I’ve seen he has been given free rein ever since: “…Coun. Helen Hughes pointed out the last time the council looked at the project [to fix the View and Vancouver Street intersection] the cost was estimated at $1.55 million, less than half the $4,080,000 of the latest estimate.” (source) and let’s not forget how mercurial the Department of Engineering’s financial estimates regarding the Johnson Street Bridge refurbishment and/or replacement have been…

That this city has no imagination is something I’ve suspected ever since, and my suspicions have been proven again and again in every twist and turn regarding the Johnson Street Bridge fracas – where the only imagination shown is in quoting increasingly bizarre budgets for either option.

For the record, here’s my August 2007 article in full:

“Biophilic Design: Taking Love to the Street”

We know that regular exposure to nature is good for us, and yet we perfect designs that keep nature out, sometimes even erase our awareness of it. Protected from nature, we control and limit our exposure – we stay warm in winter, cool in summer, which affords us greater productivity and increases our comfort. Like most people, I’m happy to enjoy central heating and storm windows. But an over-armored life isn’t ideal, either. Think of dinosaurs or giant turtles next time your car has you imprisoned in a traffic jam or your office window won’t open because that would disturb the air-conditioning.

Today’s eco-conscious designers point out that excessive barriers to nature produce lowered quality of life as well as boring, mediocre built environments. But designing with nature, they argue, contributes to health, creates excitement, and even fosters love. Love of nature, termed biophilia by E.O. Wilson, refers to a deep-rooted need “to experience natural habitats and species.” Wilson’s colleague Stephen Kellert writes of biophilic design: a conscious bent to design access to nature into what we build in cities. It’s a mandate that can shape buildings, parks, …and streets.

Earlier this spring, the City asked for the public’s input at several Parks Masterplan workshops. Planners wanted to know how we use parks, and where we might create new ones. During one workshop, there was an electric moment when a participant suggested turning part of View Street into a linear park. She noted that traffic volume on Fort and Yates (both one-way arterials) is heavy, while it’s relatively light on View. While still allowing cars, the city could nonetheless create a linear park – which would function as a badly needed beautification project, too – and, she added, let’s incorporate exercise stations for seniors.

View crosses Vancouver Street, already blessed with an unparalleled canopy bestowed by majestic chestnut trees whose massive trunks suggest outdoor sculpture. Under the trees, wide grassy boulevards suggest to the many pedestrian commuters that here, indeed, is an urban park – or should be. The intersection of View and Vancouver is sinking, however, and presents a major engineering conundrum. But this problem could become an opportunity.

As we know from Jennifer Sutherst’s research (“Lost Streams of Victoria,” map, 2003), that intersection is built on what was a wetland fed by seasonal streams and rainwater run-off. The wetland in turn fed a stream that coursed along Pandora (accounting for Pandora’s odd bend, between Douglas and Government): the stream marked the boundary between Chinatown and “white” Victoria. It was treated badly even in the 19th-century (apparently turned into an open sewer), was soon contained, put underground, paved over. Its remnants still drain into the Inner Harbour.

Sutherst’s map shows the wetland directly at View and Vancouver. Today, its asphalted surface is impermeable, while drainage codes mandate that run-off from roads and neighbouring buildings diverts to storm sewers, versus flowing back into the marsh. Consequently, the now-hidden wetland is drying up, and as it dries, its layers of peat shrink and compress, causing the roadbed to sinks. To “fix” that problem, we’ve in-filled additional layers of asphalt, making the surface even heavier – and contributing to increased compression of the underlying stratum.

It’s in many ways a classic vicious circle, and a lesson in living peaceably with micro-ecosystems. In effect, by building yet another protective barrier between nature (the wetland) and us, we have also paralyzed the wetland’s hydrological functioning. If the land were a body, what would the wetland be? Perhaps kidneys, absorbing fluid, treating it, discharging it. By putting impermeable asphalt over that natural organ, we’ve desiccated it, and now it’ll cost a pretty penny in engineering surgery.

Since we have to throw money at it anyway, what if we did something truly innovative to that diseased organ? What if we practiced biophilic design to restore its ecological function – and gained a unique urban focal point in what could be a fabulous linear park project? Imagine, for example, an intersection with a permeable steel-grid “road-bed” suspended slightly over a daylighted wetland, the latter slowly restored to full hydrologic function. In the restoration field, daylighting typically refers to excavating and restoring a stream channel from an underground culvert, covering, or pipe. In the case of the View/Vancouver wetland, it would more appropriately refer to removing an impermeable surface, and planting appropriate vegetation that allows the wetland to resume its normal function as a water filter. Restored urban ecology also provides both an educational tool for stewardship and an aesthetic community amenity.

The art-technology-engineering challenge lies in marrying restoration with normal urban functioning: traffic (automotive and pedestrian) has to flow. But consider the value that could accrue for Victoria with a project like this. If Dockside Green, locally the symbolic heart for sustainable development, attracts worldwide attention, perhaps a brilliantly restored kidney could turn a few heads, too.

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