Daily Diigo Public Link 03/31/2008

March 30, 2008 at 5:39 pm | In architecture, links, urbanism | Comments Off on Daily Diigo Public Link 03/31/2008

“Star Cities: The World’s Best-Known Architects are Turning to Planning” by Joan Ockman – Architect Online Annotated

tags: architecture, bilbao_effect, joan_ockman, starchitecture, urbanplanning

“Joan Ockman asks: Is a new form of urbanism emerging?”

“THE MID-TO LATE ‘90S saw the realization of several colossal redevelopment projects in which superstar architects were called upon to supply window dressing for the transformation of dysfunctional urban districts into tourist and consumer meccas, from Times Square in Manhattan to Potsdam Square in Berlin. But it was the triumphal opening of Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, in late 1997 that appeared, to architects, nothing short of a miracle. Gehry not only delivered a more optimistic, less intellectualized, and visually ravishing vision of architecture’s potential and one, moreover, that innovatively integrated but was not entirely determined by new technologies; against all odds, he showed that it was possible to regenerate an entire city with nothing more nor less than a single, singular building.”

This is an important article that has some specific relevance also for my concerns around the praxis of a local architect here in Victoria who thinks he can “envision” a certain kind of urbanism (low-rise) for this city. Should an architect be an urban planner? Can s/he be good at both? Ockham’s article suggests it ain’t necessarily so.

Daily Diigo Public Link 03/27/2008

March 26, 2008 at 5:40 pm | In architecture, heritage, links, urbanism | 1 Comment

Seattle’s historic contradictions – Crosscut Seattle – Annotated

tags: architecture, crosscut, heritage, historic_preservation, knute_berger, seattle

Sparked in part by the designation of a “googie” (a Denny’s diner) as a heritage landmark structure (a designation that the deep-pocketed owner, the Benaroya company, is going to fight in court), Berger reports on subsequent repercussions and discussions among “representatives from the state Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, Historic Seattle, the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation, and others.” The comments thread is pretty interesting, too, and there are parallels to what Victoria is facing in its considerations around “landmarking” modern buildings.

Connect the dots: two articles by Miro Cernetig and Bob Ransford that should be read together

March 24, 2008 at 10:16 pm | In addiction, affordable_housing, canada, cities, crime, homelessness, housing, justice, leadership, local_not_global, social_critique, street_life, taxes, urbanism, vancouver, victoria | 1 Comment

The Vancouver Sun published two articles, nearly back-to-back, which make a lot of sense when read in conjunction: on March 22, we read Bob Ransford’s As cities become more complex, our taxes keep rising and on March 24 we read Milo Cernetig’s Approach to social woes a moral failure by all three main B.C. parties.

These two articles have to be comprehended together. One (Ransford’s) wants people to understand the economics of taxation that underlie municipal finance, while the other (Cernetig’s) wants people to understand how a certain kind of underfunding has produced the horrible social problems we see in our (BC) cities today. Cernetig references Vancouver, but Victoria has similar problems.

I have for some months now picked up on the criticisms of municipal infrastructure funding in Canada — even going so far as to publish a short piece on Vibrant Victoria on Dec.3/07, Victoria’s Choice: to be or not to be …is not the question. The gist of Ransford’s article elaborates on the theme I also addressed in my piece: cities (in my opinion, Canadian cities especially, although Ransford argues that it’s a Western/ First World global problem) are too dependent on single sources of income, primarily property taxes, while so-called senior levels of government (state or provincial, and federal) receive funding from many diverse sources of income: consumption taxes, income taxes, and so on. At the same time, cities are in the front line of having to provide services on every level.

This is lunacy, especially when you take into account the fact that cities generate most of a nation’s economic activity and wealth, and that they also will typically attract the largest populations of people dependent on what is collectively referred to as “services”: supported housing, addiction treatment, food banks, welfare, etc. Poor people come to cities because this is where the services are. Very often, they are in a city’s downtown, which is why you’ll find neighbourhoods in downtowns that become magnets for the visibly needy.

The problem is that these services are underfunded or even non-existent, some having once been funded by one of the two senior levels of government, but now having been off- or downloaded to municipalities.

And there we are, connecting the dots.

The Feds “downloaded” to the Provinces those services that used to be Federally-funded. The Provinces in turn have downloaded Provincially-funded services to the municipalities.

And, …well, the municipalities have no one to download to …except us. And that, in a nutshell, is my argument: citizens — people who live in cities — are shouldering the downloaded costs of all the stuff that all the other levels of government, including the municipalities, used to handle. Beggars on the streets; addicts shooting up in broad daylight; mentally ill people freaking out on corners; homeless people in every nook and cranny of public and private spaces; human feces on the sidewalks and in doorways; used needles in parks and on sidewalks; drug deals transacted openly on downtown streets… The list goes on.

The police refer to the mentally ill who openly use illegal drugs and defecate on the street and sleep in doorways as their “clients.” It seems to have gone by the board that the police shouldn’t be dealing with people on that end of the spectrum of social disorder in the first place — the police should be dealing with criminals and with law enforcement. When the people on that end of the spectrum engage in criminal activity — and they do, because they steal to stay alive and to feed their addictions — the police act like social workers …because that’s the role that has been downloaded to them, too.

Criminals exploit this.

My neighbours, who came home at 11pm on a recent weekend night to find that their basement door had been kicked in by thieves while they were away, thieves who robbed them of various items and who apparently fled just as the family returned home, had to wait for over 12 hours before the police could come over. And why was that? Perhaps they were too busy taking care of “clients”…

We — citizens — are the bottom of the food chain in this story. We — citizens — are the last link to off- or download to. We — citizens — are supposed to feel guilty if we don’t express or display the appropriate level of compassion toward the marginalized. But the citizen might ask herself, “Whatever happened to the idea that I pay my taxes, and that they pay for services intended to ameliorate these conditions?” The citizen still pays her taxes — and pays and pays and pays, if she lives in Canada — and the senior levels of government boast of surpluses. The municipalities, meanwhile, relying almost solely on the property taxes she and the many other citizens in the urban area pay, find themselves shouldering the cost of upgrading ancient infrastructure (sewage, roads, parks, recreation centres, etc.), plus the cost of “helping” the growing pool of service seekers.

But there are no provincial mental hospitals anymore, there is no affordable housing or supportive housing being built by the province or the feds, and all the damage that accrues from this out-casting has been downloaded to Joe and Jane Schmuck, i.e., you and me Citizen Jim and Citizen Jill.

That’s the dot.

Let me just present a couple of extract from the above-mentioned articles. Here’s Ransford:

Am I getting value for dollar for the property taxes I pay to local government? Politicians and bureaucrats at city hall would argue that I am getting more for my dollar than I ever have. Despite the fact that the number of employees at my city hall has grown faster than the rate of local population growth, the people that work there will tell you they are doing much more with fewer resources.

The fact is that cities across the country have become much more complex organizations than they were in the past and they have taken on more and more responsibilities. The federal and provincial governments have downloaded a long list of responsibilities on municipal governments. They have also stopped doing things that they once did as governments and the municipalities have stepped in and taken over where a need had to be met.

Social or non-market housing is a good example. Providing housing for the truly needy used to be almost the sole responsibility of the federal government. They started backing out of this area in the late 1980s and have next to no involvement today in funding what most are identifying is a desperate social need in our urban centres

The role of municipal governments has evolved. No longer do you look to your municipality merely to fix the potholes in the road in front of your house or to build and maintain the pipes that dispose of the sewage when you flush your toilet..

As Ransford points out (on page 2 of the article), a key problem here is aging populations:

The concept of a tax tied to the value of your home is beginning to make less practical sense with an aging urban population that will soon be dominated by retirees on fixed retirement incomes with all of their equity tied up in relatively expensive homes.

There’s only one kind of civic taxpayer and one source of civic revenue. There is a looming danger that taxpayer will soon no longer be able to fund the full cost of what it takes to run a city.

I would further add to Ransford’s excellent summing-up that Victoria’s troubles are uniquely compounded by our balkanized political system, which splits Victoria into many separate un-amalgamated municipalities (the Capital Regional District, which is all of Victoria, is 13 municipalities, each with its own mayor and council, fire chief, police department, and so on). At the same time, the City of Victoria holds the region’s downtown, the place where everyone comes for services — social services that range from food banks, charities, needle “exchanges,” and plain old week-end partying — many of which require policing and various levels of clean-up. Who pays? The City of Victoria, not the surrounding municipalities, which merely take advantage of what the City offers.

Let’s look at Milo Cernetig’s article now. He gets a gold star (in my book) for slamming all the BC provincial parties — too often and for too long, the problems we’re facing have been presented in partisan terms: it’s the BC Liberals’ fault (note to non-BC readers: the BC Liberals are sort of neo-conservative, and have little in common with the Federal Liberals); or it’s the NDP’s fault, and so on. Yadda yadda yadda. Blah blah blah.

Forget about it. That partisan shit has to stop, because it’s obvious that none of the parties have covered themselves in glory here, and that whole partisan shtick is old beyond words.

Here are some excerpts from Cernetig’s piece:

…here’s the fast-rewind of the amazing arc of policy blunders — given to us by a melange of Social Credit, New Democratic and Liberal governments — that I tried to explain.

First, imagine progressively shrinking the province’s major psychiatric hospital, Riverview, to save money. Then, in a cruel twist, offer no safe harbour for many of those psychiatric patients, who politicians told us would benefit from being “deinstitutionalized” and put back into society.

Instead, let large numbers of these truly desperate souls fend for themselves on our streets. Let them line up for a room in those bedbug-infested flophouses our health inspectors, for reasons that mystify, somehow allow to stay open. While we’re at it, we’ll also slow down the construction of new social housing, too, since it’s too expensive.

So now we’ve got all these lost souls begging and wandering the city’s downtown, often in a schizophrenic or crystal meth haze.

But we really haven’t done much about it. We’re not good at the tough job of distinguishing between vagrants (who should be moved on by the cops), or chronic criminals (who should be put in jail by judges) and the truly sick (who should be taken to shelters or hospitals by good beat cops, if we had enough of them).

Nope. We somehow got used to the sight of people sprawled on sidewalks and inside the doorways of the world’s “most livable” city.

There it is: another dot: We somehow got used to the sight of people sprawled on sidewalks and inside the doorways of the world’s “most livable” city.

The “somehow” in that sentence is “downloading.” We have been worn down by senior levels of government absenting themselves from the business of governing (a big piece of which includes providing services in exchange for all the money we fork over), and in the British tradition (within which we exist here), we have taken it uncomplainingly up the rear end, “muddling through” and accepting it all as if it were an inevitability.

That’s why we put up with the sight of what Cernetig describes, put up with open drug use, criminal transactions in plain daylight, and lunatics on our streets. In the British tradition, we are, after all, but subjects of these governments, not its master. Just as every level has downloaded — until there’s no one left to download to except to you and me, so every level absolves itself of accountability, because of course there’s always a higher level to defer to. In the last instance, the senior levels can defer to “the Crown,” a cruel joke referencing Canadian impotence.

The emancipation of Canadian cities is a project so inextricably tied to emancipation from old ways of tutelage and subjugation that it will amount to a revolution if it is ever to happen.

Unfortunately, since there has never been a Canadian revolution, I don’t hold out much hope for the emancipation / empowerment of Canadian cities. Perhaps — counter to my current pessimism — we’ll eventually strike some sort of paternalistic bargain with the “higher” levels of government after all. Since they hold the power already, they might grok the problem and step up, if only to maintain their hold.

At this point, I almost don’t care as long as the downloading stops.

Photograph by Ian Lindsay, from Milo Cernetig’s article.

The caption reads “A homeless person sleeps on a Cordova Street sidewalk in February. Figures show that investing in social housing would save B.C. $211 million annually.”

Daily Diigo Public Link 03/24/2008

March 23, 2008 at 5:39 pm | In architecture, justice, links | Comments Off on Daily Diigo Public Link 03/24/2008

“Saint Brad” by Andrew Blum (Metropolis Magazine) Annotated

tags: andrew_blum, architecture, brad_pitt, make_it_right_project, metropolis_magazine, new_orleans, rebuilding, urbanplanning

As I don’t follow celebrity news, I had no idea that Brad Pitt is a “design junkie” or a pivotal mover-and-shaker in the rebuilding of the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans. (I barely know that Pitt and another actress — Angelina Jolie? — are linked/married/ or something… d’oh… )

Andrew Blum’s article shines a good light (good as in “kind” and “illuminating”) on Pitt’s efforts, as embodied in the non-profit he started called “Make It Right” (MIR). And it does an excellent job educating me on the bizarre, yet potentially wonderful, nexus of pop culture/ money/ starchitecture momentum that Pitt has engineered.

The list of star architects makes my jaw drop; Blum discusses their efforts, and doesn’t hesitate to poiint out where some of them go wrong (and others get it right). As Blum puts it, “If Pitt can pull this off, he will have transformed a swath of the Lower Ninth Ward, a neighborhood symbolic of everything rotten in America, into one of the world’s most design-intensive sustainable communities.”

The article is well-illustrated (Blum’s blog doesn’t have the illustrations, but this link to Metropolis Magazine does).

Hume on heritage, cities, suburbs

March 22, 2008 at 8:41 pm | In cities, heritage, urbanism | Comments Off on Hume on heritage, cities, suburbs

Christopher Hume is on a roll with three articles in today’s Toronto Star.

In Urban tragedy unfolding as highrise to erase history, he offers a few (troubling) questions about the impending demolition of some 19th-century Toronto rowhouses slated for demolition so that a new condo tower can take their place. I’m not anti-development (nor is Hume, for that matter), but in a country that has a relatively thin historical fabric, you have to wonder about the merits of shredding it further. When a block of buildings went up in flames on Queen West toward the end of February, many people anguished over the destruction of built heritage. There’s no public concern over these rowhouses, however, so Hume asks, “Given the outcry unleashed by the recent burning of a row of buildings on Queen St. W., you’d think that there’d be hell to pay for the deliberate destruction of five houses, all of them beautiful redbrick structures, for something as ordinary, as predictable, even mundane, as another condo.

Perhaps no one cares, Hume speculates, because these are “just” houses (residential), without any commercial history?

Hume closes with these words:

No doubt the developer will tell us that the houses are in terrible shape. How convenient. But if they are, fix them up. Build the tower somewhere else.

It’s time we understood that heritage represents a rare resource, a civic asset, not simply an obstacle on the way to a developer’s bottom line. Our willingness to sacrifice our history at every opportunity reveals a worrisome lack of self-confidence and sophistication.

Regardless of what will replace these houses, the neighbourhood – and with it the city – will be diminished by their disappearance.

It’s a tricky position. Here in Victoria, we can still put most new downtown developments on surface parking lots and other “infill” situations. But that could change here, too. (Perhaps more on that later.)

(On the same page as the above article, readers can also find Hume’s “The Condo Critic,” with a review of One St. Thomas, where he writes, “…it belongs with that small handful of buildings designed to be part of something larger, namely a city.” That’s a good place to belong to.)

The other two articles by Hume are immediately related: Countries die. The city is eternal and The suburbs’ grim future. The first is a sort of commentary on Ricky Burdett and Deyan Sujdic’s The Endless City, with an especial focus on how municipal infrastructure funding and autonomy issues play out in Western cities, including Canada:

Though the megacities of the West don’t face troubles as dire as these, the question of inclusion clearly underlines all others problems. Cities have always belonged to those who can afford them, but that will no longer suffice when cities must accommodate an ever-growing proportion of the world’s poorest inhabitants.

Even in prosperous Canada, affordability and availability of housing have emerged as major issues, along with those of traffic and transit (see The suburbs’ grim future, ID4).

As contributors to The Endless City make clear, in many urban centres, car use has grown exponentially. What was a two-lane road in Shanghai just a decade ago is now an eight-lane highway. Even in Mexico City, where car-ownership is restricted to relatively few, the city recently constructed an elevated freeway that serves a tiny fraction of the city’s population.

London has famously introduced a congestion zone, which though controversial, has been an acknowledged success, reducing gridlock by 20 per cent.

But the urban equivalent of a unified field theory remains every bit as elusive. It is obvious, however, that one issue shared by all civic jurisdictions is that of governance. Although there are European cities empowered to levy their own income tax, federal, national, provincial and regional governments almost universally view municipalities as junior partners.

Yet around the globe the story is the same: Cities deliver 80 per cent of the services people expect in their daily lives on 25 per cent of tax revenues. As a result, public infrastructure is crumbling at every turn.

Canada’s no exception; the latest estimate of the infrastructure deficit in Ontario alone stands at $143 billion. While Toronto frantically tries to avoid bankruptcy, Ottawa has just come through a series of budget surpluses that peaked last year at $13 billion. This national/local imbalance reveals much about where the planet is headed in the decades ahead.

If cities don’t have the taxing powers they need, neither do they have the political power. How interesting that residents of London, a city that dates back millennia, long before Great Britain, didn’t directly elect their mayor until 2000. Since then, London has set an example for the rest of the world in its willingness to tackle problems such as congestion, air pollution, and affordable housing head on. At this point, it’s quite likely more people have heard the name of London’s Lord Mayor, Ken Livingstone, than British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

That’s shouldn’t be surprising. In the grand scheme of things, Livingstone has greater impact on the daily lives of more Britons than does Brown. Certainly the same could be said of Toronto Mayor David Miller when compared with that of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

If nothing else, the present urban age will bring all this closer to home than ever.

Countries come and go, but cities are here to stay.

Ok, if you don’t live “back east,” you might not know who David Miller is either — but maybe the name Sam Sullivan will register more vividly. Yet Hume’s point still stands: mayors of major cities oversee powerhouses, and all-too-often it’s not recognized by “higher levels” of government, at least not officially as policy. The policy still identifies cities (municipalities) as subaltern.

Hume’s third article, The suburbs’ grim future, is a brief commentary on why the suburbs are really screwed in times of economic downturn:

Poverty is one thing in the city, quite another in the suburbs.

Historically, cities enabled the poor to work their way up the socio-economic ladder. But what happens when low-income families are concentrated in post-war suburban communities where they are isolated and kept apart?

The prospects don’t look good.


Paramount among the lessons to be learned is the importance of urban flexibility. Hulchanski quotes an earlier study done in the 1970s called, “Metro’s Suburbs in Transition.”

“The post-war suburb,” it states, “assumed one set of family conditions for child-rearing and the physical environment incorporated these assumptions.”

But, as the report went on, “The prototype suburban family – father in the labour force, mother at home full time, ownership of a ground-level home with private open space, two to four children, homogeneous neighbours – is no longer the dominant reality of suburban life.”

Though this phenomenon has yet to be fully played out, it’s clear that traditional city virtues of proximity, connectedness and diversity, not to mention public transit, lead to better living conditions and opportunities for the poor than the archetypal suburban qualities of separation by use and distance.

The successful city, varied and adaptable, can be reinvented and recycled over and over again by successive generations. But can the same be said of an environment designed for homogeneity?

So once again, the message is clear: the monoculture is bad news. Flexibility, heterogeneity, adaptability: hallmarks of cities and of people living together in proximity.

Daily Diigo Public Link 03/22/2008

March 21, 2008 at 5:40 pm | In canada, cities, urbanism | Comments Off on Daily Diigo Public Link 03/22/2008

Edmonton: Daunting task for crap detectors Annotated

tags: edmonton, todd_babiak, urban_design

“Design watchdogs have a lot on their plate” — The Edmonton Journal’s Todd Babaniak weighs in on the all-volunteer Edmonton Design Committee’s effect so far on urban design in that city, and concludes that it’s too bad they couldn’t have gotten started in 1990 already.

Diigo V3 now live: check it out

March 20, 2008 at 5:39 pm | In resources, web | 2 Comments

As any regular reader has noticed by now, I often have entries entitled “Daily Diigo Public Link,” followed by that day’s date. These are generated automatically when I use Diigo to bookmark items that I choose to make public. I have found Diigo to be the best bookmarking tool on the web, hands-down, and have been lucky enough to be a “preview” user / tester for the version that launched publicly today. Some of you may have used previous incarnations of Diigo, and maybe you didn’t continue using it — but believe me, you have to give this new version a whirl, especially if you do any sort of collaborative work or if you blog or if you’re a researcher.

For a great overview, see Social Bookmarking 2.0 — Diigo sets the standard for others to follow (bub.licio.us). That entry gives you the nuts-and-bolts of what Diigo does.

An aspect I really appreciate (which isn’t stressed in the bub.licio.us article) is the control users have over whether or not to make a bookmark public, keep it private, or share it with others to a group. Another great feature is that users can make their annotations (the “sticky” notes) public, private, or shared to a group — and these settings are easy to change within a single bookmark, too.

Diigo is quite simply fantastic! Congratulations to the whole team for bringing this to the web.

Daily Diigo Public Link 03/20/2008

March 19, 2008 at 5:39 pm | In links | Comments Off on Daily Diigo Public Link 03/20/2008

Architecture in Tokyo: Omotesando Steet II, Pt II – PingMag – The Tokyo-based magazine about “Design and Making Things”

tags: architecture, omotesando, ping_mag, tokyo

Part 2 of a fascinating trek down Omotesando Street in Tokyo, which seems studded front to back with “starchitect” buildings.

» Cash-strapped Americans re-examine driving habits • Spacing Toronto • understanding the urban landscape Annotated

tags: driving, gasoline, habits, prices, spacing.ca

Spacing Toronto’s Matthew Blackett presents some interesting statistics from a CNN Money article about a national poll on how gasoliine prices are affecting (and will affect) American driving habits.

Daily Diigo Public Link 03/19/2008

March 18, 2008 at 5:39 pm | In links | Comments Off on Daily Diigo Public Link 03/19/2008

“La Biennale di Venezia: 11th Annual Architecture Exhibition” – Canadian Architect – 3/17/2008 Annotated

tags: architecture, biennale, canadianarchitect, theory, venice_biennale

– Intro to the upcoming (Sept.14-Nov.23) 11th Annual Architecture Exhibition / Venice Biennale, directed this year by Aaron Betsky. Its title is “Out There: Architecture Beyond Building.” (Preview from Sept.11-13/08)

I highlighted a quote by Betsky that describes architecture at some metalevel of praxis — not as the business of building as such, but as a way of thinking about the human-made environment.

Cool Hunting: Mock-Ups in Close-Up

tags: architecture, models_scale, movies

I’d love to be in NYC at the end of March to see this film:

“Architect Gabu Heindl and film theorist Drehli Robnik recently compiled such footage [building models used in film] (a curated selection of 80 clips) into an 80-minute video called ‘Mock-Ups in Close-Up’.

“Providing a curious look at how directors use models, the film clips used range from art-house to blockbuster, from Peter Greenaway’s ‘Belly of an Architect’ to Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’… …The Storefront for Art and Architecture will be showing the video starting 25 March, 2008.”

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