Public spaces in lush lands

April 24, 2010 at 11:45 pm | In cities, land_use, nature, urbanism, victoria | 4 Comments

I live in a ridiculously lush part of the world, and I’m not talking about the Canadian propensity to drink alcoholic beverages. In Victoria BC, on southern Vancouver Island, it’s green year ’round. By February, people are mowing their lawns. By mid-summer, the climate turns nearly Mediterranean (after a winter and long spring of cool, wet weather), and then it gets very dry.

Around here, tucked between the Juan de Fuca and the Georgia Straits, however, we never get that still heat I associate with true Mediterranean weather. There’s always wind, unceasing wind. In late winter (around February, early March), the blossoms are blown off the trees and it looks like a pink blizzard. The rest of Canada has actual snow, we have petals.

Here’s a photo of Rockland Ave., heading east. I took this photo recently (April), the flowering trees are a later variety:

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The strips of grass on the right are part of the city-owned boulevard. Note how green they are, as if they’re chemically treated and watered. They’re not. By summer they’ll be dormant, but right now they’re furiously green.

The hedges and shrubs bordering the private front yards on the left are bursting with new growth. Everywhere, new blossoms shoot forth, adding hues of purple, blue, pink, white.

What you’re seeing is just a slightly ramped-up version of what happens nearly year-round. Since it’s spring, nature is right now in hyper-mode, but aside from a summer dormancy of grass and other highly water-dependent plants, it’s just green green green green all year round.

There are plenty of neighborhoods in Victoria where the sidewalks look like this, and what “this” looks like is for all the world what many other places would call public green space. It’s certainly public (a boulevard), and it’s certainly green – both from the city-owned side (which includes grass and majestic trees) and the private border on the sidewalk’s other side.

Because we have so much of it (except maybe right downtown,  which has far fewer trees and plantings), I’m often horrified when new developments are required to include huge setbacks or large swathes of green (meaning: boring lawn and the ubiquitous rhododendrons).

If, on the other hand, you live in a place like the following (below), it probably makes sense to demand more open green space:

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That’s a street in Brookline, Massachusetts (where I used to live) – a typical street, a jumble of different building types, not pretty, no sign of obvious thought given to how the buildings might fit together to create some kind of street wall (unlike other streets in Brookline or Boston, streets that are considered pretty). With the addition of that open lot and its dilapidated fence, you really can see how an urban area can convey 100% suckyness, and why people might live there just long enough to save enough money for a house in the suburbs.

This street is crying out for some kind of beautification through plantings – maybe a tiny, jewel-like pocket park? It’s also in need of overall repair: public street furniture, something pleasant to look at, perhaps an indication of a retail or commercial spot (cafe?), either there or very close by. This street needs something to tie it together, and a dose of nature would be a great start.

Meanwhile, back in Victoria, we’ve got nature coming out of our ears, yet new downtown developments are supposed to have lots of green-space, not to mention bigger sidewalks. Bigger sidewalks would be great, except the city comes along and puts grass along one side. Guess what happens during our soggy winters? The “grass” gets trampled and soon turns to shabby mud.

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There are better ways to include nature, and better ways to create an urban street wall. But including some street furniture and a place for bike lock-ups is a start.

What I don’t understand, however, is a call for more open green space in our downtown. We need smart additions of greenery (not boulevard lawns that get trampled to mud in winter), and we need surprising, delightful pocket parks… that sort of thing. But not more of what anyone can find by taking a walk in the core neighborhoods.

Here’s an example of greenery that works downtown: clipped hornbeams, in planters whose edges act as bench seating, placed along the street like sentries:

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Here, along Government Street in Victoria’s downtown, nature acts in concert with the buildings to create a street wall, in this case one that forms the outside wall (to the road), buffering the pedestrians on the sidewalk between trees and buildings.

Nature downtown should be different from what you find in the neighborhoods. Putting lawns of any sort (even small patches) downtown is idiotic. Without strong verticals, lawns and garden shrubs just bleed out from the center, destroying the necessary structure that a real street needs to have.

Pulchraphilia

April 21, 2010 at 11:31 pm | In architecture, cities, ideas, social_critique, urbanism | Comments Off on Pulchraphilia

Yesterday the brilliant folks at the Cascadia Region Green Building Council sent out the link to the latest issue of Trim Tab, their quarterly online magazine. The current (Spring 2010) issue features an article by Jason F. McLennan, “The Role of Beauty in Green Design: ‘Pulchraphilia’; How Aesthetics and Good Design Improve Performance” (click through and scroll to p.17ff).

Building on biophilia, McLennan makes the case for beauty, essentially to say that we’re more inclined to take care of beautiful things – including a beautiful built environment – which then naturally dovetails with the interests of sustainability. (On the topic of biophilia, see also my article, Biophilic design: taking love to the street, first published in FOCUS Magazine, August 2007, available for download on Scribd.)

In other words, make “green” beautiful, and it has a better chance of catching on, being loved, getting attention, and giving back, which, taken together, means it just might last.

McLennan even coined a new word, pulchraphilia, to anchor his insight.

Yesterday, I reported on Creating Value Through Sustainability, leading with one panelist’s insight around data: “You measure what matters, and what gets measured, gets done.” Contrast that with McLennan’s discussion of quantity (vs quality?):

The real truth is that many of the most important things in life are the very things that are more difficult to quantify and any system that fails to address them is guaranteed to fall short. Just because something can’t be objectively measured doesn’t mean it has zero value; it may in fact become the most important building block of all. When it comes to green building and environmental performance, beauty and good design play an enormous role in the success of any project. In fact, aesthetics contribute to the overall effort in such significant ways primarily because people are involved and we are emotional beings. (p.20)

At first, I read this and agreed. Then I reread it and wondered how I could agree, yet be inspired by “you measure what matters.” I think now that it isn’t just a question of numerical measurement (relying on, say, conventional data), but rather of agreeing on salience.  In other words, “you measure what matters” means in the first instance agreeing on what is actually salient (if you agree something is salient, you’re much more likely to be willing to talk about its value).

That’s really the key thing: if we can agree that beauty or pulchraphilia are salient to the success of an enterprise, a project, our species, the environment, etc., then we will find a way to take its “measure” – because we will have agreed that, being salient, it’s valuable and it matters.

So, “you measure what matters” is a two-way street, infinitely open to negotiation. You can bury salience in data, drown meaning in bafflegab. Or you can make the case for what matters. And beauty is definitely worth the case.

Apropos of meaning, McLennan writes:

The first thing to understand is that any design infused with a rich cultural process is naturally imbued with meaning, as opposed to designs that attempt to strip away any connection to place, culture, climate or the era in which it resides. Context, in other words, matters – and when we build with great care, great love or great passion the result transcends building and transforms experience. Mere building turns into architecture.  (p.24)

Again, “infused with a rich cultural process” means the design has located itself within salience: the context is the history of how it came to be salient, why it stands out, why we give it attention. (If I put on my art historian’s hat, salience simply means what stands out: the figure against the ground on a canvas, for example. It’s what draws my attention.) And again, salience is itself negotiable: we may not always consider salient what previous generations did. But there’s a history to it, which, if we bother to learn it, can help us figure out how to assess salience today.

(For more on salience in a business context, check out Roger Martin‘s book, The Opposable Mind, which I blogged about here.)

Finally, the following two sentences resonated a lot with me, because (like many people) I’m on a tear against how our built environment is dictated by the requirements of the car:

Most of our current communities have been designed around modules that have nothing to do with the dimension of human life. Instead, they are based on 20- and 30-foot mechanical forms of locomotion (automobiles) that separate us, divide us and expand scale beyond the point where any meaning can occur. (p.30)

Gordon Price has written extensively about car-dependent urban planning; I blogged about a presentation he recently gave in Victoria on Motordom, or auto-dependent urban form. The civil engineers and city planners really need to step up here and rethink the codes – a big dose of pulchraphilia is definitely needed.

Next up sometime soon I might do a little photo-essay about driveways: old driveways in an old neighborhood, juxtaposed to “suburban-style” double-wide driveways on new subdivisions in those same neighborhoods. They’re as big an eyesore in residential neighborhoods as are honking great underground parking garage entrances on city streets that should present a tightly-knit street-wall of building frontages… And why are they so big in the first place? Because city engineering codes require it. Change the damn codes.)

Congestion is our friend

April 8, 2010 at 10:19 pm | In cities, green, johnson street bridge, land_use, transportation, urbanism | 4 Comments

On March 31 Gordon Price spoke in Victoria about what he calls Motordom, or “auto-dependent urban form.” Motordom basically is the generative transportation paradigm that has shaped urban form (and dominated urban planning) since at least the mid-20th century. It’s now perhaps finally coming to an end (albeit with many many loose ends).

I’ve been intending to write a proper blog post about Gordon’s excellent deconstruction of Motordom.

However, … just a quick note today that touches on another transportation-related event I attended on Tuesday night (April 6), Going Beyond Gridlock- Green Party Sustainable Transportation Forum, because it fits so neatly both with some of the points raised by Gordon Price as well as with my concerns around a local issue.

At his March 31 presentation, Gordon noted that congestion is our friend. When roads are congested, the solution to that problem isn’t to build more roads. Instead, let the congestion be the impetus for developing transit and for giving people choices that let them get out of their cars.

At the April 6 meeting, every single speaker agreed that solving transportation problems does not mean building more roads, but rather taking car lanes away: transforming them into cycling or multimodal lanes.

No one at Gordon Price’s March 31 lecture could answer his question (in the photo, above), “Where is there a good example of an urban region that has successfully dealt with traffic congestion by building more roads and bridges?” Especially when he added the qualifier, “A place we want to be more like”?

And everyone at the April 6 Green Party-sponsored transportation forum agreed that building more roads fails to lead to transportation solutions that are sustainable. Everyone instead agreed that taking car traffic lanes out of the urban grid and converting them to cycling, multimodal, or transit lanes was the more sensible thing to do.

The obvious question for the City of Victoria is then: why don’t you apply this line of thinking to solve multimodal transportation issues on the Johnson Street Bridge? Specifically, why not look to Vancouver’s example?

In Vancouver, the city took a traffic lane on the Burrard Street Bridge and turned it into a cycling lane. In Victoria, we could easily try the same approach with our historic Johnson Street Bridge – an approach already suggested by Councilor Geoff Young, but poo-pooed by the Mayor and his friends on council. The latter include Councilor John Luton, who spoke at the April 6 event in favor of getting people out of their cars and preferably onto bicycles or other sustainable transportation options instead. He even made a point of showing images of the Johnson Street Bridge, which he considers a key piece in Victoria’s multimodal puzzle – except in Luton’s mind, only a new, expensive bridge will suffice.

It’s funny that those same politicians will flock to hear Gordon Price, applaud the critique of Motordom, agree with other sustainability experts that the best strategies include removing car traffic lanes from the grid, …yet adamantly maintain that the relatively tiny Johnson Street Bridge crossing has to stay at three car lanes. Come on, people: give your heads a shake. Take a lane out, remove the slippery steel deck, re-deck it with fiberreinforced polymer (FRP), and give it over to bikes. (Note: “Since FRP bridge decks are still considerably more expensive than concrete decks, they are basically competitive where light weight, corrosion resistance, and/or rapid installation are demanded. Accordingly, competitive applications are mainly found in movable bridges, historic bridges, and urban environments.” [source/PDF])

Much cheaper than a new bridge, better for the environment (think of all that new concrete needed for a new bridge, and the steel manufactured in China and brought to Victoria with bunker oil burning freighters – how sustainable is that?), and much better for the local economy (fixing the bridge would employ local people, building a new one would not).

Inbetween places

March 8, 2010 at 8:46 am | In cities, land_use, transportation, urbanism, vancouver_island | 2 Comments

I spent all day Saturday at a discussion / conference event hosted at Royal Roads University. To get there, I drove. I could have bicycled if I’d gotten up early enough and if my bike were in good working order (it isn’t). I could even have taken the bus – except that instead of driving for 20 minutes, I probably would have been on the bus for over an hour.

And so I drove, which is kind of ironic in light of my earlier blog post about how cars kill cities.

At the conference / extended conversation, we talked a lot about alternative strategies for building community (and communities) and about problems with the old models (obviously also including the car-centric model).

But here’s what really struck me (again) as I drove home along the (Old) Island Highway: the worst parts of car-centric (mis-)planning are the inbetween places, in particular strip-mall-lined roads.

Royal Roads is on an idyllic campus. Parts of the surrounding municipality are densifying and trying to create “village” centers. Some of the municipalities you drive through on your way back to downtown are beautiful, or quirky, or interesting: Admirals Road Bridge (anglers lined it both this morning and this afternoon); the Gorge Waterway; Esquimalt, Vic West, and so on.

But the inbetween places, which are neither suburb nor “village” nor rural, and instead are really the pure product of automobiles – those places are going to be big losers in any kind of new urbanism shift.

Right now, you either can’t reach them without a car, and if you were intrepid enough to bike to them, you wouldn’t want to. This makes them uni-functional (is that a word?), and hard to fashion to adaptive re-use. Cars and strip malls are in a deadly embrace, not a thing of beauty to behold.

The screenshot, below, of the Island Highway as you drive back toward either View Royal or the Trans Canada Highway, doesn’t convey the true “stripping” of the place (see Gordon Price, Strip Search, for more on the topic). In British Columbia, lush vegetation and trees tend to soften some of the ugliness, but believe me: aside from the nice trees, this strip is ugly… And admittedly, this particular section also shows a sidewalk, but merely sticking a sidewalk alongside a road does not a good pedestrian experience make. This is a car strip all the way. It’s quite clear that anyone on foot is disadvantaged, and that those who drive are not.

Island Highway, trees decorating the strip

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I don’t think we could tolerate strip malls if we didn’t rely on speed to “save” us from them. How so? Well, you take them in with peripheral vision and at speed (car speed), because of course you’re driving – no one in their right mind walks along these roads. Basically, if you were to look at them full on, slowly  (say, while walking or biking), you’d be astonished (turned to stone), just as the gorgons turned to stone those who looked on them. Strip malls are ugly – the only way they survive is by being ignored, by not being seen. (And yes, I’ve read my Learning from Las Vegas, but reserve the right to say “Death to Strip Malls” anyway.)

Drive by quickly, don’t look. If and when you do leave the road to enter one of them, leave the safety of your vehicle only to hasten into the store at which you aimed your car. When you leave, carry not a trace of place-memory with you. As in dealing with gorgons, strip malls can only be managed by being blind to them.

But fanciful references to gorgons (and Perseus on a bicycle?) aside, my main worry really is about adaptive re-use.

(Winged bike clips. Mercury, not Perseus)

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As I drove home, I thought of all the great things I heard at the conference – about eco-living and alternative strategies and connections and… And then, risking accidents, I took my eyes off the road and really looked at the strip malls.

Where to start with re-making them?

The Sunday Diigo Links Post (weekly)

March 7, 2010 at 1:31 am | In cities, land_use, links | Comments Off on The Sunday Diigo Links Post (weekly)
  • Sharon Zukin takes on gentrification (in Harlem especially), while Harlem-ites dismiss her critique. “Gentrification” v. “authenticity”? Between black and white there might actually be plenty of shades of gray (no pun intended)…

    QUOTE
    It should also be said that these talented, innovative African-Americans are forging a new entrepreneurial path that was too often closed to their ancestors. Jai Jai Greenfield, co-owner of Harlem Vintage, a wine store that opened on Frederick Douglass Boulevard in 2004, designed it as an homage to her grandparents, longtime Harlem residents whose elegant photographs from the 1930s were featured in the store’s initial promotional literature. She says that Ms. Zukin is missing the point. “We brought to Harlem something that had never existed here—a store that is for and about the wine. [Ms. Zukin] seems to think that to be legitimately ghetto our store should look a certain way—bullet-proofed windows and grates. To be authentic, in her view, I would need to go with a couple of concepts—fried chicken or maybe a nail salon.”
    UNQUOTE

    tags: authenticity, gentrification, sharon_zukin, harlem, nyc, socialcritique

  • Flavorwire’s interview with Michael Sean Edwards, who moved to the East Village from Toronto in 1977 and has been documenting it ever since. A set of his images from 1978 to 1985 is now available on Flickr. Flavorwire’s article also includes a slide-show with commentary by Edwards.

    tags: michael_sean_edwards, photography, cities, nyc, east_village, street_photography, art, flavorwire

  • Fascinating article by Jonah Lehrer about depression. Closing paragraphs:
    QUOTE
    And then there’s the virtue of self-loathing, which is one of the symptoms of depression. When people are stuck in the ruminative spiral, their achievements become invisible; the mind is only interested in what has gone wrong. While this condition is typically linked to withdrawal and silence — people become unwilling to communicate — there’s some suggestive evidence that states of unhappiness can actually improve our expressive abilities. Forgas said he has found that sadness correlates with clearer and more compelling sentences, and that negative moods “promote a more concrete, accommodative and ultimately more successful communication style.” Because we’re more critical of what we’re writing, we produce more refined prose, the sentences polished by our angst. As Roland Barthes observed, “A creative writer is one for whom writing is a problem.”

    This line of research led Andrews to conduct his own experiment, as he sought to better understand the link between negative mood and improved analytical abilities. He gave 115 undergraduates an abstract-reasoning test known as Raven’s Progressive Matrices, which requires subjects to identify a missing segment in a larger pattern. (Performance on the task strongly predicts general intelligence.) The first thing Andrews found was that nondepressed students showed an increase in “depressed affect” after taking the test. In other words, the mere presence of a challenging problem — even an abstract puzzle — induced a kind of attentive trance, which led to feelings of sadness. It doesn’t matter if we’re working on a mathematical equation or working through a broken heart: the anatomy of focus is inseparable from the anatomy of melancholy. This suggests that depressive disorder is an extreme form of an ordinary thought process, part of the dismal machinery that draws us toward our problems, like a magnet to metal.
    UNQUOTE

    tags: nyt, depression, evolutionary_psychology, jonah_lehrer

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.

^ Bonus Image for “Depression’s Upside”

As I looked around for an image to illustrate Jonah Lehrer’s discussion of rumination and depression, I came across edu-blogger Doug Johnson, who, in his 2008 Blue Skunk Blog post on Ruminating, adapted a tourist photo (source) to create the image below. I hope he doesn’t mind my using it, but it’s just perfect – hats off, Doug Johnson:

Guess what? Park Avenue used to be …a park

March 6, 2010 at 7:55 am | In cities, guerilla_politics, jane_jacobs, land_use, real_estate, social_critique, street_life, urbanism | 3 Comments

A gazillion years ago when I was 17 I traveled solo to Paris, as part of a 3-month sojourn in Europe where I took trains and hitchhiked (molto pericoloso!) if the trains didn’t run to where I needed to go. The fashion of the day was halter-tops, bell-bottoms, and platform shoes …which gives an indication of the era I’m talking about.

When I got to Paris, I was frankly disappointed. It was summer, therefore hot, and the city was choked to the gills with cars. Lots of cars. The automobile had absolute priority over everything else: no sidewalk cafe seemed safe from an intrusive bumper or stinking car exhaust, drivers “parked” on sidewalks, and basically the whole show was a mess.

At one point, I thought, “The car has killed this city.”

Paris, for pete’s sake. How could you not love Paris?

Well, cars are pretty intrusive. It takes training to tune them out, and I wanted to let the city in, not have cars run me over.

It’s so damn obvious that cars destroy a city’s street life, yet we’re only now getting policy-wise and serious about stopping urban death-by-car.

So, props to Streetfilms for this video, Fixing the Great Mistake: Autocentric Development. From the description:

“Fixing the Great Mistake” is a new Streetfilms series that examines what went wrong in the early part of the 20th Century, when our cities began catering to the automobile, and how those decisions continue to affect our lives today.

In this episode, Transportation Alternatives director Paul Steely White shows how planning for cars drastically altered Park Avenue. Watch and see what Park Avenue used to look like, how we ceded it to the automobile, and what we need to do to reclaim the street as a space where people take precedence over traffic.

Oddly, Manhattan traffic struck me as electrifying when I experienced it a couple of years after Paris: a kind of visceral thrum that drove energy into your bones. (Of course that might just have been NYC itself at work, its automobile traffic a white noise to the energy of its people.) But New York City with fewer cars is obviously a great idea.

When you watch this video and see Paul Steely White sitting on a tiny little strip of grass, the vestige that remains of the “park” in Manhattan’s Park Avenue, you really get an idea of what was …and what could be.

Added bonus in the video: a reference to Robert Moses, exporter of super-highways as well as mostly gracious Westchester parkways, but too often a destroyer of the urban street fabric, aka the man Jane Jacobs beat. (See Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took On New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City by Anthony Flint.)

Entitlement

March 2, 2010 at 3:02 pm | In architecture, cities, green, homelessness, ideas, land_use, local_not_global, NIMBYism, politics, real_estate, social_critique, street_life, urbanism, victoria | 4 Comments

In yesterday’s post, Thinking out loud on social media platforms, I responded to a comment with an extended rant about Victoria, the pressing strangeness of its people and their often bizarre sense of entitlement:

Much of the strangeness comes from their huge sense of entitlement, which is weirdly crooked, and is based in large part on this crazy notion that, since we live in the best place on earth, we’re entitled to act with an attitude of entitlement – even though we have done nothing to earn it, for what can you do to earn the beauty of nature, which is our only saving grace? Yet the entitlement attitude persists. For example, at the downtown YMCA where I work out, women steal from other women in the membership-plus changing rooms. These are members who pay a premium for a “plus” membership, yet they steal from other “plus” members. It’s the sort of behavior locals might associate with “the big city,” except we’re not the big city. We just think we can get away with shit.

For those who are wondering why I know about thieving at the gym: because I read the posted notices about upticks in petty theft; because I make it a point to talk to people; and because I’ve seen women looking for items that, whoops!, went missing in the blink of an eye. What’s also interesting is that the women who steal don’t just steal from other women, they also steal from the gym. Who would steal from the YMCA, I wonder? It’s all small stuff (the facility’s towels, or other members’ high-end cosmetics, or maybe a $20-bill that’s left unattended in an open locker for a few minutes), but it adds up.

To what? Misplaced entitlement.

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Victoria BC

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Without a doubt, Victoria is one of the most naturally beautiful (urban) places in Canada. It’s the low-rise yin to Vancouver’s upright, high-rise yang. However, there is nothing, not a single thing, that the people who live here have done to create or to earn this beauty.

Our older residential core neighborhoods are quite pretty – they are densely built up (a good thing) and are incredibly leafy, festooned with an abundance of fabulous trees (which city workers strive hard to maintain), and of course year-round greenery. Some folks start mowing lawns in February. Aside from the bouts of landscaping mandated by the Ministry of Perpetual Gardening (that’s a joke, coined by David Burke), we haven’t, however, done anything to earn natural beauty: it’s just there, and it grows on, just as the Olympic mountains across the Juan de Fuca Strait simply exist, just as the granite outcroppings simply are (when we haven’t blasted them to smithereens to build a subdivision), just as the ocean ebbs and flows.

What we have actually built – particularly since World War II and particularly where it really matters, namely in our downtown where the urban part of our urban existence should shine – is largely awful.

In Vancouver, the beauty of the recent built form is earned. People in Vancouver built it, they built it in the last 30 years, and it looks great. It looks even better set against the unearned majestic beauty of the landscape: looming close-up mountains (very yang and very different from our far-off and therefore yin elevations) and restless ocean, beaches and the thick forests of Stanley Park.

But in the past 75 years, Victoria’s downtown has earned little.

Victoria BC : Old Town, seen from the water (Photo: Robert Beaumont)

Victoria BC : Old Town, seen from the water (Photo: Robert Beaumont)

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Old Town (photo, above) and Chinatown are charming, but their structures were finished around the turn of the century before the last one. What was added last century is for the most part a dog’s breakfast – whether we refer to Centennial Square, to the uninspired commercial buildings that replaced older (and actually taller!) buildings, or to the wasteland of one- or two-story buildings lining what should be key shopping streets (which now sport far too many “for lease” signs).

Face it, Victoria’s more recent “pretty” parts aren’t downtown, they’re in the village centers of the older neighborhoods, from Oak Bay Village to Cook Street Village to Fernwood Square, to James Bay, and so on. (And even then, some of those areas would be boring white-bread toast if it weren’t for the trees.) Downtown has been left to languish, and aside from recent handsome Humboldt Valley developments (which the NIMBYs fought tooth and nail), there is little to please the eye.

Downtown as a whole has in fact turned into a slightly watered down version of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (and yes, Vancouver isn’t perfect as it has a huge problem there), with panhandlers, drug addicts, and the mentally ill sleeping in the entryways of all those useless one-story buildings with the empty storefronts sporting “for lease” signs.

I can put a date on when things really changed: in 2005, seeing a trio of emaciated, hollow-eyed addicts tweaking (see def. #4 under “verb”) at 3 p.m. on the SW corner of Vancouver Street and Rockland Avenue was unusual enough to make me call a friend on the neighborhood’s community board: “Hey, I just saw a two women taking their clothes off, trying to hook passers-by, and there was a guy with them who looked like he was their pimp. All three of them seem totally strung out…”

In the five years since then, I’m not surprised anymore by anything I see in my neighborhood or along Rockland Avenue (on my way to the YMCA), even though this is a “nice” area. Junkies, people smoking crack in Pioneer Square (where a sign reminds me that I can’t walk my dog, even as the clean-up patrol daily comes ’round to pick up used needles), human feces, vomit, guys peeing against buildings, people tweaking.

Most mornings (and especially on recycling day), I wake (and fall asleep again) to the dawn-time jingle of “binners” pushing (stolen) shopping carts past my window, in search of bottles to take to the nearby Bottle Depot. In 2005 there was one single binner, “our” binner, in this neighborhood. Now there are dozens, competing for the scraps we might toss out.

I used to write blog posts about how awful this human misery is (looking for this post, I realize I published it as “private” in 2005, meaning that no one was ever able to read it; go read it now, and most especially listen to the singing iceberg, linked at very end). I used to support all the pious studies for how to end homelessness.

But I almost don’t care anymore. It’s so depressing to see this acceptance of drug use and destruction, and to see it wash over every block of your neighborhood and your downtown. Of course the homeless, most of whom have mental health problems as well as drug addictions, are left to fend for themselves by Federal and Provincial governments that have handed the problem to cash-strapped municipalities. The municipalities make all sorts of lovely noises about task forces and helping and asking Mr and Ms Jo-Shmo Citizen to kick in some extra money for shelters, but things have just gotten worse. At the same time, because the poor and the hard to house really are getting shafted by senior levels of government, everyone on the street (which tacitly includes us, the non-homeless residents) feels that they, the homeless, really are entitled to be exactly where they are: on the street, making everyone feel guilty or bad or fed up.

Because (the thinking goes) where else, after all, can they go, given that the services they need are located in the city?

You see where this is going? Here, even the homeless are entitled. Because if there’s one thing that’s true about entitlement, it’s that you don’t earn it. You just take it.

And all the while, we build nothing of beauty, even as those of us who have housing smugly think we’ve done something to earn the natural beauty that surrounds us. That’s why everyone likes to bleat on about the lifestyle here.

Gag me with the lifestyle already.

This isn’t Lotus Land, but we are surely Lotus Eaters: addled into feeling we’ve earned the natural beauty, we’re totally apathetic about actually creating a built beauty, blind to how cheap and ugly-looking Victoria, in particular its under-built and under-utilized city center, has become.

A retired city worker recently told me that much of Victoria’s downtown real estate is owned by families, some of whom have held the property for generations. They don’t need to sell it (they’d be penalized with capital gains taxes on the sale), they make enough from renting the ground floor out to some crap store that sells t-shirts to the tourists, and they don’t bother with a seismic retrofit of the upper story, they just leave it empty. In other words, it’s blood-sucking, half-empty, not-earning-its-keep, underutilized real estate that the trust fund kids can keep in their back pockets, collecting the monthly $5000 to $10000 in rent, all without doing a stitch of work or doing anything useful with the building. That, according to my source, is a big problem with real estate in the city.

Now, if I were running the show, I’d make it illegal to have property downtown that isn’t operating at a minimum of 5:1 FSR. That would put the fear of god into any useless leech who owns valuable land downtown but does nothing with it to improve the commonweal.

But then again, in this city of entitled Lotus Eaters, “developer” is a dirty word. The anti-development NIMBY crowd thinks that development contributes to the city’s ugliness. Oh kids, grow up. Our built city (not its natural setting) is ugly because it’s underdeveloped.

~~~

Now, there’s a codicil to this rant…

I believe that the desire to have earned what is naturally given is what underwrites the burgeoning and absolutely exciting currents of outright biophilia that in our region finds expression in land conservation, in stewardship, and in the uptick in environmental groups and causes and projects. The Capital Regional District (that is, Greater Victoria and the surrounding municipalities from Sooke and Metchosin in the west through to Saltspring Island in the Georgia Strait to the east) and the Cowichan Valley Regional District just to the north of us are home to eco-living initiatives gaining world-wide attention. (More on those in a later blog post.)

The biophiliacs are trying to earn beauty through environmental stewardship – and they’re succeeding.

But as a fan of cities, I wish that my fellow urban biophiliacs would spend a bit of energy on fixing our built environment, so that we can earn an urban beauty worthy of the fabulous natural beauty that surrounds us.

I’m not sure whose “job” this is. As far as I can tell, the city’s urban planners are asleep at the wheel, as are the politicians. If I had a magic wand, I’d kick them all to out and do what Vancouver did: hire the best, hire people with imagination. The latter is nowhere in evidence in Victoria, and it’s also missing in our largest neighboring municipality, Saanich, judging by the atrocity of Uptown (a shopping center redevelopment) now under construction.

A new retail/ commercial/ mixed use development in Saanich, BC that just screams Fuck you to the humanity hurtling by

A new retail/ commercial development in Saanich, BC that just screams "Fuck you"

.

So that’s my wish: I want us to lay off the Lotus Leaves that lull us into thinking we’ve earned the natural beauty that surrounds us, and to focus instead on earning a built beauty that aspires to be the best. And I want the NIMBYs who try to thwart development downtown to take a hike. Come back when you’ve earned the right to contribute, otherwise you’re just acting entitled.

Update, 3/5:

There’s an excellent photo of the Uptown development on Flickr, taken by Glenalan54. Check out the astute comments.

The Sunday Diigo Links Post (weekly)

February 21, 2010 at 1:30 am | In business, cities, links | Comments Off on The Sunday Diigo Links Post (weekly)
  • Interesting strategy: artists using billboards to counteract billboards and direct attention in other ways…

    tags: art, public_art, billboards, los_angeles

  • This is part two of what will be a three part series, by Wes Regan (article originally published on Third i website). Regan delivers a close reading of Vancouver’s position and potential as a high tech center. In particular, I was startled to see government (which is located in Victoria) put on par with big private corporations. That is, as an employer and as a training ground for talent, provincial/state government is similar to a big corporate employer. That Vancouver’s start-up climate might benefit if it were also a government town was something I hadn’t appreciated before. Obviously, though, imagine what would be if the provincial seat left Victoria and moved to Vancouver… Things would not look pretty for Victoria, although Vancouver obviously would benefit. It’s also interesting (and, for someone who lives in Victoria, weird) to see that there are similarities between Victoria and Vancouver in terms of handicaps – except that in Victoria they’re compounded by low density and an even greater “splendid isolation” (can’t beat that island status, especially as we don’t have a bridge). Overall, interesting article; looking forward to part three (part one is available here).
    QUOTE
    “This is the 2nd post in a series of 3 that look at Vancouver’s position relative to other major centres of innovation and development. In it I draw from the perspectives of experts at Vancouver’s economic think tank the VEDC (Vancouver Economic Development Commission) and from a growing software development and internet marketing firm based in Yaletown, Thirdi. The first installment looked at availability of office space and inter-city economic competition as factors in firm location. Today we look at the broader implications of our business climate as it relates to our overall geography.” UNQUOTE

    tags: techvibes, wes_regan, vancouver, entrepeneurialism

  • “Masdar City gehört ebenso wie das vom Schweizer Urbanisten Franz Oswald für die Entwicklung energieautarker Siedlungen in ländlichen Regionen Afrikas entwickelte Lowtech-Modell «New Energy Sustainable Town» (NEST) und die grenzübergreifend vernetzte urbane Struktur «Taiwan-Strait-Inkubator» von Raoul Bunschoten und seinem Londoner Büro Chora zu den neuen Entwürfen und Projekten, die im Januarheft der Zeitschrift «Arch+» unter dem Titel «Post-Oil City. Die Geschichte der Zukunft der Stadt» in grössere entwicklungsgeschichtliche Zusammenhänge gestellt werden; eine zugehörige Ausstellung haben die Redaktoren für die Galerien des Instituts für Auslandsbeziehungen («ifa») in Stuttgart und Berlin kuratiert. In die sich mehrfach überschneidenden Abschnitte «Nachhaltigkeit», «Stadtverkehr» und «Stadtsystem» gegliedert, beziehen das inhaltsreiche Heft und die ausstellungstechnisch improvisierte Schau heutige Lösungsvorschläge auf Vorläufer wie die utopischen meta-urbanen Strukturen von Yona Friedman aus den 1950er und 1960er Jahren oder die 1975/76 von Christopher Alexander konzipierte partizipative Stadt Mexicali.”

    tags: post_oil_city, masdar, architecture, urbanplanning, nzz, oil

  • “Cisco signed a deal on Wednesday with Holyoke, Massachusetts to transform the onetime mill town into a “Smart+Connected Community” over the next six-to-twelve months. Cisco has moved aggressively into the smarter city business in the last year as it chases IBM, which started the vogue for wired cities just as the world’s governments were earmarking billions of dollars in stimulus funds for infrastructure. (…)

    The Holyoke deal is significant in that it represents Cisco’s first attempt to rewire an existing city rather than simply build one from scratch, as it’s doing across Asia and the Middle East. “

    Holyoke Canal System

    Holyoke Canal System

    tags: cisco, holyoke, smartcities, cities, technology

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.

Unsorting

February 3, 2010 at 12:04 pm | In affordable_housing, architecture, cities, housing, ideas, land_use, politics, social_critique, urbanism, writing | 7 Comments

I read Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart a few weeks ago, and have been meaning to return to it for insight into several aspects of politics as I’ve experienced them here in British Columbia. True, Bishop writes about the US, and BC isn’t the US, and, true, Canada has three big parties, not just two. But in my province it’s really all about just two parties, the BC Liberals and the BC NDP (and our first-past-the-post electoral system ensures that third parties have a nearly impossible row to hoe). Where I live, people do “sort” themselves in ways that are practically as pernicious as US counties sorted into all-blue or all-red group-think ideological camps.

But more on that some other time…

*

Bunker House, Queens

Bunker House, Queens

*

First, some observations on sorting and urban form…

Recently, the offspring and I were talking about All in the Family, which I watched often growing up, since it was a favorite show of my father’s. Thanks to YouTube, salient bits of it are instantly available to younger viewers.

Last night I heard laughter coming from my son’s room – he had just finished watching Jeff Rubin talking about how our oil-dependent economy will have to change radically. In the talk, Rubin conjured an image of Archie Bunker and Al Gore together in bed, based on the new paradigm we’re heading into. So of course my son had to research (ahem) All in the Family, and he was watching excerpt after excerpt on YouTube (hence the howls of laughter – I initially worried that he thought Rubin was funny, but no, it was the Bunkers).

The Bunkers

The Bunkers

Mostly, aside from marveling at how Archie could spew his sometimes vicious opinions without the PC police censoring him, my son was struck by how impossible it was for Archie to avoid the objects of his prejudice. Everywhere Archie Bunker turned, he ran into “coloreds,” “communists,” “Polacks,” “homos,” and so on through the entire unsorted bin of …well, of what?

Of a mixed urban neighborhood – versus neighborhoods sorted almost exclusively through (upward) economic choice or (downward) economic non-choice.

Without New York City and its population-packed boroughs (in the Bunkers’s case, the Astoria neighborhood of Queens), Archie could have become isolated (sorted), and found affirmation in a like-minded tract development. But in that more urban environment, which isn’t upscale enough to maintain homogeneity and therefore has to accept newcomers constantly, he has to accept neighbors whose views he dislikes. Because Archie himself isn’t rich enough to move, he has to mingle. Because real estate and rents are so dear in densely built-up areas that have easy access to the downtown core, no one has the luxury of living on his own hectare, at a distance. In fact, Archie has to put up in his own four walls with the “Meathead” (Michael, his Polish-American, social-work studying, non-laboring son-in-law with hippie roots). Rents are too expensive for the Bunker daughter Gloria, newly married to Michael, to move out. So the lucky couple gets to live with her parents.

Which brings us to how the tendency to sort, as described by Bill Bishop, even finds expression at the domestic level, in house architecture.

Since the seventies when All in the Family was produced, it has become unexceptional for each kid to have his or her own bedroom. It’s expected that parents have an “en-suite” – a full bathroom of their own, off the “master” bedroom (oh, those feudal aspirations!, sovereigns all, we parents are loosey-goosey in our permissiveness, but masters of our own domains, with hot and cold pulsating showers to warm our cold clean hearts, and Jacuzzi tubs for all that stress, of course!).

It’s not unusual for the kids to have either their own (shared) bathroom, or possibly even have en-suites of their own. We’ve become a bit antiseptic in how we provision for privacy within our own homes, and we sort in our own four walls.

Since the days of All in the Family, it’s normal for a family member to go off to his or her own domain (senior masters and junior masters-in-training) for entertainment. A TV in a kid’s room isn’t unusual, I hear…

Within Archie Bunker’s economic class and in his Queens neighborhood, that sort of domestic sorting was impossible: the houses weren’t built for it. And the social sorting proved equally impossible for the same reasons. If you were lucky, you might climb into Queens (economically), but it was harder to climb “above” Queens and still stay within spitting distance of the city. Unless you struck it insanely and unusally filthy rich (as The Jeffersons did, the Bunkers’s African-American neighbors who moved to Manhattan), you had to forsake the urban if you wanted to climb out of the Queenses of most older American cities. Hie thee to an ex-urb and sort yourself! Stay in Queens and be ready to rub up against people.

It’s kind of strange to think that television had to beam Archie Bunker’s discomforting vitriol into the already-sorting 1970s living rooms of low-density suburbs, where people were replicating in their domestic living arrangements the social sorting they preferred in their neighborhoods.

Even Archie noted that it’s natural for people to be “among their own kind” (which for him meant blue-collar bigots). He was just lucky enough not to be able to afford it.

A fluke: Sammy Davis Jr. finds himself trapped for a while in Archies lair

(A fluke encounter: Sammy Davis Jr. finds himself trapped for a while in Archie's lair, er, chair)

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