How to Save Downtown (Victoria BC)

May 30, 2011 at 8:16 pm | In affordable_housing, architecture, dying_downtown, FOCUS_Magazine, land_use, urbanism, victoria, writing | 2 Comments

Below is the real version of my article, How to Save Downtown (it’s about downtown Victoria BC, but applies to many city centers crushed under the weight of overly needy – and stupid – municipal governments as well as strapped economies…).

I submitted this article to FOCUS Magazine for publication in its June 2011 issue. I was subsequently horrified to see that the publisher truncated the article so severely as to make it nonsensical. After I complained, he put a more-or-less intact version online (at last reading, there was at least one paragraph still missing), but the print version of the article has unfortunately already gone to press. I wish I could have taken back my submission, but I couldn’t. I’m much embarrassed (and angry) to see my name attached to it.

Here’s the article  as it was intended to appear. Readers might notice that it grew out of my previous dying downtown series:

How to Save Downtown

Victoria City Council recently offered the business community an olive branch when it addressed the tax ratio of commercial to residential rates by voting to reduce marginally (very marginally) that ratio by 0.004% in favor of commercial rates. While the Chamber of Commerce responded with tepidly mumbled words of encouragement for council’s decision, the daily newspaper merely reported the other side of the coin: that residential property taxes will rise by 7% compared to 1.1% for businesses.

Anyone who bothers to walk around downtown Victoria can see that many businesses are struggling. Take Fort Street’s Antique Row. Start at Cook, continue to Douglas, and note the number of “for lease” or “going out of business” signs. Too often, though, we ignore the plight of businesses and focus instead on the rise in residential taxes.

I recently posted photos of the many empty Fort Street storefronts to my blog. The comments that came in were instructive. Readers (including business owners) blamed downtown’s desuetude on many things: big box stores; tourism downturns; street people; lack of community support for independent merchants; problems related to overzealous parking commissionaires.

Everyone cited high rents, worsened by excessive property taxes:

“I have been perplexed that while we saw a recession start in 2009 retail rents continued to rise right through it as though there was nothing happening.”

“There is certainly no shortage of eager, creative and motivated entrepreneurs in Victoria. If they can deal with the impossible rents, along with the fact that the City is inherently anti-small business (zoning, permits, etc), they may have a chance.”

Comments repeatedly cited the City of Victoria’s lack of business support, noting that it burdens businesses with adversarial inspectors and bylaws.

Others noted that there is too much emphasis on tourist retail and not enough on incubating innovation for the homegrown market.

And people asked: if so many storefronts are empty, why are rents still so high? Bound to triple-net leases, tenants are typically on the hook for property taxes, and even building improvements. For paying property taxes, the City delivers nothing in services, not even garbage pickup.

In 2005 Greater Victoria had a retail vacancy rate of 3.5%. By 2010, that rate had climbed to 5.9%, and it doesn’t look better for 2011. According to Colliers’s Market Report, “2011 is likely to be a year of ‘status quo’ for Greater Victoria retail.” While the forecast admits that “2010 was a year of uncertainty,” it also posits that “the overall market has remained relatively healthy.” Downtown’s empty storefronts suggest otherwise.

Perhaps macro-analyses of Greater Victoria, which include data points around “secure federal and provincial employer presence” (read: consumers) and Uptown or Westshore shopping mall expansions (read: vendors), don’t speak to what’s going on specifically in our downtown.

I asked Graham Smith, who looks after Greater Victoria retail for Colliers, about lease rates and their responsiveness to the market. Smith pointed out that every property is different, each has its unique qualities. Whether it’s on this or that side of the street or in this or that block affects its lease rates. And just as properties are unique, so are owners. Smith likened it to selling a house: most people are convinced that their property is uniquely valuable, and some owners will insist on getting their price, while others just want it rented.

Why would a property owner let his property stand empty instead of offering struggling tenants a rate reduction? Smith’s market-based answer seemed cruel, albeit realistic: if a business is struggling, there’s something wrong with the business model besides leasing expenses. A 10% rent reduction isn’t going to help that business thrive if there either isn’t really a market for what it’s retailing, or it’s not open when customers want to shop.

However, consider the tax burden imposed on business. Take 789 Fort Street, a property assessed at ~$2 million; its 2010 property tax was $49,130.18. A comparable ~$2 million residential Victoria property (1989 Crescent Rd., for example) is taxed at ~$13,685.00. That’s a difference of nearly $35,000.

Who pays the property tax on commercial buildings? Typically, the triple-net lessee.

According to sources at City Hall, Victoria relies equally (50-50) on residential and commercial property taxes, but commercial property is clearly carrying the brunt. Nor is Victoria alone. 2010 Tax Rates reveal that Victoria taxes businesses the most, but Saanich and Langford are close behind:

Victoria Residential: 3.6581
Victoria Commercial: 13.1471
Ratio: 3.59
Langford Residential: 2.3343
Langford Commercial: 7.3764
Ratio: 3.16
Saanich Residential: 3.2697
Saanich Commercial: 11.6980
Ratio: 3.58
Oak Bay Residential: 2.9305
Oak Bay Commercial: 5.0610
Ratio: 1.73

True, every municipality has a pro-residential bias. After all, residential taxpayers elect the politicians. However, the difference is very much skewed against City of Victoria businesses in absolute terms: a lessee will pay much less property tax for a similar property in Langford since the property has a lower assessed value. This difference can be the make-or-break factor for a business, and partly explains the exodus from downtown. Let’s also not forget that fewer than ten years ago, Victoria’s ratio of commercial to residential taxation was 2.63, while it has now climbed to 3.59. (source [PDF])

An effective way to reduce the currently painful ratio would be to increase the number of residential properties on the City’s tax roll.

Recall my conversation with Graham Smith of Colliers. From his 11th floor CIBC Building boardroom we could see 789 Fort Street, a one-story building with two storefronts. Presently, half the building is rented, while the other languishes.

I pointed out that this building should have rental apartments on top, which would provide both customers and even employees. The newer building next door (at Fort and Blanshard, southwest corner) was built within the last fifteen years. Although newer, it’s also just a single story, with zero residential above the store. It seems we haven’t been adding mixed-use buildings with a view to bringing a diversified demographic into the downtown.

So why don’t we encourage more development that brings residents into the downtown, which would help “spread the pain” of property taxes on mixed-use commercial/residential buildings and would benefit retailers who need steady repeat customers? Consider that downtown Victoria’s population has actually declined since the 1970s when new seismic regulations left buildings vulnerable to unaffordable code upgrades. If you’ve ever wondered why some buildings downtown don’t have people living on the second or third floors, it’s because they didn’t remain “continuously occupied” since new codes came into effect. If a building remained continuously occupied, it’s exempt. If it’s vacated, however, it becomes subject to the new rules, and requires fearsomely cost-prohibitive seismic upgrading.

As for new buildings, condo towers (which target just one small slice of the larger demographic pie) have added some population, but we’re still below 1970s population levels. Newer one-story buildings, as well as older one-story buildings, represent a missed opportunity to diversify the downtown and to bring its residential levels back up to what they used to be.

There is a new proposal that’s heading in the right direction. The Cosmopolitan is a 5-story development for the 600-block of Fort. Currently making its way through City Hall, it includes ground-floor retail, with 4 stories of rental housing above. If the project is approved (it needs a minor height variance), it’s an opportunity to build exactly what Victoria needs: residential over the store. I asked the developer, Jurgen Weyand, how the numbers work when building rental. The short answer: they don’t, really. Compared to building condos, building rental is an investment on his part that may pay off for his grandchildren. But retailers will benefit from having residents that live where they work and shop.

So let’s look out Colliers’ 11th floor boardroom window again. Sometime in the last 15 years, a new building went up at Fort and Blanshard. But it’s just one story and has no apartments above the store. Sometime in the last few years, tenants came and went at 789 Fort Street, but it’s just one story and there are no residents living above the store. There are scores of downtown buildings that have no one living over the store. The Cosmopolitan will hopefully contribute to reversing that trend.

Clearly, we need more development downtown, whether it’s condo towers or five-story walk-ups above ground floor retail. New condo towers may attract retiring empty-nesters who want to shop and re-create in a walkable downtown. Rental apartments above ground-floor retail diversify the demographic, to attract a younger, more mobile tenant who works in those businesses for her day job (and shops there, too), while incubating the next great thing in the creative economy after hours. Win-win.

Bottom line: if we want to save downtown, we need people living there, right over the store. That would provide customers for businesses, as well as defray the property tax burden currently off-loaded via triple-net leases solely on businesses.


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.

Civics assignment, part 2

July 28, 2010 at 9:10 pm | In FOCUS_Magazine, johnson street bridge, politics, victoria | Comments Off on Civics assignment, part 2

Very important for City of Victoria British Columbia residents/ taxpayers: Click through to FOCUS Magazine‘s poll, How should Victoria City Council solve the Johnson Street Bridge problem? As FOCUS notes, this is for “City of Victoria residents only, please” – so if you live in Saanich or Oak Bay or Esquimalt (or beyond), skip this (unless you own a business in Victoria and pay taxes to the City).

No need to tell regular readers that I’m all for option 3.

Go vote in the poll if you’re in Victoria.

Civics assignment

July 27, 2010 at 11:15 pm | In FOCUS_Magazine, johnson street bridge, victoria | 1 Comment

Ok, if you live in Victoria BC, or if you live in any city anywhere and have chafed at scandals related to your political leaders and how your bureaucratic staffers are handling civic and fiscal issues, here’s your assignment: hie yourself over to FOCUS Magazine and read Sam Williams’s latest article, Victoria City Hall: well paid but confused (just published – and now live online, too!).

I’ve been made so angry by this whole issue – which started for me in April 2009 with the decision to replace the Johnson Street Bridge: a decision made within 20 minutes of council chit-chat on the basis of a skewed, very skewed Power Point presentation by the City’s Engineering Department; a decision that represents the biggest expenditure in the City’s history but that was made with NO public input; a decision about a project that wasn’t even on the radar prior to 2009 (so I’d just like to say “stfu” to all those idiots who say “let the leaders lead, we elected them” – and besides, speak for yourself, I voted for none of the ones leading the replacement charge) – so angry that my whole attitude about Victoria has shifted. For the worse.

I’m not sure whether voting the bad-asses out in 2011 will change things for the better. Read Sam Williams’s article and you’ll understand that there’s an entrenched bureaucratic culture – one of piggy-ness and entitlement – and that this culture unfortunately is incredibly hard to shift since it can’t be voted out because these staffers have contracts that would cost the city millions to break. So what is to be done?

Some excerpts from Victoria City Hall: well paid but confused:

…the number of City Hall staffers making more than $100,000 a year jumped from 15 in 2008 to 50 in 2009. According to Statistics Canada (2006) only 4 percent of Canadians have annual income greater than $100,000.

City Manager Gail Stephens topped the list with remuneration of $186,418.09 and expenses of $168,443.94. The City’s Director of Communications, Katie Josephson ($115,369.52) said Stephen’s high expenses “included transition costs for moving to Victoria [from Calgary] that included losses on [her] house sale” as well as “moving expenses, travel and professional dues.”

Dear reader: who has ever heard of an employee (hired at the start of the current recessionary mess) getting a six-figure bonus to compensate for “losses” on a property in the city the employee is leaving? Huh? Did someone force Gail Stephens to sell her property in Calgary so she could buy one here? Oh wait, she didn’t buy a property in the City of Victoria – no, she bought in Saanich, which means she doesn’t even pay property taxes to the City of Victoria. (This might explain why she’s willing to cripple the city with borrowing debt for a new bridge: her property taxes won’t go up because of it.)

The pay increases for top management are obscene. Mike Lai’s and Peter Sparanese’s “remuneration increased by roughly 20 percent in 2009.” In words: Twenty percent. Meanwhile, the regular union folk employees at City Hall are being told to toe the line at 2%. And in another meanwhile, the regular rank and file at the Provincial level of government have been told to expect 0%. But our municipal princes (and princesses) of upper-level bureaucracy are making out like Wall Street fat cats, with 20% pay increases and six-figure expense accounts.

It’s a good thing I have low blood pressure because even so it feels like I’m blowing a head gasket.

It gets worse, of course. The salary scandal is just the frame around the fetid mess of crap that city staff and politicians have made of the whole Johnson Street Bridge issue. Read on in Williams’s piece to see how they’ve even managed to misrepresent earthquake risk – all, in their deluded quest to foist strips of new roads in our downtown (roads that will suburbanize Old Town). Oh, right: and into the bargain deal with a tiny short little bridge that’s being used as the excuse and catalyst for god knows what.

Go read the article and think about change.

Victoria’s Johnson Street Bridge scandal just keeps going

April 22, 2010 at 10:18 pm | In FOCUS_Magazine, johnson street bridge, local_not_global, politics, scandal, victoria | Comments Off on Victoria’s Johnson Street Bridge scandal just keeps going

It’s mind-boggling. The scandal of how the City of Victoria has tried to bum rush the historic Johnson Street Bridge into oblivion just keeps growing.

If you’re interested in questionable municipal shenanigans as a spectator sport, check out FOCUS Magazine‘s latest issue (May 2010), now available online as a PDF download, and go to page 26, where Sam Williams dissects in excruciating detail the FOIed email exchanges between City of Victoria engineer Mike Lai and his colleagues at Delcan Engineering, specifically Mark Mulvihill.

I am ashamed to live in such a banana republic of a city.

The current council and mayor (imo lame duck, with the exception of Geoff Young); from L to R, standing: Chris Coleman, Phillipe Lucas, Pam Madoff, Dean Fortin, Sonya Chandler, John Luton, Geoff Young; seated: Charlayne Thornton-Joe, Lynn Hunter

Last FOCUS mag uploads now on Scribd

June 9, 2009 at 9:04 pm | In FOCUS_Magazine, victoria, writing | 6 Comments

I just uploaded my May and June FOCUS Magazine articles to – and wow, I guess I was so pissed off about the idiot letter in the May issue (which was in response to my April article, It’s the people, stupid) that I didn’t even notice until now how badly the magazine had botched my May article: fully twelve words went missing from the beginning of my text, so that it starts in the middle of a sentence and makes no sense at all.

Um, thanks for that…

I scribbled in the correction by hand before scanning the article, so at least my online version is corrected.

Without further ado, for your reading pleasure, please check out May’s Embracing complexity and density (where I tear into “Wil” and his pro-suburban low-density ilk) and June’s Blue Bridge blues, which criticizes our city council for wanting to tear down a bona-fide heritage structure without so much as a second thought. They’re just itching to rip it down.

A note to Victoria city council – Mayor Dean Fortin, councilors Sonya Chandler, Philippe Lucas, John Luton, Lynn Hunter, Geoff Young, Chris Coleman, Charlayne Thornton-Joe, and of course our esteemed “heritage-invested” councilor, Pam Madoff: you are wrong, wrong, wrong in rushing to tear down the Johnson Street Bridge.

As for the heritage crowd in this city: you have shown your true colors, and they’re all in various shades of hypocrisy.

n.b.: Note also that I updated my page (which has the Scribd links) to show that the June 2009 article is my final article for FOCUS Magazine.

I’m looking for a job.

May 1, 2009 at 3:28 pm | In FOCUS_Magazine, victoria, writing | 2 Comments

I’m nearly ready to throw in the towel, asking myself why I bother writing locally, given that letters such as this one get mailed to the editor …and are published, without any opportunity for me to rebut them. The letter is in response to my April 2009 article, It’s the people, stupid. I bolded a particularly risible bit:

Yule Heibel looks to Europe (as does Aaren Madden’s story re VPD’s Bill Naughton) for better ways of doing things here. Good idea. I was born in Europe and have travelled and lived there many times. However, promoting businesses to encourage an active nightlife after the government workers go home is the opposite of what Europeans are generally about.

During dinner one night in a restaurant on the Champs-Elysees, the waiter descended on our table unexpectedly and whisked everything away. Only then did we notice the restaurant emptying out quickly. (It was only 5:40pm.) The explanation: they had made their quota. Apparently, most French restaurants, as well as other businesses, operate on quota systems; once they make their daily financial goal, they go home. Granted, some days it takes longer, but if they reach the quota even as early as noon, they take the rest of the day off.

Begrudgingly, as this was overtime, the waiter put our unfinished meals into poodlebags and off we went to eat in a rather deserted Bois de Boulogne. The Parisian evening was fabulous; not a single unsavoury character in sight.

Life is different in Europe. It’s richer precisely because businesses shut down. While some governments have caved in to pressure from certain sectors to be more competitive, the populace is trying to hold onto that which gives fulfilment to life: time off. In Italy, they siesta. In the Czech Republic, all stores close before noon on Saturdays and there’s no Sunday shopping. The French and Germans have no intention of giving up their annual four-to-six-week vacations. Paris and Prague are devoid of locals all summer.

After-hours or 24-hour businesses are not the answer to any vagrancy woes. No one really needs to be downtown at all hours of the night, on any day of the week. No one really needs to eat at 3am or shop on Sundays. Such activities (read: distractions) promote neither community nor social wellbeing. It’s not the people, stupid. It’s the family, and that’s exactly what the Europeans are about.

I withheld the letter writer’s name, basically to protect her from herself.

The missive is full of misinformation – her generalization about the alleged “quotas” (based on one incident at what sounds like a dodgy restaurant) is laughable; nightlife is thriving in Europe; 4 to 6 week vacations have nothing to do with my article; Sunday “blue laws” are fought (and abolished) in Germany and elsewhere in Europe; the “siesta” is a climate necessity, and it means people keep their shops and restaurants open later at night. As for Paris and Prague being “devoid of locals all summer,” what does this have to do with Victoria? The French and the Czech are much more apt to have “synchronized” vacation patterns, and the tradition of taking off for the month of August is a habit of those who can afford it – and not everyone (or every family) can.

I’m especially annoyed by the restrictions of my mandate – I’m obliged to stick very very closely to Victoria-only issues, and am not allowed to stray into anything of universal value, or with a non-“Victoria” angle (which seems to include issues around social media or technology, too – even though they are hugely influential in transforming Victoria at this very moment). Meanwhile, letters by armchair critics who blather on at length about issues unrelated to Victoria (or to the article at hand) get printed, clearly communicating to me that the magazine isn’t on board with what I write either. That’s the bit that’s really wearing me down.

I ask myself more and more frequently these days why I bother writing for and about Victoria at all.

March article: Victoria’s Urban Forest

April 18, 2009 at 7:24 pm | In FOCUS_Magazine, urbanism, victoria, writing | No Comments

It has been up on Scribd for a while, but I haven’t yet given this article a more detailed blog post: Victoria’s Urban Forest, published in FOCUS Magazine last month (March 2009).

My description:

Urban forests are more than just trees in cities: they are the complete ecosystem, including the trees and understory shrubbery and plants, soil conditions, water drainage, and wildlife. Victoria has urban forests in its core neighborhoods, but needs to do more to enrich ecosystems within downtown.

This one was a pleasure to write, and was inspired by two workshops at the City of Victoria last January (see PDF press release). At the workshops, Jeremy Gye (of Gye and Associates Urban Forestry Consultants), Dan Marzocco (Supervisor of Arboriculture at the City of Victoria), and others presented detailed information on what the current state of the city’s “urban forest” system is, and how we can think about improving and enhancing it. (See also this PDF, Factsheet: Trees for the Future: Victoria’s Urban Forest Master Plan, as well as the City of Victoria’s webpage, Urban Forest Master Plan.)

The workshop exercise again illuminated the problems around municipal / local government amalgamation. Why? Because the data presented was of course only for the City of Victoria (that’s one municipality embedded in the Greater Victoria region, which in turn is embedded in the Capital Regional District [CRD], which in turn is not what you think because you forgot about the Census Metropolitan Area [CMA]… Note: interesting PDF on revised population statistics for the CRD and the CMA, and here’s a PDF map of what’s the CMA and what’s the CRD outside the CMA [remember that everything within the CMA is also part of the CRD anyway – but now we’re getting away from forests, urban or otherwise!).

Anyway, in this article I had the opportunity to reference Jonah Lehrer‘s recent Boston Globe article, How the city hurts your brain …And what you can do about it, which received a lot of play on the blogs and was even Slashdotted.

What the comments routinely missed was the last part of Lehrer’s extended title, “…And what you can do about it.” As usual, too many folks were jumping up and down that cities are hateful and country living is good, disregarding all the environmental benefits of city living (and the harmful ecological impacts of sprawling far and wide across countrysides). Most of all, they missed that cities are engines of innovation, and that – as per the “…And what you can do about it” teaser – it’s quite possible to design cities so that your brain is rewarded.

That’s definitely the direction I’m interested in moving in.

February article: Housing 2.0

April 14, 2009 at 1:18 am | In affordable_housing, architecture, cities, FOCUS_Magazine, housing, writing | 3 Comments

It took a while for me to catch up with my own goal to blog about the articles I’ve posted to Scribd, but here (finally) is a quick pointer to Housing 2.0, the piece I published in the February 2009 issue of FOCUS Magazine.

It’s a funny title in some ways, but this brief introductory description, followed by the first paragraph, might clarify the intent:

Using the Wikipedia model, along with modular housing, to solve homelessness: As web 2.0 development has shown, people are able to unleash creativity and energy when they see how to move forward and get things done from the bottom up.

Vancouver architect Gregory Henriquez wants to tackle Vancouver’s crisis of homelessness with temporary modular housing. Homelessness, he points out, is growing at a much faster rate than housing can be built, which basically means that housing production should speed up. The problem is that traditional housing construction can’t.

So, the gist is that it’s another attempt on my part to shift our thinking away from “let government do it” to “let the people do it.” If we have a group of people who’ve become systematically beaten down (sometimes through their own bad choices, sometimes through the bad choices others made for them), does it make sense to keep them passive and in a state of learned helplessness, or is it better to help people move – step by step – toward autonomy? (That’s a rhetorical question, by the way. I know what my answer is.) Henriquez tried to make a case for what he called “Stop-Gap Housing,” and it makes a lot of sense in our housing market (which is both imploding in some ways, while still incredibly unaffordable at the same time).

I also, in this article, try to get a “2.0” kind of thinking focused on bricks and mortar (literally), which is something that’s badly, badly needed in land use and development. There have actually been some great historical precedents for that kind of fluid thinking, in particular Archigram’s DIY City concepts (I blogged about this and my ideas and responses around “housing 2.0” here).

I’m not sure the Victoria readership appreciated all the weirdo references I threw out in this piece, but everyone should get out of their comfort zone occasionally, right? 😉

Note: The March article, Victoria’s Urban Forest, is also up on Scribd, and I’ll blog a short post on that one tomorrow.

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