Tree amenity

June 21, 2010 at 11:24 pm | In cities, green, land_use | 10 Comments

I spent the past week in Boston and noticed that most streets – whether in Boston, Brookline, or Cambridge (the three municipalities I spent time in) – were either relatively tree-less or had undersized trees.

While there are many streets that have some trees, and while there are some neighborhoods that approach leafy-ness, I’ll go out on a limb <…pun> and say that for the most part, the trees are puny or even absent.

Take one of my old haunts, Coolidge Corner, for example, which is mostly built-up with lots of low-rise apartment blocks and is filled with pedestrians going about their business. Its main streets are wide (too wide) and poorly furnished with trees. The few tiny street trees are no match in scale for the road widths, nor does their minuscule canopy provide shade. Lack of tree cover is especially noticeable on very hot days that leave pedestrians fully exposed to the sun. There are lots of cars (and also the Green Line, C train) on those wide roads, however, and it’s clear that in the overall scheme of things vehicular traffic has priority over pedestrian traffic.

One way you can really tell that cars have priority is by the absence of public amenities for pedestrians – and let’s remember that everyone who gets off the T becomes a pedestrian. This means that if a city is interested in getting people out of cars and into public transit, it’s really important to think about the pedestrian experience. Transit doesn’t end until you reach your destination – which invariably involves some walking.

Large boulevard trees are a public amenity that most benefits life at three to four miles per hour – that is, easy to moderate walking speed.

It’s easy to understand destination amenities that are either essentially private (neighborhoods well-provisioned with coffee shops, restaurants, banks, grocery stores, etc.) or public-but-nodal (a destination like a library or community center, for example – edit: see also a PS in my response in comments, below ). But streets rich in boulevard trees comprising a continuous – and contiguous – exposure to nature provide a public amenity that makes density enjoyable in passing – that is, not just as “destination.” This strikes me as an important amenity in low-rise areas that nonetheless have significant density.

In downtown CBDs characterized by “canyons” (high-rise buildings), a pocket park can provide a sufficient amenity. But in low-rise neighborhoods (like the ones I’m pointing to here), lollipop-sized trees planted along roads that obviously favor cars come across as a half-hearted attempt.

I wonder whether the lack of tree cover provided by large boulevard trees in Boston (and nearby municipalities) is planned. Trees cost money to plant, maintain, and replace; they require clean-up (leaf and branch pick up); the leaves clog storm drains, the limbs grow to interfere with overhead power lines, the roots get into storm and sewer lines and other underground utilities; and they raise liability issues when storms bring down branches. But their benefits are huge – if those benefits are ignored, it’s because they just haven’t been quantified. And that’s too bad.

Gentrification 2.0?

June 5, 2010 at 11:22 pm | In affordable_housing, architecture, cities, homelessness, housing, innovation, jane_jacobs, land_use, social_critique, vancouver | 2 Comments

The title of my post is semi-serious, semi-ironic. I’m ambivalent about gentrification: if it means unslumming, I figure it’s good; if it means homogenization toward a single class (typically privileged) at the expense of economic diversity, it’s probably not-so-good, right?

When I write “Gentrification 2.0,” I’m saying that I’m not sure how this particular example – The Woodward’s Project in Vancouver – will play out. It’s 2.0 insofar as it’s not unslumming in Jane Jacobs’s sense, nor is it private market gentrification. It’s an interesting hybrid.

Canada’s National Post newspaper has started a series of articles about the Woodward’s Project. The reporter is Brian Hutchinson, who focuses on the neighborhood (Downtown East Side) and the social implications of putting a spiffy mixed-use high-rise development into its center. This is an unusual development, however: it has “125 fully equipped apartments reserved for low-income singles, and 75 spacious units reserved for families; 80% of the family apartments are rented at below-market rates” (source), while at the same time it also boasts market-rate condos valued at over $1million and provides the better-off residents with rooftop luxuries that afford (to use a word Hutchinson used) “bacchanalian” excess.

I wrote about the Woodward’s Project after taking my daughter to lunch in Vancouver for her birthday. It’s a fascinating project, and I’m looking forward to reading the entire series. Hutchinson is “embedded” at Woodward’s for a whole month.

Gertrude Stein might agree: -ectomy is an ectomy is an ectomy

May 26, 2010 at 11:07 pm | In architecture, cities, heritage, land_use, real_estate, scandal | 5 Comments

File this one under “why not?”

It’s not a new item, but it made me go wow…

A while back, I read that Vornado Realty Trust left a big hole in Boston’s Downtown Crossing …after demolishing Filene’s Basement.

That was “wow” #1 (not a good wow): Gertrude Stein smelled a rat when she wrote, “there is no there there,” which I’m freely marrying to her “rose is a rose is a rose” to say that “-ectomy” is an ectomy …is an ectomy …is an ectomy.

In another context, we might easily just call it a hatchet job.

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Realize, dear reader, that Filene’s Basement was surmounted by a venerable piece of architecture, … namely Filene’s. (… ^Illustrated above)

Alright, I admit to an attachment to traditional (old) department store architecture: it’s a built form that has tons of embedded intelligence, and yep, it’s one of those built forms that, once you tear it down, it’s gone. And it takes a huge chunk of civic and urban history with it.

But alright, let’s move on: since it is already torn down – and the new project is not being built – at least (for the love of it all) put something interesting and striking (and bloody useful!) in its place (even temporarily).

Like this:

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Arthur Dent, faced by a Vogon destroyer, might wonder, “what the hell is that?” – but you, dear reader, can rest easy knowing that it’s made-by-humans it could be made by humans (if, that is, it weren’t left unbuilt, and if, that is, humans could overcome their imagination-deficit). What is it? Bio-Fuel Growing Eco Pods [to] Rejuvenate Stalled Boston Project (Sept. 2009).

One can dream. In the waking interim (knowing it’s not gonna happen), some juicy links to the doings of Vornado (and its CEO Steven Roth):

Mayor Battles Vornado in Boston

Downtown Crossing’s money pit

Menino threatens to oust Filene’s site developer

Boston Mayor Blasts Vornado’s Roth Over ‘Blight’ Speech

Is City Truly Wise to Vornado’s Roth Deliberately Stalling Filene’s?

Curbed New York’s articles tagged “Vornado”

All in all, if you read through those links you’ll see that Steven Roth and Vornado have done a heck of a job – the company has given development a very very bad name. That by itself should get them a black eye. That this company has taken out department stores (like Filene’s and Alexander’s) and the social history they embody makes it even worse.

PS: I was going to write a “part 2” to last night’s post about Salim Jiwa’s talk at Social Media Club Victoria. It will have to wait until a later date – I want to gather my thoughts about this, and have had no time to do so today.

Notes on walking architecture

May 21, 2010 at 10:40 pm | In architecture, cities, futurismo, ideas, innovation, jane_jacobs, land_use, ubiquity, urbanism | Comments Off on Notes on walking architecture

It’s not everyday that you see Guy Debord and Steve Jobs in the same presentation, is it? Courtesy of Matt Jones‘s People Are Walking Architecture, or Making NearlyNets with MujiComp, it’s not only possible, it makes sense. (Read the full document on Scribd.) Jones makes the case for building “smart city networks by making inviting, intelligent products,” hence the juxtaposition of critical thinkers and people who make “inviting, intelligent products.”

Going through the 59-page document, a few pages that attracted my attention especially:

p.15, Archigram were basically right, a sentence inspired by Chris Heathcote’s Cheer up, it’s Archigram. Why Archigram (about which I’ve blogged here)? “Essentially they were user-centric designers, working with technology to create humane exciting environments with technology …with a liberal dash of 60s psychedelia…” (p.14). Archigram’s architects thought about enabling behaviors, not just about buildings. Cool. (Jones even calls them interaction designers.)

Archigram envisioned the car as the “ultimate symbolic technology of personal freedom,” but as Jones points out, that didn’t quite pan out. Today, we’re more likely to see mobile technology (phones, etc.) in cars’ symbolic stead. (p.16)

Car = 20th century; mobile phone = 21st century. (p.17)

Hence the jump to Steve Jobs – and back (in time) to Guy Debord, who defined psychogeography as “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.” (p.18)

Jones points to smart phones as the gadget that lets users manipulate the experience of psychogeography from an individual perspective: “…a whole toy box full of playful, inventive strategies for exploring cities…” (p.20)

Cities are now “linked and learning” (Sir Richard Rogers, British architect who designed Paris’s Centre Georges Pompidou), hence people are walking architecture. It’s back to Archigram, see? Architecture should enable behaviors, and what we have today are gadgets that enable behaviors relating to how people experience and shape, in a feedback loop, the urban experience. The urban experience is still informed as well by buildings, but who hasn’t also found that it’s informed by behaviors – often experienced as negative, like traffic jams, congestion, and bad infrastructure? Today – and into tomorrow – those behaviors will be more and more fine-grained, as people carry tiny mobile devices that allow ubiquitous computing, which in turn shapes the city as much as cars, roads, and other infrastructure did.

People are walking architecture, shaping the urban-scape as they move through it, devices in hand.

Next up, Jones covers Eliel Saarinen (“Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context …a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan”) and Clay Shirky (Situated Software), and a bunch of other things (MujiComp; porch computing; doorways; nearly nets).

And then he gives Jane Jacobs the last word (which I appreciate, if only because every other person mentioned in his presentation is male):

“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” (p.58)

Jane Jacobs, last word

Growing cities

May 19, 2010 at 7:51 pm | In cities, green, jane_jacobs, land_use, NIMBYism, sprawl, victoria | 3 Comments

The City of Victoria has had a revision of its Downtown Plan in the works for the past …oh, two?, four? six? years (I know that I attended workshops and other public participation exercises on same around four years ago). The plan is finally out (it was pre-released to the media on Monday, 5/17), and for some inexplicable reason it will now be subjected to another six weeks or so of “public participation” before being put to the vote.

One of the city’s media outlets put the whole 183-page document on Scribd.com, which is a blessing. See Downtown Core Area Plan Draft. The original is in PDF, but on Scribd you can, among other things, see a “tiled” version, which lets you hone in on the pages that you think might be relevant – without having to scroll tediously through the PDF itself. (Hooray!)

On the same day that Victoria’s proposed Downtown Plan (which has one or two things to say about density and building heights) was released to the media, I came across two articles on cities, densities, and building heights, which piqued my interest.

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One is from Ed Glaeser, an economist who writes about urban economics and development: Taller Buildings, Cheaper Homes (New York Times, 5/4/10). The other is from the Globe & Mail newspaper and presents a snap-shot of Toronto, Vancouver, and Calgary. It’s called How cities grow – up is in.

In the former article, Glaeser argues that Jane Jacobs’s aversion to high-rises was misplaced, and that taller buildings can make a city both more diverse and more affordable. Jacobs believed that lack of diversity and unaffordability went hand-in-hand – which isn’t hard to argue with. Presumably she saw high-rises as luxury (unaffordable) dwellings, which automatically means that they exclude diversity (only a specific class can afford them). Glaeser, on the other hand, argues that high-rises contribute to affordability. I think the key word may be “rental.” Glaeser writes of growing up in a 25-story rental building – and he also describes units that, at 1600 square feet, can accommodate families.

I wish that I could say that I know of tall rental buildings with family-sized units, either already built or under construction. But when I look at what’s going up in Victoria (or in Vancouver – or, I’d wager, in most western downtowns), it’s not rental units (unless the condo owners choose to rent their units out), and it’s not family-sized units either. If anything, the trend is toward small (really small) units that appeal to singles or the retired demographic. That’s not to say that I prefer the alternative (underutilized land, no new buildings), but I don’t see “affordable” and “family-sized” (that is, able to accommodate parents and two kids of opposite sex, which means 3 bedrooms) used in the same sentence when we describe what we’re building in our cities at present. This is a problem.

How can cities attract construction that meets rental demands and is friendly to families?

Glaeser notes:

Restricting supply led to higher prices and a city with space only for the rich. In the 1950s and 1960s, middle-income people, like Jane Jacobs and my parents, could afford Manhattan.  Equivalent families today can’t afford the city, and that’s a pity. By contrast, Chicago, with its longstanding pro-construction ethos, remains far more affordable even in prime locations.

I’d love some pointers to Chicago’s successes, and, if applicable, hints as to how they might transfer. Does the “pro-construction ethos” have to be really longstanding (as in decades), or is this something cities can adopt quickly? Vancouver has been fairly pro-construction lately, but it’s very unaffordable. So what’s the secret?

In his article, Glaeser brings the question back to density, which is surely a big sticking point for many people whose experience(s) with density to date were either negative or shaped by cultural myths and prejudices. Aversion to density is cultural, but that’s not to say that people should learn to accept actual intolerable conditions. Far from it – for if the mix of amenities is right, density is experienced as a convenience and as a good thing. If density is experienced as an intolerable constraint, it means the amenities are missing. Properly designed, density is an affordance, too: proximity to shops, recreation, parks, entertainment, clubs, friends. Shoddy buildings, on the other hand, make density intolerable: if you can hear your neighbor’s every evacuation or sneeze, something’s wrong. But cheaply-built buildings are, well, cheaper to build – which in turn gets back to economics and affordability.

In the Globe & Mail article, the comments board gives readers an indication of how far white, suburban-raised North Americans are from seeing density as an affordance. In most people’s views, it’s strictly a negative constraint, one that mostly affects their individual freedom.

Some commenters go up a level, from the individual to the societal, and focus on waste management. They conjure visions of cities choking on their own trash; or on water supply, warning of depletion of drinking water.

Several invoke Malthusian principles, arguing that we simply can’t grow any more. (Note: I get a bit impatient around this line of thinking – it seems to me that population regulates itself when prosperity rises and women gain equality. At some point thereafter, population settles at replacement levels or drops significantly below that.)

Clearly, the “pull up the drawbridge, we’re full” attitude is very common not just in my city, but elsewhere, too. It’s not exactly possible, legally, to tell citizens they can’t move to a city within their country, so unless we learn to manage growth well (affordance, not constraint), we’ll just get even more sprawl (which is already happening anyway, but why encourage it?).

So, Mr. Glaeser: back to you. We know that Jacobs’s vision of a somewhat quaint Greenwich Village in no way precludes an exclusive (and therefore anti-diversity) gentrification that’s unaffordable for mere mortals. In other words, quaint does not mean affordable or diverse or even friendly. And how, given the realities of economics, do we address another point she raised: the influx of “catastrophic money” (major urban renewal projects or very large civic projects that chew up entire city blocks, creating a kind of branded corporate-land that’s the antithesis of a neighborhood)? Finally, how can municipal governments and planning departments promote high-rise developments that are also affordable and family-friendly, while being amenity-rich and designed to make density an affordance, not a negative constraint?

Insights from “The reinvented city”

May 17, 2010 at 11:22 pm | In cities, innovation, land_use, politics, real_estate, social_critique, sprawl, urbanism | Comments Off on Insights from “The reinvented city”

A blog post from the Lincoln Institute, The reinvented city about its recent conference, includes several terrific links.

First off: Andres Duany is on a tear against NIMBYs, and suggests making decisions via “juries.” There’s lots to like in that proposal.

From the links provided by the Lincoln Institute’s article, a couple of choice extracts for your immediate enjoyment:

One, from Planetizen:

“It’s so out of control,” said Duany, referring to the current state of public participation in planning decisions in the United States. “It’s an absolute orgy of public process… basically, we can’t get anything done.”

Charrettes – intensive design meetings where planners and architects work alongside the public to educate them on the city’s proposals and coax out their own ideas on how their cities should be formed – have been a mainstay of Duany’s practice for years, so he’s no stranger to public engagement. But now he is saying what many involved in land use have come to believe but can’t really say – that the process of soliciting the public’s opinion has gotten out of hand and needs to be reformed.

The central problem, according to Duany, is that the immediate neighbors to a proposed development are brought in to speak on behalf of the whole community. These neighbors obviously have a vested interest in what happens in their backyard, and an emotional connection to their space. They also often have a financial stake in what happens, with their life’s savings tied up in their home. “We’ve tainted the process by not understanding that the neighbors are a special interest,” says Duany. “They are not the community.” [amen.]

Duany’s proposed solution? A randomly-chosen group of citizens, brought in to represent the community similar to the jury system. Evidently such a system is alive and well in Perth, Australia, where a group of community members is chosen randomly, brought up to speed on the issues, and asked to give input on how development should occur. Without such a process, Duany says, the process is taken over by “a bunch of little mobs, invited in by idiot public planners.”

Alternative energy projects are particularly at risk, according to Duany. The public at large sees the growing need for turbines and solar panels, but locals are fighting to keep them out of their neighborhoods. Is this the goal of city planners, who for the last couple of decades have worked passionately to create systems of bottom-up urbanism? Or is Duany right- is it time to create new models of public participation? (source)

Note that last bit, re. alternative energy – I blogged about this (Windspill), inspired by an article (From Oil Spills to Wind Farms, From NIMBY to BANANA) that made the same point: NIMBYs in Massachusetts miring an off-shore windfarm proposal, while at the same time we get this oil clusterfuck-disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

Two, from Building Blocks (St. Louis Today):

Duany insisted that the future of development is mixed use: jobs, homes and leisure opportunities clustered in sufficiently dense ways to allow people to walk more, take public transit more and drive less. Driving equals unhappiness, Duany indicated, adding, “New Urbanism is all about making people happy.”

After no one stood up to denounce happiness, Duany went on to be a bit provacative. Forget the NIMBYs who try to kill almost any endeavor, he said. NIMBYs comprise nothing more than a special interest group that should be ignored when, say, a new power line is needed to link a windfarm to customers. Such infrastructure should be built because its clear advantage to a region outweighs the opposition of the few who would live near the wires, Duany said.

“You can’t have tiny tiny special interests block the big infrastructural needs,” he said.

A good way to get approval of what gets built where could be to turn over the job to juries whose members are randomly selected from across a region. That way, projects pushed by professionals would get done quickly, Duany said. (source)

From the same article, further down, a discussion of complaints from mayors about mingy state funding. Sound familiar? How many more times do we have to listen to our mayors complain about the lousy 8-cents to every 1-dollar municipalities in Canada collect?

Two former mayors–Manny Diaz of Miami and Greg Nickels of Seattle–also were on the bill. After touting their efforts to make their cities greener and more sustainable, they voiced some frustrations in tones familiar to those that emanate from St. Louis City Hall. Nickels and Diaz said their state legislatures simply don’t get it. Too often they deprive cities of money and fail to understand that metropolitan areas are the main drivers of the nation’s economy. Diaz said too many states would rather add unneeded lanes to rural highways than help build urban transit lines. (source)

And, from the same post, urban growth will be in suburbs. That’s another reason why Victoria, the city I currently live in, better get its ass in gear, before its downtown deteriorates beyond the point of no return:

Experts agree that over the coming decades, most urban growth will be in suburbs, which need to adapt by replacing featureless sprawl with inviting, pedestrian-friendly streetscapes. June Williamson, associate professor of architecture at the City College of New York, gave a shout out to Crestwood Plaza on Watson Road, holding it up as a suburban mall re-inventing itself–at least for now–as an arts center.

Duany, in his characteristally blunt way, said a day earlier that while small shops at outdated malls are “junk,” the malls are ideal “holding tanks” for 21st century mixed-use town centers. Malls are typically located on main streets or even transit lines. The big-box anchors can be converted to offices or call centers, he said. Williamson said the United States is seriously over stored. The U.S. has 20 square feet of retail space for each citizen while Europeans get by with 3 square feet each, she said.

Over and over, speakers pointed out that while cities are efficient, many of their urban centers are losing population. One city discussed has lost half its population since 1950, is a declining center of corporate headquarters, has thousands of acres of largely vacant land despite the presence of a renowned children’s hospital, a famed symphony and a lively downtown restaurant scene. St Louis? No, Cleveland. (source)

Three, from California Planning and Development Report blog:

Last year shopping mall giant Westfield floated a proposal for a 49-story tower in Century City, part of a master plan to reinvent one of the great prototypical edge cities. The problem, though, is that Century City is no longer on the edge of anything. It’s smack in the middle of some of the most congested streets and expensive residential real estate east of the Ginza District.

The city Planning Department liked the project. But, naturally, the neighbors got involved, and some, you know, hemming and hawing ensued. When the metaphorical dust settled and the City Council approved the $800 million project, the building had lost ten floors and four local homeowners associations called off their lawyers. Of course, the “project” existed only on paper in the first place; critics say that the developer drew the extra ten stories only so they could be lopped off as an expendable peace offering.

A triumph for the little guy? Not so much. Borderline extortion and bribery? Perhaps. Several of the four homeowners associations paid for their petitions with war chests won from agreements with other developers; no word on whether Westfield paid them off in this case. (source)

Good grief, does that ever sound familiar…

Back to matter of juries, here’s another description of that system:

Duany proposes that cities adopt a hybrid of a grand jury and an electorate: 200 (or however many) ordinary citizens randomly sampled and empanelled to learn about, deliberate on, and render a decision on proposed projects. He notes that the wisdom of democracy does not lie in participation — which depends simply on who shows up — but rather on sampling.

The recommendation of that random sample would stand for the interests of the entire community and be balanced against those of the other two parties. Though public officials would typically have the final say, the panel would give them cover to make decisions that might enrage the neighbors. (source)

Note: “200 (or however many) ordinary citizens” is not a tiny hand-picked crew, which is what we’re seeing in Victoria, where the political leadership has taken to hand-selecting without any sort of process a tiny group of people to act as “citizen advisors.” It’s a highly flawed process – and the advisory panels or committees (the designation keeps changing) meet behind closed doors, no agenda is posted in advance, and minutes consist of skimpy notes available months later. #fail

I prefer this (VOTERS are on top):

Org chart for Brookline MA municipal government

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.

Change vs Development: Is there a difference?

April 15, 2010 at 11:41 pm | In authenticity, heritage, jane_jacobs, land_use, urbanism, victoria | 3 Comments

Some remarkably outrageous statements by one of Victoria, BC’s leading heritage preservationists once again made it into the local paper, and it got me thinking about change and development.

Everyone seems to agree that Victoria is famously resistant to change. One old light-bulb joke, told by Joe Average back in the day when we were in high school together, goes like this: “Q: How many Victorians does it take to change a light bulb? A: None. They like the old one.”

This, in other words, is an old-old trope.

But the guff retailed by the heritage preservationist suggests to me a different way of thinking about change. The newspaper article, Heritage lost on the street by Vivian Moreau, begins as follows:

One heritage  home a week is being lost in Greater Victoria, says the head of the Hallmark Society.

Developers are snapping up large properties with small houses on them, demolishing the houses and putting up new structures that don’t fit with the neighbourhoods, said Nick Russell, president of the group dedicated to preserving heritage in Greater Victoria. (source, front page of Vic News, Oak Bay News, and Saanich News print versions)

When I read this, I wondered what, exactly, Mr. Russell is protesting. Is it change? Or development? I’ll explain in a sec why I think there may be a difference, but first consider the (to my mind) outrageous conflation produced by Mr. Russell in the article’s conclusion:

“The sense (in Victoria) was ‘there’s a lot of old houses here, let’s put up some nice new things and increase the density,'” he said. “They were whacking things all over James Bay [a neighborhood in the City of Victoria] and putting up 20-storey towers.”

That came to a halt when Victoria mayor Peter Pollen put a stop to it, Russell recalled.

“Oak Bay [a separate municipality to the east of the City of Victoria] hasn’t come to that point. There is a sense there that the supply of houses is endless.” (source)

Peter Pollen was Victoria mayor from 1971 to 1975, and again from 1981 to 1985: he’s hardly a recent memory. The strategy of building high-rises in James Bay died in the 1970s when Victorians decided that they didn’t want a Vancouver-style West End (meaning: a true urban peninsula) in that core neighborhood. And any heritage houses (actual or so-called) that are “whacked” in the mostly upscale Municipality of Oak Bay are meeting that fate because wealthy property owners want to upgrade their standard of living, not because of moves to increase density.

In other words, the outrageous conflation is Russell’s suggestion that Oak Bay is on the verge of high-rise development, which is complete BS. It’s even BS to suggest that Oak Bay is trying to densify, except perhaps around its village nodes (for example, Estevan Village) – and even then, it’s a tooth-and-claw battle with the anti-change crowd.

Or is it the anti-change crowd?

Maybe it’s the anti-development crowd.

What’s the difference, you ask?

Well, I’ve noticed that despite all the hand-wringing over change, change does come – even to Victoria. It’s inevitable.

What’s resisted is development, which is actually a much slower process that occurs over time.

In nature, we don’t flip a switch to “change” from winter to spring: the latter develops over time. A tree isn’t bare one day and fully leafed out the next: that happens over time. Development is what we undergo or experience over time. An exception is when what Jane Jacobs called “catastrophic money” comes flooding in (say, in the form of “urban renewal,” “slum” clearance, or the building of single-purpose street-block-sized “centers,” whether sports or entertainment or civic / government centers). Catastrophic money sweeps in like a tsunami and creates flip-a-switch change – but nowhere is Victoria in danger of that happening.

Unlike development, which happens over time, change is change: that is, sudden. And sometimes it’s a change into the opposite of what was intended. You can ignore all the factors leading to that flipping of the switch until suddenly you notice, “Oh, the light went on (or out).” Then you react to change, which means you’re in a position of weakness. Development is different: it happens in such a way as to allow you to participate in its changes (plural). Every gardener knows that you can direct development, and decent urbanists know this, too.

By pitting themselves resolutely against development, however, the status quo crowd (and I include Victoria’s Hallmark Foundation) are actually facilitating change. Instead of allowing us (and themselves) to undergo and experience development, they resist it until something happens anyway (change), except there was no way to undergo it, and it comes not as something planned, but as a surprise.

Change can mean a building that should have been taller and more splendidly finished ends up under-built, with the developer skimping on materials. Change can mean the economy tanking because all we ever do is resist development. Change can mean a good thing (as when, for example, a surface parking lot is developed and we get a great new building in our downtown core).

Change happens. That’s a variant of “shit happens.” It just does. There’s no stopping it, good or bad.

The way to make sure absolutely that all you ever get is utter crap change is to resist development at every turn: that’s almost guaranteed to deliver nasty surprises.

Instead of talking about change, try instead to work positively with development – like a good gardener, a good stakeholder, a good urbanist. Imagine a garden that’s not allowed to develop, an ecosystem that’s suppressed; a city whose economy is kept artificially restricted; an urban fabric that’s deliberately kept mono-cultural and thin. Then imagine the negative change that befalls that garden, that ecosystem, that city, that urban fabric.

Development is good, especially when it allows for planned change that’s beneficial; development is also much more encompassing, touching all the little and sometimes unseen changes that affect the ecosystem as a whole.

Victoria’s anti-change crowd really is a joke, just like that old light bulb pun. They might think they’re preserving something, but their relentless opposition to development just facilitates bad change.

Remember: shit happens. (And it always flows downhill.)

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).

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