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?

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.

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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"

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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.

Thinking about built form

February 8, 2010 at 8:54 am | In architecture, housing, just_so, urbanism | 3 Comments

I started writing something long and complex about how the house I was born in still shapes my ideas of how and where to live. (I was born at home, with midwife.)

It got too complicated.

So here’s a picture of the building instead:

1 Berger Allee, Duesseldorf

1 Berger Allee, Duesseldorf

It’s the one right at the corner. (Full photo here.) When we lived there, Duesseldorf’s Altstadt was not yet (re-)gentrified and the doctor who practiced next door provided (then illegal) abortions to the area prostitutes. But you can see it used to be (and, I’m told, is, once more) a handsome building on a street with equally fine apartment buildings. Five to six floors of apartments, and retail on the ground floor (a couple of years ago “my” building had an art gallery – not sure if that’s still there now). Frontage right to the sidewalk (or Trottoir, as Rhinelanders called them), and green spaces in the enclosed Hof (courtyard) behind the buildings.

There’s something about that density I really like.

(Maybe this will be the year I finally manage to read Life, A User’s Manual by Georges Perec.)

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…

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Bunker House, Queens

Bunker House, Queens

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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)

Urban density and social media tools

June 8, 2009 at 9:40 am | In cities, creativity, innovation, land_use, social_networking, urbanism, victoria | Comments Off on Urban density and social media tools

It won’t come as news to those of us who love and defend cities, but it’s nice to have scientific research backing up what we espouse as urban positives: High population density triggers cultural explosions, according to a new study by scientists at University College London. The study was published in the journal Science; see also UCL’s page here (h/t Richard Florida/Creative Class blog).

The study reports that “complex skills learnt across generations can only be maintained when there is a critical level of interaction between people.”

I wonder how current social media tools mimic the benefits of density, or augment it in places that are emerging.

For example, I live in Victoria, BC, a medium-sized city that is approaching good density levels in the core neighborhoods, and I’m continually amazed by how social media tools like Twitter, Facebook, and a local forum on Vibrant Victoria have allowed a speedier dissemination of ideas. The dissemination doesn’t necessarily produce “instant” results, but how much more bereft we would be without the various platforms for those conversations.

While web-based tools can’t replace actual rubbing-up against people, they do facilitate transmission of ideas as well as complex skills, particularly if those skills aren’t manual. Yet even in the realm of manual skill or physical production – say, vegetable gardening or backyard chicken-raising – I’m likely to turn to the internet to find instructional videos or a local group. Digital natives will always go there first (and I’ve been an immigrant several times over, so I consider myself fully “naturalized” here, too, thank-you!).

Online social media tools absolutely augment the benefits of “real” population density. Thinking about online density and actual urban density (and its benefits) together, as being of a piece, seems important.

Better gold through green

May 20, 2009 at 11:20 pm | In architecture, cities, green, innovation, land_use, leadership, real_estate, resources, urbanism, victoria | 4 Comments

It seems everyone is going green, or will be. Today I went to Victoria’s UDI (Urban Development Institute) luncheon to hear Terasen Energy Services‘ Gareth Jones present “All About Geo-Thermal: Learning from Local Projects.”

Some basic take-away points: unless I severely misheard, British Columbia prices for energy (or electricity) will rise 80% in the next 10 years; the best place to make inroads in meeting the very ambitious greenhouse gas reductions (which are nearly as ambitious as Europe’s) set by the BC Liberal Party is in communities/ municipalities; and the best places to get the best bang for the buck in alternative energy is in dense settlements, whether multi-family complexes (including highrises and townhouse developments) or densely settled neighborhoods.

Other points: we in BC often think that we get most of our energy/ electricity “from hydro” (i.e., from hydroelectric power projects, therefore from “clean” water-driven sources), but we actually import 15% of our electricity from out-of-province, and those imports are “dirty” (typically derived from coal-fired plants). In addition to that little wrinkle, only 21% of our total energy needs in BC are met by electricity in the first place (and of that 21%, remember that 15% aren’t “clean”). The remaining 79% are met by natural gas (another 21%), other fossil fuels (can’t remember the exact number – I think it was around 20%?), wood (another 16%), and other sources. Alternate sources are at present but a small, very small piece of the pie.

There was more, and it all deserves a longer blog post or article, for which I’ll have to dig out my notes and do some research. What struck me today was the sense of urgency that came across in Jones’s presentation: that we really don’t have a lot of time to sit on our hands in pursuing alternative energy – not least because an 80% rise in costs will really do a number on the economy. It would probably make the current recession look like a walk in the park.
Energy System plant

Jones encouraged all the developers, builders, and planners and politicians at the luncheon to explore the myriad ways that the provincial government and Terasen Energy Services are trying to make alternative energy production (and consumption) more commonplace.

Meanwhile, there’s more to research and think about: Living buildings and how they’re cost-effective, for example.
Living Building diagram
Next week, there are two events scheduled in Victoria – first, at the University of Victoria on June 3, Jason McLennan, CEO, Cascadia Region Green Building Council will speak on The True Costs of Living Buildings, and the next evening (June 4), a less formal event showcasing some examples will take place at the Burnside-Gorge Community Centre. (I have to admit that after hearing Gareth Jones explain the benefits of density when it comes to installing alternative energy both for new and retrofitted buildings, Jason McLennan’s homepage photo disturbs me. It’s of an isolated single home – a converted church even? – in the middle of nowhere, which is probably the most large-footprint lifestyle, in environmental terms, that privileged westerners can choose. Perhaps his home is environmentally sustainable, but it’s still not a great model in the sense that it’s not anything we should strive for. Ok, end of sour aside.)  (Update, 5/27: If readers click through to the comments on this post, they’ll see Eden’s comment, which corrects my assumption about the photo. It’s actually not a private home, but the barn of a sheep farm. That’s really good to know, because the myth of the self-sufficient yet large single-family family home on a large property – a “green” variant of the suburban lifestyle – exerts a strong and unsustainable pull, which I prefer not to see strengthened. Thanks, Eden, for the additional info!)

And since it pours when it rains, there’s an out-of-town event I’d love to be able to go to: The Seattle Architecture Foundation will lead a tour through South Lake Union, called LEED: It’s Not Just for Buildings Anymore:

SLU’s close proximity to donwtown’s and existing transportation lines are the foundation for a successful sustainable neighborhood. Community design focusing on adaptive building re-use, alternative transportation, storm water management and other sustainability techniques is revitalizing the neighborhood adjacent to Seattle’s urban core.

SLU was accepted into the USGBC’s LEED-ND Pilot (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design – Neighborhood Development) program, and is one of the first existing neighborhoods anticipated to receive LEED certification.

Catherine Benotto and Ginger Garff from Weber Thompson and Katherine Cornwell and Jim Holmes from the City of Seattle will explain how great neighborhoods are created. Highlights of the tour include the Terry Thomas Building, the redesign of Cascade Park, the street car maintenance facility and an exploration of the master plan for Terry Avenue.

Seems to me that the South Lake Union walking tour would be a perfect complement to Gareth Jones’s presentation, but then again, Jason McLennan’s presentation is a lot closer to home…

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.

Notes: spatial arrangements for cars and kids

February 17, 2009 at 3:57 pm | In notes, urbanism, victoria | Comments Off on Notes: spatial arrangements for cars and kids

Bear with me, gentle reader, as I try to describe in words a spatial relationship. Something about how the combination of roads and a school near my house affects pedestrian movement has been bugging me.

Around the corner from where I live are two east-west running arterials, Yates (one-way west-bound) and Fort (one-way east-bound), that merge just east of Fernwood Ave. (which runs north-south). After the merge Fort St. continues as a single two-way arterial.

The merge creates a triangular space, the very tip of which is occupied by a Shell gas station (map). From the tip of the triangle (where Yates and Fort merge) to the end of the gas station property is ~300ft. At the western edge of the gas station, the triangle is bisected by Fernwood Ave. Look to the west of Fernwood Ave., and you see Central Middle School (official address: 1280 Fort St.).

The school occupies the bulk of what follows in the triangle, with building and playing field stretching to Ormond St. in the west. (See this map for details.) Apartment buildings line Fort St. along the edge of the school’s playing field. The field is shielded from traffic, and the street in turn is shielded from the blank space of a school playing field that’s intermittently used.

So far so good, …except for pedestrian crossings. Fort St. is a busy one-way heading east (Yates heads west). Like Yates, Fort is a relatively densely built-up street with low-rise apartment blocks lining both sides. Fort St. now has a fairly decent (and new) bicycle lane as well, but, like Yates St., it’s clearly a hold-over from low-density automobile-oriented living, which explains why both arterials were streamlined into one-ways and why traffic generally speeds along both streets. Since both roads connect Oak Bay to downtown, the traffic isn’t insignificant, and both roads are used by the buses heading to and from the University of Victoria.

Let’s go back to the triangle’s apex where Fort and Yates merge. There you’ll find a crosswalk, but you won’t find one the additional 300 feet further west at Fernwood Ave., even though that’s a popular crossing point for people heading to catch buses to downtown on Yates, or for people crossing the street to walk up Joan Crescent to Craigdarroch Castle.

There is a crossing (with traffic lights!) another ~650 feet further west of the apex at Moss St., which is designed specifically to feed into the school’s property.

After that (heading west), there’s nothing for at least another ~900 feet at Linden St. In fact, it’s almost as if pedestrians are discouraged from attempting any crossing between Moss and Linden, even though there are two other cross streets abutting Fort (Pentrelew and Ormond), and there are a number of apartment buildings and services (veterinarian, church/ community center, dentist, several law offices) on either side of the road that make people want to cross.

So what gives?

It’s easy to blame car culture, but I don’t think it’s just that. I think the missing crossing opportunities are also a by-product of controlling children (middle schoolers), who are obliged to use the crossing-guard-manned “school crosswalk” at Moss Street during morning arrival and afternoon release. It’s to discourage their freedom – to cross the street at another unmanned crosswalk – that the rest of us are forced either to take our lives in hand by scurrying across the street (legally, by the way!) at intersections that have no crosswalk, or to go out of our way to cross the street where there are crosswalks.

Perhaps it’s a combination of controlling the kids and making room for cars. At any rate, we have two very wide arterials tearing through a relatively densely built up part of town, with too few options for pedestrians to cross, and it looks like it’ll stay that way unless we admit that even kids can cross an urban road without assistance.

We protect the children by giving fewer signals to drivers to stop for the rest of us at other points. Somehow that seems nuts.

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