It’s All About Water

The way Chicago and Quebec City are connected is all about the 2000 mile Great Lakes watershed. 80% of North America’s surface water is here. Yet we still don’t look at this as a resource, but mostly a way to move waste away from Cities.
Phil Enquist, an architect and partner at SOM, presented a keynote last Friday at the Canadian Institute of Planners conference in Quebec City. He showed us some of the work he and his firm have done on the Great Lakes basin. He titled the project “Great Cities, Great Lakes, Great Basin.” I’ve captured some of his talk here.

The Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River Initiative is an organization of mayors along this watershed. 

At the Chicago Architectural Foundation, an exhibit raises awareness of what the Great Lakes Watershed is, and what can be and is being done to protect their s resource. Questions asked include “What can basin cities learn from each other?”
Drought is a major issue for the US. Great lake levels will probably be reduced in coming years due to increased evaporation as the earth warms. 

Phil Enquist’s project on exhibit at the Chicago Architecture Foundation. Photo from SOM.
Other challenges for the region include shrinking cities and the prevalence of non-renewable energy use (coal) that is adding Mercury to the lakes. 
The project has been renamed “The Great Basin Century” in recognition that it’s about more than just the lakes. 

Can we see this region as composed of “innovation belts” both past and future? A great example is south Chicago’s Theaster Gates. 

Can we look at connecting this region with high speed rail? The potential exists to connect the entire east coast and Great Lakes Basin in this way. 

Copenhagen puts 4% of its waste in a landfill. Chicago today puts 90%. We can do better. 

Growing food better is key to cleaning up our water. Recent algae blooms have been the result of not so careful agricultural practices. Here too we can do better.

The Brookings Institution has studied the economic benefit of environmental clean up of the Great Lakes. Essentially the pay off would be double the investment cost.

The Calumet watershed is a case study undertaken as part of the Great Basin project. Roughly the size of the San Francisco Bay Area, this is a lakefront area with really no vision. The first step is to regain the lake front. Next, protect green space. Thirdly create innovation hubs. 

The second case study Phil has undertaken is Detroit. Together with a French Landscape architect, they’re studying turning Detroit’s public lands into wetlands that help clean the city’s water before it goes into the river.

Phil asked the planners in the room to be brave with their proposals. Think in a utopian way, even when clear financing strategies aren’t yet known. He says we need the US and Canada to work together in new ways. 

Density Can Be Done Well

Issues in North American cities today include housing affordability, unpredictable energy costs, climate change, aging population, public health, placelessness, and identity. There are answers and they are part of city building. This is the main message of Brent Toderian’s presentation today at the Canadian Institute of Planners. 

Doctors and health practitioners are starting to speak loudly about the importance of walkable and dense neighbourhoods to public health. Sprawl has real economic cost too. Even conservative analysts now admit that sprawl costs more in terms of delivering services like sanitation to municipalities.
Cities and suburbs are changing, not because of ideology but because of better math. 
Simple innovations will save our cities, like wheeled suitcases and wheeled shopping bags. This much more so than driverless cars.
Demographics are pointing toward more urban living for families and for millennials. The narrative that families don’t want to live in urban situations is simply not true, if the appropriate services are provided. 

Vision, will, and skill are the basics that cities need in order to innovate around providing increased density. Vancouver is proving in scores of ways, that density makes good cities. Calgary, though, too is making a lot of the right decisions. 

Medellin and Bogota have good transit and increased attention on urban mobility, public space, and social equity. But the key urban problem in all these cities is sprawl. The key problem with sprawl is automobile dependence. If you can’t get anywhere except by car, you live in sprawl. 

Brent is working with aging malls to retrofit dense urban living on these properties. 
“Adding highway lanes to deal with traffic is like loosening your belt to cure obesity.” – Lewis Mumford, 1955

Vancouver and all the other ‘cool’ cities are tearing down freeways to restore neighbourhoods. Toronto had the opportunity but failed recently [with the Gardiner Expressway].

Vancouver has changed the prioritization of modes; it designs for pedestrians first, bicycles second, transit third, moving goods fourth, and cars last. If you design a city for cars it works for no one. If you design a street for people, it works for everyone, including cars. 

Density done well includes consistently high quality of design both in terms of landscape and architecture. Vertical sprawl is car reliant neighbourhoods with taller buildings. This is not urbanism. Great design creates value (see photo). 

Brent Toderian talking about how great design creates value in cities.

Density done well requires a diversity of amenities. These should be requirements for good development. Density done well requires innovative green development. Vancouver’s South False Creek with its district energy plant is a great example. 

Neighbourhoods change. This is a reality. We need housing types that fill in the gap between single family and mid-rise development. 
We need to get from NIMBY to QUIMBY – QUality In My BackYard.
Brent closed by saying that making it real takes vision, will, skill, and follow though!

In The Q & A, one of best questions was about adding requirements for three bedroom units in developments. The person asking indicated they didn’t have a legal basis to make this a requirement, yet it’s broadly known that families would be more likely to move into the city if there were larger units available. Brent responded by talking about how when proponents request zoning changes, Cities can absolutely set requirements that are backed up by facts.

Toderian UrbanWorks


Toronto Is Getting Transit Right

The assumption in Toronto today is that a 45 minute commute is ok. We shouldn’t accept long commutes. It takes hours out of our day, and has serious negative health and community impacts.
Jennifer Keesmat, Chief planner of the City of Toronto spoke yesterday at the Canadian Institute of Planners Accent on Urbanism 2016 conference in Quebec City. 

Image: Toronto street cars. James Bow, photographer.

Her talk was called “Transforming your City by Getting Transit Planning Right.”, and she mainly discussed her own experiences with transit issues in Toronto. This was my first planning conference; ( I’m attending because I presented earlier today) and I have to say I found this particular topic fascinating. Toronto is growing very rapidly and this inside view of how Jennifer’s group is tackling the challenges that come with that reality was instructive. I’ve captured some of the more the salient points of her talk here.

20 years ago in Toronto, being near a transit station was seen as a negative. Today it’s exactly the opposite. Today’s thinking is directed towards actually pre-zoning areas for development before transit gets built. 82% of Canadians live in car oriented suburbs, according to Professor David Gordon.
Toronto is working to actively engage youth and the disenfranchised in community consultation. Toronto’s ‘Feeling Congested’ campaign was directed at drivers, specifically. They’re not an easy group to engage, compared to cyclists, for example. Discussion guides were created to help leaders engage with their community. They built tool kits for discussions with community leaders. Handed out packages of tissues to citizens in order to drive web traffic. Kleenex provided sponsorship. Media picked up the story en masse. The brand has taken on a life of its own. City councillors regularly refer to ‘what we learned from feeling congested’.

The greatest risk to the city is that we continue to make decisions as we have in the past. 
Jennifer asked; “what are meaningful responses to feedback and consultation?” First of all, informed opinions are valuable and need to be sorted out from the other opinions that are so often received. You need data and evidence to bring to the conversation, in order to inform the public, in order to receive informed responses. 

Eight evaluation criteria are used to de-politicize decisions around transit development. 
A transportation network is about access. Providing a one trip transfer for all is the current goal. All transit modes are part of the evaluation. Today the City of Toronto evaluates the entire system when making decisions. 60% of transit trips in Toronto begin on the bus, so it’s impossible to ignore this mode (as is often done). Today’s realization is that we need to all be like Paris; with constant and consistent transit development. This is not radical thinking, except in Canada.  

This conference session was well attended and there were some great questions. I’ve captured a couple, along with Jennifer’s responses here:

Q: Is pre zoning working? A: Yes, but there’s a lot of backlash around rezoning and construction disruption that can really derail projects.
Q: How to deal with the challenges that the speculative environment provides? A: In Toronto, we need stronger policy tools to deal with those who are not ‘city builders’ and want to make a quick dollar. The capitalists amongst us who only want to make money provide a real challenge to those who care about neighbourhoods and the quality of the urban environment.

What is Consultative Architecture?

Aboriginal architects and builders are changing the way we look at architecture and leading the way toward a collaborative, consultative future. On June 21, the NCC hosted an event in the urbanism lab with four innovative professionals who highlighted their work and sources of inspiration. I’ve captured some of their main points here.

Eladia Smoke, Architect 

Eladia is the first licensed aboriginal woman architect in Manitoba. She described the fundamental Seven Directions from her culture and and how they impact understanding, and form the basis of her work. She highlighted some specific Indigenous perspectives: the regional, experiential, transitory, and feminine all have a strong influence on her architecture.

She talked about who owns the building process in today’s aboriginal communities;  the elders, and leaders who are often educated or engaged community members. Women are historically the decision makers in aboriginal culture but this has changed somewhat with European influence. Finally the community as a whole plays a key role, contributing  opinions and feedback as part of the consultative process.

Following up her presentation, Eladia asked a couple of rhetorical questions of the audience; did Zibi meaningfully consult? Was a good result achieved?
Alfred Waugh, Formline Architecture

Alfred showed images of his carefully crafted and aesthetically successful projects. He talked about how aboriginal culture and especially ceremony is key to his architecture.

One key recurring element in his work is respect for the Natural Environment, and his work is illustrative of a key aboriginal principle; “When you take something from the land, put something back.”

He showed images of a University of Victoria Campus Building, that was inspired by west coast aboriginal longhouse a and their use of displacement  ventilation. Sophisticated computer modelling was used to ensure the ventilation concept worked. The ceremonial hall’s woven cedar panels were inspired by the woven matts of the longhouse.

Image: Formline Architecture.

Liard River Hotsprings is a simple and beautiful building inspired by simple lean to’s.

Image: Formline Architecture.

Mr. Waugh also talked about the UBC Indian Residential School History and Dialog Centre. This building had to look ‘native’ but it represents many groups, so it couldn’t be obviously referential of any specific tradition. It s an educational building who’s goal is ensuring cultural genocide doesn’t reoccur in this country. 
Brian Porter, Two Row Architect

Mr. Porter bargain his talk by saying that in Canada, before 1985, indigenous populations had no say what their buildings look like. Today, by contrast, community buy in is key to their projects. By way of example, Brian showed a building he designed for local First Nations in NY state, where he looked for inspiration in local Seneca traditions. 

The buildings are tailored to the construction capabilities of the local community. He tried to align with natural forces when designing, by using passive ventilation where possible. He showed wood facades that are heat treated to reduce moisture content.

Doug Odjick, Construction Technician, Algonquin Anishinabeh Tribal Council

Doing talked about Amo Ososwan School, designed by Douglas Cardinal. The name means ‘bee hive’, and hexagonal classrooms emulate the aboriginal talking circle. 

The whole community was consulted on the design of the building, as the project developed. Cross laminated timber and other elements were prefabricated from black spruce; a very dense wood.

Work continued through the winter, and snow removal took a lot of project time. The laminated wood product wastes very little. This is important.

Building envelope was a key part of the project; the previous building was condemned due to mould issues. 

In closing, Doug shared William Commanda’s Vision for Victoria Island. Commanda and Cardinal together developed a scheme for the NCC on Victoria Island. The core of the vision involves building an Aboriginal Centre & removal of the dam, restoring the water fall to  its original state.

The audience was invited to ask questions and I’ve captured some of the discussion here.

One of the first questions was ” … What is the role of aboriginal symbology in architecture? The answer came from multiple speakers; ideally, symbolic concepts are integral to the way a building is designed and serve as a source of inspiration. Often historical ways of building are more useful than allegory and metaphor, but these have their place. 

A really great question was “Have you run into situations where your indigenous values put you in conflict with your profession? Is there a separation between you professionally and those you work for?” The architects and builders present described conflicts arising from demanding clients, that want things that are hard to do. Clients often come at things from a basic place and education is key. Project briefs seem to involve a ‘teepee’ for example. The speakers talked about client relationships and how those can generate ‘us’ and ‘them’ situations.

Light Pollution Is Changing Life On Earth

A third of people on this planet can no longer see the Milky Way. A recent study has concluded that for a third of the inhabitants of earth, ambient and constant light pollution has eclipsed the night sky to the extent that the galaxy we live in can no longer be seen. 

It wouldn’t necessarily have occurred to me that this an important thing for humans but, in fact, it is a big deal. Scientists are calling it an unprecedented cultural loss. 
Bright areas show parts of earth where the night sky is no longer visible. Image from Guardian UK / University of Colorado.

Up to the age of 19 I lived in a small Canadian town where the stars were constantly present. Since that time I’ve lived in major North American metropolises including Chicago, Washington DC, and Toronto where connection to the night sky basically included the moon and not much else. I have to say that the difference is significant and being able to see the night sky changes your perception of you place in the world. Today I live in Ottawa, a smaller city, where still we have quite a bit of light pollution. I really miss that sense of wonder that goes along with staring up at a truly dark night sky with planets, stars, and yes, the Milky Way easily apparent to the naked eye. 
As cities change over it LED for lighting buildings and streets, we have an opportunity to change the way we do things and protect the night sky. For consideration. 

How Your Mindset Changes Everything 

I’ve been reading about the difference between fixed and growth mindset. It turns out this is a powerful determinant of outcomes in people’s lives and the more I read about it the more it makes a lot of sense. Basically people enter into any situation with one of two perspectives: either you already know everything you’re ever going to know and you have to apply what you’ve been given, or conversely, you’re about to learn something from this experience. 

I was talking to a friend about this yesterday evening; someone I grew up with. She said, you know I think we were trained from an early age that we were trying to make the most of a hand we’d been dealt. She and I agreed that only later in life did we start to look at situations as more plastic and as opportunities for learning.

Personally, I can think of a lot of situations where looking for an opportunity to learn would be of benefit to me. I can see how looking at life through a growth lense is beneficial; setbacks are opportunities to learn rather than failings, and challenges are a lot more fun.

The Future of Energy

The future of energy involves a lot more renewables and diverse energy sources. I had the pleasure to attend an event this week put on by Canada 2020 called Global Energy Outlook 2016. The event was really a conversation between Dan Yergin, Vice Chairman of an energy consultancy called IHS, and The Honourable Jim Carr, PC, MP, the Canadian Minister of Natural Resources. Ailish Cambell, Deputy ADM, Finance skillfully moderated some questions.

Dan Yergin at this week’s event. Photo from Canada 2020.

Mr Yergin talked a little about how OPEC countries are diversifying their economies, and trying to make their economies more resilient. His prediction is that markets will continue to become more competitive and that electric  cars and alternative fuels will continue to compete more. He also maintains that fossil fuel use will continue to grow until 2030.
Dan pointed out Canada’s enviable position in that it has 80% renewable electricity, partly due to hydroelectric power.  

And he talked about Germany where they have shut down nuclear power plants but have increased their carbon footprint, initially, on their way to a low carbon future. 

I thought The Hon. Mr. Carr asked an excellent question: “Canada has trouble innovating in renewables. We’re lagging. What’s your advice?”

I was hoping for a bit more substantive answer to this question, but Dan’s advice is that we should look at past innovations. How the oil stands started, for example. 

When the minister asked about COP 21, and Bill Gates’ work organizing the private sector to reduce carbon emissions and whether there’s any convergence with Canada’s big picture role, Yergin responded; “It’s a big role in the traditional energy sector. Canada needs to get competing buyers for our oil, be a clean energy leader. Renewables, clean energy, and efficiency are key.”

When Dan expressed curiosity about what Canada’s relationship to the Pacific will be in the future, 
the minister said the country is moving to federal carbon policy. Today 80% of Canadians are under some type of carbon regime. Maybe the most important statement of the evening was by the Hon. Jim Carr, who said;  “We must meaningfully consult our aboriginals when we consider energy projects.” The audience broke into applause at this remark. 
The minister also mentioned that the “… Prime Minister announced green infrastructure last week to the Canadian Federation of Municipalities. The government has an obligation to lead by example with buildings and vehicles.”

Minimalist Art and Architectural Space

Ottawa’s National Gallery of Art is honestly one of the things I appreciate most about living in this City. It had been a couple of months since I’d been there when I visited last weekend, which meant there was plenty of new things to take in. 

The Chris Cran show is surprising and witty. Some of the governor general’s award winners were on display. 

Overall, though, one of the things that made the experience most rewarding was a realization I had about modern art and space. I’ve always been on the fence about the value of minimalist art, but standing in the room with pieces by Rothko and others, I realized that the value of paintings and sculpture like that, for me, is the way they contribute to space.

I recall the discussion around the most recent addition to MoMA being the way the building was planned around specific art pieces, and the success of the addition being its interaction with the art.

I assume when Moshe Safdie associates designed the room that showcases ‘Voice of Fire’,for example, the space was purpose built for the painting, but I don’t know for sure. If readers know the story I’d love to hear it.

Minimalist art on display in one of the National Gallery’s most successful spaces.

Health Care And Design Excellence Can Coexist 

When I started working in architecture I remember a mentor telling me not to get involved with healthcare. The logic was that hospitals are generally large bland buildings where design is driven by too many factors that have nothing to do with making good buildings. This is part of the reason I’m so pleased about last week’s announcement that Bridgepoint Active Healtcare, a project I had the privilege of working on, has recieved a Governor General’s Award for Architcture. 

With this recognition and a recent AIA Award, Bridgepoint has joined an elite group of recent North American hospitals and health care facilities that are being recognized for their superior architecture. In the case of Bridgepoint, this means recognition that not only is the building beautiful but it’s design is in the service of patients. 

Thanks to the initial vision of Bridgepoint’s CEO, Marian Walsh, ideas about patient-centered design were carried throughout the project. Light, air, views, healthy interior spaces, and myriad other features all contribute to making a place where patients can really feel better. I’m very pleased the GG Awards’ distinguished jury saw this, and confirmed that Bridgepoint broke the blandness mold that so many healthcare buildings are cast from. 

Images below are from the GG Awards website.

What Is A Smart City?

The city of the very near future will be a place where citizens are both content users and providers. It will be a place where street lights and fire hydrants and transit systems communicate back and forth with smart phones. It will be a place where decision making is shaped by all kinds of streaming data from traffic conditions to weather to pedestrian movements. It will be a much more sustainable city because of innovations in technology.

One of the best presentations I attended at last week’s OAA conference was the “Toronto: Smart and Connected” tour led by Waterfront Toronto’s Kristina Verner, Bill MacGowan of Cisco,  and Joy Henderson of Cityzeen. Together they introduced the architects in attendance to the mind expanding ways in which Toronto’s waterfront is developing.

Kristina Verner compares the scale of Waterfront Toronto with other similar developments. Photo by the author.

Kristina talked about the role of Waterfront Toronto in these developments. They currently require what she called LEED Gold ‘plus’, for new buildings, bringing their requirement close to Platimum. Their new CEO, William Fleissig is an architect from California and has experience leading cutting edge  sustainable developments. Watch this space for innovations in the sustainability realm. 

Waterfront Toronto housing has 1 gbs upload and download speeds to ensure that residents can be both content users and providers.
The Toronto lakefront has become an innovation corridor stretching from the Central Waterfront to Pinewood Studios
Public space is key to the new waterfront and 24 new parks have been created. 
Queens Quay has been updated to feature a new bike lane, dedicated streetcar lanes, and granite paving. Surprisingly, it works better today than when it was four lanes. 
So far, $1.26 Bn investment has generated new private sector development valued at $9.6 Bn.

The smart city is literally under development at Cisco’s  new Innovation Centre on Toronto’s waterfront. Bill MacGowan showed us some of the high tech ideas they’re working on including smart fire hydrants, remote charging for devices, smart lighting that is controlled by a smart phone. 

Cisco’s Bill MaGowan talks about intelligent infrastructure.