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


Grand Designs: Hiding in Plain Sight

Have you ever had one of those moments when you’re introduced to something that seems like it was hiding in plain sight? A friend recently introduced me to the British tv series Grand Designs and I can’t believe I didn’t know about it until now. It’s been around since 1999, and for an architect and design junkie like me this is amazing stuff. 

    We watched host Kevin McCloud chronicle the efforts of a young couple as they buy a property in Northern Ireland on a stunning sight overlooking the sea. With astonishing  hard work, architect Michael Howe and his wife Michelle Long create an addition and transform the 100 year old black smith shop into a stunning home for themselves and their two children.

    This home makes the most of its north coast Ireland setting. Image from Belfast Telegraph.

    For me the best part of the way the show is made is that they follow the couple as they plan and build the project. The show details the myriad challenges of the project and the setbacks, with what seems to be a sympathetic but realistic eye. The project comes alive before your eyes, and unique and innovative ideas are explained in a way that both professionals and everyone else can understand. As the project develops difficulties are encountered that seen insurmountable, but the couple finds a way through. All in all it makes for a great show.

    While they’ve made something like 160 episodes, the one I really want to see next is about the creation of this improbable and unique house by Patrick Bradley Architects made of shipping containers.

    The Grillagh Water house is made of stacked shipping containers. Image from Dezeen 

    How To Build A Sustainable City

    What is sustainability? How can it be measured? What is a sustainable city? Berlin architect Vanessa Miriam Carlow addressed these questions and more in a well attended talk this evening at the National Galery of Art in Ottawa. 

    Visiting Ottawa as a juror for the Governor General’s Award for Architecure, Ms. Carlow is a professor at Technische Universitat Braunschweig, and principle at the firm COBE Berlin. She is an architect that has focussed on urban design and public buildings. Surprisingly, given the unreliability of design competitions as a business model, most of her firm’s work comes from her many successes in winning urban design and architecture projects through entering competitions. 

    In the Architecure school’s studio at TU Braunschweig, along with her students, she has chosen take on collaborative projects tackling real life urban problems. 

    Ms. Carlow began her talk by highlighting the increasing importance of cities. In 2006, 2.6 billion people lived on earth. It continues to grow, and in 2100, population projections figure a global population of 11.2 billion. Vanessa is convinced that a result of this population increase will be that cities of 2 billion people will emerge. In Guy Lefebre’s book, The Urban Revolution he suggests looking at how people use space rather than looking exclusively at built form, an unfortunate tendency of contemporary urban design that Ms. Carlow stands strongly against. She predicts two types of cities will emerge in coming years. In high population growth countries, in Africa, for example, cities will notfocus on creating new urban areas (rather than slums). 

    While European cities are considered by some, given population projections, to be “95% complete”, issues facing European cities are multiple. They include climate change, diversity, and the right to a livable and sustainable city 

    Vanessa’s work seeks to address cultural issues in Northern Europe. She showed a library in Copenhagen where immigrant communities gather to enjoy books. 
    Interkultur, a book by Mark Terkessidis is influential to COBE’s work, and documents Germany’s struggle to become an inclusive society.

    Vanessa’s firm designed a new harbourfront development for Copenhagen. IPCC, Denmark’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has identified a future where sea levels will rise 2 m. The project creates a sustainable, public oriented development. 

    By the end of the decade, Copenhagen predicts 50% of all trips will be made by bike.

    Vanessa’s quite proud of having reducing the amount of road used for cars in favour of trees, bike lanes, and wider sidewalks.

    ‘The 5-minute City’ is basis of much of Vanessa’s design work. Individuals 

    DGNB – German LEED type standard. Applied in many cities and countries. 

    In Senegal, Vanessa worked on a city for 125, 000 houses. The average Senegalese family has 8 people, so in effect the goal was a city of 1 million inhabitants. Similar sustainability principles were applied to this project as were applied in Berlin. Creating a city where most things people need are within 5 minutes’ walk. Creating a ‘blue, green, and healthy city’ was a goal; with access created between water and green space. Agriculture is planned for a ‘green’ band around the city. Streets are designed to channel water into the lake. No storm water pipes are proposed; saving time and money.

    A city for 125,000 houses near Dakar, Senegal. Image from COBE.  
    While there were many sustainability proposals seem viable, the type of community consultation that Vanessa was involved with in Europe seems to be lacking with this project. Interestingly Vanessa said that her lecture recieved a comment in Toronto that the street trees she showed in the project didn’t provide shade. She says they are changing to deciduous trees for the project. 

    An excellent lecture, really enjoyed it. More at

    An Airborne Village In a Forest … In Paris

    Yes it does sound improbable. Paris has sparked a bunch of creative design ideas with a recent architectural competition aimed at improving the city. This innovative building designed by Parisian Xox Architects in collaboration with Sou Fujimoto proposes a residential ‘village’ with a lot of trees, all set on top of another building. 

    A friend shared this article with me and it immediately struck a chord. Architects have been working on getting landscape onto the tops of buildings since the hanging gardens of Babylon, and it can definitely be done. 

    With climate change becoming increasingly urgent, the idea of adding trees and planting a to cities while continuing to add density in terms of residential space becomes more and more compelling.

    A proposed roofscape, featuring residential units with a view of the Eiffel Tower though the forest. Images from  
    A sidewalk view of the proposal.


    Two Competing Visions For LeBreton

    The last two days have seen a fever pitch of interest in the future of LeBreton Flats. The two consortia competing to develop this 55 acre site in the core of Ottawa’s Capital revealed their proposals at the Canadian War Museum yesterday and the day before. DCSLS‘ proposal and that of Rendezvous LeBreton, the two teams vying to build at LeBreton differ in interesting ways, but they both propose exciting new ideas for this part of Ottawa.

    The public came out in droves to see the proposals and news coverage was extensive.  

    Two artist’s illustrations, below, show competing visions for the future of LeBreton Flats.


    A House Like A Shadow

    I recently subscribed to Dezeen’s Instagram feed and am loving the daily dose of design and architecture. Imagine my surprise when I stumble upon a house designed by Tom Pejic and Monica Oller, two long lost former colleagues from early career days in Chicago. 

    I love to be able to congratulate fellow architects when they do well and this is a very interesting project. One of the things we architects and designers are constantly asked to do is create something based on very abstract aspirations on the part of a client. Case in point here, because the owner asked Pejic and Oller to create a house like a shadow. In the sun baked landscape of California’s Joshua Tree National Park, I’ll admit this makes some sense; but never the less. 

    As you can see from these photos the result is a very compelling completely black house that does in fact appear to be a cool oasis in a very harsh but beautiful desert landscape. 

    From a sustainability point of view I’d love to know more about how a house like this functions in this extreme environment. The highly reflective glazing selected speaks to the need to repel heat, but a black volume would seem to absorb a lot of solar energy.  

    Photos from Dezeen.


    The Transformation of DC’s U and 14th Streets

    A friend shared an article with me recently about Thievery Corporation’s Eric Hilton and his success in transforming the parts of Washington DC called the U Street Corridor. One of the most interesting components of his involvement in this transformation, to me, is the way the clubs and restaurants he opened in this part of DC appealed to a broad cultural cross section of DC; a lot like Thievery Corporation’s music. 

    Eric Hilton photographed in one of his clubs. Image from New York Times.  
    I lived in DC between 2001 and 2008, and had the privilege of designing Langston Lofts, an American Institute of Architects award winning building, with Shalom Baranes Associates at 14th and V Streets that was one of the first new build condominiums in the area. At the time I recall a lot of skepticism that this part of DC could become a good place to live and to go out at night. I also remember a lot of skepticism when the cafe opening on the main floor of the building was announced; DC-ites were unsure this could ever be a viable neighbourhood. Bus Boys and Poets is still open today and has a multi cultural vibe similar to the one that Eric Hilton pioneered at his clubs (and with his music). This was unique in a city that, like many US cities, was quite segregated at the time.

    Langston Lofts at DC’s 14th and V Streets. Image by Maxwell Mckenzie.  
    Improving cities from the point of view of pedestrians and those who would enjoy them day and night is to me a major component of sustainability. Changing neighbourhoods from car oriented desolate places to thriving pedestrian oriented neighbourhoods has a huge positive impact, bothe from social points of view and in reducing automobile use and carbon footprint. 

    Before Hilton started building clubs along U street it was a desolate and dangerous seeming corridor that people drove through quickly or avoided completely. Today this part of town is vibrant and people flock to it for shopping during the day and in the evening for a dinner or to a club. 

    The gentrification of U and 14th Streets continues, and has a lot of benefits that to me counter the drawbacks in the way that this Washington Post article catalogs. A lot of other cities could learn from Eric Hilton and the inclusive, progressive choices he made in building up this part of Washington DC.

    The Hintonburg Six: Local Innovation

    I realized today that this project is one of a few in Ottawa that I continually refer to from a design point of view. A friend said today that he’s looking for some ideas about out buildings on his property and I immediately thought of the ones that Colizza Bruni Architecture designed for this local development. 

    The landscape design for this Hintonburg development is one component that really makes it special. The buildings are sited carefully and the spaces between them are strategically defined for the use of residents by wood walls and steel plated storage sheds. The latter are, I think, especially well done. 

    This project won an Urban Design award from the City of Ottawa in 2013. I attended the award ceremony that year and went to see the project shortly afterward. While the buildings are at first impression a little crude, I keep coming back to them as examples of how to do good housing in a gentrifying neighbourhood, on a budget. 

    Photos are from Archdaily and were taken by Peter Fritz. 


    Bad Guys Need Good Architecture

    I caught Ex Machina on Netflix last night. I’d wanted to watch it for a while because ever since reading Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep as a teenager I’ve been fascinated by artificial intelligence and the idea of a future where droids are almost indifferentiable from humans. The movie version of that book, Bladerunner, is my favourite among a few movies that feature very interesting buildings.

    Ex Machina is a decent movie and the acting is quite good, but one component that especially grabbed my attention as someone that loves a good movie set is the Juvet Landscape Hotel in north west Norway which serves as the bad guy’s lair in the movie. 

    Designed by Jensen & Skodvin Architects the hotel is wood clad and spectacularly nestled among trees overlooking a river. 

    In an article in Dezeen, the production designer for the movie, Mark Digby, says some interesting things about his choice of locations and how hard edged, shiny buildings are typically “for the bad guys.” He wanted to address that but says the choice of set was about being more interesting than that too. He stresses the importance of the choice of set given that the whole of the movie occurs in one house.

    Personally I find the set and especially the architecture of the hotel they used stunning and I’m amused that they chose to represent the badness of the villain in ths way. The combination of wood cladding and very crisp glazed walls achieves a really elegant effect, and is definitely not the typical Dr. Evil lair. 

    Have you seen the movie? Would love to hear readers’ thoughts.

    Images from Dezeen and Juvet.


    It’s Time to Look After Cities

    North American cities face unprecedented challenges today on three fronts. Infrastructure is decaying, transportation investments have not kept up with growth, and housing is costly and in many cases not suited to those who need it. Michael Enright hosted a CBC radio conversation on this topic yesterday that addressed many of these issues that both the US and Canada share, and some that are specific to Canadian cities. His guests included Ken Greenberg a Toronto architect, Don Iveson the mayor of Edmonton, and Jill Grant a planning professor at Dalhousie in Halifax. 

    Canadian cities consistently feature in the top five of The Economists top of the world’s most livable cities. However, Canada’s infrastructure deficit is an estimated $123 Bn and rising, and this poses a serious challenge to Canada’s status as home to the world’s best cities.

    The guests on this radio show talk about how the model of the city that features endlessly expanding suburbs is simply no longer sustainable. The idea of the automobile as the answer to every transportation need has run its course, says Ken Greenberg. Today, a modest house in Toronto costs $1m and this is why urban low income families are being pushed to inner suburbs where access to transit is limited.

    Halifax has its own issues according to Jill Grant who points out that that city is tending toward sprawl and fragmented pockets of development outside the core.

    In discussing strategies to develop cities in a way that works today, Edmonton’s mayor, Mr. Iveson talks about a model development in his city where an urban airport is being replaced by a medium density low carbon neighbourhood that features district energy and other sustainability initiatives. I’m pretty sure he’s talking about Blatchford redevelopment which has been featured in this blog, and according to the mayor, is back on track as a highly sustainable development. 

    Questions do remain however about whether the project is on track and whether sustainability objectives are being honoured. The original designer was Perkins & Will, but the city’s site features different images than the ones that were prepared by this leading design firm.

    Nevertheless, panelists agree that if the federal government doesn’t become involved once again in supporting cities that they will continue to be strangled by infrastructure, housing, and transportation issues. The panelists also agree that on the flip side, government spending led to the post war period of prosperity, and could be a model for a way forward today. I’m curious whether readers agree.

    Listen to the radio show here.

    Images are from Perkins and Will’s Blatchford Redevelopment site.