Visualize This

December was a blur and this is a post about an NCC / Carleton University joint Urbanism Lab event that took place way back in early in December at the National Gallery here in Ottawa. The event was called ‘Imaging The City’ and speakers included Emma Greer of Carlo Ratti Associati (CRA) in Turin, Fadi Masoud from the University of Toronto’s Daniels Faculty of Architecture, and Stephen Fai of Carleton University’s Azrieli School of Architecture and Urbanism.

Together the three of them represent some fascinating ideas about big data, cities, and some unique applications of urbanism and mapping. I hope you’ll find their work and what they talked about as interesting as I did.

Emma and CRA have an ongoing partnership with MIT’s Senseable City Lab and digital imaging and mapping are constantly part of what they do. They enagage in a process they call ‘futurecrafting” where they employ many sources of data to measure urban dynamics. Transponders on taxis and cel phone locations and usage, just for example.

In one project they engaged with trash to find out where standard plastic water bottles are manufactured and where they go to be recycled at a national level. The group has also analyzed the bacteria and viruses in sewage systems to better understand urban health trends. Findings from both these explorations are fascinating.

Their group has studied prescient questions like: can the city operate with 20% of the cars we use today? What will a more robotized world look like? How can we better align buildings’ use by occupants and energy use? CRA imagines the challenge of the 21st Century to be one where the designers use big data and become mutagenic agents, improving every aspect of how we do things.

In Heidelberg, Germany, CRA worked with Commune Patrick Henry to create a new identity for the site. They proposed a new commune for the sharing economy. Residential garages became fab labs, co-living blocks are to be used for ‘sharing’. Corporate and institutional entities became very excited about the project.

Fadi talked about zoning maps and his work to improve how they’re made and used. He showed an amazingly simple photo of a suburb outside Yuma, Arizona, by Ed Burtynsky to illustrate how the danger of land use classifications as we know them today is that they grossly over simplify issues. He pointed out that the tools used are the same all over North America.

Yuma, Arizona from the air. Photo by Edward Burtynsky.

Around Florida’s Biscayne Bay, because of rising sea levels, tides are causing ‘good weather flooding’ in urban areas. Symptomatic of the issue, an octopus recently turned up in a parking garage. Nevertheless, Floridian politicians have recently struck the word climate change from official government documents.

Fadi pointed out that the last time even our Canadian Capital region’s flood plain maps were updated was in Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s time; last spring’s flooding in Gatineau provided evidence that it may be time to take a second look.

Stephen Fai talked about projects he is engaged with at CIMS. They are working with Public Services Procurement Canada (PSPC) to model the Parliamentary Precinct in considerable detail. They also have an ongoing relationship with the Dominion Sculptor, Phil White, where they scan sculptures on buildings and use CNC milling and Mr. White’s own sculpting skills to restore them. Stephen talked about modelling the Capital, a project he’s working on with the NCC, the City Of Ottawa, and others. He showed a project he’s doing in Prince Edward County mapping breweries and the associated suppliers, and talked about how that could translate into economic research for the whole region of eastern Ontario.

Catherine Bonier of Carleton University and Stanley Leinwand of the NCC moderated a discussion with the speakers after the presentation. They talked about the importance of the work they’ve been doing as public, accessible, and easily available to the general public. Some of the work the speakers are doing seems so simple from a certain point of view; they’re connecting dots that really should have been connected before, but no one had an ability to do it. Sometimes they’re work simply opens up a new way of looking at a problem.

Fadi talked about how excited government officials in Florida have become about the work that they’re doing. The public and officials, both, have much more access to this information.

Well known Canadian urban designer Robert Allsopp was in the audience and pointed out the utility of Google Earth Pro, then asked whether insurance companies’ data is publically available. Fadi said mostly the data they use in his work comes from public sources, and hopefully it is open source.

Stephen Fai mentioned that the US is considering repealing some of the laws that make the internet free and open to all. He indicated this is causing great concern among the ‘big data’ and mapping community.

A programmer in the audience decried the fact that so many programmers are involved in such unimportant work. He indicated that people of his background should get involved in solving the urban scale problems he saw at work in the presentations.

City Building In The Canadian Capital

Ottawa has grown 7.9% since 2001, beating both the province of Ontario and Canada’s growth rates during the same period. I had the pleasure of showing architecture critic Trevor Boddy this growing City last weekend. While I think everyone here knows on some level that there’s a lot of construction in Ottawa right now and the city is changing quickly in the lead up to 2017, taking a Vancouverite who used to live in Ottawa years ago on a tour provided an opportunity to survey the changing urban landscape with fresh eyes. Ottawa really is going thorough a ‘city building’ phase in a big way right now.

We started the tour on the west end of the city and looked at the Civic Hospital Site as it exists today and pondered the future and what it might mean for the hospital to move to a new location in ten years. Moving east we took in the Preston Street area and the changes that have come to that neighbourhood from being near the O-train, which arrived there in 2001. The Icon, a new tower under construction will be one of the tallest buildings in that neighbourhood.

We looked at Hintonburg’s transformation which has also been in progress for some time.

The Icon, a new mixed use tower now under construction in Ottawa's Preston Street neighbourhood.

The Icon, a new mixed use tower now under construction in Ottawa’s Preston Street neighbourhood.

claridge_icon_2The Eddy by Christopher Simmonds, Architect is an example of that transformation; gentrification has definitely taken hold there; perhaps partly because of the O-Train, and probably also, now, as a result of speculation about LeBreton. 

Moving East, we looked at LeBreton, both the newer buildings that were based on plans created in 2007, and the lands that are part of the ongoing ‘reset’ of urban design on the flats. The LRT line, now well under way, has really changed the future of the flats. 

We looked at Cathedral Hill a new building by Windmill developers and HOK, and we drove along Wellington Street admiring the newly renovated buildings facing Parliament.

We ended the tour in Lansdowne where the new development centres  around the new home of the Red Blacks, Ottawa’s CFL team. 

Reimagining Urban Waterfronts 

Jelle Therry of West 8 presented their internationally acclaimed work recently week at the National Gallery and for the NCC staff. This dutch landscape design firm has been involved with some of the most interesting urban design and landscape architecture in North America recently. These are some notes I took when Mr. Terry spoke at the NCC’s Urbanism Lab to a group of architects, landscape architects and planners. He presented a series of the firm’s recent projects, providing insights about how the work was developed and the importance of the public realm. 

Toronto Central Waterfront

The inner harbour had some real environmental problems in 2006 when the project began. Pike (the fish) were absent from the water and Toronto street trees weren’t well planted or cared for and typically survived only 5 years. West 8 created a master plan for Toronto’s central waterfront. One of the key problems historically were the ‘pinch points’ where pedestrian movement was constricted by very narrow sidewalk widths along the docks. The now famous curving wood ‘wave decks’ provided an elegant and compelling answer to this problem. 

Wavedecks were the tip of the iceberg, in terms of the fact that if the wavedecks cost $5, then $4 of that amount was spent on improvements to the ecosystems in the harbor; a part of the project that you don’t really see when you visit but is very important to the ecology of the waterfront. Within 5 years the pike was back living along these harbour front locations. 

The promenade was expanded and is now 18 m wide. Below the walking surface, eventually, will be a system for cleaning storm water before it enters the lake. 

Pedestrian bridges have been designed that will be implemented some day. 

The traffic flow along the waterfront has been improved. Cars have been moved to the north  side of the streetcar track. Along 1.7 km of lakefront, the public realm has been completely rehabilitated. 

Property values have improved along queens quay. What was a $200 k condo is now a $350 k condo. Mr. Terry attributes this partly to the infrastructure and public realm improvements along the Quay 

Mr. Terry closed by saying that in Toronto, strong leadership has been the genesis of these ideas. Chris Glasiek and others have really provided a vision for improving Toronto’s public realm.

Madrid Rio

The mayor was looking for re-election and identified the river and getting the public access to it as a campaign winning idea.

The ring road was buried, making way for public space. Trees and paths were added.  Today it’s a zone for playgrounds and for recreation. The royal palace has been reconnected to the river. 

Maxima Park: Utrecht, NL

West 8 did a master plan for this major urban park on the periphery of Utrecht. The park was built in phases, beginning with a bike path around the periphery. The overall build out will take 20 years. 

Jelle says that one key to the success of West 8 is that they are always collaborating with other designers. 

A natural lake has been brought back to the heart of the park. Today people swim and boat on it. 

A concrete pergola creates opportunities for creativity in the park; it acts as something to plant against, and something to create space with. It’s used to make gates. 

Governor’s Island, NY

When West 8 won a competition to  redesign this place, they were very excited to propose a new green space between Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty. 

Today the island has a lot of paved area and is in poor condition. 1800 trees are proposed. The landscape is raised to create planting places for these trees, above salt water, both today and in the future. Topography and hills provide views of Manhattan and frame views of the Statue of Liberty.

Some of the most compelling elements of the project are the whimsical ones; a grove of trees supports hammocks, curving and very steep slides provide fun for kids of all ages. 

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.

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. 

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.

What Makes A Good Sports And Entertainment Complex?

Going back to ancient Rome, the best venues for sports and entertainment have always been urban and embedded in the fabric of the city. The Roman coliseum,  one of the wonders of the world, was during the time of Rome’s domination of the known world, a major contributor to public life in Rome.

Crowds at the Roman coliseum. Image from pop

The Roman coliseum in its urban context. Image from abroad

One of the primary objectives we put forward for Canada’s capital at LeBreton Flats, initially, was that it be a vibrant public place, and a contributor to public life in Ottawa in all four seasons. Of course public in this case refers to the outdoor public experience. Everyone knows that Ottawa has four real seasons, and all the more reason why we were looking to create a place where the outdoor experice works in winter as well as the rest of the year. This might sound challenging to anyone who lives where there’s a ‘real’ winter, but there are a lot of strategies that can be employed to make a city work well in this most challenging season. 

Image from Rendezvous LeBreton.

I’m glad that the team selected to execute this project has embraced the idea for this very important public place that will be at least in part, a place of sports and entertainment.

Ottawa’s Lansdowne is a another reasonably good example of a recent sports and entertainment complex that works for winter, but it’s only the beginning. Cities  in Northern Europe have begun to embrace the concept of winter cities and of making their colder cities better for outdoor use and we could and have learned a lot from what they’re doing.

So what’s wrong with building a giant indoor complex that swallows up multiple city blocks? It’s certainly one approach to building in cities with unfavourable climates, and places like Las Vegas continue to build in this way, partly because the casinos want to control their guests entire experience. Their new hockey arena is well underway, and despite this trend, I’m happy to report that it seems to provide at least some limited exterior public space. The issues around building are myriad, but the most important thing is that cities should be accessible to all. Interior space, even if it’s public or semi-public, does not by itself a real city make, and the fact that access is controlled and limited also limits who can benefit. Of course one could argue that creating a large indoor sports and entertainment complex in one corner of a city won’t really impact the city as a whole, but in fact a cities’ sports teams really can either contribute greatly, or actually detract from the public life of a city. Any city considering a new venue for their sports team should ask the question; “In what way do we want this team to contribute to life in our city?” 

Washington DC’s Verizon Center, the home of the Capitals hockey team is a great example of a sports venue that, while architecturally unspectacular, is embedded in and really contributes to the life of that city. There are more factors than just the sports team, but the Chinatown neighbourhood around that arena, at Gallery Place Metro, has become vibrant and a real economic engine for DC. The sports complex is considered a driver for the revitalization of that neighbourhood. When I moved to DC in 2001 the renewal of the city around Verizon Center and 7th Street was only beginning, but it’s thriving today. In Washington, the number of businesses and other entities that have profited from this renewal is staggering. Other cities should take note of these examples and make sure they’re building sports venues that contribute to public life in their city in all seasons.