Back To Blogging After a Six Month Hiatus at

Wow is it December already? This year has been really busy and hasn’t left much time for the blog. A quick look at the stats shows that people are still visiting though, so I’m glad you’re still finding the content worth showing up for!

Since it’s been six months since my last post, here are some things that have been going on:

  • The Capital Illumination Plan is done. Find a link to the completed oeuvre here.
  • Artsfile did an article about the Plan.
  • My employer, the NCC, published a blog post about it here.
  • I bought a house in a Campeau development from the ’60’s this summer and I’m really happy with it.

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. 

Should Cities Require LEED Certification?

I put this question to Larry Beasley and Jonathon Barnett, authors of a new book called Eco Design for Cities and Suburbs, following an event at the NCC recently. Their answer was interesting and, based on their combined decades of experience with urban planning. 

Vancouver’s successes with sustainable development have provided material for this blog and were no doubt shaped by Larry in his role as chief planner for that city. His and Barnette’s perspective were interesting though.

They pointed out the difficulty with a city requiring a proprietary certification. Basically the result is a public entity tying themself to a standard which is non-governmental and not accountable to the public in the same way. Larry outlined Vancouver’s approach which was to require high performance buildings, and simultaneously modify their building code to have built in a high standard of environmental performance. 

While LEED is broadly required by agencies, states, counties, and cities in the US and Canada, including Vancouver, its application remains controversial and lobbying against use of this standard is nothing new.

Would love to hear readers’ perspectives on this.

Image: Vancouver BC, by Eric Witsoe on 500px 


Four Years of

This winter we passed the four year milestone for this blog. I started it  in 2010 with a vague notion about sustainability and that not enough was known about buildings’ energy consumption. It’s certainly been an interesting project for me and we’ve learned (both here on the blog and in the broader world out there) a lot about sustainability, about the built environment, and how the two could and should interrelate. 

Awareness of climate change (or maybe recognition) has grown since 2010 and so has awareness of the built environment’s role in the issue; buildings are known to contribute 40%. While we’d like to flatter ourselves that this blog has had some role in addressing the issue, as you can see by this diagram published recently by Vice, we as a planet have really only succeeded in intensifying the environmental damage so far.

 We won’t solve climate change any time soon, but on a personal level it has been gratifying to see the reception this blog has had. In 2014 we had 2000 views by over 700 individuals which means a lot of people are coming back for a second or third read. It’s encouraging that we’re already half way to 2000 views in May of 2015 too.  

 Our readers are mostly located in the U.S. and Canada but a surprising number are in Brazil. Stories that have gotten the most interest range in topic from sustainable building materials to unique solutions for residential architecture to a post about the Guardian UK’s ‘Overpopulation and Overconsumption’ photo set. 

   I find it interesting how search engines have brought a lot of viewers to the site, which to me means our content is compelling. Social media and site buttons seem to bring a lot of readers too. 


 So a big thank you to our readership and we hope you keep coming back. We’ll be working hard to continue developing  the quality of our content and to keep building the reach of our site. If you have ideas and comments we’d love to hear them.

Contemporary Bathrooms Need A Rethink

As part of a series the Guardian UK is doing called Live Better: Saving Water, Lloyd Alter offers an eye opening review of the history of indoor plumbing and highlights some ways in which bathroom design could use an update both in terms of the way these rooms are typically designed today and the enormous quantities of water and energy that are consumed by today’s plumbing conveniences.

Also take a listen to this related podcast by the editor of this blog and Howard Decker, former chief curator of the National Building Museum on the broader water scarcity issues that challenge today’s cities.


Guardian UK’s New Built Environment Page

One to follow

A new building at St. Michael’s Hospital, Toronto

… The Guardian has a new site dedicated to the future of the built environment. They plan to address the philosophy of the way we will live in the future and cover the world of architecture and building planning. They have taken the challenge to analyse the political, economic, social and technological aspects of the urban spaces of tomorrow. Stay Tuned.