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. 

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


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. 

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.

Recipes For Great Cities

Arts, culture, and sophisticated design ideas are key ingredients to making great cities. This week the NCC hosted an event in its Urbanism Lab called The Art Of City Building.  Dov Goldstein, a principal at Lord Cultural Resources and Mark Robbins, CEO of the American Academy in Rome talked about their experiences with these key ingredients in making vibrant cities.

Toronto’s Hearn Generating Station. Image from Illuminato.  
Each speaker gave a short presentation highlighting their experiences where arts and culture have changed cities. Some of the more interesting examples included the use of Toronto’s Hearn Generating Station as a venue for cultural events including  for Luminato this June, and Mark’s work in support of reinvigorating downtown Syracuse when he was dean of the architecture school there. He commissioned some excellent architecture projects, and his work was chronicled by The Architect’s Newspaper. Examples include the Syracuse University School of Architecture by Gluckman Architects, and the Syracuse Center for Excellence by Toshiko Mori.

Syracuse’ School Of Atchitecure plays a role in reinvigorating the city. Image from Gluckman Tang Architects.  
One project Mark worked on that was of particular interest to me was the sustainable homes competition that he organized for Syracuse in 2008. I hadn’t heard about this competition and it’s very much similar to one I participated in in Chicago in 2004. 

Factor 10 House was one of the homes that was constructed in the Chicago competition and it was selected for an AIA top ten award. Working on that was the beginning of my interest in sustainability. I completely agree with Mark that competitions of this type can contribute greatly to a City. In Chicago it was initiatives like this that helped build that City’s reputation for green building in North America.

One of the sustainable houses resulting from a design competition in Syracuse. This one was designed by architect Richard Cook. Image from Dwell. 
In any discussion of reinvigorating a city, New York’s Highline inevitably comes up. Dov brought some new (to me, at least) information to the table, though. I was not aware of the extensive rezoning along the high line that enabled its creation, and spurred development along its extent. The Highline as spawned other people oriented infrastructure projects even in New York which I was aware of, but not how interrelated they are. The proposed Low Line and Bjarke Ingels’ Dry Line are two of these.

Bjarke Ingels’ Dry Line is a recreational amenity for New York that doubles as a flood protection barrier.  
An informal discussion and audience questions followed the presentations. One of the better questions that was discussed, at least for me as an architect, had to do with whether architects are ‘multidisciplinary’. I really appreciated Mark Robbins’ answer. He firmly asserted that they are, by necessity. Architects have to join together art, craft, and psychology [and other disciplines]. Typically the issue is the clients, who tend constrain projects. Mark pointed toward his involvement with the well known Mayor’s Institute on City Design, describing it as being about educating the clients of design. He intimated that it provides an opportunity for Mayors to admit that they rely on others to guide building projects because they understand so little about the issues. The main goal of the institute as he put it is educating Mayors to become better design clients.

Biophilia: A Way To Build Better Cities

Humans have an evolutionary need to affiliate with nature. This is the premise of a book published in 1984 by Edward O. Wilson, called Biophilia. In my own life I find this to be true, and I’ve often felt frustrated living in larger cities like Chicago, Washington DC, or Toronto where access to nature is hampered by long travel times and congested freeways. 

Permit me a little civic / capital pride in saying that Ottawa, by contrast with some of these cities, has an excellent balance of urban and natural settings within 30 minutes’ drive from its core.

Ottawa from the air. Photo from NCC. 

Skidmore Owings & Merril’s urban designers together with University of Tennessee have put the principles of biophilia, as Mr. Wilson set them out 30 years ago, to work in addressing the challenges of contemporary city building, sustainability, and co-existence with nature. Led by SOM partner and architect Philip Enquist, they have proposed nine principles that are intended to drive urban growth in harmony with nature. I’ve listed them below:

1. Livibility; happy and healthful urban living that creates a sense of place and local identity.

2. Economy; broad based prosperity for the city or region.

3. The food principle; offering access to locally grown fresh edibles.

4. Mobility; providing efficient networks for movement of people, materials, and information.

5. No waste; focuses on designing cities Tom minimize garbage.

6. Safety; ensure streets can be used comfortably by all types of users.

7. Water; protect and enhance natural hydrologic cycles.

8. Resiliency; design cities that are able to withstand extreme weather and adapt to climate change.

9. Energy; power cities with clean, renewable energy and reduce consumption.

Enquist’s Chicago Lakeside Masterplan. Image from SOM.


Urbanism Online

The way we consume information about our cities is changing and so too is the way we are getting involved with local urban issues. This was an important theme of an event last week hosted at the NCC’s urbanism lab. I don’t usually blog about work, but this event was particularly good I thought. 

Speakers included Jillian Glover, Robert Smythe, Brandon Donnelly, and Marc-André Carognan and these four successful bloggers did a great job of representing the changing landscape of how we tackle urban issues in Canada today. Jillian is a Vancouverite known for her involvement in issues affecting urban families in Vancouver through her blog This City Life. Robert is an Ottawan and a fan of modernism and heritage architecture; themes of his blog Urbsite. Brandon Donnelly is the author of Architect This City and writes about urban issues in his local Toronto most notably, the Laneway Project and the fate of the Gardiner Expressway. Quebec architect Marc-André Carignan writes about architecture and urban design in La Belle Province. 

I learned a lot from these bloggers and I plan to implement some of the concepts they talked about in their own experiences with blogging about urban issues. Some ideas were directly linked to improving your readership; don’t be afraid to pitch sites like Guardian UK’s cities site about featuring your blog. Get social media accounts for your blog.

Other pointers had to do with being more focussed about what you’re writing about, like simplifying your site’s vision statement. Jillian has had a lot of success with more personalized blog posts that address issues she and her family face.  

  Ottawa yesterday evening. Photo by the author.


How To Build Canadian Cities Back Up

I’m working on a white paper about fixing Canadian cities. The last ten years have left them shabby and investments have been sorely lacking. With a new government in place that has signalled an interest in infrastructure, it may be a good time to rethink some of our policies. So far I’m thinking that the outline might look something like this:

  • Invest 
  • Build Infrastructure – bridges, more rail, and housing that addresses the broad demographics that Canada boasts
  • Focus on making Canadian cities great; figure out what makes each particular city uniqueand figure out how to build on that
  • Focus on transportation types besides the automobile
  • Put our money where our mouth is on design excellence. 
  • Consider enhanced protections for our built heritage
  • Consult the public especially on the big moves
  • Build consensus 
  • Do real sustainability that meets high international standards
  • Learn from Quebec City; one of the most visited cities in Canada that has set a high standard for caring for and building on what they have

This is a start. Feedback welcome.

Image is a photo of Toronto by Klaus Lang on 500px.


Sometimes Thinking Small Is Effective

Sometimes changing one block, one park, or one person, can create conditions that change the way a city works. This is the message of a book that a reader shared recently called Urban Acupuncture by architect and former mayor of Curitiba, Jaime Lerner

Having gotten a few pages in, I can tell already that it’s a great read and I recommend it highly to those interested in city building.