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


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 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.

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.


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.


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.