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Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Andres Duany at SFU

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duany.jpgLast night I attended a public lecture given by Andrés Duany as part of the SFU City Program. So did, it seemed, every architect and planner in the region. The lectures are normally held at the SFU downtown campus but the sign-up was such that this event was held at the Four Seasons. And the only empty seats in the house were either side of me, which made me wonder what I have done to be so socially unacceptable.

I was going to try and transcribe my notes, but fortunately you can get everything he talked about from the DPZ web site. This is well worth going to visit, and I will try to insert appropriate links to the voluminous information there. Of course,what is not there are his remarks about places which were all very pointed and often very funny.

Streaming video 

And let me also say that even though this was sponsored by the Century Group, no-one but “Budd Campbell” would think that tainted his views in any way. He is his own man – and clearly does not shape his views to please his clients or sponsors.

He started off with a shot at Portland, OR, the poster child for US urbanity. But what he said was that they had been relying far too heavily on the urban boundary. What has been built between the excellent city centre and the edge is, he said, the worst kind of urban sprawl. “Developers were given free run” and produced exactly the same kind of suburbs as anywhere else. (I must admit I tend to agree with him. A few years ago I took a ride one evening out to the end of the MAX line. It was not only depressing, it was scary. For the train was boarded by a gang of youths – and there were none of the security devices that we find on our SkyTrains. The driver was, of course, shut way in her cab with the blinds down and would remain unaware of anything happening inside the car.) However in more recent years they have started tackling this area, specifically I think with transit oriented development at MAX stations.

He was also pretty hard on Vancouver. The British tradition of planning here is very different to US. It is based largely on negotiation with developers – and he termed it “empirical”as opposed to the usual North American reliance on codes. Fortunately Vancouver has the elite of planners, which has produced an enviable downtown but it is also “fantastically inefficient – that’s why there’s a housing shortage.” It takes so long to make decisions some developers have, he said, given up here and gone elsewhere. Compared to, say, Houston where housing is plentiful, ugly and cheap. He was scathing about architects’ contempt for suburban houses, and noted that there was “more design in the Four Seasons restaurant than in several square miles of suburban Vancouver.” “Vancouver suburbs are very badly done … only 1 in 400 houses has a decent architect – the worst ratio I have ever seen”.

UPDATE Frances Bula in her blog quotes him extensively on this issue – and I noticed from the ping backs that the links on other sites do not lead there. My link on the other hand does work. It is indeed a shame that space could not have been found somewhere int he paper for this event.

The people responsible for making places have all become far too specialized: there are no longer generalists who can do buildings, landscapes and streets. Even developers tend to be specialized – “I just do malls” and so on. But his greatest scorn was directed at environmentalists (they only understand nature) and traffic engineers (who apply their hierarchy of roads and standards rigidly with no understanding of context).

Manhattan could not be built now, yet everyone – he says – thinks it is a fantastic place. Not only that but people there walk and ride transit, something not possible in most modern suburbs. So the city dwellers have a smaller carbon footprint than the suburbanites. But the development of Manhattan required that hundreds of creeks were put into pipes – something now unthinkable. You cannot have a dense grid if you have to allow 90′ setbacks from streams. In the eyes of the environmentalists every human being is a problem, and every loss of nature is to be deplored. But that means you can’t have urbanity.

His solution is a “transect“. The basis of his lecture was to demonstrate that in nature there is a progression from the sea shore to the mountain top – a concatenation of contiguous habitats. There is a also a succession – it starts as grassland and progresses towards a forest as different plants get established and compete for their place in the sun. Cities also used to grow up that way. In the same way that there is an natural ecology, so there is an urban ecology. Cities started as very basic settlements – Vancouver was a collection of tents that quickly got replaced by a buildings of increasing sophistication. Suburbs, on the other hand, represent stasis. They do not grow, because their residents have seen the future and they do not like it.

transect_america_left.jpgThe transect has six standards. Each is very complex but allows for everything, as long as it fits into place. In fact there is an entire smart code that can be downloaded and used. Duany is very keen on using the web. He pointed out that students in other disciplines cannot wait to get their ideas up on the web and give them away for free, whereas architects insist on old fashioned commissions – which, of course, students can’t get. He wanted to know why no architects were on YouTube.

One problem that he highlighted was how traffic engineers insist that a road has to fit into their hierarchy – arterial, distributor, neighborhood – and that the standards used applied across the transect and did not respect place. One image showed a woman attempting to climb over a gigantic storm drain – big enough for freeway but on a suburban street. An arterial road looks the same in the country as it does on the city centre. “No one can build a country road anymore” – but he had a lot of images of roads – many of them from the thirties – which he says people actually like. He also demonstrated how a road should change as it moves from rural through suburban to urban – again using an example from Washington DC. He said that new urbanists like cars. What they do not like are excessive parking standards – and parking lots which look ugly full or empty – and the lack of alternatives to driving in suburbs, no matter what the distance to be covered. (He used an image here of the classic adjacent house and mall with no footpath between them). It is not about banning cars – in fact, he said, in North America you cannot ban anything. It is about providing alternatives that are attractive enough to reduce car use voluntarily.

The point about codes is that it removes discretion from planners. He said that US planners do not like to make decisions – because that implies risk – but they can and do apply codes consistently. The test of a code he said was to give it to an enthusiastic incompetent. A good code works no matter who applies it. This means it is also efficient and can produce good places quickly. It solves the problem of how you produce quality and quantity at the same time. You can in fact get good, fast and cheap – you no longer have to chose two. He compared it to Chinese fast food. There are a limited number of ingredients all prepared ahead of time. And the cook just mixes and matches to produce an immense variety of dishes.

He was very entertaining when he started talking about density. He showed that it is entirely possible to have very dense development without urbanity – Tyson’s Corner VA. And it is not just a matter of taste. “You cannot have a townhouse without a town” – which someone needs to tell the City of Richmond because we have thousands of them, and the only town we had (Steveston) seems to be vanishing before our eyes. Densification must occur gracefully, and cannot proceed with one decision at a time. The use of the code allows an area to be upgraded to the next highest level – in fact the code specifies that the transect grade will go up one step every fifteen years unless the residents vote against it. And in places where it has been adopted, everyone is in favour of upgrades, because they know it will only help (and not harm) property values.

I cannot say I agree with him at every point. For example, he said that every city square in Europe is also a parking lot. And while that might have been true at one time, in some places, it certainly is not now. Trafalgar Square, and Parliament Square are not parking lots – and never have been – and London is now even taking the traffic off one or two sides of those squares. The most attractive squares in places like Belgravia have parks or gardens in the middle – often locked up and surrounded by wrought iron railings to keep out the riff-raff. If I am going to use a sidewalk café, I want to look out at people not parked cars. Squares are places where people linger – loitering is positively encouraged. They have places to sit and watch the passing scene. Parking lots do not constitute urbanity in my book and are exactly what is wrong with Granville Island, which I want to see made car free.

He also claimed that genius was not to be the subject of the code. That at the centre – the peak of the transect – civic buildings would not be subject to code either. Because we want significant iconic buildings I suppose (that’s on February 1, back at Harbour Centre). He ridiculed one such building in Austin Texas, which was built from rough-hewn local stone. Of course, it had to have been subject to much higher standards of finish to meet his standards of urbanity, if for no other reason than to keep the dust off your nice clothes. He may be right, but somehow I doubt the ability of local politicians to recognize genius even if it comes up and bites them in the ass! I think it is about taste – and kitsch is much more than having rural objects in urban settings.

He is also very keen on the idea of green belts to keep places separate. He wants to limit the gradual, grudging annexation of city edges. I think he may be right, but you do have to be much more prescriptive about what can happen in a green belt. For one thing they offer far too easy a passage for a future ring road (no houses to knock down, no NIMBYs to stop it). Green belts do not stop growth – growth simply leapfrogs over it and keeps going and you end up with even longer commutes. That is very much the experience of South East England. There is not much rural about places like Staines or Hemel Hempstead (I have lived in both).

Planners do like things neat and tidy. One of Jane Jacobs great insights was that they did not understand cities or economies. I think Duany may understand cities better than most, and his code is certainly cleverer than the existing code by use. Better, I think, but maybe not the last word. I think we also need a place for creativity and experimentation. Yes, Swedish cities look nice, but does that mean we all have to live in replicas of Stockholm? Sense of place surely also requires that we have local materials – and local vernacular too. Codes need to have some respect for local conditions – just ask any leaky condo owner. And I did not hear much about jobs, or industry or retail – and nothing at all about recreation and tourism. I think that Central Park in New York is a dramatic idea (his final image), but the Royal Parks in London seem to me to be much more civilised and more widely used. And if Vancouver really is lacking, it is in good multiple use large parks. Stanley and Queen E are good – but nowhere near enough!

Sustainable cities need to have a growing economy – if only because a city that is not growing is shrinking. And I know that environmentalists really worry about the limits to growth and Malthusian forecasts are increasingly produced. Duany says that we have to be willing to trade off natural for urban. We do not need, he says, green roofs in the city centre, because city dwellers use less energy for transport. There is, he says, such a thing as a city street without trees – it’s called Rome. But I do not think that just because some places look like that that all places should aim to be like that. I think a city in a West Coast Temperate Rain Forest needs trees – and lots of them. And buildings that use wood – like Bing Thom’s Surrey SFU campus. But we only need one example of that building – but many of equal elan and style. And if you can do green and urbane too (like that one at UBC) why wouldn’t you?

Written by Stephen Rees

January 17, 2008 at 2:17 pm

Posted in Environment, Urban Planning

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12 Responses

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  1. Sounds like an interesting lecture.
    Sounds like Transect simply refers to the historic means by which Cities “evolve”, where over time buildings are replaced by progressively larger and denser buildings. This is reflected on older streets in downtown Vancouver (i.e. Granville) where you may have a 6 storey hotel/apartment block adjacent to a one storey retail store – without the need to mitigate the interface between the two by, say, stepping down a floor or two as would be required now (despite the fact that the one storey structure may fall to the wrecker’s ball).
    I see downtown Vancouver having problems “evolving” in the future for two reasons – development sites are now typically consolidated parcels/entire blocks with an overall design essentially “fixing” the building’s appearance/design in time, and – more significantly – the prevalence of condo buildings in Vancouver and the ownership structure underlying them means that (barring the big earthquake) these complexes will not be redeveloped for a very, very long time (i.e. redevelopment of an entire complex would require whatever special resolution is required at an annual general meeting of the condo owners and possibly dissolution of the strata corporation).
    So I wouldn’t expect to see any evolution of the large swaths of downtown Vancouver dominated by condos – the evolution will be reserved for the buildings owned by larger corporate and governmental entities (rental apartment buildings, office towers, shopping malls and government buildings).

    Ron C.

    January 17, 2008 at 2:50 pm

  2. As I understand it Vancouver’s downtown is at the top of the hierarchy T6 There is a lot to read at the web site referenced. And I am afraid I may have over simplified in the interests of brevity – and this is a long post

    I think his – and our – attention – is properly focussed on how we get more urbanity into the suburbs – and this approach seems to me, at first blush, less likely to raise hostility than the current EcoDensity debate in Vancouver and the piecemeal efforts elsewhere.

    Stephen Rees

    January 17, 2008 at 3:12 pm

  3. This is why I enjoy your blog, Stephen. There is intelligent discourse not just on things like the relatively technical aspects of transportation and on blowing down rather flimsy political houses of cards, but also on the finer layers, on such things as “sense of place.”

    I strongly believe that urban life will not be entirely complete just with the banning of freeways and the formulaic slapping of TODs onto the landscape along designated transit corridors (it’s shocking that some cities, like Calgary, have only just recently grasped even that basic idea despite two decades of, I must say, rather poorly-implemented light rail), but will be blessed immeasureably by finely textured streetscapes and by allowing the human scale to evolve naturally in neighbourhood economies. Duany has promoted public participation in creating such communities.

    Your reflections on Europe are insightful. Duany has made an extraordinarily successful career out of placing Jane Jacobs’ critical perceptions about the utterly debilitating role of the automobile into actual developents where the car is somewhat demoted by promoting walking, but aso in peddling contrived Eastern Seaboard facadism as an antidote to anonymous suburban dreck. I’m hesitant to say quaintness is actually progressive, but his influence does tell us that the 19th Century streetcar suburbs and small railway towns have far more human value than the average 20th Century suburb. New York is one of the densest cities on earth, but it’s form is essentially 19th Century with the appeal of streets filled with shops and people. This is where the role of the architect and urban designer is essential. The determination of the human scale experienced in 19th Century North America should inform today’s buildings, streets and planning entities.

    But I think we can learn much more from Europe if only because it has centuries more experience building cities and towns prior to the advent of the car, and has, as you pointed out, learned to take space back from cars in some instances. One excellent example is Copenhagen where it has been the city’s policy since the Sixties to remove 3% of the downtown land devoted to the car every year. Hardly anyone noticed the loss year to year. Near the turn of the century they hit the 40-year mark, and over 100,000 square metres (25 acres) of land has now been converted exclusively to pedestrian space. One or two plazas accommodate the incredibly modern stations of their new subway system.

    I am also reminded of rural France where towns like Annecy (around 9,000 people I believe) possess canals for streets, and where comfortable neighbouring towns of 2,000 to 20,000 people (like Tefal where they make the frying pans) are a short journey by train away, like pearls on a necklace. Somehow the green farmland between hundreds of European towns did not fill in, and when development jumped over the green zone it often took the form of another charming town on the rail line.

    I find that uncannily similar to the premise of another visionary urbanist, Peter Calthorpe who, in his publication The Pedestrian Pocket Book, proposed villages and towns strung along a rail line where every dwelling is built within a 5 minute walk of the train station. It was never realized, but he did go on to help citizens of the notoriously conservative community of Salt Lake City (land of monster houses, big lots and huge trucks) realize the promise that TODs stimulated by the advent of a light rail line can bring amenities, services and greater housing choice closer. In that case, the citizens led the politicians and the plan was actually more sustainable from a purely economic standpoint.

    Lastly, Vancouver has an incredibly talented pool of designers and planners who are often unfairly portrayed as the lackeys of the lowest denominator developers. I would hope that they may play an important role in helping save the world when the real crunch comes with the challenges peak oil and climate change, despite out current crop of disappointing leaders.


    January 17, 2008 at 4:44 pm

  4. Meredith –

    thank you. You don’t happen to have a blog of your own by any chance? I would happily read it and link to it.

    Stephen Rees

    January 17, 2008 at 4:57 pm

  5. Just a couple of points. I think that civic buildings should not be subject to (most) of the code, regardless of which Transect zone they occupy. I also want to point out that there’s plenty of room for creativity and experimentation under the codes Duany spoke about. For one thing, there is a network of key pedestrian thoroughfares, but in-between those key thoroughfares many of the requirements are often relaxed. (These are called “B-streets” or “B-grid” in the SmartCode.) These are meant to be grittier by design.

    Bruce Donnelly

    January 17, 2008 at 7:14 pm

  6. Well Stephen, … it looks like it was a very informative evening. But Rod and I would still be curious to know who the sponsor was. I think most civically and politically engaged and aware people usually have that question on their standard checklist, so I don’t know why anyone would think it rude or off-topic.

    I did attend one of the SFU forums in Sept that featured Mike Harcourt, Sean Rossiter, and Ken Cameron and moderated by Gordon Price. There was quite a selection of GVRD politicos past and present in the crowd. At one point someone asked why there was so little civic engagement in Vancouver today as compared to the 1970s and early 1980s. I don’t recall if either Harcourt or Cameron attempted a reply, but Rossiter stated that at most social gatherings he attends these days the dominant topic of conversation is always the same, the huge runup in the price of homes that the people attending the party or gathering have enjoyed. It’s something to think about in the urban planning context. If the property owners are all dazzled by the gains of inflation in their asset prices, they will tend to resist any changes that might alter the overall property market, be it highways, be it rapid transit, be it simply changes in zoning or other regulations.

    I have an anecdote in this regard. A realtor I knew left real estate in the mid 90s and joined the Rapid Transit project office when the Millenium line was being built. He told me that at one point they thought they had agreement with the City of Vancouver on a route west from the VCC station, not as far as UBC or anything as ambitious as that, but at least to Granville or Burrard, enough to service the mid-town business precincts and to connect to the eventual RAV line, assuming a Cambie route rather than Arbutus. They were all elated.

    But then a few days later the second round of phone calls started coming in from 12th and Cambie. “We’re really sorry, forget everything we said, the deal is a no-go. We’ve checked with the homeowners around City Hall and they just won’t hear of it. Sorry about this, hope you understand. Bye now. CLICK”. And that was the end of any extensions of the Millenium line west of VCC.

    To me the important point of this anecdote is that the City officials were caught off guard by the reaction of the homeowners. These officials would have had what they thought was a pretty good idea of what would and would not fly with their constituents based on numerous previous consultations. But when they took what the thought would be an acceptable proposal to these people, the homeowners went ballistic. Sometime in the previous few years the attitudes of these homeowners seems to have changed. They had became much more restrictve, much more suspicious and cautious in terms of what developments they would approve of. My suspicion is that the late 1980s – early 1990s round of price increases had made these people much more conservative, even reactionary in terms of their political positioning, since they had a larger equity investment to protect.

    Perhaps the best thing that could happen to the GVRD right now would be a major decrease in real estate prices, seemingly caused by international financial problems, that would cause people to rethink their attitudes.

    Budd Campbell

    January 19, 2008 at 10:27 am

  7. Budd

    It was made clear at the time – and I also cited – that the Century Group sponsored the event. Indeed the current owner – second or third generation(?) I am not sure – stood up in acknowledgement of Gordon Price’s comments. The first several rows on one side had been reserved for the “Delta Bus Group” and included a Delta Councillor.

    It really worries me to find myself in agreement with you. A correction in real estate prices is long overdue. In fact I am currently sitting out, waiting for it to happen. I have seen a property crash before – Toronto 1989 – but that time I lost my equity. I am reluctant to repeat the experience

    The City of Vancouver seems to be strangely selective in who it listens to. Linda Meinhardt certainly got their attention on Granville, as did la creme de la creme on Arbutus. But somehow as you travel east they get progressively deafer to community appeals. Ask Commercial Drive crowd what they think about the City’s plans for road widening to accommodate yet more traffic off the widened Highway #1. Or the people on Knight Street choked on truck exhaust.

    Stephen Rees

    January 19, 2008 at 10:50 am

  8. […] that filled the Four Seasons ballroom last Wednesay.  But in truth, bloggers Frances Bula and Stephen Rees have done a great job in conveying his provocative statements and idea in […]

  9. […] Frances Bula and Stephen Rees have done a great job in conveying his provocative statements and ideas in […]

  10. […] planner/achitect Andres Duany lecture in an SFU City Program lecture. Bloggers Frances Bula and Stephen Rees have done a great job in conveying his provocative statements and ideas in […]

  11. Stephen:

    From time to time I mention the Toronto price decreases of the early 1990s as an example to support the idea that even in a growing, popular metro areas there is no 100% gurarantee that prices will always go up and up forever. There is some limit somewhere on ability to pay, and what’s more, on the opportunities for further speculation in asset prices, rather like the markets for jewelry or gold.

    With the diehard Vancouver boosters this example gets no traction whatsoever. They just start laughing about Toronto as if it were no more attractive than, say, Krasnoyarsk, and then start trotting out the usual BC rhetoric about climate and scenery.

    Just the other day someone I know who used to work in financial services offered the theory that as housing prices roll ever skyward there will be increased demand for renovation work. He thought the dominant influence would be the increased ability of established homeowners to borrow at a point or two less than a regular second morgage or demand loan against their hugely increased (paper) equity. I found this argument hard to accept, even if true in many instances. For surely the greater effect is to ensure that new home and apartment purchasers are normally maxed out on their credit just to mortgage the purchase, and therefore have little financial ability to borrow for any kind of major renovations. It’s obviously a subject for empirical study, but I don’t know what public data sources might be of any help. Perhaps some of the StatCan surveys of consumer finance, or whatever they are called these days.

    Budd Campbell

    January 20, 2008 at 12:51 pm

  12. […] idea of the Transect was originally developed by Andres Duany and is covered in the link to his earlier lecture. Mr Dittmars has created a Typology of Transit […]

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