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

Archive for March 18th, 2008

Can ‘Eco-Density’ Be Beautiful?

with 14 comments

The Tyee

Much chatter about the role of the architects and how you get places to look nice. As though planners and architects had some kind of standard that we can all know and recognize called “good design”.

The idea, expressed in the documents that led to the LRSP, was that we would have a built environment that was as beautiful as our natural surroundings. But that really is not much help either as a prescription. Becuase beauty is, of course, subjective. Some people think slim glass towers are elegant – others that they have become ubiquitous and banal. Most people love trees, but a few object to the way they block the view, and others the way they litter the place every fall and drop sticky glue onto their cars in the spring. Are squirrels cute or tree rats?

Mole Hill is mentioned – but that was a restoration project. New build designed to look traditional has also become ubiqitous. Though on the whole better than shipping containers stacked in piles which I have seen advocated by some recently as way to solve the affordability crisis.

I am afraid that I have been soured by my association with too many English planners, who were usually frustrated architects – and anyway they would not have me in the RTPI because my LSE Masters in Planning did not include any design work at all. My feeling about too many places is that they may have looked pretty, but they didn’t work very well. And far too many public housing projects didn’t even look pretty either.

The other thing that has to be mentioned is price. Good design seems to mean the same thing as “expensive” – at least as far as buildings are concerned. And far too often, in the public sector we have gone for cheap. And it is not just the buildings either. Often the way a place functions has to do with engineering standards that are usually far too inflexible and often inappropriate. For instance the subdivision in Surrey that was supposed to be a good example of Smart Growth but had to have a completely redundant municipal set of pipes because that is what the code said and the local engineers had no knowledge of green buildings. Far too many rules are based on “this is the way we have always done it” or “public safety” when it is just a blind adherence to an out of date code.

And no matter what we build, we seem to insist on leaving great festoons of wire hanging off wooden poles.

But on the other hand I have seen what local teams of architects and landscape archictecture students can come up with in a 48 hour design charrette. And all of their offerings looked much better than what was built. Perhaps simply because it was conceived as a whole – whereas as most redevelopment I see is spotty at best. And also because it adhered to principles of function – and reduction of fossil energy use as an organising principle.

We can do better than we have done and are doing. But Peter Lander is wrong. It is about process. It is about involving people – because you are not dealing with open spaces but existing communities. And it will be about coming up with different approaches as there cannot (and should not try to) be one size that fits all.

And I would also hope that in addition to what it looks like we look at how it works. Which means we consider self containment, different kinds of tenure, how to achieve social diversity within neighbourhoods and so on. Yes what it look like will matter – but form follows function. Lets keep it warm and dry (something we forgot about with condos, don’t forget) using local materials, and use all those clever water and energy conservation ideas that currently contravene the codes but would work much better in future. Solar panels, windmills, ground source heat pumps, geo thermal etc. Hardly any parking spaces, but lots of paths and bike storage. Car sharing and transit and shared ride vans. Community bikes. Local shops and cafes. Community centres and pools (great for energy projects). Green everything. Shade. Somewhere than can be flooded for paddling in summer and frozen for shinny if it gets cold. Somewhere to grow fruit and vegetables and a few culinary herbs. Somewhere the kids can play while observed from inside the homes. Porches to sit on. A neighborhood pub – so defined by its total absence of parking.

I hereby offer to take a world tour at public expense to find examples of best practices.

Written by Stephen Rees

March 18, 2008 at 9:00 am

Posted in Urban Planning