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

Archive for November 6th, 2008

Sustainability and Tradition

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This was the second Hank Dittmar lecture I attended this week – this one at the SFU downtown campus. He subtitled this one

Architecture and Urbanism as if the future mattered

More than half the people on the planet now live in cities. The challenge now is now to make a resource efficient lifestyle. He gave the example of a slum in Sierra Leone on the sea shore. As the sea level rises this will be at great risk, but people settle there because its is a place where economic opportunity lies. the problem is that these slums do not even have the provision of the most basic services because the residents have no tenure.

The trust’s focus is on sustainability because as the Stern report pointed there will be severe economic dislocation if we don’t act, there are economic opportunities if we do act but it won’t just need market measures: it also requires government intervention. Special attention needs to be paid to transport provision and land use regulation.

He reiterated much of what he had said int he first lecture and also cited Poundbury. This is an “urban extension” of Dorchester, an existing community. 5,000 homes will be added as both mixed use, mixed income neighbourhoods each 800m centre to edge. Employment is being provided by a breakfast cereal factory where only issue is lorry traffic. “You don’t need to zone to keep these uses away”. There is also a chocolate factory, electronics companies, offices as well as mixed types of houses

Rose Town Kingston Jamaica

The major problem in this area is the dominance of gang violence, so the first thing to do was to try to create a civil society – the Rosetown Benevolent Society. Once this had been established a design charette was held.  In Kingston the government had built 4 storey apartment blocks but only 40% are occupied, and 40% of those pay rent. It is clear that this housing stock is not appropriate to the local climate or lifestyle. There is a lot of older, abandoned housing stock that could be brought back. There are some solid vernacular buildings. The residents of the area were especially taken by the notion that houses could be fixed up, and that the solution being proposed was not clearance and replacement. The trust is now teaching local people how to rehabilitate houses by acquiring skills in roofing, carpentry and so on.  An abandoned church has been turned into library, and local clay pits revived to encourage local craft potters. This is very much a bootstrap approach with finance from the Prince plus local contributions. Architects Duany Plater Zyberk have  now been replaced by a local, Ann Hodges

Green Building

In green urbanism, the building is only part of it. It is also necessary to understand that they are not “just building houses for hobbits”. They need a commercially viable proposition but at the same time are not interested in building a “tower in the park with green bling.”

At the BRE Innovation Park several companies are showcasing air tight houses made out of pre-engineered components. Britain aims to have zero carbon houses by 2016. EcoVernacular is the term used to describe the type of house that the Trust is now pursuing. This is in response to the current designs of solar passive houses which are very high tech with critical (but vulnerable) vapour barrier membranes and the need for mechanical ventilation. [Please note that the link I have provided is not one that Mr Dittmar showed, but was simply the first one in a Google search which happens to demonstrate the idea quite well.]

The Trust is now looking at solid wall masonry buildings using aerated clay blocks and lime hemp. They wanted solutions that were simple, natural and buildable as well as human to maintain and manage. Many green buildings require a high level of technical competence to maintain and if that is lost, for example by staff turnover, much of the early efficiency and comfort can be quickly lost.

BRE is also now building one demonstration house of straw bale. For all three types of house indoor air quality and marketability are proving superior to sealed unit houses.

Architectural principles

  • building for the long term
  • adaptable and flexible
  • fit the place
  • build beautifully
  • build in context

Purpose of a building is to frame a street, not to be iconic

Totnes Guildhall

Totnes Guildhall photo by Devon Perspectives

It was built on the site of a former Benedictine Priory dating from 1088 as a Guildhall and school, then converted into a Magistrate’s Court in 1624, in which capacity it continued until as recently as 1974. It also housed the town gaol, in which prisoners were held until 1887. The building is still in use for Town Council meetings and various civic ceremonies. Some of the foundations and walls date back to the time of the Priory. The wall facing the camera is adorned with overlapping slates, a technique known as slate-hanging, a characteristic of South Devon towns that is used widely in Totnes. source

A building that has lasted over 800 years, and had many different uses but is still in good condition is a good example of a sustainable building. It is something that a community will lavish care on, and with some attention to insulation and new windows will last at least another couple of hundred years more. All the materials used are local, and thus low cost. No architect was employed in its construction, yet it uses a classical theme for its columns.


Q   Could you explain your repudiation of anything modern? Was the last 80 years of architectural practice all wrong?

Q   I think we have moved into a plural time, and some people do contextual modernism. We are often told we should not be allowed to practice. Ideas about machines and humans have been shown to be wrong. Modern is not what we do, and some core ideas will have to cast aside, for example the  curtain wall. A lot of modern architecture was generated out of issues that no longer hold true. Our major critique is the vituperative nature of the debate in the UK

Q    But Vancouver does not have a vernacular: it’s all modernism

A     Which is partly why I came here. You have an urbanism that is modern. The tower with a podium does create a street but has become a rather standardised product. The Olympic village is mid rise with courtyards. I am a typological thinker and an urban designer,  not an architect

Q   Have you looked at Strathcona?

A   “I have not had time.” However he did talk about Walthamstow as an example of how to densify an existing neighborhood. They are also looking at older houses and energy performance and have found that older houses (100 to 150 years old) performed better than newer (50 year old) housing stock.

Q    What you have seen here and what are your impressions

A    He had spent some time looking at development around public transport and the degree to which work is needed around SkyTrain stations. The elevated stations that don’t integrate into neighborhoods – it seems the builders did  not understand their role as an activator in an area. A lot of work has to be done. For example while there is a lot of commercial vitality, the quality of design is not good and the urban realm not inviting.

Vancouver needs transit intensification: these commercial streets are very wide and there is plenty of space for streetcars or the “next generation of  trolleybuses” (which he did not know we had before he cam here). “You might have enough condos with floor to ceiling windows.” But compared to any place else in North America your dense city centre is much better.

Q   South East False Creek is proving to be quite disappointing and is much less than its original vision. What can we do better in later phases?

A    “I wasn’t here for the original vision but I think that the public realm, drainage and landscaping are all done well. I don’t have a problem with the scale either: 5 to 6 stories is appropriate to the waterfront site, and has to be that size to be viable. I did notice that shading has been done very carefully but no one thought of just making the windows smaller. A greater ratio of wall to void would be a simpler and neater solution.”

Q  What could we learn from San Francisco

A   SF has a major focus on having tall buildings contained in a core area, to preserve the views of the Bay from residential neighbourhoods. They have very good modelling programs for shade, light and view

The Muni metro system is excellent. As well as grade separate tracks into the downtown there are streetcars on shared rights of way plus BART and trolleybuses. “This renders car ownership an inconvenience”.

Parking limits. San Francisco now uses parking maximums not parking minimums. Controlling parking is essential to protecting pedestrians.

Q In Poundbury, how do people get to work, and do they live close to work?

A  It is an extension of Dorchester and there is a town centre in the new town but it does not have big grocery store to avoid taking trade from the existing centre. In the UK the presumption is against development. There was a big fight over the local desire for a business park instead of mixed use. Poundbury is an employnment area for all of Dorchester: about 15% of employees live in Pounbury because the employers in these new premisies moved in their existing businesses. It is on a bus route.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 6, 2008 at 11:47 pm

Athletes village to get $100-million loan

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Garry Mason in the Globe and Mail

The City of Vancouver has authorized lending up to $100-million to rescue the financially troubled Olympic athletes village project, The Globe and Mail has learned.

Council gave the city manager the mandate to advance the project’s developer the money to help cover cost overruns and other shortfalls at an in camera meeting held Oct. 14. It has already advanced nearly $30-million. At that meeting, council approved spending up to $450,000 to bring in a third party to oversee management of the project being built by Millennium Development Corp.

Details of the city’s involvement in bailing out the project’s cash-strapped developer have until now been kept secret. Councillors are under a publication ban and have been told they face serious repercussions if they discuss publicly the decisions taken at the in camera meeting.

Not really a surprise. Pretty much par for the course. For dealing with really pressing issues the City always pleads poverty and a reluctance to turn to local property taxes. For trivial issues, such as a two week sports festival that gives the Mayor the chance to twirl a flag on international tv, money will be found. And no one is allowed to talk about it.

Of course, in the run up to a local election, the publication ban looks like a pretty thin threat that did not bother some people.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 6, 2008 at 12:37 pm

Posted in politics

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The following is a message from the Council of Canadians (London Chapter).


Dear Friends,

Flowing out of last week’s election, it is our expectation that many of you feel as despondent as us at the Council of Canadians – London Chapter. And although it could have been a lot worse, we have another Conservative minority government to contend with at a time when there are many serious issues that need to be dealt with appropriately from the perspective of those in the progressive movement.

We are of the belief that we – with the help of citizens like you, all across the country – need to do whatever we can to encourage those who have been elected, with our collective vote, representing all of the party’s other than the Conservatives, that they MUST IMMEDIATELY get to work on forming a coalition government for the purpose enacting the progressive policies that were part of all of their election platforms.

Many of our Council of Canadians affiliate chapters across the country have started sending letters to the party leaders. There is a movement rising out of the ashes of last week’s election to make this happen. Now is your chance to play a part.

We all know that our electoral system will continue to be undemocratic until we demand that we have a chance to vote on a system of proportional representation at the federal government level. This could well be the number one priority for the new coalition government. The media has picked up on this subject and many scholars and academics have expressed their views on how this kind of an initiative could be accomplished. We at the grass roots level can help make this happen if we have the will.

The stakes are very serious; we can’t acquiesce and not try something to make the 40th session of Parliament in this great land, meaningful. Our environment can not withstand the inaction’s of another Steven Harper Conservative government, his plan for the environment will be meaningless, and we will be over the edge before any effect takes place. His non-transparent stance with respect to the trade agreements he is negotiating with the USA and the EU are not going to serve us well. His plan for our energy resources has major flaws and serves those in other countries much better than Canadians, and leaves us with all of the financial and environmental mess to clean up. His idea of growth, at any cost is quite frankly, patently unsustainable, and designed to put dollars in the pockets of corporations and externalize all of the negativity to ordinary Canadians.

The platforms of the NDP, Bloc, Greens and the Liberals contained many initiatives that were very conducive with each other. And very much in tune with the sensibilities of us, the average citizens. The 65% of us that did not vote for Conservatives deserve to be heard. This is our chance to see a representative government in action.

Please forward this email to anyone who may want to help with this campaign.

A sample email designed to be sent to the politicians is beneath this message, or please feel free to express your own personal views.

We are of the belief that the leaders of the Liberals, NDP & the Bloc need to be contacted, as well as the Green party leader, even though they do not have any seats at this time.

Our hope is that all of you can send either the same letter or a different one to all of the elected MP’s from these three party’s as well to let them know your thoughts.

Thank you,
Council of Canadians | London Chapter

Feel free to use the template and send to:;; ;

Please forward this email to people you know in different parts of Canada, especially Quebec.  Try to get your letters out as soon as possible.


Dear Stephane Dion, Gilles Duceppe, Elizabeth May and Jack Layton

Coalition trumps Harper mandate

Canadian voters did not give Harper a stronger mandate – our electoral system has again over-represented minority support. The parties who were elected by the majority of Canadians (that’s the Liberals, NDP and Bloc) need to step up to the plate rather than stand by helplessly while ourcountry and planet are in jeopardy.

We call on you to put “ordinary” Canadians ahead of ideology and party politics and form a coalition government.

As a coalition, Canada will benefit from collaboration on these major national crises:

1. Increasing GHGs
2. Escalating military budget
3. Unrepresentative electoral system
4. Deregulation and privatization
5. Increasing homelessness
6. Increasing income gap
7. Undemocratic trade and security agreements

Restore Canada’s International Reputation

World leaders including Canada’s top climate change scientists are disappointed to see Canada, under Harper’s Conservatives, slip further awayfrom the global community that’s trying to tackle globalissues. Harper is not a collaborative leader and has chosen to block global progress on climate change.

Time is running out. Canada cannot afford a re-run of the 39th parliament with its endless non-confidence votes and dysfunctional committees.


Written by Stephen Rees

November 6, 2008 at 12:03 pm

Posted in politics

Thursday’s news

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I try to find local stories to write about, but the “front page” story on the Sun’s web site is beneath contempt. How to blow a minor infraction into major story. Gregor Robertson – running for mayor of  Vancouver – thought of fighting a ticket he had been given for crossing a fare zone boundary with a one zone ticket. The $173 fine is rather more than is usual for parking tickets. But then he changed his mind and paid up. But not before the press and Kevin Falcon seized on it like poorly trained terriors.

This week CBC radio tried to get me on the air talking about fares and fare evasion. Last time I had done that they had surprised me with a tape of a New York cop contradicting what I had just said. So I have been very wary ever since. And sure enough, in the long telephone conversation with CBC staff, not one mention was made of Gregor Robertson. They were, no doubt keen to spring that one on me on air.

The real point of the story should be “At the moment, only about 10 per cent of fare-evasion tickets are ever paid.” Now that is a story: if the fines are not collected then the size makes no difference. And since fare evaders tend to be serial offenders, and the lack of consequences is more widely understood, so fare evasion increases. Nothing to do with zones or gates at all.

Meanwhile the raft of transit positive stories out of various US ballot initiatives and propositions grows.

But in the UK much less good news, although BAA is chipping in a little to the Cross Rail scheme (and trying to get as much creidt as it can) and new London Mayor Boris Johnson has started swinging his axe at his predecessor’s favourite projects. On the positive side, the bridge between Beckton and Thamesmead has been cancelled (again). This is the equivalent of the Golden Ears Bridge: it would have replaced the free ferry at Woolwich and completed the ring formed by the North Circular and South Circular Roads.

Some odd ball quotes though.

The Guardian says:  “But evidence at the inquiry showed it would encourage car use, bringing more air and noise pollution and increasing carbon emissions.

The bridge was to pass through some of Britain’s most deprived communities in east London, but leading transport analysts showed it would not bring regeneration to these areas.”

While Boris himself is quoted as saying “I have always been in favour of another crossing. But I don’t think that this idea was the right one,”

Bad news though for a number of light rail and tram schemes.

Other proposals taken off the drawing board today include the £1.3bn cross river tram; a £500m tram scheme for Oxford Street in the centre of the capital; and a £70m extension of the Docklands Light Railway to Dagenham.

The mayor also revealed plans to save £2.4bn in costs at Transport for London, including the loss of hundreds of jobs among TfL’s 22,000-strong workforce.

Boris Johnson is, of course, Conservative. And his barmy idea to resurrect the Routemaster (covered here earlier) is still alive and well.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 6, 2008 at 11:35 am

Posted in transit