Stephen Rees's blog

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

Archive for the ‘architecture’ Category

Weekly Photo Challenge: Twisted

with 4 comments

Vancouver House is a condominium at the end of Granville Bridge that makes the most of a restricted site by a design that is twisted. This photo was taken a month ago, and the construction is now nearer completion.


By a curious coincidence Price Tags – another Vancouver based blog has a more recent picture this morning.  Which saves me having to go out a try for a better shot. I can’t say that this design fills me with affection, but it is unusual.

Somewhere in my photostream is a picture of a very twisted tree trunk, but Flickr’s search engine – as usual – seems incapable of finding it. Maybe that will be one of the benefits of the takeover by SmugMug.


WordPress has announced that the Daily Post and all its challenges will cease issuing new challenges on May 31. I am leaving Vancouver for a cruise tomorrow – and I doubt that I will have a connection to the internet for a couple of weeks. So this is the last post I will make with this heading. It was fun while it lasted. Thanks to those who followed me, as a result of these WPC posts. And thanks to all those who “liked” my posts.


Written by Stephen Rees

May 23, 2018 at 10:13 am

Weekly Photo Challenge: Transformation

with 3 comments

via Photo Challenge: Transformation

I can’t do credit to the subject of today’s challenge in just one photo. Here are a series of photos taken at the Casa Santo Domingo in Antigua, Guatemala. This used to be a convent – now it has become a hotel, spa and houses a number of museums. Visitors are encouraged to wander around. It was the last stop on our walking tour of the old city. We had booked an excursion with the cruise ship company (Holland America) but decided to chose one that allowed us to wander around at our own pace, and look at the things we found interesting, rather than follow a guide. I would have liked to have spent more time here, since we had really left ourselves enough time as it did not sound like it was going to be the best part of the tour. There are a number of ruined monasteries and convents in the city, the result of the earthquake in 1773. The death toll was around 600 with about the same number dying of disease and starvation subsequently. The toll was particularly heavy on the occupants of these massive stone buildings and several still lie in ruins. We did visit another smaller scale hotel at Santa Catalina which was also a convent but nothing like as lavish as this one.

Casa Santo Domingo

Casa Santo Domingo

Casa Santo Domingo

Casa Santo Domingo

Casa Santo Domingo

Casa Santo Domingo

Casa Santo Domingo

Casa Santo Domingo

Casa Santo Domingo

Casa Santo Domingo

From convent to ruin to “best hotel in Antigua” – quite a Transformation. By the way in this picture – and some of the others – you can see the conical peak of one of the three volcanoes that encircle the town.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 22, 2017 at 1:49 pm

Choosing the happy city

with 6 comments



There is a storify based on the #happycity hashtag,which now features many more pictures thanks to the recent Twitter upgrade

At SFU Woodward’s on Wednesday March 26, 2014 the third in the Translink series.

Choosing the Happy City
Charles Montgomery

There were many empty seats even though SFU had “oversold”. If you reserve a seat at one of these events and then find you cannot attend, please remove your reservation as soon as you can. There were people who would have liked to be there. But at least there was also a live stream and the event will be added to the Youtube site in due course.

The introduction was made by one of Fraser Health’s public health officers. Happiness is fundamental to health. We need a system that promotes physical activity. Urban form and transportation determine how people choose to move around, and also affordability of housing and access to green space. People who live in the suburbs of Vancouver walk more than other places. We must improve and maintain choices especially for non urban places. She made the point that some policies which seek to deter car use can adversely affect the mobility of people who live in places where there is no other choice but to drive for many trip purposes. There is an inequity in adopting such deterrents before there are adequate choices fro everyone.

Charles Montgomery started his presentation with two “exercises” – the first to identify  Translink staff “the institution we love to hate”. He invited audience members to hug a member of Translink staff if they were near them. The second related to two images of dorms at Harvard University. One was a traditional building, the other a somewhat forbidding modern block. Most people indicated they preferred the traditional building, as did newly arrived students. But a study showed that there was no difference in the happiness of the students after three years. Many factors determine happiness not just the design of the buildings but social environment within them is important.

The idea of idea of increasing happiness is not new. Early economists called it maximizing utility. However often  “we get it wrong.I think pursuit of happiness is a good thing. We can measure it. … More pleasure than pain, healthy, in control, meaning, security but strong social connection underlies all of these. Both the GDP and creativity in a city depends on opportunities for social interaction. He showed a three dimensional graph of space time prisms, which showed the people who are more dispersed find it harder to connect. They spend much less time in the spaces and times when they can meet others. The edge of the urban agglomerations are the least likely to be socially active. If you live in the exurbs you do not have the time, energy or willingness to join things or even vote.

The shortness of the the commute time is the best indicator of satisfaction. “How we move is how we feel”, and even only five minutes of walking or cycling improves mood and regularly moving under our own power also  improves health. Equally driving a nice car on an open road also improves our mood. The trouble is that open roads are rare – and impossible to find at commute times. Driving even a nice car in a congested city is like piloting a fighter jet in terms of the stress experienced. People rate the experience of using transit lowest of all mostly due to the loss of control and that the trips on transit tend to be the longest.

In Greater Vancouver 40% of all trips could be done in 20 minute bike ride. In cities the design of the built environment determines both our behaviour and our bodies. If we build infrastructure for cycling – making it safer – more people will cycle. People will walk 800m to shop in a good urban environment but less than 200m in the typical suburban big box centre. The huge parking lots are a deterrent to walking even short distances.

He cited Larry Frank’s work in Atlanta showing maps of destinations available within a 10 minute walk of home. While there are many in the traditional city centre in the suburbs there are none. It is not surprising then that people who live in the suburbs on average have 10 pounds more in weight

Status interventions

– Equity
Having  low social status is bad for health. When transit viewed as a “hand out for the undeserving” – he used the notorious ads in the Georgia Strait some years ago for a GM car dealer which had a bus with the words “creeps & weirdos” as the destination sign – it is unsurprising that it is difficult to persuade people to change modes. Enrique Penalosa redesigned the city of Bogota and it was all about equity. He cancelled a new freeway but built the Transmilenio BRT based on the Curitiba example.

 – Freedom
This is represented by our having mastery of our movement. In one experiment they used skin conductance cuffs on people  in a mockup of a subway car. Even though this was staged at a party, as the space available to the group in the car became more restricted so their stress levels rose. He showed a picture of the Navigo card in Paris which is much more than a transit ticket. It also gives access to Velib bike sharing – and (he claimed) car sharing (which if so is a change since I was in Paris). “It also gets you cookies” But mostly it gives people the freedom to live with less stuff. they do not need to own a car or a bike [and can get around without worrying about either being stolen]

He then showed picture of the land the province has recently put up for sale in Coquitlam. This “swathe of Burke Mountain will not be well connected”. But families can save $10k a year by not owning a car. He cited Daniel Kahneman’s Book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” We are rightly fearful of house fires and build new suburbs to allow access to big fire trucks, with wide roads and sweeping curves – like a race track.  Streets aren’t safe enough for kids to play on – but we somehow think that we have made them “safer” and the areas they serve. There was a notorious experiment on children with Oreos. They could take one immediately or wait awhile and then get two. He says that the problems we require that we slow down and consider their complexity.

The challenge is the cost of congestion, but we attempt to solve it by designing disconnection. He illustrated this with a picture of the new Port Mann Bridge construction and remarked that we only realized that the new bridge was not needed until after it opened. All the traffic and people that now use it could have been accommodated if the old bridge had been tolled and a rapid bus service along Highway #1 introduced. [This was actually something that the Livable Region Coalition pointed out at the time, by the way. No-one believed us.]

“We did it before” He showed a slide of the Livable Region plan from the 1970s. And he also showed the “Leap Ahead” transit plan which its authors (Nathan Pachel and Paul Hillsdon) estimated would cost $6.5 bn but could be paid for with a $0.05 sales tax.

Referendum = fast brain disaster

“The best thing to do is cancel the referendum.” However since that is unlikely  we can save ourselves by adopting the recommendations that Roger Sherman used to win the second Denver referendum. Their program was called “Fast tracks” It was a clear plan and fully costed designed to appeal to the core values of the voters. Most of them drive so it has to show how improving transit improves life for drivers

It is not enough to present a clear picture – it has to have a champion, preferably a celebrity and since Brad Pitt is unlikely to be available he suggested Diane Watts

Bring it back to happiness

Working together is good for us build more resilient community


The first question pointed out that the Leap Ahead plan did not seem to have much for the North Shore

“Now is not the time” to determine the details – though it does have a fast bus, and I suggested adding another SeaBus

The second noted that he used an illustration of Disneyland. Expectation of good time in built form

Tests in Disneyland show that architecture that speaks to us is good for well being

Technology in design of transportation

Vehicle sharing systems, driverless cars, use of Car2Go in East Vancouver shows that is a bedroom community. there are plenty of cars there overnight but none during the day. We have to have more activity in our residential areas – this is not a technology problem.

Eric Doherty pointed out that he had not mentioned climate change

“While it feels good to do the right thing but not everybody agrees on what that is. Trying to convince people to think like us does not work”. Gateway sucks did not work – it did nothing to convince people who had to drive that there was any concern over their needs.

How do we overcome this mindset of entitlement?

Golden (referring to the first presentation in this series) got all the players in the room and respecting others point of view. sophisticated comm??

Q from twitter on codes

Self reports on happiness higher in small towns

Rural areas

Everybody can benefit from a village

Codes for rural community Gordon Price commented  “The City is not shaped by market forces”

Nathan Woods (Unifor)  said: We need $3m and Brad Pitt. How do we get that?

Developers stand to benefit – they have the resources. The Surrey BoT strongly supports transit

Can you supply examples of success of postwar planning

Lewis Mumford
False Creek
New Urbanists
Seaside FL

Lean urbanism

Forest Hills Gardens NY (GP again)

Is a dense urban environment enough?

Towers are as bad for lack of trust as exurbs
Just pushing us together is not enough
“Lazy tower style in Vancouver”
Town houses, courtyards, green space

Example of Copenhagen – can we transfer that here?

The answer would be Long and complex. But in one word-  Experiment – just line Janette Sadik Kahn did with bike lanes in New York

Gordon Price pointed out how really emotional the fight over bike lanes here had become

Change is very difficult. Regarded as intrusive

One action for individuals?

Started out as a journalist feeling I had no right. We can all change a bit of the city. Those of us who live here have the right to change where we live

What has surprised you in the reactions since the book came out

Jarret Walker told me that on these examples its not the planners who are the problem. “We know that.  You have to convince the politicians … and the people.”
Try not to scare people

Someone from modo talked about Share Vancouver and its implication for resilience, during disasters for instance

Life changed in New York with Sandy. How can we create that sense of urgency?

Experiment Granville St what are we learning?

The questioner felt that all the changes we have seen have been controlled by the business community

Times Sq occurred with support from the BIA – who have benefitted as rents are now going up. The police closure of Granville St at weekends was a response to violence. It gave more space for people to move around and thus reduced conflicts

Councillor Susan Chappelle from Squamish said that they were trying to get  a regional transportation dialogue going – they are outside the Translink area with a small transit system provide by BC Transit.  They remain “disengaged”. The immense changes he talked about are not translated into budget of small town. In the current situation “Words are used, with no change happening.” Squamish is left disconnected

The measures are the same for reducing GHG and increasing happiness. Should we encourage commuting [between Squmish and Vancouver]? The industrial zoning is out of date.

Can design offset crime?  Social justice?

Some people assert “None of this is going to work until we overthrow the 1%” But his work shows that the way we design cities has an immediate impact. It’s an equity issue. Many people complain that they can’t afford to live here but then they oppose the density increase essential [to get reduced housing/transportation combination cost reduced]

Some who was arranging a summit of cultural planners pointed out how hard it was to get a large meeting to places which did not have good connections. Change the way transit works to support the summit

BC Transit should take cue from TransLink interagency approach We can crowd source all kinds of stuff

btw People actually talk on the #20 bus

Big issue is transit funding. A city has found solution?

Richmond is the only place where car ownership has fallen – obviously a response to the Canada Line
See the example of the Los Angeles referendum which was not just about transit – it paid for everything with something for everyone


This was by far the best presentation in the series so far, in large part because it was not read from a script. He was speaking to the slides he was showing but clearly enjoyed interacting with the audience. It was indeed a performance – and a good one at that. On the other hand there did not seem to be a great deal that was new or remarkable in the content. Working in this field for forty years means that I have actually witnessed exactly the same set of prescriptions proffered for a what at the time seemed like different problems – congestion, growth, inequity, sustainability, bad air quality, global warming. And now happiness – or its absence.

I have got into a lot of trouble for stating unequivocally “transit sucks” to transit management. They of course would rather boast of their accomplishments, how well they do under difficult circumstances, and how resistant politicians are to pleas for more money. But the fact remains that despite increasing expenditures, the overall transit mode share is very difficult to change. We know what the solutions are – we always have done – but we seem reluctant to embrace the changes necessary. And he is probably right that we have an elite stuck in fast brain mode whenever they deal with these situations. He actually cited Kevin Falcon – more than once – and it seems to me he is right. The Jordon Batemans of course simply play to that preference. It is a lot easier than actually thinking clearly (slowly) and then acting.



The urban age: how cities became our greatest design challenge yet

with 17 comments

The Guardian

There is a risk, in writing this piece, that I am going to restart the debate which raged in my absence in February.

Amid unprecedented levels of urbanisation, designers must be trusted to fashion cities that not only accommodate but also provide a pleasant environment

I am a bit less than thrilled that the criterion can be expressed in such language. The problem is dramatically illustrated in the original by a photo of a Lagos slum. This is more than an unpleasant environment. Though some see slums as comparable to a natural process of adaptation – and centers of entrepreneurial activity and social stability.

The big driver of urban reforms, historically, in places like London was concern for human health. People like Sir Christopher Wren wanted to rebuild London to look more impressive, but lost out to the much more powerful voice of the merchants and businesses that had to rebuild after the Great Fire, and do that quickly, to get a positive cash flow going again. About the only concession made to public safety was to allow a ban on thatched roofs. It was not until a ground breaking statistical study showed the link between cholera and water supply that the professions of urban planning – and public health – really got to be effective. And some of their ideas were a bit misdirected, or have become anachronistic, but we are still stuck with them. Like separation of land uses, or low density for residential areas. I have often thought that English “Town and Country Planners” were mostly frustrated architects – concerned more about issues such as “sensitive infill” and colour of paviours – than the social engineers they are accused of being. They mostly built places that were supposed to look good but didn’t work very well – like most of the post war New Towns. Most of which were pretty hideous too.

“Greater Vancouver can become the first urban region in the world to combine in one place the things to which humanity aspires on a global basis: a place where human activities enhance rather than degrade the natural environment, where the quality of the built environment approaches that of the natural setting, where the diversity of origins and religions is a source of social strength rather than strife, where people control the destiny of their community, and where the basics of food, clothing, shelter, security and useful activity are accessible to all.”

—Source: ”Creating Our Future“ (emphasis added)

It may be significant that I had to copy that out of the LRSP – the original seems not to be available on line. I think that most would concede that the objective I have highlighted has not been achieved. Nor is it likely to, as long as we pursue policies designed to maximize short term commercial profitability over nearly every other consideration. Much of what is built here is designed for a short life. Most industrial and commercial buildings are little more than huge sheds – often built of “tilt up” concrete panels.

new building tipped up 070707

Most houses are still stick built – and many get pulled down and replaced within 40 years of being constructed.

9320 framing going up 2008_0607

For me, one of the worst visual features is the wirescape: it seems nearly every view of our natural setting is through a tangle of hydro wires and tv cables.


Because, of course, it is cheaper to string wire than bury it. And, someone once informed me, the Hydro crews get paid a lot of overtime to put the wires back up again after every storm – so organized labour is as keen on this method as their management.

Is this really the best we can do?

wall of glass

Well, it’s good for those that get this view but even then I doubt the aesthetic value of the human contribution to the natural landscape here

Coal Harbour

Written by Stephen Rees

March 29, 2010 at 3:33 pm

Posted in architecture, Urban Planning

Tagged with

Sustainability and Tradition

with 2 comments

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

Kerrisdale Station

with 9 comments

This is a departure into Gordon Price territory. There is an interesting development at 41st and East Boulevard I went to look at today. It has been there since 2000 so I am sure others know more about this than I do (I did determine it won a Georgy Award in 2001).

Kerrisdale Station

It is next to the former CP Arbutus line, which once was an interurban and has been looked at now and again as a potential LRT route. With of course massive resistance from residents who now enjoy what is still recognisably a streetcar village with good local transit – trolleybuses on 41st and Arbutus, and express buses to UBC, and a few blocks from the B Line on Granville.

The name is a bit sad I think. Like that one down at Steveston, the building simply marks where a station once was. But the building is an unusual mixed use development.

5790 East Boulevard

It is a four storey apartment building that faces on to East Boulevard. The apartments have a typically over arching name. Does anybody take these seriously?

The Laureates

And this is not “affordable” housing. This, after all, Kerrisdale. But the ground floor is, mostly, a London Drugs store. The frontage of the store is on to West 42nd Street which is not part of the original retail frontages which are on West Boulevard and 41st. One sore point for me is that London Drugs is one of those retailers who does not think that window displays are important. That may be that they do not affect sales per square foot, but they do change the interest of the street. I have noticed in other mixed use developments where retail is on the ground with housing over, that it is not unusual for the stores to have windows that are left blank, with blinds down behind them.

There must have been considerable up zoning over whatever was there before. It is considerably denser than the development on the other side of 42nd, and includes retail and residential but allows both to function without getting in each others way. The store has underground parking (as do the residents in a separate gated area) offering two hours free off street in an area which has metered on street places. The parking garage has two elevators one into the store’s ground floor and and the other to all the floors of the apartment building.

London Drugs on W 42nd Ave
But what was a real surprise to me was that when I entered the apartment building, got off the elevator at the third floor and walked to the back there was a complete pedestrian street of town houses on top of the drugstore!

Townhouses on the Third Floor

The level of detail is good, although I was a bit surprised that there is a flight of stairs between the third floor and the “street”. A level access would have been much smarter I think – and at these prices (a 2 bedroom townhouse here is currently listed at $958,800) I would expect it. But that is perhaps a minor cavil. The fountain was a nice touch, if a bit primitive.

When you look around most of Vancouver’s streetcar villages, the retail is nearly always single storey. And obviously this was not a cheap development. More than one level of underground parking will see to that. Now if there had been LRT at the front door, could some of that parking have been relinquished? Especially if there were some co-op cars located there? London Drugs is of course both a downtown and suburban retailer, but does seem wiling to be a bit more adventurous in picking locations. In the centre of Richmond the store is at “Plaza level” (1 floor up) of Westminster at No 3 – next to mostly restaurants at that level. The BCAA and an optician got the largest ground floor spaces.

But what really strikes me is the lost opportunity. The tracks are still there, unused since the brewery at Burrard stopped taking grain by rail. There would be no need for special working relatiosnhips with frieght trains – the last one ran years ago. CP is still the owner, bit the City seems to think they can get the right of way for a greenway. Certainly CP is not happy at the loss of potential development revenues. And meanwhile the tracks rust. And the roads are busy.

Level Crossing

Written by Stephen Rees

April 10, 2008 at 3:42 pm

Posted in architecture, housing, Urban Planning

Tagged with

London’s new look offers lessons for Vancouver

with one comment

Trevor Boddy, The Globe and Mail

This follows on nicely from Michael Geller’s Lessons from Around the World. An architect in London has been trying to recreate the social diversity that used to make so many of the now over priced fashionable areas interesting. He has also noticed that if he puts in mixed use that includes shops too small to appeal to the big chains, the retail environment improves too.

It’s one of those ideas that when you read it, it seems so obvious you wonder why it hasn’t been tried before. But as Michael explained last night developers are herd animals that make sheep look like individualists.

Trevor Boddy also has taken the time to spell out what this would mean here and I will break from my usual practice and let him have a lot of space.

In Vancouver, our existing models for social housing provision have broken down, be it the 20 per cent of site areas set aside for affordable housing that then never get government funding, or the hyper-concentration in the Downtown Eastside of what little social housing does actually get built.

We now hear talk of the government reneging on its commitment to the Little Mountain social housing site (west of Main Street, south of 33rd Avenue) by redeveloping it as market housing, and market housing alone.

The social housing units promised for this project may instead be shipped to another part of the city, almost certainly further east.

Vancouver needs to stick by its long-established policies promoting variety in housing tenures and types, and reject this Faustian tradeoff of less diversity for more units elsewhere.

One of Vancouver’s historic strengths is its social and racial integration. Eastside arterial strips need to be developed with much denser concentrations of market housing and new offices, but we also need creative ways to integrate the needy, the aged, and the creative into our equivalents of Sloane Square.

Some of Paul Davis and Partners’ ideas on display in the Duke of York Square formula might work for Robson, South Granville, Dunbar or West 41st.

Written by Stephen Rees

March 21, 2008 at 8:55 am

City needs to push the envelope to stay on top

with 17 comments

Miro Cernetig talks to Larry Beasely

The ostensible reason for the article is that we have moved up another of those best city lists.

These rankings take our attention off the question that’s really at hand: With a million more people expected to be here by 2030, how are we going to stay on the cutting edge of urban planning that’s put us in the livability big leagues?

Larry of course is building not one but two cities in the dessert of Abu Dhabi and

“I’m learning we’re not as far ahead on some of this stuff as I thought we were,” he says.

Which is refreshing. The problem with these rankings is they have gone to our head – or at least to the collective heads of the planners. And upstart furriners like me who keep saying “The Emperor has no clothes” are simply not listened to. But Larry, with his OC and new perspective will be.

The trouble I have is that they think it is about buildings and especially cultural institutions. Which seems to me to reflect the priorities of Marie Antoinnette.

There are some very basic things we need to be doing – and architects are not going to be the most important component of that, neither are the problems or their solutions the exclusive domain of the City of Vancouver. No doubt working for a Crown Prince with few budget constraints is a heck of a lot easier than herding cats, but in a metropolitan area being run (and ruined) by the province, that is what has to be done.

For starters, there is the problem of housing, and the related issues of mental health and welfare. These are basic social problems – and in my mind the quality of society is measured not by its glitzy buildings or cultural institutions, but by the way it treats its most vulnerable citizens. And right now the only thing that seems to be grabbing our attention is how to conceal the extent of our social policy collapse during the weeks of and around the 2010 Olympics. Lack of affordability of homes to buy is actually the least of it. We are supposed to have free at the point of service for public health, yet people with multiple diagnoses are simply turned away from treatment. We shy away from creating more and better public spaces for fear that the homeless will move in. We cannot buy a decent bus shelter or bench in case somebody finds it a better place to sleep than a doorway. And instead of building more public housing, we simply buy up a few more roach infested SROs, and do a half hearted job of trying to clean them up, displacing more people in the process. And actually destroying some of the best public housing we have, and rebuilding it to provide more marketable homes!

It is not the buildings that are the problem. They simply reflect what we are willing to pay for. And the answer here at present seem to be not much since the land costs so much. But it is the spaces in between the buildings that matter – and in the words of that tired old cliché we have private affluence and public squalor. We devote more space to car parking than almost any other activity. Our streets may be broad, but the sidewalks are mean. And public places where people gather are few and inadequate. And we concentrate on Vancouver – and especially downtown – as if that were the only place worth considering.

And I haven’t even started on our infrastructure. “World class” cities surely need good waste disposal (liquid and solid) as well as reasonable movement alternatives for goods as well as people.

Oddly enough there is no need to “push the envelope” with any of this, the solutions have been around for decades. We have just turned our back on them in our obsession with finance and profitability, as if that is the only way to measure worth. How can we boast of our GDP per capita – when so many of those heads have no pillow?

Written by Stephen Rees

March 17, 2008 at 10:20 am

Sustainable Urbanism: Searching for Sustainability at the Suburban/Rural Edge

with 3 comments

Douglas Farr Public Lecture

Tuesday, March 11, 7:30 pm SFU Harbour Centre

Streaming video

Doug Farr is a pivotal figure in sustainability today, leading and practicing at the crossroads of urbanism and green building. His firm, Farr Associates, holds the global distinction of being the first and only firm to design three LEED Platinum buildings.

At the same time, he has served as Chair of the LEED Neighborhood Development Core Committee, leading the development of sustainable performance metrics for urban development.

His new book, Sustainable Urbanism: Urban Design with Nature, is a leading text on enhancing the sustainability of urbanism and his lectures are essential to understanding the pending sustainability convergence.

Doug Farr talked about integrating sustainable urbanism and agriculture on the urban edge. Having evaluated the sustainability of East Fraserlands, a project along Vancouver’s river edge planned by DPZ, Farr has been commissioned by Century Group (this evening’s sponsor) to consider opportunities for sustainable solutions at the suburban/rural edge in the Southlands of Tsawwassen.

Doug Farr is a Chicago architect. The mission of his practice is to design sustainable human environments. He has been closely involved in the leadership in to create LEED ND. Some of their developments include Lake Pulaski Transit Oriented Development (TOD) 1998 on the west side of Chicago. In 1999 they produced the first LEED platinum building, the Chicago Centre for Green Technology. “Urbanism did not come up at all in the first LEED standards” and there was no mention of building around transit. It was basically a systems integration approach – heating, lighting ,waste water and so on. Most clients really did not see the need: for instance at Orland Park TOD they were told to “remove the green stuff”.

Minneapolis at 46th & Hiawatha, a development relayed to a new LRT system there was a fight over density. Initially buildings had to be 1½ storeys, but after discussion it was agreed that four storeys could be accepted and an extra storey could be added if it was a green building. In Normal, Illinois he produced an Uptown development around a traffic circle: the area within the circle was used for stormwater detention, all the buildings were LEED certified.

LEED ND means “LEED for Neighborhood Development”. It is based on the observation of how much Americans drive and how far, for example, fresh produce has to travel to market: 1,500 miles on average. Children of middle class white families in up scale California developments spend 89% of their time indoors, or in vehicles.

He was sharply critical of Al Gore’s recommendations for action at the end of “An Inconvenient Truth”. He thought that Gore had“punted” the issue of transportation. What he wrote was not a mandate: that means “if the bus hits you, get on it”. By not directly tackling land use and transportation he had missed the single biggest greenhouse gas issue. We have seen in recent years the “tragic irony of efficiency” – per capita vehicle miles travelled had increased 5% which more than offset any gains due to Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency (CAFE) standards imposed on the automobile industry by the US government. At the same time average dwelling size grew 60% (from 1970-2005) but household size in the same period was declining. The Environmental Building News pointed out that even at present practices, transport to and from an office building uses 30% more energy than the building itself: and if that bldg meets LEED standards that rises to 130%.

The pillars of sustainability were set down in April 1996 when the 10 principles of Smart Growth were agreed. These can be grouped under four headings:

settle in the right location, create compact places, offer more choice and a fair transparent process.

In Atlanta, GA the average distance people drive is 35miles per day. But that is very heavily weighted by the suburbs. In the city centre residents driving distances average less than 10 miles.

The Charter of New Urbanism (also 1996) co-evolved with transit. The US Green Building Council was also formed in that year. All these institutions have become “Silos of Sustainability” promoting half measures, and each devalues the work of others. Conservation or LID development concentrates on issues like storm water and native plantings. He showed an image of an Arby’s at a suburban intersection. This could be a LEED Platinum Eligible building: “a unwalkable fatty food shack”. He also had an advert for a green building that proved hard to let that now offers free parking. He also took a swipe at Seaside – the first New Urbanist development. There the air conditioning condensers rust out every 5 years due to the sea air and the buildings also have to be painted every five years. The a/c units are located in between the buildings. This means that as soon as anyone turns one on, the house next door has to shut its windows to keep out the noise, and turn on its on a/c … and so on.

“We need to evolve to sustainable urbanism”. This has to be based on neighbourhoods that are walkable and have transit service. We need to establish relevant “weights and measures”. This what LEED ND does: its determines what where and how. A smart location is a pre-requisite: it is usually infill or adjacent to existing transit. On exception in the urban edge is where there is to be a projected transit extension. Land stewardship is central to the concept expressed as the neighbourhood pattern and design. No gated communities are permitted and the minimum density is 7 units per net acre (the US average now is 2). It is also includes erosion control and similar protection for water courses.

It is expected that there will be zoning code version, but so far 371 projects have expressed interest in certification in 42 states and 8 countries. The area covered in total is “bigger than Boston” and 80% of the projects are on brownfield sites or or infill. Many of the standards adopted have a carbon base and measurable public health benefit demonstrated by research. Even so the National Association of Homebuilders (NAHB) asserts that there is an “unproven connection between health and walkability”. They also accuse the proponents of a sociological agenda, as though building low density car orient4ed sprawl had no sociological effects.

He was critical of LEED ND. He pointed out that the prerequisites are a poor tool to balance competing trade offs, and they have had limited influence at the sprawling edge of the suburbs. So far they have had no discernible effect on sprawl. He gave the example of the East Fraserlands in Vancouver (on the Fraser North Arm at boundary. This was a former saw mill but included some woodland. The requirement of LEED ND is that 75% had to be previously developed and there also had to be a 100 ft set back of all development on riparian lands. So this site failed to qualify.

The “Southlands” in Tsawwassen are built up on all sides but have had no development on them, so they would also fail the LEED ND test. It is hoped that the current process will actually protect a lot of the green area from construction, unlike the original proposals which would have been a low density subdivision.

“LEED ND will not design a project” but he showed a simple, and familiar, diagram of a triangular site, based on earlier standards. This is now being used with a 10 minute walk circle to show how a dense neighbourhood can work, and reduce the meed for motorised trips.

He talked about “emerging thresholds” and something called the “80% rule”: apparently you need 2000 houses to build a TOD. (I may have this wrong as my typing could not keep up with the speed at which he was flipping through his slides). He introduced the idea of “biophilia” – people respond to nature and “nature shouldn’t be something you have to drive to”. So his developments have dual use stormwater retention and high performance infrastructure. The trip reduction potential stems from clustering buildings, but it also enhances neighbourhood health and security. The neighbourhoods are then linked into a “sustainable corridor” based on a transit line.

Most of our current planning codes should replace minimums with maximums – e.g. street width. “The current regulations are backwards.” He sees the need for a national campaign. It is a curious fact that Richard Nixon created all the US environmental agencies – and that very little progress has been made since.

“It’s the placemaking, stupid!”

LEED should apply to land use as well as buildings. The 2030 Architectural Challenge is to gradually move towards carbon neutral buildings by adopting progressively tighter restrictions each year – “like a slow burn fuse”. His practice has shown that the targets is completely possible and they will have built a 120% efficient house next year, that is one that feeds power back on to the grid.

He is now proposing a similar 2030 Community Challenge. This will be based on reducing the average driving distance – less than the 8,150 miles per person per annum which Americans now drive which is equivalent to the North Pole to somewhere in Brazil. For a family this is now 21,500 miles a year, which is very nearly like driving around the whole world. “When you experience a city at 50 mph you don’t care what it looks like.” He aims for a 2% reduction pa in VMT which would produce a 50% reduction by 2030. You can do this by “planning to drive less” – for instance simply eliminating that trip you wish you had not made last year to your in laws. But by designing “resilient communities” we can make the US less reliant on fossil fuels and hence more able to withstand the uncertainties of the future. Essentially the Challenge is a call to invest in land use and transportation integration.

In one development called Atlantic Station the average drive distance is now 8 mpd, a 75% reduction over the Atlanta average. The big gains will be achieved in the suburbs, where the driving distances are greatest will be where the highest percentage of projects need to be LEED ND platinum.

Changing the type of light bulbs we use took 5 years: changing our neighbourhoods will take 20 to 50, corridors take 20 -100 years. “We started at the wrong end.”

He endorses the view of Bill Clinton that this change represents a large economic opportunity.


  • Isn’t there a correlation between poverty and VMT? What is the role of legislation?
    A – Zoning is the way to make change. Vancouver is ahead of the curve. But in existing neighbourhoods there are “always bits being replaced” and it is here that the main opportunities will be found

  • The standard of 7 units pda is about of what is needed to make transit viable.
    A – It’s a compromise but you can exceed the standard and it probably ought to be 10 to 12.

  • The Spetifore Lands is the correct name for the site in Tsawwassen. There has been little public process. Is there a way that we can have a development that encourages individuals to experiment? Will your development end agriculture on this land? After all, it was this site that spurred the creation of the ALR
    A – The first plan was sprawl. We now expect to have a charrette. There is no plan yet but we expect to set aside
    of land either as green space, agriculture, or conservation. the basic question we are now asking is “Can we complete the town and make it a better place?”

  • An advocate for affordable housing asked if LEED ND requires mixed income, and given current building costs of around $1,000 per sf, how can that be achieved
    A – It is essential to end segregation by economic strata. In 1990 we reformed on “CNU ideals”(?) “LEED ND is the duct tape that solves every urban problem.” Usually they insist on 10 % each for sale and rent at affordable levels. The response is convincing the powers that be that it is doable. The private sector is currently not building to the market, and often all they have to do is right size it.

  • Are car co-ops just a gadget?
    A – NO. See the VTPI 2005 shared car study. Reducing car ownership actually increases wealth [note: I think he should have said “disposable income”] LEED houses cost more but the savings from redcuing car ownershop will pay for better houses.

  • Why don’t the politicians get it?
    a – In places that have a planning culture – like Tsawassen and Portland – they do. And the public’s involvement in the process is crucial. Mostly it is the local plans that do not help. You must remember that sprawl is legal – it is mandated and approved by certified Planners. Chicago is not a plan town but a deal town. The question there is, can we make neighborhoods and corridors?

  • Municipalities in Canada do not have the freedom of US cities, and they are bound to be concerned about the impact on property tax
    A – LEED ND is good government and fiscally responsible. the cost of infrastructure is much lower in dense, contiguous neighborhoods.

Written by Stephen Rees

March 12, 2008 at 1:34 pm