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

Archive for the ‘placemaking’ Category

Vilnius Christmas tree

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©GO Vilnius

This image came from a Press Release which I will copy and paste below. I will spare you my opinions about cutting down trees, and Christmas in general. I will say that this is simply a promotional item from Go Vilnius, the Official Development Agency of the City of Vilnius and I did not receive any payment or other benefit from this post. I have never visited Vilnius and I am not about to promote it here – and I have edited out some of the more exaggerated claims.

But I did think that using an old chess piece as a model was a Good Idea.

I am sure if you want to find out more about Vilnius you know how to do that and do not actually need me to provide link(s).

November 30, 2019: The traditional lighting of the Christmas tree in Vilnius attracted citizens and guests alike. The capital of Lithuania has received a lot of global attention over the years for its unique and stunning Christmas trees, and this year is no exception. This year, the decorated Christmas tree resembles the 14-15th century Queen figure from the game of chess, which was found by archaeologists in 2007.

Decorations adorn the already traditional 27-meter tall metal construction, which bears some 6,000 branches. The construction is specially designed to create a completely sustainable Christmas tree. All the actual tree branches used in the construction are defiled from the trees by foresters while carrying out the general maintenance of the forest. Therefore not only trees but even branches are not cut just for the spectacle.

The particular figure which served as a model for decorations was found during the archeological excavations around the Ducal Palace in Vilnius. Dating back to the 14th-15th century, the beautifully ornamented figure was made of spindle tree. Its middle part is carved with geometrical patterns and topped with floral ornaments. According to historians, the game of chess was played by the nobility of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania from the end of the 14th century.

A traditional Christmas market is set up around the Christmas tree, along with another one located at the Town Hall Square. The markets will stay open from the 30th of November to the 7th of January. 

Written by Stephen Rees

November 30, 2019 at 1:12 pm

Posted in placemaking

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Weekly Photo Challenge: Pedestrian

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Millenium Bridge

One of my favourite subjects Pedestrian is actually the theme of a group I started on flickr called Places Without Cars. It seemed to me that Vancouver had really not done nearly enough to reduce the impact of traffic on its city centre, whereas many other places had closed major streets and squares to cars, but in the process opened them up to become people places. In England they are called Pedestrian Precincts.  I can remember the transformation of the centre of Harrow in the mid 1980’s where I then lived, from a major traffic artery to a place where it was not only actually pleasant to walk and shop, but there were reasons to linger. Once upon a time “No Loitering” signs were common: that is no longer the case. We have come to realise that the favourite activity of human beings is people watching. That human interaction by chance is another of our favourite things – and most commerce is in fact based on such encounters.

The picture above is of the Millennium Bridge in London, which connects the Tate Modern on the South Bank to St Paul’s in the City.

Instead of putting lots more of my pictures of similar structures I urge you to go look at that flickr group linked above and see what other places have done to make pedestrian activity attractive.

Written by Stephen Rees

October 4, 2017 at 10:49 am

Dead malls

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Once again, essentially all I am doing is to point you at another blog. I have visited and lived in North America for long enough that I did indeed spend quite a lot of time in malls. In fact our own Oakridge Mall, with the incredibly frequent sales at The Bay and the free wifi at the Apple Store – and Four Hours Free Parking – still manages to carry on. Elsewhere, the unstoppable rise of  Amazon – and staying home to let the UPS man in – has spelled the death knell of the enclosed mall.

This region has seen two new major mall developments recently – at the airport and the ferry terminal – but they are not enclosed. They now try to mimic town centres or even villages: at one time they snubbed such places.  As a young urban planner I tried to understand how they worked and fit them in to the places that we were supposed to be protecting from change. I knew that the impact of heavy traffic had make most High Streets unlivable. The idea of the traffic free street was only just getting under way. The Mall was place where the traffic was kept to the outside parking lot. Within the shopping area there was air conditioning for summer, protection from the weather in the other seasons and a predictable, limited variety of activities. But mostly there was Shopping.

Cruise ships still have malls. Vegas has them to surround the casinos. Elsewhere they are a tribute to the inexorable fate of capitalism. Huge, wasteful, pointless investments in past technologies. With none of the romance of old railway stations which can be revamped as museums, or – ok – shopping malls.

My prediction would be that International Village and Lansdowne would be the next to go.  Aberdeen (illustrated above) seems to defy gravity.

Written by Stephen Rees

July 28, 2017 at 8:05 pm

Posted in placemaking, Urban Planning

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MoV Das Wiener Modell

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At the Museum of Vancouver  in association with Urbanarium, an exhibition about the extensive social housing provision in Vienna, which started with the collapse of the Hapsburg empire after WWI and continues to this day.

The Vienna Model exhibition, curated by Wolfgang Förster and William Menkins, explores housing in Vienna, Austria, through its portrait of the city’s pathbreaking approach to architecture, urban life, neighborhood revitalization, and the creation of new communities.

Vancouver is consistently ranked alongside the Vienna as one of the world’s most livable cities. Vienna has a stable housing market, with 60% of the population living in municipally built, owned, or managed housing. By comparison, Vancouver is undergoing a housing crisis. Vienna’s housing history and policies provides alternative approaches for British Columbia.

As Vancouver embarks upon a community engagement process revolving around housing, The Vienna Model expands discussion about urban planning options and encourages dialogue and debate on the future of the city.

In addition to its investigation of design that is focused on community, Vancouver- and Vienna-based artists and cultural researchers Sabine Bitter and Helmut Weber have selected art projects and public works that reflect Vienna housing into a broader context. These are included in the exhibition and illustrated catalogue.

 

Comparisons

MoV  Das Wiener Modell

MoV Das Wiener Modell

Housing and Transportation

Most the exhibition is about housing and how to make it available to people who cannot afford to buy their own home. There did not seem to be a great deal of emphasis on transportation but I did find this

MoV Das Wiener Modell

“Built as part of Vienna’s efforts to encourage the use of bicycles, it reduced car parking to 50% of the usual requirement (one spot per apartment), replacing it with more attractive and transparent bike storage rooms on the ground floor, a bike repair centre, and large elevators for tenants who want to take their bicycles up to their apartments. Situated… next to a subway station and the city’s bike network.”

MoV Das Wiener Modell

The best transportation plan is a good land use plan and this one does well by putting places that people want to visit close at hand. This obviously reduces car use but apparently they still need underground parking.

MoV Das Wiener Modell

This picture makes it clearer that the external wall is merely a facade enclosing more conventional buildings

MoV Das Wiener Modell

This is about Seestadt Aspern one of the newest developments – I think you can read the bit about public transportation without me copying the text. Let me know if this doesn’t work on your phone.

MoV Das Wiener Modell

Looks a bit grim to me – sort of Cuban – but maybe it will be better once it’s finished and populated

MoV Das Wiener Modell

Apparently most people here (93%) favoured the Vienna approach until there was a debate which turned quite a few against it (video). But there was still a 81% favourable!

The most frequent mode of discussion in the main stream seems to focus around markets – supply and demand – amid much frustration that simply building more doesn’t affect demand when there is a seemingly limitless amount of money available to buy real estate as an investment (as opposed to somewhere to live). Lost in this is the history of Canada has something of a leader in housing provision – back when we still believed that government can sometimes do things right. Public housing provision does and can make sense. But I do think that having a split between planners who do housing and planners who do transportation will simply repeat the same errors once again – the dangerous “projects” (US), the soulless “council estates” (UK) . So mixed use – not poverty ghettos – and lots of amenities within easy reach – as well as jobs and homes next to each other. A bit like cities were before planning – but without the health hazards!

Written by Stephen Rees

May 29, 2017 at 6:43 pm

What if we took transit out of politics

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The article in the Globe and Mail (paywalled – sorry!) actually is entitled “What if we took transit out of the hands of politicians?” And looks at the sorry record of the Greater Toronto Area in the hands of Ontario politicians at both municipal and provincial level. It is hard to disagree that they have not covered themselves in glory and seem to be putting short term political advantage ahead of sensible planning. And actually the key event is not really “transit” as it is a proposal to build intercity high speed rail between Toronto and London, passing through Kitchener-Waterloo. Something already announced more than once.

I am not going to get into why this is indeed nonsense on stilts, but I am going to turn my attention to this bit down at the end of the article.

Public transit doesn’t have to be run by a private business. But it has to be run by an organization that operates like a business, responding to market demand – actual customers – not political demands.

And that is wrong on more than one ground too. It is only because the article is the usual right wing, business is best, mainstream media obsession that the quote starts as it does. Privatisation of public transport – urban transit and passenger bus and rail services – has been a dreadful failure in Britain. As has been pointed out here more than once, it actually now attracts much more subsidy than it did when publicly owned and operated. Complaints about service are legion, but the companies that run trains and buses for profits have generally made out like bandits. When those companies have failed, and the service taken back into public control, it has always improved

But in the case of urban transit in a rapidly growing region “responding to market demand” is also a recipe for certain failure. And that stems from the myopia that separates out building new transportation from planning urban growth. Land use and transportation are inextricably locked together – but Tony Keller doesn’t mention land use once. This lack of understanding is also why we should mistrust the federal Infrastructure Bank – if its ludicrously high interest rate costs were not enough reason already.

Transit expansion should not wait for market demand – it should lead it and shape it. Especially if the project requires large up front capital investments in buying new rights of way and building massive infrastructure. You have to build these things where people are thin on the ground, if you are to be allowed to start at all, because once they are opened you want to attract development. Building in already densely populated areas – like New York’s Second Avenue subway – is hideously expensive, and the cause of much complaint from the existing residents. The huge interstate freeway system was built between cities, on greenfields, first before tackling the much more contentious inner city areas. The result was, of course, urban sprawl and much disruption of established communities. Doing transit right in major cities requires expertise in “the art of insertion” as the Parisian tramway planners say.

If we had built the SkyTrain through the TriCities before they developed, the trains would have run empty for the first few years, but the style of  development would have been very different. Transit oriented development is actually not at all new and untried – it is what was built before car ownership was widespread. It is only because North American development defaults to the low density car-oriented urban pattern that transit struggles. Before Henry Ford, most streetcar and interurban service was privately owned – and its promoters were usually real estate developers.

Because everything about the suburbs depends on subsidies transit has to be subsidized, which is why some form of political control is essential. It also has to be recognised that most of the benefits of not being car oriented come from things that the private sector has a hard time monetising. Or the people suffer terribly when they succeed.  People who use transit, cycle or walk for most of their trips are both happier and healthier. People who feel forced to spend far too much of their day stuck in traffic in their cars are both unhealthier and frustrated. Drive until you qualify for a mortgage is actually a deal with the devil. The combined cost of living – travel plus accommodation – is actually higher for low density car oriented suburbs – but the lower house prices (and tax treatment of mortgages in places like the US and UK) seem to continue to attract buyers.

While we have done quite well in producing a greater variety of housing stock, we have not done nearly as well in providing the necessary mobility services. This is partly, once again, because we have relied on politicians. And sadly the supposedly “progressive” NDP wasn’t actually that much different to the evil BC Liberals. The Millennium Line for a long time wasn’t as useful as the whole T shaped arrangement we have now (due to the long overdue Evergreen extension)  but at least it was capable of expansion. Unlike the deliberately underbuilt Canada Line.

The next steps to be taken here – and in Greater Toronto – inevitably will involve politicians since huge amounts of money need to be spent. And they would be well advised to avoid the pitfalls of P3s and go with public sector investments, that are designed to support rather than confuse the necessary land use arrangements. In this region we once had such an integrated and use and transportation plan: it was deliberately scuttled by the BC Liberal Party as a way of paying off the people who provided them with the money to run successful elections. Obviously we need to get the big money out of provincial politics. Obviously we need a better way of electing politicians. We also need to have system of urban and regional planning that integrates development of land use and transportation systems. Their operation can indeed be left to the professionals BUT wherever public money is used there has to be accountability. That requires openness, honesty and a commitment to listening. Indirectly elected municipal politicians cannot be expected to do this well at a regional level.

UPDATE Toronto Star on a political boondoggle on GO Transit Sept 18, 2017

Written by Stephen Rees

May 29, 2017 at 11:32 am

Weekly Photo Challenge: Dense

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Vancouver Aerial

This is a photograph of Vancouver’s downtown, which in recent years has become – in terms of urban development – one of the densest parts of the region. This was the result of a set of inter-related planning decisions, to allow for towers, closely spaced, and mainly for residential use. This was a departure from the way other places kept downtowns for other, non-residential uses. This has allowed for much greater choices in terms of how people get to and from work – and other activities. In most modern cities, built since World War II, the plan has been to allow for most use of cars, which has created large swathes of low density suburbs. Traditionally, prior to motorised transport, cities were designed to allow for most trips to be completed by walking. Railways and streetcars allowed things to be spaced out a bit more, but the greatest impact was the use of the personal automobile. Most North American cities are now turning away from this pattern of development and rediscovering the benefits of urbanity. (Most European cities made that choice much sooner – to retain the amenities and cultural significance of their central areas. ) Not just better energy efficiency, and cleaner air – though both are worthwhile improvements – but in greater interaction between people. More sociability, greater opportunities to meet other people – more culture, more entertainment, more choices of where to go and what to do.  Indeed the pursuit of higher densities remains a central plank of urban and regional planning – the subject matter of most of this blog – made possible by increasing the choices of transport open to residents. More trips that can be made without needing a car, by walking, cycling and public transport. That produces happier, healthier places. It doesn’t just protect the environment it increases economic activity.

Note too that one important lesson of developing a dense urban core is that green spaces – that’s Stanley Park in the foreground – can be successfully protected and made available for many more people to enjoy, rather than the large areas that get fenced off to keep people out in low density suburbs and exurbs.

Written by Stephen Rees

March 29, 2017 at 9:26 pm

Granville Island 2040: Phase 3

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I went to the “Open House” on the Granville Island 2040 plan this afternoon. This was not an open house format in any sense I would use. There were three longish identical presentations during the day with an opportunity to ask questions or make comments at the end of each. A few display boards were in the Revue Stage Lobby – so this one was the leftmost of the icons in the image above “Draft Directions”. Apart from these boards, there were no materials being distributed nor is there very much on the Granville Island web page. It may be that the presentation may be made available there later as there was a tv camera pointed at the presenters. I did not stay for the comments and questions.

The theatre was by no means full: I estimate around 70 people were present and I do not include staff or presenters in that number.

The presentation was made by Darryl Condon of the architecture company HMCA retained by CMHC. While there were several others at the two top tables, on the stage, facing the audience none of them gave formal presentations but were available to answer the comments and questions.

I am not going to simply report all of what the presentation covered as I expect that the draft plan will be available in due course. The vision of that plan will include the idea that GI is a “zone of public possibility” which will acknowledge both its history and the collective creative potential of its users. The principles governing the development include

  • public good has priority over market forces
  • an increase in diversity of users
  • social and environmental resilience
  • a place to learn and be challenged

There are others too.

Among the ten key goals are #6. Pop up culture (currently the Island’s offerings are very static) #7. Reduce the dominance of private cars

Strategies

As you might expect I was most interested in what is being termed CarLite. Access is a critical issue, and reducing car use depends on increasing the availability of alternatives. Currently 1/4 of the Island is roadway or parking. There are 980 parking spaces on east side and 300 on the west (Granville Bridge being the middle). There is a declining use of cars to get to GI (increases in walking, cycling and use of ferries were reported in an earlier post) The aim is to make the west side car free, while maintaining access for deliveries, people with disabilities and drop off and pick up of passengers. This is expected to produce more vitality and activity. Many places have already made significant progress in prioritizing pedestrians e.g. The Rocks, Sydney; DUMBO and Times Square, New York. It is also intended to increase the amount of nighttime activity following the examples of Amsterdam (which has a Night Mayor) and Brixton which has a Night Market.

I want to intervene here to point out that despite the commitment to increasing inclusiveness, there was no mention of the very successful Richmond Night Markets.

It was also noted that the present arrangements allow little access to the water, and a number of suggestions were offered as to how to increase this including sales from boats or places to “dip your toes in” False Creek. The Public Market will be expanded to be more than a building: it will become a precinct with open air stalls, food trucks and the like. There is also a commitment to make greater use of the many “in between spaces”. With the reduction of car park spaces, there will be a greater opportunity of large flexible spaces and mixed use.

The two most important pieces from my perspective were what is now being called Alder Bay Bridge

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The display map in the lobby was nothing like the present proposal, which is now designed as both a curve, landing further north west and not crossing at the narrowest point. This will allow for use by pedestrians and cyclists, protect the “sanctity of the green space” and link to an enhanced path along the northern edge of the island.  Examples of curved bridges as art pieces with sculptural quality were shown but not identified.

Frank Ducote photo

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Frank Ducote photo

Two alternatives were shown for an elevator connection to Granville Bridge. The bridge now carries 6 bus routes, with an effective average 2 minute wait time for a bus between GI and downtown, but getting to GI now is actually not that easy. So an elevator to midspan bus stops makes obvious sense. What makes much less sense is the City proposal of a median “greenway” on the bridge. Any pedestrian would, I think, prefer a view of the water and the scenery rather than of lots of traffic. (One idea I have seen that was not shown is a walking deck beneath the car deck.) An elevator to a median bus stop would require structural alterations to the bridge. So if there were two elevators, one for each direction of bus service, they could be built outboard of the structure. They might even be temporary initially as a proof of concept, but more elaborately could include a wider sidewalk and bumpout bus stops – again my thoughts not what was shown.
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This was also in the lobby but not mentioned in the presentation.

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This survey was for people who had attended the presentations, and will not be on line for long. But CMHC is encouraging further input

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Thanks to Frank Ducote for the pictures taken of the presentation

UPDATE May 24, 2016

The final report is now available as a pdf file. The elevator is in but only one and to the median of the bridge – assuming the City goes ahead with its middle of the road greenway. The new pedestrian/ bike bridge on the eastern with its seductive curve is also retained: a straight bridge would be a lot cheaper but would bring more through movement to an area current Island workers want kept quiet. Except for shows and concerts, outside of working hours.  The Olympic Line gets a nod but is left up to the City. There is quite a bit about the need to generate revenue and no expectation of more federal funds.

Written by Stephen Rees

December 3, 2016 at 6:08 pm