Tag Archives: design

(278) ULI case studies

Belks1Last year the Urban Land Institute produced a document with a half dozen case studies of communities doing sprawl repair, adding transit infrastructure, and undertaking suburban retrofits.  It’s nice to see these projects because it seems logical that a better designed community offers its residents some insurance against difficulty compared to poorly thought out, low density, car-dependent ones, the kind that are everywhere.  These projects and their various components represent at least a good attempt at adapting the lived-in North American landscape to an emergent future which doesn’t really support the things that made suburbia possible any more, namely E-Z money and cheap energy.

Our relatively limited experience of these refitted places is that they rely too much on retail and ironically, cars.  What will happen to the major continental chains like Starbucks or The Gap as we move forward is not fully clear.  They and their global supply chains may contract along with everything else.  A coffee bar an upstairs tenant can walk to doesn’t mean much if the windows are boarded up.  One of our interns was in Toronto’s Liberty Village this weekend.  Liberty Village is not so much a refitted suburb as a refitted industrial area but it models many of the same attributes as ULI’s case studies.  “Don’t know when I’ve ever seen so many luxury SUVs, Minis, Japanese sports cars, German sedans in one place, ever,” said our intern.  The very success and enjoyability of the area’s renovated buildings, its retail opportunities and so forth attracts loads of people, many of whom arrive by car even though there’s multiple possibilities for arrival by public transit.

Shifting Suburbs: reinventing infrastructure for compact development
uli.org 56 page .pdf file

ULI Infrastructure Initiative

image: dead shopping mall by Augustawiki via Wikimedia Commons

(262) Living in a van in Van

Well, this is certainly interesting …in a depressing-yet-designey kind of way.  A young man living in a Dodge van in Vancouver.  Turns out, he’s not alone.  Rents are too high, wages are too low.  See the link to Mathew Archer’s Tumblr for more on this reality.

Mobile Living: Vancouver Van Dwellers’ Nomadic Lives huffingtonpost.ca

See also: (103) A man’s home is his castle …and frequently also his shitbox

(257) Offices & transit: will it happen? [Report]

Two of Canada’s major national media outlets featured items today about the nature of suburban life and economics as influenced by transportation.  The issue is the rapid of appearance of millions of square feet of office space in parts of an urban/suburban agglomeration once zoned exclusively for industry. Where once office jobs were downtown and industry near ports or in early inner suburbs and satellite locations (generally to the east as in most cities in the northern hemisphere thanks to prevailing wind) we now find office employment ubiquitous and growing fast near airports and out along highways and major arterial roads.

This shouldn’t be such a surprise, given decades of deindustrialization and the apparent economic advantages of sprawl, that employers put office space, server farms, call and data centres where once there were cornfields. Suburban office space can be built and occupied in a hurry and most jurisdictions, eager to maintain employment, property values, development levies and so forth are glad to have office and service employment over the declining prospects for manufacturing, against which there are other liabilities like air pollution, noise and perhaps a cultural loss of interest in making things, as well.

The Greater Toronto Area, with some five million people now, was the focus of both pieces.  One is part of a series on CBC Morning called the Joyless Commute. They’d hardly devote a week of air space to a topic not recognized by the listenership.  Many of whom are essentially forced to car commute for hours every week to office jobs many kilometres away and which are virtually impossible prospects for cycling, walking or public transit. The second item was also about the power of car commuting to far flung office pods, places often miles from a subway stop and served by low frequency buses at most. Curiously, the piece was front page in today’s Toronto Star business section. Not at the back of the local issues or lifestyle related parts of the paper.

Money talks.  Getting these issues wrong is going to be bad for business and make life diffcult for working people.

All through the 80s, 90s and 2000’s getting it right too often meant grinding into public expenditure, cutting taxes for the rich, privatizing and reducing services.  Now it means trying to bring millions of square feet of far flung office development into transit networks, reducing car dependece and pollution, providing appropriate infrastructure upgrades and general improvements to atmosphere and opportunity where our future workplaces will be.  Everyone is feeling the pressure, workers, managers, planners, builders, employers, investors.

Stuck in gridlock? Blame the office thestar.com

Joyless Commute Metro Morning on CBC radio – see thursday segment

Strategic Regional Research: A Region in Transition
Canadian Urban Institute link to major report

image: Zlatko via Wikimedia Commons

(248) Sprawl repair

Sprawl repair remains a somewhat controversial subject.  North Americans should probably be further down the path of working out how to make better suburbs than they are.  In America the economy has clearly held back experimentation with built forms that would represent a more mature kind of urbanism.  Nonetheless, approaches to bettering the sprawl before it’s too late are on the books.  This piece from 2010 acts as a primer on the topic and we read it with some interest.  Counter-arguments appear in the comments after the article and they represent some practical issues.  It seems also that there is a bit of an emotional backlash against the kind of improvements on offer by New Urbanists as too expensive, fake, unworkable, pseudo-European, top-down impositions.  The YouTube clip in the second link transposes a sprawl repair effort over locations in Charlotte, NC.  After watching, ask yourself where you would rather live, work and invest.  As far as we can see, the problem with sprawl repair for North Amerca is only the vastness of the undertaking, not the concept itself.  The adherents of sprawl repair better get busy and do a good job of selling what they’ve got.

Sprawl repair: what it is and why we need it Planetizen

Charlotte sprawl repair 5:01

image by suburban poverty using NARA photo of Phoenix via Wikimedia Commons

(247) Shopping malls

CBS Evening News
carried a video feature the other day about the adaptation of shopping malls.  Such things as churches, offices, and in one case, a city hall are turning up in them.  It only makes sense in a country where there are too many malls and not enough money.   In terms of community life malls have been pretty serious underachievers but maybe don’t give up on them completely just yet.

Rethinking an American icon: the shopping mall

photo: Eastview Shopping Centre, Saskatoon, SK by Drm310 via Wikimedia Commons

(229) Boomburbia

According to this piece on AlterNet, ten thousand Amerian Baby Boomers a day are retiring!  Ten thousand!  While nearly all of us are aware that North America, Japan and Europe have aging populations, and that there will be economic knocks to go along with that, the true reality of social change this kind of trend represents has scarcely begun to register.  If suburban poverty represents another ship emerging from the fog around the same time… well, you see what we are asking about.  The movement of the Baby Boomers through every phase of life had enormous socio-economic effect.  Now they are fully initiating demands that social services, medical care, commercial activity, and many of the other general undertakings of society be adapted to their concerns again, this time as the older generation.  Modern, post-war suburbia was built with enormous societal subsidy, in part to cater to the needs of this vast demographic bulge.  Doesn’t look like that manner of living, that kind of community design, is going to be the best place for that bulge to age out.  Other generations are finding the suburbs unsustainable for this reason as well as reasons of their own.

Why We Need to Get Boomers to Move to the Cities

See also: (191) Boomer Bomb

photo: downtowngal via Wikimedia Commons

(223) Rethinking the corporate campus

Just as the smokestack and the skyscraper symbolized a particular kind of economic development so did the corporate campus.  These were all the rage for decades, groupings of commercial buildings deployed amid greenery and reached mainly by car.  The corporate campus was chosen by high technology industries in particular with the example of Microsoft in Redmond, Washington known internationally.  The corporate campus first took root near the larger, older centres and were eventually replicated all over North America.  They seem to have served their owners well enough in their day, allowing firms to secure, centralize and rationalize their operations on greenfield sites beyond busy and expensive cities.  They were seen as a way to control real estate and operational costs and as enhancers of corporate culture and performance.  Some were plunked down in urban areas, others are suburban with yet others built in the middle of nowhere.  Now the business campus has come in for a timely rethink.  The idea going forward seems to be not to fully segregate places of work from places of residence.  This reduces transportation costs and stress for workers which also goes a little lighter on the environment.  The result is healthier and easier for everyone.

Steps-from-work housing
NYT piece looking at planning efforts in Hartford, CT which add residential uses to a large corporate office corridor

Crain’s Special Report: Corporate campuses in twilight

photo: JonRidinger via Wikimedia Commons

(214) How walkable is the place you live?

This is a really important question.  Walking is the very essence of being human and to deny walking is to deny being human.  If you can walk to where you need to go to get goods and services, socialize and be employed you have a tremendous quality of life advantage.  You and your community will be better off.  Thank goodness there has been a surge of interest in walkability lately.  The fact so many places in North America have not exactly been supportive of walking for so long now is, well, lame.  If you are interested in walkability have a look at Walkonomics.  There’s a phone app there now that allows you to rate your street and neighbourhood.


See also (149) Walk it off…

photo: Calista via Wikimedia Commons

(213) Highway to wherever

Few single artefacts symbolize the transitional state of major communities in 2012 as much as the elevated expressway.  Conceived in the 1930s, they altered most of North America’s major urban areas in fairly deep ways on behalf of suburbia and automobility.  By the 1960s the glamour of it all was being eclipsed by accidents, energy issues, pollution, congestion, and the social issues associated with exurban growth and the battering ram effect on the physical fabric of cities of highway construction.  Decades after Jane Jacobs (and others) began to propagate an important take on urban reality and autmobile fantasy many cities remain stuck with expressways.

In Canada the undertaking of highway construction was less epic than in the United States because the population was smaller but here in the Greater Toronto Area we have a prime example of a 1940s style dream becoming if not a full on nightmare then at least an expensive pain-in-the-ass called the Gardiner Expressway.  In the picture above stand several support columns from a short stretch of the expressway dismantled about a decade ago and left behind for their raw sculptural value.  How static a fate for an artefact once so full of intentions of movement and dynamism as an expressway.

The Gardiner was possibly the single most important piece of infrastructure in the GTA’s initial transformation from a modest nineteenth century, grid-based city into a sprawling megacity.  Lumps have been falling off of it forever, every few years it gets major rehabilitation work and recently an engineer’s report about the condition of the expressway caused public alarm and much media comment.  Plans to make plans to tear it down and start over come and go frequently.  Keeping the Gardiner is expensive but a tear down and replacement package would be even more expensive.  A situation reproduced in many places where the golden age of automobility and suburban sprawl is past by a full generation or more.

What to do is made all the more important for those with a social conscience or concern for the environment that supports life.  Continued spending on expressways retards the ability of a community to adapt to a changing climate or injustice in its social environment.  Where are the hundreds of millions of dollars going to come from to adapt to a more walkable, cleaner, less carbon producing, quieter, safer, smarter type of city and suburb if we are plowing vast sums into maintaining a way of life dreamed up decades ago that no longer really fits reality and produces all kinds of injustice, including suburban poverty?

Tough choices yes, don’t know if we are exactly seeing a “teardown movement” yet.
A lot of municipalities in the United States are bankrupt or have been in dire financial straits for some time now.  Maybe through neglect and lack of money we’ll see more of a “fall down movement.”  In Canada there seems to be a reluctance to embrace very large and expensive public infrastructure projects in a number of locations.  Fiscal prudence is cited in these cases but we wonder if there is not also a problem of deeper mentality?  Either way, the future is rushing up faster than we think.

Tear down the Gardiner before its too late Royson James in the Toronto Star
See links accompanying article

Toronto’s ghastly Gardiner offers no easy fix CBC News

photo: George Socka via Wikimedia Commons

(207) Favela as art

And now for something completely different.  A true contrast to the last posting we connect a bit to Rio de Janeiro now where a number of large murals improve the general feeling about several of that city’s vast, informally constructed hillside neighbourhoods.  Maybe fixing, or at least improving, a difficult place can also involve the emotional environment and its psychological infrastructure?

Friday Fun: Painting Favelas in Rio de Janeiro CityFix

photo: leonelponce via Flickr