Tag Archives: design

(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.

Walkonomics

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

(179) Automobituary

Where's the gas gone?If an alternative means of powering private motor cars is distributed widely and quickly it might stave off the disappearance of mass fleets of them and the communities designed around them.  For many, it seems, the arrival of such a means is nothing more than the continued unfolding of the story of industrial humanity.  Electric cars and hydrogen cars and cars powered by ethanol or some totally new discovery are widely assumed to be just around the corner.  Others beg to differ.  The cost and sustainability arguments demonstrating the end of vast automobility are tough to contradict when laid out in detail, …as is done in the item below.  This posting also introduces suburban-poverty.com readers to PeakProsperity: a blog, by one Chris Martenson, designed to examine social and financial assumptions about a changing world.

Demise of the car: doomed by escalating oil and infrastrucure costs

(178) Faux cities?

We’d rather live in a faux city than a genuine, certified, authentic suburb.  But then, that’s just us.  The author of this piece on Salon.com takes a critical look at new approaches to placemaking.  The ones that distinghuish themselves with a recognition of the need for improvements to liveability and atmosphere over traditional suburbia through walkability, higher densities, access to transit, sustainability, less car dependence and better aesthetics.  Many jurisdictions in North America have adopted such approaches, or at least the language of New Urbanism or Smart Growth.  Will Doig calls out recent attempts at placemaking as simply a gussied up version of the original exodus to the suburbs after 1945.  He looks past the pleasant-sounding, positivism of contemporary urban planning and placemaking and finds “shiny new cities, set in the suburbs.”  Seems a little harsh,  …but this discussion is extremely important.

Invasion of the faux cities

(169) Walking Home [Book review]

Walking Home: the Life and Lessons of a City Builder
Ken Greenberg, Vintage Canada, 2011
384 pages with illustrations

Easily placed on suburban-poverty.com’s “buy this book” list, Walking Home shares the fruits of an enviable career working to help save cities, make them meaningful places.  Greenberg is an architect/planner schooled early in the value of real cities during an era in which they were abused and derided, mainly on behalf of the automobile.  Walkability, mixed uses, respect for historic precedent and the enhancement of the public realm and the taming of the car were the stuff of Greenberg’s career.  His book touches on Amsterdam, Copenhagen, New York, Boston, Paris, Detroit, Washington DC, Saint Paul, San Juan (Puerto Rico), Quebec City, Toronto, Ottawa, Mississauga, and Prince Albert (Saskatchewan) and other places.

Greenberg allied with Jane Jacobs during his time in Toronto, Canada, where he found a progressive city genuinely open to progressive urbanism and enjoying a heyday of liveability and growth.  Like Jacobs, a transplanted American, Greenberg built experience in a number of Canadian cities and in Europe.  The United States proved resistant to progressive urbanism but in time Greenberg built significant experience there with the growth of interest in New Urbanism and the emergence of the sense that all was perhaps not so well with car-centric, zoning-driven suburban sprawl and the neglect of major city centres.  All good and interesting reading at suburban-poverty.com where the link between the physical reality of suburbia, its design and character has been established as a source of its emerging poverty.  Here’s how we resist that poverty – with a maximum application of brain power to our environment.

Because of the slow acceptance of the kind of change advocated by the New Urbanism, smart growth and similar schools of thought, tracing themselves, like Greenberg to the influence of Jane Jacobs, we often encounter improvements to suburbia as nothing more than conceptual schemes, pie-in-the-sky ideas that are attractive enough on paper or in student design charettes but that are scarce-to-non-existant in the real world. The world where we find ourselves driving past the same old strip malls to return a DVD about Peak Oil to a library surrounded by a parking lot.  How good it feels to encounter someone who has actually been making it real out there for decades.

Greenberg’s experiences in Canada were welcome reading.  Greenberg found a laboratory here where he was able to exploit differences in the system and social consciousness of Canadians in the 1970s and 1980s that gave him practical experience.  He laments the changes wrought here with the adoption of miserable and misguided neo-conservative ideology since.  Greenberg’s take on how Toronto lost its position of leadership is depressing reading.  A similar hint of tragedy and the squandering of opportunity was found in a recent posting, a review of Taras Grescoe’s book Strap Hanger.

One of Toronto’s massive suburbs, Mississauga, also appears in Walking Home.  Even there, money and committment are finally being attached to the idea of a better built city.  Also, the home of suburban-poverty.com this is heartening to see.  At one time the old, downtown, preamalgamation City of Toronto offered a positive model to the headless monster of a high growth Mississauga.  We now find both places struggling to do better.  Toronto to keep what it has in terms of new/smart urbanism.  Mississauga to get its hands on some of that magic after decades of unoriginal, low density development.

Without the best possible design human communities will flounder, become unsustainable, unpleasant places where living and doing business will be retarded.  A failure to really grasp how to build proper cities will impoverish their residents as quality of place is a major selling point.  The value of quality of place is undeniable, either as a selling point within a growing global economy or in the retreat from the chaos and disorder of the global economy.  Greenberg’s project work and philosophy offer powerful arguments in support of quality of place.  This book should have very wide appeal to nearly any kind of political view, to voters, citizens, taxpayers, activists and students alike.

One fault, so small in comparison to the rest of the book we hate to bring it up, but…  We wish Walking Home had better illustrations or a URL for a purpose-built web site.  So much of the matter of city-building is visually-driven that the text would have been powerfully complemented by better imagery.  This is the Internet age and the delivery of such material is neither costly nor complicated.

Greenberg Consultants Inc

Ken Greenberg Talks Flexible Urbanism in New Book 
Review on Spacing Toronto site

(166) Is it a design problem?

Meet St Barbara.  Until Rome demoted her a few years ago she was the patron saint of architecture …and also those who work with explosives.  Kind of an exciting job description.  We hope she’s looking out for us in these precarious times. Given the built environment and economic uncertainty many are stuck with we are gonna need all the wisdom with architecture and explosives we can get our hands on.

Who doesn’t idealize the artist, the architect, the engineer, the designer their ability to go from nothing to something, that is to create, to bring a thing into existence?  It makes sense then that in attempting to comprehened suburbia we turn to the creative class?  Almost since they were invented suburbia has provoked a diversity of critique and brought forth those with a desire in their hearts for something better.  Is it possible that even the growing social difficulty facing suburbia is a design problem?

Allison Arieff thinks so.  She has been professionally involved in design and architecture in America and last year gathered some of her thoughts in the opinion piece linked in this posting, making it dynamite to read.  Ms. Arieff sees people with very low expectations of houses.  People willing to accept boring, unimaginative, sometimes downright shoddy, drywall boxes cranked out and marketed by an innovation-resisting industry that produces something like half of all solid waste in the country.  Acording to Ms. Arieff the commercial building industry is capable of producing a better product than the residential construction industry.  This all seems like a disservice to American consumers and their communities.

Unfortunately the American suburban paradigm is not going to be changed any time soon because it will be too busy being dead.  A couple of postings back we learned that the number of unwanted monster homes in America is in the tens of millions.  Kinda tough to think the industry that produced that is going to set aside its hucksterism and conservatism for a design-ey new approach to everything.  Still, just as the dinosaurs were replaced so too will the homebuilders of America be replaced.  Ms Arieff provides a survey of several builders going in the right direction in terms of energy efficiency, construction methods and cultural value in homes.  Hers is a call for change and action, that of a new Saint Barbara?

Shifting the Suburban Paradigm NYT Opinionator

This article has nearly 170 comments at the time of this posting, including some very thoughtful ones.

(141) Retrofitting the suburbs

Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs
Ellen Dunham-Jones & June Williamson
John Wiley & Sons
ISBN 978-0-470-04123-9

We’ve been wanting to mention
this book for a while and now that there is an updated edition available, here it is.  Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs is a big, detailed, serious take on just what can be done with aging, unattractive suburban sprawl. With the text you get maps and colour ilustrations of real world improvement projects aimed at making suburbs more walkable and connected, more transit friendly, more aesthetically pleasing, more economically varied and more attached to the realities of the environment.  Who wouldn’t want these things?  And surely retrofitting suburbia would ameliorate poverty there, enhance employment, prevent the suburbs from sliding into deeper obsolesence if not full on ghettohood.  The approach here is rational and advocates a technical, investment-orientated  approach to improving suburbia.  Absolutely these ideas should be on the table, many are already in existence and working well.  On getting acquainted with this book you will look at suburban communities as opportunities, not just as a set of mistakes or doomed to a Mad Max kind of future.

Ellen Dunham-Jones TED Talk 19:24