May 21, 2019

Houssam Elokda on the Heliopolis Effect, Happy Cities, and Doing Nothing Together

It’s not Vancouver, but it sounds like the Vancouver we want to be: multi-family residential buildings located close to the urban centre. Generously spaced laneways and semi-private lots for kids to play. Sufficient access to high storefronts, services and other amenities, in ever-expanding concentric circles of community, neighbourhood, and city.

It’s Heliopolis — once a suburb 10 kilometres outside of Cairo, today swallowed up by the city. And like most neighbourhoods in Vancouver, it’s highly sought-after by Egypt’s urban elite as a place to live, and invest.

It’s also just over a century old, and has also inspired a namesake design genre (Vancouverism, meet Heliopolis Style). And like Vancouver, Heliopolis has done many things right, and yet could be simultaneously teetering on the precipice of “too much, too soon”.

Houssam Elokda tells the story of his childhood home, the urban/suburban dichotomy he found as a young adult in Halifax, and how Charles Montgomery’s Happy City design philosophy affected him deeply.

It also ended up employing him. Today, at just 26 years old, Elokda is Operations Manager and Masterplanning Lead for the urban planning, design and architecture consultancy born of Montgomery’s book.

Speaking to Gord on a Ramadan fast day, Elokda turns what should be a low-energy, baseline rally on easy topics, into a fascinating serve-and-volley on some pretty deep ideas. About happiness, and the role of ‘tribal’ affiliations. On what architecture can and can’t do, and on finding his footing in Vancouver’s invitation-only culture.

Is there an architecture of loneliness, a way to engineer happiness? Or are people more likely to interact in larger numbers, and in greater proximity, to one other?

And who’s in your tribe?

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If you have been on the eastern border of France near Switzerland and Germany you may have visited Mulhouse, a former textile manufacturing town that has gone sleepy and was past its prime. But as The Guardian’s Angelique Chrisafis reports in the past decade 470 new stores and businesses have come to Mulhouse, with over 3/4 of these being independent operators.  “It is one of the only places in France with as many independents as franchises. And it is one of very few places in France where more shops are opening than closing.”

So what is the Mulhouse Magic and how did they attract new businesses? The town with a population of 110,000 made a point of attracting and promoting  independent businesses that were not part of chain stores. Like America big box retail has tried to lure the French market to more suburban locations, but a combination of factors have made Mulhouse radically different.People want to go and spend time downtown.

With a 36 million dollar euro investment plan over six years the town recreated its downtown as an “agora”, a center welcoming residents, and rebalanced its housing plan. Many high salaried citizens had moved to housing outside of the downtown core, leaving many properties vacant. By subsidizing building facade renovation and installing a tram system, bike shares, shuttle buses and easily accessible parking, Mulhouse demonstrated it was open for business.

But here is the piece that is important-the town’s public spaces and downtown environment were key in the transformation of Mulhouse into a place to locate businesses and to shop. The magic ingredients? Wide sidewalks, benches, and lots and lots of tree planting and landscaping.

 “Making the town’s public spaces attractive was just as important, with wider pavements, dozens of benches, and what officials deemed a “colossal budget” for tree planting and maintenance, gardening and green space. Local associations, community groups and residents’ committees were crucial to the efforts. A town centre manager was appointed to support independents and high-street franchises setting up.”

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From Bloomberg.com, Sweden is experimenting with a road surface that actually recharges electric cars as they drive the highway. A one mile section of road in Gotland will be rebuilt with charging panels at a cost of 12.5 million dollars. If the trial is successful, Sweden plans to build more than 1,200 miles of this recharging road in the near future. You can find out more information and view a video on this project here.

And here is a video that describes the technology and its potential application in France.

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[Update: Do read Geoff’s comment at the end of this post.  Powerful and provocative.]

 

SFU Vancouver – the downtown campus – is now 30 years old since SFU came down from the mountain.  It’s what President Andrew Petter says helps make SFU the engaged university.

Engagement is the particular work of the Centre for Dialogue, Public Square, City Conversations and the City Program – all of which had events happening on Thursday, and two of which featured Mary Rowe, the speaker for this year’s Warren Gill Lecture.  They certainly engaged me, with more questions than I had a chance to ask.  Here are some.

INEQUALITY AND DIVERSITY

When considering the rural-urban divide in Canada, Mary began with two points that are pretty much taken as self-evident in academia: diversity is good, inequality is bad.  Policies for healthy cities should encourage the former and reduce the latter.

But what if inequality is a measure of diversity?

Since a diverse city is one in which there are many different kinds of people and pursuits, do those differences of equality become magnified with greater diversity? In fact, is increasing inequality how we know the city is more diverse?

Let’s say public policies were effective at reducing inequality by redistributing benefits, by building the infrastructure, physical and cultural, to build a stronger middle class.  Isn’t the result a more homogenous city, perhaps less likely to generate the cultural and economic energy we associate with places like New York in the 1970s, London in the 1800s, Florence in the 1500s?  Does equality mean boring and less diverse?

 

MAKING CHOICES IN A CLIMATE EMERGENCY

At noon, at City Conversations the topic was the climate emergency, with Councillor Christine Boyle (who introduced the climate emergency motion at council and is interviewed here on PriceTalks); Atiya Jaffar, digital campaigner for 350.org;  and New Westminster Councillor Nadine Nakagawa.

I had three ‘tough questions’, with the opportunity to ask only one – itself somewhat facetious:

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In cities across the States, councils and legislatures seem ready for sweeping change – in this case, sweeping away the constraints of single-family zoning to force or incentivize cities to accommodate more density and, arguably, more affordable housing.  What seemed to begin in Minneapolis is now gaining momentum – and pushback.

There’s a report, column or opinion piece coming every week (thanks to Sightline for keeping track). Here’s a sampling.

In Washington:

Last week, Gov. Jay Inslee signed into law a wide-ranging set of housing reforms sponsored by Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon. The representative hopes the measures will address some of those key barriers to housing. The new laws will offer a financial carrot for cities to allow more density, loosen regulations to reduce the cost of constructing subsidized affordable housing, limit opportunities for legal challenges against new development, bar discriminatory bans on supportive housing for people exiting homelessness and more.

In Oregon:

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In a densifying city that is serious about being sustainable lowering vehicular speed limits within neighbourhoods is a good way to enhance livability for local residents, decrease automobile emissions, plus lower the likelihood of serious injury or death. You would think that in a country with universal health care that lowering vehicular speeds within neighbourhoods would be the right thing to do to foster walking, cycling and interaction among residents.

But we forget that the street fabric and the way that our communities are designed and indeed funded have been for vehicular movement, and that mode of transportation has (pardon the pun) had a free ride.  Auto infrastructure has been funded by the general tax base and not by the user. Cars have gobbled up the majority of shared road space, and our 20th century mindset does not know how to slow them down.

Until now.

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Vancouver Heritage Foundation’s 2019 Heritage House Tour

The 2019 self-guided tour offers an exclusive look inside ten historic Vancouver houses across five neighbourhoods and six decades of design, from the 1890s to the 1950s.

The adaptability of older houses and buildings is also a theme on this year’s tour with both historic and recent examples: two heritage homes converted for school use, starting in the 1930s but with recent chapters.

See how a charity utilizes a special historic house that was saved from demolition by community efforts and now offers a welcoming environment. Nearby, a former duplex  converted into a bed & breakfast and venue for same-sex marriages.

Also modern interventions such as a basement suite addition, a concept that has added living space and housing options to Vancouver homes for decades. Another stop will show a sensitive second floor addition on a character bungalow, expanding family accommodation while retaining original features.

Not to be missed design highlights include the Mid-Century Modern masterpiece created by architect Barry Downs in 1959 for his own family and the 1910 Hirschfeld House in handsome Arts and Crafts style.

A pre-tour lecture. The Ever Changing House: A History of Adaptability with historian John Atkin will explore the many ways older homes have been adapted through the decades in Vancouver.

 

Sunday, June 2

10 am – 5 pm

$40 or $30 with valid student ID (not including taxes and postage)

Tickets here or call 604 264 9642

 

Pre-tour Lecture: The Ever Changing House: A History of Adaptability

Monday, May 27th, 7:30 pm – 9pm, $16 or $10 for students and 2019 Heritage House Tour ticket holders

 

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Like some unprecedented mass shooting, it’s the kind of record-breaking news one tends to think twice about discussing at the breakfast table.

As reported by Popular Science, among many other media outlets, late last week the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii measured carbon levels in the atmosphere at 415 parts per million. That’s more than 100 ppm higher than any point in almost 1 million years’ worth of atmospheric data available.

For nearly a million years, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have maintained an average of about 280 ppm, not going above 300 ppm or below 160 ppm…the latest human-caused warming event is occurring over just a couple of centuries, which is so quick in comparison that the trend line appears vertical as it approaches today.

Do we actually still need to wonder why this is happening?

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Sandy James’s post on Cornelia Oberlander – “the First Lady of Canadian Landscape Design” – is so apropos at this time of year, when her legacy, particularly Robson Square, literally blossoms.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that the look of Vancouver is captured in her works.

She’s still active, still provocative.  In the film “City Dreamers” in which she’s featured, she says she’s not in favour of daylighting streams that have been previously culverted – as is proposed, for instance, for Brewery Creek through False Creek Flats.  Too many unexpected consequences, says the voice of experience.

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