Art & Culture
July 23, 2006

Khenko Flies

Just over two years ago, when I was first started Price Tags, Khenko was on the cover of No. 28. Khenko is Coast Salish for the Great Blue Heron – in this case, the wired version.

Artist Doug Taylor had a vision for a work of art that would celebrate the bird’s return to False Creek: sail-covered blades to capture the wind and move the gears that in turn would raise and lower the wings of the heron. He had a model too:

Now it’s not just a model. Khenko is flying. The sculpture was raised last Friday.
You can see the sail-blades from Granville Island. In fact Khenko is visible from many points along the Creek, since it’s placed at the southern-most point of George Wainborn Park, on the north shore of False Creek, just east of the Granville Bridge.

Back in 2004 I wrote: “This is going to be amazing.”
It is.

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In municipal politics, “density” is a code word. For some, it’s synonymous with urban decay, or more mildly, a less prestigious neighbourhood. For others, it means diversity and vitality or smart growth.
But almost everyone associates density with height: the taller the building, the denser. And because that’s often the case, it seems to make sense, even when it isn’t true. Typically a battle over development turns into a debate over height. Some communities consider the battle won when a building is reduced in height, even if the density doesn’t change.
There’s also confusion over the exact definition of density. Is it calculated, for instance, by including all open space – the roads, the setbacks, the parks? In other words, the gross density. Or is it a calculation of so many square metres on the building’s footprint – or net density? And then there’s population density versus building density, calculated as floor-space (or FSR). Or how about the number of people per unit? And so on.
Since I live in the West End (often said, inaccurately, to be Canada’s densest neighbourhood), and have sat through a lot of public hearings, I’m acutely aware of the confusion – and often surprised at how urban problems are sometimes inversely proportionate to height. Today, for instance, there’s a good article in the New York Times (here) on the fabled Casbah, an historic district of Algiers.

Not much over three storeys. But a lot of people are crammed into those courtyards:

“… the quiet, private spaces have since given way to overcrowding. In 1958 the Casbah’s 175 acres were home to only 30,000 people [a gross density of 171 people per acre]. Those numbers swelled as the battle for independence gained strength, and people crowded into the city to escape reprisals by the French. More than 80,000 people live in the Casbah today. [457 people/acre.] Each house, intended for as single family, now holds as many as 10 poor families.

So how does that compare to the West End, where three-quarters of the buildings are five storeys or more:

With respect to population density, not even close. In the West End’s 500 acres (Burrard-Georgia-Stanley Park-English Bay), there are 42,120 people (2001). Gross density is therefore 84 people per acre – middling by world standards – and almost country-like compared to nearly 500 per acre in the Casbah.
More importantly, the 28,000 households average out to 1.5 people per unit. In other words – and this is what counts – the West End, though a high-density neighbourhood, is not overcrowded. That, as Jane Jacobs pointed out, means too many people in too small a space. It’s what people want to get out of as they get more affluent, though they may search out a high-density neighbourhood if it offers what they want.
So, if the West End is not Canada’s densest neighbourhood, what is?

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Today’s New York Times:

From 2002 until this year, NASA’s mission statement, prominently featured in its budget and planning documents, read: “To understand and protect our home planet; to explore the universe and search for life; to inspire the next generation of explorers … as only NASA can.”

In early February, the statement was quietly altered, with the phrase “to understand and protect our home planet” deleted.

Pathetic, and tragic.

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The escalating costs of construction – a world-wide phenomenon – may be taking down a high-profile project in this town. Literally.  Speculation concerns a highrise that might not make it above the second storey.  Could this change the exuberant mood of a pre-Olympics city?

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Here’s a cool thought for a hot day:
As far as I can tell, the diverter at Chilco and Robson marked the first traffic calming of its kind in North America.
It was part of a system of miniparks and barriers constructed West of Denman Street in 1973 to discourage short-cutting traffic. Thirty-three years later we can appreciate how literally ground-breaking it was.
A much more detailed story of how it came to be can be found in the current issue of SFU City – the e-magazine of the City Program. You can find it here.

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It’s official (by way of Calgary): Brent Toderian is the new City of Vancouver planner.
“Brent joined the City of Calgary in January 2001 as Chief Subdivision Planner. In December 2004, he moved to the Centre City team as Project Manager, Centre City Plan and was promoted to Manager, Centre City in June 2005.”
Reviews so far are good.
Brent is also a graduate of the SFU City Program’s Urban Design Certificate Program, and was instrumental in getting the program to offer courses in Calgary. Here’s a piece from the Calgary Sun.

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Vancouver Sun columnist Pete McMartin is in full curmungeon today: Little Mother just wants you to know who’s the boss.” (Registration required.)

Little Mother is nice. She has the best of intentions. Of this, she is absolutely convinced. She believes she knows what is good for you, because, after all, she is a mother, and mothers know best…

McMartin’s latest scourge:

The City of Vancouver passed an anti-idling bylaw Tuesday that calls for drivers who leave a car running for more than three minutes to be levied a $50 fine…

You see how benign that is? How good for you that is? Little Mother has your best interests at heart. An idling car wastes gasoline. Gasoline, when combusted, causes greenhouses gases. Greenhouse gases cause global warming. Global warming is bad. Therefore, idling is bad. Therefore, we need a bylaw against it.

The usual formula: treat the issue with contempt while acknowledging its logic. And then, the coup-de-grace:

… every study of the Greater Vancouver region has shown that the air quality here has grown better every year since the late 1980s. Not worse, better….

The question could be asked then:

Why is there a need for this bylaw when the effect of its enforcement would have, at best, minimal impact on air quality?

But why, Pete, has air quality improved?

Could it be that all those Little-Mother laws, those interventions in our lives by government since the 1970s, have made the difference, have actually achieved the improvements which you can now use as justification to oppose anything similar?

In Jack Doyle’s Taken For A Ride: Detroit’s Big Three and the Politics of Air Pollution, you can find a detailed account of the automotive industry’s fight against environmental regulation and health legislation – every step of the way. From seat belts to catalytic converters, there wasn’t an improvement they didn’t oppose. And the techniques are all familiar: pretty much the same tools being used today to oppose action to deal with climate change.

Including ridicule and contempt.

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July 19, 2006

Couldn’t say this better ….

Translink Report: Commuters will abandon transit and take cars
19 July 2006
VANCOUVER – Today the Translink board voted to support the provincial government’s Highway1/ Port Mann Bridge expansion plans, despite its own study that found transit ridership would decrease if the roadway was twinned, said the Livable Region Coalition, a group of concerned citizens, city planners, environmental organizations and transportation experts.
“This is a huge U-turn for the GVRD,” said Ian Bruce, climate change campaigner with the David Suzuki Foundation. “We’re heading down the same congested road as cities like Atlanta, Houston, Los Angeles, and Toronto.”
If the highway1/Port Mann project goes ahead as planned, Translink staff stated, ridership on the SkyTrain Expo line would decline by as much as 500 trips during the morning rush hour, while the proposed Evergreen Line would lose as much as 5% of its potential commuters. Construction of the Evergreen Line is already in jeopardy due to a lack of funding commitments from the B.C. government. A forecast of lower ridership numbers as a result of Hwy1/Port Mann expansion means operating costs for this line would be more expensive than budgeted for….
“Putting a priority on more roads makes future rapid transit projects like the Evergreen Line less feasible, if not impossible,” said David Fields, Transportation Campaigner with Society Promoting Environmental Conservation (SPEC).
The project has yet to go through an environmental assessment and will go before the GVRD board this fall.

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Today on Andrew Sullivan‘s blog:

The real danger is a newly emboldened Islamist region with a chokehold on the world’s oil….  We can pretend we can affect that outcome, but I fear we cannot. We can only watch and redouble our efforts to get energy from sources other than from a region on the verge of full-scale conflict. (Emphasis mine.)

B.C.’s strategy: redouble our efforts to build more roads, bridges and an urban form dependent on an oil-based transportation system.  And then price the system as though it were free. 

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More evidence from Stats Canada that we’re getting what we say we want.
“B.C. Residents Driving Less,” reports today’s Sun: “British Columbians … travelled five billion fewer kilometres in their cars than the year before.”
How come?
A shift to public transit, says TransLink.
Price at the pump, says the B.C. Automobile Association.
Is it possible that we’re seeing the consequences of good local and regional planning? As we build more of our communities with the right combination of density, mix, proximity and transportation choice (the latter a result of the former), we’re getting positive results.
The evidence accumulates in Vancouver: commuter trips are not lengthening, transit use is up significantly, car trips are dropping in the central core, walking and cycling are up dramatically.
Apparently, compact, complete communities with transportation choice – you know, the livable region stuff – actually work.
But then skip over to the business section: “$1-billion development proposed for Abbotsford. Highway interchange would come with retail, commercial and residential project.”
Since the company will construct the interchange on the Trans-Canada Highway in order to service the development, one can pretty much anticipate the design of the components, all separated, all provided with abundant parking.
Apparently, though, this doesn’t work, given the experience of places that have tried it. “Widening and building new highways actually causes, not relieves, traffic congestion in Cincinnati and other major U.S. metropolitan areas. … up to 43 percent of traffic in Greater Cincinnati is caused just by expanding the area’s road network.”
The evidence accumulates: no matter how many billions we spend on nore roads – in fact, because we widen highways and build interchanges – traffic gets worse. In the places we haven’t built freeways and have offered alternatives, things get better.
Check this out, and more, at the Livable Region Coalition site. The link is in the Blogroll on the left.
Update: Clark Williams-Derry at the Sightline Institute weighs in with some well-founded scepticism about those Stats Canada driving figures here.

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