June 2, 2016

Saskatoon Switches It Up

As reported by the CBC, Saskatoon Saskatchewan may be a cold place in winter, but its urban design department of City Hall is warming up the spring and summer crosswalks of the downtown area. That includes a walk across paved paradise Joni Mitchell style with guitars painted in a crosswalk, and inserting an ice cream cone design on a concrete slab pedestrian intersection.

The work is supervised by Saskatoon’s Urban Design Department and is funded by parking meter revenue. Next up? A set of dinosaur tracks leading the way.

Paint (latex works well) is a cheap and quick way to brighten up a crosswalk in any city.  I wish more municipalities were as playful, making walking fun for kids of all ages.



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The Vancouver Sun has written an article on the future of flooding in Metro Vancouver, and it is not a pretty picture.

The Fraser Basin Council has done some research and is suggesting that close to 71 per cent of the dikes in the area will fail with a major flood or climatic event from the Fraser River or from the ocean.

The study newly released last week suggests that nearly 110,000 hectares could be underwater, with transportation and food routes cut off.  Lower Mainland floods are projected to worsen over the next 85 years. These impacts can be mitigated with proactive planning and comprehensive management of dike building and restoring. The study also showed that many of the First Nations settlements in the area will be severely impacted by storm surges and/or flooding.

An earlier study had suggested that the costs of dike upgrades would be in the $9 billion dollar range. This compares to the potential flood damage being $22.9 billion dollars today, to an estimated $24.7 billion dollars in the year 2100.

The cost of increasing flood protection will be determined in the next phase, but Fraser Basin officials noted that an earlier study had pegged the cost of dike upgrades at $9 billion.

The City of Vancouver has identified 11 areas in need of flood mitigation and has been working on a flood plan for the past five years as part of its climate adaptation strategy. Those impacted lands include False Creek, Coal Harbour, Stanley Park and the Fraser River lands. It is unfortunate that several of these areas also contain a lot of housing.

New houses in the city must also be 4.6 meters above the main tide levels. I have been specifically watching the prices of houses north and south of the  3500 block of West 48th Avenue-the north side of the street and the streets to the north are above  the flood plain, the south side of the street and the streets to the south would be underwater if subject to a flood. So far realized sale prices on both sides of the flood line are consistent, and not reflective of the potential flooding problems.

Is it enough? Should the city be warning potential purchasers in impacted lands of flood concerns in these areas?  What about housing located near the Fraser River in the rest of the region?

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Price Tag editor Ken Ohrn  is one of the founders of HUB, the coalition of concerned cyclists across Metro Vancouver. We were talking about the remarkable story of cycling in Metro Vancouver, and the fact that within one decade HUB and its predecessor the Vancouver Area Cycling Coalition (VACC) have solidly put cycling on the urban agenda, and worked tirelessly for seamless, safe and separated cycling connections across the region.

The case has been made for the economic benefits of cycling and cycling lanes. Studies undertaken in Toronto and New York City commercial areas  clearly show that people traveling by walking, cycling, and transit spend more per month and visit more often than those people traveling by cars.  My TEDX talk  references studies in Toronto and New York City which clearly show that supporting active transportation augments shops and services’ bottom line.

For those people who are in cars, bike lanes are good too-the protected lanes in New York City actually allow car traffic to go faster through the city.  This report from the New York City’s Department of Transportation written in 2014 shows that bike lanes allow vehicular traffic to flow faster, and that pedestrian injuries decrease by 22 per cent on streets with bike lanes. Cycling injuries have gone down by as much as 65 per cent on previously troublesome streets.

Why do cars flow faster?  “Cars turning left now have pockets to wait in-so they’re less likely to hit a cyclist riding straight, but they also stop blocking traffic as they wait”. The result is better visibility for the motorist and the cyclist, and helps the traffic flow.

It’s worth taking a look at the NYC Department of Transportation link to see how the data is collected and interpreted. As past commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan said in her talk in Vancouver earlier this year “In God we trust, but everyone else bring data“.

New York City’s data shows us the way forward. One separated bike lane at a time.

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Everyone is so excited about the Arbutus corridor becoming part of the livable green city, with new biking, walking connections potential, a new tramway track and the removal of the old Canadian Pacific Railway ties. Years ago housing facing the Arbutus corridor was discounted because of the uncertainty of the eventual use of the corridor.

An article in The Globe and Mail compares the new Arbutus corridor to the High Line in New York City which has become an elevated green oasis, sparked regeneration of buildings in that area, and reaping  100 million dollars in extra property tax in 2010 alone.

City Hall is now in the planning stage for the next steps of this significant corridor but it begs the question-how do we correctly cost the greenway and assess the economic, social, recreational, and amenity value as a significant green spine in the west side of the city? Can we include the health benefits, and start to look at factors that are not necessarily included at as part of the equation? How do we factor in the development potential for parts of the corridor?

As the Globe and Mail article states “ a 2009 study on the economic benefits of public parks makes the distinction between direct income and direct savings for cities. Direct income comes from higher property tax as property values near parks rise, along with greater sales tax from visitors and tourists spending while using the park, noted the report by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for City Park Excellence, part of the advocacy organization The Trust For Public Land. This is in contrast to the direct savings for cities and their residents, such as parks being an alternative to other, more expensive recreation. There are also the obvious health benefits. Parks can help reduce medical costs and create greater community pride, in turn providing the kind of civic cohesion that can lower the cost of urban blight.”

The work on the Comox-Helmecken Greenway provides some guidance with the study done by the UBC Health and Community Design Lab in concert with the  Centre for Hip Health and Mobility. Findings on that greenway included a  16 per cent increase in moderate physical activity with the installation.

In the case of the Arbutus Corridor, this might be an excellent piece of consultative work that can be undertaken by an aspiring Phd candidate at the UBC School of Planning. How do we ascertain value from an economic, health and social perspective of this new green link, the Arbutus Corridor? And can we take advantage of some of the great landscape architectural minds in Vancouver to suggest and develop some innovation into this new green lung on the city’s west side?



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There has been press about the important ramifications of reducing vehicular speed in cities and places to 30 kilometers per hour (km/h)  from 50 km/h. Studies show that vulnerable road users-those folks biking or walking without the metal frame of a vehicle to protect them-can better survive car crashes at those speeds. Pedestrians and cyclists have a 10% risk of dying in a vehicle crash at 30 km/h. That risk increases to 80% being hit by a vehicle at 50 km/h.

Dr. Perry Kendall, British Columbia’s  Chief Medical Officer has released his  Annual Report entitled “Where the Rubber Meets the Road” which identifies motor vehicle collisions as a significant threat to the health of people in this province. Although the motor vehicle collision fatality rate has declined from 18.4 deaths per 100,000 population in 1996 to 6.2 deaths per 100,000 in 2012, British Columbia has a high rate of deaths, as well as a high rate of collisions causing serious injuries-444.5 major injuries per 100,000 population. That translates into 280 people being killed on roads annually, with another 79,000 seriously injured.

The human factors contributing to fatal crashes are speed (35.7%) , distraction (28.6%) and impairment (20.4%). It is troubling that for vulnerable road users, the rates of crashes and serious injuries has been increasing, from 38.7 % of crashes resulting in serious injuries  in 2007 to  45.7 % of  crashes resulting in serious injuries in 2009.

The Medical Health Officer’s report is comprehensive and points out the current challenges broken down by region. The report cites road design, distraction and speed as three major contributors that can be addressed, and recommended lowering speed limits to 30 km/h in cities. Not surprisingly, Minister of Transportation Todd Stone has put the kibosh on lower speed limits, citing that this was something  he has not heard about from local municipalities, and that such a change needed strong support. You would think when the Province is also paying for health care that they would be mindful on how to keep vulnerable road users as safe as possible with minimal investment. Slower road speeds in municipalities could prevent serious injuries and deaths to pedestrians and cyclists.




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An article published by Vancouver Sun’s Kelly Sinoski talks about what we all know-finding an affordable detached home is pretty impossible. You have a handful of options including moving to the suburbs, buying a condo, or trying to find ground-oriented town or row houses.

The Urban Land Institute which does research on population and land-use states that in the 1990’s their studies indicated that Metro Vancouver would have a housing shortage “by 2021 unless it built 21,000 units annually-with 13,400 of those being ground-oriented,and 7,700 of them apartments”.  The ULI was suggesting that for every apartment built, there needed to be 2 ground oriented  townhouses or rowhouses.

Why? Because there was a common assumption that the baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964 would be downsizing into those row houses. Trouble is those boomers didn’t move from their single family houses, which may have been a good thing because ground oriented townhouses and rowhouses were never built in a ratio of 2 for every one apartment, and there is little stock.



Census Canada for 2011 information shows that between 2006 and 2011,  Metro Vancouver added 38,340 ground oriented dwellings, and 35,870 apartment units.  This is half the amount of housing that the ULI suggested. In five decades, ground-oriented dwellings have dropped from 85 per cent in 1961 to 60 per cent in 2011. While the laneway house has been another housing form that has been adopted, I have wondered whether better economies of scale and better pricing might happen if  stacked townhouses and rowhouses were more ubiquitous.

How do we move forward for people who want to live in ground-oriented housing? With little ground-oriented townhouses and rowhouses in those west side neighbourhoods, its hard to convince those baby boomers to downsize from their single family castles to a more compact alternative. Is it too late to catch up?

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It was curious to see the debate about Jane Jacobs and her philosophy on the anniversary of her birth one hundred years ago. I am reminded that debate is healthy and good, and I should listen to debate more. I am also reminded that we also still work with giants in our midst. For me one of those giants is the remarkable landscape architect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander.

If you have met Cornelia, attended her lectures, or read her books, you know that she is focused,  knows her plants inside out, and is passionate about doing the right work. She also completely practices what she preaches- Cornelia does “invisible mending”, restoring and building in landscapes around buildings in such an extraordinary way that you never knew the landscape did not exist before the building was built.

Cornelia had a famous partnership with Vancouver architect Arthur Erickson among many other world-wide consultancies and commissions.



Cornelia’s landscapes are legendary. My favourite is at the Museum of Anthropology at University of British Columbia where she has designed a curved river and a pebble beach to the north of the longhouses. The view is designed so you can imagine canoes  hidden in the curve of your sight line paddling up to the beach. It’s a great public space.

I have been out at the Museum of Anthropology in winter and found Cornelia with her gum boots on in the middle of the pond she created, ostensibly taking photos for a Christmas card. I know she was actually checking the water filtration system. Douglas Coupland the author and artist walked by  the pond at that moment and smiled at Cornelia. It does not get any more Canadian than this.



Cornelia has just received the first award of the Governor General’s Medal in Landscape Architecture. It is “the highest honour bestowed upon a landscape architect by the Canadian Society of Landscape Architecture” celebrating lifetime achievements and contributions to the profession.

 Congratulations to Cornelia who has always championed Canadian flora and sustainability in her designs. She has been an unfailing mentor to students and to practitioners. We are just now catching up with what she has been teaching us for decades.


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No, its not for more cars. The good folks at NACTO-The National Association of City Transportation Officials have come out with a new Transit Street Guide and provided this self explanatory graphic of how many vehicles, transit users, cyclists and walkers can be accommodated in different transportation modes.

I like the fact that NACTO is measuring a two-way “protected” bikeway, and found it fascinating that the difference between accommodating cyclists (7,500 an hour on a two way protected bikeway) is only 1,500 shy of how many pedestrians can be accommodated.

Should we be moving to protected two-way bike lanes throughout the city?



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You know this location-this garden is north of City Hall,  on the west side of  the former East Wing Annex located on Yukon Street in Vancouver.

From the 1970’s to 2013 most of the city departments were nestled in two buildings-the tall Art Deco/Moderne transitional style building built in 1937 by Townley and Matheson, and the annex-sometimes called the “box City Hall came in” an oblong concrete confection located at 2675 Yukon. The annex opened by Prince Philip in 1969. (The annex was declared an earthquake hazard and decommissioned in 2013. The top floors will be demolished this year. They have a permit. I checked.)

There is an internal pathway at ground level between the two buildings, and a huge concrete planter box outside of the annex on the pathway. This had been cheerfully filled with rhododendrons and other shrubs in the 1970’s and had completely overgrown to the point that no “bones” of a garden were visible. Even though this was a major pathway used to access Vancouver City Hall east of Cambie Street, it was not very walkable, or inviting to visitors or staff.


The concrete “planter box” outside of the City Hall Annex before photo


To celebrate the eighty years of diplomacy between Canada and Japan, the city’s protocol officer Sven Buemann wanted to  transform this space into a Japanese garden celebrating the relationship between these two countries.   Mindful landscaping of this concrete box could become a focal point at City Hall, and also provide citizens and city  staffers with an introduction to classical Japanese gardening. I worked as a team leader with master Japanese gardeners from the Vancouver Japanese Gardeners Association (VJGA), and experienced Engineering Works Yards staff  to create a new public space to walk to, enjoy and view for all Vancouver citizens and visitors.



These professional gardeners  from  the VJGA  who were already working six days a week volunteered their time and talent to design and create a most extraordinary space. In the design, there are two rivers of stone, one symbolizing Canada, surrounded by plants native to Canada, and one symbolizing Japan, surrounded by traditional elements including a stone fountain and a black pine. The two rivers meet in the front of the design, symbolizing harmony and peace. The Vancouver Japanese Gardeners Association website  still features an image of the gardeners standing in front of the stone lantern at the city hall Japanese Garden.

And this garden is to be viewed from the public pathway, not walked in. That is the way it has been designed.



It was a very exciting thing to work with these Japanese professional gardeners. The design of the outline of the garden was roughly drawn up. The concept and the layout of the garden included coring out a section of the concrete planter box wall, so that viewers could “see” into the mingling parts of the river bed. The site preparation was done by City crews, who came in on the weekend to do the work. The Japanese gardeners took over the ordering of all the materials, including tons of basalt rock. The basalt rock included “one man” “two man” and “three man” basalt uprights that were installed by the gardeners with the assistance of the City crews and a hoist. The gardeners travelled up to Huckleberry Quarry near Squamish and hand picked each and every piece of basalt for its shape, size and function. Using the hoist, the Japanese Gardeners carefully placed every rock, with an inner vision so profound that no rock needed to be readjusted or placed differently. The Japanese gardeners’  experience and knowledge of Japanese Garden technique translated into this innate ability to “see” the rocks placed just once, every time seated correctly in the designated position.

There is a section of bamboo that has been carefully knotted as a screen behind the water fountain. The craftsman that worked on this screen spent days getting the meticulous pattern of knots just right. The fountain basin that is in the back of the garden was designed by one of the few people in North America that has this skill.

The plants and trees in this garden are placed with similar care and attention.

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Some unexpected and some very good news-the Friedman House located on the University of British Columbia’s  Endowment Lands has found a buyer. In this Globe and Mail article written by Kerry Gold the trust looking after this modernist gem by architect  (and first director of the School of Architecture at the University of British Columbia) Frederic Lasserre has accepted an offer to purchase the house from a family in Ontario that-gasp-want to live in it and raise their children there.  Landscape architecture legend Cornelia Oberlander designed the gardens around the Friedman house as her first commission in Canada. She is already at work prepping the garden for summer and the house’s new owner.

I wrote about this house’s seemingly inevitable demise a week ago.  This house is an important bridge between Modernist design so popular in the 1950’s and 1960’s to the West Coast Style that brought forward architects like Ned Pratt.

These are not grand houses by scale, but are reflective of the mid-century designers’ optimistic  adaptation to place, light, and space. In the case of the Friedman house, this important modernist design link towards establishing a vernacular coastal style will remain.

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