Design & Development
November 2, 2007

Knute Berger: Anti-Fan

Crosscut – Seattle’s Tyee – has a columnist, Knute Berger, who every so often tosses off a little diatribe on Vancouver.  Here’s an excerpt from his latest:

I am not a big fan of Vancouver-style high-rise density. The city is now the most expensive housing market in Canada, reports The New York Times, and the West End is as dense or denser than Manhattan. While the old-growth forest of Stanley Park falls — if you haven’t seen it, the devastation of last winter’s hurricane-force storm is appalling and still not cleaned up — the concrete forest of skinny towers on the artificial isle that is downtown Vancouver continues to sprout. A 60-story, five-star, high-rise giant nearly 650 feet tall is going up called Living Shangri La. It will be the tallest building in Vancouver. The views are great, but despite its setting, the downtown has the cold, generic feeling of a developer’s boom town.

The column is here.
Oh, by the way, the West End is not denser than Manhattan.  Not even close.  Not even as dense as parts of Toronto and Montreal.  I’m often surprised that people who should (or do) know better keep repeating that myth.  As though somehow it’s an indictment.

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My thanks to all Price Tags readers who sent in comments on PT 96 – the B.C. Towns issue
Sean Hodgins mailed in the following, with a few pics worth posting – and I invite readers to do the same for other communities they’d like to highlight.

My compliments to you on an especially powerful and thought-provoking commentary in Price Tags 96.
An observation consistent with your theme concerns Penticton.  My family and I biked a big chunk of the Kettle Valley railway this summer and we ended the ride in Pentiction, where we had left our vehicle, and where we spent our final night in the Okanagan.  Much of Penticton is blighted of course by the very stuff you lament about in your article.  But we were rather charmed by what Penticton had retained and enhanced in its historic downtown where their City Hall, Provincial Court and other institutions are maintained, right on Main street.  

I was almost dreading the thought of staying in Penticton but we found it (the historic downtown) surprisingly a very pleasing atmosphere. There are lots of restaurants, coffee shops, book stores and other things that made our morning walking in the downtown very enjoyable.

The second of the two pictures I’m attaching demonstrates an innovation in creating patio space for pubs and restaurants I had never seen so formalized in a town before. 


This may be a seasonal adaptation but the construction of the sidewalk diversion to formalize the patio space worked very well and contributed significantly to the animation of the street (and no doubt to the revenue generation of the tax-paying businesses).  We saw perhaps a dozen of these in close proximity on Main Street and its side streets.
Anyway, the main point was that Penticton seems unusual in combining the (dare I say) benefits of having the big box retailers on its fringe while keeping a great downtown.

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September 12, 2007

Dave Peterson passed along news of this intriguing competition from “The Official Google Blog”:

Show us your university campus in 3D

Posted by Allyson McDuffie, Google SketchUp Education Program Coordinator
Today the Build Your Campus in 3D Competition begins. This spring, you and your (presumably equally artistic) friends can honor your campus turf as you hone your 3D design skills just by modeling your school’s campus buildings in Google SketchUp, geo-reference them in Google Earth, and submit them through the competition website to earn lasting online glory. And the winners get a visit to Google, all expenses paid.
You’re eligible if you’re a higher education student in the U. S. or Canada. You can team up with other students, or take the project on yourself. (To do the best work possible, we suggest you have a faculty advisor.) The deadline for entries is June 1, and the winning entries will be posted to the 3D Warehouse by July 10.
We’re pretty jazzed that our panel of judges includes Bobby Brooks from Walt Disney Imagineering, Ken Harsha from Electronic Arts, Janet Martin from Communication Arts Inc. Paul Seletsky from Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Gary Smith from Green Mountain Geographics LTD, and Ken M Tse from HKS Architects, Inc.
We hope to see your stomping grounds soon.

Dave thinks “there could/should be some kind of community-based climate-change mapping exercise, somewhat similar to this Google SketchUp
contest.”  Great idea.

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Planning Director Brent Toderian thinks Vancouver’s designers should take this New York challenge to heart.
It’s in this issue of Metropolis.

We’re poised to build the sustainable twenty-first century—as Mayor Mike envisions in his 127 proposed projects, many of them impacting the design community: the creation of parks, retrofitting buildings, making schools community-friendly, new transit, and more housing. …
Will the design community respond to the challenge of building the twenty-first-century city? Will they rally around the mayor’s plan? Will other leaders be able to see beyond their own egos?

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August 17, 2007

Walkscore, the Sightline Institute-inspired mechanism to measure the walkability of your neighbourhood, has, as they say, gone viral on the Internet.  So popular has it become in just a few weeks that even Google couldn’t handle the load at times.
David Brewster at Crosscut has a nice piece on Walkscore (mentioned earlier here).

So how do you reframe the notion of density, a word that suggests eating one’s spinach and conjures up images of a hated neighbor playing loud music at 3 a.m.? Hint: it involves your feet.
The first framing device to make more people embrace the joys of tighter living quarters is carbon footprint, scaring people out of their subdivisions with an ominous rumble of the extinction of the earth if we don’t start abandoning our cars and do more walking. The second framing notion is “walkability.” A compact, walkable neighborhood sounds sociable, old-fashioned, village-like. Not density, but desirability.

Brewster discusses some of the recent studies and nuances regarding walkability, including this observation which seems to apply to the recent spate of articles opposing Ecodensity:

Another paradox is that really charming walkable neighborhoods soon line up the pitchforks to oppose increased residential densification in any form.  

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From the Sightline Institute: 

Three Seattle uber-hackers, Jesse Kocher, Matt Lerner, and Mike Mathieu, built this addicting new website. It maps the closest grocery store, restaurant, and several other businesses you might walk to from any address in the United States or Canada. It also gives each location a “Walk Score.” (You can even watch the site tally up the score. It’s awesome!)
Walk Score … calculates the distance to the closest business in each of a list of commonly used categories such as grocery stores, restaurants, and coffee shops. It assigns points based on the distance to these amenities, then averages the score. This simpler strategy works well and generates great maps.

Naturally, first thing, I checked out my score:

83, not bad.  Would have been better if they included the schools closest to me. 
But try for yourself – here.

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Do you have to be rich to be green?
Sustainability, it seems, is associated with affluence – at least if the projects proclaiming their green-ness is any indication. And it isn’t just because the cost of green technology is that much greater. (Indeed, if a project is well planned from the beginning, recent research indicates, there’s no necessary surcharge to be a LEEDer.)
At the Gaining Ground conference in Victoria last week, developer David Butterfield gave a stirring talk on his Loreto Bay project – a vacation spot in Baja California. He was rightfully proud of its commitment to sustainability, and also aware of its paradox: most people will fly there, many to their second homes. By any standard, this is a project available to only a minescule fraction of the world’s population, whose carbon footprint will be comparatively gigantic.
How many times is it pointed out that Al Gore flies around the world to give talks on global warming? Having flown to Australia myself to speak of sustainable urban development, I’m aware of the 8.5 tonnes of carbon allocated to me as just one passenger (and the $154 Australian dollars needed to mitigate it.) But I’m rich enough to afford it. – and aware that the rest of the world would like my options. I know what is more sustainable, and it’s not mitigation and carbon credits. It’s staying at home.
It may be that at this stage, the rich will lead the way by modifying their high-consumption tastes, and thus provide a model for others. But the trend so far seems to be to modify the technology, to spend even more to buy the Prius, than to do with less. The tough choices are thus avoided.
Phillipe Starck, possibly the world’s most high-profile designer of luxury goods and interiors, spoke, well, starkly, about this dilemma the other day in Milan, according to Reuters:

The designer, who decorated the private apartments of former French President Francois Mitterand, said people should only buy essentials.
“The most positive action is to refuse…to buy. But if you need to, the minimum is ethical. To go back to the essence of things and ask myself: do I need this?” he said.

He still designs luxury yachts, even as he speaks to their uselessness. But he is “keen to turn other accepted views of what is luxurious on their head.”

“In the future, there will be two choices: luxury as it exists, mostly linked to the crazy rhythm of fashion, and also new brands with … time value considerations, based on ecology, progress, timelessness.”

Presumably, the value added for these new brands will be expressed in the price. But is this really any closer to the solution?

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