Design & Development
August 17, 2007

Going Viral

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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Are you better off? Cascadia Scorecard 2007 gives British Columbia its annual check-up.
Sightline’s annual state-of-the-region report finds some big wins in the Pacific Northwest, but shows that we still struggle when it comes to energy efficiency, economic security, and curbing sprawl.

See how BC stacks up in the 2007 Scorecard.

Here are some of the Northwest stories you’ll find in the Scorecard:

  • Northwesterners ease off the gas. We’re using less gasoline per person than we have since the late 1960s, and we’ve cut back almost 10 percent since 1999. Find out about our energy use.
  • We’re adopting smart policies that can improve life here now and in the future. From ambitious climate policies to increased insurance coverage for low-income children, Cascadia is making some good choices. Learn about local solutions.
  • Measuring what matters helps us decide where to put our attention and energy next. The Scorecard shows that the Northwest needs to improve economic security for middle- and low-income families, and that electricity use in our home and businesses remains stuck in high gear. Knowing where we stand today helps us choose the right solutions for tomorrow. More from the Cascadia Scorecard 2007.

Download a free pdf of the report
Tell a friend about the Scorecard

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Brent Toderian, the City’s Planning Director, has posted the latest entry on Planetizen’s blog here. (Isn’t it nice to have a PD who takes advantage of the blogosphere?)
Lots of observations from his particiation at the Forum for Urban Design in New York, but here’s one that touches on an often-debated issue:

On Iconic Buildings vs. Iconic City-Building:

There was much discussion on the value of iconic architecture such as Lord Fosters “Gherkin” Swiss Re Building in London. Although most of us agreed with Kairos Shen of Boston that real cities should resist the temptation to seek out deliberate iconic architecture but rather promote “excellent architecture” (some of which might become iconic), the more interesting debate centred around whether cities could have, and should more properly promote, “iconic landscapes” (i.e. Central Park, Boston’s Emerald Necklace, Chicago’s Millennium Park) or even “iconic city patterns” (Barcelona, and in contemporary sense, Vancouver).

I pointed out that in many ways, “Vancouver-ism” is becoming the “anti-Bilbao” alternative for study, as wave after wave of urbanists come to our City to study how without (arguably) a single iconic world-renowned building (but perhaps several iconic landscapes such as our sea wall, and Stanley Park), we’ve routinely been named the number one tourist destination city, in the top three most livable cities in the World, and a model for contemporary, sustainable and livable city-building.

Is the word iconic appropriate in the context of city patterns? Perhaps not, but Vancouver’s emphasis on a successful public realm pattern within a “city by design” has lead to a consistency of urban quality that puts us in a very nice position to now discuss some strategic architectural “punctuations points”, such as a potential new Vancouver Art Gallery. Although some have lamented the lack of iconic architecture or have expressed a wish for more architectural risk taking in our city (the latter point I myself am promoting), its true that the majority of new Vancouver building construction in the past few decades has been residential and mixed use (of a very high quality, in my opinion), whereas we’re just starting to see again the kinds of civic buildings and commercial architecture that usually lends itself to design “exuberance”. Regardless, cities that start with striving for the architectural, iconic punctuation without the consistent high quality pattern, seem to be hit-or-miss at best in my observation.

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 My Business in Vancouver column this week:

Leaders need to view sustainability as a policy of national defence
More than ever, politicians are confounded by the Gap. And I’m not talking jeans.
Between the outer edge of what is politically possible and the inner edge of what is necessary, that’s where you find the Expectations Gap.
Leaders, of course, have always been aware of the difference between what people say they want and what they’re prepared to do.  A good illustration was the Vancouver Sun poll on how British Columbians would personally respond to the challenge of climate change. Over three-quarters said they’d be prepared “to make significant changes in lifestyle”; less than half would pay an extra hundred dollars a year in income tax.
Because taxes are the sincerest form of commitment, few politicians want to be that sincere. But not much is left, after the lightbulbs have been changed, that would make a difference. Still, damn it, nature didn’t get the memo. And now that planetary systems are becoming less predictable, the Expectations Gap could narrow too, in unpredictable ways.

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