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September 22, 2006

The Daily Alarm

It used to be that new information on climate change came in every month or so. Now it’s daily, and it’s getting more prominent coverage, as illustrated in the Sun with this close-to-home story on the work of SFU earth-sciences grad Johannes Koch who has been documenting the retreating glaciers of Garibaldi:

 Lots of newspapers ran this lovely, scary map of the Arctic:
 
“This situation is unlike anything observed in previous record low-ice seasons,” said Mark Drinkwater, of the European Space Agency’s Oceans/Ice Unit. “It is highly imaginable that a ship could have passed from Spitzbergen or Northern Siberia through what is normally pack ice to reach the North Pole without difficulty.”
Ah, good news: soon it will be possible to start drilling for oil and gas, and shipping year-round through the Northwest Passage.
I’m reminded of that 2002 New Yorker cartoon:

(CEO gives a speech at a board meeting): “And so, while the end-of-the-world scenario will be rife with unimaginable horrors, we believe that the pre-end period will be filled with unprecedented opportunities for profit.”

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September 21, 2006

Back in 1989, in my second term on City Council, I vividly remember the week when James Hansen spoke before the U.S. Senate on climate change. Hansen, now Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, could speak with authority, and he did: global warming was real, it was happening, and for the sake of the planet and civilization, it was time to respond. Here was Science speaking to Power.

Even as a novice politician, I realized that regardless of the urgency, change would come slowly: our economy was based on fossil fuels, and we measured our prosperity by increasing the rate of consumption. But given, as the saying goes, that the economy is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the environment, the public would accept the need for change if properly prepared.

City Council accepted my argument that we as a municipality should start that preparation, and established what became known as the Clouds of Change Task Force. I expected that within a decade, real change in attitude and behaviour would be evident.

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I had read about this before, but didn’t really appreciate it until I saw this picture:

According to Toronto’s Spacing Wire:

In Seoul, South Korea, they managed to both dismantle an elevated expressway that cut through the city, and unearth the Cheonggyecheon, a river buried beneath it.

Just last year, Seoul’s municipal government spent $360 million to have the stream uncovered. Walking along the river now is like being in a real life version of one of those urban planning student’s thesis projects …

The Cheonggyecheon is now lined with walkways, art, historical plaques, and tall grasses. It’s sits below street level in a concrete ravine, with busy roadways on either side. It’s 5.8 kilometers long and at night it’s packed with people. Kids actually swim in it (apparently it’s kept that clean), and adults wade or sit along its edge with their feet in the water.

Wow.

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There’s a provcative critique of Vancouver’s downtown architecture by Robert A.M. Stern in the Sun today. (Here for subscribers.)

“I think there are too many glass towers in Vancouver,” says Stern.
“That’s one reason they all look alike, there’s nothing to write on, so to speak. So you get funny little hats on these buildings, and sometimes you get strange balconies. There are more triangular balconies in Vancouver than anyplace else I’ve ever been. I wonder if they’re storing arrowheads on these balconies.”

I have to agree with him on this. Every generation produces its version of the Vancouver Special (highrise edition), and this one has built a lot of ’em. (115 on the downtown peninsula since 1986, excluding the West End).

“They try to look different, but somehow they all look exactly alike. So I think there’s a kind of boring uniformity. None of them are really bad, they’re not ugly, but [there are] too many identical things.”

We achieve, as I’ve said before, a very high level of mediocrity. Our urban planning is, fortunately, superior to our architecture. In that respect, I don’t agree with Stern:

… [Georgia] is so pedestrian unfriendly and uninviting,” he says.
“It could have been done, should have been done in a very different way. Could have had the high buildings, but should have had more street texture below.
“And no retail. Those people don’t eat,” he chuckles, “they make reservations.”

This suggests Stern has been doing too much drive-by analysis, without understanding the specific reasons why, in this case, we kept the view corridors open at the ground plane on the north side of Georgia (to see the park and mountains), and created ‘green courts’ on the south side. Georgia has its own guidelines, so that unlike most other downtown streets (which have that mix of low- and highrise forms) it retains its special character as a ceremonial boulevard.
Stern is certainly not the only one to feel that Vancouver, while admirable in many respects, lacks signature buildings, or that our planning processes constrain if not prevent great architecture outside the mold the planners have prescribed.
PT reader Timothy Thomas asks:

With all our progressive public policy, why don’t we have more progressive public architecture? … it does seem that we should have more imaginative buildings than we do. Are we underachievers in building fascinating new architecture? Do we discourage aesthetic innovation, preferring architectural comfort food?

Do we?

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Alan Ehrenhalt, the Executive Editor of Governing Magazine made a special visit to Vancouver this spring to witness the city’s condo boom firsthand.  This widely-respected monthly targets state and local government officials in the U.S., and has a readership of 275,000. 
You can read the cover story here.  And if nothing else, check out the photo essay: A Downtown Dilemma.
 

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