Policy & Planning
March 18, 2020

Do You Know Why Skywriting was Banned?

Have you ever seen an airplane skywrite when you were in a city?  Or are you remembering those banners that used to be hauled by planes along the beach?

As reported  in The Independent the British Department of Transport are going to allow planes to “skywrite” and “skytype” “to allow the creation of mid-air advertising slogans, birthday greetings and marriage proposals.”

Why? Because the British government estimates they can claim a revenue tax of 4 million pounds (6.9 million Canadian dollars) through tax revenue. Believe it or not, skywriting and skytyping were banned in the 1960’s because of the possible use of the words to spread “political propaganda”. Before that they were used for advertising items like newspapers and cigarettes.

In terms of  emissions,  the planes used are piston-engine planes that have minimal environmental impact. Estimates for skywriting planes are three tons of CO2 emissions a year compared to 35 million tons for the British aviation industry.  Britain also hopes to create a specialty of supplying skywriting pilots internationally.

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Daphne Bramham in the Vancouver Sun and Michael Kimmelman in the New York Times work through what we are all thinking about~what is this new normal? And for how long will this last? As Daphne directly states:

“There’s only one certainty, the experts tells us each day. If you don’t come into contact with the virus, you won’t get it and you won’t pass it on.”

This was the same strategy that was adopted in New York City during the 1918 Flu Epidemic to limit transmission of that virus. In that case, the bacillus that caused the infection was absent from the cultures taken. Like today there was no antidote to stop the flu. It was places like New York City  that instituted  a “robust” and organized public health infrastructure, distanced the healthy from the infected,  and maintained public health campaign and  disease surveillance that had lower mortality rates.

The self isolation that was so successful in 1918 can today stop the virus from exponentially spreading.  Today most people are experiencing the new “oneness” with themselves or  with immediate family members.  That does not mean you can’t walk or cycle, just not in proximity to other people. Simon Fraser University gerontologist and planner Andrea Sara has created the hashtag #GoForAWalk to remind people to get out of their living quarters.

Michael Kimmelman observes that traditionally we “seek solace in religion, sports, entertainment and in the promise that modern science and societies provide all the tools needed to solve any problem.”

It is unusual that we look to changing our own behaviour and use of space to be part of the solution. But that is what is being asked of us as schools, services, shops and the accoutrements of daily life shutter like the page of a science fiction novel.

It also takes a direct hit on how we use outdoor space, and also shows how public space is basically designed for groups of people to congregate in, not for individuals. It is  a telling thing that images of great well loved public spaces that are internationally recognized are shown to be empty. They were never designed for solitary solace, for a person or two to tuck in a corner here and there. Instead they were drawn up in the grand manner accommodating groups of people together, making the solitary oneness required by this pandemic  uncomfortable and awkward, like a solitary tulip bulb planted in a barren garden.

While there is sure to be a discussion about the antiurban and antisocial characteristics of the pandemic in changing normally social discourse and use of space, there is also something else very evident~we don’t design public space to embrace our temporary oneness.

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Here’s a classic from the BBC archives well worth a watch and a chuckle. When Trinity School opened in London in 1961 it was built on slum clearances. Instead of a “Victorian” design, the school was built in a series of “hyperbolic paraboloids” and was the “Sixties’ School” with all that new modernity purportedly promised.

One of the three architects responsible for the design meets with a few of the 1,200 girls who gently but firmly tell the architect what is wrong with his design, and politely make suggestions on how he might mitigate the errors.

This is absolute gold as the architect firstly displays a bit of annoyance with the questions, admits to one mistake, and then snips back on one obvious design error “I think you are exaggerating” and ” you will get used to it”.

I am sure architect Peter Chamberlin (he was also responsible for London’s  brutalist Barbican Estates) thought these “girls” who would  now be in their seventies today were going to give accolades for his design.

But no, the students  comment on the slippy brick stairs  (“a lady has already had an accident”), windows so high in classrooms you can’t see out, and blackboards that are located in corners where students can’t see them. There are windows that a child can fall out of  (the architect admits to that) and a girder at the foot  of a staircase which is a hazard when the student body rushes down the stairs. The architect is sure that’s not a problem, but the student says “well we’ve had one accident already”.

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We are in the midst of a pandemic caused by a virus that currently has no antidote. This was a similar premise to what happened one hundred years ago with the  influenza pandemic that lasted 23 months commencing in January 1918. Also called the Spanish Flu, this was the same H1N1 influenza virus that was involved with the 2009 swine flu.

In the 1918 influenza pandemic 27 percent of the world’s population was infected, with the death toll being estimated between 17 million to 50 million, as epidemiological records were not kept at that time. Life expectancy plummeted by twelve years in 1918  as this pandemic killed a high number of young people as well as the old.

I was raised with a first hand account of the 1918 influenza pandemic from my New York City born and raised grandmother. She was the city’s July 4th baby in 1910, and was eight years old when the epidemic reached New York City.  She recalled  the death toll from the flu, the isolation, and the length of time (18 months) that  this virus took hold of her world.

While New York City’s flu death toll approached 30,000 people, the mortality rate per 1,000 was 4.7, much lower than Boston’s which was 6.5 deaths per 1,000 people and Philadelphia’s at 7.3 per 1,000 people.

What made the difference for New York City was a “robust” and organized public health infrastructure, distancing of the healthy from the infected,  a public health campaign and  disease surveillance.

Using the model of how the City approached tuberculosis control, public spaces, schools and theatres were regulated . The 1918 influenza pandemic was the first “acute” public health crisis in modern times.

New York City’s government implemented staggered business hours to lessen the bustle of people at rush hour, and set up 150 emergency “health districts and centres” to provide nursing care and case work reporting. By setting up neighbourhood health centres home care nurses could work at a more neighbourhood level to provide needed community services. Armories, gyms and a homeless shelter were converted to makeshift hospitals and a maritime quarantine established for New York City bound boats.

Public health campaigns insisted citizens cover their mouths when sneezing, and suggested distancing citizens from one another in the public realm.

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Equality, diversity and inclusion are extremely serious issues that need to be properly addressed in the planning profession. The Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) in Great Britain has started this process by firstly looking at gender in the profession, with a study that came out in time for International Women’s Day. The study included fifty women  and several men from Australia, Canada, England, Scotland, New Zealand and the United States. This is the first part of a ten year program by RTPI to make the profession more diverse and inclusive. The RTPI addresses the report by saying:

 We profoundly believe that a planning profession that is more representative of women and society at large is crucial to bringing about inclusive environments that meet the needs of everyone and we hope that this report will contribute to addressing what has become a crucial and timely question.

The news in the report published in Great Britain is not good, and many of the issues raised are also evident in planning practice in Canada.  The RTPI report states that more than fifty percent of women felt their promotion opportunities were limited, and many felt discriminated against upon returning to work from maternity leave.

In 2019, research by the organisation ‘Women in Planning’ found that only 17% of director and above roles were held by women with just 5% of senior director, senior partner or managing director roles occupied by women.”

It has always seemed odd that planning has been a fairly male dominated practice, without a whole lot of women and diversity in senior positions.  I have been a staunch supporter of  planning events and seminars that include women on the panels. I have written about several events in Vancouver where “manels” were predominant. Our cities and places are not for men only or for men of a certain culture, and we need to include people from the other female 51 per cent of the population too, as well as embracing diversity.

It was Stephen Lewis the former United Nations ambassador who famously refused to sit on all male panels, and insisted that the way to advance diversity and equity was to ensure that conference panels champion women and different voices.

Stephen Lewis also pointed out that it is the panelist’s responsibility to ensure that they are not sitting on all male panels, and if they are, to insist on diversity. That is, after all, what the nexus of city planning and engagement is all about.

In the RTPI study  women planners felt that they faced inappropriate remarks at work and that their workplace reflected male norms and behaviour. The study sets out 15 key recommendations which included pay equity for men and women, and ensuring maternity/family leave that did not mitigate career advancement.

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It all started as someone’s very good idea, dealing with the cold and wet conditions that seem to dominate any infrastructure situated next to Lake Ontario. Google’s designers hired for Toronto’s Sidewalk Labs may have been stretching the truth when they said that walking along that section of the  Lake was manageable only 30 percent of the year. That really translates into three summer months.

However the concept that the Toronto shoreline is inhospitable brought a “raincoat covering the sidewalk “design solution that juts from existing buildings and was intended to protect the sidewalks from weather.  This was breathlessly supported for Google’s Toronto Quayside project, and was basically a mylar like plastic film that was anchored into the public sidewalk. Surprisingly there was even a prototype installed. But as in so many things, a good 360 degree review had not been done on this sidewalk cover, and no one had talked to the City of Toronto’s team at Waterfront Toronto or to the City’s  accessibility experts.

If you are in Toronto you can see the prototype which is installed at Sidewalk Lab’s headquarters at 307 Lakeshore Drive. You can also look at the angles, how it is anchored, and see why this was a nonstarter right from the beginning.

As Toronto Star’s Donovan Vincent  reports, Toronto’s head of Waterfront Toronto was not happy, nor had  the design been  vetted through that tri-governmental agency in advance of the prototype being installed. As lead planner Chris Glaisek noted:

“Generally public sidewalks you try to keep free of obstructions so that pedestrians can move freely. Those structures on any sidewalk in Toronto potentially constrict pedestrian flow — and the angled structural brackets (that fasten to the sidewalks) also pose challenges to the visually impaired.

But Sidewalk Labs were thinking less of pedestrian safety and comfort as much as the mechanics of how their new tarp raincoat design would work on sidewalks. They even had sensors developed to open and close the canopies to allow for rain and snow.

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This is a lineup you won’t want to miss, with the City of Vancouver Director of Planning Gil Kelley in conversation with  the Director of the School of Community and Regional Planning (SCARP) at UBC, Heather Campbell, and the Director of  Simon Fraser University’s City Program,  Duke of Data Andy Yan.  Here’s one of the first times these three urban shape shifters have been on the same stage discussing what is going on in our place, and what policies are needed to move us towards a connected, housed, liveable city.

Moderator is Jen St. Denis, a local journalist that has been exploring the housing affordability issues in the region, and been on the pulse of business and politics surrounding city planning.

Called “Thinking Cities: Evidence in Policy, Knowledge in Action” this event takes place on Thursday March 5.

Date: Thursday, March 5, 2020, 7-9 pm (doors open at 6:30)

Place: SFU Segal Building, Room 1200
Admission: $5

You can follow this link to reserve your seat.Seating is limited, and appears to be selling out quickly.

You can read more about the presenters and the discussants below.

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I received an advanced copy of “Planning on the Edge” which provides a reconciliation, social justice and sustainable development lens on the complex issues surrounding Metro Vancouver regional planning.  It’s a thoughtful and well documented book with chapters contributed by many well known urban thinkers.

There’s food and a panel with UBC’s Leonora Angeles, Bill Rees, Howard Grant from the Musqueam First Nation and Simon Fraser University’s Duke of Data Andy Yan.

Host of the CBC program “B.C. Today” Michelle Eliott is the moderator.

This event is expected to reach capacity quickly. The tickets are free~please follow this link to RSVP .

When February 27th, 2020  5:30 PM   through   9:00 PM Location UBC Robson Square, 800 Robson Street
Room C300
Vancouver, BC
Canada Contact Phone: 604-822-3276
Email: sherli@mail.ubc.ca Read more »

Last week Jill Bennett in this  Global News video story  talked about the state of disrepair of the public sidewalk outside of Canada Place. It’s worth looking at the video which shows how shocking the existing conditions are.

The attention to detail for walking is fundamentally important to all cities. No matter who you are or where you live, the Metro Vancouver sidewalk is an extension of your public space, and it is equitable that sidewalk users receive the same level of treatment afforded to users of bike lanes and of roads. Everyone no matter their age or ability or level of accessibility should be able to travel easily and comfortably on walkable smooth surfaces, with drop down curbs at intersections, clean and readable. It just makes sense to provide people using the most sustainable way of travel the easiest and most effortless experience. This is no budget trade off instead of  housing affordability or density, it is an essential part of accessibility and movement at the most basic level to support a growing population.

One thing that has been an utter fail in the last decade in the City of Vancouver has been the management of the pedestrian environment, the sidewalks, and the standard of maintenance of the walking environment.  Even well respected urbanist  Larry Beasley has pointed out that Vancouver’s pedestrian public realm needed to be cleaned and polished up, and garbage off the streets. Right now several parts of the city have dangerously cracked sidewalks and supporting public realm infrastructure that looks like nobody cares. Repairing sidewalks was even offered as a voted on potential  “contribution” to the Denman west end neighbourhood.

Sidewalks and sidewalk repair are never an extra~it is part of the infrastructure of a well functioning city to maintain accessible and safe walking facilities. Pedestrians are supposedly the first priority in the City’s transportation plans. It’s time to invest in that.

Every Mayor likes to have their own stamp on things, and despite the fact that Greenways came out of an Urban Landscape Task Force of members of the public led by renown Landscape Architect Moura Quayle, greenways (and its budget) were squelched in favour of other new programming identifiable with the Vision council majority in 2008.

The creative Doug Smith  Greenways Engineer had left his post in 2005  to undertake important work in the City Works Yards and then the Sustainability Office. It was under his guidance that “greenways” became synonymous with great street design.

These were actually  streets where walking was the first priority. There was a network of 140 kilometers of streets that joined important destinations like services, schools and shopping that were strengthened by pedestrian public realm improvements.

You can see some of the work along 37th Avenue in the city, and also take a look at the map of greenways. Greenways were really “green streets” in that Doug Smith’s team explored innovative ways of creating infiltration bulges, baffled daylighted storm water,  public art, fountains, and  of making walking the first priority, followed by cycling. Vehicular use of these greenway streets was blocked or slowed by different means. The intent was to trial new ways of creating sustainable infrastructure that then could translate to other pedestrian and public space areas.

In the Greenways staff were several individuals whose job was to visit and walk every sidewalk and every street in Vancouver to rank the sidewalks needing repair work, and identify where new sidewalks needed to be place. Having them embedded with Engineering Greenways staff meant everyone had a real sense of “ground truthing” in how to create the best walking environments.

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It will probably get worse.

From The Guardian:

London has achieved the impossible by eradicating the private car – and still having desperate traffic congestion,” says Prof Tony Travers, the director of LSE London, a research centre at the London School of Economics that explores the city’s economic and social concerns. “People keep saying we need to get the cars off the road. In central London, there aren’t any.” …

London brought in (a congestion charge) 17 years ago. … The number of cars in the City of London fell 15% either side of the introduction in 2003 of the congestion charge – allied since April 2019 with an ultra-low emission zone that more than doubles the daily charge for older diesel cars to £24. The city is also blessed with quicker, cheaper public transport alternatives. …

So why is traffic moving more slowly than ever?  Among most analysts, there is consensus on two underlying reasons: more vans and more Ubers. But in case we should feel righteously smug, Travers adds a list of contributors to the gridlock: “Cycle lanes, in some places, are bad. Ubiquitous four-way pedestrian crossing. Wider pavements. Any one of those makes perfect sense individually. But the buses are completely screwed.”

The bus easily outstrips the tube and rail as the main mode of transport for Londoners – even more so among disabled people, those with mobility problems and the poorest residents. Frozen prices, plus the introduction in 2016 of the hopper fare, which allows unlimited journeys within one hour for the cost of one trip, have made buses even cheaper under the current mayor, Sadiq Khan. However, the network has shrunk and patronage has declined in the past four years….

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