Art & Culture
August 29, 2006

Density and Social Disorder

In a comment to “Car-less in Vancouver,” Seattle reader Patrick McGrath asks:

Are societal ills like those mentioned in the Sun articles (here and here) part of your calculus when you teach about increased density, nonmotorized transport, etc? If so, how do you address the intersection of your work with those issues?

A tough question, and one I’ve struggled with over the years, both as a writer and politician. Given the recent headlines and letters in the local papers, the subject of street disorder is one a lot of Vancouverites are struggling with today. In Alan Durning’s comments referenced in the previous post, he notes that the city’s mayor Sam Sullivan “sees the scourge of petty crime, drug dealing, and aggressive panhandling as a first-order threat to Vancouver’s urban renaissance.”
So let me add some perspective.

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After seeing it for the first time, I have to agree with PBS’s Charlie Rose: this is one of the best interviews he’s ever done.
And he’s done over 30,000.
He interviewed James Watson (the discoverer of the structure of DNA ) and Harvard professor (emeritus) Edward O Wilson on Charles Darwin and his writings (they’ve each edited a book on him). The subject, of course, is evolution.It was recorded in 2005, and has only become more fascinating and relevant.
You can see it online for free by clicking here.
It’s really worth an hour, particularly given some of the provocative opinions you don’t often hear in the American media:

Rose: Only one serious scientist you know believes there is a personal god who listens to our prayers?
Watson: Yeah, that’s about it.
Wilson: I don’t know a one.

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I first met Alan Durning, the executive director of what was then Northwest Environment Watch, in the mid-90s when he was writing “The Car and the City.”  An enjoyable excursion around the West End turned into a chapter in this still-read book.
That meeting turned into a long-standing relationship.  Northwest Environment Watch turned into the Sightline Institute, and I became a board member.  And this month, the Durning family came back to Vancouver.  Without a car.
That’s actually a pretty big deal, because it’s part of a commitment the entire family has made to living car-free for a year.  So when it came time to think about a family vacation, they had to choose a place all of them could enjoy on foot, bus and bike.
 
Alan came away with some insightful lessons from the experience, and about Vancouver:

Our week was devoted to biking the city, lounging on beaches, kicking our soccer ball in various parks, attending the theater, and visiting kid-oriented shops. Highlights included kayaking at English Bay; the amazing public swimming pools at Kitsilano Beach, Second Beach in Stanley Park, and at Newton in Surrey …; the great mobs of Canadians (most of them seemingly happy, most of them – statistically speaking – unarmed, and all of them covered by health insurance) on the sidewalks and walkways and bikepaths and roller-blading paths of central Vancouver; and, of course, Stanley Park.

He doesn’t shy away from the negatives: 

On the other hand, as Vancouverites take to the streets on foot, the density of pedestrians has created other kinds of markets as well. Drug dealing and aggressive panhandling are definitely becoming a drag on Vancouver’s walkability, as two recent Vancouver Sun articles point out.  

You’ll want to click here to read about the trip, and his subsequent meeting with Mayor Sam Sullivan.

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August 20, 2006

Here’s a revealing editorial from the Langley Times

Caught up in the congestion, Seattle experience shows advantage of rapid transit

By Frank Bucholtz
Aug 16 2006

On many occasions, I have stood up to support expansion of Highway 1 and the Port Mann Bridge.
I continue to do so. There is too much traffic now to delay any longer. However, an experience last week reinforced the importance of ensuring that rapid transit be a part of expansion of the bridge.
At the Gateway Project open house, many Langley residents said they supported the bridge expansion, but also wanted to see rapid transit built down the freeway at the same time. Green Party leader Adriane Carr, who opposes the bridge expansion, also calls for rapid transit down the freeway, with plentiful park and ride lots.
My experience? Last Wednesday, a group of us attended the Real Madrid-D.C. United soccer game at QWest Field in downtown Seattle.
I researched driving, transit and parking options on the Internet, and found that there was a free park and ride at Northgate Shopping Centre in north Seattle, just off Interstate 5. A bus from there would take us directly to the field, while making stops throughout downtown Seattle.
The park and ride lot was easy to find, and parking was plentiful. However, traffic was badly congested on the freeway from a point north of Everett until well past the downtown area, so we didn’t arrive at the lot until just after 6 p.m. No problem — the game was at 8.
It’s important to note that the freeway is four lanes wide (in each direction) from Everett into Seattle. It has been constantly widened over the years, but congestion has followed just as quickly. (Emphasis mine.)
 
The bus we were to take was 20 minutes late arriving at Northgate — likely because of congestion. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of it. The articulated bus (filled with riders) travelled downtown on the freeway, so we were moving at a crawl amidst the congested traffic.
We finally arrived at the field at 7:30 p.m.
The bus stop for the ride back was quite easy to find. But the traffic congestion because of the game (which attracted 66,000 fans) and a Mariners’ game at the same time was so intense that the bus, which only runs once an hour at that time, was 15 minutes late getting to the stop. It was now 11:20 p.m.
We arrived back at Northgate fairly quickly. But the fun wasn’t over yet. At 12:30 a.m., we got stuck in a horrendous traffic jam between Lynnwood and Everett, because two of the four northbound lanes were closed for paving. It took an hour to get through that mess, because there was far too much traffic at that hour for two lanes to handle.
Had there been a rapid transit line along I-5, from Everett into downtown Seattle, all this could have been avoided. The transit system would not be subject to the vagaries of congestion.
Seattle has chosen to expand its freeway system steadily, as it has grown. The expansion of transit, particularly on rail lines, has come much more slowly. There is now a commuter rail service between Everett and Tacoma, but mainly during rush hour. Most transit is in the form of buses, and they get caught up in the long line-ups of mainly single-occupant cars.
Rapid transit along Highway 1 would ensure that a similar scenario doesn’t happen here.

Bad news, Frank: this scenario is going to happen here. (1) Kevin Falcon, your MLA and Minister of Highways, is determined to widen Highway 1 freeway to eight lanes. (2) There is no intent to build rapid-transit.
The important point of this article is that the writer at least recognizes it won’t work. Seattle tried. Result: “congestion has followed just as quickly.”
Presumably the logical position of the Langley Times now is that the freeway should not be widened unless rapid-transit is guaranteed.
Then we can have an important discussion about what kind of transit – and more importantly, what kind of land use and form of development – should follow.
But at the moment, South of the Fraser is heading for the worst case scenario, and a tragedy as sad as Seattle’s,

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Barrie is the driving force behind the Sculpture Biennale detailed in Price Tags 86 – http://pricetags.ca/pricetags/pricetags86.pdf (Click and take the tour.)
He’s just back from Northern Europe, with an interesting observation on Vancouver:

Just returned from Scandinavia, Baltics and Russia.  Very impressed and surprised at how beautiful Stockholm, Helsinki, St Petersburg, Tallinn, Riga, etc are.  Amazing parks, waterways, walking and bike paths.
What I discovered most is much what you have said in Price Tags 87.  Vancouver has nowhere for people to gather and ‘party’ or ‘protest’.  WE have no inner-city squares where people walk through or can congregate … probabaly afraid they will become gathering places for the unwashed, etc. Hence our parks are primarily along the water’s edge, on the edge of the city.  No room for congregating … only passing by!

I wonder if the design to design-out public-squares like you find in every European and South American Capital was intentional !
It would be nice in the newer areas of the city that are being developed to create public parks/squares and to build amenities and living accommodation around them so that people have to criss-cross through them to get from a to b and in better weather actually congregate … ike Place des Vosges in Paris, the park in Riga between the Embassy district and old town, or the large plazas in reconstructed Vilnius.

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Disclosure: This is an idea taken directly from Andrew Sullivan’s blog, who asked his readers to send him pictures of what they see outside their windows.  And the results are intriguing: windows into people’s lives as well as their circumstances. 
Here’s a view from window of Stephen Rees, a Richmond, B.C. reader who also puts out his own blog: http://stephenrees.wordpress.com/

 

The early morning view out of the window next to my computer.
We converted this central bed to a vegetable garden last year, and this year we are overwhelmed with zucchini (go away for a weekend and they become giant marrows). We also have lots of herbs, mange tout peas, french beans, green pepper, aubergines, lettuce, leeks and tomatoes – not bad for a single raised bed 7′ x 4′ and a few pots on the patio.

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August 17, 2006

Great vacation time in Montreal and Vermont. 
For a perspective on public spaces in Montreal, check out the latest Price Tags – Issue 87 – which you can download on my web site (www.pricetags.ca) or click directly from here:
http://pricetags.ca/pricetags/pricetags87.pdf
Usually I have to wait for the next issue of PT to provide feedback.  Now I can do it on this blog.
As you’ll see, I wrote some positive comments about Parc Emilie-Gamelin (also known as Place Berri) based on the activity I saw there. 


Here’s another perspective from PT reader Dan Freeman:

I’m afraid I’m going to have to disagree with your laudatory description of Place Berri in downtown Montreal (Jan Gehl’s book “New City Spaces” makes the same mistake, in my opinion)

While it has some strengths, it is a problematic public space. Based on my experience/observation of this square (most recently in July) it has far too much unprogrammed open space. There are no activities, cafes or vendors here that could draw people to this space in the heart of the city. There is also very limited comfortable and practical seating. Not enough is in the shade, and there isn’t much that would encourage conversations between people – just the usual benches and ledges around some of the edges.
As a result, most of the space is largely empty (except for the odd skateboarders in the blank plaza), and its edges are usually populated by the city’s homeless population who set up camp in the shade and sleep/lounge throughout the day. While they are certainly as entitled to using public space as all other citizens (and in fact the homeless likely depend on it more than most), their overwhelming presence discourages many others who live/work/study downtown from hanging out there. We need to create public spaces which are inclusive and provide places for multiple communities to feel comfortable on a daily basis.
I won’t deny that Place Berri is a fantastic place for public events/concerts/gatherings/protests. It most definitely is. And Vancouver desperately needs such a space. My (exceptionally controversial) suggestion: rebuild much of Robson Square to create a public plaza across the street from the VAG. Don’t tell the architects though, they LOVE this Erickson work, ignoring its failings as a piece of the urban infrastructure.
But I digress. The problem with Place Berri is that it fails ‘the rest of the time’. Public spaces should be designed and programmed for major events, but need to work first and foremost as great every day places.
Thanks once again for the amazing photos and ideas you share through PriceTags. It’s truly an exceptionally generous contribution to the city’s urban dialogue.

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Off to Vermont for a week to do a little cycling, then up to Montreal for the end of the Out Games.  I’ll keep in touch.
Glad to see that the blog is generating some buzz.  Pete McMartin responded to the jab below with a few of his own.  Check it out – and add your own.

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July 26, 2006

First night of the fireworks at English Bay.  Just us and a quarter million of our neighbours. 
 
I’m not sure why photographers try to capture fireworks, or sunsets.  The result is always going to be a little disappointing, since you’re turning something that generates light into something that reflects it.  So we get a little arty instead.
But here’s something you might not have seen if you don’t stick around after the crowds have dispersed.  Down on Beach Avenue by the Aquatic Centre, there’s a convoy of sanitation trucks waiting to move into action, preceded by a phalanx of motorcycle cops, their lights ablaze.
  As the parade gets underway, there are cheers from the balconies above; people applaud from the curbs.  Someone even has a trumpet.   This must be a thrill for guys in the Engineering Department.  Talk about respect.
 
And for boys, who are genetically programmed to get off on trucks, the engineering parade must be a bigger blast than the fireworks. 

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Seattle-ite Patrick McGrath asked the following question in a comment to the “Density Game” below:

Are high rises the best way to move people into the urban core? How do they compare to 3-5 story apartment blocks in terms of their affordability and population density?

Well, Patrick … it depends.
As the post notes, the density for highrise and lowrise can be exactly the same. In fact, the highrise could be less dense – assuming we’re comparing floor area, not population. For instance, a 20-storey building with floorplates that are 5,000 square feet in area on a lot that is 25,000 square feet has (I simplify) a Floor Space Ratio (FSR) of 4. A five-storey building that almost covers the site would likely have an FSR of around 4.5. The lower building would be denser.

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