April 10, 2008

Price Tags 102 – Paris Périphérique

The Boulevard Périphérique divides the Paris region: arrondissement inside, banlieu outside; one served by transit, the other car-dominant. This issue explores an example of modern urbanism – in particular, the corporate centre of La Défense.

This issue is a revised version from the one e-mailed to the Price Tags subscription list.  (If you’d like to be on that list, click here, and note “subscribe” in the body.)

Readers can comment on the issue by clicking in “Comments” below, where I’ve already posted one of the interesting remarks I’ve received. 


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This bit of pavement doesn’t rank as “New Stuff” quite yet: it’s the southern end of the Carrall Street Greenway (design here) – a critical link between the False Creek seawall and, eventually, Burrard Inlet and Coal Harbour, completing the loop around the Downtown Peninsula.  Eventually, thousands will be biking, blading and walking on this connecting link every day, joining up Gastown, the Downtown East Side, Chinatown and Concord Pacific Place.

Indeed, Concord Pacific has placed the Presentation Centre, where they market their current projects, right next to the Greenway:

Now, if you look carefully (and I have), you’ll notice something very odd: there’s no bike rack.  Regardless of the traffic flowing by on the seawall and already using the greenway, Concord has made no accommodation for cyclists at all.

In fact, the whole lay-out of the Presentation Centre site has been designed purely for drive-in traffic.  There’s no pedestrian entrance on the seawall, and even the berm that surrounds the site on the north side avoids providing a pathway for bikes and peds directly to the entrance. 

The assumption: if you didn’t drive to get there, you don’t count.

Now here’s what I find odd.  Not that they designed the site only for cars, not that they have don’t have a bike rack, not that they’re ignoring the traffic on the seawall.  What I find incomprehensible is that they failed to take advantage of one of the best marketing opportunities available today – one that they paid millions for, and that they could lever to make millions more. 

It was Concord, after all, that paid for the seawall on the North Shore of False Creek; it is Pacific Place that pioneered a more pedestrain-friendly urban design.  Concord already has the brand!

And as I’ve written elsewhere about bike sharing, “green” makes green.  Sustainability is, as any strategic thinker realizes, the wave of the present, not just the future.  Whether it’s peak oil, climate change, smart-growth or resilient planning, any company that has an opportunity to position themselves for the future – when disruption can turn into opportunity – has the opportunity to put money in the bank.  “Gas expensive?  Live without a car.”  “Reduce your carbon footprint – and your weight.  Live in a walking-friendly community”    “Smart growth?  It starts here.”

And Concord, apparently, is oblivious.  Forget ‘good intentions’ or even the city’s bylaws that require bike racks.  To not take advantage of what you’ve already paid for, to fail to market your legitimately green credentials, to ignore your potential customers walking and cycling by, is leaving money on the table. 

That’s what the absense of a bike rack really means. 




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Portlander and bike advocate Aaron Tarfman (his site is here) was in Vancouver last weekend to check out the cycling scene.  He’ll send his report later – but in the meantime, a classic shot of the city he took from West 8th near sunset, proving that, yes, the sun does shine in April:



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Jason Vanderhill sends along an invitation to what looks to be an interesting exhbition in local photography:

STRANGER: A photography exhibit of strangers and unfamiliar landscapes. The work is a diverse mix of the abstract, the dreamlike, and the street. Photographers include Marc L’Esperance, Lung Liu and John Goldsmith.

Opening Night is Friday April 11, 2008 from 6:30-8:30pm. The exhibit runs from April 10 – April 26, 2008 with restaurant hours of Thursday – Saturday from 6-10pm.

Radha Centre is located at 728 Main Street in Chinatown.

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My mother seemed to extract a season’s worth of fresh food from the modest garden in the backyard of our Victoria home.  I have no idea how she did it.

As Jane Jacobs noted in her last book, it’s quite possible for knowledge to be lost when one generation decides not to pass on their experience, or the next one is disinterested, because it seems obsolete or irrelevant.  Could most baby boomers now grow their own food to, um, save their lives?

But what with food security and localism moving up the sustainability agenda, it looks like some of those skills may be on the rebound.  There are signs – like here, underneath Burrard Bridge:

Not a food garden (though apparently it’s possible), this recent reclamation of a neglected space will soon be planted with wildflowers set to bloom in the summer.  At the moment, the site is being prepared:


It’s all so … public.  A garden in this place assumes someone cares enough to try to beautify neglected ground, and that their efforts will be respected.  Fortunately, someone does:

This is Jason, a local resident, who had previously his own plot just uphill, on the site occupied by a day-care before it was moved and the property sold for development.  Not to be discouraged, he’s taken on the challenge of a shaded and more vulnerable site.  And we get to enjoy the result.

Another example of good gardening intentions can be found less than a kilometre away, at the corner of Seymour and Pacific, previously home to the Carlos and Bud’s restaurant in what seemed to be an old gas station.  (Are there only three gas stations left on the downtown peninsula?)

The land will eventually sprout another condo tower.  But in the meantime, the developer Onni has turned it into an ambitious community garden:

It’s a fine idea – but I’m skeptical.  Will there be enough interested people to make a commitment for only a season or two?  Will it survive the regrettable but inevitable poachers?  Can actual food be grown, or is it only for non-edibles?

But so what?  Truly a learning experience for a generation that’s forgotten how to do it, preparing for times when gardening isn’t just an amusement.




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Price Tags, that is.

For those of you who subscribe to “Price Tags” (the magazine, not the blog), you’ll know that the 100th issue – the index to all the previous issues – came out in February:

We’re going to celebrate with a little event at UBC Robson Square, this coming Monday, April 7, at 7 pm.  You’re invited.

Not only will the event celebrate Price Tags and how it evolved but also the digitization of much of my slide cellection from the 1980s and 90s that will soon become a public resource.

Hosted by Larry Frank, the Bombardier Chair at UBC, this event will also feature a performance by the B.C:Clettes.   Hey, there are even refreshments.

So come along on Monday; it would be great to meet some of you out there in the blogosphere.

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Down to Seattle last weekend: dismal weather, but an opportunity to see some of the city’s newest development.

It’s a good news/bad news story.  The new light rail line connecting Downtown with the Airport is nearing completion.  At least there’s enough on the ground to get a sense of what’s coming – and “on the ground” is the operative phrase. 

To much objection, the rail was run at grade through the Rainier Valley along Martin Luther King Jr. Way.  (‘Other parts of the route will be in tunnels; why not us?’ asked the residents and businesses in this predominately Black part of the city.)

But remarkably, not only is the rail in place but so is the residential redevelopment – built and occupied before the service even starts.

These mixed-use projects look nicely scaled to my eyes, even on a gloomy day, and I presume they incorporate a percentage of affordable housing.  Most unusual to see transit-oriented development occur on this scale before the line is even open.

Not so good is the new townhousing popping up in Seattle neighbourhoods as the city tries to find ways to provide appropriately scaled densification.  The idea is good; the execution isn’t.

Here’s just one project (they all pretty much look the same, at least in the Ballard/Phinney Ridge area).  First the front view:

At least I think it’s the front.  You can see the garage door and driveway tucked in below the main floor – and hence the problem.  Because there is no underground parking (no doubt at considerable savings), the house does not address the street in a traditional way. 

But worse is the cramped massing on the site, made even more problematic by the wooden fencing, cheap in appearance and doomed to age badly, that may give privacy but only at that expense of neighbourhood civility.

Same on the side, facing a heavily travelled street:

And worst of all, the lane at the back:

It’s a mystery to me why the parking is not accessed from the back.  While this lane may be eventually paved, this is not a route anyone is going to want to use, particularly at night.  Just waiting for the taggers.

Altogether, a very unhappy illustration of how ground-oriented housing can be fitted into existing neighbourhoods. 

By comparison, here are some Vancouver examples where design has been a priority, and underground parking required.  First, Towne near Oakridge:

And this charming complex on Oak at West 37th:

Design and parking aren’t the only big differences, of course.  The differential in cost between the Seattle and Vancouver examples, I suspect, is huge – and hence the dilemma of affordability.

UPDATE: Town Homes Spark Neighborhood Debate (Seattle Times)

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Marke Andrews did a nice piece for the Vancouver Sun on the 2006 transportation and workplace data just released by Census Canada.  He picked up on the most significant indicator:

In 2006, 67.3 per cent of workers in the Vancouver census metropolitan area drove to work, down almost five percentage points from the 72.2 per cent who drove to work in 2001….

Use of public transit among the same working populace increased five percentage points, from 11.5 per cent in 2001 to 16.5 per cent in 2006.

Those figures cover the entire Vancouver region – or CMA, as it’s called.  And they indicate a trend – transit use rising, car use dropping – that is likely to continue as transit service improves.  Indeed, we’re already seeing the results of commitments to transit and more compact development made in the 1990s.

So what explains this:

Walking and cycling, however, decreased, with 6.3 per cent of workers walking in 2006 (down from 6.5 per cent in 2001) and 1.7 per cent riding a bicycle (down from 1.9 per cent in 2001).

My comments in the article in fact assume an increase in walking:

My experience of living down (in Yaletown) for five years was, ‘What’s the point of driving?’ You walk, partly because it’s close, but mainly because it’s part of the experience of living in the neighbourhood….

“I think this proves the theory that if you create a more dense residential area close to where people work, you provide transit and make the walking and cycling experience safe and comfortable, people will do that,” Price said.

And that’s true – but only to those parts of the region where the right combination of density, mix and proximity creates the right conditions for walking.  In the central core of Vancouver, we’ve seen a stready drop in auto use (down 13 percent between 1994 and 1999) and a dramatic increase in walking (up 55 percent).  But that’s not true throughout the region, or CMA, as a whole – hence the census data.

My interpretation is that, to some degree, people have substituted transit for some walking and cycling trips.  Car use has remained equal to the growth in population and transit has grown substantially, so possibly some of the latter is the result of trip substitution.  I’m open to other possibilities.

Still, in the end, good news:

“We’re making some real progress here,” said (Metro planner  Chris) DeMarco, who has other statistics that reinforce what the census revealed.

For example, between 1996 and 2006, short trips to work (less than five kilometres) in the Lower Mainland region increased by 55,945 trips, but long trips (more than 25 kilometres) increased by only 6,825.

Another telling statistic is that in the past 10 years, population growth in the region has been 15.3 per cent, with a matching growth in car use (15 per cent). However, transit use increased by 40 per cent.

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What was once temporary becomes permanent.  From this:

To this:

That’s Jody Andrews walking part of the seawall still under construction.  He’s the Project Manager for Southeast False Creek and the Olympic Village (and also a Deputy City Manager) – and he’s especially proud of what has been achieved here.  The City in this case was in charge of design and construction of the seawall – unlike the North Shore of False Creek and Coal Harbour, where the developer was essentially responsible. 

Here are two examples: first, the use of wood planking, preserved with salt instead of chemicals, and second, these granite steps which could have come expeditiously from China were instead quarried locally at Hardy Island.

And in case you think that the new seawall looks a tad sterile, then you have to see the whole thing – particularly the new peninsula:

This offshore sanctuary was a clever way to deal with the need to satisfy the federal fisheries department by creating a naturalized shoreline, wetlands and fish habitat.  They even added snags for raptors:

Imagine, during the Olympics, the cameras zooming in on a bald eagle perched on a branch as it surveys False Creek, with the stadium and snow-capped mountains as a backdrop.  (Yes, I know, most likely in the rain.)

The City’s Senior Urban Design Scot Hein explains some of the reasons why the “Shipyards Precinct” public realm plan deserves special recognition:

This plan, which won the national RAIC top urban design award two years ago and authored by PWL (Margot Long and Derek Lee), was jointly commissioned by the SEFC Project Office and the Planning Department.  (It was) one reason that the completed results are of such high quality. 

The other factors are, of course, the skill sets of the consultants, proper management of the work, adequate budget, high-quality construction and a challenging deadline which, I believe, was to our advantage….

(Here’s) the first pedestrian bridge image, which was rejected …

followed by a second image produced after a sketching session together with the landscape architect and structural engineer which is very close to what has been implemented. 

The “canoe bridge” (see New Stuff 2 below) speaks to the Shipyards precinct history in its form, robust design and scale noticeable from many vantage points along the False Creek basin. 

Here’s another example of how the designers have pushed the envelope – the ‘love seats.’

They look spotless now.  But can they survive the skateboarders and the taggers?   No doubt that Vancouverites love the seawall.  Southeast False Creek takes it to a new level.

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It’s just one element along the finished seawall next to what will be the Athlete’s Village for the 2010 Olympics (and then Millennium Water) – but it’s a grabber:

Yes, it’s a bridge.  But since passage is limited to those on foot and paw, I prefer the French term – passerelle.   Though they have a long history (the Pont des Arts of 1804, for instance), they are among the most interesting blends of architecture and engineering to be found these days. 

The idea behind this one: to evoke the image of a sea-going kayak, including the straps across the deck. 

For the record:

These crossings are particularly favoured for narrow rivers in Europe and Australia (see Price Tags 93 for examples), where they can be integrated into bike routes and greenways.  From Calitrava to Foster, big-name architects are adding these kind of bridges to their portfolios – for instance, in London, the Millennium Bridge:

And in Paris, the Simone de Beauvoir Passerelle:

Now the obvious question: why is there not a passerelle across False Creek?  The need is obvious.  A low-level bridge that connects both banks would be an elegant solution to the Burrard Bridge problem.  The cost alone – now $50 million – to widen the structure over the objections of the heritage community justifies a look at other options.

The problem, apparently, is that a low-level bridge would block the passage of sailboats.  But perhaps it’s time to ask the question: why should we sacrifice a solution that could serve thousands of people every day, support sustainable transportation, add a landmark to the city and save a lot of money to instead serve a few recreational craft that might, with adjustable masts, still be able to navigate the creek?

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