November 3, 2006

A fork in the lane

Last night, Brent Toderian, the City’s new Director of Planning, explained at an SFU City Program ‘conversation,’ why he chose to come to Vancouver.  It was the opportunity, said the ex-Calgarian, to help a city that was already heading in the right direction to really take off, to build on the successes already achieved in order to tackle the issues – affordability, homelessness – that confront it today.
While civic optimism is compulsary for planning directors, it contrasts with the gloom and despair one hears from commentators in bigger cities.  Examples: Elizabeth Farrelly in the Sydney Morning Herald (How could Sydney get it so wrong?) and Christopher Hume in the Toronto Star (Why T.O. isn’t on road to better future).  Wrote Hume:

There was an excellent example several weeks ago when the city refused to change its policy against laneway housing. The argument was that lanes are unsafe because they’re too narrow for fire trucks and garbage trucks. … It’s exactly this kind of thinking that keeps Toronto from realizing its potential, and, if not changed, will lead to its decline.

This backward step on laneway housing by Toronto (you can read the staff report here) must be a particularly bitter loss for the city’s design professionals , as The Globe and Mail reported:

The vision of revitalizing Toronto’s 311 kilometres of back alleys with tiny, cheap homes that has tantalized architects and city planners appears to have been extinguished by city officials’ concerns about the costs of utility servicing and garbage pickup.
A 2003 report by two Toronto architects financed by Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. touched off a wave of excitement in the media and among architects and urban designers. It pointed to hundreds of potential sites for nifty new laneway dwellings, to replace ramshackle garages and abandoned industrial sheds in the alleys that crisscross the city.
The report by Jeffery Stinson and Terence Van Elslander included designs for four styles of compact homes that would not encroach on neighbours, and called for a loosening of city regulations so that building in laneways would entail a less arduous bureaucratic process.

Ironically, the City  had even given an urban design award in 2003 to architects, academics and students for their studio on ‘laneway architecture and urbanism.’  Said one juror:

Long overdue. This design studio recognizes and explores the unique opportunity the existing laneway network provides as a resource for the City, defining a new and important built form and open space framework within the existing fabric of Toronto.

These examples from Toronto were used most recently at the “Affordable Housing by Design” conference, cohosted by the Vancouver City Planning Commission, Smart Growth B.C. and the City Program, as an example of an achievable housing choice.  In fact, laneway housing is seen as one of the most viable opportunities for the Mayor’s EcoDensity Initiative. 
As it happens, CMHC is funding a study in Vancouver – “Livable Lanes” – by Joaquin Karakas, a planning analyst at Holland Barrs.   The City has an infill housing strategy that has resulted in many examples in Mt. Pleasant and Kitsilano.  And it has introduced a new zoning schedule – RT-10 – that allows for small-lot infill, which likewise allows for laneway housing in Kensington-Cedar Cottage.  Presumably, the Mayor’s Ecodensity Policy will encourage this form across the city.
Brent Toderian acknowledged how different the dialogue is in Vancouver, among politicians, staff, developers and the community, founded on the willingness to work together, to try new ideas, and, as he would say, ‘constructive candour.’  That contrast with other cities – and the success of both the Mayor’s policy and Toderian’s abilities – will be evident if laneway housing becomes a reality throughout Vancouver.

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November 1, 2006

If the old line about ‘publish or perish’ is true for academia, I’m deeply appreciative to Bill Boei at the Vancouver Sun for giving me a little ink at the GVRD “Future of the Region” forum at the Wosk Centre last Monday. This one was on transportation.

The provincial government’s $3-billion Gateway project will commit Greater Vancouver to a car-dominated future, but it won’t solve traffic congestion, urban planning lecturer Gordon Price told a forum on the future of the regional district Monday.

“Gateway will fail. They know that,” said Price, a former Vancouver councillor who now head of SFU’s City Program.

“They will do it anyway,” he told about 200 community leaders and local politicians.

Price challenged the meeting to find an example of a city that solved traffic congestion by building more roads, but had no takers.

I doubt the Minister of Transportation will lose any sleep; he’s heard it all before, many times, and delights in affirming that Gateway is a done deal. None of the Ministry staff even bothered attending. But some of his presumed allies revealed a scepticism that was surprising:

Greater Langley Chamber of Commerce president John Campbell insisted the Port Mann Bridge must be twinned to keep traffic moving, but agreed with Price that would be only a short-term fix.

Specifically, Campbell acknowledged, about five years before the highway and bridges filled up again. Given that it may take longer than that to build this infrastructure (and generate additional congestion as a result), the Gateway Project may come in at a net loss.
Chris Newcomb, a director of the Consulting Engineers of B.C., went further: he said his organization thinks Gateway is a mistake. He then went on to what on to discuss what was clearly the consensus of the forum: the need for road pricing. By the end, no one had rejected it, despite qualms by some about the method of imposition and who would be effected. It’s a big deal when you get truckers, chambers of commerce, consulting engineers, environmentalists, academics and politicians all agreeing that, one way or another, charging appropriately for road space is part of our transportation future.

“We agree in principle with Gordon Price that road pricing is the solution we should be advocating,” Newcomb said. “We see the present direction as being wrong-headed.”

A $1-per-trip toll on Greater Vancouver’s major commuter routes would raise $300 million a year that could be used to build transit and bicycle networks, Newcomb said.

Alan Durning, director of Seattle’s Sightline Institute, was there too. (Disclosure: I sit on Sightline’s board.)

He said road pricing can include not only the obvious — tolls — but also car co-ops, car pooling and ride-matching programs in which users pay for each trip.

Durning said car owners tend to use their vehicles a lot because they’ve already paid for them. With a per-trip pricing system, they would have an incentive to walk, cycle, take transit or share rides.

“The future of transportation may be less transportation, not more,” he said.

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November 1, 2006

Washington, D.C. needs more Choices – and we’re not talking politics, we’re talking groceries. According to Governing magazine’s blog, the 13th Floor, American inner cities suffer from a dearth of convenient, reasonably priced places to shop for the daily bread. Hence the popularity of Trader Joe’s – a cult favourite for those who have been in one (and picked up a bottle of incredibly cheap wine).

I’d be willing to trade a Choices in Vancouver for a Trader Joe’s, but that’s only because we have, well, choices: Urban Fare, Safeway, IGA Marketplace, Caper’s, Super-Valu – and that’s just the downtown peninsula.

I’ve often argued that you don’t really have a definable neighbourhood until you have a full-service, medium-sized supermarket – the anchor for the high street, around which other stores and services will cluster. But in order to get that egg, you have to have the right chicken: enough people, within reasonable proximity, able to shop without dependence on the car. Once you’ve got it, you’re in the money. The blogger is right: “Crack the code to big-city retail and big profits will follow.”

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My goodness:

The first thing to know about Vancouver, British Columbia, is that it resembles the last, if not no other, place on earth. A sinewy swoop of land framed by mountains and water, it’s the final terminus of the North American frontier, half post-industrial pan-Asian metropolis and half primeval nature. The beacon city of an implausibly clean-scrubbed future in an environment echoing its native people’s history, Vancouver looks like the glimmering set design for a dreamy, what-if alternative to “How the West Was Won.”

And this Salon profile does go on, part of a series on discovering world cities through their literature. Check it out here.

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October 30, 2006

That big ‘whoompf’ you heard this morning was the arrival of the 700-page report on climate change authored by former World Bank economist Nicholas Stern for British Chancellor Gordon Brown.  Titled “The Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change,” it will unavoidably be known as the Stern Admonition.
There’s already an additonal entry under Stern’s bio in Wikipedia, not to mention numerous headlines, most prominently in the Globe and Mail: $7-trillion warning on global warming. For more on Stern and the politics of climate change in Britain, check the Guardian: Stern by name, stern by nature.
In my experience, you’ll know the issue is being taken seriously when budget lines and tax policy change. Best line: “In the unusually memorable words of former Tory chancellor Lord Howe the aim now is tax as you burn, rather than tax as you earn.”

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October 30, 2006

It’s so gratifying to see the responses coming in from readers, particularly the recent posts under “More or Less’ below. My thanks.
And further to the discussion, here’s an arrival from Joe Urban in Minneapolis, aka Sam Newberg (

Even urbanists agree that certain improvements need to be made in suburban development, especially since suburbs will absorb most of the 100 million new Americans in the next four or so decades. We have to start getting it right more often. For those of you involved at some level with suburban development, this will be of interest to you. Last week The Planning Center, based in Orange County, California, released a report entitled ”Five Steps Toward a New Suburbia.” Download it here – Five Steps Towards a New Suburbia. The report is a follow-up to last year’s “The New Suburbanism: A Realist’s Guide to the American Future.”

This is exciting for me because I contributed a couple of the case studies that appear in the report, the bulk of which was written by Colin Drukker of The Planning Center and Joel Kotkin, an Irvine Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation. The “Five Steps” takes a measured approach to the planning challenges of suburbia and looks at how to improve it from an economic, environmental, physical, social and governmental perspective.
The case studies provide concrete examples of successful suburban development and strategies from around the country. More importantly, by offering some solutions, the “Five Steps” report gets a number of ideas out on the table for discussion. At least I hope so, but you’ll have to read for yourself. For more information, contact either me or The Planning Center at

While I’m somewhat sceptical of Joel Kotkin’s apologias, this looks good.


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October 29, 2006

 Chris Leinberger, an urban land-use strategist, developer and fellow at the Brookings Institute, makes an almost paradoxical point in an interview in Model D, a development newsletter out of Detroit:

CL: We now know that drivable suburbanism, as you build more, you get less quality of life. The very things that you build suburbia for get consumed by surburbia….
MD: Is the converse true in the city?
CL: Yes, more is better. As you add more density, as you get more people on the street, as you add more restaurants, it just gets richer. It just gets more exciting.

Why the seeming paradox?  Most people believe that increasing density causes the kind of problems they go to suburbia to get away from: particularly congestion.  They assume, reasonably, that with development comes more cars, and since there’s only a limited amount of road space in the city, traffic gets worse.  In suburbia, on the other hand, when they build more houses and office parks, they build more roads. 
In many instances, when it comes to quality of life, the reverse is true.  Car-dependent suburban development is what is generating the congestion in growing urban regions.  In downtown Vancouver, by contrast, the number of moving vehicles is dropping.  It’s crowded, of course, but that’s the idea.  The mix of uses, close in proximity, with lots of transportation choice, allows people to solve the congestion problem for themselves.  More and more people choose to walk, bike, take transit or grab a taxi. In single-use, low-density suburban environments, there’s no choice: you have to drive everywhere for everything all the time.
In Leinberger’s opinion, the pendulum is swinging:

CL: The market wants walkable urbanity. And walkable urbanity — which is simply that within 1,500 feet there’s a lot of stuff to do….
Consumer research divides the world into three categories: Folks that want walkable urbanity; folks that want what I refer to as drivable suburbanism; and folks that don’t know what they want. The research shows that 30-40 percent of us, depending on the metropolitan area, want drivable suburbanism; 30-40 percent want walkable urbanity; and 30 percent can’t figure out what they want….
So I think metro Detroiters will realize it by hook or by crook, because the market wants it, it’s coming back, and there’s not that much else happening. But the other reason I hope they would realize it is that if 30-40 percent of us want something, and you don’t offer it, from an economic development point of view, you’re out of luck.

According to the interview – the full text of which is here – “the only interesting, vibrant market right now is downtown Detroit.”


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October 28, 2006

Everyone likes a good demolition.  There’s just something perversely gratifying about an implosion.  And ever since they blew up Pruitt Igoe  back in 1972 live on television, failed public-housing projects have made remark- ably satisfying targets. 
Glasgow, Scotland, built more of these tower blocks than anywhere in Europe, and some years ago started a program of demolition and replacement with more humanely designed, mixed-income housing. I’ve often thought it a waste – not just of good intentions, materials and embedded energy – to blow these up without at least doing something more, um, artistic with the opportunity. 
And so someone has. Here’s a Toryglen tower block awaiting demolition (or possibly repair): 
And here’s the commercial that Sony made to promote its LCD TV. 

Or click here for the better-quality version. 
For those who have seen the “Balls” commerical – here – set in San Francisco, you’ll recognize the work.  But you may not have seen the soft-drink parody:

Some would say: a waste of good fruit.

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