An Item From Ian.

The blog “Greater Greater Washington” describes how Houston, Texas has filled low-density areas with what we seem to call “gentle density” or the “missing middle”.
The article contains before-after animated GIF’s which make the point quite clearly. Hope this one works on your machine as it does on mine.

Houston is famous for its car-oriented sprawl. Though it lacks a zoning code, the city has historically mandated low-density development through non-zoning regulations, like minimum lot sizes and stringent parking requirements.
But in 1999, Houston enacted sweeping land-use reforms: it decreased the minimum residential lot size from 5,000 square feet to 1,400 in close-in neighborhoods. In effect, this reform legalized townhouses in areas with suburban-style houses on huge lots. Two or three houses could now take the spot of one. . .
. . . The results of these reforms have been remarkable. Areas that were once made up entirely of ranch-style houses, McMansions, and underused lots are now covered in townhouses . .
. . . And in some parts of the city, this redevelopment process has gone hand-in-hand with light rail expansion:

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From Ian Robertson: Take Vancouver laneway housing … add a sprinkle of these refurbished Victorian alleys … get something fantastic!

From the Daily MailCommunity transforms Victorian passageway behind homes into oasis of greenery


Rundown: alleys such as this one in Middlesbrough, Teesside, are still scruffy.


Beautiful: The once-dingy lane in Middlesbrough, Teesside, is now a haven of hanging baskets, trellises and trees bearing apples and pears, thanks to a pensioner. Mavis Arnold, 75, has helped turn the lane behind her home into a colourful wonderland.

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A comment on James’s post Who Speaks for those who are not already here the other day led Ian to think about a related issue: who speaks for those who don’t speak?

Commenter ‘Bob’ made this statement: “I don’t have much sympathy if young people of any colour who live in my neighbourhood can’t be bothered to show up for planning and development open houses. Maybe they should put aside the craft beer for a night if they care at all for their ‘hoods. If they don’t care or can’t be bothered, well they’ll get the city they deserve.” As a young(er) person, who faces a multitude of pressures on my time (and I’m certainly more involved than most), I take issue with this sentiment – especially as it is one you hear voiced quite frequently (… I don’t mean to pick on Bob necessarily, but it’s a good point to try and unpack).

Why should people have to speak to be represented? Everyone has a right to just and fair representation whether they specifically demand it or not. Case in point: babies have rights but can’t verbalize them, neither can the infirm. Is there some magic moment at which point you lose your voice if you don’t make it heard?

Whether we intend to or not, we create ‘clubs’ which exclude people and viewpoints, and without going out of ‘our’ way to include others and their views, we are poorer for it.

On CBC radio this morning, I was hearing about a great sounding event sponsored by Google called XX-UX  … which to me even is only vaguely decipherable … but it is an event to get more women (XX) involved in the User Experience (UX) field (Wikipedia).

(There are a huge number of parallels between UX and Architecture and Planning … I shudder to think how much more brainpower is going into the design of the apps we use than the form and feel and function of the spaces we live in, and seriously wonder if I should do UX in my next life!)

Why should we care who we hear? Using Bob’s line of thinking, maybe the women are off having beer instead of being engineers? (ok, this is a cheap shot, sorry Bob) Seriously though, why is it detrimental when a large segment of the population is not represented?

From the CBC interview:

Stephen Quinn asked “What do women bring to UX design that men don’t?”

Amy Ngai, a UX Designer for AxiumZen, the company hosting the XX-UX event, replied “Its not so much what we bring that men don’t, but we are 50% of the population… and UX design requires you to look at users, it requires you to be empathetic with the people you are designing for, and if I have the experience to understand these people then I can design better for them.”

The more diversity of viewpoints you have, the better you can understand and create and design. You can’t consider a design to be as good as it could be unless you have a broad pool of ideas – this is the classic ‘the next Einstein or Mozart might be living in Africa , but unless they have opportunity, and/or we care to look, we’ll never know’ situation.

If diversity is important in design, and also in looking for Einstein 2.0, should it not also be important in designing buildings, cities, and countries? If only a small part of the population is represented in decision making, if certain areas of the city exclude large parts of the population (or simply don’t include large parts, or those who simply feel excluded, or non-included), how can we consider that society is healthy?

If we care about equity in one area of society, we must also elsewhere … There are examples of inequity almost anyplace one might look … Why are some of these given a pass as being normal, and unavoidable, and just a cost of doing business. (Comments that suggest simply that the solution to affordability is giving up on Vancouver and moving to Hedley or Hope fall in this category)

Whose voices are we missing?

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James can tell you I’ve been an advocate for a pool in False Creek for some time, and every time I have mentioned it among friends, the first remark is ‘ew!’ or ‘I don’t want to go anywhere near that water‘.

How is it possible that we as a city/province/people are comfortable with crap water? (or more specifically, Crap IN our water see here, here, here and here)

There’s plenty of ew out there, but is the solution to never touch the water again, or to consider doing something about the ew!?

I was really happy to see HCMA’s proposal that there be a floating pool in the harbour … I’d never had a chance to draw up my idea, so more than happy that someone local beat me to it. There are plenty of precedents +Pool, Thames Bath, Copenhagen bath by BIG + JDS … and everyone in Basel who floats lazily down the Rhine (which wasn’t exactly clean not that long ago)

The last time I was in Toronto, I was excited to see that there was a huge construction project going on – the Blue Flag Project (I think that was the overall project’s name … I’m struggling to remember the logo on the hoarding) which aimed/aims at making all of Toronto beaches swimmable. As someone who has judiciously swum off of Toronto Islands, and even more judiciously rowed by Ontario place, I can tell you this is a welcome change.

How is this not a thing here? We’re the ‘Greenest’ city, but we have BLACK water?

From the comments in one of the articles about HCMA’s project, with my thoughts:
‘Gross’then we should clean the water.
‘Why anyone would want to swim in Coal Harbour is beyond me’ – well, there’s a nice view, thats a good start. 
‘I don’t think its a smart idea to be building this so close to the floatplane terminal’ – tell that to everyone eating at Cactus Club.

And a comment on one of the facebook posts about HCMA’s proposal stated essentially (I can’t find it specifically) ‘there’s so much gas in the water from the float plane terminal I wouldn’t want to swim there’ – they should stop spilling gas in the water then! After all, any spill that threatens the environmental quality of water, land or air must be reported.

And finally, to plug an event that is happening tonight at the MOV!

What opportunities exist to create innovative, engaging public spaces in one of Canada’s most densely populated and expensive cities? How can a highly livable city surrounded by unparalleled natural beauty be described as “no fun” or have disengaged, unhappy citizens?

Join us for a lively discussion about what’s possible for Vancouver’s public realm, one that engages the water surrounding Vancouver in new ways. At this event presented by HCMA, people will discover the informed research and creative process behind Coal Harbour Deck (on display inYour Future Home), a project that reclaims Vancouver’s water for a new type of urban space. Visitors can have a look at some other initiatives that HCMA is working on to create and enhance public social spaces, and improve Vancouver’s relationship with water. Access to the Your Future Home exhibition is included with admission to this event.

Following the presentation, Mark Busse will facilitate a discussion about how we can, collectively, create new and engaging public spaces in our city as well as a fun activity with a prize for the best audience contribution! Grab a drink from the cash bar, have a snack, dive in to the issues, and let the ideas and conversation flow!

Date: Friday, February 19
Bar open: 6:00-9:00pm
Presentation begins: 7:00pm
Tickets: Access to Your Future Home included with admission: $15 adults; $11 Students & Seniors; Free for MOV Members.

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Austin land-use regulations lawyer Chris Bradford (at his new blog, Club NIMBY) builds his own central thesis around the idea that NIMBYs seek to monopolize “access to neighborhood amenities”:
“In the absence of zoning restrictions on the number of housing units in a neighborhood, neighborhood amenities would be a public good. Zoning converts neighborhood amenities from a public good (a partially non-rivalrous, non-excludable good) into a ‘club’ good (a partially non-rivalrous, excludable good). Because ‘club’ membership is bundled with home ownership, zoning causes the value of neighborhood amenities to be capitalized into home prices.
“NIMBYism can be thought of as the practice of objecting to development in order to protect the value of ‘club’ membership.

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Naturally Ian picked up on this piece from The Glove and Mail by Alex Bozikovic:


… new forms have to be chosen carefully. Innovation is risky when you are dealing with streets, blocks – and, ultimately, people’s lives. But Canada’s cities are getting new buildings that are too often indistinguishable: Level a site, build a block of stores and apartments about four levels high, and drop a narrow tower on top of it. This tower-and-podium model, as it’s called, is born from Vancouver’s thoughtful urbanism. It is emerging as gospel in most of Canada’s major cities. And that’s fine.
But you can’t shape an entire city with a formula. In a panel discussion hosted by Ryerson’s Department of Architectural Science, de Vries spoke with the Toronto architect Peter Clewes of architectsAlliance. Clewes presented a criticism of the city’s tall-building guidelines: “If regulations keep us focused exclusively on one [type of building],” Clewes said, “we run the risk of a banal city.”
Economy and good city-building don’t always have to generate glass boxes. This is the lesson of MVRDV’s radical pragmatism. As working architects, they have learned “which things you can steer, and which things you can manipulate in a certain direction,” as de Vries told me.


Banal?  What, Vancouver?


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Ian Robertson and James Bligh both attended the second of the Urbanarium debates – “Be it resolved that we should build fewer towers” – and combined forces to write this analysis:

Towers win – but do we?


It was a very close race the whole time, with the vote splitting 51 to 49 percent in favour of building fewer towers and ending at 52 to 48 percent in favour of building more towers. (With a number of ‘extra’ votes at the end.  Some people didn’t seem to do their Oxfordian duty and vote twice. For shame on all your houses!)
The affirmative side accepted that towers will be built, and even should be built, but that there are other things that should be built also – the ‘Missing Middle’ referred to in Brent Toderian’s debate in the Urbanarium Density debate.
The negative side based their argument on the economics of towers, and that with ‘silly’ land prices, towers are the only viable option. Further, since some midrise is built with vinyl siding, so all will be – so it’s best avoided altogether. Surprisingly absent from the debate was the correlation of building typology to land speculation, or of any mention of the poor/refugees/disabled.
An interesting point was raised by an audience member, who asked whether or not some of the collateral damage involved with building towers (gentrification, shadows, social exclusivity, etc.) could be solved by design. If our towers are “gated communities that prevent social diversity”, can we alter the way they work to make them more inclusive?
Poor Doors and Mixed Communities
Is there a way to avoid the ‘Poor Door’ which is increasingly inherent to condo towers (Main and 2nd being one, with segregated facilities and entrances)?  The argument that they aren’t gated communities falls flat when 20 percent of the tower’s residents cannot access the amenities and community features of the tower. As has been argued by some on this blog, there is not a clean and easy way for renters to pay amenity fees; therefore they would be free riders on a building’s amenities. Is it possible to address this split, to figure out how to allow the rental side to ‘pay’ for the amenity (given that they do pay rent), or get over the fact that they don’t, and enjoy the ‘good’ of having a mixed community override the ‘fairness’ of only having those who pay accessing facilities.
The ‘Poor Door’ is but one example. Ignoring code constraints for a moment, what if some walls of each condo were glazed in such a way as to give you the opportunity to interact with your neighbour(s), if you so chose? What if each floor of market condo required at least one unit of rental, live-work, low-income and/or public housing? Would this breed social solidarity?
Green Space

What if each floor needed direct access to common and/or green space? Are there new forms of tower that might save us? This question can be levied against low-rise as well (as there are certainly anti-social short buildings too).


However, typically low-rise designs have been more likely to experiment with their formulae, and, especially in North America, highrises have not. (Ken Yeang’s towers, some from Norman Foster, the green tower by Stefano Boeri (Habitat, left above), and Ole Scheeren’s recent Singapore ‘landscraper’ (Interlace, above) are all good examples of different thinking).


The ‘pro-tower’ side further based its argument in the current ‘normal’ by which a developer buys/assembles land, has to rezone, pays CACs, builds a tower, and sells it to whomever can/wants to buy. The stated benefit of this is that the ‘extra’ paid for high-level units allows the creation of much cheaper units below, unlike midrise where all units are almost the same cost vertically (so neither premium nor cheap). This presumes that the developer chooses to price some units ‘affordably’, but as there is no requirement specifically to do so (except for the percentage of ‘affordable’ housing they are sometimes required to build) there is no guarantee that this will manifest. Is legislation then the answer?
If these savings don’t manifest, much of the pro-tower’s argument goes out the window.

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Who are we? What is our city for? Who is our city for?

In 2014, the Vancouver City Council started the process of creating a new strategic plan for the City. From March-May 2014, the Council held four “strategy sessions” to identify high-level goals that would serve as the foundation for a strategic planning process.
The goal of the strategy sessions was to review, refine and verify the City’s vision for the community. The Council began by identifying their shared values and vision for the community, defining what excellent leadership looks like, and discussing what they would like their legacy to be. Strategy sessions also included an environmental scan, looking at the City’s purpose, inputs, outcomes, feedback loops, etc.
The strategic planning sessions were a starting point to explore answers to important questions…

  • What kind of city do we want to be?
  • What do we want for our future?
  • What are the most pressing issues and challenges our community will face in the next 5-10 years?
  • What should our priorities be?

Gordon’s last post about the TEAM letter, asking for a city plan to accompany a new city planner, led to a quick google search which uncovered the strategic plan above, sadly though, it’s from the ‘wrong’ Vancouver (Washington, not BC).
If there was one takeaway from the Urban Planning Events of 2015 session at the MOV last week, it was that there is lots of concern for Vancouver’s ‘Trees’ without much in the way of seeing its ‘Forest’.
In Vancouver (BC) the ‘Forest’ is the region, it is the Bridge to Nowhere Sunshine Coast, the highwayification up to the city’s borders, the various LNG projects, and even ‘Site C’ dam (as the city’s growth is used as part of the justification), the paving over of paradise farm land to put up more parking lots, and the effects of climate change … just as much as the ‘Forest’ is the 0.3% rental vacancy rates, the $2 million is the new $1 million, and whether Old Neighborhoods can include New Friends, the looming arrival of 100,000 … 1,000,000 people, etc.
“If you fail to plan, you plan to fail” … said my old planning prof. Lets start planning our Forest democratically, transparently, holistically, and at the same time showing acknowledgement of both the externalities inherent to our behavior, and the vested interests which might want to act counter to what is actually ‘good’.
Lets have Vancouver be more like Vancouver, because we’ve got some hard questions to answer … lets start with these ones, and go from there:

  • What kind of city do we want to be?
  • What do we want for our future?
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