August 26, 2020

Urbanist Abroad, Nelson

Compiled from a selection of Gord’s Instagram posts as he travels through the Okanagan.

Almost at the end of a two-week return to the Okanagan and Kootenays, following routes my family took in the 1960s. As I sit down for dinner at an Indian restaurant patio off Baker Street in Nelson’s heritage downtown, I do have one big observation.

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Highway 1 to Hope, Highway 3 to Osoyoos. First impression: it hasn’t changed. Still the same fields of summer crops, still the same backdrop of narrowing mountain ranges, still the same congestion where the industrial parks and shopping malls hug the highway, still some of the same roadside attractions. Then a rising highway into the coast ranges and a subtle shift from fir to spruce to pine. But no billboards, strip malls, or spiring signs to mark the next gas station and McDonald’s. So not I-5. Notably, there’s still only the same small town halfway along – #Princeton. Which, except for an attempt to spiffy up the two main streets, pretty much matches up with my memory. How extraordinary that so much has stayed the same for so long.

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PT: In May, I had a hunch.

If Dr. Henry approved, this would be a great summer to take a road trip – a great circle through the southern Okanagan.  And I probably wouldn’t be alone as other Lower Mainlanders came to the same conclusion.  So I booked out two weeks of accommodation and restaurants.

I figured, in the year of the virus, in my final decades, it was time for a retracing of steps.

My memories of boyhood summers involve cherries, warm lake water, bunchgrass and ponderosa pine, and the kind of landscapes they make jigsaw puzzles out of.

But those memories of the Okanagan in August were only possible because, beginning in the mid-Sixties, Premier WAC Bennett willed the BC Ferries into being and Highways Minister Phil Gaglardi paved the roads to create the demand.  My family was part of that demand, when my father could now drive us from Victoria to Skaha Lake in a single day.  From rain forest to desert.  Over mountain passes in a new Pontiac.  Tent trailor attached.

Now I’d return to those places, and compare memory from the mid-20th century with the valley in the 21st – taking an urbanist perspective to the small towns, the tourist beaches, the vineyards and orchards, the retirement suburbs, and the emerging metropolis of the mid-Okanagan.  Then on to Revelstoke, Nelson and the loop back home.

I’ll be photographing and posting along the way.  For the next two weeks, follow me @pricetags on Instagram.

And send me suggestions, observations and worthy detours in the Comments.


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During a recent trip to central California — bookended by a weekend in Yosemite National Park, and Passover/Easter break with family in Sacramento — I found the missing middle.

Yes, a barely-justifiable work-week in between, in San Francisco. A friend lives in Inner Sunset, a stone’s throw from Golden Gate Park, and I ended up getting a respite from household duties in Vancouver, and 40 hours of deep-focus on work. Most important, I found a few hours each day to explore the city. (#privilege)

Which, in turn, opened up a game of “got’em, need’em”. You may know it, and if you do, it might have been decades since you thought of it.

The gist: you and a friend sit down with your respective hockey or baseball card collection. (OK fine, but just go with it…) You pick up a stack of your friend’s cards, and proceed to flip through them — rhythmically, perhaps even trance-like — saying “need’im” for those you don’t have, and “got’im” for those you do.

“Got’im, got’im, got’im, got’im, need’im, got’im, need’im, need’im, got’im…”

Of course, they were always men in these trading cards, so it was ‘im for “him”, and not ’em for “them”. (In my youth, the only sport for women that seemed to get much mainstream media attention was tennis. I wonder why.)

Hence, “got’em / need’em” being an essential GenX meme that I believe can easily be used by urban travellers to other cities. What reminds you of home? What do you want to bring home?

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A big thank you to James and Errin Bligh for sharing insights and images from their August travels across Europe.

This final post contains quite a few videos, many of which focus on public spaces. But the big takeaway for our urbanist duo was on bicycles, and the fact that even the country considered the international paragon for urban cycling can be an intimidating place for an important segment of the population— the uninitiated.

“A combined 3 days in Amsterdam and Rotterdam served as our last stop on the tour, and our first attempt at cycling abroad.

Unsurprisingly, the central historical (and tourist packed) neighbourhoods with tiny shared streets were treacherous for cycling, while nearby the relatively quiet new developments outside of the four main canals served for a scenic and relaxing bike ride.

Errin, a new cyclist, shares her thoughts on what additional facilities would have made cycling in Amsterdam more accessible to newbies:

A passing bike lane and a slow bike lane

Physical separation from both cars and pedestrians

Adjustable rental bikes (default size can be too big)

Accessible source of helmets”

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If, by now, you’ve noticed that contributor James Bligh’s Instagram travelogues are a bit — how shall we say — architecturally nerdist, it’s on purpose. Also, it’s a Price Tags thing.

Beyond a romantic holiday through European capitals, this trip has been the urbanist equivalent of a fan tour of American baseball stadia, but with the benefit of a willing and supportive spouse (Errin — she’s been starring in many of the videos). James has been hitting some architectural must-sees, and we hope you’ve learned a thing or two.

This Finland bit should be no different. Here we get a quick taste of the Finnish Modernist approach to building design practices by architectural auteurs. In this case, one in particular:

“We were only briefly in Helsinki — most of our visit in Finland was spent traveling to several far-flung buildings designed by legendary Finnish architect Alvar Aalto.

Our short time in the capital left me with an impression of a city that had grit, diversity, history, and the familiar pervasiveness of global capitalism. Bordered by former occupiers Russia and Sweden, we wondered, ‘What will the future of Helsinki look like?’

I present an un-Finnished list of urban findings to consider…”

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James and Errin continue their European tour, in the most populous and economically powerful of the Nordic cities, and one which is also apparently not exempt from participating in the global discussion on housing and public space.

While not as alarming as Oslo’s exhibit on the housing crisis, Stockholm is running a similar gallery. Focused on improving the urban character of their city and found at ArkDes, the exhibit is titled Public Luxury.

A quote from the exhibit reads:

“The title Public Luxury sounds like a contradiction, but recognizes that everything in the public realm exists for more than merely functional reasons. Every kerbstone, bench, bollard, station sign, public toilet and street is part of the character and identity of a place.

All the works in Public Luxury, many of which were made for the exhibition, share the ambition to tell a story about public life today. Architects and designers may not be able to change society, but nothing reveals how society is changing as clearly as architecture and design.”

I start with selections from the exhibit.

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In this latest edition of Urbanist Abroad, we cut straight to contributor James Bligh’s editorial coverage from Oslo — it’s topical, it’s timely and, unlike most Instagram diaries, it’s got data. Enjoy….

Oslo is going through an affordability crisis, so much so that their National Museum of Architecture is running an exhibit on the subject. Within the museum I felt like I was reliving my visit of last year’s “The Vienna Model” exhibit at the Museum of Vancouver, which decried the same subject at home.

Unlike Vancouver’s version of the exhibit, Oslo’s included what the curators considered bad examples of recent housing projects constructed within their own city, inclusive of the name of the responsible developer and the architect! What follows is a transcript taken from the exhibit’s opening panel. Does this sound familiar?

“The exhibition also looks alternative projects and models for residential developments in other cities, including Vienna and Copenhagen. Like Oslo, both Vienna and Copenhagen have experienced rapid growth in recent years. Vienna has retained the social housing profile it developed during the “Rotes Vienna” period (1918-34), when 65,000 municipal residential units were built to overcome the housing shortage after World War I. Most of those apartments were in large, imposing estates that included a range of communal facilities, such as the Karl Marx-Hof (1927-30). Even today, around 60% of Vienna’s residents live in subsidized or municipal housing.”

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Price Tags contributor James Bligh checks in from Copenhagen, a city of almost identical population and area to Vancouver.

Yet, while we scrap over bicycle politics — yes, it’s still a thing, don’t pretend otherwise — 62% of Copenhageners cycle to work and school. It’s not controversial, and perhaps it never was; likely due in part to the “Finger Plan“, a 70-year-old rail-oriented transit strategy that has influenced the movement of people and goods in central Copenhagen for generations.

Much like present day transit and housing strategies that, for better or worse, tend to suck up all the oxygen in places like Los Angeles, New York, Toronto and Vancouver, it’s a fair assumption the Finger Plan influenced much of the post-war urban development in Copenhagen, resulting in a city that is now so pleasing for people movement. And thus, why it could easily top Vancouver’s claim to “Greenest City” credentials —Copenhagen aims to be carbon-neutral by 2025, the same year 75% of trips in the city will be expected to be made on foot, by bike, or by using public transit.

But all this is just background. One of the main attractions for James and his travel parter Errin is the Copenhagen reputation for also being one of the greatest “design cities” in the world, with a quality (and cost) of living to match.

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If you recall from earlier in the month, PT contributor James Bligh and wife Errin were on a glorious tour of Europe. We pick up with them again, this time in Germany, where they found themselves asking, “Is Berlin the Toronto of Germany?”

Speaking with Germans and Austrians prior to landing, they heard some familiar refrains: “Berliners are smug”, “It’s dirty there”, and, “Why visit Berlin when you could go somewhere more picturesque and relaxed, like Munich?” As the days progressed, James and Errin heard more parallels between Berlin and Toronto:

  • Berlin has “hard” drinking water. Some Vancouverites would find Berlin’s repugnant-yet-potable water a reminder of Ontario, though James admits to having been spoiled by Vancouver tap water, arguably one of the region’s greatest assets.
  • Berlin has cold winters and hot muggy summers, which seem to map cleanly over Toronto’s two seasons, winter and construction. In fact, James and Errin missed a lot of Berlin due to summer construction: the Neue Nationalgalerie, the Pergamon, the Berlin Palace, the AEG Turbine Factory, and an otherwise conveniently-located rapid transit station.
  • It’s hard to meet a “true” Berliner, born and raised in the city; only 1 in 4 Berliners were born in the city, and about half of Toronto’s population was born outside of the country. Homegrown Berliners are known as “unicorns”.

With that in mind, we move to the photo tour of Berlin, and more of these “centre of the universe” -style parallels.

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