Design & Development
July 26, 2012

How San Francisco (and a landscape architect) got a viaduct demolished and reinvented a road

While we’re in California (below), let’s check in with San Francisco to see how it got rid of Doyle Drive, an elevated freeway leading to the Golden Gate Bridge.  In other words, a viaduct:


Michael Alexander, the coordinator for SFU’s City Conversations (and a past board member of SPUR, a San Francisco public policy organization), tells the story of how it happened in “From Doyle Drive to Presidio Parkway: How a Landscape Architect Reinvented a Road.”

After 22 years, a vision SPUR fought hard for was finally underway: the transformation of Doyle Drive from a clunky and dangerous artifact into a graceful entryway to the city. When the $1.1 billion project is completed in 2015, cars and traffic noise will no longer dominate many key landscapes of the Presidio national park.





Better yet, check out the video here:

Best of all, Michael offers some Lesson Learned:

Question received wisdom. Traffic engineers shot down many of SPUR’s and Painter’s novel ideas as dangerous because they weren’t what drivers expected to experience. While it’s undeniable that drivers are creatures of habit, they can still adapt. Near the end of the negotiations, SPUR asked to see the literature on driver expectations. At a subsequent meeting, we asked again. A senior engineer quietly confessed, “There isn’t any.” So much for the scientific basis of policy.

Question traffic models. Computer modeling errs on the side of more, not less. Because the models encourage overbuilding, which attracts more traffic, they are often self-fulfilling. But because they carry the aura of certainty, you need professionals to challenge their results.

Public consultation easily goes off the rails. Fear of change can raise the most bizarre and unexpected concerns. The noisiest and most persistent community members often dominate the debates, escalating reasonable concerns into impossible-to-satisfy demands. Successfully taking a community’s real temperature is a skill, usually not taught, that planners must learn to master.

Alexander, Painter and SPUR spent over a decade working on this project, with their vision ultimately prevailing.  Michael is now a resident of Vancouver, and is repeatedly amazed (despite some Vancouverites’ perceptions) at how it’s possible to achieve a civic consensus and to move forward quickly – as the story of the Georgia and Dunsmuit Viaducts illustrates.

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City Council will be getting the joint Planning and Engineering report on the Georgia and Dunsmuir Viaducts today.  You can see the slide show here – worth looking at as a demonstration of a new sophistication in presentation style.  This is one of the best I’ve seen coming out of City Hall (and as a councillor for 15 years, I saw a lot of PowerPoint).


Coming up, public consultation:


From everything I’ve seen so far, I’d be surprised if  we didn’t proceed with the idea of removing the viaducts – and then working out the details to make sure it can happen with a minimum of fuss, including impacts on traffic.

One idea I haven’t seen so far: keep a fragment of the viaducts over the skateboard park, to both act as rain protection for the skaters and a reminder of motordom for everyone else.

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Lots of  links have come in to this front-page story in the New York Times on the Madrid Rio:

More than six miles long, [the Madrid Rio] transforms a formerly neglected area in the middle of Spain’s capital. Its creation, in four years, atop a complex network of tunnels dug to bury an intrusive highway, also rejuvenates a long-lost stretch of the Manzanares River, and in so doing knits together neighborhoods that the highway had cut off from the city center.

Two points: (1) Why haven’t we all heard about this before?

Spain spent $6 billion to tunnel 27 miles of the the M-30 expressway, and, of that, $500 million to create the surface greenway – the six-mile Madrid Rio.  Here’s an aerial map of part of it under construction in the central city:

This puts it in the class of Seoul’s Cheonggyecheon (which, I suppose, is not all that well known over here, either) – and another example of how a massive capital project to remove a surface or elevated freeway dramatically increases property values and human values (someone needs to do a study on that!)

The park, ironically, was something of an afterthought:

Only several years after construction on the tunnels had begun in 2003, with the inevitable traffic snarls provoking a political firestorm, did the city organize a competition. Various big-name architects proposed erecting flashy buildings.

The winner was a group of local architects, led by Ginés Garrido, who teamed up with Adriaan Geuze and his high-profile Dutch urban design and landscape firm, West 8.  They proposed no grand new time-consuming, budget-breaking monuments, but a suite of modest new bridges, along with the renovation of some great historic ones, amid a variety of green spaces.  …

Public grumbling about traffic jams gradually morphed into praise for a new green space.

Secondly, the passerelle, the Arganzuela Bridge, was also something of an afterthought too:

It’s only a pity that the city also awarded Dominique Perrault, one of the celebrity architects who lost the competition, a late commission. Evidently nervous about leaving the project without a new architectural landmark, the government approved his costly design for an oversize footbridge.  Wrapped in an immense, incongruous spiral of Mr. Perrault’s signature stainless-steel mesh, the striking bridge blocks views and conjures up some giant antenna that has crashed in the park.

Be sure to check out the slide show comments, given the observations that the Times correspondent makes about the difficulties of doing anything similar on this continent.  (Vancouver will have its chance to show what we can do with the Viaducts.)

Eric Britton at World Streets also has an important comment, given that the expense of this civic project – mainly to bury the road – is perhaps one of the reasons Spain is in such financial difficulties:

… we now have as a result of these great demonstration projects a strong and growing  public awareness of the importance of creating this public space and amenity in the city (i.e., a growing base of political support), and at the same time from the leading edge of policy and practice of transport in cities the knowledge that we can still do this in parallel with reducing the infrastructure take of the all-car system.

In other words, could they have got most of the advantages at a fraction of the cost if they hadn’t been so determined to save the road capacity?


UPDATE:  A good friend from Madrid, Brian Williamson, responds:

Madrid Rio is one of those major projects that really does transform a city.  My first visit was a couple of weeks after it opened and I would estimate that there were at least a half million people there.  As the thousands of newly-planted trees mature, it will all look even better and perform better as a park.

One of my favourite little details was a set of swings hanging down from one of the bridges.  (I’ve always wanted swings installed under the Burrard Bridge.)

My only real concern is the absence of serious facilities for bicycles.  (But that is consistent with all projects in Madrid.

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December 15, 2011

Brent Toderian, our City Planner, is great at circulating items of interest, some of which he writes and posts.  Let me share a few:

Brent does a nice summary of the re:CONNECT competition for Planetizen“And the Winners are…”: re:CONNECT Stand-outs Announced! – and includes a lot of helpful illustrations.  Here’s also the Vancouver Courier’s coverage.


 The video of Toderian’s speech on November 28 to the Urban Development Institute on issues relating to affordability, city planning, CACs, architecture and housing supply.


Unfortunately you have to follow along with the slide show reproduced here – but in truth you’ll get a pretty good sense of the major points by checking out the sequence of images.

He does mention in his talk that the City is not, as rumoured, pulling back from laneway housing. Indeed, it’s encouraging more of ’em.  Brent sends along this piece from Canadian Architect by Matthew Soules:

It would seem then that the greatest potential of laneway housing is not so much in the realm of densification, but rather to offer a heightened metropolitan experience to largely suburban areas of the city that are resistant to change. The foregrounding of the lane could offer an experiential thickening of the city at large.

From this vantage point, the first crop of laneway housing doesn’t offer as much as it could. How future projects enrich the lane by truly treating it as a front through direct engagement so that the space of the lane fully enters the foreground of the city remains the as-of-yet unrealized potential of Vancouver’s by-law.

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Among the winners at last night’s Re:CONNECT Awards – this one, No. 77, was honoured in the Visualizing the Viaducts category:

Viaducts gone!  Let’s realize the dream of our anti-freeway heroes of yesterday with a bold new strategy of parks and public places.  Showcasing history and sustainability, let’s reconnect eastside neighbourhoods and Downtown to False Creek with upper and lower green spaces, museums, monuments and elegant boulevards.  Let’s repair urban rhythms without impacting traffic, with great improvements for nature, recreation, non-motorized movement, views and living.  Why wait – let’s do this now!

Remarkably, it won both a judge’s honourable mention (there was no single winner) and the People’s Choice Award in this category.  Even more remarkably, it was a dream team of local designers and consultants:

DIALOG: Norman Hotson, Principal Won Kang, Designer Gavin Schaefer, Designer Noreen Taylor, Graphic Designer
Beasley and Associates, Planning Inc.: Larry Beasley, C.M., Founding Principal
Jim Green & Associates: Jim Green, Principal Caroline Neufeld, Associate
PWL Partnership Landscape Architects: Margot Long, Principal Derek Lee, Principal JingJing Sun, Landscape Designer

Given the hourly charge-outs these guys could command, this design work may be the biggest bargain the City has ever had.   The winners got a total of $750.

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Review the submissions on-line and vote for your favorites from November 21-27. Then attend the People’s Choice on December 1st at SFU Woodward’s.

Thursday, December 1st 7-9 pm Room 3200 – Djavad Mowafaghian Cinema Woodwards Building 149 West Hastings

Admission is free, but seating is limited. Please arrive early to avoid disappointment.



A Panel discussion with the local jury members augmented by Helle Soholt (Gehl Architects, Copenhagen), Ken Greenberg (Greenberg Consultants Inc, Toronto), and Brent Toderian, City of Vancouver Director of Planning will follow the award announcements. The discussion will be moderated by Gordon Price.


Panel Members:

Ken Greenberg, Greenberg Consultants Inc

Joe Hruda, Civitas Urban Design and Planning

Dr. Tom Hutton, UBC School of Community and Regional Planning

Patricia Patkau, Patkau Architects

Helle Soholt, Gehl Architects

Brent Toderian, Director of Planning City of Vancouver



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Ready for another election?

Sure, why not.  Here’s the link to the results of the Re:connect competition – ideas for redesigning the Viaducts and the Eastern Core (the lands underneath).



‘Visualizing the Viaducts’ got 104 submissions from 13 countries – 75 percent within Metro Vancouver.  Lots of fun stuff, as this random smattering of images suggests (click to enlarge):


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