the renewed city.

sleek new lights to help organize urban chaos.
November 27, 2008, 11:14 am
Filed under: bits n pieces

i’m a bit of a sucker for the small things, the fine detail. so i was mildly stoked when i came across a european design firm’s new concept for traffic and pedestrian signals.

the square design is supposed to help make the signals more easily noticeable and recognizable, with larger lit area for the same overall dimensions. i love the bright colour of the signal lighting and the sleek nature of the infrastructure itself. i could see these really fitting in with the urban fabric in downtown vancouver, especially were weather conditions (dark, rain and sleet) often make it difficult to see the existing traffic lights. what really strikes me, though, is the design attention devoted the pedestrian signals. i enjoy the clean and crisp crossing countdown.

more information and images at art lebedev studios.


thoughts on bailouts.
November 26, 2008, 12:00 pm
Filed under: commentary

does the north american auto industry deserve a bailout, a heaping lump sum of tax payer money delivered to their front door?

it depends.

this is stagnant, troubled industry, namely because of it’s seeming refusal over the last half century to want to change the way they do business. this is an industry that has made many north american’s believe that larger, gas guzzling cars and trucks are what every one of us needs. this is an industry that has spent millions of dollars lobbying against federal fuel-economy standards and are suing to overturn the emissions standards imposed by California and other states. this is an industry that let more progressive companies like honda and toyota walk all over them. if the industry maintains it’s present course, a bailout certainly won’t help fix this mess.

instead, what’s needed is a change from within, a shift in thinking about travel and transportation. at the most fundamental level, this change starts with the auto industry reorienting it’s operations to deliver transportation as a means, not as an end in and of itself. what might this entail? it could mean these companies partnering with other industries to help develop high speed inter-urban rail vehicles, energy and fuel efficient intra-city buses, and other systems that would improve travel options and alternatives for everyone, reduce global warming and our dependency on dirty fossil fuel, minimize accidents, and generally improve the way we could also mean a new lobbying role for automakers – i mean transportmakers – pushing for state/provincial and municipal officials to plan for better, more compact and walkable cities and towns that are required to support alternative transport modes.

this shift in thinking should not need to translate into job loss. in fact, i believe new opportunities for re-training of existing staff and personal and re-tooling of plant operations may emerge. so to would new marketing and sales opportunities.

a financial bailout could certainly help kick start such a paradigm shift. but before any money is given away, the auto industry – i mean transportmakers – need to be serious about becoming progressive. business plans need to be developed and presented to government showing timelines for the development of new transportion options, re-tooling operations, re-training staff, etc.

this is a daunting but also exciting opportunity for the re-invetion of the transportation industry. surprisingly, i think things are so bad that the auto industry is perhaps finally up for the challenge. however, whether these actions are too little too late to help our crumbling cities and environment is another post for another day.

weathering the storm: where are the safe havens in urban canada?
October 20, 2008, 11:56 am
Filed under: commentary, ideas

it is apparent that a canadian recession cometh or, at least, an economic tailspin. to be fair, although government and business leaders are working hard to avoid such a scenario, certain areas of the country are likely to feel deep and prolonged economic wounds. the question is which areas of the nation are better positioned to cope with a pending economical ‘shock and awe’ storm?

recent work in the united states, the epicenter of the current crisis, suggests the answer to this question lies in the make up of local economies. it’s the jobs, stupid! research by philadelphia’s reinvestmet fund in collaboration with has identified the best places to live during a recession. their criteria? places where large portions of the population worked in anticyclical industries such as government, health care, education, agriculture, and legal services. the so-called “safe industries.” indeed, medical care is in demand in good times and bad. people might feel the pinch and avoid eating out in dreary economic times, but people stilll need to eat and so farmers and grocery stores should remain afloat. dido government and education.

looking at this list, what’s interesting is that most, if not all, may be classified as those ‘creative’ industries as identified by richard florida. of course, other creative sectors may suffer, namely visual graphic design, entertainment, and computing, just to name a few.

the philadelphia’s reinvestmet fund positions cities like arlington virgina, boston, and seattle as stable and sufficiently “rotected” to weather a rececession, albeit not a prolonged one.

but what about canada? where are the safe havens north of 60? urban areas like toronto, ottawa, victoria, and montreal should be well-positioned considering high employment in education, health, law and government. those areas reliant on manufacturing or resource-based industries may suffer, places like oshawa, windsor and thunder bay in ontario. edmonton in alberta. not too mention all the smaller towns in between. these are, of course, only my personal observations and inclinations. a more thorough and accurate list could be revealed by exploring census numbers from statistics canada. perhaps a project for the coming rainy weekend?

canadian cities and uban regions, if they haven’t already done so, need to heed warmings about a pending ecnomic crisis and turn their attention towards strategies and actions to help protect local employment at risk of collapsing and attracting more stable, creative industries.

everybody, scramble!
August 28, 2008, 11:58 am
Filed under: commentary

the city of toronto is putting the pedestrian first. in a unique show of respect and support, the city began allow pedestrian scrambles on it’s busiest downtown intersection – yonge and dundas. read up on the news coverage here.

pedestrian scrambles allow pedestrians at all corners of the intersection to to cross in any direction — side to side, or corner to corner for close to 30 seconds while vehicle traffic comes to a complete standstill. pedestrians are also allowed to cross in the conventional way, in the same direction as traffic, when vehicles are using the intersection.

this gesture is a great move on the city’s part. they’re making it know that pedestrians and number one in this town and that the car is loosing it’s longstanding position at the top of the pedestal.

vancouver and other cities in the country really need to start thinking small in their plans to put pedestrians first. sure, large scale supporting infrastructure is important and required but the little things like this are those acts that really make us, the pedestrian, feel safe, important and respected.

proactive action on air pollution and congestion? the GTA is leading by example
July 17, 2008, 9:47 am
Filed under: commentary

the dire situation of increasing congestion, air pollution and squandered suburban land facing many canadian cities and regions begs the need for proactive solutions not complacency or band-aid action plans. perhaps surprisingly, toronto and it’s surrounding municipalities appear to be making the most headway in this regard.

the toronto star has reported numerous times over the past year that metrolinx, greater toronto’s transit authority, is detailing a series of scenarios for reducing car use, in the latest stage of developing a regional transportation plan. the most ambitious vision would cost $90 billion over 25 years. initiatives include a focus on making active transportation opportunities easier and more accessible, road tolls, parking fees and an influx in spending on creating a more cohesive and efficient transit network. together and, really only together, would these initiatives make it easier, more appropriate and cheaper to switch to more sustainable modes of transportation.

these types of action plans are controversial. that’s because they attempt to go beyond mere band-aid initiaties, those that strive to remedy a problem without tackling the real source or underlying cause. when it comes to air pollution and congestion, the problem is car use not highway capacity.

in this sense, metrolinx has the right idea. but what about vancouver? it too is suffering from increasing traffic congestion and air pollution. and translink’s (metrolinx west coast equivalent) solution to this? sweeping investment in new bridges and highways. their rationalization? give people more space to drive will means less congestion and less idling-related air pollution.

many studies have disproved that logic. yet it maintains a standard option for regions suffering from rising congestion and air pollution. and, really, why wouldn’t it? it’s an easy solution that keeps the voters happy. they get brand new highways that will be all but clogged again soon enough and the car maintains it’s status as the preeminent cheap, convenient and accessible mode of transportation.

air pollution and congestion are tough, intricate problems that require tough action plans to mitigate. the more we make vehicle use easier, the less headway we will make on creating a more sustainable region. toronto’s bold steps to tackle the problem at the source should be seen as a positive example that other governments could follow. hey, nobody said this would be easy ….

thoughts from portland
July 15, 2008, 9:43 pm
Filed under: commentary, ideas

portland is dubbed the mecca of urban planning in north america. i got the chance on a recent trip down united states way to see it for myself.

i’ll start with this: the mecca moniker certainly suits it well. the city has the smallest blocks on the continent (even putting new york and vancouver to shame). pockets of mixed use extend beyond the downtown where shops and everyday services like pubs, post offices, grocers, banks and laundromats are scattered throughout housing tracts in the city’s neighbourhoods and corridors. medium density development characterizes the entire town. even the swanky homes on nob hill are, to swipe a verse from thom yorke, packt together like sardines in crushed tin box.

and those are just the big ticket items. the city even gets the little things right. street art and pedestrianized intersection are very common. public drinking fountains are found at almost every intersection (perfect for those 100 degree plus days!). there are big, bright and readable maps setup throughout the city for pedestrians and bike route signs that give you an estimated time before you reach major intersections or destinations. even the (very neat) MAX light rail transit system gets in on the action. all of the system’s platforms are at-grade allowing for better access for all kinds of people. the system extends throughout the city and is not just limited to a one or two corridors. did i mention it’s free to ride in the downtown as well?

throw in a firm urban boundary keeping new growth contained and a geographically small city and the result is a very walkable, well-planned and most importantly, accessible, community. i was in heaven.

and so my girlfriend julie and i took advantage and walked. we walked everywhere. hawthorne, downtown, nob hill, 21st/23rd avenue, and the pearl district. but, here’s the kicker. aside from the tourists, it seemed nobody else was. the weather couldn’t be blamed. it was the most gorgeous weekend of the year with temperatures in the 90s and not a cloud in the sky. what gives? why doesn’t it work?

some recent writing by bill mckibben lends some ideas to why this is the case. in an essay entitled “if you built it, will they change”, he questions whether our built environment has the capacity to bring about real change in our behaviour, travel or otherwise. he writes: “has it [a more pedestrian-friendly urban form] managed to bring out the part of [human] nature … that likes the public world, the world of parks and plazas and ballrooms and theaters, that likes to rub shoulders with the rest of the city? change like this is essential if we are to deal with the environmental and social questions we face.”

culture is a funny thing, very malleable. our current culture of paranoia, self-centered mindsets is the product of the media, terrorism, consumerism, the economy, plastic surgery. but, the built environment certainly helps too. suburbs mean more driving and less social interaction. as planners, our work and communities provide the medium for cultural change to happen. it’s certainly not a panacea. portland is a good case in point. but everything helps, right?

for toronto, the best diet might be better land use planning
June 18, 2008, 4:44 pm
Filed under: commentary, ideas

toronto is a fat city. so says statistics canada at least, this country’s data collecting czar’s, in the results of a recent health survey of canadians. the survey found that more than one-third of adults who live in the city of toronto health region are overweight.

surprising? it shouldn’t be. one is hard pressed to find torontonians, particularly outside of the downtown core, relying on walking and cycling, even public transit, to get around the city – three means of transportation who’s use has proven physical health benefits including reduced prevalence of obesity, diabetes and heart disease (see work done in Atlanta and Seattle/King County by Dr. Lawrence Frank and colleagues). this, despite toronto priding itself on being one of the most densely populated and most walkable urban regions in north america. indeed, toronto’s density’s (a key component to making neighbourhoods walkable) are among the highest on the continent, even surpassing many european cities. so what’s the problem? why so sedentary?

the problem lies in the finer details of toronto’s urban landscape, especially outside of the downtown core. truly walkable places need to have more than higher density’s to succeed. this needs to be coupled with dynamic and finer-scale mixing of uses and services, appropriate urban design and other transportation options – those elements that both make us want to and make it easier for us to walk and cycle for daily trips and tasks. this landscape is very much missing in toronto’s outlying urban areas. here, there is a severe disconnect between high density residential neighbourhoods and the sitting of accessible mixed use centres and efficient public transit opportunities. i lived just west of yonge and lawrence a few years back, a very established and very dense neighbourhood but was subject to a 20 minute walk to the lawrence station and an equally long walk to the nearest grocery store and LCBO. the bus system on the local streets was vastly under serviced and the long headways between buses made public transit an inviable option for me. the result? i hoped in my car more often than not.

pierre filion, a professor of urban planning at the university of waterloo, completed a study in 2006 looking at this preceived disconnect in greater detail. his findings back up my own observations. he notes, for example, that of the fifty-one non-downtown subway and light-rail transit stations in the city, only thirteen (26%) are in or close to high-density census tracts. this urban landscape, one of high density residential pods with no real connection to one another or everyday services like shops and transit, sustains a continued reliance on the automobile and less walking and cycling for daily trips. truly walkable places are characterized by a dynamic mix of uses and density. apart from downtown toronto, the danforth, queen west and yonge and sheppard are examples of this idea.

planners and developers, then, could do a lot to extend the “walkable city” mantra beyond bloor, the dvp, and bathurst. injecting more mixed use redevelopment/infill and better transit opportunities in these outer areas is defiantly a start. who knows, it might just be the diet that the city needs to get back into shape.