Less Carbon, More Footprints

by Kate Howe, VIA's Urban Planner

Just under two weeks ago, I attended the WALK21 conference in NYC. Now in its tenth year, WALK21 is an international coalition that advocates for walking, focusing on the pedestrian as the integrative point in any transportation system. This year the conference was underwritten by NYDOT- and partnered with the Association of American Bike Pedestrian Professionals (APBP) combining both hands-on training seminars with the broader themes of WALK21.

Walking, as we know, touches on everything; from urban design, to transportation and land use planning, to air pollution and climate, to public health. And so the topics ranged broadly from the economic benefits of building walkable neighborhoods, to planning for climate change, to the measurability and design of walking and transport planning. This year, the typically eurocentric nature of the conference was challenged as attendees hailed not only from Stockholm and Copenhagen but also Mexico City to a broad North American showing of both US and Canadian experience.

WALK21’s goal is to give each the tools to advocate for and to design excellent walking environments.  In fact, the promise of clear, standardized empirical tools was one of the conferences most exciting ideas for me. As the WALK21 board and their partners move forward with their Pedestrian Quality Needs Index, they are helping all of us reach the goal that will standardize how cities can measure what has always before been considered soft information about the quality of a street.

Rodney Tolley of WALK21 discussed their current development of a replicable pedestrian quality survey that Cities around the world could undertake for about $20,000. The survey is distilled from the best practice experiences in Copenhagen, London and now New York and would help even small governments understand the condition of walking and provide them with access to global expertise. The smaller scaled survey is available now, while a full report planned for release in 2010. The group is looking to identify;

·      What should we measure?
Which dimensions / indicators are desirable and/or necessary to evaluate walking and public space?

·      How should we measure it?
Which methods and tools are useful; how should data be collected?

·      And what should we standardize internationally – and how?

At the conference, it seemed clear that London is the city most responsible for blazing a new trail for measuring, accommodating and supporting walking. Since 2000, they have all but redesigned their transportation system to provide for massive population growth on the same tired infrastructure. Transport for London has found that carrying space for a pedestrian is three times higher than the next most efficient form (bus). Walking also accounts for 80% of trips made under a mile. Yet there was limited official recognition of the efficiency of walking as a mode of transport. This blind spot has since disappeared through a system now designed to measure person flow rather than vehicle flow. The TFL transport models now include Pedestrian demand models, the results are redesigned tube entrances, street crossings, intersections, and enhanced pedestrian safety. TFL is also fighting an information war to change people’s habits particularly in a city where even locals get lost. Some of their latest campaigns to get people more comfortable walking include mapping of walking routes, and a way finding system “Legible London.”

However, back to our US based leader -  New York City. Here there is entirely less empiricism, but the City under Bloomberg’s PlanNYC initiative has already conducted successful tests and done a complete overhaul of the NYC Street Design Manual…. DOT is seeing the results; and expanding the programs. How will this affect pedestrian safety and congestion? One can already look at what has happened in the take back of Times Square. I walked the length of Broadway from Herald Square to midtown for the first time ever – even after growing up 30 miles from the city and living in New York for five years- never before would you go to Times square as a local ON PURPOSE. Now it is a pleasant, amazing, experience to see what a bucket of paint and some picnic tables can do.

I am curious to see how New York City will influence other cities to think about management of their own pedestrian networks. Can this city, with arguably the best walking environment in the country, lead the way for others as they collect data on separated and buffered bicycle lanes, street pedestrian islands, and street closures in overly congested public spaces. This link to streetsfilms gives a good overview of just what they are up against.

Burien Transit Center Award Submission

Burien Transit Center was submitted for the 2009 AIA Seattle Honor Awards under the "Realized" category. The AIA website describes the Improv/Improve awards in the following way:

IMPROV: Design for change requires us to quickly react to new constraints with creative and delightful solutions –
improv! We roll up our sleeves and work together often breaking new ground seeking smart, responsible design solutions.

IMPROVE: Improve is the mindset for transforming ourselves and bettering our surroundings, above and beyond the scope of each project.

To see more photos of this project, and of many other 'envisioned' and 'realized' projects, click here.

The awards will be announced live at the Awards presentation on November 9, 2009. (more info)

*see post below for more information on the Burien Transit Center by Doug Lundman, the project architect.

Burien Transit Center

 by Doug Lundman, Architect for VIA Architecture

Public projects at any scale involve elaborate collaboration processes. Burien Transit Center was a very small project for us, but it involved all the trappings and a drawn out schedule, four years from design start to construction completion. Normal and necessary processes in public projects often present obstacles to, as well as benefits for, coherent end results. With small public projects, the obstacles can loom larger than the benefits of the process. We feel that in this case the building came through with coherence and a measure of success.

The brief called for a bus transfer (4000 events/day) and bus layover facility on existing and acquired property adjacent to the cities' town center project. It required that bus movements and layover functions not occur on city streets. An existing Park & Ride was reconfigured, 250 user cars a given. The client and the city hope for eventual replacement of the Park & Ride lot with mixed-use TOD, incorporating the parking.

The project gave VIA an opportunity to consider again difficult issues in suburban low population density landscapes (4,200/sq mi overall, 2,615/sq. mi downtown) and how transit might mitigate, if not transform, those landscapes.

Richard Rogers’ voice is one of many calling for compact cities:

“The creation of the modern Compact City demands the rejection of single-function development and the dominance of the car. The question is how to design cities in which communities thrive and mobility is increased- how to design for personal mobility without allowing the car to undermine communal life, how to design for and accelerate the use of clean transport systems and re-balance the use of our streets in favour of the pedestrian and the community.

The Compact City addresses these issues. It grows around centres of social and commercial activity located at public transport nodes. These provide the focal points around which neighborhoods develop.”

Cities for a Small Planet, 1997, edited by Philip Gumuchdjian

A critical concomitant in Rogers’ definition of the Compact City is the overlap of zones of work, leisure and living. That’s why the word “compact ” might be preferred to “density.” Density is too often understood as simply the number of persons in a given area or the number of units in an area. Seattle's neighborhoods, Ballard, Fremont, Capitol Hill, work well as neighborhoods because of the critical overlap and complexity of urban infrastructures. When the same neighborhoods fail it is because the complexity breaks down and they become bedrooms. The compact city is about maintaining the full spectrum of conditions, flows, social/cultural/material/ informational/transportation networks comprising an urban milieu.

The City of Burien was incorporated in the early 90's, a condensation of power and voice in a political struggle to control single family housing sprawl and to affect plans for a new runway at the SEATAC airport. The airport was created during WWII when the military appropriated Boeing Field. The context Burien planners struggle with is common in areas near major airports. (Possible exception: Kansai airport. It’s built in the middle of Osaka Bay.) The dominance of the car, seen in this photo from the early 1940’s, has long been evident in the Burien landscape.


(photo permission Highline Historical Society)

When we began our project four years ago, the City had undertaken an effort to reinvent "village" with a new mixed-use town center. Completion of the first phase will hint at prospects for that effort. Our initial response to the transit center brief was to think that we might at least define a "place" amidst the field of surface parking and single story commercial buildings. We were committed to a place that would also function in possible future contexts, when the transit center might be part of a sustainable pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use community. Burien may eventually achieve complex constituents of density, interconnected layers of flow, movement, information. And information systems and other technologies continue to redefine possibilities, yielding more liquid forms of urban density.

One analysis suggests that suburban landscapes are primarily about events rather than spaces. This facility may be seen as an improvisational theatre of short skits about states of transit. In the future, improved connectivity might yield an expanded repertoire. To suggest “theatre” is not a trivialization of the function of the facility. We look for poetry in the mathematics of engineering and in everyday events. Poetry distinguishes urbanity from density. Poetry is an essential characteristic of sustainable development. Poetry raises living to the level of dwelling. But poetry is not fair words about a fine day. Poetry reflects truths and contradictions, aspirations and limits, ambiguity. The word “drama” is derived from a Greek word for action, the word “theatre,” from “theatron,” seeing place. Like some forms of modern theatre, architecture blurs distinctions between actor and audience. Poiesis is composition, production. Poiesis is implicit in Stan Allen’s definition of infrastructure:

"Infrastructure works not so much to propose specific buildings on given sites, but to construct the site itself. Although static in and of themselves, infrastructures organize and manage complex systems of flow, movement and exchange. Infrastructures are flexible and anticipatory. By specifying what must be fixed and what is subject to change, infrastructural design can be architecturally precise yet programmatically open. Instead of progressing toward a predetermined state (as with master planning strategies), infrastructure provides a framework for evolution within a loose envelope of constraints. An infrastructural approach establishes a directed field, where different architects and designers can contribute, but it sets technical and instrumental limits to their work. Lastly, infrastructures allow detailed design of typical elements or repetitive structures, facilitating an architectural approach to urbanism."

In complex urban situations, transit facilities sometimes achieve the status of public space when they are knit into and overlap with mixed uses and vital streetscapes. Consider the complex intermodal stations in Tokyo's Shinjuku or Shibuya. The success of such places can be understood in terms of the Ten Principles for Creating Successful Squares.

In the instant context the team considered that transfer, in-transit, users might find a "beacon", the resident user might find a "center." Not The Center, just a center (or an interval), an event, both location and path, both time and space. Possibly this station achieves the status of place to some extent because it is a precise form located in an austerely undirected field. But it is also, in fact, a node of everyday activities, a relative concentration of personal and communal drama. Architects and urban designers don't insinuate themselves in the drama beyond construction, they provide a stage upon which action may take place. In suburban landscapes the pace of action can resemble a Noh performance but the drama is no less real.

The architectural design challenges for this project were typical of the transit genotype: adherence to prescriptive and performance operational and maintenance parameters provided by public agency clients; and incorporation of functional materials, components, details, and dimensions specific to transit. In this case we attempted to slightly alter the genetics, to redefine the order and method of application for these standard components. The design is composed of standard modules and materials in a system of variations that reinvents their use yet remains true to comprehensive and essential functional requirements. We were looking for a hybrid "civic infrastructure." We attempted to discover something like a phenotype through observed and remembered site character. Included in this effort is a custom pattern in the laminated glazing interlayer, derived from photographs taken of the nearby tree canopy. (project artist Julie Berger) The graphic images also recall indigenous grasses found in a nearby clearing in 1870 by Mike Kelly, prompting him to bestow the name “Sunnydale” on the area.

During construction workers said the canopy felt like the hull of a boat, an important image for construction workers in any coastal community.

The morning of the first bus service we were on the platform in the first light as users wandered cautiously onto the platform. One of them, in conversation with an absent adversary and oblivious to the cameras, aggressively tested the rigidity of the various building components. A queue formed, the photo-sensor shut off the lights a bit early. A bus rolled up to the bay on the south end, boarding began with radiant Mt. Rainier in the background, an in-bound flight silver overhead, the echo rolling over the . It felt new. Since then a user has reported to us that the canopy hums in the wind and that he likes the sound. The building is a figure in, and support for, the imaginations and experiences of its users.

It’s a transit node, a stage, a bit of an island, a seed.

AIA Design for Livability

By Amanda Bryan, VIA Architecture

It never fails to amaze me how resilient and innovative human kind can be, when out of seemingly overwhelming adversity, a people can be mobilized into aspiring citizens of change. As I participated in this year’s Design for Livability: Sustainable Cities conference, I sensed such resilience and high aspirations in the crowd as it leaned forward in anticipation for the great solution to the problems before us. The problems we face are not just economic nor are they issues which affect merely Seattle residents and so the AIA, Cascade Land Conservancy, and UW School of Built Environments tackled the conference from both the local and regional scale. Building upon a foundation of education, presenters were encouraged to share their many experiences and projects as a teacher would share its knowledge with its pupils.

The topics of the conference ranged widely, covering issues such as ailing infrastructure ripe for overhaul, alternative ecosystem markets, large ecodistricts as a solution for overbuilt utilities, non-profits as motivators of change, formulaic changes in single family developments to combat sprawl, and typological changes in multifamily zones to revive a waning population of children. Like Karen True from Friends of Third Place Commons in her presentation Creating and Activating Great Places, the presenters aired their thoughts passionately and compellingly. The topics themselves gravitated towards interdisciplinary action that not only relied upon large scale governmental shifts but also community action.

If there was one key message I got out this conference, it was that the all too political word “Change” isn’t just about electing the correct official or voting for the right propositions (although this helps), it's about taking what you’ve got and ‘throwing it into the pot’ to form a collective will. This might mean becoming a group activist or maybe as little as simply volunteering in a community group a few hours a month. Either way we become active participants in our society rather than mere observers.

As we have all watched the economy shift and budgets stretch to cover the endless needs demanded of cities and communities, people have both figuratively and literally ‘rolled up their sleeves’ and made use of their resources. I think this conference is yet another representation of this resilience and similar future events will mark our generation as persevering innovators for those we leave behind.

Thoughts from the AIA Design for Livability Conference

by Catherine Calvert, VIA Architecture

VIA was pleased to sponsor the recent keynote presentation to kick off last week’s Design for Livability: Sustainable Communities conference, put on by AIA Seattle, Cascade Land Conservancy and University of Washington College of Built Environments.

Our presentation was about Ecodistricts, featuring our firm’s work on Southeast False Creek in Vancouver, home to the future Athlete’s Village for the 2010 Olympics, as well as the work of ZGF and the Portland + Oregon Sustainability Institute (P+OSI) on the Lloyd District. 

What is significant about ecodistrict projects like these is that they illustrate how far the bar needs to be raised in terms of radical rethinking of neighborhood design if we are to make any difference at all in terms of the way we use our cities and connect our infrastructure.  Five years ago I had the privilege of touring neighborhoods in Malmo and Copenhagen and understanding the total logic of organizing communities around district energy systems and cogeneration.  That experience was an “a-ha moment” – it’s not about living off the grid (as we were taught in the 70’s), it’s about all of us plugging into the grid and sharing our resources. 

Clearly, however, projects like the Lloyd District and Southeast False Creek don’t happen by the good intentions of architects and planners.  They can only come to fruition using the synergy of political will, economic opportunity, technical innovation, and at a stage of infrastructure lifecycle that’s ripe for renewal.  One of the most interesting technologies implemented at Southeast False Creek is the “harvesting” of heat from a large diameter sewer pipe that runs along the perimeter of the 80-acre property.  Only through high levels of cooperation between the City of Vancouver’s Planning and Engineering Departments, the technical understanding of how this heat could be exchanged, and the creation of a new district utility for management, could this resource have been fully utilized.

Rob Bennett from P+OSI and Dave Ramslie from the City of Vancouver had some excellent summary themes to share:
  • It is vital that the “policy framework” be in place for these projects to be carried out. This is a combination of governance and planning context that establishes the authority and sets the groundwork for the jurisdiction to execute projects.
  • That these projects leveraged “opportunistic planning”, in most cases writing new forms of planning code to create outcomes that are mutually beneficial to the city and the developer.
  • Designing and building stand-alone green buildings is not enough.  We have entered the second generation of green building, where connection to a shared infrastructure is necessary for buildings to be fully sustainable. This interconnection is not unlike the evolution of PC’s, which didn’t reach their full potential as working tools until the internet network became established.
  • Envisioning and executing projects of this kind involves a new kind of applied knowledge for architects and planners. Integrated, networked, holistic solutions are the way of the future.  Personal expertise and business models must adapt to this.
  • Sometimes a business case is a stronger driver of sustainable solutions than any kind of policy or technical innovation. If there is money to be made, then there is a much greater chance a project will get off the ground.

It’s a challenge to all of us to look at these projects not as one-off solutions but as models with transferable lessons and working technologies that should be emulated as widely as possible.  Southeast False Creek started as a vision over 10 years ago in the pre-LEED era and has been executed only through the determination of many hard-working individuals who saw the project through many changes and roadblocks.  Since that time, forecasts about climate change and the future of humankind have only become more dire.

What kind of vision do we need to start with now to make any kind of difference?

Conscious Consumers

By Annette Thurston, VIA Architecture
I have always been an advocate for “Going Green” in theory. It seems like the right thing to do and I want to save the planet, but the whole idea just overwhelms me every time I think about it.  Doubts and questions start filling my head like “is my recycling really helping?  Everything I buy comes in plastic, it’s impossible to avoid.  I don’t want to walk that far to the store; I need my car to haul all of my grocery bags. I want to relax and watch TV at the end of the day and Facebook with my friends (sometimes I’ll waste a whole Sunday just catching up on shows and watching movies).  I love food and I love shopping. It’s too expensive to buy organic”...and on and on it goes.

Why should I sacrifice all of the things that I love?  I’m a person who likes her purchases cheap, I like them quick and I don’t care how they get here. Honestly, ‘going green’ just sounds like too much of a hassle.  So I’ve just been doing the bare minimum that most people do which is recycle plastic, tin and paper and hope that someone puts it to good use. I really have no idea where that stuff goes when I throw it in the bin every week.  Then I heard about this movie No Impact Man and I took my friend Adam to go see it with me.

The premise of the movie is that Colin Beavan, his wife and their 2 year old daughter would lower their carbon footprint to 0 over the course of 12 months in New York City. They did really extreme things like shut off their electricity for 6 months and only travel by foot or bike and only buy locally produced food and milk. They actually gave away their TV -- just gave it away! But the point of them doing all of that was to see what they could live without.

As Adam and I were walking to our cars and talking about the movie, we started thinking about all the waste we produce in our daily lives and what we are really getting out of it. The combination of being inspired by this movie and the fact that we are fairly competitive people, led us to challenge ourselves to a year of reducing our impact.  I’m not going to lie, we are pretty high maintenance and it’s not going to be easy.  But even people such as us need a place to start.  So taking our cue from Colin Beavan, we divided the next 12 months into three phases and came up with a list of things that we know are wasteful and want to try to live without.  

For Phase 1 we have vowed to: give up all things plastic ie plastic bags, plastic bottles, plastic tubs, plastic utensils, any food that is packaged in plastic etc., give up aluminum, reduce our TV time and laptop time to 2 hours a day each to conserve energy, purchase only as many items as we can carry, and dine out a maximum of 3 times a week and that INCLUDES going out for coffee.

The minute I posted this list on my Facebook page, there was an immediate attack on our project. Some people laughed, some people mocked me by saying ‘You?!  Ha! Good luck!’ Some people jumped to the obvious, ‘what about yogurt containers, shampoo/conditioner bottles, ball point pens, sandwich bags, your cell phone? How will you live without those?” People are automatically discouraged by the thought of giving up these things they’ve grown to be so dependent on. And actually, so are we. Good thing we like a challenge. We are just learning as we go and we know it will take a lot of research and questions, a lot of frustrations and a lot of cravings as we adjust to our new lifestyles. But we vow not to give up until we have exhausted all other options that are available to us. 

The main thing we hope to get out of this project is that we want to become more aware of where our products come from, where they go when we discard them, and what the actual cost is to our health and the environment by purchasing them.  We can do only what is within our power and economic limitations.  We are striving to be Conscious Consumers and we are determined to reduce as much waste as is humanly possible for us while still living satisfying, fulfilling and happy lives.  And hopefully we will make some small difference to our planet.

We will check back with an update once we are through Phase 1 and introduce Phase 2 of our project.

Community Buildings -- Building Community

By Naomi Buell, Marketing Assistant at VIA Architecture

While recently reading an article on Iconic Architecture, I came to realize how truly important it is to have “the right building for the right place.” Although new to the field of architecture, I have seen how buildings can create community or just as easily discourage it. I grew up in buildings which always had large grassy areas or courtyards for all the children to play in. I was always close to parks, waterparks, seawalls and fresh food markets. This is how I thought the world was for all children; I had trees from which to launch snowballs, safe bike routes and easy access to view the yearly symphony of fire fireworks display. I was but an aquabus away from the pool and a short walk from the beach. I could see the large grassy hill which I had slid down many times on my toboggan, the world indeed was my oyster. I suppose I should personally thank whoever it was that designed Granville Island and the False Creek Area surrounding it, for they created my backyard.

An Image of Granville island which shows the water park, ponds, parks and beautiful greenery (it’s even nice on an overcast day)

However, it would seem that for some, this is not an ordinary upbringing. For many, parks are something you have to drive to and grass is not simply a stones throw away. The site of a concrete building may be their landscape where one might play on swings in a gated area. Situations like these give the impression that architecture is no longer about the people.

In the article I read which inspired this post, (Moving Beyond the "Smackdown" Towards an Architecture of Place) it seemed that rather then being about the people, Iconic Architecture is often more about making a statement or getting the recognition of peers. It is about thinking outside of the box to create something so unique that magazines will write about it for years to come. Unfortunately, the functionality of some of these buildings gets lost in the plans to make a monumental structure an area has seen. It would appear that while thinking outside of the box, they have made a structure as hospitable as just that, a cardboard box. As William H Whyte said “It’s hard to create a space that will not attract people, what is remarkable, is how often this has been accomplished.” Having little technical knowledge about architecture, I am unable to comment on some of the examples given by the article's author Fred Kent.

The Bilbao Museum, which launched the iconic architecture trend, with its inhospitable plaza in the foreground

However as a born and raised Vancouverite, I do feel qualified to note one such structure that, while poetic and idealistic in thought, does not create a gathering space. Robson Square, a civic space comprised of the law courts, an art gallery and government offices, was completed in 1983 by Arthur Erickson. Erickson biographer Nicholas Olsberg describes the basis for Erickson’s design as an almost spiritual progression “with the courts — the law — at one end and the museum — the arts — at the other. The foundations of society. And underneath it all, the government offices quietly supporting their people.” While there have been many demonstrations on the steps of the Art Gallery as well as street performers and heated chess competitions, there is a lack of people gathering anywhere else. While there once was an outdoor ice rink, which attracted many families even that has become a melted memory of winters passed.

Perhaps it is the lack of light or greenery and landscaping that makes this area unappealing or maybe all it needs is a few picnic tables to increase the usability of the space. Whatever the reason for this empty space, it is a shame that it goes relatively unused. It would seem that only the art gallery stairs, which comprise a very small portion of the overall space, is the only structure being used. Is this symbolic of people flocking to the arts rather then the foundations of society? I say this with a hint of sarcasm as I believe it is more the proximity of the stairs that lead to their popularity but it is somewhat noteworthy nonetheless.

Architecture creates a city, it creates communities and it has a ripple effect that goes far beyond the beams and walls that hold it together. It has the power to bring people together, to encourage the laughter of children and to create a liveable city. While awards and recognition are always well received, it should be about the people, about the place and about the future that it will create.

Image Sources: Image 1, Image 2, Image 3,

Permaculture Presentation

by Krystal Meiners, VIA Architecture

As a follow up to yesterday's post, here is a "prezi" (online presentation tool) about permaculture. If you haven't used Prezi before, you can either set it to autoplay, and it will change every 10 seconds (with the option to stop it if it goes too fast), or you can hit the arrows manually to change the screen.


Permaculture -- Many Names, One Awesome Idea

by Krystal Meiners, Junior Designer at VIA Architecture

Permaculture: permanent agriculture, permanent culture, sustainable gardening, sustainable agriculture, agro-forestry, food forest, ecological design; call it what you like… it’s awesome!

I recently started school again for Ecological Planning and was both excited and overwhelmed by my summer line-up of classes which included Environmental Science and an Introduction to Permaculture; both classes were outstanding. My permaculture class served as a much needed link between the environment, human landscapes, and community sustainability, all of which piggyback on the principles of sustainability in the built realm. Throughout architecture school and in the course of my time at VIA, I have learned how to create sustainable communities through density, infrastructure, street realms, setbacks, massing and so much more. However, I have come to learn that agriculture and food security is an important system that governs community health and success, not as an exception to the built environment, but in addition.

Before taking this class I would often come across articles about urban farming, bioremediation, sustainable site design, community gardening, etc. I was always inspired, but reluctant to file these projects under fringe architecture and urban design experiments. I have learned, however, that this movement towards sustainable landscaping and permaculture has begun to reform industrial agriculture practices around the world and has become increasingly influential in community planning.

Permaculture is sustainable garden and landscape design that focuses on food security, maximizing space and getting the most output from the least input. By taking cues from nature, permaculture gardens exploit the diversity of plants and animals and their ability to grow harmoniously. Rather than using the industrialized agricultural systems of monocropping (growing one crop per farm), permaculture designs use principles of layering and plant partnerships to create food forests that serve both the human consumer and the needs of the plants.

The principles of permaculture are founded on how things grow in their natural setting as well as the maturity of ecosystems and the diversity of plants and animals within those ecosystems. While many permaculture gardens would appear “overgrown” or a little on the “wild” side, these gardens actually simulate the patterns found in nature and try to fill as many niches as it can. However, nature doesn’t always produce a habitat that caters to human consumption. Permaculture gardens take the guesswork out of nature by utilizing plants that are used in food, medicine, tea, clothing and other consumer products. These gardens serve multiple functions, leveraging our knowledge and observation of nature to partner these items together in a way that reduces human input.

One of the founding principles of permaculture design is that each component must serve multiple functions, and each function must benefit multiple components. For example: plant partnerships or “guilds” use multiple plants and insect species to help each other grow and need less input from the farmer or gardener (in the form of weeding, tilling, fertilizer, etc.) to remain protected and fruitful. Many of these partnerships are age-old, but became outdated when industrialized farming methods swept the nation. One such guild is the Native American “Three Sisters” garden. Here, corn is planted with beans and squash; each serving the other in its own way. The legume uses the corn stalk to grow, while the squash fixes nitrogen into the soil for the other two plants and creates a ground cover, protecting the soil from erosion and holding in moisture. Adding a fourth “sister” such as a sunflower will also attract bees and other pollinators and in turn will give us yummy seeds. The “Three Sisters” garden respects the properties of each plant in its natural setting, yet yields a great harvest to humans. At the end of the harvest several of the plants are chopped down for in-place mulching to build the soil until the next season.

The goals of permaculture design or ecological design, as some like to call it are to use what you already have and to make the least change for the greatest effect. The principles call for greater observation of site and regional ecosystems, and in turn can change laborious landscapes into productive environments. We can see the effects of permaculture design changing our communities already. In India, permaculture founder Bill Mollison changed a community farm blighted and desertified from monocrop farming and the overuse of pesticides and herbicides, into a lush food forest with all of nature’s principles in place to:

•    keep the soil moist to avoid erosion and improve production
•    attract beneficial animal and insect species
•    use biological and renewable resources and catch and store energy
•    produce food products for a healthy community
•    produce a low input sustainable community agriculture

The images show a similar transformation in Malawai, Fiji.

We can also see permaculture design at work relatively recently in our communities here in the PNW too. Things such as bioswales, bioremediation, and p-patches all help build and beautify our communities and are all under the umbrella of permanent agriculture and permanent culture. It is my hope to bring permaculture principles to the design of livable and sustainable communities that will foster healthy relationships between the environment, the built realm and the public.

Image Credits: Permaculture Garden, Food Forest Layering, Three Sisters Garden, Malawi, Fiji example, Eastlake Bioswale: Krystal Meiners

Seattle Storm Appreciation

With the wrap up of the 2009 basketball season, we are proud to have been a sponsor of the Seattle Storm.

We had two opportunities to man the "Go Green" table this summer, which is a great campaign initiated by the Storm to encourage their fans to utilize green living principles in their everyday lives.

We handed out posters encouraging transit, recycled pencils, and organic lettuce seeds that not only included instructions for planting the seeds, but also gave hints for other ways to be green (like taking transit or carpooling to the games). We also collaborated with Yes! Magazine, a local magazine focused on sustainability, by handing out free copies during the game.

We appreciate the relationship that we had throughout the season and wish them the best of luck getting ready for 2010!

How Green is your Transit System?

by Catherine Calvert, VIA's Director of Practice + Director of Community Architecture

Sustainable building design is not exactly news. Over the past 30 years, and particularly in the past 10 years, information on how to reduce the energy and resources used in building design, construction, and operation has become increasingly available to the design industry. Building rating systems such as LEED® can assist architects, municipalities, and building owners seeking a common language and understanding about what constitutes sustainable architecture.

By contrast, architects wanting to design transit systems sustainably have few guidelines to follow. Transit systems are, by definition, not buildings. Most systems consist of a collection of infrastructure and dynamic elements – trackway, vehicles, support facilities, and stations, which are often unconditioned environments, open to the elements. The environmental footprint of a transit system goes far beyond the energy and materials expended in building these facilities. There is not much point in minimizing the amount of energy used by a transit station light bulb when the energy needed to operate a system over its 50 or 100 year life outweighs this expenditure by a factor of thousands. It is important that as designers seeking to achieve transit sustainability look beyond the buildings to the system as a whole.

And what is sustainable transit, anyway? Equally important to the facilities are the decisions made about where the system and stations are located. What kind of neighborhoods does the system serve? Does zoning around the stations support compact forms of development that don’t require a car? Is there adequate density and ridership to ensure financial sustainability for the transit system? Does urban design around the stations support safe, attractive pedestrian pathways? Are the transit stations integrated into a mix of uses that meet people’s needs and support varied activity throughout the day?

Furthermore, what aspects of transit vehicle design and operation can be optimized in terms of energy consumption and resource use? How can train design take advantage of advanced technology such as regenerative braking? How can track design use gravity to assist in deceleration as trains approach stations? How can train materials be selected for healthy indoor air quality?

Transit systems around the world are all attempting to answer these questions. A few agencies, notably New York’s MTA, Hong Kong’s MTR, and Portland’s TriMet, have made sustainability a high priority and have been pioneers in the experimental application of new technologies to transit facilities. For the past five years, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) has held an annual conference dedicated to the discussion of Transit Sustainability, most recently in Salt Lake City in August 2009. These discussions have lead to the recognition of a need for shared knowledge and the development of a set of best practices specifically addressing the needs of the transit industry.

Out of this has grown an APTA initiative led by Tian Feng, District Architect for the Bay Area Rapid Transit agency (BART), to develop a Compendium of Sustainable Transit Practices. Developed over a period of three years as an evolving brainstorm session between key transit agency representatives and private industry advisers from all over North America, these guidelines are designed to offer best practice and case studies that will be helpful to transit agencies of all modes (bus, ferry, train, light rail) and of all scales. VIA’s Founding Principal, Alan Hart and I have been key contributors to the development of this document, participating in numerous working sessions and providing editorial research to support this effort. We strongly believe that the sharing of this type of knowledge will shorten the learning curve by transit agencies seeking to build new systems or to make existing ones more sustainable.

The first draft of the Compendium of Sustainable Transit practices can be found on the APTA website: