An Agri-Cultural Perspective on the City of Vancouver's Transportation Plan

By Graham McGarva, Founding Principal
VIA Architecture

 The Vancouver Transportation Plan outlines an overall transportation strategy for the city 
(Credit: City of Vancouver)
After Vancouver was knocked from its perch as the world's most livable city by traffic tie ups on a Vancouver Island Highway, I began to think back to the fundamentals of the City of Vancouver Transportation Plan that was launched on May 12th this year. Especially since these traffic tie ups were 100km from the City, and involved an hour and a half ferry ride (plus waiting time) just to get to them.  For all anyone in Vancouver knew, these tie ups could well have been caused by agricultural tractors getting our 100 mile diet to market.

The good news story is that Vancouver is the only City in North America with increasing population, jobs and trips, coupled with a decrease in car trips - because urban development is focusing around the City's growing non-vehicular transportation networks.

The future for Vancouver is not about taking the drivers of today and getting them out of their cars; there is no problem with them continuing as they are.  Vancouver's success has been that thousands of new residents and workers are not choosing to use cars to get around town.

In response to the pretty pictures and video proposed for high level public consultation with a million people walking, wheeling, biking, busing and motoring in the sunshine, the stakeholder questions moved on from drinking our own kool-aid to emphasising the issues of our "rainy days in February" and "getting the goods in and out of town".

Following up afterwards with Jerry Dobrovolny, City of Vancouver Director of Transportation, we discussed the importance of canvasing Vancouverites' collective "culture of expectation" (or more likely cultures of expectations) with respect to the social contract around urban movement.  Thus, setting aside the question of absurdity of 'measuring' traffic impacts across 30km of ocean, there is a core livability question that needs be addressed, even if it cannot be answered. What does an amber light or a flashing do not walk sign mean to me, really -  not just when I am on my best behaviour taking my driver's license test - but every day when I walk, drive or cycle and interact with others (or not)? 

This issue of 'expectation' is a hot button with respect to Downtown Vancouver's separated bike lanes.  We have the paradox that the Vancouver bike lanes were designed with wide lanes and broad buffers and no right turns signs for motorists, precisely in order to attract uncertain cyclists who were fearful of mingling with vehicles.  The design outcome then resembles a freeway for cyclists, some of whom are clocked at above the vehicular speed limit.  Such expectation of aggressive and unimpeded mobile velocity can intimidate pedestrians and potential fellow cyclists alike (and scare the heck out of motorists trying to disobey the no right-turn signs). 

For the rest of this article and more of Graham's musings, visit his page on City Slices, a blog dedicated to the "poetic imagery of an architect"

Monday News Roundup

Happy Monday everyone! Catch up on what you missed below with the top links from last week:

What 9/11 Taught Us About Designing Skyscrapers (Fast Company)
The first building to be erected adjacent to ground zero has become a test case for addressing the design failings of the ill-fated towers and forging a model for how skyscrapers should be built in the future.

3D Drawing Machine (Colossal)
Vision is a rather unique 3D drawing device allowing almost anyone to draw images in perfect perspective using nothing but your eyes and a pen.

Is 'Urbanism Without Effort' the Best Urbanism of All? (Sustainable Cities)
Real neighborhood experiences can provide a meaningful gloss on current discussions about how to make cities better and increase shared places for all.

Sprawl vs. Farms (Planetizen)
Reports from Fresno, where sprawling development has clashed with agriculture, the region's bread and butter.

Moving bus stops further apart achieves a range of benefits in speed and potentially frequency.  Zef Wagner from Portland Transport studies the claim in the Portland context.

Your Name in Bikes (Inhabitat)
Juri Zaech's Typography Bike Frames Are Bent to Actually Spell Out Your Name!

A non-profit is advancing the Playtime in Africa Initiative: transforming undeveloped land into a child-centric, play-friendly public centre where the entire community can re-imagine 21st century urban living.

A report confirming what we have been told about the economic imperatives facing smaller cities and towns in Heartland America:  to become resilient, prioritize investment in smart growth and efficient transportation.

Re-Purposing Alleyways

By Jordan Lewis, Intern
VIA Architecture

Last summer I had the opportunity to work on a project to activate a neglected alley in Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood. While alleys tend to have a bad reputation and are generally not thought of as potential community assets, many cities and their residents have taken an active approach to transform these utility streets into spaces thriving with activity.

Nord Alley Party September 1st, 2011, credit: Jordan Lewis

The goal of Seattle's AlleyArt project is to re-energize a forgotten alleyway into a vibrant public space -- providing space for local art installations, movie screenings, food vendors, as well as an event space to watch the World Cup Games.

Photo of World Cup Alley, 2010, Pioneer Square, credit: Jordan Lewis
 In Melbourne Australia, 'laneways' have been successfully revitalized following a study by Gehl Architects and Planners in 1994. The city of Melbourne encourages and provides grants to local businesses and artists to enhance the character and diversity of these intimate city streets.
Photo of Melbourne Alley, Australia
 In Fort Collins, Colorado the city has recently embarked on a downtown alley enhancement program. Plantings, outdoor lighting, murals, bike racks and even a piano encourage pedestrian foot traffic and biking.
Photo of Fort Collins, CO, credit: Lisa McShane
 In San Francisco, the 'Linden Living Alley', has become a successful pilot project for the city to development a network of green streets, particularly in areas under-served by public parks.
Photo of Linden Alley, San Francisco, credit: Flickr - NeighborhoodParks
Although alleys take up a significant portion of space within our cities (streets and alleys combined take up around 30% of the city land) they are often neglected by residents and architects alike as many buildings turn their backs to alleys. By activating existing utility streets and designing buildings that are sensitive to the street level, alleys present great opportunities to create a more vibrant public realm, interweave green spaces and improve pedestrian connections. 

If you live in Seattle check out the Alley Network Project website for events and ways to get involved:

For those of you in Vancouver check out Livable Laneways Vancouver for events:

"Seattle Integrated Alley Handbook: Activating Alleys for a Lively City," Mary Fialko and Jennifer Hampton.

Monday News Roundup

Here's what you missed from our Twitter Feed last week!

What would cities say to one another if they could talk? (Sustainable Cities)
Featuring "Metropopular," a charming animated short film exploring city stereotypes through an imagined dialogue between anthropomorphized metropolises.

Popsicles and the Importance of Simplicity (PlaceShakers and NewsMakers)
Rehashing the importance of simplicity via the “popsicle test” — the ability of an 8 year old to safely get somewhere to buy a popsicle, then make it home before it melts — as the measure of a good neighborhood.

One Path to Better Jobs: More Density in Cities? (Planetizen)
Economist Ryan Avent writes that the statistics show that people who live in denser cities have better jobs and are more productive.

More "Parklets" Pop Up in Vancouver (Planetizen)
Transplanting the wildly popular pilot projects in NYC and SF across the northern border, the City launches VIVA Vancouver program that converts parts of eight streets into public spaces.

Ever seen roofing made from the wings of a 747? (Design Milk)
The 4,000-square-foot Wing House, as it has become known, is made from an old plane that was 230 feet long, 195 feet wide and 63 feet tall, but cost David barely nothing.

Polluting power plants turned green neighborhood development? (Switchboard)
Industry analysts predict that environmental and economic factors will lead to the retirement of dozens of aging coal-fired power plants in the coming decade, which present tremendous opportunities for new civic and private uses.

100% Design London (Life of an Architect)
Some of what you will be missing at this year's 100% Design London festival - a showcase of a vast range of weird and wonderful materials from wood and plastic to embroidered wallpaper and steel cladding.

Meaningful Sanctuary in a Space for Many

By Kristin Jensen, Interior Designer
VIA Architecture

I can say that I enjoy living in an apartment built in 1898, because I am a person who appreciates the design details of the time.  For me, built-ins, high ceilings, solid wood mouldings, large bright windows, and hardwood floors are more important interior details than new appliances, modern heating, or a dishwasher (Okay, I kick myself sometimes for living without a dishwasher.)  There is something so satisfying about coming home to solid interior elements.  They create a sanctuary.
The Grex, 1898
The once common telephone nook
When I say “sanctuary”, I don’t mean a refuge or shelter, “sanctuary” here is like the inmost recess, the holiest part of the church that contains the altar.  I once lived in an apartment where I could hear the woman above me sneeze.  I did very little living that year and a lot of worrying about being quiet to avoid eviction for breathing too loud.   That apartment was a shelter from the outdoors, but it was not a sanctuary.
 More than a roof over a head, a sanctuary makes us feel comfortable, secure, and peaceful.  In a sanctuary, we can be dynamic and joyful.  We can create calm.  We can project ourselves into the space and feel reassured in return by the interior’s design. 
 Simple design elements are part of making a sanctuary, such as wall color; light grey for "calm", a vibrant yellow for "lively."  The feeling and choice is as unique as the individual.   As an interior designer, I have the vocabulary to help individuals realize their vision.  But, what happens when designers are speaking for large groups?  The needs of the whole overshadow personal preferences.  In large project architecture firms, this is the interior designers’ challenge.  
I am currently working on an Assisted Living project, where EVERYTHING has more purpose and meaning than the average individual eye can see.   For the residents that will live there, it is the type of place that many would understandably be reluctant to call home.  Whereas a personal sanctuary reflects individual choices and independence, most assisted living residents will move in with neither.  Yet, it is the space that will last longer than their memories and will likely be the last interior space image they remember.
The design elements of assisted living are driven by operational and elder care needs.  Wall color that is soothing, lighting for older eyes, stain resistant carpet - those are easy.  But, choosing carpet that doesn't disturb depth perception, chair rails that are really hand rails, wall coverings that indicate floor levels, and room dividers that act as walker storage are the things that an individual doesn’t notice, let alone think about.
Every design element has a reason, everything has a purpose, every detail is meaningful.  Designing a space to function well is integral to the purpose of the building as a whole. Allowing the space to address individual emotional needs are also essential to creating a sanctuary for a large number of residents.  We can create interior spaces that are harmonious to surrounding communities and residences to bring inside some of the much needed outside.  For example, many residents will find a lonely bench in a long corridor as a much needed friend.  A prominent place in each room to display a treasured piece of themselves will let residents show everyone who they are. 
Memory Box
 Once the common areas are defined and designed, it comes back to the details.  It is in the details that a space becomes  an inviting place and a room becomes a sanctuary.  The challenge is knowing that it is ultimately the individual who decides what is meaningful to them and what is simply “taking up space.”  Wrestling with these details is all an investment in sanctuary.  I think about it all the time.  I think of details that convey the feelings we get from a piece of art or from something as simple as a smile.   I think, back in my apartment, part of my sanctuary is reflected in the sponge that matches the dish towels and pot holders.  Through interior details, large and small, we seek to give the residents on our project the sanctuary they deserve.