Monday News Roundup

Happy Halloween! Please enjoy these tasty news treats and tweets from last week!

World's Largest Pumpkin Carved into an Awesome Creepy Sculpture! (Inhabitat)

Prefab, 10'x10', Affordable Homes (Planetizen)
StaciĆ³n-ARquitectura Arquitectos has designed a modular home to house poor families in Monterrey, Mexico made from recycled materials.

How to suspend 2,000 dandelions from the cieling w/ out making a wish! (Colossal)
An unusual art installation by Regine Ramseier.

Jan Gehl on the Past 40 Years of Urbanism (Planetizen)
Famed urbanist Jan Gehl looks back at the writing and thought on how people use the urban environment -- including his own -- over the past 40 years.

Living Sustainably on a College Campus (Sustainable Cities Collective)
Tips for getting sustainable on campus.

Does Affordable Housing Have to Look Bad? (Planetizen)
lison Arieff explodes the unspoken myth that public housing must look cheap and unattractive, citing some stellar examples of affordable design.

On the Corner by Eastern Design Office (Contemporist)
This Japanese house designed atop a thin triangular lot ending up looking really sharp.

What do we really know about planning? (Sustainable Cities Collective)
Few would disagree with the need to simplify a planning system widely seen as expensive and unwieldy by both applicants and planning authorities. This article discusses the Localism Bill and the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).

Wanted: Food Lawyers! (Switchboard)
...Right now, my advice to law students and new lawyers is to consider how you can apply your skills to the fast growing local, sustainable food movement that seeks to fix our broken national food system.

Creating Places for People (Planetizen)
That's the title of a draft report from the Australian Dept. of Infrastructure and Transport presenting model processes for creating high-quality urban environments.

Walk 21 - Vancouver, BC

by Graham McGarva, Founding Principal
VIA Architecture

The 12th annual Walk 21 International Conference was held this year in Vancouver, BC from Oct 2nd to October 5th . These conferences work to “create a world where people are able to walk as a way to travel, to be healthy, and to relax.”

As the bi-pedal of poetry and mathematics were brought together, the Doctors (as in medical doctors who presented at the conference), emerged in the lead as advocates for active transportation.

Many of their presentations pointed out that they could do little, just help people with their pain when it is already too late. It is, in fact, planners who save lives.

Dr. William Bird, leader of the Natural England and Intelligent Health NGO’s in the UK, gave us the math “3-4-50”; the blunt fact that in our western world, three behaviors -- poor nutrition, lack of physical activity, and tobacco use -- contribute to four diseases: heart disease/stroke, cancer, type 2 diabetes, and respiratory conditions, such as asthma. These diseases result in over 50 percent of all deaths.

The World Health Organization's (WHO) September 2011 Conference on Non-Communicable diseases resoundingly concluded that despite global media concern over the transmission of communicable diseases (AIDS, SARS, Ebola virus etc.), in terms of impact and threat it is non-communicable disease that is the new global epidemic.

If this appears to be a circular reference of rhetoric that leaves you feeling at all cynical, then Dr. Penny Ballem, the City Manager for Vancouver, spelled it out in simple arithmetic. If education spending were kept at 27% of the provincial budget and health costs kept growing at 8% with a continued rate of revenue growth of 3%, then the health costs in 2018 would rise to 72% from 42% in 2005. Under the premise of a balanced budget, health costs would have vacuumed up all of the public purse.

Now that we had been grabbed by our purse strings, we were all paying attention.

The resounding conclusion of the poets and the doctors is simple: improving our health habits will lead to improved quality of life and result in significant savings to taxpayers.

1 in 6 people in North America have some form of disability. Walking, rather than obesity, is the issue. Despite the billions of dollars spent on advertising lean products, calorie counting means nothing if you don’t get off your butt. The best improvements are seen in those who go from least active to slightly active ( from there the geometric scale flattens out).

And as we collectively drag our buttprints across the sands of time Dan Leeming, Principal of Planning Partnerships in Toronto, reminded us it took 100,000 years to learn to walk upright and only 60 years to undo it.

Larry Frank, Professor at the University of British Columbia, translated this into the transportation planning perspective that the 350 calories in a pizza will get a cyclist 10 miles, a pedestrian 3.5 miles and an automobile 100ft.

Much policy has been based on "decision based evidence making." 99% of US transport funds have been dedicated to things other than ped/bike (active transportation).

The current leading edge of research, not surprisingly, is on the hidden health costs of transportation. The engineers are not necessarily the problem as the distinction is increasingly being made that connectivity is the key versus proximity. People’s perceptions are all important.

Gordon Price’s “Motordom” has become the defining reality of our suburban environments – with every message screaming impediment to the latent pedestrian that is trapped inside every car. And for a century each generation of children has been confined within decreasing orbits of autonomous locomotion.

We have corralled ourselves in and fattened ourselves up for the slaughter. It is up to us to rethink the boundaries that we place in the path of our daily lives. Thus walkability and connectivity are what the doctors’ prescribe for our health dollars, engineers for our transportation dollars, and urban planners for our design dollars.

In short, every curb radius counts.

It was a great conference, with lots of the multi-disciplinary enthusiasm without which nothing great will ever be achieved. So I ended my conference enthusiastically walking through the future that will be Surrey City Centre – the largest (and most walkable?) urban environment in British Columbia.

Monday News Roundup

Facebook App to Track Household Energy Consumption (Planetizen)
In early 2012, Facebook will launch a yet-to-be-named app that will allow 800 million users to access home energy usage information provided by their utility company. This 'Social Energy Application' will help users manage their energy.

For ultra-green dev't, how much flexibility is too much? (The Seattle Times)
Seattle planners already can bend some development rules for projects that promise to be extra-green. But how much flexibility is too much?
Norway Showroom Built from Re-Used Doors and Windows (Inhabitat)
Working around the theme of "Re-Use," a group of architecture students constructed this inspiring artistic pavilion made entirely from old windows and doors in Trondheim, Norway.
La Concha House (Contemporist)
La Concha is a home that has been remodeled from a 15th Century barn on the Island of Guernsey. The house was developed as a fluid, three-dimensional plan, inspired by ‘The Nolli plan of Rome’ 1748.
The wheel has revolutionized life on planet Earth. However, as scientists try to wean us off our fossil fuel dependency, engineers are developing new concepts for transportation that eschew wheels in favor of next-generation technologies.

DomestiCity: A Photo Essay (Sustainable Cities Collective)
This photo essay explores the ways in which people negotiate the use of their limited living quarters. The available space in or around one’s sleeping quarters is fair game for all domestics...

Roca London Gallery (Contemporist)
Cutting edge, technologically advanced, and futuristic are some adjectives that come to mind...

An Interview with Charles Eames (Herman Miller)
Some fascinating tidbits from a Q&A session with designer Charles Eames.

Bill... Meet Jane

By Catherine Calvert, Director of Community Sustainability
VIA Architecture

Being a lifelong glutton for continuing education, I find myself at the moment studying both Permaculture Design and brushing up on the seminal Jane Jacobs text “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”.  This has been an interesting juxtaposition, and one that holds more similarities than I might have expected.
Permaculture Design is based on the teachings of the Australian Bill Mollison, known for his pioneering work in the 1960’s and 70’s on natural systems design and the means of using these to create ecologically sound, productive landscapes and increase the resilience of human settlements.  Best known for its advocacy of  food production using horticultural means (“permanent + agriculture”), permaculture is a set of principles and practices that invite the discovery of patterns in the landscape, seeking efficiencies of complementary systems, and closing loops of inputs and outputs of materials and energy. 
Developed and popularized further by Mollison’s students such as David Holmgren, Toby Hemenway and others, the system has subsequently been expanded and applied to the “design of buildings, energy and wastewater systems, villages, and even less tangible structures such as school curricula, businesses, community groups, and decision-making processes” (1).  Permaculture is currently enjoying a growing wave of popularity, and is seen to be in strong harmony with ideas that support sustainability, relocalization, and the “creative descent” associated with peak oil and the transition town movement.
photo credit –
Jane Jacobs on the other hand was a strident New York-based journalist who became an outspoken critic of modern city planning in the 1960’s.  Despite having no formal training as a planner, she was a keen observer of the urban life of New York City and the ways in which it functioned when allowed to evolve in its own organic way.  Outraged at what she perceived as the arrogant intervention of master schemes to impose external order, usually intended to serve the movement of the automobile, she became a highly regarded urban activist who successfully led opposition to plans for building several massive freeway projects in the city.  In 1961 she published the seminal work “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”, which outlined a framework for urban vitality based on assessments of scale, function, safety, investment, and architectural infrastructure.

photo credit –
It’s not known if Bill and Jane ever met, or if they were even aware of the other’s philosophies and advocacy half a world apart.  I suspect however that if they had had a chance to compare notes, the conversation would have been very interesting.  Both philosophies developed in the mid-century period of general post-war optimism, therefore making both their work radical in its day.  They shared the acknowledgement of the “brokenness” of large-scale infrastructure, monoculture, and the imposition of scale-inappropriate patterns on our landscape.  Both developed their ideas from fine-grained, on-the-ground observation of systems that function holistically.  Their fundamental principles share some interesting parallels:

Jane’s City Planning Principles:
Bill’s Permaculture Principles:
To generate exuberant diversity in a city’s streets and districts, four conditions are indispensible:
Core principles for ecological design:
1.       The district, and indeed as many of its internal parts as possible, must serve more than one primary function; preferably more than two.
Stacking:  Each element performs many functions, and each function is performed by many elements.  Redundancy is deliberately built into the system.
2.       Most blocks must be short; that is, streets and opportunities to turn corners must be frequent.
Edges define areas, and break them up into manageable sections.  We are attracted to edges; these accumulate energy and are the most diverse parts of the ecosystem.  We need to select appropriate edge patterns for climate, landscape, size and situation.
3.       The district must mingle buildings that vary in age and condition, including a good proportion of old ones so that they vary in the economic yield they must produce.  This mingling must be fairly close-grained.
Collaborate with succession.  Living systems usually advance from immaturity to maturity, and if we accept this trend and align our designs with it instead of fighting it, we save work and energy.  Mature ecosystems are more diverse and productive than young ones.
4.       There must be a sufficiently dense concentration of people, for whatever purposes they may be there.  (2)
Use small-scale intensive systems so that the land can be used efficiently and thoroughly.  Close associations of species clustered around a single element (guilds) assist in health, aid in management, and buffer adverse environmental effects. (1) and (3)

Both philosophies are based in the idea of diversity as a fundamental measure of system health, and both warn against the pitfalls of monoculture and monotony: 

Bill Mollison:
"Although the yield of a monocultural system will probably be greater for a particular crop than the yield of any one species in a permaculture system, the sum of yields in a mixed system will be larger. Diversity is related to stability... which occurs among cooperative species, or species that do each other no harm. The importance of diversity is not so much the number of elements in a system; rather it is the number of functional connections between these elements. It is not the number of things, but the number of ways in which things work." (3)
Jane Jacobs (quoting a Eugene Raskin essay):
"Genuine differences in the city architectural scene express the interweaving of human patterns. They are full of people doing different things, with different reasons and different ends in view, and the architecture reflects and expresses this difference, which is one of content rather than form alone. ... Considering the hazard of monotony, the most serious fault in our zoning laws lies in the fact that they permit an entire area to be devoted to a single use." (2)

I am finding these parallels fascinating; the root of what both are addressing is the healthy functioning of sustainable systems, be they human systems, food production, natural environments, or dense urban settlements.  This kind of radical common sense is even more relevant today than it was 50 years ago, and we would do well to listen hard to their collective wisdom.

(1) Toby Hemenway, “Gaia’s Garden – A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture”, Chelsea Green, 2nd Edition, 2009.
(2) Jane Jacobs, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”, Random House, 1961.
(3) Bill Mollison, “Introduction to Permaculture”, Tagari, 2nd Edition, 2009.

Monday News Roundup

Happy Monday! Let's start out with the top links from last week:

From Sprawl to Complete Communities (Planetizen)
Galina Tachieva's new Sprawl Repair Manual creates a narrative and visual process for making suburbs more sustainable.

Presentation skills and techniques - For architects! (Life of an Architect)

The spectacular 'green' way to build affordable housing (Switchboard)
Via Verde (“Green Way” in Spanish) is a new mixed-income, mixed-use development nearing completion in a once-severely disinvested area of the South Bronx - but it is like no other affordable housing development you have seen.  It is much, much better.

Well-structured handbags fortified with concrete! (Design Milk)

Green Infrastructure: Making cities sustainable + hospitable (Switchboard)
Case studies demonstrate the successful application of ”green infrastructure” techniques that collect and process rainwater naturally before it flows into receiving waterways as polluted runoff.

Eleven of the Best Urban Design Ideas in the World (Planetizen)
From a penthouse dwelling above an air-raid bunker to an "inside-out" building where plants grow on the walls through rainwater irrigation...

Frii Bike (Wannekes)
Beautiful and eco-friendly, the Bike Frii is composed of recycled plastic elements.

Monday News Roundup

Top headlines from last week for architecture, planning and design:

The First Government-Sponsored Bike Sharing System (Planetizen)
The first North American community to offer a government-sponsored bike sharing system dubbed "Capital Bike Share" celebrates at one of D.C.'s newest parks, Yards Park.

Transitions Lenses for Buildings (Fast Company)
Windows that automatically change color to reduce heating and cooling bills are the next step of smart buildings. South Korean scientists just got a lot closer to automating them.

Bright Entryways (Apartment Therapy)
The foyer is your home's first impression. Why not make it a wow? Here are some inspiring bright entryways from across the spectrum.

"Re_Home" created for Natural Disaster Recovery (Inhabitat)
The central premise behind U of Illinois students' "Re_Home" is a fast response time in order to get families in more permanent housing. As such, Re Home is sustainable, flexible and easily set up!
Preservationists are all about preserving our past while Urbanists harvest lessons from the past to create better places in the future. Seems like these two groups would get along quite well. But no.

Breathtaking Images of Spiral Staircases (1 Design Per Day)
Photos credited to Nils Eisfeld

Would you use plants to power your home electronics? (Design Milk)
Moss Table, from the 2011 London Design Festival, is an experimental table that uses plants to generate energy on a micro level.

How Temporary and Simple Places can Define City Life (Sustainable Cities)
In building urban community, it remains imperative to reassess—with simplicity in mind—and to always remember first principles, such as shelter and the wheel.


Monday News Roundup

The top news from last week's Twitter Feed:

Sustainable Communities Must Embrace the Familiar (Switchboard)
The path to a more environmentally benign future lies not in convincing consumers that they must change, but in giving them the things they seek in a more sustainable form.

Smaller Can Be Better When It Comes to Traffic Solutions (Planetizen)
Megaprojects like the Outer Beltway are promoted as the solution to D.C.'s traffic woes, but Schwartz says "...smaller, localized projects taken as a whole can be better than the larger, flashier projects."

Bike Shares Struggle to Work With Helmet Laws (Sustainable Cities)
Australian cities are still struggling to implement similar schemes due in part to the compulsory helmet laws.

The World's 12 Most Beautiful Train Rides (Infrastructurist)

Transportation Choices Can Keep Money Local (Sustainable Cities)
According to this infographic from Denver bikes, four of five dollars you spend on your car leave your local economy.

The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces (Kottke)
This witty and original film is about the open spaces of cities and why some of them work for people while others don't.

Urbanization Increases the Need for Sustainability (Sustainable Cities)
With the inexorable rise of urbanization come a variety of compelling reasons for making cities sustainable.

Is your city on the Top 10 List for Mass Transit Commuting? (Inhabitat)