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2009 Archive

by Angie Tomisser, VIA’s Interior Designer

Obesity is on the rise, we have all read the burning headlines. My question is why are low income areas hit harder than more affluent communities? Research shows that poorer neighborhoods are less walk-able and have far less access to healthy food sources. It wasn’t until recently that I discovered first hand, the uphill battle these low income communities face.

Like most young married couples trying to buy their first home, we found ourselves struggling to find affordable housing prices in the nicer neighborhoods of Seattle. As a result we were lead to a great property in South Seattle along the light rail line. Moving from North Seattle, where there is a PCC or café on every corner, to the south end was quite a shock. Not only does the South Seattle community face significant crime and violence, but the options for providing a decent meal for your family are scarce to say the least. The following images are of establishments located within walking distance of my home.

Many folks who reside in areas like mine, rarely have access to a vehicle and primarily get around by bus or on foot. Which is why when five o’clock rolls around and your kids are hungry, many find it cheap, fast and convenient to run to the McDonalds down the street. Riding the bus to work in the morning, we share the ride with many teens on their way to Franklin High School. …

PARK(ing) Day

Sep 14, 2009

This coming Friday, September 18th is PARK(ing) Day.

It is a day when artists, activists, and citizens taken an ordinary metered parking space and turn it into a temporary public park for the day.

“The idea of the event is to hire a parking space but then turn it into a mini Park rather than using it to park your car. It aims to get people thinking about the use of urban space, the dominance of the car in our society and other travel options such as biking, walking and taking the bus.” (–Feet First website)

Although only temporary, PARK(ing) Day has inspired direct participation in the civic processes that permanently alter the urban landscape.

Last year, Seattle had 32 mini parks in parking spots around the city, with a plan to have around 50 this year. Click here to see Capitol Hill’s plan for their neighborhood, including an awards ceremony for the “first ever Park(ing) Day Seattle Prize.”

In Vancouver, the Vancouver Public Space Network (VPSN) has been reaching out to people to set up their own park or to join them at their park in front of Caffe Artigiano on Hornby.

If you feel tempted to create your own oasis in the midst of a bustling city, you can find more information here.

by Peg MacDonald, VIA Architect

Last week, the New York Times ran a piece that exposed some “green” buildings that were not living up to the promises made by their LEED plaques. The follow-up blog entry on Green Inc. reinforces the notion that LEED is not an indicator of overall energy efficiency in a given building.

The available Energy and Atmosphere credits make up just 24% of the total available credits (17 of 70). The lowest level of Certification starts at 26 points, so it is entirely possible to deliver a building with totally conventional heating and cooling systems and still achieve some level of LEED certification. The fundamentals of sustainable design require a balance of energy and environmental design components to really improve the performance of a building within its site; with LEED a moderate landscaping plan and an accessible bus stop may just be enough to move you into the realm of stardom and commercial promotion afforded by the certification.

What’s interesting about the articles is that the market is starting to realize that a LEED-certified building is not necessarily the greenest of the green. Building professionals have been clamoring for stronger, harder, more comprehensive standards since LEED 1.0, while waiting patiently for the marketplace to catch up. LEED 3.0, with its more stringent requirements and greater regional flexibility, is a far cry from its grandfather. (But still just a step…) Even now as LEED moves into the realm of …

by Lydia Heard, VIA’s Urban Designer and Planner, and author of citywalker

What does a city’s skyline say about the aspirations, ambitions and desires of its founders and continuum of citizenry over time? How are these ambitions embodied in the planning that shapes a city until it achieves that significant, identifiable form? Do the forces that shape the skyline, that big picture the world sees from afar, also affect the inner life of the city, it’s heart and soul, the public realm of the street, of civic space, and the success or failure of access for those from all walks of life?

Let’s look at some well known city skylines. Often they are ranked by the number of very tall buildings, the “High” city. Prime examples are Hong Kong and New York. These are centers of world trade and commerce, bustling with competition and the desire to be noticed; to be bigger, taller, more striking than the neighbor. These cities also have geographic constraints: Manhattan fills its island footprint, and Hong Kong is squeezed upward between mountain and water. Toronto is another High city, and a classic example of the form such a city takes when it has room to spread out. The CBD takes on a mountain form which gives way to a surrounding spread of low-rise development. Off to the side of the CBD is a tall, iconic identifying landmark. Looks like one of our cities closer to home, doesn’t it?

by Roger Valdez, Sightline Institute

The best urban plan is no plan at all. The statement is kind of like a Zen koan, those pithy, dissonant little statements, stories or questions like “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” The koan is intended to jolt our cognitive mind into a more enlightened state.

Here’s another koan from the zen master himself, Yogi Berra, an improvement on my poor attempt: “If the world was perfect it wouldn’t be.” Planning should create perfection. On the other hand (the one not clapping), perhaps trying to achieve perfection in our cities is likely going to lead us to imperfection. Think Cheesecake Factory or Buca di Beppo, places that seem to be one of a kind but are truly perfect duplicates of a model, stamped out in city after city.

So what does a city without a plan look like? Take a look at my favorite Seattle microcosm, 14th Ave East on Capitol Hill from the edge of Volunteer Park to Mercer Street.

A walk down 14th leads you from mansions (left) to low income high rise (right) in less than a mile with everything (fourplexes, single family, multifamily) in between.

We know what happened after World War II. People began to sprawl and aided by subsidized highways and cheap gasoline started to divide their worlds. Home, work, park and entertainment were …

Here is the fifth clip from The Great Urban Debate between Peter Steinbrueck (Seattle) and Gordon Price (Vancouver).

Who’s got it right? Vancouver with their “pencil towers” that have civic spaces at the base? or Seattle with their planned neighborhoods.


Aug 28, 2009

by Richard Borbridge, VIA’s Vancouver Urban Planner

While the debate continues about future of public civic space in Vancouver, we have a perfect opportunity to think about one important role and reason for public space – fostering conviviality. Lisa Peattie, Urban Studies professor at MIT, defines conviviality as the quality of lively socialness, expanding on the social learning theories of Ivan Illich that see conviviality as “autonomous and creative intercourse among persons, and the intercourse of persons with their environment.” In a planning context, convivial cities are those that provide opportunities for casual social connection between people in the city — communication and collocation — whether though complementary urban design or market-driven development of third places.

Conviviality is tightly connected to Ray Oldenburg’s concept of “third places”, those besides home and work, which lend space to convivial interaction through cafés, pubs, diners, and hangouts – places that are active in promoting a sense of community and shared experiences between friends and familiar strangers. Vancouver at a glance is not short on third places, but the recent struggles to find art and performance space in our “creative city” highlights the narrow definition downtown Vancouver has fostered.

Public open spaces have a critical role to play in our civic and social infrastructure, which has been predicated on the existence of free spaces and an unencumbered right to free association and expression. Think of convivial spaces as our Olympic free speech zones – only less ironic. …

by Matt Roewe, VIA’s Director of Mixed-use and Major Projects

In the heart of Seattle, two vibrant neighborhoods will soon be re-joined after 60 years of separation by the “Great Wall of Aurora.” The stars have aligned on three major projects to produce an outcome that will re-knit the street grids across aurora and rekindle the livable and walkable association between these old friends.

The Mercer Street project will start this off by reorganizing the “Mercer mess” through South Lake Union (SLU). Making this corridor a simple, two way and straight “Champs Elyse” tree lined boulevard connecting Interstate 5 to the Seattle Center and on to Elliott Avenue near Puget Sound. This enables better urban design, pedestrian safety and a straightforward travel pattern for the frequent unfamiliar visitors to the area. It also yields a calmer Valley Street next to SLU Park and a new two-way Roy Street in Uptown. Property owners are giving up 50’ to allow the wider boulevard, which is timely for the plethora of new development proposals for this under utilized area. The highway like diagonal Broad Street goes away, allowing the orthogonal street grid to return.

I participated in a 40 person/organization stakeholder charrette over the last two years where consensus was reached by all participants including freight, bicycle, business, institutions and neighborhood groups. Construction is scheduled to start in the next year, although the SR99 North portal project described below may impact the timing. See more project info at:

Here is the fourth clip from The Great Urban Debate, in which Gordon Price and Peter Steinbrueck debate Seattle and Vancouver’s civic spaces.

Watch this short 2 min clip and let us know your thoughts. Does Vancouver need to work on their civic spaces? Seattle has Westlake and Seattle Center, but do they maximize their potential?

Click here to read a recent article from the Vancouver Sun, which featured the new Oceanfront Resort, as a “dramatic medley of rock, water, glass, steel and wood.”

For the resort website, click here.Photo credits: Black Rock Resort and Chris Pouget from Coast Image