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Transit + Food = Sustainability in Philadelphia

by Catherine Calvert, Director of Community Sustainability, VIA Architecture

Photo credit:  VIA 

I had the recent pleasure of attending the American Public Transportation Association’s (APTA) annual conference on Sustainability and Public Transportation, held this year in Philadelphia.  Like many transit agencies, Philadelphia’s SEPTA has adopted a number of ambitious goals toward sustainability performance.  However unlike most agency plans, SEPTA’s “Septainability — Going beyond Green” sustainability program includes a specific goal related to Improving Access to Local Food via Transit.

In SEPTA’s case, this has taken the form of several initiatives:

  • Identifying and studying Philadelphia’s food deserts and their access to transit.  Access to local food is being improved through adjustments to the transit network, with a goal of having fresh food available within a 10 minute walk of 75 percent of Philadelphia’s population.
  • Partnering with local groups such as The Food Trust, The Enterprise Center, Farm-to-City, and  The Common Market to create farmer’s markets at four SEPTA rapid transit stations throughout the city.
  • Creating a “Farm-to-SEPTA” Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program for its own employees, where fresh produce is delivered directly to the agency headquarters.

The fourth and most interesting initiative has been the establishment of the Walnut Hill Community Farm on SEPTA property, adjacent to the 46th Street Station on the Market Frankfurt light rail line in West Philadelphia.  SEPTA’s project partner is The Enterprise Center, a community organization that provides access to capital, building capacity, business education and economic development opportunities to high-potential, minority entrepreneurs. SEPTA provided the group with a 10 year lease with additional options up to 20 years to use the land, which is a 1/4 acre parcel previously used as a staging area for construction at the station.

Photo credit: The Enterprise Center


The property is divided roughly in half, with the south side devoted to vegetable beds, and the north part with a vegetable stand and remaining space planned for a city parklet.  Rainwater is collected off the 46th Street Station roof and is stored in two 1100 gallon cisterns, with irrigation pumps powered by a small photovoltaic panel mounted to the station wall.  Vegetables grown on the property are sold at the Friday farmer’s market at the vegetable stand, as well as contributing to a 65-member CSA that is augmented by produce grown on other properties inside and outside the city limits.

For SEPTA and the Enterprise Center, the benefits of operating the Walnut Hill Farm provide direct return to the community. These include access to fresh food, maintenance of green space, pride of place resulting in less graffiti and vandalism, educational and employment opportunities for youth, and overall capacity-building within the neighborhood.

Understanding of the complexity in promoting healthful food choices has evolved considerably in the two years since the project opened. At that time, access to fresh food appeared to be the primary issue, but even with improvements to the network of accessing food sources, many people are not following healthy lifestyle choices.  It is now understood that there are other missing pieces in making the connection between growing food and eating it, specifically knowledge around budgeting, planning, and actual food preparation.  To further support the local food network and close these gaps, the Enterprise Center is building a Culinary School nearby, which will provide meal planning and cooking classes that are designed to suit neighborhood cultural food preferences.

Cisterns store rainwater collected from the station roof. Photo credit: VIA

For SEPTA, the project is an opportunity to not only underscore and broaden its sustainability goals, but also a chance to build community partnerships.  Projects such as these not only create goodwill for the agency,but provide a chance to collaborate with groups such as Drexel University, the US Department of Agriculture, the Delaware Valley Regional Food Systems Committee, the City of Philadelphia’s Get Healthy program, and non-profits such as the Kellogg Foundation. The connection between food and transit may not seem obvious at first glance, but SEPTA has provided an excellent example of the way that mobility and food access can be complementary parts of a sustainable urban livability model.

46th Street Station with farm stand visible to the left. Photo credit: VIA

Photo credit: VIA

For more information on SEPTA’s Sustainability Program:

For more information on the Walnut Hill Community Farm:

News Roundup

Aug 27, 2012

Sky Condos by DCPP Arquitectos (Dezeen Magazine)
DCPP Arquitectos, proposed a twenty story apartment building for the city of Lima in Peru. The building is to face a golf course, and is miraculous for it’s cutting edge design with vertiginous swimming pools (including a diving board) projecting from each individual apartment. This is not the only proposal that DCPP Arquitectos have put forth involving vertiginous swimming pools. In their vision for the apartment building, they “sought to create an icon for the future, a new luxury housing concept in Latin America; combining the idea of incorporating the exterior space to the interior life of the apartments and creating a new relation between public and private areas.” (DCPP Arquitectos).

David Byrne Designs “Nonsensical” Bike Racks for BAM  (Architizer)
Anyone that knows David Byrne, knows that his favourite mode of transportation within the city is biking. His newest installation of creative bike racks designed for BAM, are the words ‘micro lip’ and ‘pink crown’ which have no intended meaning but are merely chosen for their form. The “from indicates towards the easy modularity of the content at hand”. The letters can be rearranged, and are an always evolving project of the community.

Slipstream by FreelandBuck (Contemporist)
Wtih his exhibit currently in New York at the Bridge Gallery, FreelandBuck’s Slipstream design shows the dynamics of flow, and an escape from the solid. It is a large, physical structure that confronts the translation of a 2-dimensional digital line drawing in a 3-dimensional space.

Coaster or Trivet? Its Both! (Apartment Therapy)
The Zesch line by Dutch design studio Michiel Cornelissen Ontwerp, has made trivets/coasters, that could dually be mistaken for ninja throwing stars. The coasters are made from laser-cut bamboo and their intricate shape allows them to connect, creating a larger trivet giving it a dual use.

by Brent Toderian of TODERIAN UrbanWORKS
(Orignally posted on

As Olympics excitement grew in the first week of the London 2012 Games, we in Vancouver watched with great interest, and occasional feelings of deja-vu. In Atlantic Cities, I wrote about Vancouver’s 2010 Olympics experience with Olympic jitters and the host city funk, and the ability of the Games to change cities through the “power of the collective experience.”

In this post I include some broader thoughts that I couldn’t include for space reasons. I’ll focus on our many Olympic legacies, and key learnings around city-building for host cities and the Olympics movement overall.

Read the full article here.

News Roundup

Aug 13, 2012

Artistic Notebook Covers From Grove (Design Milk)
Introducing the new Grove Notebook, a refillable leather cover that is handmade in Portland. Grove has 5fifty artist-designed covers to choose from, but the best part, you can pick your own personal design, doodle or saying and get it engraved. There’s nothing better than a personalized, one of a kind notebook. What would you engrave on yours?

A Pavilion Made Entirely Out of Stacked Chairs (Architizer)
New York based firm, e/b office sought out to reinvent the conventional reading of chair. Chairs as they define, are meant for static repose with which to view architecture. Thus, they used chairs as building blocks for a piece of architecture, and created the pavilion called ‘Seat’. The chairs are stacked into a since wave which then forms a sort of vortex, and are merely held in position by bolts and clamps.

Can You Steal Design? (Life of An Architect)
The dilemma of authentic vs reproduction. Bob Borson looks at mid-century modern furniture, specifically th“Eames molded plastic chair with eiffel base” and compares it to a cheaper, knock-off version. He goes into the details of supporting design, and the availability of income and how that influences peoples opinions on the subject of such a dilemma. Ultimately, he searches for the answer as to how do you rationalize that it is okay to buy knockoffs of furniture but be upset when architectural designs are knocked off?

Architecture and Urban Planning in the Olympics? (Urban Planning Blog)
Fun and interesting fact of how architecture and urban planning use to be events in the Olympics. What would these events look and how would one participate? Pratik offers up his own idea of “perhaps a 400m with your T-square and set-squares”.

News Roundup

Jul 24, 2012

New York’s Lovely Abandoned Subway Station (The Atlantic Cities)
In his new book, Straphanger, Taras Grescoe writes of an abandoned “ghost station” beneath City Hall in New York. Grescoe gets a privileged tour of the station on a promise not to reveal which train still passes along its tracks to this day.

The Bronx Wants a 200,000 Square Foot Rooftop Farm (Treehugger)
If the City gets its way, the Bronx will soon be home to one of the biggest rooftop farms in the world: It will cover an astounding 200,000 square feet. That’s 4.6 acres. The spot is an active warehouse in Hunts Point, an enormous food distribution center where 115 private wholesalers sell food that reaches 23 million people in the metropolitan area.

San Francisco’s Parklets Transform Parking Spaces Into Urban Oases (Inhabitat)
With streets and other paved surfaces making up a full quarter of San Francisco’s land area, reclaiming wide zones of wasted space at curbsides, intersections, alleys, and other spots is a key motivation behind the growing parklet program.

Bike Shares: A Global Trend (Sustainable Cities Collective)
In cities across the United States, bicycles are becoming an increasingly popular form of urban transportation. A survey of 55 major metropolitan areas in the U.S. found that bicycle commuting rates increased, on average, 70 percent between 2000 and 2009.

A Mobile Library for Artists (The Atlantic Cities)
Books are difficult objects. They are heavy, awkward, difficult to move, easily damaged (by light, water, the human touch), and yet easy to steal. All of these make the task of distributing and sharing books more difficult, but the challenges grow exponentially when there is no building to facilitate this. One solution is the A47 Mobile Library.

Are Smarter Cities the Key to Social Mobility? (Sustainable Cities Collective)
An interview with Chris Cooper, IBM UK Architect for Smarter Cities

The Case for Public Transportation, in Infographic Form (The Atlantic Cities)

Architects Battle to Rule the Roost in “Raise the Roost” Design Competition

The Rainier Beach Urban Farm really went to the birds this weekend, and some lucky chickens will be getting fancy new digs.

It was Seattle’s very first chicken coop design and build competition. Seattle Tilth, Architecture for Humanity and Architects Without Borders teamed up for this event, aimed at inspiring people interested in raising urban chickens. All the proceeds went to Seattle Youth Garden Works, who help introduce homeless and under served youth to urban agriculture.

VIA took part in the event; to see how we did, read the full article here.

Capturing More Value In Office Design Through Co-Working Strategies

By Kristin Jensen, Interior Designer, VIA Architecture
LOOP Creative Agency, photo credit: Michael

The transition from closed-door offices and cubicles to shared or flex office space is a well-established trend. Even now, scooters and skateboards demonstrate the radical change in how people move within office spaces.  Today’s office space is embracing individual identities and social communication as a means to enhance worker productivity and satisfaction. Regardless of the change, space planning remains conscious of capital and operational costs.  So, where do we look for the next trends in space planning that will continuously improve returns per square foot and retain a quality workforce.

As businesses drew a deep breath and plunged into the economic downturn, the balance of operational costs and key employee retention took on a new level of importance.  As reductions in headcount continued, many quality people started over, started lower, or stayed home, and every home felt at risk across the board.  Whether an employee made the cut or not, we have all had an opportunity to assess our work/life balance and the value of time at home and at the office.  It is here in this collective experience that we should look for the next trends in office space.

With the promises of rewards for tireless hours in the office no longer abundant, trend makers amongst their working peers have rediscovered the value of managing their home life during business hours, and dismissing the value of endless meetings. In short, the next trend is to make the office environment an extension of home life- and the home an extension of the workplace. These extensions will be non-intrusive and individually managed, and both the definitions of home and office environments include activities in and out of the individual’s immediate work area.

Oxigen, designer: Oxigen with Woods Bagot, photo credit: David Sievers

By way of example, let’s look at the successful trend of “Hoteling” office space for mobile workers.  Hoteling the practice of providing office space to employees on an as-needed basis, reducing the amount of physical space that a business needs, lowering overhead cost while ensuring every worker access to office resources when necessary) has met the need of both efficient space planning and a mobile workforce within the footprint of an office tenant.  Hoteling incorporates various strategies in wiring, storage, and location to create “lite,” unassigned desks in a constrained and secure office area.  At its core, hoteling gets more out of the tenant’s secured area.

In the age of the mobile internet, developers should look to what mobile employees do when they leave the secured office environment, while continuing to work collaboratively.  Outside of the office, the next drop down space is generally uncontrolled and unsupervised by the employer. Where do they go? Are they in cafés, at kitchen tables, at parks, on couches, or in airport lounges? Mobile workers can surprise us with how they stay connected and productive. Ubiquitous Internet and cloud storage allow mobile workers to personalize their most productive work-life space during all hours of the day.

The next evolution of hoteling may look more like “co-working” spaces that incorporate common areas and retail spaces within a development. This evolution is the idea that “semi-secure” tenant space, common areas, retail, and amenity spaces can, within a development, be opened to multiple tenants and visitors. Food service space in commercial districts is already a mobile worker offload to office square footage.  The opportunity is to satisfy tenants’ needs and reduce operational costs within their primary footprint. Developers can design retail and common areas that offer productive co-working space.  The financial opportunity for developers is to use interior design investment to compete for today’s bottom-line conscious tenants, while appealing to a balanced lifestyle.  Like co-working spaces, developers may also be able to sell memberships to multiple tenants into co-working square footage, even to their authorized vendors and guests.  A fully integrated design may encourage a café tenant to have its service counter open to an airport loungestyle work area that is accessible to member tenants.

Makers, a co-working space in Seattle; design + photo credit: Caitlin Agnew & Lana Morisoli

Unlike supervised office environments, co-working spaces also give mobile workers a sense of permission to access virtual services and cloud computing to stay connected to both work and home life throughout the day.The reality is that mobile workers have moved beyond costly wires and security measures; embracing their reality is an opportunity to bring them back into leased spaced. For example, the advent of “print to cloud” means that IP addresses to printers and their placement become as accessible as Wi-Fi hot spots; copier/printers with scan and send functions nearly eliminate mailing interoffice documents; IP connected televisions eliminate paper flyer announcements; online shopping, online banking, and web managed home delivery services like Amazon Fresh allow spouses to contribute to home management from anywhere; and downtown lunch rush restaurants now use phone and web apps to take orders for instant pick-up of food.   While buzzwords like “collaboration,” “social communication,” and “mobile worker” have pushed the concept of open office environments, the next trend is allowing workers and mobile workers to clear their mind of personal agendas while at work or on the road within office buildings, without having to leave the immediate area.

Google UK Campus, designer: Jump Studios


I want to know from readers: how do you envision integrating home and work into an office environment in order to allow individuals to personalize their space while managing their life balance?  For developers, the net result is a benefit to tenants who can capture more of their employee behaviors related to home and co-working within the total building footprint and immediate surrounding areas.  Developers don’t need to invest in services that are capital intensive when they stop to consider the walkability of nearby amenities that aid in the promotion of a healthy urban environment.

Monday News Roundup

Jul 09, 2012

Happy sunny summer Monday! Here’s a quick roundup of a couple of last week’s highlights:

Crochet Playgrounds by Toshiko Horiuchi MacAdam (Colossal) In the mid 1990s Japanese artist Toshiko Horiuchi MacAdam was showing a large scale crochet artwork at an art gallery when two rambunctious children approached her and asked if the sculpture, resembling a colorful hammock, could be climbed on.

eVolo Announces Their 2013 Skyscraper Competition (Inhabitat) The 2013 eVolo Skyscraper Competition is now open for business and looking for the most outrageous, exceptional, unusual, and forward-thinking designs out there.

Meet Seattle’s ‘Baby London Eye’ (The Atlantic Cities) Seattle’s newest attraction, a Ferris wheel known as the “Great Wheel,” officially debuted last month.

A Very Architizer-Canada Day (Architizer) Last week, we wished a Happy Canada Day to our neighbors to the north! To celebrate, Architizer compiled the top ten projects to have come out of the Canadian architectural world in the last few years.

Green-Roofed Shelter is Urban Curbside Lounge for Paris (Web Urbanist) JCDecaux, the North American company that invented the ‘street furniture’ concept of outdoor advertising, collaborated with designer Mathieu Lehanneur to create a cool green-roofed rest stop for pedestrians in Paris.

Monday News Roundup

Jul 02, 2012

Happy Canada Day!

Below, you’ll find a list of some of the more interesting bits and pieces of news, art, and architecture from the last couple weeks:

How the Feds Are Building More Sustainable Cities (The Atlantic Cities)
In recognition of the three-year anniversary of the federal partnership’s formation, the three agencies have released a progress report, Three Years of Helping Communities Achieve Their Visions for Growth and Prosperity. The facts they have assembled are very, very impressive.

Human Nature: Jason deCaires Taylor’s Submerged Figurative Sculptures Form Thriving Artificial Reefs (Colossal)
Artist Jason deCaires Taylor has become famous for his immense underwater installations in locations off the coast of Mexico, the Bahamas, and the West Indies where he uses eco-friendly concrete sculptures specifically designed to harbor life. The artificial reefs are photographed and filmed in numerous stages from the moment they are first submerged to months and years later after thriving ecosystems form within his artwork.

5th Annual Creative Spaces Event (Arch Daily)
The fifth anniversary of Montreal’s Creative Spaces summer event highlights the creation of a pedestrian mall on St. Catherine, between St-Hubert and Papineau streets.

What if bus stops were designed as if bus stops really mattered? (Switchboard)
There are still bus stops that are no more than a sign on a pole, although many now have some form of shelter from wind and rain, and some have sophisticated service information posted, the most advanced ones with real-time updates.  But there is still a sense of functionality about most bus stops, whose design and amenities tend to lack imagination. That is now changing in Paris, where the RATP (Régie Autonome des Transports Parisiens), the city’s dominant transit agency, is piloting “l’arrêt de bus du future” — or bus stop of the future — for five months at a stop outside the Gare de Lyon.

Sydney Builds Separate Bike Lanes, Ridership Skyrockets 82% (Treehugger)
New research on cycling habits is in from Sydney, and it turns out that city dwellers are less likely to start biking if they’re afraid a lumbering SUV might crush their back tire or that errant car doors will send them over their handlebars. Who knew?

Three Great Stop Motion Shorts Not to be Missed (Colossal)

Company peddles bike helmet vending machines in Vancouver (The Vancouver Courier)
The company negotiating with the city to implement a massive public rental bicycle system next spring plans to sell helmets in vending machines to accommodate the province’s mandatory helmet laws.

Milestone for 4 World Trade (Arch Daily)
Last week, the final steel beam rose 977 feet into the air and was placed atop 4 World Trade Center – the 72-story tower designed by Pritzker Prize-winning Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki.

Imagine: A pedestrian mall down the middle of the eight-lane Granville Bridge? (The Vancouver Sun)
It may never come to pass, but an artist’s concept of a wide tree-lined pedestrian mall down the middle of the eight-lane Granville Bridge has become the signature idea for how Vancouver wants to modernize its transportation system.

Rebuilding downtown from scratch: striking images and a video from Christchurch (Switchboard)
Christchurch, a city of about 367,000 people (460,000 including the near surrounding area) and New Zealand’s second largest, has been forced to reconceive its downtown and many neighborhoods following a disastrous series of serious earthquakes beginning in 2010.

A New York Loft That Prizes LEGOs As Much As Mies’s Barcelona Chair (Architizer)
If there’s anything to be learned from May’s record-breaking 105 feet-tall LEGO tower in Seoul, it’s that LEGOs can, in fact, be used to build. Case in point, the  Marks/Caride Residence, a recently renovated Chelsea loft that features a staircase with railing made from nearly 20,000 LEGO blocks.

Rewarding Good Design Deeds — SEED Certification and Public Interest Design

Catherine Calvert, AIA
Director of Community Sustainability, VIA Architecture

I recently attended a two-day training course at the University of Washington on the SEED certification system, sponsored by the Public Interest Design Institute.  SEED (an acronym for Social, Economic, Environmental Design) is a framework developed to assist community-focused projects in establishing objectives, following a holistic and inclusive design process, and measuring success using self-defined goals.  Similar only phonetically to another well-known sustainability rating system, the SEED system uses a grass-roots approach to both certification and the design process itself — membership and certification are free, projects must grow out of community need and involve communities as an integral part of the work, and no prescribed points are defined for a project to meet.  The SEED Evaluator allows socially-based projects to achieve third-partyvalidation, encouraging both transparency and accountability, and creates a new standard intended to be used by community organizers, leaders, designers, and funders to measure the public interest design aspects of design projects.

Pomegranate Center collaboration in Walla Walla (photo credit Seattle Times)

The course was led by Bryan Bell, a well-known advocate for public interest design, founder of Design Corps, and author of books such as “Good Deeds, Good Design”  and “Expanding Architecture: Design as Activism”.  Deeply respected in the architectural community for his pioneering work in socially conscious design, Bell is a natural mentor, keen to further the concept of public interest design and to engage a broader part of thearchitectural profession in recasting its role in the community. The course featured several representatives from the local Seattle community who have based their practice on community focused work, such as Milenko Matanovic from the Pomegranate Center , Rachel Minnery and Sally Knodell from Environmental Works, Jeff Hou from the University of Washington, and Steve Dombrowski from GGLO.  Other presenters included Lawrence Cheng from Boston, Michael Murphy from MASS Design Group, and Jamie Blosser from the Sustainable Native Communities Collaborative. All presenters shared rich case studies of engagement with community problem-solving through design, with situations ranging from restoration of a Pueblo community in New Mexico to construction of medical clinics in Rwanda.

There was particular emphasis on the business considerations of socially conscious practice, as so many for-profit architectural practices struggle with the issues of wanting to do good works in the community, but also needing to be financially sustainable. With economic times being challenging and fees highly competitive, conventional models of architectural practice sometimes afford limited opportunity to provide pro bono or reduced-fee work. Bell’s challenge to the group was to let the business opportunities grow from immersion in community issues; sometimes this means helping clients create a case for funding, and other times may mean formation of a not-for-profit architectural practice that can apply for its own research grants.

The premise and mission of public interest design is that “Every person should be able to live in a socially, economically and environmentally healthy community.”  Early development in the green movement was focused heavily on the environmental aspects of design; a decade later we are coming around to understanding design’s long-abdicated responsibility for supporting human health and wellbeing through social relevance.  Beyond SEED, many other bright minds in the sustainability field are looking at similar issues, with particular emphasis on developing appropriate metrics for measuring the success of social initiatives on a scale from individual projects to entire neighborhoods.

What these systems share is a willingness to wade into the areas that are slippery and less conducive to empirical measurement.  The “social” or “human” aspects of sustainability, when considered by sustainability rating systems, tend to stop at measures such as air quality, accessibility, safety or noise reduction, all of which can be converted to metrics.  The greater challenge is to use design to take on issues such as health, biodiversity, homelessness, food access, and other similar kinds of problems.  The SEED Evaluator enables teams to establish project-appropriate goals that are self-defined, and to measure success against these.  Successful projects completed under SEED also emphasize evidence-based design, or the “importance of using credible data in order to influence the design process,”, popular in health-care architecture and now being applied to other problems.

What is significant about the SEED Evaluator is that it requires a period of time to pass following completion of construction in order to account for the experience of the occupants and users as evidence of the project’s success.  Architects are accustomed to being “done” when the ribbon is cut, and feedback from our clients one or two years into occupancy often relates to deficiencies or warranty items rather than actual building performance.  Remaining open to, and welcoming, a feedback loop that extends this relationship over a long period of time represents a mindset shift for designers.

The other significant aspect of community-based design is its emphasis on humanism.  Our profession has a bad reputation for overlooking human needs in favor of aesthetics.  By contrast, public interest design places high priority on the concept of invisible structures, or the connections between organizations, communities, and people that are created through collaboration, and the supporting mechanisms that need to be in place to make this kind of collaboration successful.

The Public Interest Design Institute website:

SEED Evaluator website: