Recent Posts


Back to School: Retirement in a College Town

By Wolf Saar, Director of Practice, VIA Architecture
Photo: Cannon River, Northfield, MN

Retirement in a college town is a growing trend among seniors. As AP journalist Carole Feldman writes in her article More Retirees Head Back To College Towns“College is not just for the young. With many people seeking a retirement that is culturally active and intellectually stimulating, colleges and universities are working to bring retirees to their campuses and towns, offering them free or reduced-rate classes, artistic performances or lectures.”  This is an enticing prospect to ponder, particularly because Pullman, Washington, home to Washington State University, is on Real Estate’s list of top college towns for adults. Proximity to a college environment provides access to intellectual opportunities, arts, and culture. A smaller community can offer greater public safety and a livable, walkable environment easier to afford than in a large urban center.

The Pacific Northwest abounds with smaller communities that contain major higher education institutions. Besides Pullman, Ellensburg, two hours east of Seattle, is home to Central Washington University; Eastern Washington University is in Cheney (near Spokane); and Western Washington University is in Bellingham in northwest Washington. Oregon’s largest public universities are in the smaller communities of Eugene and Corvallis, and Kelowna is home to the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus. Community colleges and private institutions expand this list of institutions that reside in smaller communities. Most of these institutions offer persons 65 and older tuition and fee waivers for auditing classes, a wonderful opportunity to expand knowledge, interact with people of all ages, and continue to participate and grow. But, this is merely the tip of the iceberg of what a college town offers.

Each college and department within the university routinely sponsors lectures, presentations, and events outside of the day-to-day curriculum. This provides a depth and richness of experience not always available in smaller communities. WSU’s School of Communications hosts the annual Murrow Symposium, which includes an annual lifetime achievement award; this year’s recipient is Dan Rather who will speak at the symposium this September in Pullman. Besides drawing leaders in their fields, college campuses draw world-renowned cultural events either directly or through other organizations in the community. Theater, music, concerts, as well as exhibitions of art and culture are all part of college life.

Being smaller towns, college communities tend to be walkable and affordable, catering to the limited budgets of students. Due to the demands of a student population, the amenities that a college town draws are often more extensive than a similarly-sized community that doesn’t need to cater to those needs. Businesses that would normally only be able to justify their existence in a larger population center can prosper in a smaller college community. Even though these are relatively compact communities, transit is typically available and robust, therefore reducing the need for a car on a daily basis. Diverse and interesting restaurants are typical of the college town and generally provide a range of choice that spans from fast food to five-star restaurants.

The fact that universities, by virtue of their connectedness to the world, demand ready access to transportation usually results in good airline, bus, or rail access, facilitating both travel from the community and access for out-of-town family and friends. This is of major importance to the active senior. This connectedness, as well as the student population itself, usually supports ample health facilities. Some universities even include medical research institutions within the campus, although none is as remote as to not provide ready access to the most sophisticated health care available in nearby urban centers.

Downtown Northfield, MN

So how does college town retirement really look? A few years ago I managed the design and execution of a project in Northfield, Minnesota that focused on creating a condominium community for persons aged 55 and over within a college town. Northfield is home to both Carleton College and St. Olaf College, two renowned private liberal arts colleges. Situated just 30 minutes south of Minneapolis/St. Paul, the community is home to about 20,000 permanent residents. Located along the banks of the Cannon River, Northfield, like many other communities in Minnesota, was a flour milling town, and still boasts the large Malt-O-Meal plant you pass as you enter town from the west.

St. Olaf College, Northfield, MN

It’s a quiet, mid-western town with a Main Street, tree-lined neighborhoods, and a small town atmosphere. This environment is energized by activities associated with the colleges, including concerts by the famous St Olaf Choir. This rich, intellectually stimulating environment has grown a remarkable organization focused on seniors.

In the spirit of “life-long learning,” the Cannon Valley Elder Collegium provides high-quality academic experiences in the humanities for students over age fifty. The faculty members of the Collegium, predominantly retirees themselves, include emeriti faculty from the colleges and retired public school teachers. The focus on “life-long learning” has led to the development of course offerings selected from the liberal arts. A curriculum to challenge participants with serious academic course work is offered to participants and is based upon the personal favorite courses of the instructors, developed during life-long teaching careers. Most courses have a seminar format with learners participating in research and dialogue. There are no prerequisites and previous formal education is not a requirement. Collaborative leadership is encouraged — all participants (faculty and students) have opportunities to take part in forming policy, deciding course offerings, selecting instructors, and evaluating courses.

Cannon Valley Elder Collegium

At the Village on the Cannon, the community includes a library as the focal point as one enters, study carrels, large tables for collaboration, and a large multi-purpose designed as a lecture classroom. These amenities mirror the facilities available at the local colleges and provide the spaces to support the pursuit of learning. Several of the residents are retired teachers and professors, adding to the richness of the community.

Intellectual stimulation keeps us healthier, more connected, active, and feeling relevant as we advance in years. The stimulation goes both ways. The interaction with a university or college provides mutual inter-generational learning opportunities. Although my own son attended community college classes in the midst of “urban” Seattle, he would come back with great stories about his conversations with students in his classes who were in their sixties. As fellow students, elders provided a frame of reference that he had not previously experienced in an academic environment.

As an architect who more recently has been designing communities for seniors in need of assisted living, my pondering goes to the stage of life where an active senior needs more assistance and care. What happens when being a physically “active” senior is no longer possible? Turning back to the example of Northfield, a virtual continuing care retirement community was created by co-locating an assisted living community next to the seniors’ condominium community. This came about through negotiations between the for-profit developer of the Village and the not-for-profit developer of Millstream Commons, the assisted living community. Three Links (a part of the Oddfellows organization) purchased a parcel of land from Collegeville Communities, the developer of the Village. Three Links engaged the same team to design and execute the assisted living community, and we were able to provide such elements as shared access, walkable linkages between the buildings, and ability for the two separate properties to connect. The Cannon Valley Elder Collegium serves Millstream Commons as well as Three Links independent and skilled care communities located elsewhere in Northfield.

Millstream Commons

As established livable, walkable, and sustainable communities, college towns offer up those great attributes that we seek and treasure in our urban centers. They are quieter and offer safety and affordability not always attainable in an urban context, while providing plentiful and robust cultural and intellectual opportunities. The stimulation and interaction so vital to aging successfully in community exists in these places and provides an alternative that is sure to continue to attract seniors back to our college towns.

Monday News Roundup

Apr 09, 2012

Happy sunny Monday morning! Here are last week’s interesting bits:

The End of Sprawl? (The Atlantic Cities)
The story is built around a detailed analysis (supported by a terrific interactive map) of census data on population growth. The authors compared the data from 2006 with data from 2011.

The 100 Mile House (ArchDaily)
If you could construct your house out of materials made, recycled, or found within 100-miles of your lot, would you? And if you did, would you feel proud that you never once stepped into The Home Depot? Would you tout the fact that you took an environmental stand, that you did your bit to help the world?

Seattle Spaces, Gray or Great: They don’t just fall from the sky (City Walker)
Our truly public spaces, the ones that belong to the city and are maintained through city funds are bleak because there are no funds for operations and maintenance. If there is a lovely living landscape, someone has to maintain it.

Swimming Pool Balconies, Bad Idea? (Architizer)
Photos of a possibly risky idea included in the plan for a Mumbai apartment tower.

Subway Platforms From Around the World (The Atlantic Cities)
From the preserved layers of history on the walls in Athens, to the sterile, somber curves in Washington, D.C, each system’s platform offers unique insight into its personality. Varying from utilitarian to whimsical, The Atlantic Cities put together a sampling of platforms from the famous and not-so-famous subway systems around the world.

Squint to See: Almost-Abstract Aerial Photography Series (Web Urbanist)
While taking a community planning course in the midst of his architecture degree program, Alex MacLean was introduced to aerial photography. This introduction would turn out to be a fateful one.

By Graham McGarva, Founding Principal, VIA Architecture

Three key statements from the DVA Forum held on March 27th on Vancouver’s Affordability/Amenity dilemma illustrated the paradoxical nature of the competing forces that must be resolved to maintain any equilibrium in Vancouver’s expectation of livability. Such as:

  • We need more older homes
  • Transit is not about transit, it is about childcare
  • Where is Vancouver?

With the focus of the Forum being “Realities”, a key issue was raised as to whether we have the will to “Rewrite the Amenity Contract.”  Our urban development system has been based on the premise that growth pays for new or expanded amenities, and that property taxes for existing residents are kept as low as possible.  User pay is increasingly an element in programs such as at community centres, in which participation can be seen as discretionary.  However, two essential amenities are vulnerable to dysfunction through the expectation of low property taxes: mass transportation and child care.  Sufficient and affordable child care is essential for a liveable city.  This includes neighbourhood parks and playgrounds, kindergarten, pre-school and after school, in addition to formal elementary and secondary education.  The private car, with its $600 per month average cost, is beginning to recede as the default transportation option, particularly among younger families.  So, mobility access via bus and rapid transit for work, home, and child care, and location of this trinity within immediate reach of the frequent transit network becomes the essential amenity.

Downtown Vancouver has amazed everyone with the number of children clamouring to register for grades one through three at Elsie Roy Elementary in False Creek/Yaletown.  A second Downtown Elementary school at International Village is at the top of the School Board’s priority list for capital funding (the site has already been turned over to the City by the land developer).

However, day care centres are still too thin on the ground, and many young families leave downtown solely for that reason.  Another reason that draws families out of downtown is that by about grade four, the amenity-rich environment for young kids is no longer supportive of the needs of children, neither in terms of out of school programs nor places to assert their growing independence ( itself a topic of broader societal debate).  The omnipresent issues of compressed space in most apartments become larger issues in the lack of supportive amenity to grow up outside the home.  In fact the West End, with its stock of larger, older apartments as well as a High School provides a more supportive child-raising environment.  This data is now being seen in school enrolments and real estate transactions.

A model is emerging whereby Downtown living becomes a time rather than a place.  The expectation has changed over a couple of decades whereby urban amenities activities are what are desired in greater and greater proportion.  Accordingly, the development in the urban nodes of suburbia is increasingly rising in expectation, while the lower land price pressure on the new housing stock improves the raw cost component of housing affordability. The two other axes of the amenity trinity need policies and regulations that address the realities of the present 21st Century amenity dilemma, as opposed the set of expectations that drove the closing decades of the last century.

Other icebergs, whose tips were only briefly touched upon, included the importance of the arts, formal and informal, in urban culture, and that “retirees are not all about health care.”

In addition to the discussion, many of the fifty participants in the forum, gave written ‘snapshots’ commenting on the specifics of affordability and amenity dilemmas that they live with.  All of this material will be carried forward to the second DVA forum at BCIT Downtown Campus on Tuesday April 24th from 7:30-9:00am, where the question of priorities will be explored.

Participants on April 24th from 7:30am to 9:00am:


  • Jennifer Podmore Russell, Deloitte and Touche
  • Gordon Price, SFU City Program
  • Geoff Meggs, Vancouver City Councillor


  • Graham McGarva, VIA Architecture, DVA Vice President

Monday News Roundup

Apr 02, 2012

Happy April! Here are the interesting news bites that the last week of March had to offer:

Leverage the Golden Gate Transportation Monopoly (Sustainable Cities Collective)
You may not realize it, but the Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transit District has an effective monopoly on travel to San Francisco from Marin.  If you take transit, of course, you’re using GGT, but if even if you drive you have a toll to pay.  This gives the district enormous market power to influence the travel decisions made by Marinites, power that it should use for good.

Why Community-Based Planning Works Better Than Anything Else (the Atlantic Cities)
The characteristics that make a city neighborhood great are by no means restricted to upscale developments. Indeed, sometimes older, low- or moderate-income neighborhoods exhibit greater continuity and stronger bonds – a stronger sense of what we call ‘community’ – than do those with higher incomes.  As a result, they can sometimes be the source of extraordinary achievement in urban revitalization.  There may be no more inspiring example of this than the neighborhood surrounding Boston’s Dudley Street, an avenue that runs through the city’s Roxbury district.

MapAttack App Turns Any City into a Virtual Gameboard (Web Urbanist)
The MapAttack! smartphone app for Android phones and iPhones can turn any neighborhood or park into a virtual game board for four to twenty players, encouraging exploration of urban environments.

Illustrating a Commute, One Rider at a Time (the Atlantic Cities)
For the past year, British illustrator Steve Wilkin has used his hour-long commute on the 7:38 a.m. train from the town of Hebden Bridge toward the city of Preston to sketch his fellow passengers in all their commuting glory.

Tehran Tower / CAAT Architecture Studio (ArchDaily)
To combat the harsh reality of the extreme air pollution caused by urban sprawl in Tehran, CAAT Architecture Studio proposed building up, locating massive skyscrapers within the city to house masses of residents centrally.

When a Parking Lot Is So Much More (The New York Times)
The parking lot is the antithesis of nature’s fields and forests, an ugly reminder of the costs of our automobile-oriented society. But as long as we prefer to get around by car (whether powered by fossil fuel, solar energy or hydrogen), the parking lot is here to stay. It’s hard to imagine an alternative.

100 Ways To Conserve [Water] (Water Use It
There are a number of ways to save water, and they all start with you.

Modern design, retro touches: Here comes the new 520 bridge (The Seattle Times)
Construction on the Highway 520 bridge is finally getting down to water level this week, as workers will soon build the fixed sections that extend up from Lake Washington to the Eastside.

At VIA, we’re passionate about living in and contributing to functional walkable and bikeable communities. Our lives are enriched daily by the benefits of being lucky enough to live in cities like Seattle and Vancouver- both hugely bike, transit, and pedestrian-friendly. Benefits of walkable cities range from the obvious- healthier residents and ease of community access, to benefits on a more macro level- lowered crime rates, the rage against climate change, and an overall sense of community livelihood and well-being.

This week, we’ve seen a few interesting bits on bikeable and walkable neighborhoods come through our news feed. Here’s a collection of some of those bits:

The True Cost of Unwalkable Streets, from The Atlantic Cities
This article, through a collection of graphics and images, highlights the American obesity epidemic using informative graphs and statistics, linking those stats to the shapes of our built environments. The article also notes the dangers in many areas of being a cyclist or pedestrian, stating that some streets are just not “complete” in a way they need to be to encourage a more free-flowing pedestrian culture.

The Benefits of a Walkable Neighborhood
“Walking In Your Neighborhood: It’s Not Just a Mild Workout”, from, whose motto is “Drive Less, Walk More”, shares the benefits of creating compact, walkable communities as opposed to poorly planned sprawl.

On, you can also check the “Walk Score” of your current city or neighborhood, or do some research on a new place to hang your hat (and put on your walking shoes) that would be more conducive to an active walking/cycling lifestyle.

Out of a possible 100, Seattle as a whole (taking into account N Seattle, S Seattle, Bainbridge Island, Bellevue, Redmond + Sammamish) scores a 74 for walkability (Very Walkable), and its ‘hoods score higher individually- Denny Triangle scores a 98, Capitol Hill scores a 91, Uptown scores an 89, Downtown scores a 93, and Ballard scores a 94. Metro Vancouver, BC is a Walker’s Paradise with an overall score of 90, and awesome neighborhood scores: 98 in Gastown, 95 in Yaletown, 97 in Chinatown, and 87 in False Creek. To give some perspective to our local scores: Scottsdale, AZ rates a whopping 42, and pedestrian-oriented Boston, MA as a whole checks in at 79 (with neighborhoods jumping into the 98 range).

How Walkable Streets Can Reduce Crime, from
This article touches on interesting points, such as how, in addition to fostering a walkable culture, keeping a city clean can discourage crime occurrence and severity.

Some other great resources to help you stay informed include Bikeable Communities, a go-to network for bicycle-friendly community enthusiasts; The #Walkable Communities Daily on, a daily gathering of interesting articles and Tweets on related topics; and popping into Twitter for a search of #walkable or heading over to a search engine for the latest.

Monday News Roundup

Mar 19, 2012

Hope everyone had a fantastic St. Paddy’s Day weekend!

Here’s the roundup of last week’s most interesting articles:

Envisioning a Havana Bike Culture (Sustainable Cities Collective)
Cuba’s largest city, Havana, lacks a comprehensive sustainable transportation plan. Realistically, the city will not have the means for massive infrastructure for a number of years but cost effective alternatives exist, particularly in biking.

It’s easy to steal a bike in NYC  (
Casey Neistat tries to steal his own bike in several locations around NYC and finds it’s pretty easy…even if you’re doing so right in front of a police station.

Seattle Gets the Street View on the Quality of Its Lights  (The New York Times)
Enlisted by a consortium of power companies, consultants, the Department of Energy, the Seattle Department of Transportation and Seattle City Light, about 300 people were paid $40 each to spend an evening engaged in a civic version of the kind of debate that has taken place in households for some time now: what kind of light do you prefer: old and yellowy or a new and cool white?

Interactive Map Reveals Whether You’re One of 4 Million Americans Threatened by Sea Level Rise  (TreeHugger)
Scientists have been criticized—and have criticized themselves—for failing to do a better job of communicating the risks of global warming to an apathetic American public. A new report, entitled ‘Surging Seas’, has utilized a number of different tools in its authors and supporters’ efforts to carve out some media space for its findings.

SDOT Encouraging Applications for Intersection Murals to Help Calm Traffic (
Seattle Department of Transportation is encouraging neighborhoods to apply for funding to paint a street mural. SDOT says the intersection paintings can slow down traffic when there are no stop or yield signs, and helps bring neighbors together to plan and create the mural.

Why Mobility is Key in Helping the Urban Poor (Sustainable Cities Collective)
Healthcare, energy, education, financial services, agriculture, livelihood creation…social enterprises across the world operate in a wide span of sectors. There is a one lesser-talked-about area, however, that is vital to recognize because it affects the delivery of social impact in all of the above sectors—mobility.

Chicago Hops On Bike Sharing Phenomenon (Planetizen)
Alta Bicycle Share, Inc., of Portland and its equipment manufacturer, Public Bike System Co. have been selected over two competing bids to implement and operate a $21 million network beginning this summer.

Building Artificial Bones with the Help of LEGO Robots (Archetizer Blog)
In what looks like the summer science camps of your youth, researchers at Cambridge University have outfitted their laboratory with two units of LEGO Mindstorms robots, using the micro-structures to automate procedural work.

by Kate Howe, Urban Planner, VIA Architecture
Monday, December 30, 1940 California’s first modern freeway, the “Arroyo Seco,” was born. The event initiated the population’s full embrace of limited access freeways and expressways in a building boom. A year after the passage of Eisenhower’s 1956 Interstate Highway and Defense Act, the California Division of Highways proposed construction of a vast system; 12,250 miles of controlled access highways would serve every city with a population greater than 5,000. In the next decade the dream was made possible by a large infusion of Federal cash (in California, the federal burden clocked in at 91% percent of the costs for designated Interstate Highway mileage), top down planning and few environmental controls. Infrastructure investment throughout the fifties was an extension of post-depression economic development intended to stave off recession, as well as providing one face of the coin for access to the Modern Suburban American Dream.

1958 Bay Area Freeway-Expressway plans (courtesy Erik Fischer Flicker Photo Stream)

Sixty years later, cruising around the State, we alternatively take this infrastructure for granted while also being astounded at the scale of change accomplished in such a short time. Here in Oakland, at the landing of the Bay Bridge’s eastern shore, four highways converge in one of the Nation’s largest distribution systems, completed in the late 1950s. Arguably the zenith of California highway building, it is known locally as “The Maze.”

Oakland’s approach to the Bridge in 1936 – note the pedestrians on the on ramp. (courtesy Erik Fischer Flickr Photo Stream)

2012, the Maze’s elevated freeway routes and a BART train

Highways in Oakland, the port and the Bay as seen from above (Courtesy bats Flickr Photo Stream)

Of course, while they offered new mobility, freeways came at the expense of the health and aesthetic form of a neighborhood. Urban communities were routinely demolished, and concrete barriers entrenched dividing lines that still affect both today’s crime rates and real estate price points.  In West Oakland alone there are 54 Acres of empty space under its freeways; some used for parking, but most is overgrown or used for illegal dumping. Looking back one can almost see the large flows of our Nation’s capital dollars flowing out of the urbanized and industrial urban centers (where labor was strong) and redistributed into greenfield, suburban landscapes where districts could define their own terms with their surroundings.

The freeway system, followed quickly by BART, shuttled people past the rooftops of minority neighborhoods and into new areas that could afford to ignore perceived “urban problems.” In Alameda, multifamily housing was outlawed in the City’s 1973 charter.

City Center… linking Federal Programs for Job Opportunities and Economic Development, May, 1967. Shows the Cypress expressway completed in 1957. The expressway fell down in the 1989 Loma Prieta Quake and was subsequently moved. (courtesy Erik Fischer Flickr Photo Stream)

Census 2010 population distribution of the Bay Area (Red is White, Blue is Black, Green is Asian, Orange is Hispanic, Yellow is Other, and each dot is 25 residents.)(courtesy Erik Fischer Flickr Photo Stream)

Fast forward to today. The last freeway was built in 1991; very few are now proposed. California’s suburban expansion is, arguably, complete. We are now saddled with a strongly anti-tax population that has scaled back its ability to invest in infrastructure, while simultaneously, the cost of infrastructure construction has risen.

High Speed Rail (HSR) is emblematic of this new reality. Despite its real value as a visionary solution to congestion on the 1-5 corridor, it again is representative of a broad  re-distribution of wealth– both federal and state capital back once again into our urban centers. HSR has been using rational planning arguments to battle against what is mostly emotional and fear based, and an entrenched anti-urban position. For many, it is the recognition that those “urban problems” must be shared more broadly. The project is in stalemate, trapped by both the courts and the environmental processes, and may yet be either litigated or legislated out of existence, or return in some scaled-down form.

Transbay terminal downtown San Francisco

The result for the near future is arguably a focus on smaller scale, urban and multi-modal corridor development. These are a broad range of interventions that are less threatening and can have immediate benefit on surrounding populace in safety health and aesthetics. I’ve seen many of these homegrown, community-led conversations throughout northern California, and increasingly in Los Angeles County with a focus on urban-scaled mobility and affordable interventions. While they lack the monumental appeal of a highway program or HSR, the conversations here in the East Bay focus on bridging gaps, rebuilding, and even reintroducing portions of the older systems, such as the East Bay Key system.

Key System Street Car Route 1926

This year, the City of Oakland is initiating a study (for yes, the third time) to look into the feasibility and potential economic development opportunities that would result from a streetcar line connecting Jack London Square with Oakland’s Uptown and MacArthur BART. A $300,000 grant from CalTrans will pay for an updated study. Similarly, AC Transit is on route to construct the Bay Area’s first real BRT along Telegraph Avenue (another of the Key System routes).

Many around our region are in agreement that dollars should be spent where they will benefit the greatest number of people, such as improving those areas that are already fully serviced by good transportation infrastructure and/or mass transit.  However, consensus building takes time, and it has become an increasingly desperate reflection of our times. It’s not a comfortable outcome for everyone, including both those who will see their share of investments shrink, and those who are fighting for a bigger share.

October 2012, Occupy Oakland encampment

Monday News Roundup

Mar 12, 2012

Hope you all had a great weekend! Here’s a roundup of last week’s highlights:

Why Do Green Schools Matter? — Part1 & Part 2 (Sustainable Cities Collective)
London Middle School in Ohio pursues LEED Platinum certification; this article discusses the project a few months after first occupancy, and talks to the school’s principal and superintendent to give us a feel for the impact of the work being done.

Starbucks ‘The Bank’ Concept Store in Amsterdam (Contemporist)
Starbucks Coffee have recently been opening special concept stores in various cities around the world. Last week, their latest concept store known as “The Bank” opened in Amsterdam.

Bicycle Buses Let Dutch Kids Pedal Together to School (Treehugger)
In an age of rising gas prices and skyrocketing cases of childhood obesity, Dutch educators have devised a wonderfully positive way to get kids to and from school — by letting them pedal there themselves on a brand new fleet of bicycle buses.

Tools to Help Cities and Towns Guide Green Development (Switchboard)
A lot of towns and cities now recognize that there is merit in going greener.  They now want to encourage the kind of development that will help reduce pollution and consumption of resources while at the same time saving taxpayer money and providing beautiful, walkable, convenient neighborhoods that give people choices about how to live.  But this is new territory for many jurisdictions that wish to follow good, 21st-century green practices but whose basic authorities governing how to plan and build neighborhoods haven’t changed for fifty years or more.

109 Ideas to Improve 21 Cities  (Sustainable Cities Collective)
Living Labs Global Award 2012 shortlists 109 potentially transformative ideas for 21 cities. Living Labs Global is a non-profit located in Barcelona and Copenhagen, and their annual awards aims to reward ‘companies and organizations that have developed solutions that add high value to users in cities around the world.”

El Paso Commits to a Smarter, Greener Future (Switchboard)
Early last week, the city council of El Paso, the nation’s 19th-largest city, unanimously adopted a detailed comprehensive plan built around the principles of smart growth and green development.
Vancouver Cyclists’ Café Offers Different Spokes for Different Folks (The Globe and Mail)
The café, located in a downtown alley between Hornby and Burrard, will cater to the daily commuters whizzing by on Hornby, now that it has a bike lane, or the weekend warriors who want to park their ride without carrying their own bike lock.

By Katherine Idziorek, VIA Architecture

A recent New York Times article about density in Manhattan caught my attention, both because it asks “how much density is too much?” – a thought-provoking question, if not yet applicable to most U.S. cities, which are nowhere in the neighborhood of “too much” – and also because it brought again to the surface the stance on urban densification taken by Edward Glaeser in his recent book, Triumph of the City. Glaeser, an economist, makes the argument that denser cities are in a broad sense more successful and resilient cities, a point with which I have no general objection, and the explanation of which made for a truly interesting read. It’s one of his solutions to the problem with which I take exception – the specific identification of historic buildings and districts as barriers to achieving increased density and therefore successful urban environments.

Are dense urbanism and historic preservation really at odds with one another? It seems they shouldn’t have to be. In a world awash with “green” language, sustainability could be understood as the development of dense urban environments. It could also be understood as the reuse of existing and still viable building stock that promotes the continuity of unique urban histories and identities.

I was genuinely surprised that Glaeser targeted historic districts as a major impediment to achieving urban density.  This might be a more relevant argument when referencing geographically-confined and historically dense Manhattan (though I’m still not entirely convinced), but what would happen if we tried to apply this logic to the rest of the country? The majority of U.S. cities are certainly not lacking in sites for urban development due to the encroachment of historic districts.

Why focus on replacing older buildings when they have the potential to contribute to our cities in such significant ways? There is lower-hanging fruit out there in terms of achieving greater efficiency in urban development than the replacement of historically and culturally significant structures. What about the areas of our downtowns that are devoted to cars and surface parking?  What if we developed some of that land for housing and supported it with improved transit systems and infrastructure so that new residents wouldn’t need to rely so heavily on cars, much less require an abundance of surface parking lots? This strategy might not be as easy as razing a few city blocks, but it would certainly represent a more transformative and forward-thinking approach to urban densification.

The preservation and conservation of existing building stock is inherently sustainable, and older neighborhoods often act as significant economic engines within our cities.  The Seattle-based Preservation Green Lab (PGL), an initiative of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, is doing some exciting work that supports an emerging economic argument for the conservation of older buildings.  The Greenest Building: Quantifying the Environmental Value of Building Reuse, a study released by PGL earlier this year, analyzes the potential benefits of reusing buildings instead of replacing them. In most cases, the life-cycle costing data reveals that building reuse offers greater environmental savings than demolition and new construction of a comparable facility. This is, of course for a building of equal “density potential” – not new construction with greater capacity. But retaining older structures has other, increasingly quantifiable, benefits – greater environmental savings, more job creation, decreased embodied energy and increased materials savings. Conserving significant buildings also contributes to social and cultural capital while providing city residents with an important connection to place.

The recent debate about and modification of height limits in Seattle’s historic districts is evidence of our own city’s recognition of the desirability of urban density, particularly in areas such as historic but economically distressed Pioneer Square, which could use an injection of population. At the same time, the creation of the Pike/Pine Conservation Overlay District is a policy nod towards recognition of the value of existing building stock that is older, smaller, and though it does not qualify as historic, contributes significantly to a unique and economically vital urban neighborhood. Seattle is also grappling with how to achieve dense but contextual new development in and near historic districts, as evidenced in two Pioneer Square projects-in-progress at the North Lot and 200 Occidental.

Tall buildings are by no means the enemy – but we do need to focus on ways of creating dense urban environments without sacrificing neighborhood character. Part of the appeal of historic districts and older neighborhoods is their human scale and fine-grained texture. Contemporary construction is necessarily of a different scale and character than older structures and districts in the city, a condition driven by changes in building technology and development practices over time. It seems that there is great potential for synergy in retaining a mix of the two – conserving still-viable older buildings while striving for the best in contemporary architectural and urban design for new projects.

Building density isn’t just about replacing smaller buildings with larger ones – it requires an efficient and thoughtful use of every aspect of our urban environment and the provision of the appropriate infrastructure to support it. We shouldn’t frame the question as a need to choose between dense downtowns and conserving significant older buildings – we should instead be asking ourselves how our urban systems can be altered in a more comprehensive way to support increased density while retaining still-viable historic and older building stock, which is in itself evidence of urban resilience.

I know that I’m preaching to the converted when writing to the audience of the VIA blog – it’s clear that contextual design and the critical connections between transit, land use, and dense urban development are understood. So, let’s turn the focus of the original question on one of our own cities: what would a significantly denser Seattle look like?  How would it reflect our values as a city? Would we choose to target our historic districts for redevelopment?  Or would we find other ways to increase our urban population?

Monday News Roundup

Mar 05, 2012

Happy Monday, all! Following are last week’s news, art, planning, and architecture highlights:

Mapping the Happiest States (Planetizen)
Richard Florida reports on a new map showing the results of the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, which analyzes a number of “happiness” factors on a statewide level.

Are Container Houses the future? (Sustainable Cities Collective)
French architect Patrick Partouche recently designed and developed a single-family unit made up of five shipping containers.

California’s Groundbreaking Green Building Ordinance (
California State policies to date have created exceptional green buildings that effectively raise the ceiling for green building. By setting minimum standards, California is doing something equally important: raising the minimum floor.

New York Botanical Garden to Debut Living Wall of Orchids (Architizer Blog)
Famed French botanist Patrick Blanc, renowned for his lush, gravity-defying gardens, has made his way to the New York Botanical Garden this spring to design a series of horticultural walls that will showcase the illustrious tropical orchid.

Is Urbanism Slowing the Rise of Car Travel?  (The Atlantic Cities)
Researchers have been saying for several years now that cities in the United States and other developed countries may have reached “peak driving” — a level of vehicle miles at or near the saturation point.

2030 Carbon Targets May Be Within Reach (
Architecture 2030 says new energy projections from the federal government show the building sector is on its way to achieving long-term goals in energy and carbon reductions.