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Monday News Roundup

Oct 17, 2011

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

Oct 10, 2011

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 vs. Urbanists (Planetizen)

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

Oct 03, 2011

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)

By Graham McGarva, Founding Principal, VIA Architecture

The Vancouver Transportation Plan outlines an overall transportation strategy for the city

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday News Roundup

Sep 19, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

Impacts of Wider Stop Spacing (Human Transit)
Moving bus stops further apart achieves a range of benefits in speed and potentially frequency.  Zef Wagner from Portland Transport studies the claim in the Portland context.

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

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

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

The Role of Transit in Natural Disasters (Seattle Transit Blog)

Re-Purposing Alleyways

Sep 16, 2011
Re-Purposing Alleyways

By Jordan Lewis, Intern, VIA Architecture

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

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

Photo of World Cup Alley, 2010, Pioneer Square, credit: Jordan Lewis

In Melbourne Australia, ‘laneways’ have been successfully revitalized following a study by Gehl Architects and Planners in 1994. The city of Melbourne encourages and provides grants to local businesses and artists to enhance the character and diversity of these intimate city streets.

Photo of Melbourne Alley, Australia

In Fort Collins, Colorado the city has recently embarked on a downtown alley enhancement program. Plantings, outdoor lighting, murals, bike racks and even a piano encourage pedestrian foot traffic and biking.

Photo of Fort Collins, CO, credit: Lisa McShane

In San Francisco, the ‘Linden Living Alley’, has become a successful pilot project for the city to development a network of green streets, particularly in areas under-served by public parks.

Photo of Linden Alley, San Francisco, credit: Flickr – NeighborhoodParks

Although alleys take up a significant portion of space within our cities (streets and alleys combined take up around 30% of the city land) they are often neglected by residents and architects alike as many buildings turn their backs to alleys. By activating existing utility streets and designing buildings that are sensitive to the street level, alleys present great opportunities to create a more vibrant public realm, interweave green spaces and improve pedestrian connections.

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

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


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

Monday News Roundup

Sep 12, 2011

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

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

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

One Path to Better Jobs: More Density in Cities?(Planetizen)

Economist Ryan Avent writes that the statistics show that people who live in denser cities have better jobs and are more productive.

More “Parklets” Pop Up in Vancouver(Planetizen)

Transplanting the wildly popular pilot projects in NYC and SF across the northern border, the City launches VIVA Vancouver program that converts parts of eight streets into public spaces.

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

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

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

Meaningful Sanctuary in a Space for Many

By Kristin Jensen, Interior Designer, VIA Architecture
Photo: The Grex, 1898 

I can say that I enjoy living in an apartment built in 1898, because I am a person who appreciates the design details of the time.  For me, built-ins, high ceilings, solid wood mouldings, large bright windows, and hardwood floors are more important interior details than new appliances, modern heating, or a dishwasher (Okay, I kick myself sometimes for living without a dishwasher.)  There is something so satisfying about coming home to solid interior elements.  They create a sanctuary.
When I say “sanctuary”, I don’t mean a refuge or shelter, “sanctuary” here is like the inmost recess, the holiest part of the church that contains the altar.  I once lived in an apartment where I could hear the woman above me sneeze.  I did very little living that year and a lot of worrying about being quiet to avoid eviction for breathing too loud.   That apartment was a shelter from the outdoors, but it was not a sanctuary.

The once common telephone nook

More than a roof over a head, a sanctuary makes us feel comfortable, secure, and peaceful.  In a sanctuary, we can be dynamic and joyful.  We can create calm.  We can project ourselves into the space and feel reassured in return by the interior’s design.

Simple design elements are part of making a sanctuary, such as wall color; light grey for “calm”, a vibrant yellow for “lively.”  The feeling and choice is as unique as the individual.   As an interior designer, I have the vocabulary to help individuals realize their vision.  But, what happens when designers are speaking for large groups?  The needs of the whole overshadow personal preferences.  In large project architecture firms, this is the interior designers’ challenge.

I am currently working on an Assisted Living project, where EVERYTHING has more purpose and meaning than the average individual eye can see.   For the residents that will live there, it is the type of place that many would understandably be reluctant to call home.  Whereas a personal sanctuary reflects individual choices and independence, most assisted living residents will move in with neither.  Yet, it is the space that will last longer than their memories and will likely be the last interior space image they remember.

The design elements of assisted living are driven by operational and elder care needs.  Wall color that is soothing, lighting for older eyes, stain resistant carpet – those are easy.  But, choosing carpet that doesn’t disturb depth perception, chair rails that are really hand rails, wall coverings that indicate floor levels, and room dividers that act as walker storage are the things that an individual doesn’t notice, let alone think about.

Every design element has a reason, everything has a purpose, every detail is meaningful.  Designing a space to function well is integral to the purpose of the building as a whole. Allowing the space to address individual emotional needs are also essential to creating a sanctuary for a large number of residents.  We can create interior spaces that are harmonious to surrounding communities and residences to bring inside some of the much needed outside. For example, many residents will find a lonely bench in a long corridor as a much needed friend.  A prominent place in each room to display a treasured piece of themselves will let residents show everyone who they are.

Memory Box

Once the common areas are defined and designed, it comes back to the details.  It is in the details that a space becomes  an inviting place and a room becomes a sanctuary.  The challenge is knowing that it is ultimately the individual who decides what is meaningful to them and what is simply “taking up space.”  Wrestling with these details is all an investment in sanctuary.  I think about it all the time.  I think of details that convey the feelings we get from a piece of art or from something as simple as a smile.   I think, back in my apartment, part of my sanctuary is reflected in the sponge that matches the dish towels and pot holders.  Through interior details, large and small, we seek to give the residents on our project the sanctuary they deserve.

VIAVOX: Ken Greenberg Book Reading

By Trey West, LEED® AP, VIA Architecture

One of the world’s foremost urban designers, Ken Greenberg, recently participated in the VIA sponsored VIAVOX series to share a few excerpts from his book, Walking Home, The Life and Lessons of a City Builder. In his first novel, Mr. Greenberg shares his passion and methods for rejuvenating neglected cities and argues passionately for the importance and possibilities of their renewal. Below we would like to share a portion of Ken’s book that he read for us that was especially impactful. It is a narrative wherein he describes a street as it progresses from a city’s downtown or historic core, through the city and into the suburbs. It is a familiar description; one that I find could fit almost any major street in any city.

Ken Greenberg’s Walking Home:


Think of Broadway as it follows New York City’s progress from the tip of Lower Manhattan up the Hudson River or Yonge Street running north, bisecting the heart of Toronto. Consider Commonwealth Avenue wending its way west out of Boston through Brookline then Newton to Route 128 or Woodward Avenue making its way north from the heart of Detroit out past 8 Mile. Picture one of the Parisian Grand Boulevards extending beyond the Périphérique into the vast banlieues. Choose any familiar equivalent in another major city. Though unique in ways, the scenes we would encounter while walking along any of these streets, from their origins in the historic core out to their suburban fringes, would have much in common.

We begin downtown, where the streetscape is snug and compact. The distance from one sidewalk to the unbroken line of building facades on the other side of the thoroughfare is short, and we easily make out expressions on the faces of people across the street. The city blocks are narrow and traffic moves slowly, stopping at frequent traffic signals. Lanes are few and tight, and drivers accustomed to the presence of pedestrians and cyclists know enough to watch for them. When we see something interesting or someone we know on the opposite sidewalk, we can effortlessly cross at a light or jaywalk during a break between cars. Cyclists and drivers make eye contact with us when we negotiate intersections, letting us know that they are as aware of our presence and mindful of our safety as we are of theirs. At frequent intervals, we can shorten our walk and jump on transit—a bus, streetcar or subway train. As we walk, much catches the eye. Most buildings extend right to the sidewalk, and their ground floors are occupied by shops, restaurants and cafés with closely spaced doors and appealing window displays. Offices and residences above the stores contribute a constant flow of people to the busy sidewalks, which are alive with pedestrians of all ages and interests. Some hurry; others stroll and window-shop. Where the sidewalks are wider, we can linger at a café terrace and watch the passing flow. A canopy of trees or awnings may provide shade and shelter. Traffic signals, advertisements and store signs are directed at pedestrians, who also have easy access to newspaper boxes, newsstands, benches, planters, food vendors and, occasionally, impromptu markets or hawkers with tables of knock-off goods.

As our walk takes us out of the historic city centre and into areas that were built more recently, this pedestrian-oriented streetscape begins to change. The basic ingredients remain—the stores, the street hawkers, the residences above—but their form and relationships alter almost imperceptibly, block by block. The roadway pavements gradually expand with more and wider lanes. Sidewalks and other pedestrian spaces contract. At intersections, exclusive left-turn lanes increase the distances we have to walk to get across the street, as do free-flow right-turn traffic lanes called “dog legs.” The blocks get longer, and the distance between safe crossing points increases. Eye contact is lost to distance and increased velocity, and we feel much less inclined to impulsively cross the street to check out a tempting shop window on the other side. Slower-moving seniors, the disabled and people pushing strollers or pulling shopping carts all have to struggle to make it across the street before the light changes, urged on by the flashing timers warning us to clear the intersection. Here, the balance between drivers and pedestrians has shifted. We persevere and continue on our walk.

Gaps begin to appear where missing buildings have given way to parking lots. Our journey is becoming much less appealing. The stores are bigger, with fewer doors and windows to invite spontaneous browsers inside; many are now single- or two-storey buildings, with less discernible or totally nondescript occupancy above. We have to keep a wary eye out for cars crossing our path because the sidewalk is broken up with frequent “curb cuts” for parking and service entrances. The buildings themselves are set back farther from the sidewalk. The remaining window displays are dwarfed by signs standing at the curb or mounted high on the buildings, designed for drive-by viewing. The street may be busy, but here on the sidewalk, we pedestrians are starting to feel a little isolated. A few more kilometres out and the “walls” of the street start to recede even more.

The walk out of the city, from streets with lively sidewalks (photo credit itr.1)

to forlorn traffic arteries lined with parking lots.(photo credit itr.2)

The roadway has become even wider. Shopping plazas sit even farther from the sidewalk—across parking lots, with no pedestrian route to the shop doors. Few trees shade the narrow sidewalk, and an eclectic mix of pavement surfaces keeps breaking our rhythm as we pass gas stations and drive-thrus at larger intersections. We are in a world visually dominated by back-lit signboards. We are clearly in another country. We are meant to drive here. The street is no longer recognizable as a shared public space; it is a single-purpose traffic artery. Malls replace plazas and storefronts are barely visible from our narrow perch on the vestigial sidewalk. The only signs we can see are the corporate logos on otherwise undecorated walls or large post-mounted billboards.

Since no one is expected to walk here, this environment has been constructed with little regard for weather. On a hot and sunny or cold and windy day, this walk goes from being merely unpleasant to downright inhospitable. Walking itself has become dangerous. Intersections are spaced far apart, and jaywalking would be much like running across a highway. And when we do come across an intersection, it comes fully loaded with multiple left turns and even wider free-flow dog legs with large radii for higher-speed right turns. There is so little pedestrian time on the signals that the streets are almost uncrossable. Now, unable to keep up with the speed and single-mindedness of the traffic, cyclists have also become rare, just a few brave souls precariously hugging the curb. Forlorn and isolated bus stops are splashed with advertising. As we trudge on through this hostile territory at the side of the road, we see that human activity has withdrawn from the street. It happens only in the private places where people live, work or shop—in separated, self-contained compounds. Big box stores and power centres alternate with office parks surrounded by their own massive parking pads. Low-density residential enclaves defensively turn their back fences to the traffic artery (the “reverse frontages” that signal surrender in this harsh environment), with blank walls and fences shielding their backyards from traffic. A little farther and there will be no more sidewalks. The public social spaces—the forecourts, doorways, café patios, sidewalk displays, where we meet and connect and that make the city feel convivial—are gone. The walk from the house to the mall is either practically impossible or completely discouraging. These last stages of our journey have been a bit like walking onto the tarmac of an airfield or into the tunnel from the subway platform: the signs and signals that exist are meant for creatures of another order. How did this happen?

This imaginary journey illustrates a succession of changing beliefs, values and practices that followed World War II. For the better part of the twentieth century, we had concluded that cities as we knew them were obsolete, and we abused them, devalued them and fled them in much of the Western world. And the city street—the most potent expression of a city’s most admirable qualities—is where we now witness, most vividly, the city’s subsequent demise. Two profound shifts caused this situation. First, cities and their planners started to give highest priority to the unencumbered movement of automobiles and elbowed aside all other concerns. This was seen and accepted as progress. Secondly, the very concept of the city street as a valuable social space was killed, and every component of the corpse was picked over and made into the province of specialists, who paid little heed to the way their work affected the quality of the whole. The traffic engineers dealt with moving vehicles, the municipal engineers were responsible for the arrangement and maintenance of services and utilities, the transit planners determined the location and frequency of transit stops, the emergency service providers dealt with ensuring access—and so on. The parcelled-out world that resulted after a few decades of this fragmented approach to managing cities began to look and feel a lot like the incoherent and haphazard artery of our imagined walk out of town.

Click here to buy the book — as you can see from this excerpt, it’s definitely worth it.

Monday News Roundup

Aug 29, 2011

The best from last week:

Reversible Lanes Puzzle Drivers(Planetizen)

The 10-lane Kennedy Expressway in Chicago is forced to manage significantly more traffic than it was designed to handle. Traffic planners have installed a flexible lane that can increase the flow in one direction, but Chicagoans are baffled by them.

Abandoned Bikes Become Flowering Neon Art(Inhabitat)

A group of renegade bike warriors in Toronto have found a way to turn those forgotten bikes into green street art, and after an initial pushback from City Hall they’ve now got Toronto’s government on their side.
Would you pay a bike tax for more bike lanes?(Planetizen)Blogger Chewie suggests a controversial idea – a tax on bicycle sales and repair to go to creating more bicycle infrastructure.

Typographic Transit Maps (Colossal)
Each train route is comprised of a long, repeated list of the station stops from that line. There are maps available for Chicago, New York, London, San Francisco, Boston, and Washington D.C.

Tests of a Well Designed Neighborhood (Sustainable Cities)
In a recent post on his firm’s excellent blog, PlacesShakers and NewsMakers, Scott Doyon reminds us of the “popsicle test” of a well-designed neighborhood:  if an 8-year-old kid can safely go somewhere to buy a popsicle, and get back home before it melts, chances are it’s a neighborhood that works.

5 Cities, 5 Congestion Solutions (Sustainable Cities)
Congestion problems are different in every city, as are the solutions. Here are five cities with five different congestion innovations, each of which has been featured on This Big City in the last two years.

Fair Food (Sustainable Cities)
Hesterman’s guide to growing a healthy, sustainable food system for all