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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

Sustainable Transit Design: Accomplishing More by Building Less

By Catherine Calvert, Director of Community Sustainability,VIA Architecture
Photo: Canada Line, credit Ed White 

There is a common misconception in the design of large infrastructure projects like transit systems that the inclusion of sustainable design strategies is an “add-on” that increases project cost.  In our experience, sustainable design strategies are actually an effective means of: 1) Bringing Value to the project; and 2) Reducing Risk to the transit agency.

Good sustainable design is actually a form of radical common sense that can challenge some of the assumptions that accompany current transit design principles.  Using a combination of critical thinking and creativity, the integrated design process examines each component of a transit system to determine if each is necessary (rather than expected), and if each is able to serve more than one function.  In Permaculture terminology, this is known as “stacking”, and is the way that natural systems find high levels of efficiency by having each element serve many needs simultaneously.  This often means that more can be accomplished by actually building less.

In terms of Risk Reduction, current approaches to risk management tend to focus on issues that may occur in the period from Design through Commencement of Service – cost escalation, time escalation, and disruptions to the delivery process.  However, unlike other types of commercial development, transit agencies build their facilities to have an ultimate design life of 100 years or more, with capability for 50 years of continuous operation before refurbishment is necessary.  Far greater risks exist that are associated with the lifetime of the system, many of which can be mitigated using sustainable design strategies:

Lifetime risk
Sustainable design response
Cost and availability of electric power in the region
Design for reduced energy consumption and energy recovery
Wear and tear on transit facilities
Specifying for durability
Climate change impacts
Design for extreme weather events
Ridership meeting projected levels
Creating appealing, people-oriented facilities


Sustainable design therefore brings long-term Value on three levels:  to the Project, to the System, and to the Community.  To the Project, this means potential reductions in capital cost by finding synergies through the integrated design process.  To the System, it means bringing long-term value through energy savings, reducing life cycle cost, and using good design to attract ridership.  And to the Community, it means supporting public health by encouraging transit ridership, enhancing environmental quality, and providing mobility options that are integrated with public spaces.

In our transit design work, we have explored many opportunities to find “stacking” synergies.  Here are some examples of this philosophical approach:

Vertical Circulation:

For underground or elevated stations, it is common practice in transit design to include a combination of stairs, elevators, and escalators to provide vertical access to street level.  Elevators are essential for those with disabilities, or for the convenience of travellers with strollers or luggage.  Stairs are also essential, but escalators are worth reconsideration in some situations where lower ridership is anticipated.

From a functional perspective, escalators have the advantage of moving large numbers of passengers quickly and efficiently, but strictly speaking their function is redundant to that of stairs and elevators.  When provided the option of stairs or escalators, human nature is for people to take the escalator, even if they are capable of taking the stairs.  Escalators however have a high capital cost, a high level  of required maintenance, and high ongoing energy costs as they generally run continuously whether they are carrying people or not.

Some systems have addressed this issue from a variety of perspectives.  At the Copenhagen Metro, a deliberate choice was made to eliminate escalators from underground mezzanine levels to the surface in order to promote public health through the use of stairs.  On Sound Transit’s U-Link project, escalators were selectively deleted at some station entrances for cost reasons, where lower anticipated passenger volume did not warrant the high level of associated investment.  When eliminating escalators, it is advisable to increase the capacity of stairs in order to compensate for the reduced efficiency of moving large numbers of passengers quickly.

Photo Credit: VIA Architecture

Some transit designers have also found whimsical solutions to vertical circulation– as demonstrated by the ProRail Transfer Accelerator at the recently renovated Overvecht Rail Station in Utrecht, Holland and the musical stairs installed at Odenplan, Sweden. Both are playful means of encouraging passengers to exercise while taking transit.

Lighting Strategies:

Lighting strategies can be a significant contributor to reducing long-term energy consumption at transit stations.  Key principles include:

  • Use high efficiency fixtures with long lamp life
  • Use high light-reflectance materials to reduce the quantity of lighting required
  • Use controlled integration of daylight and electric light

Waterfront station, Canada Line, Vancouver: The Canada Line lighting design achieved energy savings by means such as avoiding over-lighting, integrating daylight sensors, and scheduling the lights to turn off during non-revenue hours.

Good integrated transit design includes an ongoing dialogue between structural design, urban design, and landscape teams to develop solutions that solve many issues simultaneously.  Some good examples of this type of “stacking” are as follows:Landscape and Structural Synergies:

Commercial Station, Millennium Line, Vancouver – this station platform was sited in the former Grandview railway cut, which is located several meters below street level.  During the public consultation process for the station design, local residents were concerned about the loss of habitat in the cut and about preserving the green space that it provided in the highly urban neighborhood.  VIA’s design solution was to line the east side of the cut using a stacking, precast ‘green wall ‘system that not only retained the soil but also provided space for planting and associated habitat.

Photo Credit: Ed White

Canada Line, Vancouver – one of the common issues associated with transit infrastructure is vandalism and anti-graffiti strategies.  On the Canada Line, the design team used a series of trellis structures around guideway columns to act as ‘green screens’.  These not only discouraged graffiti but also provided enhanced opportunities for landscape in the surrounding urban environment.  Green screens of this nature can also be used on bridge abutments, and the screens can be made hinged or demountable to allow for structural inspections as required.

Materials Strategies:
Many creative strategies are available to the design team that relate to the use of materials.  These fall into several general categories – Reuse and Salvage, Local materials, and Design for Durability.  Some examples are as follows:

Reuse and Salvage – Transit agencies that have been constructing systems for many decades often have a “boneyard” or similar source of materials that have been salvaged from previous projects, for use in current project design.  The re-envisioning and re-purposing of these materials can provide a creative design challenge to architects and urban designers, saving embodied energy and capital cost.

Photo Credit: Waterleaf Architecture

Where new transit projects require building demolition, it has become increasingly common to have salvage goals written into demolition contracts.  These materials can either be repurposed within the transit project, or accounted for as credit within the demolition contract.

Local Materials – The Millennium Line SkyTrain extension in Vancouver pioneered the use of wood in modern transit structures, a material not used for transit design for many decades.  On very old systems such as the London Underground and the Chicago “El”, it is still possible to see wood used in escalators and station platforms, but wood had generally been eliminated from transit design due to concerns about fire hazard, durability, and other technical considerations.

Three of the Millennium Line stations designed by VIA – Rupert, Renfrew, and Commercial – featured wood beams as prominently visible structural members.  This choice was made for a variety of reasons:  to honor the historical context of the timber industry in British Columbia, to promote the use of new wood technologies, and to add warmth and richness to the visual environment of the station platforms.  In order to address the technical concerns associated with wood, three ‘rules of engagement’ were established to govern the appropriate use of wood: 1) that it be located out of the ‘touch zone’, or minimum 3 meters above the platform surface, to prevent vandalism; 2) that it be completely weather protected; and 3) that it be dimensionally stable, in this case through the use of glu-lam technology.

Photo Credit: Ed White

Design for Durability – Often the most underrated form of sustainable design, the specification of materials that are durable is essential to successful transit design.  Not only does this save long-term cost associated with ongoing replacement or refinishing but it also avoids the indirect costs associated with station closures and down-time due to maintenance activities.  The use of stainless steel for transit handrails, as well as precast concrete or stone stair treads, and porcelain tiles for platform and concourse pavers, are essential strategies in durable transit station design.

In summary, good sustainable design directly supports good transit design.  A robust integrated design process will reveal the opportunities for efficiencies and synergies between disciplines, resulting in both short and long term cost savings and economies of effort during design and construction.

Monday News Roundup

Aug 22, 2011

Thanks to all our loyal fans and followers! To keep you up to date here’s a roundup of the most interesting links from last week:

Lego Greenhouse(Design Milk)
Entitled the “LEGO Greenhouse”, this large-scale installation will be made entirely out of the iconic building blocks, begging the question: is it possible that life-sized LEGOs could be used to build structures?

The Importance of Regional Planning (Sustainable Cities)
Planning at the regional scale is critical. In order to meaningfully influence environmental impacts associated with development, land use, and transportation, we must act at a level where central cities and suburbs can be considered together.

Playgrounds Pop Up in New York (Planetizen)
Neighborhoods in New York City have built temporary “pop-up” playgrounds in an effort to encourage more physical activity among children

How Urban Design is Changing Architecture (Sustainable Cities)
A group of design and media luminaries have been inspired to develop and implement an educational program aimed at preparing designers to address complex problems in Russia and around the world.

How Green is Your Bicycle Commute?(Inhabitat)
With bike sharing and committed bike lanes on the rise, it seems like biking would be the no-brainer option for an eco-friendly commute, and yet some critics ponder if biking is actually better than taking the bus or a cab…

Can Issaquah residents come together? (Issaquah Reporter)
The latest draft of the Central Issaquah Plan focuses on transportation, density, and connectivity.

What Makes a Resilient City? (Sustainable Cities)
“Resilient” meaning cities that can last, make it through crises, possessing inner strength and resolve, as well as appropriate built form and physical infrastructure.

By Catherine Calvert, Director of Community Sustainability, VIA Architecture

This past June I had the pleasure of attending the Congress for the New Urbanism conference (CNU 19) in Madison, Wisconsin. Never having been to Madison, I arrived with no prior knowledge about the city, and was wholly unprepared for the strong sense of the commons that I experienced there.

Madison is quite unique in its city planning; a small downtown set on an isthmus between Lake Mendota and Lake Monona, and located in its pivotal center is the state capital building.Completed in 1917, this imposing white domed structure forms the terminus of each radial street in a rigid 8-point symmetrical geometry.The immediate surroundings of the Capitol grounds are a formal, tree-lined park that forms a significant green space in the center of the city.This is markedly different from our Washington state Capitol in Olympia, which is set away from the urban center in a campus setting with other legislative facilities.

(Photo Credit:

(Photo Credit: alumroot @ Flickr)

(Photo Credit: VIA Architecture)


At VIA and the Community Design Studio, we talk about rediscovering “The Commons”.Wikipedia defines this as a term that refers to resources that are collectively owned or shared between or among communities, and attributes to Peter Barnes several characteristics of commons: “The first is that the commons cannot be commodified – and if they are – they cease to be commons. The second aspect is that unlike private property, the commons is inclusive rather than exclusive — its nature is to share ownership as widely, rather than as narrowly, as possible. The third aspect is that the assets in commons are meant to be preserved regardless of their return of capital.” (Reference 1)Although commons can refer to any collective cultural asset, from an urban design perspective, the commons is associated with public space.Civic in character, the commons is used for a variety of community gatherings such as celebrations, or any other kind of event dedicated to public assembly and enjoyment.The traditional village green once served this function, and in a larger city, public squares, parks and streetscapes now also become the milieu for communal urban life.

(Photo Credit: VIA Architecture)

(Photo Credit: Berkeley image bank)

During my few days in Madison, the capitol grounds provided two excellent illustrations of the use of the commons as the spatial backdrop for collective expression.On a Friday evening, there was a gathering of protestors opposing provisions in the state’s Budget Repair Bill proposed to restrict public employee collective bargaining and address a state budget shortfall.This was one of a series of protests at the capitol that had occurred over the previous few months, and this particular evening’s gathering was peaceful, accompanied by significant police presence, and with the other activities of a Madison summer evening carrying on in the immediate surroundings.

(Photo Credit: John Hart, Wisconsin State Journal)

The next morning at dawn, with no trace of the gathering of the prior evening, the Dane County Farmer’s Market was in full swing.Operating continuously since 1972, this market is the largest producer-only farmer’s venue in the country.Tents are set up around the entire perimeter of the capitol square, with so many customers each week that pedestrian flow operates in a counter-clockwise direction only.

(Photo Credit:

The demonstration of abundance in early June, in comparison to the products of our record-cool Northwest spring, was staggering.Madison is considered a national hot spot for farmer-chef connections and is the home of many restaurants notable for their celebration of local cuisine.With this kind of bounty outside their front doors, it is easy to see why:

(Photo Credit: VIA Architecture)

Among the keynote speakers at the Madison CNU gathering was Andreas Duany, one of the leaders of the New Urbanist philosophy. In his 2011 book on Agrarian Urbanism (Reference 2), Duany discusses some flaws associated with New Urbanism that have become apparent with the “diminished circumstances confronting the 21st century”.Among these is the assumption that social interaction would be based around retail shopping as leisure occupation, which has now been proven unsound as Americans readjust their priorities and adapt to a new economic reality.Duany proposes that the farmer’s market (resulting from surrounding agrarian activities) becomes the new urban condenser, and that societies coalesce around two major activities – the selling and exchange of food, and the community hall as gathering place.Madison provides an interesting demonstration of this approach; using the backbone of the civic space to support both the energy of the market and the passionate beliefs of its citizens.It is helpful to look to cities like Madison as precedents that demonstrate a more deeply rooted understanding of what the commons should be, rather than to models of newer development that often apply a ‘surface treatment’ of the commons by over-utilizing retail to simulate civic life.

We have written previously about the Transition Towns movement and the desire by many communities to rediscover the power of the collective.Madison is an inspiring model of a town that is using both its historic infrastructure and its present-day vitality to strengthen urban-rural connections and maintain the importance of its commons.As designers we can continue to be mindful of the importance of our public spaces, and to ensure that our community assets include well-designed, appealing and appropriately scaled gathering spaces that serve our civic needs and reinforce the sense of place that expresses our communities.

Reference 1:
Reference 2: “Theory & Practice of Agrarian Urbanism,” Andreas Duany and DPZ, 2011, The Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment.

Monday News Roundup

Aug 08, 2011

Happy Monday! Here’s what you missed last week:

Fantastical Concept City Moves in Circles (Planetizen)
If the whole city is moving, does that technically make the city itself a form of transit? This video explains that transit is unnecessary in a rotating city: your office building will come to you.

New Data on Walkable Neighborhoods, Cities (Switchboard)
A recent survey of 7,000 “avid walkers” found a variation to the rule:  within each level of population density (low, medium, high), the proportion of frequent walkers increases as the perceived walkability of the neighborhood goes from low to high.Sustainable Skyscraper Could Meet 20 Percent of City’s Food Demand(Sustainable Cities)

The “London Farm Tower” is a sustainable buildingconcept that can actually cultivate 1.5 million pounds of fresh produce per year! Offering a way to combat urbanization and diminishing agricultural lands, the London Farm Tower operates much like a tree, depending on solar energy and rain water to grow and survive.

The Car is No Longer King in Boston(Planetizen)

Mayor Thomas Menino declared that “the car is no longer king in Boston” as the Hubway bike-sharing system made its debut this week, putting the city abreast with Washington D.C.

World’s Tallest Blog Post: World’s Tallest Building(Archidose)
It’s all about the next contender for the tallest building in the world: Kingdom Tower would surpass the Burj Khalifa by at least 173 meters (567 feet). Kingdom Tower in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia would be over 1 kilometer tall…not yet a mile but pretty tall nevertheless.

Greenery Clad Housing Complex (Inhabitat)
This 11-unit apartment complex is made from 100% recycled steel and fully clad in greenery

Could you live in a 4-foot-wide home? (Apartment Therapy)
Even if your apartment is big, your building is likely only a few feet from the buildings next door. Most of us just walk right on by these gaps without a thought – but writer Etgar Keret noticed a four-foot-wide space in Warsaw, Poland and decided to build a home there.

Want to speed up your transit? (Planetizen)
Follow San Francisco’s lead and let your passengers enter any door they please, says Yonah Freemark. A pilot program on the J-Church line is testing out the idea.

Where in the World? A Google Earth Puzzle (The Atlantic)
Looking at the world through via Google Earth offers striking images of the diversity of our planet and the impact that humans have had on it. Today’s entry is a puzzle. We’re challenging you to figure out where in the world each of the images below is taken.

A Trip to Denmark

Aug 05, 2011

by Graham McGarva, VIA Architecture

Jan Gehl is probably the best tour guide you could hope for in Copenhagen. And so it was, after luxuriating over a couple of long lunches together, wherein the topic of grandchildren was as least as prominent as kamikaze cyclists and professional liability insurance, my wife Susan Baker and I took Jan’s marked up map with us over several succeeding days of walking and cycling.

We rented bikes for 3 days, and traversed the city north-south-east and west. We enjoyed both the sunshine and the rain (having learned to wait on our bicycles under a big tree when a short downpour rolls in). We found almost all the special bits of street and park that Jan pointed us to, especially enjoying those pockets where people clearly pour their daily affection.

Highlights came in contrasts.  One was exploring the intimate streets at the edge of Osterbro with its, colour, texture and even the impromptu children dancing in the middle of the streets.  The all jammed in together, built as workers housing more than a century ago, but now a where-all-the-intelligentsia-want-to-live-there kind of place.  We walked through several of these environments, such as Jan Gehl extols in his book “Cities for People” on our way to the FC Kobenhaven soccer match where we watched them win the Danish Championship at the stadium just around the corner.

Another highlight was the wasteland of Orestad.  You can read all about its cleverness in the excellent BIG archicomic “Yes is More”, or you can enjoy the cycle there and back, stunned by its lack of beating heart in its relentless cleverness.  At the end of nowhere – otherwise known as a crashed up building called Otellalet, was a pleasant café, where the resident hermits came to gather. The ideas are visible, give everyone the freedom of an outlook of endless open air, and we don’t need to walk past anyone as we are all virtually connected, just a click away.

Right away I THOUGHT I understood what I was seeing played out – the gulf between the generations.  Expressed in Osterbro’s repository of safe memories that appeals to the baby boomer generations; in contrast with Orestad’s cyber space of openness, a clear reflection of the younger generation breaking free from convention.  However, it was the young kids who were happily playing in Osterbro’s city centre streets.  And it was a retiree walking his dog along the canal bank, who told us how he loved living in Orestad, much more amenity that the suburb he came from and well served by the metro and the shopping mall for everything that he might need.

The commonality of both environments was that in both the car was “coped” with (and very expensively) – both are about qualities of amenity, that the in-between of the suburbs cannot address.

What was not apparent, from all the construction and renovation, is that all this is to accommodate a country with a shrinking population, not growth.  This is about choice, not necessity nor affordability.

In our corner of the world, accommodating 30% growth in 30 years with any measure of affordability is the primary challenge. And the new places at the edge must have the qualities of the centre.  So with our tightly constrained land base, I see Orestad and automatically in that emptiness of place, I  think of opportunity for urban infil.  However I am sure it would take a doubling of density to make a meaningful local impact – which I am also sure is not the expectation of the current residents. These are the subrubanites, now freed from the tyranny of their car.

So, with neighbourhood life held hostage within the fortress walls of the shopping palace, I guess that a century could pass before the energy will build for the regeneration that I might envisage. That is about the time a neighbourhood seems to go from ‘ordinary’ to ‘slum/wrong side of the tracks’, to ‘exclusive’.

That is also the time it took Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens to go from being a leftover portion of the City’s military ring of defensive moats and ramparts, to being the amusement park that you have to take your children to  (grandchildren for Jan Gehl).  Thinking that over, don’t highway cloverleafs just make you immediately think of future ice cream cones and candy floss!

(Remember – the goal of city building is for the cafe canopy to be in the right place).