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Cooperative Housing

May 05, 2010

by Naomi Buell, Marketing Assistant for VIA Architecture

The cooperative housing movement in Canada began in the 1930’s. The intention was to create a safe, collaborative, affordable living model in which people not only relied on their neighbours for a cup of sugar but also to maintain the grounds and make the important governing decisions. Rather than a traditional model in which a building has tenants and a landlord or manager, co-ops wanted their members to be in control and because co-ops have traditionally been subsidized, it was only fair that people give back to their community. This is where committees and a self governing board became integral to a smoothly running co-op. In fact co-op members can be kicked out for not participating.

Today’s co-ops follow the same principles, although I have heard that some are more successful then others. Each member joins a committee which either deals with finance, the newsletter, the garden and grounds, membership or everything else in between or is voted onto the board. The board governs all of the important decisions which are then put to a vote and each member is given one vote. Members join the committees which best utilize their strengths and in return they get a safe, beautiful, friendly place to live. The idea follows the age old Marxist ideal of “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need.” In addition to this, there is also the option to apply for subsidies in rent in case of a layoff, retirement, sickness or anything else affecting income levels.

Given that co-ops are a very ideal way of living, gaining membership can be a difficult and long process. In order to become a member you have to be interviewed to be placed on the waiting list. However many waiting lists are full as space is limited. Our coop has only 4 or 5 one bedroom units so the waiting list for them hasn’t opened in about 12 years. If you are lucky enough to make it to the waiting list the process from there can take anywhere from 6 months to 6 years (and possibly even longer). Once a unit becomes available people on the waitlist are invited to see the unit at which time another interview would be required. If all goes well and your membership is accepted you must then purchase a share of the co-op which can cost anywhere from $600 to $6000+ depending on the coop. From then on you are part of the community. You are responsible for your garden and taking care of your unit but things like appliances and necessary renovations and upgrades are taken care of by the co-op.

Co-ops have been criticized for getting “government hand outs” but this is not a something for nothing scenario. “Co-operatives boast a successful twenty-five year record of sound and cost-effective management, self-governance, sustained public-private partnerships, and participation in broader social issues. This success can be traced directly to the empowerment of ordinary Canadians to own and democratically manage their housing (link).” Contrary to a subsidized building which houses those with little to no income which don’t participate in return, co-ops expect their members to give back and in fact rely on it. They also house people from different income levels to embrace a community consisting of varying socio-economic statuses.

I have recently moved back to the co-op in which I have lived off and on since I was 8 years old as I am subletting from my mom while she is working in another city. Members are only allowed to sublet for a limited time period as the person subletting is not considered a member and does not have the same responsibilities or rights. Having such people living in the co-op for an infinite amount of time would transform it into any regular apartment or town house. Although I am only allowed to be there for a limited amount of time and applying for membership is extremely difficult for me even having grown up there, I love what I would still consider my community. People stop in the stairwell to catch up, there are pot lucks for summer and celebrations in the winter. People invite each other over to their roof top patios to watch the fireworks or for a holiday dinner. Most interestingly of all, when I started at VIA Architecture I learned that one of our founding principals lives across the courtyard from me and has since I first moved in. He was the 3rd member of our co-op which began in 1979 and therefore has a pretty top notch view.

Of course co-ops have had many challenges as well. We all dealt with the leaky condo situation as our building lay buried under scaffolding and green mesh for many months. This in turn led to decreased reserves to fund subsidies. I know that our coop is unable to accept any member that cannot pay full market rent. Of course as a non profit, full rent is about half to a third of what others would pay. The idea that members would pay according to their salaries is something of the past. However, once membership is granted members can apply for subsidies in case of layoff, illness or anything else effecting income levels. Other issues include members that won’t participate or don’t follow the cooperative ideals and some who lack common neighbourly consideration.

Just like any community we have our struggles but at least we are in it together. Recently funding for co-ops has been cut as our operating agreements with the government will begin to end, leaving co-ops to “fund” for ourselves. However we are not doing it as independent unheard tenants but rather as a group of decision makers, working together for a common goal. We will continue to work to make our living space beautiful, liveable, friendly, accommodating, safe and affordable. Not an easy feat but when everyone comes together and cooperates, well that is really what it is all about.

Monday News Roundup

May 03, 2010

Every Monday, we post links to articles and blogs that you may have missed from last week. Enjoy!

Couch Cushion Architecture; A Critical Analysis (Build Blog)
A fun look at couch cushion architecture and how it establishes the “basic building blocks of our design logic.”

Vancouver peddling safer cycle paths (Vancouver Sun)
City wants to boost bicycle ridership in the downtown core with more separated bike paths.

Aging Burrard Bridge not failing: city engineer (Vancouver Sun)
Concrete barriers on the Burrard Bridge are not causing structural problems, city engineers say. The falling pieces of concrete on the south side of the bridge are a normal aging process that officials are monitoring.

A post-Olympic dawn, with a bit of a hangover (Vancouver Sun)
B.C.’s economy has much going for it, but a coherent strategy for the future is still missing

Road Lobbyists Take Hit From Livability Movement (Planetizen)
The concept of “livability” seems to be catching on — both at a local level and up in the federal government. This is especially true in the Department of Transportation. That could mean bad news for the road building lobby.

22 cities exploring streetcar systems (GOOD)
According to Scientific American, 22 cities are actively exploring new streetcar systems.

Urban agriculture upsetting the neighborhood (The Globe and Mail)
Vancouver homeowner says neighbours’ ambitious vegetable plot is an eyesore eating away at his bungalow’s property value

Do it yourself maps of realtime information (Human Transit)
Eric Fischer wondered how fast San Francisco’s transit system really was, so he asked the transit agency’s realtime data feed, and drew a picture of the answer

A tale of two cities (Zach Shaner)
“I hate to beat up on Seattle.  I love the Emerald City, and I have lived there quite successfully without a car.  But after living here in Vancouver for 4 months, I am unequivocally convinced that Vancouver offers far superior bus service.”

Transit decorations for your home (The transit pass)
As someone so kindly put it on twitter: Nerd Alert!

Density and the successful provision of public transit (The transit pass)
Transit planners and lovers wax romantic about the virtues of transit oriented development as well as the potential of current and future urban areas to support successful public transportation.  However, as Yonah Freemark at the Next American City points out, such development is only successful for cities that have sufficient urban density. 

The Architect’s Role in a Warming World (World Changing)
“The City is not part of the problem, it is part of the solution.”

Community Land Sharing (World Changing)
SharedEarth is a free service in the Craigslist mold with a dash of online dating; a globally geared tool for connecting landowners and gardeners in both rural and urban environments.

Do Community Gardens change the food system? (Word Changing)
Spring has sprung and for thousands of northwesterners, thumbs are turning green. But for apartment or condo dwellers—like me—urban gardening can be a challenge.

by Kate Howe, urban planner for VIA Architecture

As planners and designers of award-winning projects like South East False Creek in Vancouver, we’re always interested in innovative development approaches that lead to financially viable sustainable neighborhoods. One such project currently in development is Dockside Green in Victoria, BC.

This project is comprised of light industrial and mixed uses along the waterfront, with commercial, residential and open space tied to a walkable neighborhood. At full build-out, Dockside will have 2,500 people in three neighborhoods and 26 buildings totaling 1.3 million square feet.

What is most interesting about DockSide Green is not just its green building and urban design, but that it is financed and 100% owned by Canada’s largest Credit Union, VanCity – which donates 30% of its profits towards community development. For an America bedraggled by our Wall Street bail outs, and besotted with financial institutions who seem to be competing for most out-of-touch, this idea seems simply radical.

The project is still in its first phases, but according to the developer (Joe Van Belleghem, also the head of the Canadian Green Building Council and Windmill West development) overall costs were just ONE percent more than a traditional development. And yet, each of its 26 buildings will achieve LEED Platinum….how is this possible?

Well, when the numbers are added up, it becomes clear that sustainability makes business sense. Windmill West uses what they call a “holistic costing method” combined with integrated site and building design. The commercial and residential buildings share energy costs efficiently with a biomass gasification plant (developed by local company, Nexterra). Green stormwater infrastructure and low water use applications lessened the need to build expensive sewage treatment systems. They also save money by building less parking infrastructure. And much of the parking they have created is shared through programs such as a Smart Car Co-op. The product itself – both living and working spaces – will save buyers money over the long term through lower heating bills, not to mention the many other benefits from going LEED Platinum: better public health through walking, clean air and access to open space.

For all the amenities built into the project, buyers still needed to be educated about the long term savings from going green. According to Van Bellengham:

“What we’ve tried to train our people [to do] is to really make sure the customer knows what they’re getting. Because if you’re saving a lot of energy and water and sewage and you start to look over time how much that will save you over a 20-year period, it’s phenomenal how many dollars you’re saving. Nobody thinks of that.”

When put that way, maybe people do care about green building. As of this writing, about 95 percent of the first phase of Synergy’s residential units are sold or leased.

Why, in other locations, is it so difficult to convince corporate financial institutions that sustainability is really the only way to design?- And how do we start to build a long term green financing model?

Monday News Roundup

Apr 26, 2010

Every Monday, we post links to articles and blogs that you may have missed from last week. Enjoy!
America’s least wasteful cities (GOOD)
Apparently, the water bottle makers at Nalgene also produce (or simply commission) a pretty good survey of which cities are the least wasteful.

Bring on the Bikes! (Infrastructurist)
Cycling Rises 28% in New York City

Should we plan transit for bikeability?  (Human Transit)
As cycling becomes more and more popular, how should transit planning respond?

Project — Help us create Neighbor Day (GOOD)
Admit it: Your neighborhood isn’t like Mister Rogers’s. You don’t know the name of your postal carrier or beat cop, or even the person who lives next door. But why shouldn’t you? These people who occupy the orbit of your house have the potential to turn an otherwise dull domestic existence into the rich experience we used to know as community.

British Pavilion; Chelsea Barracks  (Guardian)
‘Outstandingly memorable’ … Thomas Heatherwick’s design at Shanghai Expo

Sson 028  (Cool Hunting)
A new minimal fixed gear from Stockholm, complete with a travel-friendly bike crate

Recruiting kids for Greenmyparents  (Oregon Live)
Greenmyparents wants to build an army of green kids, lauching on Earth Day

Share your yard (GOOD)
A list of all of the potential benefits when you share your yard with neighbors

Green tracks — spot the wires  (The Overhead Wire)
It’s called, spot the wires. Sure are ruining this nature scene for everyone!

by Catherine Calvert, VIA’s Director of Community Architecture

I’m starting to get an uneasy feeling. It’s not a new feeling, but one that’s been nagging at me for some time, and has only been heightened since the basic failure of anything substantial to be accomplished at the climate talks in Copenhagen back in December. 

As a part of a firm that spends a lot of time practicing and thinking about sustainable design, it’s been easy to feel that our good work will make a difference toward efforts to change the course of our planet’s climatic transformation. To quote the US Green Building Council, “As the built environment accounts for 40 percent of global carbon emissions, the green building movement has an unprecedented opportunity to make a major contribution to new global carbon reduction targets. [We need to] understand how we can work together to show that green building represents one of the most direct, immediate and cost-effective opportunities to help tackle climate change.”

But it’s not enough. Bill McDonough was so correct in his 2002 groundbreaking book Cradle to Cradle, when he said “being less bad is no good.” Making slightly better choices under the banner of green building only has the potential to slow down the pace at which our climate is changing, but is highly unlikely to prevent it.

It’s kind of ironic that people refer to “destruction of the planet” as the result of our untamed use of energy and resources to feed our voracious consumption habit. Let’s be clear about one thing: the planet will be fine. The planet has been around for 4.5 billion years and has assembled and disassembled its continental masses, submerged itself in oceans before belching up new mountain ranges, covered itself in ice sheets for 4 or 5 times, created habitat for all kinds of species imaginable, then got tired of each of those and nurtured something new.

The planet is really good at rearranging its furniture and maybe even enjoys the process. It’s all of us who live here, humans and animals and plants, who are in trouble. In a hundred or a thousand years, it’s likely that the planet will just be thoroughly fed up, and we won’t be welcome here any more.

In recent weeks, I’ve started to think about what it really will mean to anticipate climate change while we’re waiting for extinction. Sustainable design is good, but we need to make a fundamental shift to adaptive design. Real changes will affect the ways that humans will have to adapt our lifestyles and our buildings in order to survive. A recent article in GreenSource has an excellent summary of some of the building design strategies that we can use now in order to prepare for the future:

  • Incorporate passive survivability into buildings by designing buildings that will maintain livable conditions in the event of power outages.
  • Raise the cooling design temperature when modeling buildings and sizing mechanical equipment.
  • Reduce solar gain and therefore reliance on mechanical cooling mechanisms.
  • Design buildings for storm resistance.
  • Build on higher ground to resist flood damage.
  • Increase stormwater capacity using strategies such as constructed wetlands rather than elaborate civil works.
  • Specify materials that can survive wetting and resist mold growth.
  • Avoid development in the driest areas.
  • Plumb buildings for graywater separation.
  • Plant drought-resistant native plants.
  • Avoid development in fire-prone areas, which are expanding.
  • Follow fire-safe design and construction practices.

To GreenSource’s list I would add the following in terms of lifestyle:

  • Grow your own food if possible, or buy from farmers in your community
  • Nurture compact communities that reduce the need to travel long distances to meet basic needs
  • Treat resources as precious – water, energy, raw materials
  • Get creative in making things for yourself – food, clothing, shelter
  • Conserve the embodied energy in things we already have
  • Generate your own power if feasible, or live in an area where locally produced district energy is available
  • Unplug yourself from consumerism

It’s certainly possible that those who dispute the idea of global warming might be correct, but then again they might not be. If these strategies could help us survive just a little longer, then why not adopt them?

Monday News Roundup

Apr 19, 2010

Every Monday, we post links to articles and blogs that you may have missed from last week. Enjoy!
10 Weirdest Urban Ecosystems On Earth (io9)
Cities are havens for weirdness. From communities built around garbage to dogs that ride the subway, urban environments have fostered all manner of weird patterns. Here are the 10 freakiest urban ecosystems on the planet.

Planning a Post-Carbon World (
Interesting article on sustainability planning for North Vancouver by Patrick Condon

It Isn’t Easy Building Green (NYTimes)
Michelle Kaufmann on the rise and fall of her green pre-fab housing business – and the future of environmentally responsible housing.

Saving shrinking cities in Germany (GOOD)
Parts of former East Germany have been shrinking, Detroit-style, for many years now. And consequently, Germany has a jump on the States in figuring out how to adjust when a city naturally needs to downsize.

Vancouver’s 1975 Transit Plan (Regarding Place)
In 1975, the Bureau of Transit Services prepared a transit service plan for downtown Vancouver. Now that 35 years have passed, it’s time to look at what actually got built.

Tri-Met in motion (The Overhead Wire)
This is a really cool simulation of bus and train movements in Portland from the Walk Score Page

Light Form: Gorgeous Wood Wall Panels Flip Up to Reveal Light(Inhabitat)

The Perfect Neighborhood  (GOOD)
What makes a model neighborhood? GOOD Magazine devotes an issue to the topic, beginning with a list of traits that make a neighborhood great.

Cool Website: Sustainable Cities 
“Provides knowledge on sustainable urban planning and best practice cases from cities all over the world.

by Matt Roewe, aka Dr. Density, aka VIA’s Director of Mixed Use + Major Projects

 Capitol Hill Housing sponsored a spirited panel discussion April 14th on what to do with land above and around the new Capitol Hill underground light rail station. The residual lands around the station are the result of a massive excavation to build a concrete station box 65’ underground which also connects to the surface with three head house entrances. The result is the demolition of one and half city blocks in the most authentic, fine grained and densely populated urban neighborhoods in the northwest. As one can imagine, in the heart of Seattle’s most bohemic community, all eyes are focused on the development potential here and how it will fit aesthetically, culturally, socially and ecologically.

150 people attended this event which was held in The Erickson Black Box Theater on Harvard Avenue. I was asked to be a panel member along with several other well known civic and community leaders:

  • Dow Constantine, King County Executive, Sound Transit Board Member
  • Cathy Hillenbrand, Co-Chair, Capitol Hill TOD Champions
  • Grace Kim, Architect, Schemata Workshop
  • Michael Malone, Developer, founder, Hunters Capital
  • Alex Steffens, Author, founder and executive editor,

An extensive series of public meetings has been ongoing for about three years, including design charrettes, Sound Transit briefings, and city sponsored station area planning. A long list of aspirations and expectations have been developed by the stakeholders including a “woonerf” type lane (in the alley) to host a weekly farmers market, a community center, affordable housing, wider sidewalks, subsidized small/local retailers, public plazas, arts facilities and more. The stakeholders want the developer to pay for all of this.

Sound Transit will need to sell the properties prior to the 2016 station opening. They plan on issuing a request for proposal to development teams, which means those teams would have to offer money, as well as basic design concepts to win the right to develop the project. What is unknown is how many strings will be attached to the sale, such as providing some of the desired community amenities.

County Council Executive Dow Constantine is a voting member of Sound Transit’s board. He noted that laws and funding requirements for the project require the residual land be sold at fair market value, so they can’t reduce the price to enable the public benefit features. However, the City may be able to help out by entitling the project with greater capacity or height with incentives.

Much of the panel discussion was centered around the public amenities and uses at street level. Everyone agreed that the project must be exemplary in quality, as a green sustainable project and as a context-responsive solution. The panel disagreed on the scale of individual parcels. Developer Mike Malone suggested that the larger parcel be divided up into 5,000 SF lots that would incrementally be built in the manner of the rest of Broadway. Grace Kim argued that that was unrealistic as the economics of each parcel having stairs/elevators/utility meters/parking would be extremely inefficient.

Another part of the discussion centered around the massing and height limits which are 65’ along Broadway and 40’ along 10th Avenue. Recent developments along Broadway were a concern as a monotony of “bread loaf” buildings may be the result. Portland’s Pearl District prototypes were sourced as good precedents, which include historic preservation, midrise and high-rise building forms, with generous block-wide open spaces and pocket parks.

In my alter ego as Dr. Density, my approach was to swing for the fence and boldly propose that a stellar, 200’ or taller iconic residential tower be place on this site as a graceful and stunning beacon of light signifying this new nexus location. I framed this as just one lone skinny tower with a 30’ to 40’ tall podium at the base. One of the benefits of this approach would be the added value of a high end tower with more capacity traded for building public amenities desired by the neighborhood. By doubling the value or more, some portion of the profit could be directed by the private sector to help fund the public plaza, community center, subsidized local retail, wider sidewalks and of course, affordable housing. That will be an interesting equation that won’t fund everything, but will certainly help justify the upzone.

Instead of throwing stones and shooting arrows, the majority of the audience surprisingly loved the iconic tower idea. Even the panelists liked it, after initially not thinking it was the direction to go. Thus, the most vibrant and engaged community in the region may boldly support a responsible and well crafted development that is catalyzed by a significant tower that breaks all the zoning rules. Maybe we need a radical process to envision a solution that fully meets the community’s aspirations.

To watch video of the panel, click here.

Monday News Roundup

Apr 12, 2010

Every Monday, we post links to articles and blogs that you may have missed from last week. Enjoy!

Architectural Activism (Archinect)
Campaign to save Kreuzberg Tower gets results!

City gardening policy in action (Vancouver Courier)
I recommend chard.

Green and Affordable Homes, Out of the Box (The Tyee)
The first of a three part report on everyone’s favourite ironic mashup of globalism and affordable housing: the shipping container.

Slideshow: Solar power, shaped up (MIT)
3-D shapes covered in solar cells could produce more power than flat panels, MIT researchers find.

Bonn to Cancun (Grist)
Negotiators agree to continue efforts on international global warming

China Is Eager to Bring High-Speed Rail Expertise to the U.S. (NY Times) 
Nearly 150 years after American railroads brought in thousands of Chinese laborers to build rail lines across the West, China is poised once again to play a role in American rail construction. 

Different Projects to check out  (Icon Magazine)

Being a Bright Neighbor (Good) 
Could the threat of a peaking oil supply lead to a hyperlocal revolution? A group of Portlanders thinks so.

Cycling city leaders (Seattle PI) 
More and more officials opt for two wheels over four

Notes from Seattle’s Carbon Neutral Unconference (World Changing)
Carbon neutrality is a simple idea with complicated details: it’s hard to define and far-reaching in its implications.

USA=New Hampshire (GOOD) 
There are about 300 Million people in the US, spread out over 3,794,101 sq miles — but what if we wanted to all fit into one state comfortably, what state would we all fit into?

guest post by Jake Tobin Garrett (Beyond Robson)

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from VIA Architecture’s post-Olympic discussion. Like many in the city, I have reached an Olympic saturation point—meaning that discussion, debate, and musing on the Olympics seems to be all I have been doing. Basically: I’m full. But with the Olympics being such a huge event that took years of planning and practically held the city hostage (physically and mentally) for months, it’s kind of difficult to let it slip past.

VIA brought together an interesting and complimentary set of speakers, three of whom spoke from a professional background, and one of whom, a torchbearer, spoke from a more personal background. On the professional side, there was Matthew Roddis, an urban designer with the City of Vancouver; Matt Craig, senior transportation planner and Olympic transportation at TransLink; and Annette O’Shea, the executive director of the Yaletown Business Improvement Association (BIA). On the personal side, was torchbearer Mark Hoag, an accountant who landed the position through a lottery system prior to the games.

I was most interested to hear what Matthew Roddis and Matt Craig had to say, as the planning that both the city and TransLink went through before the Olympics seems to me a monstrous task that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemies. The pressure to design and facilitate a smoothly run performance in their respective fields was, I’m sure, immense and complex.

Mr. Roddis spoke mostly of how the city performed during the Olympics, as opposed to the planning leading up to the event. As he pointed out, the city shone its brightest during those 17 days. I was surprised to walk (shuffle?) along Granville to Robson Square and see the place teeming with people, lights, and music. The city rarely comes out like it did during those days, and I hope that some of that activity carries on into the future as it makes the downtown core a more lively place.

Mr. Roddis also brought up Vancouver’s lack of a real central public gathering spot. Robson Square, although recently revamped, has proved over the years insufficient as a real collective spot—probably because it is mainly underground, or hidden from street view. Mr. Roddis asked a question that I wondered about frequently over the years: Is Vancouver a city that lives around its edges—mainly the beaches and seawall?

I would have definitely said yes before the Olympics, but, as Mr. Roddis also said, the Olympic activity showed that Vancouverites have a real longing for a core area, a central spot in the city to gather and celebrate. Is it possible that the Olympics introduced the centre of the city as the place to be for many people? As the slogan for Robson Square put it: You gotta be here. Can this sustain afterwards?

Mr. Craig spoke of TransLink’s push to reduce vehicle traffic into the downtown core by 30%, a number that, while in the lead up to the games looked impossible, was reported to have been achieved. Although the system was in its highest use ever, I never had to wait too long for a train or a bus, and the apocalyptic traffic jams that were prophesied never came to pass. I rode my bike most days into the downtown core from Commercial Drive and enjoyed smooth sailing along the cleared Olympic Lanes on Broadway that gave priority to buses, bikes and Olympic vehicles.

Mr. Craig outlined how TransLink worked with many businesses in the downtown area on how they could reduce traffic by arranging carpooling for their employees, pointing out that just two people sharing a car to work cuts that vehicle use by 50%. Most interestingly was TransLink’s development of a flexible system of transit; this I believe was the biggest feat of Olympic transportation and one of the main reasons why it ran so smoothly. TransLink didn’t release “Olympic schedules” but instead monitored routes closely and added buses or trains when they were needed, rather than when they were scheduled. As he said, most people want their bus or train to be there when they need it, not necessarily when it is scheduled.

There were times when the station I use, Broadway and Commercial, was filled with people, and yet a train had just left, one was already pulling up, and I could see another behind it. It proved TransLink had the ability to provide for higher capacity use—something that I’m sure more people crammed onto trains at rush hour the rest of the year would like to see outside of the Olympics.

Annette O’Shea spoke at length of the Yaletown BIA’s drive and push to create Yaletown as a destination for Olympic activity, rather than simply a conduit from one event to another. They provided hundreds of free acts of entertainment, kept the streets clean of garbage, lobbied for new lighting (which they got), as well as encouraged the many, often out of reach pricewise, restaurants of Yaletown to provide economical street food. I was mostly impressed with the planning and dedication of the BIA, as I assumed that much of the things I saw in Yaletown during the Olympics were planned by the city. As Ms. O’Shea pointed out, it is events and planning like this that will help Vancouver shed its moniker of no fun city.

Graham McGarva, a Founding Principal of VIA holding the torch

Finally, Mark Hoag spoke about his experience as a torchbearer—something I was already a bit familiar with since a friend of mine (a former UBC hockey player) also ran with the torch. He related his feelings of exuberance, pride and historical connection, while carrying the most famous flame in the world. While I myself feel no real bond with the Olympic flame (I did see it go by my house from my living room window), I can understand the immense feeling associated with taking part in an event that links with so many other nations and time periods.

What was conspicuously absent from the discussion, however, was any mention of anti-Olympic protestors and their concerns, or any planning decisions that related to these. The only mention of this was by Ms. O’Shea when she mentioned they had volunteers out there removing anti-Olympic signs and graffiti from Yaletown. Anti-Olympic and poverty activists were quite visible in the run-up and during the Olympics and so I would have enjoyed hearing a bit more about how these alternate views and concerns were addressed in the planning process.

Place + Placelessness

Apr 02, 2010

by Kate Howe, Urban Planner for VIA Architecture

We planners like to use the term sense of place as shorthand. “Place-making” is an everyday verb where I work. But it’s really a complex term, and what does “place” really mean anyways!? I thought I would write some thoughts on it to help me approach our new planning project work on Seattle’s East Side.

The term, “a sense of place” evolved from the work of Canadian geographer Edward Relph in his classic phenomenological study Place and Placelessness. The book, written in the post modern mid-seventies, explores the value that local human behavior, practice, and lived experience have on the formation of our built environment.

Relph wrote that a “sense of place” has to do with the interchange between three essentials — location, landscape, and personal involvement; but that each by itself is insufficient. He recognized that how we design our communities is more than all else, a battle of identity. And place shapes who we are and what we will become.

For example, Seattle as a geographically bounded “place” relies on any number of historic events that defined interaction with our unique ecology: the Ballard locks and fisherman’s terminal, the cherry trees on Lake Washington Blvd, craftsman houses, or the relentless march of our rectilinear grid from the shoreline to the hills. Relph wrote that a “sense of place” has to do with the interchange between three essentials—location, landscape, and personal involvement; but that each by itself is insufficient. He recognized that how we design our communities is more than all else, a battle of identity. And place shapes who we are and what we will become.

As practicing architects and urban planners, we are asked to craft our designs in recognition -even reverence- to this intangible, but also very real “sense of place.” But often enough, particularly outside of the well-defined community, the primary goal seems to be to invent a sense of place itself; thus the title “place-maker.” Well intentioned designers push back against the insidious “no place” of strip suburbia. But I find this to be somewhat treacherous territory, and the balance depends very much on the heavy handedness of its application. We all know that an idea when entirely too crafted (Celebration Florida anyone?) doesn’t feel genuine either. Why do some of the newly invented “neighborhoods” we’ve all seen, be they greenfield or brownfield developments work as “places,” while others don’t?

Relph wrote,

“Authenticity is above all that of being inside and belonging to your place both as an individual and a member of the community, and to know this without reflecting on it. We strive for a sense of insideness—or the idea that the more strongly an environment generates a sense of belonging, the more strongly does that environment becomes a place.”


“Placelessness arises from kitsch–an uncritical acceptance of mass values, or technique–the overriding concern with efficiency as an end in itself. The overall impact of these two forces, which manifest through such processes as mass communication, mass culture, and central authority, is the “undermining of place for both individuals and cultures, and the casual replacement of the diverse and significant places of the world with anonymous spaces and exchangeable environments.”

Returning America’s “geographies of nowhere” to livable communities is a heavy task. We need lots of collaboration and civic engagement to do it, in particular to circumvent the tangle of codes, ordinances and standards that seem to default even the best of intentions to homogeneity, a default to avoid the complexity involved in making our own fragmented decisions about place.

I think as we move towards rebuilding, and redefining neighborhoods, a real question for us will be how to “plan for” both the adaptability and flexibility required for place, while leaving accessible the predictability needed for capital investment.

A precarious balance, which continues to evolve as we redefine American ideas of self reliance, and individuality, within the natural constraints of community.