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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.

Monday News Roundup

Mar 29, 2010

by Kate Howe, Urban Planner for VIA Architecture

In the Pacific Northwest, Tacoma struggles somewhat from its brand as a post-industrial place. But, I and many, many others HEART Tacoma for its deeply layered and intense urban infrastructure; it holds a similarity for rust belt and east coast cities we keep hearing about, like revitalizing Pittsburgh (see the link for a New York Times article), Youngstown and Providence. Because these communities are still scarred by economic loss, they appreciate that without the ability to adapt, experiment and elevate the cultural attributes of their existing place, the free flow of unencumbered capital $ will do just that, keep on flowing right out of town.

While its situation is drastically different from a growing Pacific Northwest, I am particularly impressed by Youngstown OH, which is making a name for itself as one of the most experimental planning cities in the US, with its shrinking city concept. It is led by the country’s youngest mayor (elected at the tender age of 33). Now in his second term, his city is making headlines as one of the best places in the country to start a business.

Tacoma is hard at work at its own structural re-invention. Over the past year, they have adopted a new downtown strategic plan, a new downtown comprehensive plan, and development studies for some of its key neighborhoods.

For the Brewery District, a group of stakeholders, including the Hillside Development Council, the University of Washington (their new campus is just next door), the city, the arts community, business and land owners, recently came together to talk about what they would like to be. There is a lot of optimism surrounding the future of the District; in nearly every meeting, someone would mention wanting to be more like Granville Island, Vancouver. The Brewery District has decided on a Tacoma-driven, south sound, flavor – a diverse and activated place of production.

 Granville Island, Vancouver

“Production” instead of “industry” underlies a progressive diversification of meaning. We are moving away from location-specific industry; and “production” suggests an evolution, signifying technological innovation and adaptation such as the need for robustness, resilience and environmental sustainability.

The actions suggested by the Brewery District groups and documented in a new Study due out soon includes:

  • Adaptive re-use of a former carriage house into a public market/incubator space;
  • The introduction of a gathering place and bike/ped path on a decommissioned BNSF rail line;
  • Potential for an art school, live-work lofts or more activated public use in the Nisqually Power Station (now owned by Tacoma’s most famous glass artist Chihuly); 
  • A new arts complex for a variety of performance managed by the School of the Arts just up the street;
  • Reintroducing the original brick on Holgate Avenue to slow traffic and take back the public realm as a shared space.

These ideas are not brought from the outside, but from those who have lived and worked in Tacoma. To succeed, it will need to be a grassroots driven process, building off these lifetimes of investment and local talent. The Brewery District is already in proximity to some of Tacoma’s best assets, close to the campus, the waterfront, to LRT transit. Its remaining Brick Breweries are aching for a reinvention. I can’t wait to see what will happen next.

This is an early peek at some of the ideas the VIA team produced as part of our exploration:

by Stephanie Doerksen, VIA Architecture Vancouver Office

At the beginning of 2010, two American cities made notable changes to their transit systems. Baltimore implemented the first of three entirely free bus routes called the Charm City Circulator, while Portland began charging bus fares in its well-known “Fareless Square” downtown.

Those looking for trends in the transit world will certainly be confounded by these opposing moves. What do they indicate about the viability of free public transportation for inner cities?

A large area of downtown Portland, commonly known as “Fareless Square” has been a free transit zone since 1975. It was initially implemented to combat air pollution and a lack of parking in the downtown core. Although the square has succeeded in attracting greater transit use, it has also been faulted for encouraging crime and annoyance on buses. This type of free transit zone also makes it slightly more difficult to collect fares when patrons board buses in the free zone and then continue travelling outside the zone.

Trimet (Portland’s regional traffic agency) reasons that 34 years ago when the square was implemented, bus service was the predominant form of public transit. With the recent expansion of the MAX light rail system, in conjunction with the streetcar, Trimet claims that 95% of trips within the square can be accommodated on these systems, which remain free within the zone (now referred to as the “Free Rail Zone”). They have also cited increased revenue from bus fares as an incentive for the move.

While Portland is trying to capitalize on fares in order to expand service, Baltimore has implemented a tax on parking. The 16% parking tax, expected to generate about 5 million annually, will be used to fund The Charm City Circulator, a series of 3 free cross-town bus routes. The city is hoping that free transportation linking downtown and key sites around the city will provide some economic benefit by encouraging shopping and patronage of the city centre and entertainment districts. Not only will these lines be free, but they have dedicated lanes through congested areas of Baltimore, ensuring that service will be efficient and the planned 10 minute headways can be provided.

So what can we learn from these examples about the relative merits and drawbacks of free transit lines or zones for inner cities?

Firstly, increased transit ridership equals economic benefits. Or at least, the City of Baltimore is sufficiently convinced of this to implement a comprehensive and well-thought-out transit strategy, including a new tax to fund it.

Secondly, the fare (or lack thereof) is not the whole picture when it comes to encouraging transit use. True, paying a fare can be a psychological barrier, even if the fare is very affordable. I know I’ve opted to drive and put my $2 in a parking meter rather than use the same $2 for the bus. However, convenience and efficiency are real attractors to a mode of transportation and in order for a free transit area to be useful it also has to provide good service. As an aside I should add that this assertion is borne out by my experience of living in Calgary for 4 years, during which time I never once used the free light rail that traverses downtown (it was generally faster to walk!).

The structure of the free transit system is also important, in order to reduce some of the potential drawbacks, such as difficulty in collection fares when travelling outside the zone. Baltimore avoided this problem by making the entire Circulator route free. This can be accomplished on a smaller scale by using a dedicated downtown bus or streetcar. When integrating with systems that use an honour system (generally combined with ticket checkers) like Vancouver’s Skytrain, the fare collection issue isn’t a problem.

Lastly, despite the fact that adding a free transit zone or line may increase ridership, it’s not going to pay for itself. Cities considering this option would be wise to look to the indirect benefits of free transit service –increased urban vitality, greater social equity, economic stimulus, decreased pollution and vehicle congestion- and then find a supplementary way to fund it.

Image Credits:  Portland Streetcar, GoByStreetcar, SaveFarelessSquare, Portland Bus, Baltimore1, Baltimore2

Monday News Roundup

Mar 22, 2010

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

World’s High-Speed Train Makers Set Sights on U.S. (NY Times)
“Central Japan Railway and China South Locomotive & Rolling Stock are competing for the $8 billion that President Barack Obama has granted for 13 high-speed corridors across the United States, including a line between Tampa and Orlando in Florida that may include a station at the Walt Disney resort near Orlando.”

Letter from Baltimore: The Humanitarian-Design Debate (Metropolis Mag)
“Nothing—not even well-intentioned design—is above reproach. The confluence of organizations and individuals working to bring design practice to those who might not normally get it seems to have hit a critical mass, and with it comes the inevitable backlash.”

White House Releases Climate Change Adaptation Report (NRDC)
President Obama’s Interagency Climate Change Adaptation Task Force releases Climate Change Adaptation Interim Report.

Climate Change Problems hit Native Americans (Carbon Based Climate Change Adaptation)
Studies show that mountain snowpack in Montana is melting an average of three weeks earlier in the spring, threatening native fish and putting pressure on agricultural use of water. On the Flathead reservation hydropower and electricity generation is threatened by low water levels, potentially hurting business.

We Will Take Transit if it Meets our Needs (NRDC)
Discusses the use of transit from the perspective of availability and cost rather than a subjective opinion that touts environmental contentiousness.

Midwest gets a jump on high-speed rail (Christian Science Monitor)
“Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, center, announced on Jan. 29, 2010, in Chicago’s Union Station that Illinois will receive more than $1 billion of stimulus money for the development of high-speed rail in the state. In preparation, Union Station itself will be renovated.”

Africans ‘take blame for climate change’ (BBC News)
“Many Africans blame themselves for climate change even though fossil fuel emissions there are less than 4% of the global total, a new survey suggests.”

Best of Inhabitat: 6 Super-Cool Floating Homes and Habitats (Inhabitat)
“While we’re working on actually mitigating global warming, architects, designers and visionaries are one step ahead, imagining homes, buildings and entire cities situated above or even beneath the surface of the world’s oceans. Check out our favorites that we’ve seen ‘floating’ around.”

The Non-Legacy of the 2010 Expo (Next American City)
“Ever since Prince Albert invited the world to London’s Hyde Park in 1851 and dazzled them with the Crystal Palace, grand expositions have been seen as one of the premiere forums for daring, inventive architecture. The temporary nature of these events and the spirit of (ostensibly) friendly competition that fuels them creates an environment in which architects are encouraged to experiment. In more recent decades, expos have, at least in the United States, taken a back seat to Olympic ceremonies when it comes to international competition; and, like expos, these events are seen as plum opportunities to show off daring, high-profile designs.”

In honor of our 100th post (!), we asked our staff to submit things that VIA has done or accomplished in the last 25 years. Out of a list of 100 entries (because you probably wouldn’t stick around long enough to read all 100), here are our top 10:

1  We designed one private residence that required higher levels of security than our work for the US Department of Homeland Security

2  VIA is the first Architectural firm known to incorporate the now popular “Dress as your favorite Revit Command Day” into its annual holiday schedule

3  Alan Hart (founding principal) is really a Blackberry in a man’s body

4  Translink, in an effort to show their appreciation for all VIA does for them, has both routes of the ever popular #17 bus say our name every time the doors open! “UBC. VIA. Downtown.” “Oak. VIA. Downtown.”

10  We like to go to the end and come back

5  Everyone at our firm knows that inside every car is at least one pedestrian

6  Amongst our staff, we have an artist, a jazz musician, a few photographers, a boat enthusiast, a farmer, parents, a hip hop artist, a few flâneurs, a mushroom forager, a poet, bloggers, the wife of an olympian (archery), a choralist, community activists, a wine maker, runners, bicyclists, sailors, and some things that just can’t be written

7  Is it “vee-yah” or is it “vye-uh”

8  Our firm has so many competitions between the offices throughout the year, we compromise for our annual summer picnic by meeting at Peace Arch Park (right at the border) — no border traffic, and no risk of deportation

9  We now have sweatshirts, t-shirts, sweatpants, coffee cups, water bottles, umbrellas, backpacks, blankets, laptop bags, hats, vests, jackets, and pencils, all with our “blue V” logo. A few of our staff have been around long enough to be completely decked out in VIA apparel

by Naomi Buell, Marketing Assistant at VIA Architecture

Having recently had the pleasure of watching the Paralympic opening ceremonies, I can say that “one inspires many” is a very appropriate theme. While the Olympics appear to be about pushing yourself with “Faster, Higher, Stronger” as their motto and a creed which encourages the fight and the struggle; the Paralympics are about inspiration and spirit. With a motto like “spirit in motion” and this years inspiring ceremony, I think they spread their message well.

Not only were the performances inspiring, they were also amazing to watch. I think everyone’s jaw dropped when Montreal born Luca Patuelli’s used his crutches to propel himself upwards during his break dancing number. Patuelli, who goes by lazylegz, has needed crutches since the age of three but his outlook is, without a doubt, inspirational. During his performances he uses his crutches as an extension of his arms, he says “yeah, I need them, but what people might see as a disadvantage, I use as an advantage.”

Following Luca were some presentations that were a little more emotionally driven including those about Rick Hansen’s man in motion tour and Terry Fox’s marathon of hope. These two BC athletes have truly embodied “where there’s a will there’s a way.” Terry Fox had a vision to raise $1 for each of the 24 Million Canadians for cancer research, a vision which he well surpassed having raised over $400 million to date. Rick Hansen had a similar vision, to raise money for spinal cord research after he himself was forced into a wheelchair at the age of 15. After raising $26 million, he too was hailed as a national hero.

Terry Fox drew his motivation from the need to increase funding for cancer research after he learned that his chances of surviving were 50% while only two years earlier they would have been 15%. While fundraising to begin his tour he wrote “I am not a dreamer, and I am not saying that this will initiate any kind of definitive answer or cure to cancer. But I believe in miracles. I have to.” Fox ran 26 miles, which is a full marathon, each day for 143 days. Despite the pain caused by his prosthetic leg and from this exhaustive feat, he continued and ran without taking a day off covering 5,300 kilometres.

His marathon of hope was cut short when his cancer returned, this time spreading to his lungs. Miracle or dreamer, Terry Fox is seen as one of the most influential people in Canadian history. While referring to Fox, Pierre Trudeau stated that “It occurs very rarely in the life of a nation that the courageous spirit of one person unites all people in the celebration of his life and in the mourning of his death….We do not think of him as one who was defeated by misfortune but as one who inspired us with the example of the triumph of the human spirit over adversity”

The end of Terry’s presentation at the opening ceremonies was marked by his parents entering with the Olympic flame which had come from a 24 hour torch relay in Vancouver’s downtown core. The flame was passed to 15-year-old Zach Beaumont who lit the cauldron. Beaumont had his leg amputated as a baby and would like snowboarding to be added to the Paralympics so he too can compete. It was a tribute to the future athletes that will compete at the games.

The Paralympics consist of athletes all of whom have overcome significant barriers and challenges. Each one of them has a touching story and the drive and passion to prove to us the profound nature of the human spirit. Although the Paralympic ceremonies were not quite as grandiose as the Olympic ceremonies, they truly sent us home with a feeling of hope and achievement, indeed one inspired many.

Mapping [City DNA]

Mar 17, 2010

by Jihad Bitar, VIA Architecture

What makes urban design flourish in some cities but remain backwards in others?

My answer:
Successful cities already have their [City DNA] mapped out.

The Idea:
This is my attempt to explain why urban design remains unsuccessful in many cities around the world, while in others it is able to flourish and grow. In the process, I will also attempt to identify the element of urban design that is often missing in many of these failing cities.

Successful urban design tasks should start with a basic understanding of a physical location’s various dimensions; such as history, culture, environment, and architecture as well as the behaviors of its inhabitants. I’m calling it [City DNA], where specific elements of a city are mapped out, researched, published, taught, understood, implemented and challenged in order for that specific city to grow in its proper context.

I’ll start my argument by highlighting two essential points from two important articles written specifically about the Dubai experiment. These points will demonstrate how important it is to understand a city’s [City DNA] if we want it to develop into a healthy urban area with a promising and sustainable future

Article 1:

The first article I’m linking to here is written by Michael Sorkin for the August 2009 issue of Architectural Record, titled: Connect the dots: Dubai, labor, urbanism, sustainability, and the education of architects 1

Sorkin states:

“This is an environment designed by the world’s best and brightest, and for many, a paradigm of global inevitableness.”

Note 1: Regardless of who is hired to design and build any project in a city, if the designer, being an architect or a planner, does not understand the [City DNA] of that specific city, the results will be unsuccessful.

Article 2:

The second article is written by Blair Kamin for the Chicago Tribune on January 08, 2010, titled: In Dubai, you can’t get there from here; architectural feats undercut by shoddy urban planning 2 

Kamin states:
“A tour of this once-booming Persian Gulf city-state, which has shifted into low development gear from hyper-drive, reveals a disturbing disconnect between its architectural spectacle and its short-sighted development practices.” 

Note 2: Regardless how spectacular a city’s architectural forms are, if the designer, being architect or planner, doesn’t understand the [City DNA] of that specific city, the results will be unsuccessful

While I was studying in Japan, I met an exchange student from Columbia University who came to our laboratory to work on her research project. She was developing a theoretical comparison between Western cities and Japanese cities.

Through her studies, she came up with an amazing compilation of the differences between the two types of cities, but for me, her research was more than that– it was the base of my idea to treat our cities in the same manner as we treat any creature on the planet.

To cure or prevent a disease, we need to know the genetic elements of the creature needing treatment so that we can better understand how its body works. Cities are no different than any creature. Some cities may grow, some get polluted, and some get totally destroyed.

To fix and prevent problems or to revive a failing city we must have their genetic map that consists of not only the basic physical elements but also the philosophical elements, which I have termed as [City DNA].

I’m going to use my colleague’s model as a prototype of how the [City DNA] element applies to our cities:

The Western City
(Kevin Lynch):

  • The imaginable city,
  • Encourage pride through distinction,
  • Linear relationship,
  • Understandable when put in map plan
  • The city skeletal structure that consist of (Path, Edge, District, Node and Landmark,)

Lines of vision and movement; channels and speeds movement
Boundary or break in continuity
Area of a city with common identifying characteristics
Convergence of paths or concentration of paths or concentration of activities
Visual reference points within a city often acts to reinforce the node

The Japanese City
(Gunter Nitschke and Yoshinobu Ashihara):

  • The experiential city
  • Fosters harmony through uniformity, fragmented image makes the individual feel part of the larger whole
  • Special relationship
  • Ambiguous in map and plan
  • Molecular structure: additive, clustered, non-hierarchical (Link, En, Dividuum, Ma, Natural context)

Network of access routes; disperses and slows movement
縁 (en):
Transactional space; simultaneously the connection and / or separation between spaces
Dividuum (Dividual):
Part split from and belonging to the whole
間 (ma):
Place or space; understood as the place for tea ceremony or formal space
Natural context:
Topography and surrounding natural elements

What if?
What if every city in the world succeeded in mapping out its [City DNA] in a way similar to the Lynch, Nitchke and Ashihara theories? And in doing so, what would our cities and urban centers look like?

Would it look completely and perfectly transformed?

No! Paris, London, Tokyo, New York, Damascus, and Vancouver are not going to look much different than its physical characters of today. But as long as our ideas continue to be centered on [City DNA], any future developments in any city in the world will be built smarter, greener, more adaptive to its unique community; and, above all, they will become better integrated and harmonized with the city, its fabric, its culture, its environment and its residents.

This is the new generation of cities we need today and the path that leads to creating accurate [City DNA] maps starts with serious collaborations between universities, research centers, urban consultants, architects, philosophers, historians as well as municipalities and local communities. Discussion and not disagreement is what our cities are asking us to do and we are obliged to do exactly that.

by Amanda Bryan, Intern Architect at VIA Architecture

Like many other young people just setting down roots and trying to grasp the finer details of what it means to be in the ‘real world’ (a.k.a. no longer a student), I found myself feeling rather ignorant when people started bringing up topics like mortgages and prequalified buyers – let alone ‘location efficient mortgages.’ However, I am apparently not the only one who is at a loss on this topic since there seems to be a general lack of knowledge on the subject. So what exactly is a Location Efficient Mortgage and why is it worth knowing about?

What is a ‘Location Efficient Mortgage’ and why does it exist?
A Location Efficient Mortgage (LEM) is a type of mortgage created for homebuyers to incentivize purchases made in urban areas that accommodate walking to nearby stores, schools, parks, and public transit. At the consumer level, the LEM provides more opportunities for low and middle income homebuyers, who would ordinarily be forced to live in less expensive fringe areas, to buy into transit and amenity rich areas. At the broader national level, these loans satisfy four overarching goals:

  1. Boost public transit ridership
  2. Reduce energy consumption
  3. Improve local and regional air quality
  4. Encourage development of more efficiently designed communities

How is an LEM different from any other mortgage?
In many ways an LEM is similar to a standard Federal Housing Administration (FHA) loan because it specifically targets borrowers that struggle to amass a traditional 20% down payment by allowing a reduced down payment of only 3%. Like FHA loans, LEMs also allow borrowers to ‘stretch’ their Housing-to-Income and Debt-to-Income ratios, traditionally set at 28% and 35%, to an increased rate of 35% and 45% respectively.

However, an LEM is different from an FHA loan in a couple of ways. First, an LEM is predicated upon a homebuyer’s selection of a neighborhood which allows them to reduce their vehicle driving needs by incorporating a diverse set of amenities such as grocery stores, parks, and transit within walking distance. Second, a mathematically derived ranking system for urban neighborhoods coupled with a buyer’s borrowing power is used to determine their Location Efficient Value (LEV). The LEV can then be calculated into a buyer’s gross income, thereby increasing their prequalification amount. To see how this process works in real time go to:

What research prompted the creation of LEMs?
In a 1989 study by Peter Newman and Jeffery Kenworth, it was found that gasoline consumption in U.S. cities far exceeded that of 32 other major international cities. For example, Americans consumed nearly twice as much gasoline per capita as Australians, four times as much as compact European cities, and ten times as much as westernized Asian cities.[1]

A comparison of American’s gasoline consumption in relation to three other westernized cultures.

Another way to understand how auto ownership figures into the Location Efficient Mortgage is to understand the financial impacts due to foreclosures. The NRDC performed the “Location Efficiency and Mortgage Default” study which pulled highly detailed performance data on 40,000 mortgages in Chicago, Jacksonville, and San Francisco. After accounting for factors such as income, age of mortgage, and population growth, the study shows that the probability of mortgage foreclosure decreases in neighborhoods where less car reliance is possible.[2]

Comparative analysis showing the relationship between transportation costs and location efficiency (link)

What does this all mean for the average homebuyer and our urban condition?
While the LEM may not be the absolute answer for driving consumers toward purchasing in urban areas (described more in depth here), it does have the potential for opening up a more efficient and progressive housing market for the younger generations like myself. If the LEM can build up enough critical mass, attracting homebuyers to areas of smart growth augmented by great transit connectivity, there is the potential for our cities to regain the social amenities critical for livability. As for those of us wishing we could afford a home close to work, play, and everything else in-between, there might be a small glimmer of hope.