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by Lydia Heard, Urban Planner for VIA Architecture

Part 3 of A Citywalkers Take on Vancouver: Walking the Livable City looks at transit and transportation. Although a citywalker’s favorite mode of transportation is eponymous, transit greatly increases the reach of our feet, so to speak. 
Walking the Livable City, Part 1  
Walking the Livable City, Part 2

Vancouver made great strides in transit improvements even before the Olympics. What did they do in order to move a few hundred-thousand extra people around the city? Getting there to find out is a worthwhile journey in itself.

 From Train to Train
This was my first time taking the train, Amtrak Cascades, to Vancouver. We’ve been talking recently, in our Seattle and Vancouver blogger meetups, about how we’re part of one larger region (sometimes called Cascadia), and how we might start more dialogues about what that means. Taking the train through the region is a good reminder.

We travel in tunnels under cities and under wooded cliffs; through industrial yards and backyards; past cattle pastures, and fallow fields with grazing flocks of swans; by greenhouses, grain elevators and lumberyards; sloughs, ship channels and estuaries; and to the west, directly against the tracks for much of the way, that body of water that the two countries have agreed to call the Salish Sea, acknowledging Puget Sound and the Straits of Georgia as one great system of shared resource, beauty, and hazards. From the train you can see people walking on narrow shingle, flocks of bufflehead bobbing, bald eagles fishing, and the occasional seal, sea lion or whale. The San Juan Islands come to view, in between fern covered cuts and rocky cliffs topped with windswept conifers.

At every stop people are waiting for the train – a couple or a few at Edmonds or Stanwood, a fair group at Mount Vernon and Everett, a big crowd at Bellingham. The track is within view of I-5 from time to time; there is no envy here for the motorists on that dreadfully familiar drive. Here on the train, we are working by handheld or laptop, sleeping, going to the dining car, walking about the train, watching the scenery, reading, taking in the movie – wonderfully free from the monotony of hands on the wheel, eyes on the road.

Going into Canada, we cross the border without stopping, only a walkthrough to check passports and declaration forms. This is a different experience from crossing the border by car, where the wait times can be hard to predict and can be hours long in summer. According to DOT, the crossing times were surprisingly short during the Olympics, with 200,000 cars going north to Canada and 268,000 coming south (supposedly the extra were people who went north before the count started).

We pass the first Canadian town, White Rock, residences terracing up the hillside and every one with a view. The train engineer, our tour guide, informs us that it “takes a lot of dollars” to live there. He announces the Fraser River, and out the window is the beautiful Skybridge with the Skytrains crossing over, passing each other out there on the bridge. This is the longest cable-supported transit bridge in the world, and gorgeous. What does it take to build this sort of infrastructure, and these complete transit networks? I can only guess that, if a governing body has managed to avoid the commitment to building ever more highways, then there are more funds for transit than we seem to find here in the States.

My ardor for Canadian transit cools somewhat when the train arrives at Pacific Central Station. The platform is stingy and open to the rain; we wait in line outside of the small customs area. It’s still a much better experience than flying. Exiting the station dragging heavy bags, the forecourt is annoyingly free of any helpful wayfinding signage to the Main Street Skytrain station.

Even more annoying is the distance to the elevator, which is across a major street, and is hidden away without any hint of how to find it. This station was built in a short timeframe as a terminus platform for the Expo line of 1986. Plans have been made (by VIA for Translink) for a new station and are awaiting funding.

Once aboard the Skytrain all annoyance fades away. I forget my street, go a stop too far and head to another platform for a train back the other direction – I hope, but am not sure. I must look lost (as I often do) and a helpful soul asks if I’m heading for the airport, with my bags, obviously proud of the new Canada Line that goes there. I ask if this train goes back to Granville and get the affirmative. From now on it’s obvious, everywhere, all the time, that this is Vancouver, the Host City to the 2010 Olympics. It’s a constant invitation: Welcome World.

Invitation to Transit 

 A bus goes by, one of many, alternately flashing the route number and the message “WELCOME WORLD”. The buses are full, especially late at night when (a few) celebrants start going home. One night after watching the fireworks from the False Creek seawall, I walk west until the crowds have thinned, and find a tapas place on Howe. Everything is quiet except for the bus stop, where dozens of people are waiting for a bus.

Transportation demands during the Olympics were expected to be 30% greater than average; this was compounded by the various street closures and reduced capacity due to security at venues and to make pedestrian celebration streets. The various governing bodies and agencies involved with the Olympics developed a Host City Transportation Plan to meet the various goals and keep the city moving. One-hundred eighty additional buses were brought in, times extended and more frequent trips provided.

A key factor for bus efficiency was reducing other vehicle trips by 30%. Olympic lanes were designated on some streets for transit (and official Olympic vehicle) priority. Other streets were designated no stopping (no parking) except for buses. Residents were encouraged to plan transit, bike or walking trips rather than driving downtown.

This is my first visit since the Canada Line opened last August (ahead of schedule). It was carrying 90,000 riders a day even before the Olympics. I like to walk but am glad to take the train when time is short or my feet are sore. It’s very crowded; we joke back at the office that it’s like the Japanese trains, and they need the push shields that compress people into the cars so the doors can close. I get caught in the door, once.


That was on a weekday. One of my Seattle coworkers went on a sunny weekend and reported that there were long queues and waits to get on the train at all, so she just walked everywhere. During my weekday not-so-sunny visit the queue barriers are empty and unused and there was no waiting, just onboard crowding. The Canada Line was not considered part of the Olympic expenditures, as it is a permanent new system. I overheard one couple leaving the Yaletown-Roundhouse station talking about the Olympics features, then end the conversation with “…and this we get to keep”.

GO CANADA GO…by Streetcar 

The Olympic Line is a demonstration streetcar which runs, until March 21, between Granville Island and the Canada Line Olympic Village station by Cambie. The track of the existing historic line was upgraded, with noise reducing welded rails, to run a modern Flexity streetcar on loan from Bombardier. They had 300,000 riders over 30 days. If funding can be found to purchase two or three cars, the line could become permanent and even be expanded into a network.

Our conductor and guide confessed to being old enough to have ridden the last of the streetcars that used to go to Stanley Park, and hoped to be around to see the network restored. The new streetcar lines in Toronto are to use Bombardier cars that will be manufactured there; that could be the source for any new Vancouver streetcars.

Cyclists Get a Full Plate 

Good hosts not only send invitations; they offer their guest more than they can eat. Generous invitations increase the likelihood of greater acceptance, sooner or later. Vancouver was prepared for tremendous numbers of cyclists, just in case. Bike Valet stations were set up near Olympic venues to encourage cycling. There was already a good network of bike lanes on the streets, Cambie Bridge, and along trails and seawalls. New lanes were added in Gastown, DTES and Chinatown. Even before the Olympics barriers were set up on the Burrard Bridge to create bike lanes in both directions.


With access and infrastructure for cyclists as a high priority, people wondered why the Friday Critical Mass cyclist protest event was still held during the Olympics. The organizers said the Olympics weren’t a target; it’s just the usual reminder that cyclists have a right to the road, and a fun social event besides.

Transit Buffet: Better Than A-La-Carte 
In the end, Vancouver didn’t come to a standstill during the Olympics. This was in part because many modes were available and somewhat integrated; not just one system but a combination of several. Heavy rail, light rail, streetcar, bus, increased bike and pedestrian options were provided, and still allowed for necessary vehicular traffic on the streets. 

Many transit options provide flexible access to transit for more people. Some aspects were temporary. Just for the Olympics the transit agencies added 48 additional Skytrains and a third Seabus to North Vancouver, which along with the West Coast Express had extended times and increased runs. Transit systems carried about 1.6 million people per day, or twice the usual number, during the Olympics. 

As a well planned experiment, it was so successful that some temporary measures may eventually become permanent, such as the streetcar. Because vehicular street traffic was successfully reduced, there is a renewed call for taking down the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts, those precursors to the downtown freeways that never happened, thanks to neighborhood activism – after the viaducts construction took out part of Strathcona (and are still inhibiting east end development). Largely because those freeways never happened, the city has enviable and extensive transit systems – but the calls for car freedoms are still there.

There are claims that, in order to reach a 30% traffic reduction, Vancouver residents and people who work downtown were encouraged to take their vacations during the Olympics, and that the reduction shouldn’t be considered permanent. This was part of the debate over bike lanes on Burrard Bridge before the Olympics; the debate over the fate of the viaducts is continuing after.

Pedestrians Rule at the World’s Biggest Party
Pedestrians, or people walking, are the lifeblood of any great, livable city. The transportation plan designated pedestrian “celebration” streets on sections of Granville, Robson, Mainland and Beatty streets. These “streets for people” were very well used, and were indeed the life of the party. This topic deserves its own post.

Next: Public Spaces, People Places. Celebrations of people in the street and beyond. 

Image Credit: Welcome World, Train, White Rock

Our firm is one of the architecture firms featured in Ballista Magazine this week. Based out of Chicago and Boston, Ballista “is a platform showcasing young firms and designers with hopes of bridging the gap between the industry and young professionals.”

If you count a firm with 25 years+ as a young firm, we accept! And along the same lines as Ballista’s mission, we also work to bridge the gap between our seasoned professionals and students/young professionals.

Our firm currently sponsors an annual lecture at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, BC, and Alan Hart (principal) sits on the Department of Architecture Professional Advisory Council at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Although we value “bridging the gap” between young and seasoned professionals, our favorite sentence from the profile is that “VIA has created architecture…that also increases the quality of the surrounding community.”

As we celebrated our 25th anniversary last year, we gave staff the opportunity to come up with slogans that they felt represented VIA. Among entries like “City Building Life” and “Designing Space, Defining Place,” one of the top voted entries was “Building Communities VIA Architecture.” Photos from the magazine feature Burien Transit Center, Kiwanis Seniors’ Housing, and the Roundhouse Community Centre, just a few of the projects that we feel contribute to building communities.

by Lydia Heard, Urban Planner for VIA Architecture

Part 2 of A Citywalkers Take: Walking the Livable City looks at what it means for a city to be “livable” and how it applies in Vancouver, at different strata – up and down.

Walking to our office on Homer Street, I am suddenly stricken by a serious case of citylove. I’ve been here before, but coming back after being in other cities for a couple of years I’m filled with the sense of how comfortable and right this street feels, the sense of human scale in a four-story streetwall, and two well-spaced, attractively proportioned towers on this block offering no sense of intrusion. This is a new block in the famous Vancouver tower and podium style; across the street the block is made up of historic Yaletown low-rise buildings. Balance and beauty, high and low, old and new –I’m very happy to be here.

Vancouverize, Vancouverism. The city that became a verb and and from that a new noun. Rated, again, by The Economist magazine as the most livable city in the world. What does that mean, to be the most livable city? The Economist scores cities across five broad categories: stability; health care; culture and environment; education; and infrastructure.

We in the States, some of us at least, are aware of how Canadian health care compares to ours. Stability, education – highly scored but not something that can be clearly observed while walking the city. Culture? Environment? Infrastructure? High points for these categories are egregiously evident. I’ll come back to those soon – but what does it mean to live in Vancouver, or in any good livable city?

To me it has to do with accessibility, access to the necessities, pleasures and pursuits that make city life so positive. Can you easily get to a grocer or market? To restaurants? Entertainment, recreation, and social pursuits? To your job, if there are enough jobs? Is there housing available, accessible in price, of variety to suit different lifestyles and life stages, and close to all of the aforementioned amenities? Is there light and air where you are, and open space close by? If you need to go farther than is comfortable by foot, are there convenient means to get there, by bike or especially transit?

Vancouver Life (for a day or three)

I work through the afternoon in the office (but am being paid by the Seattle office, which I have to make clear at each border crossing), in the open timbered top floor of one of the historic buildings, silently cringing from the aspersions against U.S.A. being tossed about, even here, since our hockey team defeated Canada in the round-robin a few days previous. I’ve never caught on to athletics or sports and won’t be going to any events, but screens are everywhere broadcasting them, and getting caught up in a moment of incredible artistic and physical prowess, the excitement of a game in play, and especially the celebratory atmosphere, is unavoidable.

At end of day it’s time to drag my luggage off to find my home while I’m here, an apartment rented by the firm for visiting employees and others. It turns out to be in one of those beautiful Vancouver style towers just a few blocks from the office. It’s a third floor unit, on the alley side; a bachelor unit, as they are known here, well-appointed, with many closets and a feeling of spaciousness enhanced by a wall of windows.

There are coffee shops and restaurants of every type lining the nearby streets, and a good-sized corner grocer a block away; there is also a park on the next block. A few blocks away in the West End the streets are more residential and very quiet. These are examples of the variety that make dense urban living a more livable and optimal choice for more people, from singles to retirees to families with children. Out of the many restaurants, shops, and yes, bars (bars and nightlife are actually important to cities in attracting the younger creative class), finding something you want is less a problem than is deciding on one of many choices.

Parks are frequent, even along the open water by the seawall. This is a city that is well connected to most of its waterfront.

Walk through Yaletown on Davie, past the Roundhouse Community Centre and the Urban Fare grocery, where people are sitting at sidewalk tables; past the bicycle shop and the roundabout to the marina, and catch an Aquabus or water ferry to some False Creek destination; or go for a long walk along the seawall. The Coal Harbour trail is packed on a sunny day with people who gave up waiting in line for the Olympic Cauldron.

The new segment of the Seaside Trail past the Olympic Village at Southeast False Creek was closed for security reasons, as was that entire area, even the waterway; I hadn’t expected this but should have.

I walked across the Cambie Bridge with many other walkers and cyclists, watching three volunteer staff persons with aqua jackets and security clearances who are the only people walking the seawall.

On the north side of False Creek, facing a seawall full of walkers, joggers and cyclists (including one on a unicycle), two towers are fronted by newish Cooper Park, where dogs are chasing Frisbees and the constant activity has worked the grass to mud. It has a fine playground that sees lots of activity as well, showing that families enjoy life in this livable urban environment.

Livable for All?
Not everyone in downtown lives in fairy tale towers. Vancouver, due to the temperate climate, attracts large numbers of homeless people from across Canada, particularly in winter. These travelers, along with poverty-level full-time residents, have historically been concentrated in the Downtown Eastside, or the DTES. This was once the commercial center of the city, but like other historic urban areas has seen hard times and decay for decades. You can’t call the neighborhood downtrodden, however; it’s a center of activism. Strathcona (east of DTES) is the neighborhood that organized and managed to halt freeway construction to the downtown in the 1970’s, changing the emphasis of transportation infrastructure in the city. The Woodsquat of 2002, protesters, arrests, tent city and all, publicized poverty and homelessness and the need for social housing. So, in 2010, where are all the people?

One summer I was astonished by the crowds of people here. There are supposedly a greater number in winter – but now I hardly see anyone. Emboldened, I duck into the suggestively named Blood Alley. There is a nice treed area here in back of some housing; a few people standing about are eyeing me suspiciously. I feel like an intruder and turn back. 

Further along is the 44 unit Pennsylvania Hotel, restored in 2009 for social housing at a cost of around $326,000 per 250 square foot unit. It’s expensive to bring a historic building up to code, but it was only slightly more expensive than new construction. The city has a Winter Response Program for seasonal emergency shelter; for 2010 a sixth shelter was added for a total of 500 beds. Funding was provided by the province for another 569 units of permanent housing on six sites, but these are not yet completed.

In protest at the continued housing shortage, activists set up an “Olympic Tent Village” in a vacant lot on West Hastings, with around 140 tents and anywhere from two-dozen to 100 residents from day to day. Originally intended to last only five days, some residents want to keep it going longer, reminiscent of the 90 days of Woodsquat.

Speaking of which, the old Woodwards block (the site of Woodsquat) has been transformed. The original building was retained and the rest of the block rebuilt to include social and market housing; a grocer, drugstore and other retail; and includes the Simon Fraser University contemporary arts program.

One rainy night while standing in the Hastings Street entrance consulting an artwalk map, I had the pleasure of directing people around through the courtyard to get into the Blue Dragon experimental theatre event. This project is considered a catalyst for revitalizing the DTES. It also generates concerns over gentrification, always a tricky balancing act. Old buildings that provide affordable housing eventually decay beyond repair; here it seems that a balance of market investment in new uses plus social housing, combined with public investment in renovation and replacement of social housing, might strike a comfortable balance.

In newly renovated Pigeon Park footsore tourists share the benches with people living out of a backpack or grocery cart. It’s all pretty inviting. Invitation is an important part of being a Host City to the World, Olympics or no.

Still to go in this series: Transit City, Green City, Host City, Future City?

Author’s note, in case you were wondering: The trademark sign is attached to 2010 in the title because VANOC (the Vancouver Olympic organizing committee) registered it as an “expression” during the Olympics. This is a normal practice for Olympic host cities; I just found it interesting.

Walking the Livable City, Part 1 

Two image credits: yaletown, hockey

by Lydia Heard, Urban Planner for VIA Architecture

Authors note: My nom de plume (or screen) is citywalker. I like to walk in cities, and I like to get cities walking – helping to make them more friendly, accessible and inviting for increasing numbers of citywalkers. There was once a type of citywalker known as “flanéur”. As the great majority of us are not nineteenth-century dandified men of leisure, and there never really was any counterpart “flanéuse”, I find the term citywalker to be more broadly accessible and acceptable – as, alas, “streetwalker” is not. Thanks to VIA for inviting me to do a citywalk of Vancouver during the Olympics and to write about it here.

I was invited to walk in Vancouver during the Olympics and record my impressions. What a hardship! What a pleasure, more like. I’ve visited but I don’t really know Vancouver, so this will be a visitor’s impression. Maybe next they’ll ask the opinion of someone who lives there, eh? Actually a visitor’s impression may be appropriate for this Host City to the 2010 Olympics.

Vancouver was just ranked by the Economist magazine, again, as the most livable city in the world. It’s also one of the most walkable. This is the city that became a verb, “Vancouverize” – in the manner of “Vancouverism”, of course. This great city supposedly got even better in order to play host to the world for the Olympics. What was improved? How was it better? How could it have been? What will remain, what will change, when the Olympics are over and the world goes home?

Vancouver Pre-Olympics

The last time I did a real citywalk in Vancouver was in the summer of 2008. Everything was just gearing up for the Olympics. The Millennium Water (soon to play the role of Olympic Village) and other parts of Southeast False Creek were still under construction (and still being paid for by the developer). Evidence of the Canada Line was a big hole at the end of Granville.

Pedestrians and cyclists were still trying to avoid each other while crossing the Burrard Bridge. I like to walk the bridges off the peninsula, then turn and walk back. It’s like going to some mystical, mythical island of glittering towers with a dramatic backdrop of snow-capped peaks. (see this citywalker post for a pecha kucha on Vancouver citywalks).
The towers were (and are) glitteringly beautiful; the streets below were then sometimes gritty and unkempt, where used syringes and other negative urban detritus could be found – but not while walking along Robson along with all the international tourists stalking high-end shops. The Inukshuk symbol in Olympic colors was already everywhere.

Water Street in Gastown was packed with pedestrians because it was closed to traffic for a special event, or just for summer crowds, as it has on almost every occasion I’ve been. Just two blocks away, like some post-apocalyptic vision, the streets, alleys and public spaces were packed with hordes of apparently homeless and/or drug addicted people, out enjoying the fine weather.

DTES has an infamously negative reputation throughout Canada and beyond, but I have never tried to avoid the Downtown Eastside, as it is on an interesting and convenient walking route. In 2009, I took my mother to Vancouver for a day trip, and after lunch in Yaletown walked her over to Gastown by a route I knew. On Abbott Street we stepped over big wet blood spatters on the sidewalk. I checked to make sure she had turned the big diamond of her ring into her palm, feeling a bit guilty for bringing her by that way and for making assumptions about the people we passed. 

How were such negative perceptions, and the real social issues behind them, addressed by the Host City? Would hospitality towards the world affect the situation of less fortunate residents? Would it look and feel any different? What changes might be positive and permanent, if any?

I spent much of one pre-Olympic trip enjoying rides on the Skytrain, both the Millennium Line and the Expo, which was put into place for another world event which was a catalyst for permanent, positive change.

The trains whiz by Science World and the stadiums at the end of False Creek, all a positive legacy to Expo ’86. The lines continue into the hinterland, and I ride along to see the stations and often very different areas of the stops, planning future walking trips.

Good transit is the friend of the citywalker, as it greatly expands the reach of our feet. Vancouver has transit that was the envy of many cities even before the Canada Line opened. The little trains are like kinetic sculpture to watch in their fast, frequent and elevated comings and goings, as are the Aquabus and False Creek Ferries on their shoreline hops.

Vancouver is the golden coast of Canada, with temperate and often fine weather showcased by a gorgeous natural setting between mountains and water. People get out in good (and not so good) weather, in some places more than others. On some days you might find more people on the trails in Stanley Park, along Sunset Beach or the seawalls than on many downtown streets.

Even on Granville Island, when no festival is scheduled, there are mostly scattered knots of people at different locations, and it can be quite easy to find yourself completely alone there if solitude is what you seek. But will there be any solitude when an extra 200 – 300,000 people come to a town of about 580,000 residents? How do you make sure the transportation systems handle the added load? What planning is involved in order for a city to play host to the world? What is left when the crowds go home, what changes are permanent?

Next in Walking the Most Livable City: Vancouver 2010®. Part 2 will look at life in the livable city. The series will then look at transportation, social issues, sustainability, world event programming vs. local programming, and what might be the legacy of the Olympics for Vancouver.

Vancouver Olympics a Living Laboratory for Urbanism! (Planetizen)
Brent Toderian: Vancouver Olympics a successful living laboratory for urbanism. 

A $1 Billion Hangover From an Olympic Party 
(New York Times)
Price tag is rising for Vancouver Olympics.

Vancouver’s warm embrace trumps Games tragedy (Seattle PI)
Art Thiel: Vancouver’s warm embrace, hug marks, tops it all.

2010 Olympics earn a bronze for climate action, says David Suzuki Foundation

Squatters at ‘Olympic Tent Village’ say they’re digging in for long haul (Planetizen)

Critical Mass bike ride not taking aim at Olympics in Vancouver (Straight)

Let the Debate Begin (Price Tags)
Price Tags on the temporary vs. permanent transportation measures after the Olympics.

Vancouver considers knocking down viaducts after Olympic traffic success (Vancouver Sun)
The debate continues over taking down the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts after the Olympics are over.

Campbell promises $172M for Vancouver social housing
Funding for social housing didn’t get it built in time for the Olympics.

by Krystal Meiners, VIA Architecture

Unfortunately, we do. Despite the last two weeks of glorious clear skies and mild weather, I will venture to say that rain is still typically a way of life here in Seattle and the Puget Sound region. And unfortunately, with all of the rain, comes a heap of problems that trickle down our streets and hillsides and waterways, heading straight for our Sound and the Pacific beyond.

With nearly 4,600 manmade outfalls (not including 93 combined sewer overflow outfalls), emptying directly into our waterways, we may as well be funneling motor oil into the mouths of our precious salmon. Too dramatic?

Well, beyond my bleeding heart, new stormwater infrastructure just makes sense and is perhaps a bit overdue, for several reasons.

Over the last century, stormwater has increasingly carried more and more pollutants such as motor oil, construction sediments, and animal waste over roadways, across parking lots, through lawns treated with pesticides and any amount of other down and dirty routes towards the Sound causing:

  • A dive in water quality
  • Loss of habitat
  • Polluted public spaces such as beaches and waterfronts
  • Rising deaths in wildlife (shellfish, salmon, sole, etc.)
  • Rising sickness in wildlife
  • Soil erosion
  • Flooding and property damage

Several organizations, such as People for Puget Sound, the Puget Sound Partnership, the University of Washington, Environment Canada, several Washington state tribes, and The Washington Environmental Council are all working at various levels in policy and action towards improving our infrastructure and implementing sustainable stormwater strategies like LID.

The key to improving the quality of stormwater and the management of dangerous sewer overflow lie in an abundance of civil works projects. New legislation, such as the Working for Clean Water bill (HB 3181/SB 6851) is proposing just that and is intended to fund projects all over the region to help people get back to work and to improve the quality of our waterways at the same time.

Investing in sustainable storm water infrastructure and low impact development now will improve the quality of our water, our wildlife habitats and the appearance of our cities and will help move Washington forward in our vision for a sustainable future.

Image Credit:
Image 1: Polluted stormwater warning sign at Manchester Beach on Puget Sound (Photo by Ricardo Vargas)

by Kate Howe, Urban Planner for VIA Architecture

Much of our combined city planning energy has been focused on traffic; how to plan for it, how to make space for it, and how to keep people from getting in its way. However, the methodologies championed by Danish urban expert Jan Gehl and his team at Gehl Architects are finally giving neighborhoods and community advocates the facts they need to compete in a world dominated by traffic demand models, population forecasting, and abstract regulations that do not value public realm.

In this way, a paradigm shift is taking place around the world, bringing with it a new fact-based level of empiricism to our sometimes too subjective conversations about sustainable urbanism. Gehl promotes a data driven view for improvement-based on watching and quantifying what people do in public space, how often they do it, and where. It seems simple, because it is.

We too can become experts at understanding how life, mobility, and people can be invited back to the city.

The tricky part is collecting and paying attention to this data. As of today, Copenhagen is the ONLY city in the world with a Department of Public Life. This is not a Traffic Department, or a Building Department, but a city agency that is consistently engaged with the everyday users of a city, its pedestrians, its residents and its commuters.

Over time, a close relationship between the progressive City Engineer and City Architect in Copenhagen and Jan Gehl’s lab at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts helped to validate the small changes happening on the ground – taking back a parking space here, improving a pedestrian street there. Now we can quantify how many more people are living and using Copenhagen’s streets and how it is that they are using them. Perhaps most exciting for me, during the forty years of incremental change for the better, a priority on having a rich public life survived through many administrations, was depoliticized, and ultimately began to feel more like a basic civic right.

For our struggles in Seattle, Gehl Architect’s Founding Partner, Helle Soholt presented last night a first glimpse into our own Public Life Study (due out in full in March). It confirms what many of us who work downtown already know:

  • that the office core is lifeless throughout the day
  • that one has to walk to the edges, or the Pike Place market to find a nice place to sit and have lunch
  • that you don’t linger unless you are waiting for a bus.

They know this because they had 43 graduate students at the University of Washington standing at street corners through out the downtown counting people. They did this in all seasons, days, nights and weekends. Observing and marking down what people are doing; i.e. are they sitting, standing, for how long?, walking, talking, shopping? The Study will also show how these activities rank up versus other cities of our size such as Melbourne and Sydney Australia. (Hint, not so good)


While I could go on to discuss Gehl’s projects and this Study at length, you can instead watch nearly the whole presentation here. (You can also watch the introduction to the presentation by Todd Vogel, Sally Clark and Mayor McGinn by clicking here.)

But overall, my conclusion is simply that the time has arrived! I hope that we can learn to pay attention to the map Gehl Architects has begun to provide. As Helle noted:

  • “We need to give something to the city in order to get something from the city.”
  • “Every person in the city is a part of the city’s culture.”
  • “Most importantly the function of public space is that it is democratic, open and accessible to all.”

 In sum, their five recommendations for Seattle:

1. Connect between Pike Place Market, the Waterfront and Westlake Center
These are the areas with the most active life now, how can we pull some of the activity from Pike Place towards the rest of our downtown? What can we do about the parking lots and junky urban design here? What are we saying at eye level invitations to the waterfront?

2. Complete the Bicycle Network
While pictures of Copenhagen’s famous cycle tracks are sure to make any cyclist drool, the recent changes in New York City are a great US precedent. Give us a safe – separated cycle track downtown so that even grannies feel like taking their bikes out. Please, and thank you.

 Photo by citywalker

3. Prioritize a First Avenue Pilot Project
Gehl Architect’s study shows First Avenue as the primary connector between languishing Pioneer Square and the Pike Place Market, by far our most vital walking environment downtown. They suggest we treat it that way. While retail owners may be nervous about losing traffic volumes and parking spaces, more hard data continues to show (such as in the recent PLANYC) increased walking traffic can be correlated with more retail sales. And we have a LOT of room for growth on First Avenue if we designed it for better connections and walkability.

 Photo by citywalker

4. Green our Alleys
Our streets are broad in Seattle, with one way fast moving traffic. Like Melbourne we have an opportunity to green our narrower and intimate alleys, remove the dumpsters and make new smaller scaled streets and places. These can be the places to stay. They also recommend simply greening the east-west connectors with sitting benches and places, street trees to make the incredible topography less challenging.

5. Make new facades where none exist
Hallelujah. Helle mentioned, first that we have something like 75,000 parking spaces in the downtown; we can sacrifice a few at the street level to make new storefronts and facades. What is the city doing to make this happen?

The New Partners For Smart Growth National Conference was held in Seattle in Early February. VIA’s Matt Roewe, Director of Mixed Use and Major Projects, was a featured speaker and panelist in a special session on best practices in transit oriented development.

This panel was Moderated by Vancouver’s Gordon Price, Author of and professor at SFU. Other panelist included David Alumbaugh, Director of Citywide Planning in San Francisco and Lyle Bicknell, Neighborhood Planning Manager for the City of Seattle.

Matt’s presentation featured a primer on Vancouver’s high capacity transit system (Skytrain and the Canada Line). He also featured five station areas of various ages, each with it own set of transit integration variables and development determinants. Tremendous lessons can be learned from 25 years of successful transit planning and station area development in Vancouver.

Take a look at Matt’s presentation here.

More information on the New Partners for Smart Growth Conference can also be found at:

Monday News Roundup

Feb 22, 2010

Working for Clean Water 
WCW is about creating jobs, rebuilding our local economy, and cleaning up polluted waterways like Puget Sound and the Spokane River. Each year millions of gallons of petroleum pollute our water through storm runoff, a serious threat to our health and environment. Working for Clean Water will fund shovel-ready, local projects all over the state to stop this contamination. Now is the time to put Washington back to work by building storm water infrastructure that we’ll be proud of for generations. 

The Foodprint Project
Thinking about how zoning, policy, and economics shape our urban food systems? NYC is hosting an international conversation.

Blind architects have a real feel for the site lines  (LA Times)
Blind architecture in LA. Unable to see their designs or those produced by others, blind architects get more in touch with their other senses.

BC #1 in economic growth  (Vancouver Sun)
B.C. will post growth of 3.7 per cent over the year, while renewed American auto demand will help Ontario surpass the national average for the first time in nearly a decade with growth of 3.5 per cent, the board said in its Provincial Outlook — Winter 2010, released Monday.

Record Number Taking Transit in Vancouver (Vancouver Sun)
More than 1.6 million people a day used buses, SkyTrain, the SeaBus and the West Coast Express, according to TransLink.

Bloom box: An energy breakthrough? (CNET)
What happens when suburbia pulls itself off the grid… and every home features a new massive accessory building? 
Proposed zoning code update draws business objections (Anchorage Daily News)

“Landscaping softens a building whether it’s good or bad,” and it’s what most people see when they drive by, Brown says. Isn’t that the whole problem? The driving-by?
A good look at Vancouver’s Southeast False Creek neighborhood and the Olympic Village, which just achieved LEED Platinum.
In many parts of the world, women rely on public transportation more than men. And women are more fearful than men being out in public spaces. This study looks at women’s particular needs as transit riders, especially in respect to safety and security. What are they afraid of? What are the issues they are facing? But the other part of the study has to do with how these needs are being met, or not met. And then finally, are there any innovative solutions?

I love this city, but when I see this, it makes my heart pound. This photo of a spontaneous street hockey matchup on Granville street on Tuesday night is another example of our city at its best. Apparently, five guys from Minnesota challenged Canadians to a game, only to be defeated.

We hosted our first meet up in Vancouver almost a month ago, and were really excited about our Seattle meetup/tweetup/blogger meetup, which happened last night at the Pike Brewery Co, which was the perfect venue.

Just like in Vancouver, the goal of the meetup was not only to learn more about some of our local bloggers, but also to continue the dialogue we started back in June when we produced the Great Urban Debate (Seattle vs. Vancouver).

Instead of comparing Seattle vs Vancouver, however, we hope to facilitate conversation between cities in the Pacific Northwest, including Portland. We believe this will enable us to discuss important issues while getting feedback from those that are local, as well as our urban city counterparts.

A big thank you goes out our social media consultants at Banyan Branch for partnering with us and helping organize the event, and to Pike Brewing Co for hosting the event. We had almost 100 people come through the meet up (some just wondering what a “tweet up” was…) and had a great time meeting some incredible Seattle-ites.

Thanks again to all who attended, and congratulations to @mattgoyer who won the drawing for the $30 Visa gift card.