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EcoDistricts 101

Dec 10, 2009

 by Amanda Bryan, VIA Architecture

An EcoDistrict, boiled down to its simplest form, is merely a new way of consolidating large quantities of land into a comprehensive development and yet these projects represent so much more. EcoDistricts are the physical manifestation of five major areas impacted by global warming: political responsibility, environmental protection, energy production, social awareness, and building practices.

This means that we are in need of a much more thorough understanding of what an EcoDistrict really is and in order to do this I have expanded upon three major questions: What is an EcoDistrict? Why build an EcoDistrict rather than any other form of structured development? How do we successfully create an EcoDistrict?

Clonburris, a new proposal for an EcoDistrict located in Ireland, presents a model for sustainability in the Dublin Metropolitan area. (image source)

What is an EcoDistrict?
First and foremost, an EcoDistrict is a vision. It is a vision, implemented by both the public and private sector, that a specific district should embody economic, social, and environmental sustainability within a resource efficient framework. Below are five major goals that EcoDistricts strive for:

  • diversity among commercial and residential development
  • comprehensive transportation options (convenient train or BRT access)
  • enhanced community realm (amenities such as communal open spaces, pedestrian friendly streets and sidewalks, after school care, etc.)
  • implementation of onsite energy creation with complimentary building systems
  • strategic mitigation of waste (grey water processing, storm water run-off, GHG emission controls, etc.)

Why build an EcoDistrict?
The main reason why it would be better to build an EcoDistrict over any other development is its sheer size and widespread impact. EcoDistricts typically compose several city blocks, subsequently bringing the accountability of governmental oversight and the efficiency of a unified group of stakeholders. Also, the size of an EcoDistrict makes the implementation of district-wide energy much more cost effective because it averages the cost of construction over a large amount of saleable property.

Bo01, an EcoDistrict located in Malmo, Sweden, demonstrates its progressive thinking with a resource efficient exhibit of residential development. (image source)

How do we create an EcoDistrict?
There are three distinct but equally important components to creating an EcoDistrict – buildings and public infrastructure, social infrastructure, and finance tools. Listed below are the particulars of each component:

Buildings and Public Infrastructure

infrastructure acts as the backbone for an EcoDistrict, shaping the primary needs of access and energy production while buildings define the physical character of the district

Social Infrastructure

due to EcoDistricts’ sheer size and the amount of time and effort it takes to shape one, there must be someone in the drivers seat, typically composed of representatives from the government, community, and private investor(s), each pushing the process forward and maintaining the project’s aspirations

Finance Tools

a financial plan must be in place to ensure that all the various project elements are funded (i.e. underwriting for governmental funding can ensure the energy infrastructure is built while private investment is used to pay for buildings and open spaces)

South East False Creek, site of the 2010 Olympic Games located in Vancouver, Canada, highlights its energy efficient buildings with a system of green roofs. (image source)

In summary, EcoDistricts present the opportunity to consolidate our efforts toward economic, cultural, and environmental sustainability at a scale that can change the way our cities look, feel, and work. The power of EcoDistricts is not in their unique character or impressive technology but in the ability to duplicate their overarching framework.

by Lydia Heard, VIA’s Urban Planner

Recently, instead of a party invitation, I found the following intriguing summons in my inbox, from Steven Goldsmith of the Puget Sound Business Journal, as follows:

“In 250 words or less, briefly describe your idea for the Metropolitan Tract 20 years from now — how it should look, and who should own and occupy it.

What kinds of shops and offices should be there? Should the tract go all-residential? Pedestrian-only?  Should the UW turn it into a downtown campus? Or sell the whole thing?

In short, what changes there would be best for the city, and for the university?  Be bold — no idea is too far-out.”

The message had a link to the Metropolitan Tract page of the UW Real Estate Office. My interest was piqued, so I went to the site and read the following information:

“In 1860, the Legislative Assembly of Washington Territory passed “An Act to Relocate the Territorial University” in Seattle, “provided a good and sufficient deed to ten acres of land, eligibly situated in the vicinity of Seattle, be first executed to the Territory of Washington for University purposes.” Early in 1861 Arthur and Mary Denny, Charles and Mary Terry, and Edward Lander fulfilled the legislature’s stipulation by executing deeds to a forested 10-acre knoll overlooking Elliott Bay. The University was established there, on the site of what is now The Fairmont Olympic Hotel on University Street.

Over the next thirty years, growing enrollment and the growth of Seattle around the 10 acres made the property inadequate for the University’s future needs. In 1895, the University’s main campus was relocated to its present Montlake site on the shore of Lake Washington. Some years later, the original campus site (less a small portion that had been sold in 1902) was leased to the Metropolitan Building Company for a term of 50 years. The Metropolitan Tract was expanded in 1958 in a property exchange with the US Postal Service and in the 1962 purchase of the site for the Olympic Hotel garage. The present area is 11 acres, and is managed and operated through long term leases with Unico Properties, Inc. and LHCS Hotel Holdings.”

“As presently developed, the Metropolitan Tract contains over 1,500,000 rentable square feet of office space, 200,000 rentable square feet of commercial retail space, 450 hotel rooms, 91 residential units, and about 2,000 parking spaces. The Metropolitan Tract is managed and operated through three long-term leases: one with Unico Properties, Inc. for the commercial office and retail buildings (Rainier Tower & Square, Financial Center, IBM Building, Puget Sound Plaza, Skinner Building); one with Unico for the residential Cobb Building; and one with LHCS Hotel Holdings for The Fairmont Olympic Hotel and garage.

In guiding Metropolitan Tract policy through the years, the UW Board of Regents has adhered to one primary objective: to generate maximum long-term value and related cash flow through the best possible use of this endowment of land and buildings.”

I was flattered to be asked – there was an impressive list of addressees – but really didn’t have any big, bold ideas. Just before the deadline (as usual) I put together a few thoughts – a little over the word limit, actually. I left out references to choice bits such as the early masterplan for a “City Within a City”. It will be in the Puget Sound Business Journal this Friday, Dec. 11th, along with other submissions, including one we know well from the Great Debate, if he accepted the invitation. What sort of advice would you have given them? What sort of vision would you have dreamed up?

What should the Metropolitan Tract become in 20 years?

This is a foundation property, part of the history of the University and of the city. Don’t sell it; it’s like spending the principal. The Tract makes great connections in all directions. It has great bones, and the flesh is pretty good, too. Don’t rush to change it too quickly.

The crossing of University and 5th Avenues is your basic framework. Fifth connects from the Westlake transit hub and the shopping district through to the civic district. It is a special street, of narrower width than the other north-south arterials, beautifully treed, comfortably proportioned, and lined with high end shops and theaters. This will be the next street for people on foot, after Pine through Westlake is returned to us.

University Avenue, that historic reminder, connects from the waterfront to First Hill. This street is different, too. The urban form of full streetwall and blockface is broken here – by SAM and the Benaroya, and all over the tract – the street court at the Fairmont Olympic, to the corner plaza at IBM; interior courts and upper plaza invite at Rainier Square and the Financial Center. Little spaces are carved out everywhere, out of the tower itself. This is special to the Tract; keep it.

Some things will change, and should. Office space will still be needed but residential units are needed even more. The area is well served by transit and more is on the way. Parking garages will change to other uses. The function of the Post Office is changing; that half block will redevelop as midrise residential mixed-use along the lines of the Cobb. If not redeveloped as a residential high rise, the concrete mass of the Olympic Garage will be converted to artist studios and performance space for the downtown branch of the UW schools of the Arts. Keep the option of a presence in this, your historic place.

by Jennifer Kelly, VIA’s Marketing Coordinator

Mayor-Elect Mike McGinn has created a site called “Ideas for Seattle” that gives locals the opportunity to submit their ideas for making the city a better place. And some that just help it become a different place.

The top 10 ideas (for the moment):

  1. Expand as much light rail + subway as possible
  2. Legalize marijuana and tax it
  3. Create a lid over I-5 in Seattle
  4. Foot/Bike Patrols for SE Seattle
  5. Make Seattle the 1st US City to be carbon neutral
  6. Install sidewalks throughout Seattle
  7. Seat aside park beach areas for “clothing-optional” recreation
  8. Secure a new source of funding for City libraries
  9. Revitalize Pioneer Square
  10. City-funded public farmer’s markets

The website is a great tool for letting the public feel like they have input on the future of their city. Many of the suggestions take some serious effort and will not be made quickly. Regardless, this website provides a good opportunity to open up dialogue for many issues that our city faces and will hopefully show this new administration some of the things we feel are important.

When you check out the website, make sure to look at individual forum’s, such as Transportation, Neighborhoods, Homelessness, and Public Safety. Some of the interesting ideas that are worth noting are:

  • Promote family-friendly urban neighborhoods
  • Create a Pedestrian friendly zone throughout downtown
  • Build new streetcars and restore the Waterfront Streetcar

In response to the #1 voted on idea on the site, Seattle Transit Blog provided information from McGinn’s light rail information handout that sparked a mini debate. As the debate rages on throughout Seattle blogs regarding what McGinn is going to do about the problems facing our city, Ideas for Seattle is a good outlet, and can even provide some humor (see “Zombie Epidemic Emergency Plan”). To add your own ideas, simply create a log in and start typing!

by guest blogger Jeff Olson, Urban Designer for VIA


We began our design work in 1998 after the Kyoto Protocol was published. We had the idea of a sustainable future; a new way to build that would benefit everyone’s quality of life, air quality, water quality, and soil quality, a way that would protect plants, insects, marine life, land animals and bird life. We started in the library, we reviewed the scientific literature on environmental issues, and then we thought about urban systems, urban design, architecture, material engineering, energy sources, environmental performance measures, and so forth.

We inherited an industrial site from the past century with derelict buildings and industrial machinery related to ship building, lumber products, and salt distribution. These lands have been transformed over time from inter tidal swamp, to land filled lots, to armour protected sea wall. Today the land is totally transformed; nothing remains the same except the feeling of timeless walking paths along the water’s edge.

Our collective dream of a better future became our 2010 Olympic Dream to host the winter games and to welcome the athletes to our village. Some twelve years later the Copenhagen Convention is about to convene and in another two months the games will open. Signs of life have appeared in the village and it’s environs, the riparian zone has re-established along the shoreline, the birds have returned to feed, a habitat island has been constructed and planted, spawning fish have returned to the area, the constructed wetland is hosting new life, the stacks from the new sewer heat recovery plant are venting steam for the first time.

Vancouver designers and builders have invented and built a village of high performance buildings and memorable public spaces. One of these buildings is a net zero building that will sell excess heat back to the new energy utility. The new district energy system utilizes up to 70% renewable fuel. Most of the buildings have roof top gardens, collect and use rainwater. The project has become a model of actions that can be taken elsewhere across the globe and so we warmly welcome all our visitors from near and afar to “Vancouver Green Capital” as they visit Winter Games.

For more information, visit the Challenge Series.

by Naomi Buell, VIA’s Marketing Assistant

“It’s closer than you think” was a forum put on by the DVA (Downtown Vancouver Association) and organized by our own Graham McGarva. The forum’s speakers were Brent Toderian, the Director of Planning for City of Vancouver and Michael Gordon, the central city planner for Vancouver. The topic discussed was the future of the Northeast False Creek (NEFC) area.

NEFC is a neighbourhood that currently contains two stadiums, a casino, a skate park, the Plaza of Nations (which hosts a number of events) and a few restaurants and bars. It has long been designated as Vancouver’s entertainment district but has never jelled as a meaningful people place since Expo ’86. Decisions now being made about NEFC not only affect those that plan to live there but also the thousands of event goers that currently flow in and out of the area. The neighboring areas also have a vested interest. Ask anyone between Burrard and Main street (a 20 block span) about the Molson Indy or the Madonna concert and you will hear a number of accounts of how people could hear the entire event from their living rooms. The forum’s name “it’s closer than you think’ therefore refers to the future of NEFC being closer to us both in terms of time and proximity.

Those of us that have been reading the local Vancouver newspapers have become quite familiar with BC Place’s new retractable roof, which will begin construction after the Olympics. The $458 million dollar roof and renovations have caused quite a stir as most of the funding will come from a 40 year loan from the provincial government. City council has also endorsed a plan to create a high-density, mixed-use neighbourhood of about 7,000 people¹ around the stadium.

This high density neighbourhood, as stated by Michael Gordon, is proposed as a family friendly area with an anticipated 400 children living in the buildings. However, one challenge faced by city council is how to address the needs of those with families and provide them with the necessary amenities and security while dealing with the thousands of people going to and from the stadiums, restaurants, clubs, pubs and casino. The dichotomy caused by these groups with seemingly different interests and needs is just one of the many issues surrounding the area’s plan. City council recognizes these challenges and plans to address them.

As Brent Toderian pointed out, although the future residents of NEFC will be warned about the noise and high traffic nature of the area, there will need to be more done to try and rectify anticipated complaints. He referenced a recent and similar situation in Whistler in which a residential building was built near an industrial plant. The residents were all notified about the existence of the neighbouring plant and were required to sign binding covenants acknowledging the existence of the plant. However, residents have still begun to voice concerns and frustrations, thereby putting political pressure on the city officials.

Another of the challenges of the NEFC area will be to provide a high density neighbourhood without obstructing views. NEFC, not surprisingly, is across from Southeast False Creek, which includes the 2010 Olympics Athlete’s Village. This area has been recognized globally for its environmentally focused design and drive to create a self sufficient neighbourhood, and includes some of the most expensive land in the city. The residents, who will most likely be paying a premium to live there, will no doubt have an interest in the view that currently looks out past NEFC to the mountains and sky. Because of these amazing views that the City has protected through designated view corridors for the past two decades, ideas are being discussed to ensure that there are only minimal view obstructions arising from new development. One such idea is to have an articulated skyline, so that the height of the buildings would vary with relation to the mountains in the background. Another idea is to place the larger buildings in areas outside of the specified view corridors. This was the idea behind the approval and placement of the Shangri-La building, which at 62 storeys became the tallest building in Metro Vancouver.

Brent mentioned that the planning of NEFC must look at the area in terms of the associated opportunity costs. That is to say that for every structure, amenity or public space that is built, there is one less area to build something else. With a finite land area and a multitude of stakeholders and proposed land uses, the planning and development of the area will be challenging. However, there is also excitement to see what will become of the last waterfront property in Vancouver. So raise your glass to Expo ‘86 (which is the last time the land was used for anything besides a racing track or show tent) and be prepared to create new memories. The shape of the city will inevitably continue to change to respond to the pressures of each generation it serves. The challenge now is to play a meaningful role in shaping this change at the heart of Vancouver’s urban frontier.

Image 1: from L to R:  Michael Gordon, Graham McGarva, Brent Toderian
Image 2: link

Get Schooled is a program that encourages education and works to make positive changes in the education system. Part of that program is to find different career professionals and talk to them about how they ended up in their field and what schooling it takes to get there.

For the Get a Career feature of “What it Takes to Become an Architect,” our very own Alan Hart was interviewed about his path towards becoming an architect. He talks about hurdles in his educational path, what inspires him, and about the Olympic Village as part of Southeast False Creek in Vancouver.

To read the complete interview on Get Schooled, click here.

by guest blogger John Collings, Collings Johnston Inc.
The annual conference of the Transportation Association of Canada (TAC) was held in Vancouver this year and was well attended by over a thousand transportation officials, planners and engineers from across Canada. TAC is an association which provides “a neutral forum for gathering or exchanging ideas, information and knowledge on technical guidelines and best practices.” source

The newly opened spectacle of the Golden Ears Crossing was evident at the conference. The project’s urban planning and aesthetics were highlighted by Graham McGarva’s and John Collings’s poster presentation. Collings Johnston Inc. and VIA Architecture were retained by TransLink to develop, specify, and implement the urban design process for the new 14 km highway and major crossing of the Fraser River linking the municipalities of Langley and Surrey with Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows. The design and construction was undertaken by the Golden Crossing Group between 2006 and 2009 as part of a Public Private Partnership. The project had three main urban design goals:

  • to design and build a new arterial corridor and river crossing in support of its surrounding context 
  • provide a moderate speed arterial for use by all road users: cars, trucks, buses, bicycles and pedestrians
  • implement an integrated urban design theme whose aesthetics would enrich users experience along Golden Ears Way

The presentation highlighted the process of designing a Major New River Crossing within the context of its surroundings and took the form of questions and comments as the audience passed the posters. That is to say that the audience came to the presenter instead of the presenter talking to an audience. There were about 100 conference attendees that visited the Golden Ears Crossing presentation and showed genuine interest through their inquisitive questions and informative comments with regards to the design approach. Many of these people were from the senior ranks of government and municipalities.

John Collings also gave a presentation on Context Sensitive Solutions to the Urban/Freeway Interfaces of the Golden Ears Crossing. The 15 km arterial was specified and designed as a limited speed facility in keeping with the urban features through which it passes. The iconic and landscaping features of the route provide much of the context and items such as Curvilinear bridge approaches with a median barrier marked with reveals are used to manage speed.

Robin Johnston gave a tour of the new bridge and arterial to conference participants and was able to demonstrate many of the planning and urban design aspects of the project where VIA Architecture provided leadership and inspiration. These three presentation styles enabled conference attendees to get a well rounded informative experience about the design process of the bridge.

The Golden Ears Crossing Project comprised a new 14-kilometre, multi-lane, highway corridor which included a major bridge crossing of the Fraser River. This Public-Private Partnership Project in Metro Vancouver crosses the flood plain of the Fraser River amidst the Coastal Mountains and passes through residential, agricultural and industrial lands. After four years of work on alignment and preparation of bid documents, construction commenced in February 2006 and was completed in the summer of 2009.

The Crossing was conceived as a transportation facility that would be designed and built within the context of its surrounding land uses. The base concept that was used for the design/build proposals required a comprehensive and integrated design approach from each proponent. It incorporated speed management and involved design elements that were in keeping with the surrounding area.

The commitment of context sensitive design led to a mandate to make aesthetics and urban design considerations integral with the technical and financial performance of the project. The RFQ to pre-qualify bidders led to the selection of three teams, of whom two submitted bids to Design, build, operate and maintain the project.

The successful proponent, Golden Crossing Constructors Joint Venture (GCCJV), provided a design theme that built upon the story of the valley beneath the Golden Ears peaks. This incorporated the natural and cultural history of the area, such as the Katzie First Nation, salmon fishing and the eyries of golden eagles. These were reflected in many of the aesthetic features of the bridge. Handrails adorned with metal fish were used to create an image of the salmon traps and nets that had been set across the river for many generations. These high fence verticals, and the absence of guardrail caps at eye level both mitigate suicide attempts (a functional criterion) and provide an open vista up and down the river for bridge users (a perceptual criteria that is hoped will complement speed management). Sculptural eagles circling the cable-support towers at both bridgeheads of the main river bridge symbolize the many eagles whose eyries have long inhabited and overlooked the Fraser River’s expansive splendour.

In addition to these, Translink required identifiable features that characterized the crossing as a context sensitive roadway. Luminous “entry beacons” were used to introduce the gateways and to represent the towering fir and cedar trees that once adorned the banks of the Fraser River. This continuous ribbon of native landscapes reinforces a perception of “parkway” over “highway” along the approaches.

In addition to aesthetic features, geometric design was used to ensure that the crossing provided a positive experience to all road users. Pedestrian Facilities were designed to be attractive and encourage use. The attractiveness of pedestrian ways is a function of their walkability. Their design had to create safe and attractive paths that were free from noise, dirt and fumes. Landscaping features such as planted roadside and median environments were also used to encourage use. All pedestrian facilities took into consideration the special needs of users including creating sidewalks that are accessible for wheelchairs and people who are visually or auditorily impaired.

Bicycle Facilities, in keeping with criteria, were configured to the right hand travel lane so that they could double as emergency stopping lanes for motorized traffic. They were placed all along the arterial road and are clearly marked.

Human factors were also an important consideration for the design of the crossing. The ability of the driver to process road information is the key to the design of a safe road. Human factors were used to provide messages about the intended speed for the arterial and to provide characteristics for safe operation by drivers unfamiliar with the route. Curvilinear roads approaching the bridge were used to manage speed as were landscaping and horizontal alignment features.

The bridge and roadway provides an essential north south link for community building, serving industrial traffic enabling transit, encouraging cycling, as well as eliminating lengthy trips that formerly had to funnel into the Port Mann and out the Pitt River Bridge and vice versa. The Golden Ears Bridge integrated aesthetic and geometric design to create an arterial crossing that is both accessible and visually appealing.

Image Sources: Polaroid, Bridge with Eagle,GEB at night, Biking on the bridge

We’re very excited to announce that the Burien Transit Center won “Best Small Project” for Northwest Construction’s Best of 2009 awards competition.

According to their website, Northwest Construction “received a record-breaking number of entries.”

The winning projects will be honored at an awards breakfast December 11th at the Seattle Waterfront Marriott. For more information call 206.378.4708.

See our previous post with more information on the Burien Transit Center here.

Congrats to the Burien team: INCA Engineers, Tres West Engineers, AKB, Karen Kiest Landscape Architects, Julie Berger (public artist), and Pellco Construction.

by Graham McGarva, Principal for VIA Architecture


When one is consumed in the continuing reinvenition that is the craft of city building, long walks help.  So this morning, I detoured on my way into work through False Creek North’s Roundhouse Neighbourhood (which we planned 20 years ago), and past its Community Centre ( a heritage adaptive re-use and expansion that we built 12 years ago), and took in the irony of the imperatives of the “life official” in contrast with the bubbling delight of the youngsters around me going to their inner city school and day care on the False Creek waterfront.  The following is what I saw and wrote:

Fire exit please do not block
We have to let the fire out
Lest it consume us
With its passion for life
Ladies and children stand aside
Douse your thrills and trills
When the fire drills through you
Stand aside and let it pass
Do not let it consume you
Let vacant space be your heritage
Void of fire 24/7 or whatever
10-4 be your emergency
Keep the flame doused inside you
Safe from the armageddon
Of common sense
And thrill of the crowded room
Of private emotions

Better still never get close enough
To let the fire get in

And while you are at it
Keep the tide away
From the foot of the stairs!

P.S. In case you are wondering, it was a major victory to get the park steps to go all the way down to the water’s edge (breaking the prescribed rule of being 1.3 metres above high high tide level with a safety railing) to where once or twice a year the lower pathway would get flooded at an extreme high tide, and the City Parks and Planning Departments always did disagree on what was to be the “front” and the “back” of the Roundhouse.