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by Lydia Heard, VIA’s Urban Planner

On October 14th, a Mayor and Managers Summit was held in Redmond, organized by NextGen Today, in partnership with the attending communities, and hosted by Redmond Mayor John Marchione and Kirkland City Manager David Ramsay. The attendees were representatives of towns and cities ranging from 1,000 to 85,000 residents, from strong mayor to mayor-council-manager governance, from 85% residential base (Maple Valley) to twice as many jobs as residents (Redmond). Some had administrations with paid staff support; others had mayors who essentially volunteer their terms of civic service and receive a stipend for their labors. All were facing similar and urgent challenges and seemed truly hungry for the opportunity to hear from their fellow civic leaders what issues they were dealing with, and the solutions and best practices that they might share.

Focus on Funding
The morning session was titled “Navigating the Turbulent Waters” and began with attendees describing where they felt their city budgets were – above water, treading water, or underwater. Many were trying to find funding for capital projects (infrastructure). Funding was uppermost on everyone’s minds. There was much discussion about I-1033 along with the worst-case assumption (at the time) that it would pass, and that voter tax referendums are now the “New Normal.” There was dismay over the raiding of the Public Works Trust Fund this year to make up state budget shortfalls. There was stated interest in asking the legislature, once again, to change the constitution to allow for TIF (Tax Increment Financing) funding for infrastructure, affordable housing and transportation. There was much discussion of Levy Lid Lifts (involving the 2001 limit on property tax increases) to make up budget shortfalls. There was talk about local Tax Benefit Districts, and local car tab taxes (MVET).

The New Normal, it was generally agreed, was a move away from voters as “citizens” to voters as “consumers,” who are more likely to vote to tax themselves for specific local benefits rather than for a more general, widespread common good. This seems to entail a move away from general funds towards specific funding levies. Voters will be more likely to vote for tax measures for visible, tangible benefits such as Parks and Public Safety – but who wants to pay for things like “Administration” or such an esoteric good as “Planning”? Each Tax District represents a new bureaucracy with its own costs. Each election for a voter referendum generates its own costs. How are the elections that will be necessary in the New Normal to be funded? The general agreement was that the present funding structures – from property taxes, sales taxes, B&O – are not sustainable. There is a need for long-term funding structures, and that will require state legislative attention.

Smaller cities are pressed to create partnerships with each other, to consolidate services, to put services into a separate taxing district. This causes some consternation over preserving local identity – but cities are not the services they provide; they are the embodiment of a shared local vision of aspirations for the future. Partnerships, rather than special districts, may provide economies of scale while retaining a sense of local control. There are different models for consolidation. In this gathering the civic leaders expressed a desire to learn from each other what they have done in this regard, perhaps in workshops to share best practices.

Local Community Vision: Transportation and Land Use
The afternoon sessions dealt with transportation issues from the statewide scale of connecting cities, as addressed by WSDOT, to transportation and land use visions, practices and innovations at the local and regional scale. WSDOT is focused on providing connections between cities; many planned improvements to this end were left unfunded when the 2007 RTID (Regional Transportation Investment District) failed. Rural communities have a sense of inequities from the PSRC 2040 vision for growth. Smaller communities such as Maple Valley, Black Diamond and Carnation band together to buck this perceived trend and are working to put together their own commuter rail line.

Where statewide responsibilities leave off, local governments require a vision and a strategy for what they want to achieve. Nothing can be done without funding, but the danger of a focus on narrow funding channels is in loss of vision and of larger planning issues. Communities and cities have their own context for a vision of land use that then sets the context for highway and transportation improvements.

Redmond, for example, was once a single-family bedroom community that was required to become a growth center under the GMA. They invested in the infrastructure downtown, to encourage development there. They have a vision for a better housing to jobs balance and for diversity in housing choices. They also have a vision for overall connectivity and for the eventual arrival of Sound Transit, and it is part of their planning. They have prepared for dense centers around proposed stations and are ready for it to happen. Redmond also organized as one large traffic concurrency zone in order to accommodate a citywide bicycle network.

Parking Management is also an issue. Strategies such as lowering parking requirements, giving developers the option of providing transit passes instead of parking, using shared parking arrangements, and other tools that the different communities are trying were discussed. SeaTac offered a land use test case. They have two transit stations going in, along with a huge demand for airport parking, making surface parking lots more lucrative than other commercial or retail uses. They have to subsidize retail in order to promote mixed-use development around the transit stations, which are there to serve the airport rather than the community. Parking, land use and transportation overlap and require a strategy that changes over time.

The issue of Transportation Impact Fees came up. They can only be used to pay for vehicle infrastructure; how might that funding be used to pay for bicycle and pedestrian facilities? Redmond has done something very innovative in this regard. Instead of Transportation Impact Fees, they charge Mobility Impact Fees and have developed Mobility Units to measure charges and credits. For example, if a developer puts in bicycle infrastructure, they get back some mobility credits to offset mobility fees. It’s never been tried before and is something of an experiment. So far, no one has challenged it.

The challenges faced by cities in the New Normal, even condensed into the discussions of a single day, seem staggering. Questions of funding ruled the day; but vast reserves of resourcefulness and innovation were very evident. Land use and transportation, tools such as parking management, transportation concurrency, commute trip reduction, service partnerships, and entirely new innovations through merely substituting “mobility” for “transportation” provided  much to work with. The greatest benefit among civic leaders seemed to be the recognition that, in sharing the issues they face, they are also sharing potential solutions – and not bearing the burdens entirely alone.

Silence of the Squash

Nov 04, 2009

We submitted a pumpkin this year for the annual Carve for a Cause that benefits Architects without Borders (more info here).

Last year, we did the artichoke lamp, but were disqualified for using too much “non-pumpkin” material:

For those who don’t know what I’m referring to, here’s a picture of the artichoke lamp:

So, this year, we decided to step up our game. Our interior designer came up with the idea of doing a pumpkin modeled after Silence of the Lambs or making something out of pumpkin skin. After a brainstorming session, Silence of the Squash was quickly formulated. Hours and hours went into steaming the squash, scooping out the insides (you can image how quickly you can get sick of squash for every meal), and getting the skin ready to be sewn together.

Here is the pumpkin in progress:

Surprisingly, it only took us about 3 hours to sew everything together and put nails in strategic places to hold the skin in place. The next evening, we headed down to Design Within Reach to see the competition. There were some incredible entries.

After mingling at the event, they announced the winners and our pumpkin won Judge’s Choice this year! After the competition, they auctioned off all of the pumpkins, which was a good way to help raise more money.

Not sure what we’re going to do next year, but we’re going to have to come up with something really good to top this year’s entry!

y Christine Szeto, VIA Architecture’s Vancouver Office

Part 1: Growing Up Riding the Sky
On a Saturday afternoon in the spring of 1992, I rode the SkyTrain for the very first time. My family usually spent Saturdays in Chinatown but we lived in Surrey. My parents were working late that day and my two older sisters thought that they could ride the train home to work on their “homework”. Of course, much to the dismay of my parents, as well as my sisters, I insisted on tagging along. Our ride would take us from Main Street Station to Scott Road. (King George would have been the closer station but it hadn’t been built yet.) I had just turned 10, and my sisters were 12 and 16.

Like all parents who are learning to trust their children, my parents were a bit worried about dropping off three girls near skid row and then having them ride the train all alone for an hour. Anything could happen — we could get lost, or could lose a sister, especially the little sister. We could have missed our stop at Scott Road Station, or we could get off too early. Cell phones were still sort of new and expensive so there wasn’t a way of contacting us until we reached our destination. Besides, we could have lost the precious gigantic brick of a phone. “But, c’mon, get real – mom, dad, are you serious?” We only had one train line to ride, how could we possibly get lost? All we had to do was stay on the train until the end; until it couldn’t go any further.

I remember my sisters picking the last car to ride on so that I could look out the tiny back window as we rode home. It gave them a moment of peace because they knew that the view would keep me quiet – and they were right. Nothing was better to me than seeing the entire city from above as I traveled home. Time passed quickly because there was always something interesting to look at.

After several more rides, I got so used to the landscape that I began to look for specific objects or structures to judge how far along I was in between stations. It never became boring; not for me anyway. Even after years of riding the same line, there was always something to look at. Things looked different each time we rode the SkyTrain. Maybe because it wasn’t raining this trip, or the sun was setting or perhaps a building was torn down. Whatever it was, it was always worth a look.

From then until my mid twenties, SkyTrain was basically my only experience with rapid transit. It was what I knew and it was easy. Just one line and 40 minutes later I’m in the city or back at home. Of course, at times, the train wasn’t the most convenient because the stations can be quite far from my departure or destination points, but I’ve always enjoyed the ride.

So, because I was so used to seeing sunlight and landscapes while commuting, I was a bit closed to the idea of riding a subway system. Expo Line does go underground for some stations, but the train eventually resurfaces to an elevated railway. To ride constantly underground sounded somewhat bleak and depressing, if not slightly claustrophobic. I also wasn’t the most attentive commuter – I guess I was too busy looking out the window – so changing trains did not seem favorable either.

Just last September, my husband Stanley and I vacationed in Paris and we thought it would be a much better (and cheaper!) experience to visit the city as pedestrians. Besides, we had heard that driving in Paris was extremely aggravating. Obviously, then, the subway would be our main method of touring the city.

At first I got really ambitious and thought “why spend all that time underground when we can see the city on bicycles? It’s so Parisian!” But Stan wasn’t thrilled with that idea, especially when the forecast predicted rain. So, onto the subway we went and well, honestly, it was a lot of fun! I suppose since I was born and raised in the Greater Vancouver area, there’s a natural inclination to the city’s transit infrastructure – you just know what to expect – but I was wrong to be so biased. As beautiful as the city of Paris is, the transit infrastructure was also a real eye-opener for me.

Of course, understanding how the system works in a practical sense – point A to point B – and in French, is a slightly different story….

(tune in next week for Part 2 of Sky High or Down Underground?)

Here’s a video clip of the original test track from the mid-1980’s 

Images: cell phone, Vancouver skybridge, expo line map

by Dale Rickard,  MAIBC, Director of Transit Architecture, VIA Architecture

The streetcar is returning to Vancouver’s streets again after the original system was torn up in the 1950’s. This is a city that was organized around the streetcar starting in 1890 with a system that continued to grow as the city expanded creating a network of linked communities like Kitsilano, Marpole, Kerrisdale, Dunbar, and Mt. Pleasant. All of those communities continued to develop and mature but the streetcars that generated them have long disappeared.

I happen to live at 41st and Dunbar a few hundred feet away from a bus terminus loop. The loop was originally occupied by the streetcar turnaround built before the First World War and was built before there were any houses. The area had just been logged and there were acres of stumps where the forest had been. This is the way transit planning should be: first comes the infrastructure which then generates the development. If this is not done proactively, transit planning can become a much more challenging process of developing routes through existing neighborhoods.

The City of Vancouver is now serious about reintroducing the streetcar. Interestingly it is a City initiative proposed to be a project independent of TransLink’s larger regional system but creating connections and linkages that will make at least the inner core of the City very well served by transit choices. And like the original system of 100 years ago, it will be designed to link communities and neighbourhoods primarily in the central area: Granville Island, Southeast False Creek, Downtown Eastside, Chinatown, Gastown, Coal Harbour, and North False Creek.

This is a vision that was articulated in 1999 and approved as a concept by City Council to be developed with a series of consulting reports on ridership, costing, and preliminary engineering. The City had the foresight a few years earlier to buy a stretch of the disused CPR right of way on the south shore of False Creek from Granville Island to Main Street and, combined with this, there have been corridors planned that pass through the Southeast False Creek area, Concord Pacific, Coal Harbour, and Bayshore developments.

This vision of a streetcar system ringing False Creek and the Downtown central area will create connections to virtually the entire TransLink network including the SeaBus, the Expo Line, the Canada Line, the West Coast Express, the major buses, and ultimately even the Millennium Line when it is extended west.

Even though this vision is a few years away, the City included it as a part of the Olympic Bid Book and will be opening a short segment of this full system in January to move people from Granville Island to the Canada Line at a cost of $8.5m from the City with an additional grant from CMHC / Granville Island of $0.5m. This will fund a demonstration line running free trains intended to generate excitement during the Olympics for a couple of months, with 1.8K of single track connecting a platform at the entrance to Granville Island with another platform located behind the Canada Line station at Olympic Village. This will form part of a ring of movement around the Creek planned for the Olympics with streetcars, ferries, and bike paths connecting the seawalks, Granville Island, an Olympic venue at David Lam Park and the Olympic Village.

VIA Architecture has been a part of the planning of the system, working with HMM Engineers to do the preliminary engineering for the first major segment. This is planned to be built from Granville Island to Science World with a works yard under the Georgia Viaduct and a number of stations including the Science World station with connections to the (soon to be upgraded) Main St. Station (also a VIA project). Although a fair amount of conceptual initial thinking took place concerning the platform architecture, this has not been developed further and the 2 Demonstration Line stations will consist of a minimal asphalt platform.

The exciting thing that has been in the news this week is that the 2 cars to be used on the Demonstration Line have started their journey from Brussels, through Germany and the Panama Canal, to Tacoma and then to Vancouver. Bombardier is contributing these borrowed vehicles to showcase Canadian technology and to promote their expertise when a fleet of cars are ultimately chosen. These cars carry 50 seated and 128 standing passengers, are bi-directional, and very low-floor (300/ 350 above the tracks) which allows for full accessibility and 2 bicycles. And they look great!

The 2 stations at the entrance to Granville Island and behind the Olympic Village Canada Line Station, along with the new single track bed have been basically completed, although the station platforms will have some lighting poles and pairs of bus shelters added. The station platforms will be extremely simple and are defined by a concrete curb edge beside the tracks that create a level access into the cars.

GRANVILLE ISLAND STATION

OLYMPIC VILLAGE STATION

by Kate Howe, VIA’s Urban Planner

Just under two weeks ago, I attended the WALK21 conference in NYC. Now in its tenth year, WALK21 is an international coalition that advocates for walking, focusing on the pedestrian as the integrative point in any transportation system. This year the conference was underwritten by NYDOT- and partnered with the Association of American Bike Pedestrian Professionals (APBP) combining both hands-on training seminars with the broader themes of WALK21.

Walking, as we know, touches on everything; from urban design, to transportation and land use planning, to air pollution and climate, to public health. And so the topics ranged broadly from the economic benefits of building walkable neighborhoods, to planning for climate change, to the measurability and design of walking and transport planning. This year, the typically eurocentric nature of the conference was challenged as attendees hailed not only from Stockholm and Copenhagen but also Mexico City to a broad North American showing of both US and Canadian experience.

WALK21’s goal is to give each the tools to advocate for and to design excellent walking environments.  In fact, the promise of clear, standardized empirical tools was one of the conferences most exciting ideas for me. As the WALK21 board and their partners move forward with their Pedestrian Quality Needs Index, they are helping all of us reach the goal that will standardize how cities can measure what has always before been considered soft information about the quality of a street.

Rodney Tolley of WALK21 discussed their current development of a replicable pedestrian quality survey that Cities around the world could undertake for about $20,000. The survey is distilled from the best practice experiences in Copenhagen, London and now New York and would help even small governments understand the condition of walking and provide them with access to global expertise. The smaller scaled survey is available now, while a full report planned for release in 2010. The group is looking to identify;

·      What should we measure?
Which dimensions / indicators are desirable and/or necessary to evaluate walking and public space?

·      How should we measure it?
Which methods and tools are useful; how should data be collected?

·      And what should we standardize internationally – and how?

At the conference, it seemed clear that London is the city most responsible for blazing a new trail for measuring, accommodating and supporting walking. Since 2000, they have all but redesigned their transportation system to provide for massive population growth on the same tired infrastructure. Transport for London has found that carrying space for a pedestrian is three times higher than the next most efficient form (bus). Walking also accounts for 80% of trips made under a mile. Yet there was limited official recognition of the efficiency of walking as a mode of transport. This blind spot has since disappeared through a system now designed to measure person flow rather than vehicle flow. The TFL transport models now include Pedestrian demand models, the results are redesigned tube entrances, street crossings, intersections, and enhanced pedestrian safety. TFL is also fighting an information war to change people’s habits particularly in a city where even locals get lost. Some of their latest campaigns to get people more comfortable walking include mapping of walking routes, and a way finding system “Legible London.”

However, back to our US based leader –  New York City. Here there is entirely less empiricism, but the City under Bloomberg’s PlanNYC initiative has already conducted successful tests and done a complete overhaul of the NYC Street Design Manual…. DOT is seeing the results; and expanding the programs. How will this affect pedestrian safety and congestion? One can already look at what has happened in the take back of Times Square. I walked the length of Broadway from Herald Square to midtown for the first time ever – even after growing up 30 miles from the city and living in New York for five years- never before would you go to Times square as a local ON PURPOSE. Now it is a pleasant, amazing, experience to see what a bucket of paint and some picnic tables can do.

I am curious to see how New York City will influence other cities to think about management of their own pedestrian networks. Can this city, with arguably the best walking environment in the country, lead the way for others as they collect data on separated and buffered bicycle lanes, street pedestrian islands, and street closures in overly congested public spaces. This link to streetsfilms gives a good overview of just what they are up against.

Burien Transit Center was submitted for the 2009 AIA Seattle Honor Awards under the “Realized” category. The AIA website describes the Improv/Improve awards in the following way:

IMPROV: Design for change requires us to quickly react to new constraints with creative and delightful solutions –
improv! We roll up our sleeves and work together often breaking new ground seeking smart, responsible design solutions.

IMPROVE: Improve is the mindset for transforming ourselves and bettering our surroundings, above and beyond the scope of each project.

To see more photos of this project, and of many other ‘envisioned’ and ‘realized’ projects, click here.

The awards will be announced live at the Awards presentation on November 9, 2009. (more info)

*see post below for more information on the Burien Transit Center by Doug Lundman, the project architect.

Burien Transit Center

Oct 26, 2009

 by Doug Lundman, Architect for VIA Architecture

Public projects at any scale involve elaborate collaboration processes. Burien Transit Center was a very small project for us, but it involved all the trappings and a drawn out schedule, four years from design start to construction completion. Normal and necessary processes in public projects often present obstacles to, as well as benefits for, coherent end results. With small public projects, the obstacles can loom larger than the benefits of the process. We feel that in this case the building came through with coherence and a measure of success.

The brief called for a bus transfer (4000 events/day) and bus layover facility on existing and acquired property adjacent to the cities’ town center project. It required that bus movements and layover functions not occur on city streets. An existing Park & Ride was reconfigured, 250 user cars a given. The client and the city hope for eventual replacement of the Park & Ride lot with mixed-use TOD, incorporating the parking.

The project gave VIA an opportunity to consider again difficult issues in suburban low population density landscapes (4,200/sq mi overall, 2,615/sq. mi downtown) and how transit might mitigate, if not transform, those landscapes.

Richard Rogers’ voice is one of many calling for compact cities:

“The creation of the modern Compact City demands the rejection of single-function development and the dominance of the car. The question is how to design cities in which communities thrive and mobility is increased- how to design for personal mobility without allowing the car to undermine communal life, how to design for and accelerate the use of clean transport systems and re-balance the use of our streets in favour of the pedestrian and the community.

The Compact City addresses these issues. It grows around centres of social and commercial activity located at public transport nodes. These provide the focal points around which neighborhoods develop.”

Cities for a Small Planet, 1997, edited by Philip Gumuchdjian

A critical concomitant in Rogers’ definition of the Compact City is the overlap of zones of work, leisure and living. That’s why the word “compact ” might be preferred to “density.” Density is too often understood as simply the number of persons in a given area or the number of units in an area. Seattle’s neighborhoods, Ballard, Fremont, Capitol Hill, work well as neighborhoods because of the critical overlap and complexity of urban infrastructures. When the same neighborhoods fail it is because the complexity breaks down and they become bedrooms. The compact city is about maintaining the full spectrum of conditions, flows, social/cultural/material/ informational/transportation networks comprising an urban milieu.

The City of Burien was incorporated in the early 90’s, a condensation of power and voice in a political struggle to control single family housing sprawl and to affect plans for a new runway at the SEATAC airport. The airport was created during WWII when the military appropriated Boeing Field. The context Burien planners struggle with is common in areas near major airports. (Possible exception: Kansai airport. It’s built in the middle of Osaka Bay.) The dominance of the car, seen in this photo from the early 1940’s, has long been evident in the Burien landscape.

 

(photo permission Highline Historical Society)

When we began our project four years ago, the City had undertaken an effort to reinvent “village” with a new mixed-use town center. Completion of the first phase will hint at prospects for that effort. Our initial response to the transit center brief was to think that we might at least define a “place” amidst the field of surface parking and single story commercial buildings. We were committed to a place that would also function in possible future contexts, when the transit center might be part of a sustainable pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use community. Burien may eventually achieve complex constituents of density, interconnected layers of flow, movement, information. And information systems and other technologies continue to redefine possibilities, yielding more liquid forms of urban density.

One analysis suggests that suburban landscapes are primarily about events rather than spaces. This facility may be seen as an improvisational theatre of short skits about states of transit. In the future, improved connectivity might yield an expanded repertoire. To suggest “theatre” is not a trivialization of the function of the facility. We look for poetry in the mathematics of engineering and in everyday events. Poetry distinguishes urbanity from density. Poetry is an essential characteristic of sustainable development. Poetry raises living to the level of dwelling. But poetry is not fair words about a fine day. Poetry reflects truths and contradictions, aspirations and limits, ambiguity. The word “drama” is derived from a Greek word for action, the word “theatre,” from “theatron,” seeing place. Like some forms of modern theatre, architecture blurs distinctions between actor and audience. Poiesis is composition, production. Poiesis is implicit in Stan Allen’s definition of infrastructure:

“Infrastructure works not so much to propose specific buildings on given sites, but to construct the site itself. Although static in and of themselves, infrastructures organize and manage complex systems of flow, movement and exchange. Infrastructures are flexible and anticipatory. By specifying what must be fixed and what is subject to change, infrastructural design can be architecturally precise yet programmatically open. Instead of progressing toward a predetermined state (as with master planning strategies), infrastructure provides a framework for evolution within a loose envelope of constraints. An infrastructural approach establishes a directed field, where different architects and designers can contribute, but it sets technical and instrumental limits to their work. Lastly, infrastructures allow detailed design of typical elements or repetitive structures, facilitating an architectural approach to urbanism.”
http://www.stanallenarchitect.com/

In complex urban situations, transit facilities sometimes achieve the status of public space when they are knit into and overlap with mixed uses and vital streetscapes. Consider the complex intermodal stations in Tokyo’s Shinjuku or Shibuya. The success of such places can be understood in terms of the Ten Principles for Creating Successful Squares.

In the instant context the team considered that transfer, in-transit, users might find a “beacon”, the resident user might find a “center.” Not The Center, just a center (or an interval), an event, both location and path, both time and space. Possibly this station achieves the status of place to some extent because it is a precise form located in an austerely undirected field. But it is also, in fact, a node of everyday activities, a relative concentration of personal and communal drama. Architects and urban designers don’t insinuate themselves in the drama beyond construction, they provide a stage upon which action may take place. In suburban landscapes the pace of action can resemble a Noh performance but the drama is no less real.

The architectural design challenges for this project were typical of the transit genotype: adherence to prescriptive and performance operational and maintenance parameters provided by public agency clients; and incorporation of functional materials, components, details, and dimensions specific to transit. In this case we attempted to slightly alter the genetics, to redefine the order and method of application for these standard components. The design is composed of standard modules and materials in a system of variations that reinvents their use yet remains true to comprehensive and essential functional requirements. We were looking for a hybrid “civic infrastructure.” We attempted to discover something like a phenotype through observed and remembered site character. Included in this effort is a custom pattern in the laminated glazing interlayer, derived from photographs taken of the nearby tree canopy. (project artist Julie Berger) The graphic images also recall indigenous grasses found in a nearby clearing in 1870 by Mike Kelly, prompting him to bestow the name “Sunnydale” on the area.

During construction workers said the canopy felt like the hull of a boat, an important image for construction workers in any coastal community.

The morning of the first bus service we were on the platform in the first light as users wandered cautiously onto the platform. One of them, in conversation with an absent adversary and oblivious to the cameras, aggressively tested the rigidity of the various building components. A queue formed, the photo-sensor shut off the lights a bit early. A bus rolled up to the bay on the south end, boarding began with radiant Mt. Rainier in the background, an in-bound flight silver overhead, the echo rolling over the . It felt new. Since then a user has reported to us that the canopy hums in the wind and that he likes the sound. The building is a figure in, and support for, the imaginations and experiences of its users.

It’s a transit node, a stage, a bit of an island, a seed.

By Amanda Bryan, VIA Architecture

It never fails to amaze me how resilient and innovative human kind can be, when out of seemingly overwhelming adversity, a people can be mobilized into aspiring citizens of change. As I participated in this year’s Design for Livability: Sustainable Cities conference, I sensed such resilience and high aspirations in the crowd as it leaned forward in anticipation for the great solution to the problems before us. The problems we face are not just economic nor are they issues which affect merely Seattle residents and so the AIA, Cascade Land Conservancy, and UW School of Built Environments tackled the conference from both the local and regional scale. Building upon a foundation of education, presenters were encouraged to share their many experiences and projects as a teacher would share its knowledge with its pupils.

The topics of the conference ranged widely, covering issues such as ailing infrastructure ripe for overhaul, alternative ecosystem markets, large ecodistricts as a solution for overbuilt utilities, non-profits as motivators of change, formulaic changes in single family developments to combat sprawl, and typological changes in multifamily zones to revive a waning population of children. Like Karen True from Friends of Third Place Commons in her presentation Creating and Activating Great Places, the presenters aired their thoughts passionately and compellingly. The topics themselves gravitated towards interdisciplinary action that not only relied upon large scale governmental shifts but also community action.

If there was one key message I got out this conference, it was that the all too political word “Change” isn’t just about electing the correct official or voting for the right propositions (although this helps), it’s about taking what you’ve got and ‘throwing it into the pot’ to form a collective will. This might mean becoming a group activist or maybe as little as simply volunteering in a community group a few hours a month. Either way we become active participants in our society rather than mere observers.

As we have all watched the economy shift and budgets stretch to cover the endless needs demanded of cities and communities, people have both figuratively and literally ‘rolled up their sleeves’ and made use of their resources. I think this conference is yet another representation of this resilience and similar future events will mark our generation as persevering innovators for those we leave behind.

by Catherine Calvert, VIA Architecture

VIA was pleased to sponsor the recent keynote presentation to kick off last week’s Design for Livability: Sustainable Communities conference, put on by AIA Seattle, Cascade Land Conservancy and University of Washington College of Built Environments.

Our presentation was about Ecodistricts, featuring our firm’s work on Southeast False Creek in Vancouver, home to the future Athlete’s Village for the 2010 Olympics, as well as the work of ZGF and the Portland + Oregon Sustainability Institute (P+OSI) on the Lloyd District. 

What is significant about ecodistrict projects like these is that they illustrate how far the bar needs to be raised in terms of radical rethinking of neighborhood design if we are to make any difference at all in terms of the way we use our cities and connect our infrastructure.  Five years ago I had the privilege of touring neighborhoods in Malmo and Copenhagen and understanding the total logic of organizing communities around district energy systems and cogeneration.  That experience was an “a-ha moment” – it’s not about living off the grid (as we were taught in the 70’s), it’s about all of us plugging into the grid and sharing our resources. 

Clearly, however, projects like the Lloyd District and Southeast False Creek don’t happen by the good intentions of architects and planners.  They can only come to fruition using the synergy of political will, economic opportunity, technical innovation, and at a stage of infrastructure lifecycle that’s ripe for renewal.  One of the most interesting technologies implemented at Southeast False Creek is the “harvesting” of heat from a large diameter sewer pipe that runs along the perimeter of the 80-acre property.  Only through high levels of cooperation between the City of Vancouver’s Planning and Engineering Departments, the technical understanding of how this heat could be exchanged, and the creation of a new district utility for management, could this resource have been fully utilized.

Rob Bennett from P+OSI and Dave Ramslie from the City of Vancouver had some excellent summary themes to share:

  • It is vital that the “policy framework” be in place for these projects to be carried out. This is a combination of governance and planning context that establishes the authority and sets the groundwork for the jurisdiction to execute projects.
  • That these projects leveraged “opportunistic planning”, in most cases writing new forms of planning code to create outcomes that are mutually beneficial to the city and the developer.
  • Designing and building stand-alone green buildings is not enough.  We have entered the second generation of green building, where connection to a shared infrastructure is necessary for buildings to be fully sustainable. This interconnection is not unlike the evolution of PC’s, which didn’t reach their full potential as working tools until the internet network became established.
  • Envisioning and executing projects of this kind involves a new kind of applied knowledge for architects and planners. Integrated, networked, holistic solutions are the way of the future.  Personal expertise and business models must adapt to this.
  • Sometimes a business case is a stronger driver of sustainable solutions than any kind of policy or technical innovation. If there is money to be made, then there is a much greater chance a project will get off the ground.

It’s a challenge to all of us to look at these projects not as one-off solutions but as models with transferable lessons and working technologies that should be emulated as widely as possible.  Southeast False Creek started as a vision over 10 years ago in the pre-LEED era and has been executed only through the determination of many hard-working individuals who saw the project through many changes and roadblocks.  Since that time, forecasts about climate change and the future of humankind have only become more dire.

What kind of vision do we need to start with now to make any kind of difference?

Conscious Consumers

Oct 14, 2009

By Annette Thurston, VIA Architecture
I have always been an advocate for “Going Green” in theory. It seems like the right thing to do and I want to save the planet, but the whole idea just overwhelms me every time I think about it.  Doubts and questions start filling my head like “is my recycling really helping?  Everything I buy comes in plastic, it’s impossible to avoid.  I don’t want to walk that far to the store; I need my car to haul all of my grocery bags. I want to relax and watch TV at the end of the day and Facebook with my friends (sometimes I’ll waste a whole Sunday just catching up on shows and watching movies).  I love food and I love shopping. It’s too expensive to buy organic”…and on and on it goes.

Why should I sacrifice all of the things that I love?  I’m a person who likes her purchases cheap, I like them quick and I don’t care how they get here. Honestly, ‘going green’ just sounds like too much of a hassle.  So I’ve just been doing the bare minimum that most people do which is recycle plastic, tin and paper and hope that someone puts it to good use. I really have no idea where that stuff goes when I throw it in the bin every week.  Then I heard about this movie No Impact Man and I took my friend Adam to go see it with me.

The premise of the movie is that Colin Beavan, his wife and their 2 year old daughter would lower their carbon footprint to 0 over the course of 12 months in New York City. They did really extreme things like shut off their electricity for 6 months and only travel by foot or bike and only buy locally produced food and milk. They actually gave away their TV — just gave it away! But the point of them doing all of that was to see what they could live without.

As Adam and I were walking to our cars and talking about the movie, we started thinking about all the waste we produce in our daily lives and what we are really getting out of it. The combination of being inspired by this movie and the fact that we are fairly competitive people, led us to challenge ourselves to a year of reducing our impact.  I’m not going to lie, we are pretty high maintenance and it’s not going to be easy.  But even people such as us need a place to start.  So taking our cue from Colin Beavan, we divided the next 12 months into three phases and came up with a list of things that we know are wasteful and want to try to live without.  

For Phase 1 we have vowed to: give up all things plastic ie plastic bags, plastic bottles, plastic tubs, plastic utensils, any food that is packaged in plastic etc., give up aluminum, reduce our TV time and laptop time to 2 hours a day each to conserve energy, purchase only as many items as we can carry, and dine out a maximum of 3 times a week and that INCLUDES going out for coffee.

The minute I posted this list on my Facebook page, there was an immediate attack on our project. Some people laughed, some people mocked me by saying ‘You?!  Ha! Good luck!’ Some people jumped to the obvious, ‘what about yogurt containers, shampoo/conditioner bottles, ball point pens, sandwich bags, your cell phone? How will you live without those?” People are automatically discouraged by the thought of giving up these things they’ve grown to be so dependent on. And actually, so are we. Good thing we like a challenge. We are just learning as we go and we know it will take a lot of research and questions, a lot of frustrations and a lot of cravings as we adjust to our new lifestyles. But we vow not to give up until we have exhausted all other options that are available to us. 

The main thing we hope to get out of this project is that we want to become more aware of where our products come from, where they go when we discard them, and what the actual cost is to our health and the environment by purchasing them.  We can do only what is within our power and economic limitations.  We are striving to be Conscious Consumers and we are determined to reduce as much waste as is humanly possible for us while still living satisfying, fulfilling and happy lives.  And hopefully we will make some small difference to our planet.

We will check back with an update once we are through Phase 1 and introduce Phase 2 of our project.