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by Catherine Calvert, VIA’s Director of Practice + Director of Community Architecture and
Angie Tomisser, VIA’s Interior Designer

As designers, it’s fascinating to watch the approach to design as portrayed on national television:

  • Give us a week, and we’ll build you a house from scratch – not only shiny and new, but customized to your exact hobbies and tastes!
  • Go to your neighbor’s house and rip out all the things you don’t like – and replace them with the things you like – they’ll be so surprised!
  • Just watch me and copy everything I do – wow your friends with your excellent taste and originality!

It reminds us of other types of reality shows – the ones where people drop a dozen pounds in the hour that you’re watching – except that what you don’t see is the 50 hours they had to spend in the gym to burn those calories – literally, the heavy lifting that goes on behind the scenes.

Now we’re all for the promotion of good design, and the way in which an improved environment can affect people’s lives and wellbeing. What we’re wary of, and are starting to hear in discussions with various non-designers, is people’s perceptions of what designers do as “picking good stuff” or being able to instantaneously create a vision of how a space should function, look and feel. We wish it were as easy as it appears on reality TV.

The process of design involves its own form of heavy lifting. Good architecture doesn’t happen instantaneously, but rather is the result of thoughtful, diligent consideration of design problems, testing of ideas, and gradually closing in on a thorough, sensible solution. Even the simplest transformation deserves time to think it through and to get it right. It’s hard to describe this to someone without appearing to be mystifying the design process. It’s not mystical … but it needs a particular set of skills that go beyond the superficial. No great piece of architecture is simply about looking good.

As a society we have become so hooked on instant gratification. Buy that new car — even if you can’t afford those payments – who cares, you’ll look so good driving it! If there is any silver lining in our current economic downturn, it’s that maybe people are thinking twice about the quick hit. An investment in carefully considered quality, of saving for what we really have thought about, of taking the time to make careful decisions – this can’t be a bad thing.

Do you think we could make this catch on in reality TV land?

by Silas Archambault, MA Planning Candidate, School of Community and Regional Planning (UBC)

Public space: Urban areas where a variety of activities can take place. Panhandling, performances, social encounters, picnics, street vending, and the occasional zombie march. These dynamic, multi-use spaces define a city. They are crucial in building community cohesion, and are a major determinant of neighborhood livability. We are used to thinking of streets, parks, squares, and libraries as entirely public. However, a discussion of public space often excludes the one where we have the most frequent and close interactions: on transit.

Each day, hundreds of thousands of people take transit in the greater Vancouver region. Some are pushed up into the armpits of complete strangers. Others politely ignore the fellow passengers sitting opposite and read the newspaper. Every once in a while, a few people will erupt into conversation. Of course, Friday night on the bus will be a cacophony of conversation and probably a few not-too-discreet beers. The SkyTrain has even hosted a few dance parties.

When sitting on a silent bus, every body wired with an iPod, you cannot help but think of the possibility. This is one of the few spaces that gathers a diverse population. Better yet, it holds them as a captive audience – in close quarters – until their stop. There is so much potential for social learning, new ideas, civic engagement, perhaps even a pleasant ride! Ohh, the social possibilities.

Perhaps surprisingly enough, I am not the only one thinking about this. October 30th, the Cooperative Auto Network is hosting TransportCamp to discuss how transportation can be a catalyst for more vibrant communities. This will bring together 150 people to generate new ideas. Darrin Nordahl just published My Kind of Transit which provides a number of case studies of transit systems in the USA which are actually pleasant to ride. There is even a growing repository on social research in transportation.

There is no doubt that transit plays an important role in community. The very way it is designed, lighting, seating, visibility, location, to name a few aspects that contribute to a more socially positive experience. There is also a lot of ‘soft’ infrastructure that can be done to encourage a positive social space.

TransLink services are taking steps in the right direction: Morning commuters on the #22 enjoy trivia and the chance to win candy bars. I managed to bag a Mars bar almost by accident. You can occasionally catch a musician at a downtown SkyTrain station. Back in February, TransLink hosted an I Love Transit night which capped off I Love Transit week. This brought together a surprisingly large plethora of transit nerds who could tell you the schedules of obscure community shuttle routes without blinking. Props also to Jhen of the Buzzer Blog, which brings transparency and personality to TransLink. The greater Vancouver region is taking steps towards making its transit system a livable and dynamic part of the public realm.

Transit can bring people together. Just look at the massive political force of Rider Unions. The Los Angeles Bus Rider Union (LABRU) is an amazing example of collective action and they all came together on (and about) transit! TransLink has the potential to tap into a community of riders for support, a community that will flourish if recognized, nourished, and heard. There needs to be a sense that transit is a place, rather then just the space between. Transit can be a place where citizens learn, interact, and celebrate.

With a showcase trolley system running from Granville island to Main Street, which had to be imported from Europe to get the right equipment, it is clear we ‘get it’ about the experience of transit. If it’s not pleasant, people won’t ride. With this in mind, it is possible to take the steps to provide a complete mobility experience. For one of the most livable regions in the world, let’s challenge ourselves to set a positive example.

Now in its second year, this forum brings our region’s planning, design, development, and civic leaders and advocates together to better understand what we can do to build a stronger future. Today, more than ever, we are faced with environmental and economic challenges that will define our generation, shape our future, and test our resilience. Join leaders from across the region as we tackle these challenges head-on and demonstrate solutions to building more livable, walkable, and healthier communities.

For registration information, or a more detailed time schedule, click here

Reception & Opening Lecture Presentation
UrbanLab: Sarah Dunn & Martin Felson, AIA
UrbanLab is an architecture and urban design firm in Chicago & recipient of the 2009 AIA College of Fellows Latrobe Prize. Projects include residential, new commercial, conversions of industrial buildings, restaurant interiors, and museum installations. Urban design projects include a study for the city of Chicago and a masterplan for the downtown redevelopment of Aurora, IL. UrbanLab is also a research laboratory examining the City and Chicago megalopolis. The project,, investigates Chicago’s status as a global city.



Morning plenary sessions include:

Ecodistricts: A Comprehensive Approach to the Development of a Truly Sustainable City

VIA will be kicking off this year’s AIA sponsored Design for Livability: Sustainable Cities conference with a shared 90 minute session on Vancouver’s Southeast False Creek (SEFC) and ZGF’s new Portland EcoDistrict project. Together, these two firms will be providing not only great insight into how a large scale project slike SEFC went from concept to implementation but also what the next generation of ‘EcoDistricts’ are shaping up. Presenting for VIA will be David Ramslie from the City of Vancouver and former associate of VIA, Jeff Olson. Having experience with both projects, Rob Bennet from the Portland + Oregon Sustainability Institute will be acting as moderator between the two teams, asking the ‘big picture’ questions on what’s involved with bringing an energy district online.

This co-presented session will explore strategies on how large projects like Portland’s EcoDistrict and SEFC can make major leaps of change, and will enable participants to gain greater understanding on three key topics:

  • The complexities associated with developing a sustainable energy district within a unique social, environmental, and economic context
  • The fundamental challenges and opportunities associated with an EcoDistrict’s long-term large scale collaborative design process
  • The strategies necessary for creating a development that embodies a public culture of sustainability


Creating and Activating Great Places
Karen True and Sarah Phillips (Third Place Commons) will lead a guided conversation and hands-on workshop that considers how to create, activate and sustain community-based great places that foster a sense of place, and create community ownership. Great places make living and working in a shared community enjoyable.

Afternoon breakout sessions include:

Session 1

  • Great Streets / Great Places
  • Integrating Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) in Neighborhoods
  • Ballard: Small Town in the City

Session 2

  • Creating Livable, Walkable Neighborhood Business Centers
  • Reimaging the City Fabric

Session 3

  • Transforming Traditional Single-Family Neighborhoods
  • 10 Easy Strategies to “Green Up” Your Zoning Code
  • Enticing Families to Live in Urban Centers

Closing plenary:

Cultural Overlay: Incentivizing Development Through Art
A discussion will be led to share creative ideas for the long-term promotion and preservation of cultural, arts, and entertainment activities and spaces in Seattle neighborhoods, and explain how these ideas can be transformed into policy recommendations that can be implemented through ordinance and budget authority. We’ll also explore how the City of Bellingham and the design team conceived of its Arts District as a place for people and how small changes made a big difference. The Bellingham Arts District is now a model of public leadership, community involvement and private investment.

Happy Hour
Join fellow conference participants, presenters, UW Faculty and students together with 50th anniversary UW Alum to continue conversations.

Smart Growth BC 2009 Conference

Featuring Paul Hawken and many other distinguished thought leaders

October 20-22, 2009
Vancouver Convention & Exhibition Centre

Registration now open!

For its sixth annual conference, Smart Growth BC joins forces for the first time with the Center for Urban Innovation’s Gaining Ground Sustainable Urban Development Leadership Summit to present a unique two-and-a-half day gathering addressing the transformational challenges that all North American cities, whether large or small, urban or rural, are facing in sustainability, economy and urban management.

Resilient Cities will explore strategies to make cities and towns more robust, and will enable participants to significantly advance their thinking on three key subjects:

  • Innovation in sustainability governance and best current practices for managing sustainable urban systems
  • Capturing opportunities in the green economy
  • Strategies for building widespread sustainability collaborations that engage the community level.


We are a sponsor this year and will be featuring the following panel discussion:

The evolution of Southeast False Creek illustrates changing definitions of sustainability: from the ideals of the early 1990s “Clouds of Change” report through waves of real-estate pro-forma and architectural fashion wars, to the social, cultural, economic and environmental criteria of multi-layered sustainability that coalesced around the same time as the Olympic bid in 2002 – (then the politics, and later the press, kicked in).

Trace the contested journey in a dynamic story-telling workshop with some of the diverse players who saw it through from vision to design to construction.

Graham McGarva (VIA Architecture)
Ian Smith (City of Vancouver)
Sean McEwan (Vancouver City Planning Commission, SEFC Stewardship Group)
Roger Bayley (Merrick Architecture)
Lance Berelowitz (Urban Forum Associates, moderator)

Gaining Ground Summit
Wednesday, October 21st, 2 – 4:30 pm

Click here for conference and registration information.

by JP Thornton, VIA’s Director of Practice and Director of Mixed-Use + Major Projects

Not building any/or Minimal
Some forms of development can suit no additional parking provision at all.

At the Hub, East Broadway Commercial station in Vancouver an arrangement was brokered in a community that was fixated on two problems. The first being a lack of parking and concern about increased parking demand to be caused by adding a second skytrain station. The second being the needed increasing commercial activity around the station to drive out the drug dealing operations that had overrun the area.

Two options were discussed a) commercial development without any parking or b) some parking but limited development; they chose development and committed to back off the parking issue. The no parking option was selected by the community.

The City was then convinced to allow a rezoning for 20,000sqft with zero parking (a relaxation of 30 odd stalls) which was the only way the economics would allow a project to be developed.

Interestingly, the City did however also allow an option of 39,000 sqft if the full parking was provided ie 58 stalls.

What we see today is the successful 20,000 sq ft that was built with no parking.

Some forms of development would never happen where it happens if the required amount of parking was to be provided. For example, when BC Places, 60,000 seat stadium was approved there were many City blocks empty around it.

In getting approval for Concord Pacific for its development masterplan, agreement was reached on allocating 2,000 stalls in the development to be designated as available for stadium events.

Concord also paid in the region of $8m that was to be put to car alternatives which went towards creating the earliest bikeways.

Building bigger and better than required
This final point may be surprising but what if we think about the future. If the points noted above do in fact reduce the amount of parking required (and there is no reason to believe that they wont) what do we do then with all of that expensive parking that we have previously provided? Particularly the “out of site, out of mind” underground parking which we are so fond of.

We need to think now about reuse. We already reuse other building forms. What if that parking could be converted to an alternative use once its parking days are over.

If we were to incorporate better, at or above grade parking into new and future development. Parking structures which are designed to provide for greater floor to ceiling heights, larger stall sizes, these then could be converted into work live units or retail, say at a later date.

Building above ground would allow for natural daylight and direct access, building the stalls wider would allow for the partitions to be erected.
Reduction in the stall count but increase in the quality is the only way that this can be achieved.

The next task is to look at the impact of pay parking on development sites outside the city centre. Particularly the redevelopment of strip malls. Major retailers are starting to understand that the acceptance of parking is a cost of doing commerce/producing amenity rather than a right. Eco density redevelopment takes surface stalls and either requires above grade ones at more than double the cost or underground parking at more than triple.

Obviously this cost can be reduced with the rationale that the more walk able the environment created, then the more the likelihood that commercial and social amenity is within walking distance and thereby the less cars (and the need for spaces) will be needed.

by JP Thornton, VIA’s Director of Practice and Director of Mixed-Use + Major Projects

There are generally 3 options to building parking.
Build it underground, Build it on the ground or build it above the ground

So what are the solutions?

Unbundling Parking
We need to look at parking as a commodity and not as a birth right. That means giving the ability to buy units with or without a parking space. This also means that the parking can be spread out, around a community if it is conceived as a whole.

Let’s for example take a Market Tower which has a high parking ratio but a small footprint. It could have some of its parking under an adjacent, larger footprint and lower parking ratio non market housing development.

This leads to an overall lower development cost for the market tower and hence units become more affordable as well as increasing funding to the non market portion. This is particularly relevant near water sites where building underground can be prohibitively expensive.

This is however not without problems as airspace parcels, easements, integrated design etc. have to be identified and resolved early on.

Reducing amount

When considering the reduction of the amount of parking it is important not to miss the distinction between car usage and car ownership whereby urban households don’t use cars much but still do own one and hence require somewhere to put them. The impression from some that Transit oriented developments will eliminate at a stroke the need for cars is wrong. Whilst obviously it will reduce reliance on the car it will not eliminate it. We should be careful about not reducing too much.

In Vancouver’s False Creek South in the mid 1970’s the ratio was reduced to 0.5 per unit. This was such a disaster that the City had to build 3 parkades. (one very cost effectively at Alder Crossing into the Parkside bank, one under the playing field at the school which was hideously expensive but also needed for the marina and one behind Leg in Boot square which later and successfully incorporated market rental housing built in it’s front yard set back.).

The ratio now ie late 1970s developments is 1 per unit which allows the opportunity for rental of second car spaces and for visitors.

Mixed use developments have the benefit of allowing an amount of overlapping between residential and commercial parking. This means creating a parking pool and taking elements such as visitor parking out of the residential count and putting them in that pool. Residential and commercial parking can work very well together as their demands tend to be complementary

It’s simple math, if you require 100 residential, 20 visitor and 200 commercial stalls, the traditional total is 320.

If you were to allow some complementary overlap, the total actual built will be less. That total could be reduced to 260 by providing a pool of say 20 spaces which all uses could access and subsequently reducing the requirements of all three by 20.

This form of parking strategy does however require careful management in order to not provide misuse such as Park and Ride. Measures such as providing for validated or cheap first hour and progressively more expensive subsequent hours would discourage this.

[the next 2 solutions will be coming tomorrow – stay tuned!]

by JP Thornton, VIA’s Director of Practice and Director of Mixed-Use + Major Projects

Cars, traffic, parking, gridlock all major concerns of the time and are increasing in intensity, profile and concern. Many people have put their minds to possible solutions.

The Congestion charge in London (and now also Stockholm) was introduced to limit the amount of traffic with in the centre of a City not designed for modern vehicular demands. Although the direction behind this is admirable it cannot be undertaken in isolation. Business drivers whom this was largely targeted simply consider it a cost of doing business; large companies can cover the costs of their workers travel by increasing fees. To be fully successful, huge investments into public transit are required otherwise inadequate transportation will limit office development, job creation, house building as well as the efficiency of the labour market in or around the congestion zone.

In some major Japanese Cities, before you are allowed to purchase a car, you have to prove that you do in fact actually have somewhere to park it.

These are both reactionary measures put in place to attempt to stem the growing congestion that threatens to grind Cities to a halt. But what can we do to be proactive in terms of development?

Higher densities imply more people, therefore more cars and hence parking. Or does it???

Actually increasing densities in major urban centres is the beginning of the solution along with suitable and complementary transit infrastructure. Taking the need away from the dependence on the car rather than making the actual driving more difficult is perhaps a more positive approach.

The right building in the wrong place is the wrong building. So we live in the City and we walk to work, great, but if every weekend we have to drive to the box stores or malls surrounded by acres of parking to do our shopping then these suburban buildings, no matter how environmentally correct, are the wrong buildings.

The City of Vancouver and Costco should be applauded for developing one of the first “downtown box stores” although I admit that I am yet to understand how customers manage to carry their 76 rolls of toilet paper and 50 pound bags of rice home.

Urban environments providing homes, shopping, transportation and recreational facilities on your doorstep where it is as quick to walk to the store as it is to walk to your car in the parkade is an excellent step in the right direction.

Parking drives development, Parking ratios and stall sizes. Almost every municipality has its own standards in both ratio and sizes. The calculations are complex and to be honest quite dull so the details are not going to be discussed here. Some very successful developments would not have happened if reductions in parking were not negotiated and in order to negotiate, alternatives to these standards need to be identified. The following points need to be understood first so that we can proactively look at the issue of parking provision and ways to mitigate impact.

  • It is a Constant state of balance – Developers need to build sufficient parking to satisfy potential purchasers and the City but do not wish to build more that is required due to the cost.
  • The City wishes to see adequate provision for parking but generally does not wish to see it.
  • Parking is expensive to build. Generally preferred to be “out of site” means building underground. Which in some cases can cost up to $25k per stall.

Coming up next week: 3 options to building parking

by Lydia Heard, VIA’s urban planner

We build more space for cars than we do for people. Every car has at least three parking spaces waiting for it, somewhere. Parking is never free; it drives up the costs of development that we pay in the price of everything from housing to movie tickets. (For this and more, read “The High Cost of Free Parking” by Donald Shoup.)

What takes up the largest amount of publicly owned real estate in your city? It’s most likely streets and roadways which are usually dominated by vehicles. In Seattle, 26% of our land use is taken up by public right-of-way for streets, including parking lanes. What if a quarter of our city was public green space, instead?

Think about all those metered parking spaces in our public rights of way. Who says they’re just for cars? Pay your rent at the meter and you can occupy the space for any safe legal purpose. Why not? It’s incredibly cheap. A stall in a surface lot might cost you $10.00 from the first minute you arrive; a space on the street in front is just $2.50 per hour. Now forget that this is a “parking space”; think of it as your rented plot of urban land. If you paid $5.00 rent for an 8’x22′ piece of real estate for two hours how would you occupy it?

The Park(ing) Day event was created by people who wanted to illustrate the need for more space for parks in cities, so they usually do something park-like and portable, as you have to pick up and move to another space every two hours. This street setup at the South Lake Union Block Party was more static, and very creative.

This lady didn’t wait for Park(ing) Day. She also took advantage of a Sunday, when parking is free all day long. She was a good hostess, creating a fine social space. What would you do with your rented plot?

by Angie Tomisser, VIA’s Interior Designer

Obesity is on the rise, we have all read the burning headlines. My question is why are low income areas hit harder than more affluent communities? Research shows that poorer neighborhoods are less walk-able and have far less access to healthy food sources. It wasn’t until recently that I discovered first hand, the uphill battle these low income communities face.

Like most young married couples trying to buy their first home, we found ourselves struggling to find affordable housing prices in the nicer neighborhoods of Seattle. As a result we were lead to a great property in South Seattle along the light rail line. Moving from North Seattle, where there is a PCC or café on every corner, to the south end was quite a shock. Not only does the South Seattle community face significant crime and violence, but the options for providing a decent meal for your family are scarce to say the least. The following images are of establishments located within walking distance of my home.


Many folks who reside in areas like mine, rarely have access to a vehicle and primarily get around by bus or on foot. Which is why when five o’clock rolls around and your kids are hungry, many find it cheap, fast and convenient to run to the McDonalds down the street. Riding the bus to work in the morning, we share the ride with many teens on their way to Franklin High School. Countless times I’ve watched as they consume their breakfast of Cheetos and soda, picked up at the Exxon station near the bus stop.

We had assumed that the local grocery store would provide healthier options like fresh fruit and vegetables. Unfortunately, just as it looks from the picture, the Safeway proves to be just as bad on the inside. I seldom stop at this store because in the past I have found it to have very poor selection and I have questioned the quality and freshness. In fact, we drive over three miles to a neighboring store to do our grocery shopping because the only thing I feel comfortable buying there is canned or frozen food.

One night last week, against our better judgment, we decided to stop for a few last minute dinner items. As I approached the produce department, my first impression was good. Pleasantly surprised, I lucked a zucchini squash off of the shelf, only to find a pocket of flies exit with its removal. After that, I myself seriously considered eating at McDonalds for dinner too.

If my neighborhood is any indicator of what other economically depressed areas are working with, then it is easy to see why our nation is looking at a serious health epidemic. With the light rail stirring things up in our area, we have all started to see a spark of hope for a once forgotten community. What does this mean for the fight against obesity? Of course establishments like McDonalds will always be lurking, but with Safeway committing to a three million dollar remodel scheduled for completion next April, we are hopeful that the choices will start to improve soon.

The light rail has also opened the door for convenient access to the Columbia City Farmers Market held every Wednesday evening between the months of April and October. The Thistle P-Patch, a year round community run garden is a “hands-on” option, located two blocks off of the Henderson Station light rail stop. Not only does the P-Patch provide a great food source, it also requires some physical activity which is always good for your waist line.

There is no magic trick that will transform your community into one full of vigor, and health, not even a trick called “light rail.” This magic only happens when a community speaks out and takes action, one that works with each other to organize community gardens, and demands easy access to farmers markets. One that voices their concerns about the quality of products provided at the local supermarket. And most importantly, a community that teaches their children that gas station food is not a good source of nutrition, and that taking the time to prepare dinner has a much greater value than a three dollar hamburger.

Image Credit: Thistle P-Patch

PARK(ing) Day

Sep 14, 2009

This coming Friday, September 18th is PARK(ing) Day.

It is a day when artists, activists, and citizens taken an ordinary metered parking space and turn it into a temporary public park for the day.

“The idea of the event is to hire a parking space but then turn it into a mini Park rather than using it to park your car. It aims to get people thinking about the use of urban space, the dominance of the car in our society and other travel options such as biking, walking and taking the bus.” (–Feet First website)

Although only temporary, PARK(ing) Day has inspired direct participation in the civic processes that permanently alter the urban landscape.

Last year, Seattle had 32 mini parks in parking spots around the city, with a plan to have around 50 this year. Click here to see Capitol Hill’s plan for their neighborhood, including an awards ceremony for the “first ever Park(ing) Day Seattle Prize.”

In Vancouver, the Vancouver Public Space Network (VPSN) has been reaching out to people to set up their own park or to join them at their park in front of Caffe Artigiano on Hornby.

If you feel tempted to create your own oasis in the midst of a bustling city, you can find more information here.