Recent Posts


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.

by Peg MacDonald, VIA Architect

Last week, the New York Times ran a piece that exposed some “green” buildings that were not living up to the promises made by their LEED plaques. The follow-up blog entry on Green Inc. reinforces the notion that LEED is not an indicator of overall energy efficiency in a given building.

The available Energy and Atmosphere credits make up just 24% of the total available credits (17 of 70). The lowest level of Certification starts at 26 points, so it is entirely possible to deliver a building with totally conventional heating and cooling systems and still achieve some level of LEED certification. The fundamentals of sustainable design require a balance of energy and environmental design components to really improve the performance of a building within its site; with LEED a moderate landscaping plan and an accessible bus stop may just be enough to move you into the realm of stardom and commercial promotion afforded by the certification.

What’s interesting about the articles is that the market is starting to realize that a LEED-certified building is not necessarily the greenest of the green. Building professionals have been clamoring for stronger, harder, more comprehensive standards since LEED 1.0, while waiting patiently for the marketplace to catch up. LEED 3.0, with its more stringent requirements and greater regional flexibility, is a far cry from its grandfather. (But still just a step…) Even now as LEED moves into the realm of urban planning and Neighborhood Development, it should be expected that this design tool will not be a true calculation of community sustainability – something that is not as easily quantified by energy usage and native plantings.

A truly green building must be more than the sum of its checklist. Some firms have been instrumental in pushing LEED and helping it become the brand that it is, building by building. Others understand it, support it, and quietly go about working in the larger context of sustainability, in places where the structures don’t necessarily fit into the credit framework. LEED is, and always has been, just a tool.

What an existing LEED plaque should signify is that the design team took some care and thought to address environmental issues (like reducing water consumption, or using local/regional materials) when putting that building together. Future LEED plaques may be a better indicator of overall energy efficiency, embodied energy, and longevity, if the plans for five-year monitoring and recertification go far enough.
The recertification process could bring another paradigm shift in the project delivery process. It’s rare to find a client who opts to require (and pay for) post-occupancy monitoring ; especially if they aren’t the end-user. The current LEED certification process is already very good at keeping design teams accountable through the construction and implementation process – when quick decisions to substitute one thing for another often have far greater consequences than anticipated.

Recertification could lead to more liability on the design team and the developer.
(Bad – if it’s out of proportion to the appropriate sphere of control.)

It could lead to more responsibility for the architect.
(Good! Let’s take this on! No more complaining about how the influence and greater role of the Architect is being incrementally stripped away because of liability concerns.)

It must lead to more responsibility on the user group, and a greater emphasis on follow-through education. People need to understand that all buildings have a character and a need to interact with their inhabitants in order to function properly. Simple or sophisticated, the building’s systems need to be watched and adjusted if goals of comfort or energy efficiency are going to be realized.

As we demand more from our green buildings, we must allow them to demand more from us.

Image Credits: Image 1

by Lydia Heard, VIA’s Urban Designer and Planner, and author of citywalker

What does a city’s skyline say about the aspirations, ambitions and desires of its founders and continuum of citizenry over time? How are these ambitions embodied in the planning that shapes a city until it achieves that significant, identifiable form? Do the forces that shape the skyline, that big picture the world sees from afar, also affect the inner life of the city, it’s heart and soul, the public realm of the street, of civic space, and the success or failure of access for those from all walks of life?

city skylines
Let’s look at some well known city skylines. Often they are ranked by the number of very tall buildings, the “High” city. Prime examples are Hong Kong and New York. These are centers of world trade and commerce, bustling with competition and the desire to be noticed; to be bigger, taller, more striking than the neighbor. These cities also have geographic constraints: Manhattan fills its island footprint, and Hong Kong is squeezed upward between mountain and water. Toronto is another High city, and a classic example of the form such a city takes when it has room to spread out. The CBD takes on a mountain form which gives way to a surrounding spread of low-rise development. Off to the side of the CBD is a tall, iconic identifying landmark. Looks like one of our cities closer to home, doesn’t it?

Paris and London
Then there are “Low” cities, often world capitals, such as Paris or London. These were built out to their mature form, one of densely filled blocks at a uniform height, before the age of the high-rise. Post-skyscraper they make decisions to stay low and preserve views of some central civic or iconic monument – the Eiffel Tower; St. Paul’s Cathedral. A civic pride of place is put first, before the individualist corporate competitive impulse, which is pushed to the edges, to La Defense or Canary Wharf – although London has been permitting more very tall buildings in the central city.

What form do our two cities take?
Seattle looks remarkably like Toronto, except with a backdrop of mountains. There are geographic constraints, but there was enough land for a spread of low-density development, which in Seattle consists of well-established bungalow neighborhoods with their own urban village centers. The mountain form of the CBD is a clue to what was most important in development of the city. Now battles are being fought around our very visible and beloved civic icon, as South Lake Union primes for development. Should new development stay low to preserve views of the Space Needle? Can some towers be allowed, and if so what shape, how many, and where? Seattle is a combination city, wrestling with some of the decisions the Low cities have made.

Vancouver has a rather unique skyline among major cities, a forest of glittering residential towers, similar in height and form, spaced for light and views, aided in its upward rise by the constraints of the central peninsula. Their icons are natural; the dramatic and immediate mountain backdrop, forested park, water and beaches. Aside from visions of a mystic island, Avalon, the Fortunate Isle, the Isle of Glass – it most nearly resembles a high-class resort city. This is also a clue to what was important in developing the city.

Seattle and Vancouver had similar beginnings: Location, climate, industrial potential with timber, a railroad and a port as aids to commercial development. Other than geographic constraints, what led them to such differences in urban form? A hint can be found in their early beginnings.

In Seattle, the first large land claim holders, in the interest of developing the city, sold land cheaply to anyone who wanted to build the right sort of business on it. One even donated a huge tract for a university. The Seattle founders’ desire (beyond a failed attempt to become the state capitol) was for the city to become a Manhattan of the west coast, a major center of commerce.

Vancouver founders had a different vision. Almost the first act of the city after incorporation was to preserve the 100 hectare military reserve at the West End which would later become known as Stanley Park. Forward thinking? In a way, perhaps. They were envisioning land speculation for wealthy residential development in that area. This residential speculation took a front seat before business development from the start, and established the desire value of the local natural environment.

What did these early choices mean for their respective cities?
Seattle took a more traditional Central City form, with a Central Business District connected by streetcars to surrounding neighborhoods. This pattern followed the march of progress to become one of commercial towers competing with their neighbors for attention through height or iconic design. While visually interesting, especially from a distance, this tends towards an oppressive street environment of dark canyons and lifeless evenings not conducive to livability because, well, no one was meant to live there. It also required vehicular access for the mass ingress and exodus of workers twice a day – an adjacent freeway or two, never mind the waterfront, and every other street a traffic arterial.

In Seattle these things were accepted for the sake of the commercial ambitions of the city. Because the surrounding village neighborhoods were so desirable, it is only in recent years that ideas of a more urban sort of livability have gained increasing acceptance and urgency. Shifting the direction and intent of planning policy is like turning a cargo ship: It takes a lot of effort to change the momentum.

Vancouver v Seattle2
Vancouver, starting with its initial residential aspirations, took a different tack. High-rise residential towers first started sprouting in the West End even before the Space Needle rose for Expo ’62 and generated momentum for the ensuing rise of Seattle’s CBD. In the ‘60s a planned highway into downtown Vancouver was fought and defeated by residents of the neighborhood it would have destroyed. This somewhat stunted their CBD growth, and commercial development has since spread into smaller tower developments around the metro area, spurred and aided by an excellent and growing higher-order transit system.

Vancouver’s own Expo in ’86 pushed another surge for building out the central city in the Vancouver residential tower and streetwall form, with even more emphasis on livability. This was aided in the ‘90s by an influx of new residents who were accustomed to tower living – because they came from a world-class “high” city: Hong Kong. Now the Olympics driven development south of the peninsula is taking a new form, but livability and sustainability are even more at the forefront, because the momentum has been there all along and is gaining steam.

Vancouver v Seattle3
It seems that in terms of livability, Seattle is struggling to change direction, and Vancouver has a distant lead.
But what about accessibility? That forest of towers, all somewhat similar, not really competing for attention, looks pretty egalitarian – or is it more like the resort city it resembles? In reality it is very expensive to live in the city, putting it out of reach for many. New developments are required to pay into a social housing fund, but the housing can be built elsewhere. In Seattle, citizens tax themselves to build housing for homeless or very low-income people, and a good portion of that is in the central city. Market housing is usually too costly for workforce housing, however, and voluntary bonusing incentives for developers have yet to achieve the desired result.

In both cities, affordable rents for residents and the small businesses that add so much to the life of a street are mostly found in older buildings. When these are redeveloped, new wealthier tenants move in, and the new businesses are likely to be chain stores that can afford higher rents. The street environment may be newly landscaped and attractive, walkable and bikeable, with people sitting at sidewalk patios drinking lattes. This livable but somewhat sterile environment comes at the expense of a sometimes gritty but intrinsic vitality, an edgy, volatile crucible for creativity. Both cities rely on market forces to govern these things to a large extent, especially regarding small business. But like skylines, city policies reflect what is most important to their citizens (including commercial interests), and what they are willing to accept.

Vancouver vs Seattle
Vancouver citizens stopped highways and gained transit. Seattle citizens started a public market from a price revolt, and later fought commercial interests to save that market and its eclectic mix of small business and residents. In either city, what will be the trigger for the next big change?

image credits: Hong Kong, NYC, Seattle, Toronto, Paris, London

by Roger Valdez, Sightline Institute

The best urban plan is no plan at all. The statement is kind of like a Zen koan, those pithy, dissonant little statements, stories or questions like “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” The koan is intended to jolt our cognitive mind into a more enlightened state.

Here’s another koan from the zen master himself, Yogi Berra, an improvement on my poor attempt: “If the world was perfect it wouldn’t be.” Planning should create perfection. On the other hand (the one not clapping), perhaps trying to achieve perfection in our cities is likely going to lead us to imperfection. Think Cheesecake Factory or Buca di Beppo, places that seem to be one of a kind but are truly perfect duplicates of a model, stamped out in city after city.

So what does a city without a plan look like? Take a look at my favorite Seattle microcosm, 14th Ave East on Capitol Hill from the edge of Volunteer Park to Mercer Street.


A walk down 14th leads you from mansions (left) to low income high rise (right) in less than a mile with everything (fourplexes, single family, multifamily) in between.

We know what happened after World War II. People began to sprawl and aided by subsidized highways and cheap gasoline started to divide their worlds. Home, work, park and entertainment were all different worlds, miles apart joined by ribbons of highway. The plan then was to keep things separate. Indeed zoning itself was a plan to keep the pig out of the parlor. Now, oddly, we’re trying to bring the pig back inside (see Farmadelphia). And the idea of zones seems counterintuitive to the idea that people want and can have everything—home, work, park, entertainment, farmer, market—all within a walk or bus ride of each other.

From Farmadelphia

So here is the plan. Let’s begin the process of letting our single family neighborhoods do what they did before zoning took off after World War II. Let’s bring back the corner store, small lots, back yard cottages and a mix of housing types and materials. A sustainable city plan would be molded around human needs and interactions with nature rather than lines on a map. Essentially we need to look back rather than forward for our plan.

Easier said than done, it is true. Seattle is trying with efforts to diversify single family (Northwest EcoBuilding Guild Livable Walkable Project) and to save the town home (Congress of Residential Architects Townhouse Proposals). These efforts need more support from neighborhoods and planning professionals in the months ahead as Seattle tries to match its rhetoric with its land use policies.

Sheep on white house lawn c.1917

Here is the fifth clip from The Great Urban Debate between Peter Steinbrueck (Seattle) and Gordon Price (Vancouver).

Who’s got it right? Vancouver with their “pencil towers” that have civic spaces at the base? or Seattle with their planned neighborhoods.


Aug 28, 2009

by Richard Borbridge, VIA’s Vancouver Urban Planner

While the debate continues about future of public civic space in Vancouver, we have a perfect opportunity to think about one important role and reason for public space – fostering conviviality. Lisa Peattie, Urban Studies professor at MIT, defines conviviality as the quality of lively socialness, expanding on the social learning theories of Ivan Illich that see conviviality as “autonomous and creative intercourse among persons, and the intercourse of persons with their environment.” In a planning context, convivial cities are those that provide opportunities for casual social connection between people in the city — communication and collocation — whether though complementary urban design or market-driven development of third places.

Conviviality is tightly connected to Ray Oldenburg’s concept of “third places”, those besides home and work, which lend space to convivial interaction through cafés, pubs, diners, and hangouts – places that are active in promoting a sense of community and shared experiences between friends and familiar strangers. Vancouver at a glance is not short on third places, but the recent struggles to find art and performance space in our “creative city” highlights the narrow definition downtown Vancouver has fostered.

Public open spaces have a critical role to play in our civic and social infrastructure, which has been predicated on the existence of free spaces and an unencumbered right to free association and expression. Think of convivial spaces as our Olympic free speech zones – only less ironic. Conviviality may even inspire anti-establishment movements or new demands on governments. Planners are especially susceptible to critique in these situations, by recommending and defending their existence and convivial spaces, but they are also responsible to the governments that these movements may defy.

Since conviviality as a concept carries the advantage of existing outside economic frameworks – being exclusively non-material – it cannot be “coerced or bought, but the resources used in the production of conviviality—space, seats, food and drink… may be sold or rented or ceded by owners and governments.” This has tended to typify Vancouver’s response to public spaces, concentrating on development projects and streetscapes while never quite achieving that one landmark civic site.

Robson and Granville streets often sited as the great aggregators of people downtown, but as the domain of businesses and disruptively, of traffic, they are only embraced when the collective energy can’t be contained after a hockey game or Presidential election. They are inadequate for a gathering function and too often manic conduits that people are more apt to shut out with a phone call or ibuds. These should serve as great streets for watching the ebb and flow of humanity but we’ll have to see how the new street furniture pans out before sealing their fates. Inclusively we have the Art Gallery – both sides of it – one for “alternative” crowds, though no larger than a couple hundred, the other for issues, stalking you from Sears to Café Row.

Vancouver is in the middle of the debate and obviously hungry for a fresh and functional civic space, a place separate from – or at least not focussed on – cars and commerce is key. So whether at the centre or the edge, it is most vital that we soon find a place to find our voice since, as Peattie believes, “in human happiness, creative activity and a sense of community count for at least as much and maybe more than material standard of living.”

So find a third place and try on a little conviviality this weekend…you wouldn’t want Vancouver to be the next target for a Coors Light ad would you?

For photo credits, see above links

by Matt Roewe, VIA’s Director of Mixed-use and Major Projects

In the heart of Seattle, two vibrant neighborhoods will soon be re-joined after 60 years of separation by the “Great Wall of Aurora.” The stars have aligned on three major projects to produce an outcome that will re-knit the street grids across aurora and rekindle the livable and walkable association between these old friends.

The Mercer Street project will start this off by reorganizing the “Mercer mess” through South Lake Union (SLU). Making this corridor a simple, two way and straight “Champs Elyse” tree lined boulevard connecting Interstate 5 to the Seattle Center and on to Elliott Avenue near Puget Sound. This enables better urban design, pedestrian safety and a straightforward travel pattern for the frequent unfamiliar visitors to the area. It also yields a calmer Valley Street next to SLU Park and a new two-way Roy Street in Uptown. Property owners are giving up 50’ to allow the wider boulevard, which is timely for the plethora of new development proposals for this under utilized area. The highway like diagonal Broad Street goes away, allowing the orthogonal street grid to return.

I participated in a 40 person/organization stakeholder charrette over the last two years where consensus was reached by all participants including freight, bicycle, business, institutions and neighborhood groups. Construction is scheduled to start in the next year, although the SR99 North portal project described below may impact the timing. See more project info at: Mercer Corridor

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation new headquarters is well underway at 5th and Mercer. With 2000 jobs and a 1,300,000 SF masterplan on 12 acres, this project is a huge community asset, as well as, a real game changer for neighborhood planning. Some would like to rename Mercer Street as “The Road to Global Health” with this institution as the anchor destination.

The Gates foundation is currently a lynch pin in the negotiations with two way Mercer and the SR 99 North Portal as the reconnection of 6th Avenue through or around this campus is critical to the success of the circulation and street grid system. An Illustration below reveals a potential mutually beneficial outcome for both the foundation and the neighborhood. For more info go to: New Campus FAQ

Alaskan Way Viaduct (SR99) Bored Tunnel: North Portal is currently designed to pull together the two neighborhoods by “lidding” SR99 from Republican Street to Denny way, effectively creating new streets and blocks at grade at Thomas, John, & Harrison. This will effectively make SR 99 go away and allow this burgeoning area to be reconnected allowing an entire network of choices available to bikes peds, trucks and automobiles.

The urban design consequences of the North Portal are phenomenal. The city is currently working closely with stakeholders in the area to develop a framework urban design plan that capitalizes on this new potential. An entirely new set of street typologies is possible to create new development potential and greatly enhance the existing fine grain fabric.

The “lost triangle” district, also know as the Denny/Broad/Aurora Triangle, is wedged between Aurora and Seattle Center. The new connections to this area via the north portal project will give this neglected and underutilized area a reason to be a vibrant and complete community offering residential and commercial development potential, all within walking distance of Downtown and all things Uptown/SLU.

There is also a movement to develop an east/west streetcar system extension from the upcoming first avenue green line terminus at Key arena to the Cascade Neighborhood. Thomas and Harrison are likely to be couplet streets and August Wilson Way in Seattle Center is the likely route for this streetcar. Look forward to future posts on this fun topic.

Also in the works is the City proposed EIS alternatives for SLU increasing the height and density of the area significantly with potential trade offs for public benefits. This is an aggressive move to best utilize this area to meet the targeted growth of 20,000 jobs and 10,000 housing units (includes the DBA triangle and SLU area). I can’t think of any neighborhood in the entire northwest taking this kind of responsibility for sustainable, less car dependent growth. Hence, the investment of these projects is rewarding the place taking on the burden of growth in a manner that no other area regionally can achieve.

Politics and regime change: With the imminent appointment of a new mayor and two city council members, these issues will likely get further attention. The two-way Mercer project first phase is already approved and the current Mayor, the Governor and the state legislature have approved the SR99 Bored Tunnel Project. However, the design of the tunnel is still very young and funding is not 100% certain, so these may get revisited. The bottom line for Uptown/SLU is connectivity. Even without the north portal lid, the street grids could still be reconnected via stop lights on Aurora. Not the most desirable condition, but we can still proceed with planning on a better network of connections and relationships.

These are exiting times with many challenges, hurdles, political debate and further exploration. Let us dig in and continue the journey.

Here is the fourth clip from The Great Urban Debate, in which Gordon Price and Peter Steinbrueck debate Seattle and Vancouver’s civic spaces.

Watch this short 2 min clip and let us know your thoughts. Does Vancouver need to work on their civic spaces? Seattle has Westlake and Seattle Center, but do they maximize their potential?

Click here to read a recent article from the Vancouver Sun, which featured the new Oceanfront Resort, as a “dramatic medley of rock, water, glass, steel and wood.”

For the resort website, click here.
Photo credits: Black Rock Resort and Chris Pouget from Coast Image