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Thoughts from the AIA Design for Livability Conference

Oct 21, 2009

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?