Last week I had the privilege of giving a virtual keynote address at the Moscow Urban Forum. Renowned urbanists from all over the world participated in the event, which you can watch in full here – skip to 9:42:00 for the beginning of my speech.
Smart City-Building In The Pandemic Era
The COVID-19 pandemic has stretched cities around the globe to their limits. In a virtual lecture hosted by AIR Rotterdam, I discussed how the principles of smart and equitable city-building have been relevant throughout this global crisis – as well as how they can be used to create more livable cities post-pandemic. Listen to the full lecture here: https://youtu.be/wVp62ANyYhw
Five Trends of Change in Urbanism – by Larry Beasley, C.M.
In my work in Canada, the U.S. and around the world, I am seeing the emergence of new trends that in most cities have not yet hit the urban agenda in a significant way. While the philosophy and practices of sustainability and green urbanism have enjoyed more and more focus, so other trends may be sneaking up on us that need just as much attention. Following are five of those trends. These are not the only surprising shifts to be expected as cities moves forward but they are certainly important ones.
Spontaneous Migrations – destabilization or malaise in some parts of the world
Whether for fear, opportunity or adventure – whether legal or illegal – whether by chance or planned – the people of the world are massively footloose. Population groups and individuals in vast numbers are moving away from places they don’t want to be to places they do want to be. Target destinations are successful cities in sanctuary societies. Such cities should expect unusually high growth trends that are sustained. High demand will not be a bubble, it will be real.
-For Vancouver, this creates vibrant and new economic opportunities that Vancouver’s economy is already starting to be built upon and our city is very dependent on this kind of growth as the traditional resource sector becomes less important. But, this is already putting sharp pressure on the housing market, creating a crisis of affordability that cannot be solved by conventional means. We will either start to punish those coming in, which will be negative and very short-sighted, affecting our world image, or we will find a way to give locals a leg-up in the market. We have to start seeing the land and housing market in Vancouver as a two-layered market – the general market and the local market – that must be managed accordingly. Immigration also puts growth pressures on all public facilities and amenities and, therefore, tax dollars, so alternative funding sources are more important than ever. The system of Community Amenity Contributions (CACs) from new development that has been so fully realized and exploited in this city should be treasured and protected, not demonized.
Rise of the ‘Share Economy’
The idea is sweeping the world that the conventional reality of ownership or rental of services, property and things is too limiting and that a vast equity is embedded that can be tapped in new ways to the benefit of those who possess them and those who want to use them. Northern Europe is a hotbed of initiatives to share and barter, thereby stretching resources and bypassing government regulation and taxes.
– The high value of the equities in Vancouver along with our being part of the international network of ideas will set off a similar trend here. We are only now beginning to understand the pros and cons of Uber, Air BNB and similar out-of-the-box market sharing initiatives. We are already one of the leading car-share cities in North America. We are on the cusp of bike-share. Implications for traditional retail are simply not yet understood. This is the tip of the iceberg of what we should expect from the share and barter economy – almost every commodity and service will be affected.
Growth and Diversification of Digital Business
Every year consumers worldwide buy more and more of the things that they need and want on-line. This is setting up a new pattern of product flows and a new constellation of support services and facilities. Commodity trading is digitized with significant goods movement implications. Every year more business is conducted digitally, rather than in face-to-face meetings and events. Information is accessed and shared instantly.
-In Vancouver, conventional retail has to re-invent itself to compete and the local governments in our region have to support this process. Not only may local retail growth flatten, but independent retail could be very hard hit unless local business finds the edge to allow them to compete with digital business. The need for distribution facilities will expand and new patterns of distribution may emerge. Facilities for digital engagement will development and new service businesses will develop around these.
Generational shifts in consumer preferences
Demographic trends are not working in the predictable ways of the past. Young people are selecting new and contrasting lifestyles rather than taking up where their parents left off. People are inventing new arrangements and settings for work, shifting commercial real estate trends and the very definitions of land-use. New kinds of households are forming. Older people are retiring earlier than expected and accessing their pent-up wealth to re-invent themselves in the last quarter of their lives – setting off unexpected demand profiles.
-Vancouver Downtown, as a diverse, contemporary, healthy and wealthy community, is a crucible for these redefined citizens, their economic activity and alternative culture. As Millennials join the workforce and create new business ventures, demand for traditional offices is flattening while that for alternative workspace flourishes, setting off revitalization in unexpected places. From both young ‘gig’ workers to retired ‘consultants’, the rise of live/work is challenging our land-use and taxing definitions. White-collar industry is confounding both the imperatives of organized labour as well as the need for the old industrial land base. Adult living/learning aspirations is already transforming our educational campuses.
The Rise of Autonomous driving
One of the biggest technological changes on the horizon for cities is the evolution of autonomously driven vehicles. The implications will start to express themselves long before we have complete autonomous driving because every year more aspects of human control of vehicles is being turned over to computers. The implications are so vast and pervasive that almost nothing about cities will remain as we know it today. Cities need to start strategic planning now for these changes and setting up the financial capacities to support what needs to be done. Is this a 5-year problem or a 20-year problem? Well, that is the immediate question.
– Vancouver will not escape the tidal wave of impacts and implications that this new transportation invention will spawn. Not only will the automobile infrastructure of our city become obsolete and need to be re-invented but so will our arrangements for movement of goods and delivery of services. The scale of Vancouver streets, the management of the interface of vehicles, pedestrians and other modes, the nature and demand for public transit, taxis and car hires, the amount and location of parking – these will all be fundamentally altered. The entire industry of human driving and all the jobs associated with it will come apart.
Gentle Densification-Transforming Our Suburbs in Canada
By Larry Beasley, C.M., F.C.I.P.
2016 UDI Alberta Conference – Breakout Session
Banff – May 6, 2016
Today I have been asked to talk about “gentle densification” – but actually, what this leads me to talk about is the transformation of suburbs. Now, we all know the complaints that we hear about our suburbs – they waste space; they gobble up nature; they are profoundly unsustainable, they are impossible to economically provide with services, they are socially exclusive. It can sound so bad.
And yet, for most modern people, particularly in North America, suburbs are by head-and-shoulders the most popular way to live. In Canada, even after all the core-city revival we have seen over the last 25 years, over 60% of our people are still choosing suburban living – at best, we have only shifted that demographic by 5%. This is not something they have had to do, it is something they want to do – it is their strong preference. If asked, though they rarely are, they will sing the praises of green space, privacy, expansive living, safety for their children, good schools, like-minded neighbours, and freedom to do what you want, when you want on their own property. They see the suburban lifestyle as personally fulfilling and good for their families. And, frankly, most of them likely think we are all a little crazy with our fixation on sustainability and big urbanism.
So, in the session today, I am going to try to reconcile this contradiction with a little help from gentle density. I am going to ask you to actually embrace the essence of suburban life – not its current form but its underlying appeal – and to use it as our guide in transforming this huge part of Canadian cities to work better to secure compatibility with the environment, and social harmony, and fiscal prudence, and cultural richness – the pillars of sustainability – that well-articulated “ecodesign” formula for smart growth that you see here [formula on screen], covering both the structure and the infrastructure of cities.
For sustainable suburbs in the future we will have to find solutions that stay true to this formula but that offer it up in a fundamentally different package than is now our status quo. So I want to spend the rest of my time today talking about some of the solutions that can meet this tough test.
And I want to start by highlighting some strongly held myths that I think are limiting our creative thinking about suburbs. Here they are [list on screen] – each one spoken about and written about by the urban cognoscenti of this country as though they are truths. Let me run through each one quickly.
[Cars on the way out] No to this one. Automobile technology is now starting to move very quickly toward becoming a carbon neutral or clean energy producing machine. I think we will re-invent the car long before we wean ourselves from private mobility as a society. The car is here to stay.
[SF homes becoming obsolete] No to this one too. As I see it, the fundamental pre-disposition that most Canadians have against density and height and loss of privacy – these will all limit the shift to dramatically different housing types. I think the changes that will work best will happen within the context of the pre-eminently single-family morphology of the suburbs.
[People love current suburbs] I have found this is certainly not true. Everywhere I work, people tell me about the many changes and improvements they need and want in their suburban communities. People are not living in a fool’s paradise in post-war suburbs; they are just living in the only choice they’ve been given. I am sure we can offer better options – that also meet the test of sustainability.
Well, what are the positive, acceptable directions for average suburbanites that would also be truly sustainable?
I think we can take initial inspiration from a place that most people already feel good about and every city has good examples of, that people can go and have a look at – a place that has been overlooking for too long. I’m talking about the pre-war neighbourhoods, built between the early 1900’s and the 1930’s, which exist in every Canadian city and in every North American city. They are close-in now, but in their time they were certainly considered “suburbs” – in fact they are best known as “streetcar suburbs”.
These neighbourhoods give us a very important cue about density. From discussions throughout the country we are beginning to understand that a sustainable, walkable neighbourhood starts to work at no more than 100 units-per-hectare, gross – or 40 units-per-acre [this is the unit count over all land covered, both public and private; for the equivalent unit density on only the private land, or what is called ‘net’ unit density, for discussion purposes, just double the numbers because roughly half of land in a city is dedicated public land] – and these older neighbourhoods have that and more, even if most people would not realize it. These are places average suburbanites would aspire to live in – in fact they are the very image of what people are often describing when they talk about or draw examples of ideal suburban life. These are places of real financial value and real emotional value.
For a gentle approach to suburban transformation, let me just mention five other “take-homes” from the inspiration of these neighbourhoods.
First, we can learn a lot from the prevailing scale: maintaining the one-to-three storey building heights as well as the fine-grained, smaller building pattern. I think most people feel “small” is simply better for the suburbs.
Second, we can learn a lot from the diversity that you see in the old neighbourhoods. Generally they started with a simple pattern of blocks of apparently single houses extending out from a shopping street (where the streetcar used to stop), with offices or apartments over the shops. Then over time they just naturally diversified on all fronts: all kinds of households; many lot and house sizes and types (adding duplexes, back lane units, home conversions, infill housing – many people have chosen to keep their single family home and that is OK as well). They also have many architectural styles; a rich socio-economic range from low-income to quite wealthy households; and many kinds of retail outlets and a lot of independent retail potential rather than just “big boxes”; and many workplace opportunities and live/work possibilities. This diversity opens up economic opportunity close by as well as providing a plausible framework for a wide social engagement and supportive community life.
Third, these neighbourhoods have many identifiable, meaningful places – “high streets” instead of strip malls with their sea of parking, small parks surrounded by housing other local greens, local meeting spots, markers and identifiers – these places engender localized uniqueness and they really stick in the memory. This fosters walking and it offers those “third places”, after home and work, where neighbours create their own special culture. There is always lush landscape and gardening. Nothing gives a place a more gracious, homey feel than nice rows of big street trees. Nothing is friendlier than an attractive front flower garden, unique to each house and tended by the residents. Nothing helps local food sourcing more than an individual vegetable garden. Nothing offers more privacy than a hedge and trees.
Fourth, you will find the old neighbourhoods always have an infrastructure of community facilities that foster local self-help and interchange. There is a local school, even if it is used for more than primary education, and a community centre, often a seniors’ facility, and other immediate services that have come along as they were needed. And these have become economically supportable because the base consumer population is close by: 10,000 or more people within a 5 – 7 minute walk.
Fifth, the typically two-way narrower streets and back lanes can be a big bonus. The traditional lane-and-a half driving area for a residential street with parking on one or both sides naturally calms traffic, is a lot safer for children at play and takes up a lot less land than the current standards. The back lanes offer utility access and trash handling without compromising the streetscape, and cut the number of vehicle crossings over the sidewalk. The lanes actually give the “front door” primacy back to the façade of a house rather than that ever-present “garage door” image. These neighbourhoods certainly accommodate the car but they do not let auto standards dominate every other consideration. Usually there is a grid of local streets, but even if there are cul-de-sacs, there is still good pedestrian connectivity in all kinds of walking linkages. Also they have a primary transit network that does not need subsidy because there are enough regular users – back to that basic density and diversity.
And all of this adds up to the most important inspiration of all (and the theme of this whole talk) – gentle densification. These neighbourhoods are all about a delicate approach to intensification. The inspiration is to start with a respect for free-standing homes where they already exist, say at 10 to 20 units-per-hectare, gross, according to where they are. Then you infill alternatives that build up capacity layer by layer, achieving that base target 100 units-per-hectare, gross, in a painless way. It is not a big jump to get to the densities we need.
In Canada, when we talk about suburban change, about all we usually talk about is transit oriented development, or TOD. This clusters density and usually high-rises around transit stations. The fact is that this is not a very popular form for most suburbanites because it is just too big and too intrusive. We need that more gentle approach – so let me offer just four alternative strategies. By the way, these are covered in a lot of detail in my new book, Ecodesign for Cities and Suburbs.
The first is often called urban acupuncture, which is really a form of insinuated infill. This can work in both pre- and post-war suburban areas. In almost every community there are tracts of land that have been left undeveloped where you can add some new construction. These kinds of anomaly sites can fill out a neighbourhood and provide both diversity and slightly more intensity. A big opportunity for more comprehensive solutions is the huge suburban shopping centre site that has become obsolete in so many places across the country – although the best schemes keep the scale in line with the setting. To me, one of the best examples in the country is right here in Alberta – the Garrison Woods neighbourhood in Calgary, built as an infill on obsolete military land. These can be just as brutal as the TODs, but, if developed at lower heights, like Garrison Woods, the development can fit in nicely leaving much around it untouched. Like acupuncture for the body, though, even only one such intervention can solve problems for the whole surrounding area and give a gentle boost of density for sustainability.
The second alternative has been called corridor transformation. This strategy is very attractive for the vast areas that were laid out after the war in almost every new suburb with massive strip retail along arterial streets served by large parking lots. The strategy has several steps that build upon one another. First, bus rapid transit, a very cheap form of rapid transit, is added along the arterial, which opens up more housing demand. Then those huge extra parking lots are slowly converted to low-scale multiple housing, with an emphasis on townhouses and garden apartments, leaving clusters of street-fronting retail and local offices to serve everyday needs. This is the key strategy in Toronto as they bring density to their existing communities. Here is a Vancouver example. But, again, this must be done gently, keeping a mid-rise or lower scale. This works best with stepped transition heights, setbacks and landscaped open space at the edges but, generally, the balance of the existing single-family area can be left relatively undisturbed. The result is that more people and more types of households are accommodated which not only diversifies the community, stabilizes local shopping and justifies more community services but also, over the long run, builds the demand for rapid transit. Once the density builds, the transit is simply upgraded. This is a very low impact solution for most existing residents so it does not need to challenge their sense of what is best for their home. At the same time, they start enjoying benefits of better proximity to the private and public services they need and can even start walking or cycling more for everyday activity. This can quite handily deliver another third of the base sustainable density that suburbs need.
The third approach goes right back to that pre-war suburban inspiration and brings it forward in time as a complete unit – I’m talking about replicating streetcar suburbs. This could bring refreshed vitality to the standard model of those brand new neighbourhood subdivisions out on the fringe that we all know are going to continue to be built. Let’s face it, even as I have spoken this morning, several hundred units have been approved somewhere in Canada of these standard conventional subdivisions. But designing these with a different model can certainly go a long way to giving the suburban consumer what they tell us they really want – what they dream as their ideal form of community. I’m using here pictures from a particularly good example in Perth, Australia, called “Subiaco”. There is no reason that the old pattern cannot be copied when we lay out new areas – narrower streets, back lanes, pedestrian and bike networks, housing diversity, corner and street-lined retail, landscape, and, most of all, zoning flexibility for incremental additions over time, without all the fuss of rezoning. Right now in Canada, a great example of this approach is happening in Saskatoon on lands at the urban edge that the City there had land-banked. Needless to say, we will have to change all the standards and subdivision rules and a host of regulations to shift back to the traditional format. So be it. No one developer can do it alone but a partnership of progressive developers and local government authorities can make the sweeping regulatory changes that are needed. In new development areas, this alternative model can close in on the base sustainable density that we need in a very handy, market-attractive way.
The last alternative is the one that is just beginning to be taken up in a few Canadian cities. I’ll call it discreet intensification. Some people would refer to this as “invisible density” or “hidden density”. One of the leaders in this approach has been my city of Vancouver where it has been taken up in a big way in our established neighbourhoods. It is a slow process of adding housing units in an organic way that has minimum effects on the existing pattern of things in the suburbs. This strategy primarily features secondary suites and laneway housing and very tiny infill projects like tri-plexes and four-plexes, usually undertaken by small builders for existing ratepayers, who might experience some impacts but also enjoy the direct profits from the changes. In Vancouver, the secondary suite revolution started as an illegal move by homeowners to find ways to support high mortgages but has subsequently been legalized, through an admittedly laborious process, so units can now be offered easily to students and single parent families and modest income households. Laneway houses rely on the historic footprint of the back garage building, usually incorporating a parking space. So far, they can only be rented rather than sold but, again, great diversity is added to the community by these added units. You might look at this as an easy way to at least double the density in an area over the long run in a way that most people will not even notice – again this helps us close in on that base density target that we need – that final one-third of densification of those existing suburbs. Imagine if this is not just enabled in existing suburbs but also, as I mentioned before, built in as an option from the get-go in new subdivisions.
The kind of change that I have been talking about today can fill in and diversify Alberta communities in the quietest possible way – to a level of intensity so they are more compatible with their natural setting and affordable and servicable – without the shocking impacts, the displacement and the political wars that we have tended to see in the past decades. In Canada, we will continue to revitalize and intensity our core cities and that is all to the good. But most of the growth of our cities in the next century will happen in our suburbs, where I have no doubt over half of our citizens will continue to prefer to live. So, suburban transformation is the big move for our future – and we are going to have to change all the rules and regulations and standards that have so badly distorted these suburbs and have made it illegal to build great places. But, living as we do in a democracy, we also have to invent a way of doing this that will appeal to people so that they allow it to happen at a political level and then embrace it widely as consumers. I am convinced that gentle densification is the only way we can find this kind of essential reconciliation. It will provide the hospitable urbanism that suburbanites want while supplying the responsible urbanism that all Canadians need.
“The City as Museum and the Museum as City” (24 October 2012)
International Council of Museums Committee for the Collections and Activities of Museums of Cities (ICOMCAMOC) Conference
Vancouver (Museum of Vancouver) “City Museums: Collisions / Connections”
Keynote Address by Larry Beasley CM
“The City as Museum and the Museum as City”
Cities are the most complex and mysterious of human inventions. They are rich in harmony and contradiction; in accord and discord. They are as different around the world as the societies that have created them. They are tenacious and some are actually very ancient. They are forever changing and evolving. As of just a few years ago, they have now become the primary habitat of human beings. And, of course, they are endlessly fascinating.
Also fascinating are city museums – your museums. You are a repository of the history and culture of your city – you portray the essence of your place. I have visited many city museums and they are always jaw dropping and awe inspiring. You tell a very compelling, vivid story. That is what you do – with research and curation and display and all the professional tricks and art of your trade. As a City Planner, frankly, I am not sure I have much to offer that would positively contribute to the already great job that you do to build and deliver the city museum.
What I may have to offer is a different perspective – looking at a civic museum not from the point of view of the curator of the museum but from the point of view of a creator of cities. That’s what I do – that is what City Planners are all about – our job is to envision and then manage the creation of the city. So, I want to pose the question of what the city museum can do as a part of the ongoing creative process of a city that is forever changing and being re-created. How can the museum of the city join the design energies and the political energies and the bureaucratic energies and the private sector energies and the people in a city as a civic lens to contribute to the form and personality and quality of that city – not just as an observer but as an actual player?
I think that is an important question – and let me tell you why by giving you a sense of how I do what I do. My profession is an unusual one – it is part science and part politics but a big part of it is art. Now, having said that, I also have to emphasize that it is a somewhat peculiar art – city planning is a politicized art, it is a collective art. Everyone shapes the city every day with almost everything they do. It would be like if a painter picked up his brush to dab the canvas and a thousand hands grabbed the brush with him to decide just where the paint is to go. The city you experience is created by millions of independent actions. A City Planner is a choreographer of urbanism, working with people who have their own ideas and take their own action – and generating through interaction with people the plans and the management mechanisms for how the city or parts of the city should grow and change or, sometimes, be protected from change.
That, of course, is the great strength of city planning – but it is also its potential Achilles heel because, like art, city planning needs to be about some kind of coherent result rather than just randomness or the lowest common denominator. The more people are all over the place, the more of a problem it is to find a shared way to move forward with your city. On the other hand, the more people share a vision of the city, the more coherent will be the art of building the place. The more people understand what I call the “urban DNA” of the city – not only its history but also its current dramas, its issues, its opportunities, its patterns, the way it tends to grow and the way it tends to fade – the more coherent will be the art of building the place. With that collective view, even if people do not support the same solutions, at least they speak the same language, understand the genesis of ideas and share a sense of the options and implications that can help a city find a positive and maybe even an innovative direction.
Of course, what I am talking about is “urban connoisseurship” – an understanding and sensitivity of cities that informs people about what is good and not so good, what works and does not work, what is progressive and not so progressive. It is an urban connoisseurship that starts at a personal level, and when everyone gets together, it is an urban connoisseurship that becomes collective. It is also an urban connoisseurship that is dynamic and constantly evolving just like the city itself.
This kind of understanding and sensitivity comes from discussion and debate, it comes from education and being informed about what is going on in the world of cities, and in a very substantial way, it comes from tangible urban experience. But, it may shock you to hear, that in almost all cities there is actually no agent to convene the discussion and education and experiences that fosters an urban connoisseurship. Planning departments go out and talk to people when they have a specific job to do – they call it public consultation. Politicians go to the people at election time. The media covers issues from moment to moment. But there is no constant force for an ongoing engagement and dialogue and interface between people and the diverse realities of city life. And cities are certainly worse off because of that.
I think that force could be the city museum. I think that force could be you. In fact, I think you might be the very best institution within local culture, uniquely suited to be that force because of your special skills and integrity and perspective. And I firmly believe that, if you took on such a role, the city would be a better place for more people. City planning and urban design would be a more productive activity. City government and politics would work better. People would be more connected and therefore more fulfilled by their life in their city. And a potential for collaboration would be set up that would be genuinely new in the city simply because of the ethics you would bring to the task.
So this leads me to offer a proposition that is the main theme of my presentation today – for the city museum, my proposition is that you pursue
“the city as museum; and the museum as city”.
Let me explain what I mean and offer a few illustrations of what this might look like in the form and agenda of a museum of the city.
Let’s start with the “city as museum”. We live in a mobile world – we can easily get around to whatever it is we need or want to see and our institutions need to come to us more than ever before. We also live in a virtual world – our reality reaches well beyond our physical capacities and so do other realities that touch us every day. [Oh by the way, I know the organizers of the conference have asked everyone to put away your cell phones in this hall today, but, you know, I feel the opposite – I hope you will take out your phones during this talk and text or twitter your friends and tell them you are listening to me here – if you do that I can be sure that more people will know about what I am saying today than literally anything else the organizers or I could do.]
Wouldn’t it be amazing if the museum of the city could tap into these opportunities? Perhaps the city museum of tomorrow could be equal parts physical and mobile and virtual. Perhaps the walls and spaces within which you now collect and curate and educate can be exploded, blown away, redefined. Perhaps the city itself – its streetscapes, its parks, its theatres, its neighbourhoods, its palaces and its slums – could become the actual museum; or at least a significant part of the museum. Perhaps its airwaves and websites and every single I-phone and computer could become a significant part of the actual museum. Maybe you could take the entire museum package on the road.
You could curate its treasures as well as its embarrassments on the streets. You could program and re-set its spaces to expose the meaning of those spaces to different kinds of people in the past, in the present, in the future. You could challenge its contradictions and celebrate its harmonies. You could set up discussions by everyone everywhere about something specific somewhere through social media.
With the city as the actual museum, you could not just interpret your city; you could join the energies that transform it. The artifacts that you could work with would not just be the artifacts that you collect or borrow – they would be the actual walls and spaces and landscape and water and monuments and even the people of the city. And I can just imagine the results that could come from you applying your rigorous research and interpretation and curation and presentation and communication and education methods and skills, with the kind of high integrity, independence and inquiry that is de rigueur in the museum world. And what fascinates me about this whole idea is that you can engage in a way that few other institutions can do, and that government institutions find it especially hard to do – integrating high culture with everyday life; integrating fun and lighthearted exploration with serious experimentation and discussion of hard issues; making the funny or sad cross-connections. Yours is a world of emotion as well as hard facts and it is the emotional side that really connects with people, that causes them to stand up and take notice, and remember, and shift their opinions. You really do teach people and they are forever changed by your teaching – that is exactly what we need for urban connoisseurship to flourish.
Just imagine you are entering the City of Vancouver and you are also entering the Museum of Vancouver with a lot of cues and urban incidents to let you know about that. You could bring the museum all around us as a constant force for dialogue and understanding and reconciliation and even to engender critical review on the one hand or love on the other. The “city as museum” could be a powerful contributor to urbanism.
Now, I am not talking about this idea of the “city as museum” taking the place of the actual museum facilities – these have a very interesting potential in the future that I will come back to in a minute – but I am talking about the city museum team reaching out beyond the walls of its buildings to the larger setting around it. So, let me give you a few examples that might be a part of this reaching out. I am going to talk about some things that I have seen that do not necessarily come from museums but could easily have done so. Here are just a few ideas to get people thinking.
One way to curate the city is to refurnish it or redress it for a dream of something else. In Dallas there is a group called “Team Better Block” They are a somewhat rogue group of activists that pull lots of people together, often over a weekend, to create what they describe as quick, inexpensive, high-impact changes that improve and revitalize underused properties and highlight the potential for creating great streets. Their whole gig is to transform one or two blocks of a streetscape to show what it might be like. One day a street will be in a dull malaise, rundown, with high vacancy rates, a real mess. The next day it will have trees and landscape, often arriving in pots, it will have temporary little shops and cafes, with lots of sidewalk presence, there will be art and lighting, there will be all kinds of pedestrian activity – there will be a buzz. Then they invite in the neighbourhood to experience and enjoy the place, with a lot of music and fun. The result is usually that the community is energized to make the dream a reality. Landlords are offered new faith. Consumers make a new commitment to come back to the place. City officials are charged to make the public realm improvements real and lasting. A happening becomes a force, which becomes a change on the ground, which becomes an inspiration and lesson for that place and other places. Now imagine if the sponsor for this is the city museum. Imagine if the idea was diversified by the museum. Imagine if the refurnishing is not from bad to good but from new to old. Imagine if you could transform a 21st century streetscape into its 19th century form so that people can understand and experience the reality of an antique street. What if the effort included players in costume – docents who could also be the interpreters of what used to be? Or what if the streetscape is re-vamped to illustrate a use or activity that was once typical on the street, to show how an area has evolved? I think the experiential quality of such heritage curation could be more powerful that all the exhibits that can be pulled together in a museum space – and the experience would be accessible to more people. Or what if the streetscape is fitted up in an imagined future form to explore new forms of urbanism? The ideas are endless, but the point is that the streetscape – and there could be many of them all over a city – would become an integral part of the museum; an extension of the museum; a rich canvas upon which the museum can do it job of curation and education and all the rest. As an analogy, I think of the temporary changes regularly made around Vancouver by the movie industry to make a film scene. They are always pretty interesting even though they are done for private purposes. The public interest in public stories would be even more provocative.
Of course, once we start talking urban interventions, we do not have to stay on a street. The city museum could also be the agent for installation of temporary parks – borrowing the “porta-park” idea from the recreationalists – or of tableaus to tell all kinds of stories in different spaces or buildings or of plays and other performance art to tap into the essence of a place or the anxiety of a community about urban change or to expose social tensions or contradictions or for any number of other fascinating motives. In Dallas they are initiating a spontaneous temporary program they call “activating vacancy”. For a city with vast empty surface parking lots and wind-blown empty sites, you can imagine what they have in mind. In all of this, the city museum would find the setting for its work within the fabric of the city; expropriate that setting for a time; and then move on to other places – with just endless possibilities.
Another method of outreach and use of the city as museum is suggested by what in the late-90’s in Berlin was called the “InfoBox” or the “Red Box” in Potsdamer Platz. Once the Berlin Wall came down, a huge redevelopment of the once no-man’s land was envisioned that would heal the terrible scars. People were excited; people were worried; people were perplexed. So the authorities decided that they needed to have a vivid focus for explanation of the new plans and input about those plans. In the vast open field of the future development they planted a temporary structure that was five-stories high, painted bright red, which offered the whole story about the place – its ecology, its history, its political traumas and ultimately its future development form. As people went through the building, they learned a lot and then they were engaged by staff to offer their stories and their ideas and their reactions to the new proposals. The Red Box was big and bold and it drew hundreds of thousands of people over the several years that it existed. Now just imagine a similar installation by a city museum, perhaps more modest in size but nonetheless effective. Every city has new development areas and they are both interesting and difficult for people. If the city museum zoomed in with the right kind of dispassionate and helpful facility, it could do a great service for a community. What would be especially powerful is that as museum professionals you would know better than almost anyone about how to make the installation fun and moving and meaningful as well as just informative and engaging. What might be even more interesting is that the installation could stay through the development and occupancy process for the new area to become an outpost for exhibitions and presentations by the museum on an ongoing basis. For example, look at the pavilion for the first transcontinental train, now permanently placed adjacent to the Roundhouse Community Centre, near False Creek in Downtown Vancouver. It is very popular with residents and visitors alike; and it vividly informs people of what the area was once all about as well as giving them a fun experience of an authentic train – the very train that make that first fated trip. Maybe cities like Vancouver that have so much redevelopment need their green and red and yellow boxes all over the cityscape to interpret change through the artistry of the city museum.
My favourite of these outreach concepts that use the city as the theatre for activity is something variously called the “BG Lab” in New York City and the “BMW Guggenheim Lab” in Berlin. These are the brainchild of Charles Montgomery, a native son of our very own Vancouver – it was Charles that introduced me this morning. As Charles describes it, these labs bring together willing, curious participants and offer resources and logistical support for them to undertake informal urban experimentation. That is why they are called “labs”, because they turn the city into a laboratory. He is quick to point out that these labs are not research institutes but rather a fun and provocative place to talk about new ideas. In the New York case, they tested the emotional effects of public places on participants using sensors and in Berlin they added various games and tests to augment the data. Everybody had a good time, information was collected, and a lot was learned. Now that information and those people can be part of actively shaping these cities for a better future. Well, of course, this idea has so many possibilities for the kind of outreach and city engagement that a city museum might want to do. For example, what if the lab can be used by residents to do a neighbourhood audit? You could start the lab in a successful beloved area where the participants could document all kinds of metrics and take all kinds of measurements. Then you could move the lab to the participants’ neighbourhood to see how their home-base performs in comparison. Because this would be a completely experiential process, learning would be fast and solid and I bet people would act directly on what they have discovered. What if the data collection could be channeled through social media to sites where it can be instantly mapped and analysed against other norms and standards and regulations – the whole idea just gets more and more powerful.
And I think the city museum might take all of this even one step further. Why not actually convene people to key locations in a city to participate in that place in a certain way – to make a point or to learn something or to shift the use of a space. We’ve seen hundreds of cyclists convened to reclaim streets from cars. We’ve seen crowded white dinner parties convened to repopulate dead spaces. We’ve seen schools of children convened to use crayons to rededicate a pedestrian mall and playground. The convening possibilities of social media are amazing and the civic museum, using the city as its museum, could tap into groups of people and have them become part of the museum experience in vastly more effective ways than are possible by trying to draw them into the museum building. And the experience can be more fun and hip and edgy and enticing.
Now, let’s shift to the opposite side of my original proposition – let me turn to the idea of the “museum as city”. This is really the concept to turn the museum of the city into the agora of the city – the place where people come together to learn about issues, debate the future, consider new propositions and evaluate the various development moves that are changing the cityscape every day. Again, the idea is that the museum barriers come tumbling down and the physical plant of the museum becomes not just a repository but also a safe and respectful gathering place. We live in a world where there is wide-spread debate but the convenor of that debate is often not what I would call disinterested. It is often not led by the needs of the people but rather by the needs of those hosting the debate. We have seen what can happen when people en masse rebel against that arrangement and use social media to convene their own debate and expose their own information. In Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East this provoked its own forums and facilitated a people power like we have not seen for decades. That was a very good thing, but we all know that that same power can be manipulated for other than altruistic motives.
Wouldn’t it be amazing if the museum of the city could tap into these same energies and networks within the context of high ethics and a dispassionate dedication to the fundamental needs of the people and fair democracy of the people? Wouldn’t it be amazing if you could become the acknowledged epi-centre for a rich community inquiry and discussion of all the important urban issues of the day? I can tell you that there is no place to do that and no one is doing that in almost any city right now.
But a city museum could be that place and you, the curators and programmers could be that convenor. Wouldn’t it be great if every citizen could expect to find a solution to their urban problem or an answer to their civic question by coming to the museum? Perhaps marginalized people would find a special voice to explain their life position and to draw out resolutions to help them cope that are not coming from the politicians or social workers. Perhaps regular folks who feel under siege from the change around them could think first of the city museum as the place to go to understand that change and to be offered a way to affect it. Perhaps people interested in the preservation of urban heritage or the introduction of new urban structures could come first to the city museum to introduce their proposals to the people and to build support for those proposals before starting into the complex City Hall processes for formal endorsement or approval. Perhaps the city museum could be the custodian for web-based voting by citizens on those new ideas or proposals.
Once we have the “museum as city”, you will enter the fray of the urban revolution or evolution. You will become the agent of change and the advocate for the fairness and equity of that change. You will become the actual voice of the people or the facilitator of their voices. Just imagine what it would be like if entering the Museum of Vancouver you were also entering one of the City Halls of Vancouver, where the business of the day is actually conducted not just observed. Once again, the “museum as city” could also be a powerful contributor to urbanism.
Now, I’m not talking about these new functions displacing the fascinating activities and shows that you already do. I am taking about adding this agenda to what you already do. So let me offer just two examples to give a taste of what this might be all about.
There is one concept that has long been afloat in Vancouver that would be a perfect format for the museum as city. It is called an “urbanarium”. The idea of this is to have a place where everything about the city can be collected and explored and where people can get together to talk and work toward better city forms and processes and images and institutions. Usually it has a physical focus in a grand model of the city, such as the wonderful one in the Shanghai Planning Museum. This model has to be big enough so it really thrills people to see it and so they can really understand what they are seeing. This model has to be always changing and being updated so it is current to the state of the city and to the agenda of change in the city at any point in time. This model has to be backed up with maps and aerial photography and all kind of statistics so that people can see the relationship between the three-dimensional form of the city and the inputs that generate that form. This model might also be backed up by a social model and an ecological model and even an institutional or political model. Then, these models becomes a framework for discussion and experimentation. Proponents can insinuate their new ideas and plans into the model so we can all judge the fit. We can use the model to test the impacts of big events and climate change. And, to a great degree, the model can become a focal point for all the dialogue we need to explore any aspect of the future of the place. It seems to me that a city museum is the perfect institution to become an urbanarium. You have the venue and the profile and the expertise and the power to convene. Around the model you can create endless programs and events. With the programs and events, the link between people and their ideas can be facilitated with their government and with the private market place.
A related idea is exemplified by a place called the “Centre for Dialogue” at Simon Fraser University here in Vancouver. This is simply a well-designed place, an agora, for community discussion and debate. It is designed to facilitate exchange. It is staffed to offer assistance and logistics. It has all the digital technology for every kind of documentation and broadcast. This strikes me as the kind of facility that a city museum could offer to the community and as they use the space, the museum becomes the centre of the community. As a convener, the museum becomes the arbiter. And, it seems to me that the dialogue can be both active and passive – sometimes more edgy; sometimes more safe. For example, what if the agora had a wall of ideas or even a wall of protest where, as in Chinese culture, anyone can post their thoughts and once a month those thoughts are collected, collated and presented to the local government and to the world. Of course, a blog could also be included and with social media, hundreds of conversations could be going on all at the same time. All of this dialogue would be channelled into the continuing change process of the city – and it could really make a difference, both in what specific aspects of change are endorsed and how people understand that change.
And whether we are talking about the “city as museum” or the “museum as city”, I see a big role for what are called charrettes. These are big workshops where regular people come together with urban experts to consider problems and find solutions, usually through the medium of design. These involve a lot of drawing and a lot of talk and a lot of site exploration in a high-energy environment where expert knowledge and local knowledge are merged into fresh solutions to tough urban problems. These can be convened in the heart of the museum building or they can be offered in tents on key sites that are facing direct change. In any event, they become the place where surprising solutions can be found. The civic museum could become specialists in these charrettes and by offering such a venue as a regular feature in a city, they could transform how people deal with hard challenges or big opportunities, how they come together, how they find common ground or, at least, how they frame realistic choices. I could see charrettes becoming the standard modus operendi of the civic museum as it embraces its mission to be at the centre of civic discourse.
My point in all of this is that the city museum can be as much about urban creation as it is about urban curation. In the future, I think the city museum could even be a central actor in that creation – connecting citizens with the vectors that re-define the city. If the museum of the city – your museum – could become the “museum as city” and the “city as museum”, then we could truly join forces in both building urban connoisseurship and choreographing the ongoing re-invention of the city. But more than for City Planners, you would become a vital force for the people of your city and an agent for the kind of informed natural spontaneous democracy that seems to have gotten lost in the halls of power for a very long time. Our cities need a design fix at this point in history; they need a political fix; they need an environmental fix; they need a social fix – and for that they need to raise the bar of both the processes and the knowledge that we bring to bear. No one is in the wings right now to offer that – it is a real gap in urban life.
But in a dialectic of both exploding the traditional museum concept yet reinforcing its solid core presence as an artful arena for urban discovery as well as urban memory, the future museum of the city can be that vital urban force – you have the venues; you have the resources; you have the morality; you have the know-how; and you have the independence. I am hopeful that you also have the courage.
It might interest you to know that, in the Catholic faith, the patron saint of City Planners is Saint George. His mythology was that he “slew the dragon and saved the city”. In a metaphorical sense, the museum of the city may be the Saint George of our time. If you can slay the dragon of our own urban discontent, our urban disconnect, then it may be you who finally saves the city of our dreams. And that, ladies and gentlemen, would be a very good thing.
The Equation of Height and Density in the Form and Economy of Washington, D.C. in the 21st Century
An address by Larry Beasley, C.M.
For the National Capital Planning Commission
On the occasion of the Centennial of Washington’s 1910 Height Act
May 18, 2010
We are here tonight to talk about the future of the prevailing height limits here in Washington. You are in the middle of what I see as historic discussions about this throughout this community and among the governments and organizations that have planning responsibilities for the future of the capital and I hope I can make a useful contribution to those discussions. I’m happy to follow the very informative recent Atherton Lecture by Witold Rybezynski on this topic because he gave such a full history of urban building heights and the evolution of the Height Act here in Washington, which is a good foundation for my remarks.. And I was also happy to see my friend Chris Leinberger of the Brookings Institute weigh in on the topic as well. But more than anything, I am appreciative to the National Capital Planning Commission of Washington for giving me this opportunity to address this issue because this city is and always has been a beloved and special place for me.
Let me start by singing the praises of tall buildings. After all, that is why I have been invited here today. My city, Vancouver, in Canada, has explored all aspects of tall buildings over the last fifty years and has brought the building of tall buildings to a high science (no pun intended) over the last 25 years through a combination of private entrepreneurial creativity and public policy guidance year after year after year. As much as anything, we’ve been able to actually build hundreds of tall buildings, whole areas in fact, especially in our inner city, so our experience is not theoretical, it is practical, on the ground.
We have found the magic of tall buildings that is making our city very special.
For example, we have realized that tall buildings allow our city to move directly toward a more sustainable urbanism because they facilitate the two factors of sustainability that are so vital in cities: density and mixed use; these being the factors that create the essential qualities of the sustainable city, proximity and diversity. I’m sure most people here know the score on this. You know that getting people out of their cars is the key push for urban environmental compatibility. You know that getting people of different life experience closer together motivates a more responsible social agenda. You know that bringing consumers and products face-to-face facilitates economic health. I’m simplifying for effect here but you know exactly what I am talking about. Now, I’m certainly not saying that you can’t achieve this in smaller, more modestly scaled buildings – surely with strong intent you can do so. But it simply seems easier with tall buildings because you have more space in all directions to work with to achieve a more complicated building program. Now, of course for the technical people in the room, I have to put a caveat on all this. In talking about tall buildings, I am not necessarily talking about unendingly tall buildings. We know at a certain point massive buildings start to draw negatively on the environmental equation, primarily because of energy performance, and they start to actually create isolation, and they become very expensive to service and manage. They become a liability. But let there be no doubt, you can achieve significant height before all that drama starts to unfold.
In Vancouver, we have also found tall buildings can be expressive and beautiful. We have found that they have drama and make a statement that touches the heartstrings of lots of people, especially if they are done carefully. We have found that in a cluster, or dare I say a constellation because the actual composition of the cluster is important, they can signal important places and can bring a city in line with a dramatic landscape like we enjoy in Vancouver’s mountainous context. There is something bold and definitive about tall buildings that some people always seem to have a hankering for in their cities.
We have discovered the tool that height represents to leverage other public goods that people need in a great city but that government budgets find hard to fund. Coupled with a carefully calibrated zoning system of bonuses and incentives, height with density has leveraged better design and every quality amenity that we could possibly think of for our city.
And finally we have found that tall buildings are quite popular with users because they let people get up to the wonderful views that are always there for our enjoyment if we can just get up to the point where they start to become expansive. Of course, the more that you have to look at in your setting that is special, the more this becomes important and valuable. In my city, for example, the actual market value of floor space, whether commercial leased space or market condos, is significantly higher with every floor of distance from the ground and away from the cacophony and view blockage that one generally finds near the ground. I’m not necessarily sure this would be true in Las Vegas. But in Vancouver, consumers spend a lot of time deciding exactly how high they not only wish to live in but also wish to invest in, based upon what is happening around them and what views are available. And there are clever ways to maximize such potential.
So as our world continues to urbanize and more and more people live in cities, the tall building is here to stay – like it or not. There is no nostalgia that can cause that to change. The benefits are there for all to see and take advantage of if we handle the situation correctly.
But handling the situation correctly is very important. Our Vancouver experience has taught us something else about tall buildings. You can do them well or you can do them poorly. They can be impactful and oppressive or they can be in harmony with one another and other shorter buildings around them and with people as they experience these buildings. The shape and design of the building becomes absolutely of pivotal implication to their success or failure. Let me give you some flavour of what I mean.
You can think of a tall building as similar to a classical column – with a base, a shaft and a capital or top. We have found that the building design must address all three of these aspects, although most modern buildings do not do so. In Vancouver we mass a podium base with one set of dynamics, a tower shaft with other considerations and a cap condition for yet another set of reasons. You have to be careful as heights go up that you do not just extrude the lower scale floorplates to higher and higher buildings. At some point, which will be differently defined in each city by the inclination of their citizens about what is a comfortable scale, a very tall undifferentiated building becomes very overbearing. There are thousands of examples out there to prove this point perhaps partly because architects have tended to design tall buildings as objects rather than as facilitators of experience. In any event, our approach to this in Vancouver has been seen as unique enough as a pervasive style that it has even been given an epithet – “Vancouverism”. So let me tell you about Vancouverism because I think it is essential for you to think in this way if you do decide to explore taller buildings here in Washington.
The base of a tall building needs to be designed with its own integrity. The height of podium massing is generally set by the ambient historic scale of the setting and the experiential tolerances of citizens. The specific architecture picks up on the detailing of buildings around it. And the whole ensemble is conceived to give a gentle humanism to the building and to let the building play a role among nearby buildings in shaping public space and street character. This is the area to achieve the hospitality of the building and all the “new urbanist” values that we all know are so important, even with the most cutting edge architectural expression; things like “eyes and ears on the street”, permeability of the facade, and interest for the pedestrian. So, in Vancouver, at the base level we push the massing proud to the street (very similarly to Washington’s streetwall buildings), we do not tolerate blank walls, we bring doors and windows and stoops and almost any interesting detail down to eye level, and we require weather protection. In residential settings, we try to truly domesticate the streetscape with rowhousing or push for shophouses that can provide a local retail frontage. In commercial settings we want maximum glazing that can make the building transparent with fascinating vistas and we want active uses at grade or we press for as much retail as the market can bear. The point is that the base is where you experience the building so we want it to be very engaging, supportive and “gently giving” rather than harsh or brutal and awesomely out of scale.
The tower we see as another matter. Generally we set a tower back from the property line and the cornice line of the podium base to moderate its impacts so, from the street, it almost floats out of one’s consciousness. Then we want the tower massing to be slim, and more and more so as it gets taller. A rule of thumb is that residential tower floorplates be kept below 7000 sq. ft. and taller commercial tower floorplates be kept below about 15,000 sq. ft. There is a certain proportion of tower height-to-bulk that creates an elegant form and profile. Then, we tend to cluster the buildings in a composition that makes a statement but more importantly allows maximum view penetration around buildings and through a stand of buildings. Generally, between towers we require a minimum separation of 80 ft., but the more the better, to facilitate those views and to also secure an acceptable level of privacy between tower occupants.
The top or cap is a matter of skyline expression. In essence we have been trying to avoid the humdrum of all flat-topped buildings and we want it to be a place for a little architectural fun. At the same time, we’ve tried to avoid this becoming too clownish as you see in some cities, dare I say in Shanghai or Dubai for example, so the relationships among the tops of nearby towers become quite important, even though the subjective quality of design performance sometimes makes this hard to adjudicate.
So that is “Vancouverism” or the Vancouver tall building model in its essential points and I hope it might be helpful if and when you start considering any taller buildings here in Washington.
But, you know, all my praise of tall buildings and all my detailed commentary of how to best do tall buildings may be missing the point of what you are really struggling with here in Washington. Is the debate about the height of buildings and the future of the height limit in its essential nature about the shape of buildings and the management of building scale? I think not.
I think the debate is really about the personality of your city – and this is where building height management is very different from building height limits. In many places in the world people are looking at the benefits and costs of overall height limits related to the image of the city. For example, I’ve just dealt with this in a big way in the planning of a very far away city in my work for the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, but I will come back to that a little later.
To start this discussion, we can ask a fundamental question. What should motivate a cityscape? Should the cityscape just be the random result of the economic activity of a city, driven by investor opportunity, and more than that, can the manipulation of heights be used to motivate that economic activity? Needless to say, for most North American cities and most newer cities around the world, this has been the case. You can look at the civic profile and generally discern the economic story of that city. And where that is the case, then the logic can be simple: let go of height limits and let the technology and the financial power of society set the tower heights, without limits, for maximum economic effort and maximum economic gain. New York and Hong Kong and, until a very short time ago, I would have added Dubai come easily to mind and the reason we remember these particular cities is that they have been the most powerful of the powerful so their very unmitigated scale have actually made them unique with a special symbolism. Unfortunately we cannot say the same thing for hundreds of other such cities because, in the end, they could only go so far and so their scale of buildings could only go so far and the result, unhappily, is that their skylines look more or less like one another; and, in the end, they are forgettable.
In contrast, can the cityscape be deliberately structured to do something else or say something else; can it be shaped for a larger purpose? This might not make sense in the modern rational world of the development business in most cities but if a city sees itself as somehow very special or in need of some kind of specific “statement” and if it sees itself as actually capable of reining in the freeform economic process for the purpose of explicit civic form, then, all of a sudden, we have a very interesting question. And when you include into that thinking that the city might be a capital city or a holy city or a city that is in some measure symbolic, then I hope the question becomes a practical consideration. And, of course, that is the case with Washington.
Again, my little city of Vancouver might offer a line of thinking relevant to Washington. We’re not a capital city or a holy city or, generally in any way really very special, except that about 25 years ago we realized that our economic future rested on tourism and the ideas industries and the in-migration of wealth and to be competitive, we had to be very attractive and very liveable. We had to design it, especially in height density and scale, more with the end-user in mind. We pursued many paths in that aspiration and the resulting city is liveable and attractive and it is making an economic future for us – and that’s another story. But as a part of that we did ask ourselves some unique questions about our skyline. As a part of being liveable, we asked ourselves if our city should protect important public views regardless of the economic implications for individual building projects. And, as a part of being attractive, we asked ourselves if our city should explicitly shape our skyline as a work of art, again regardless of the economic implications for individual building projects. What would end-users prefer? In both cases, we mounted huge public discussions, involving thousands of our citizens and all the artistry and computer wizardry we could muster to lay out the options – and we discovered that our citizens were strongly in the affirmative; they wanted us to make the city anew. They wanted the symbolism and they wanted the collective advantages and they wanted the artfulness as a part of the presentation of their city to the world and so we put strong policies in place. I don’t agree with Witold Rybezynski’s contention that you cannot do this, that is to say, differentiate the heights of buildings for urban design purposes; North American cities have been doing this consistently for at least half a century. We have an overlay of varying height limits in our inner city to protect view corridors that has sculpted the skyline for many years and remains just as popular today as when it was first implemented – I know that because it has just been reviewed with the public. We have an overlay of extra height opportunities, varying the limits, for pure artistic purposes, tied to the provision of major public amenities and qualities, that has started to give a specific artful echo of the skyline with the mountain backdrop and to denote the pre-eminence of place of our CBD in our otherwise huge mega-region.
So what might this all mean for Washington? You’re certainly not starting from scratch. It is hard to believe that for 100 years, you have had a clear and distinct height policy – in fact a very simply height limit – and it has already fundamentally shaped your city. I’ve heard this was originally about safety but I think we all see that it is first and foremost about symbolism. Your achievement at the symbolic level is profound. So as you now consider the future of the height limits, I hope you will start with several cues from Vancouver. First, we discovered that the economic performance of any one project was not affected in a meaningful way by the municipality’s manipulation of heights. Land values simply adjusted to the allowances and opportunities and the economic engine has kept right on working. Don’t fret too much about the economic reactions, the investor reactions – I’ll come back to this in a minute. Second, we discovered we could manage heights at a fine grain. The political system was robust enough to do that, even though it is a typical pluralistic democracy just like you have here. Don’t worry about the political viability since you’ve already shown that through a hundred years of diverse politics, you have held the system together extraordinarily well. Third, we learned that it is a good idea to check all of this first with the public in a major outreach because everything we’ve had to do depended absolutely upon the strength and breadth of their support. So, do worry about the attitude of your citizens as end-users and make sure you bend over backward to help them understand the implications of any change and that you come to well understand their preferences on this. In the final analysis, this is not an academic matter, it is a populist judgement.
Now, before I go into my thoughts about changes to the height limits in Washington, I want to go a little deeper into the economic questions that flow around this issue.
Let me remind you, first, that an increase in height does not necessarily represent an increase in development capacity. For example, this building is about the same density as this building. And to the extent this is true, manipulating heights only, to a large extent, will not really have much of an effect on the economics of a development or the economic climate of the city. That’s why, for example, you can do an equally effective strategy for transit-oriented clustering of dense development in both a high scale and a lower scale format with equal success. Adjusting heights in large measure, without touching densities, is really just a design question of putting the same development allowance in one form or another. So as you adjust heights, if you decide to do so, you will also have to be mindful to adjust densities in a parallel way for the economic implications to come into play.
With that proviso in mind, I have nonetheless heard it said that the existing height rules limit the economic performance of the city. Well, this is an argument that I would be a little sceptical about. There are two ways to look at the economics – individual and community wide. You can talk about the economic value of one particular project or you can talk about the overall economic value of the whole city. Yes, looking at it from the individual developer angle, the conclusion is clear: the more you open up heights and add the densities with that, the more economic opportunity you can create for the developer if you play your cards right. I put that last proviso on because if you just increase what can be built on a site, then the developer will not benefit as much as the existing landowner, who, as we all know, is the single biggest speculator in the land development scene. If you unilaterally increase a development allowance, an existing landowner will see his land as more valuable and, without doing anything, claim most of that value. So as you increase any allowance, I am a big proponent of making it conditional so that only the developer can exploit it and therefore must pay slightly less for the land so he can afford to meet the condition of the allowance – whether that condition relates to design of some particular amenity. But, in explaining this, I digress. The bottom line at an individual investor perspective is simple: more opportunity creates more profit. Heights with density create more economic opportunity, although the way the land market works tends to take the initial big kick out of this pretty fast.
But is that what you want this discussion to be all about? Isn’t the real issue about collective or community-wide value? Things look quite different from this perspective. I think your existing height rules have created disproportionately higher community value, on a per square foot basis, compared to square foot values in a typical city elsewhere, from two angles. On the one hand, your city’s very uniqueness makes it inherently more valuable than other places. On the other hand, your city’s comfortable scale makes it more attractive to more people and therefore more valuable while being less impactful on others and therefore less diminishing of their value. The resulting wealth created or preserved by the height limit is in fact being enjoyed by all landowners at all times and the composite value, I would argue, is greater than what it would have been by more variable heights.
For me, the message here, from either aspect of the equation, is not to get too upset one way or the other about this issue of economics. Height changes, unless they are dramatic, are not really going to make too much of a difference in the economic performance of Washington.
From another angle, I’ve heard it said that some increases in height would allow a program to be implemented to bonus landuses in areas where they are wanted but are not naturally occurring. The case of housing in the core of Washington to create more sustainable mixed use areas has been cited. More density around transit stations has also been cited. Now, I can, in fact, see the merit of this argument. If you allow more height and related density and you designate it for a particular use, then I would expect the market to pick up on that provided there is some genuine demand for the use out there. Our experience in Vancouver has shown beyond a shadow of a doubt that you can leverage one use by attaching it with the allowance of another use. So I think this is a good strategy. The question is to what scale you wish to push this opportunity. At a modest scale it may have very little impact. At a grander scale the costs might well begin to increasingly outweigh the benefits.
But now let me shift back to the main thrust of today’s theme – the pros and cons of Washington’s height limits. I’ve already summarized the benefits of taller buildings so now let me talk about the benefits of limiting taller buildings. I can see that this policy has two major advantages that stand out.
First, in the world economic and social competition among cities there is a strong imperative to make sure your city is more notable and memorable in contrast to other cities around it. Now Washington will definitely differentiate itself from any other city by virtue of being the seat of one of the planet’s most powerful nations. But isn’t it also true that the ambient height of the capital, because it is simply so vividly different from other cities, also helps? That hundred years of investment in a prevailing height certainly has made the city especially unique and especially appealing.
The second benefit of the height limit is the one you all know about and often talk about: that it allows the national symbols of the capital to stand out and prevail over all other massing of the city. Part of this has to do with keeping the overall heights of context buildings lower than the dramatic dome of the Congress and the spire of the Washington Monument. Perhaps a bigger part of this has to do with creating a coherent frame of walls among many buildings around the grand ceremonial spaces of the capital, such as the National Mall and the White House. A related benefit that may not have been originally thought about 100 years ago is that the resulting development allowance has taken pressure off the historic buildings that express the long continuity of government in the capital.
Both of these objectives have been applied or are now being applied in other cities and their experiences are informative. In the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, for example, we are attempting to put in place right now what you have enjoyed here for a long, long time. In the royal city of Al Ain, which has a wonderful historic ambience and delicate character, we have just proclaimed a height limit of what we call “G+5”, or six stories, because it will increasingly differentiate the city as all the Emirate’s other cities grow and because it emphasizes the historic buildings that are key to the city’s character – the mosque domes and minarets, the turrets of the forts and the expressive palaces. I just hope we can make it work half as well as your height limits have worked. In Paris and Vienna, the two best examples I know, they have a history just like your own, of a grand streetwall but still modest overall ambient height of buildings in the historic core city that all regular buildings respect, allowing the government, religious and cultural buildings to remain notable. These two cities stand out vividly in anyone’s memory as special places because they are low scale cities – and more so every year as cities around the world become higher and higher scale. I shuttered recently when I heard that there are forces at work in Paris to remove that city’s long-standing height limits for the same reasons you are talking about here. Imagine historic Paris with towers popping up anywhere. It would be a sacrilege. In contrast, Buenos Aires has gone the other way. Starting with an obvious height maximum that scaled and shaped the major structure of the central city for generations, at some point they let that go and the result is a confusion of their skyline that even the most rigorous of street patterns cannot compensate for. The sad result is that Buenos Aires’ image is now also a confusion and the integrity of historic buildings has often been highly compromised.
And this brings us back to the historic choice you now seem to have before you – and there is a tendency to turn this into a “Hobson’s choice”; having to select from extreme options that offer something appealing but also require you to give up something equally appealing. If you stay with the historic height limits, you will continue to enjoy the increasing uniqueness of the city among cities and you will more and more reinforce the stature of your government institutions and symbols – but you will seemingly give up the economic stimulus that more height could represent and limit your ability to become more sustainable. If you open up building heights to taller buildings, you will surely enjoy economic benefits, you can tie the benefits to desirable public goods or urban design performance through making the increased height an incentive or bonus and I have no doubt that you can start to reshape the city for better sustainability as we have done in Vancouver – but you will throw away the uniqueness that has deliberately been put in place in the control of thousands of building over a vast 100 years, you could endanger the integrity of your national symbols and you may also put your historic building fabric at risk. Frankly, I really hate “Hobson’s choices”.
And, frankly, I think they are to be strictly avoided. And the intelligent way to do that is through careful and thoughtful planning – through deliberate urban design analysis, that ultimately also reaches out to your citizens for real guidance. Let me tell you what I mean.
I think the first step is to get rid of the polemics and get rid of those extreme choices – just take them off the table, at least for a time, as a frame for analysis and debate. I would suggest that you start with the proposition that random height increases of a drastic nature are not to be entertained. I would suggest that you also start with the proposition that “no change” to the existing height limits is also not going to be entertained – some changes somewhere will be brought to the table. Now, needless to say, there is a risk involved here and because of the way democratic discussions can spin out of control, it is a somewhat lopsided risk. As the process heats up there will be a tendency to remove any constraints on the discussion, which could move you to the extremes of height flexibility very quickly. It can be a slippery slope. Also, as this occurs and if as a result of it there is speculation on property and land values start to go up, then it will be very hard to put the lid back on Pandora’s Box, which might sacrifice forever the calm heights equilibrium that you have enjoyed for so long. But maybe that risk is worth it. After all, if you do not at least explore a responsible range of options you can never really know if a better solution is out there suitable for another century.
To cut the risk I have just talked about, I think the second step is to set clear boundaries on what simply will not be considered. Here would be the parameters I would set.
First, I would say no height increases in the vicinity of the monumental core of the capital, the grand axis of Washington and any other key focal points, within a prescribed spacious distance of the national symbols. A careful initial urban design analysis of relative massing and view sheds will tell you what that distance needs to be. Now, I’m not talking about a few feet or even blocks of distance here; I’m talking about significant distance – so that there will be absolutely no danger that additional heights will intrude upon the capital experience.
Second, I suggest that no height increases be entertained within the context of historic and character areas. This would have several aspects. It would apply to districts with significant clusters of genuine heritage buildings. It would apply to the delicate, currently coherent edges of the historic public spaces of national interest, the squares and circles that enrich one’s experience of the capital. It would also apply to the streetscapes of the ceremonial or culturally important boulevards of the city. In other words, where history has given you an elegant or characterful building or space, a place clearly beloved by your citizens, just don’t play with the development allowances. Preserve these places as a non-negotiable priority.
Third, I would avoid the geographic high points that would exacerbate the effect of a taller building mass. I am a great proponent that such locations should be left to nature, like they do in Auckland, New Zealand, or to important public edifices where the architecture itself can make the appropriate statement.
Those are three simple parameters that will set a clear “no go” zone that will make the task easier and take the pressure immediately off of properties that don’t need that pressure. Then, having done this, I would next outline the positive directions for height considerations. Again, here are my thoughts.
First, outside the “no go” zone, I would consider very modest height increases that can be shown through explicit design analysis to be perceived only in a very minor way by an average observer from the public realm of the city, essentially from the sidewalk. With the computer technology we now have available, this is no longer a long or arduous task; in fact, it is relatively easy. I’ve heard several ideas that might be easy to put onto play with little impacts. One is to allow the rooftop appurtenances that are now allowed for decorative or utility use to be built out for occupancy, provided the setbacks from the building edge are strictly observed. Another is to tack on a story here or there on buildings that already sit in a setting of slightly taller buildings, perhaps taking the cue for maximum heights from the buildings on either side. And yet another is to look at areas with prevailing heights significantly below the current limits, but held lower through municipal ordinance, and allow buildings in these areas to edge up. Even in these cases, however, I would set a maximum increase in heights to be considered so as to not set off a frenzy of speculation about candidate sites. I also think it is worth saying that, as I see this, this opportunity in every case will be only a modest one that will not lead to a meaningful rescaling of a building or an area. The key here is to stay with the parti or basic shape of the building massing that currently exists rather than introducing an alternative massing. You have a streetwall parti that suits the height regime you have in place and it is essential, as a part of modest height increases that, for example, the Vancouver model of the tower podium not be introduced. The result would be jarring. But you have to realize that this option is just a bit of tinkering, “romancing the edges”, and that it will not really create a lot of new development capacity.
Second, I would make it clear from the outset that any height increase that is implemented will be tied to the realization of a clearly defined public objective, the delivery of public goods to be expected from the resulting development. It has been suggested that the quid pro quo of housing in predominantly office areas be identified – and that makes sense. It might be that an area is deficient of a public amenity that equity from the height increase could be used to contribute toward or, if significant enough, to even provide. Now, let me remind you of how this works. Many of you will know that in development there are two kinds of profit. There is a profit on the actual production of the building product – a percentage per square foot of building that is actually built and sold. Then there is another profit that sometimes comes into play when a property enjoys unexpected new development rights – it is a windfall profit in additional land value. To make a bonus or incentive work, you have to avoid ever touching the building production profit because, otherwise, no intelligent developer is going to build anything. To make a bonus or incentive work, you also have to make sure the land value increase stays in the hands of the developer rather than slipping into that of the previous land owner. This is done according to how you structure the law that vests the additional development opportunity. And then, having done that, you can then look for a portion of that unexpected land value to be invested in the public good that the bonus or incentive is trying to achieve. The point of all this is my simple cue to you from a person that has been putting these schemes together for years: just never specify the increased development opportunity without at the same time specifying the conditional public requirements or you will never see those public requirements. Now, having said this, I also need to advise you that, except for cases where you are prepared to see a big increase in heights, rather than one or two stories, this opportunity for a bonus may be of only minimal interest to most developers because the economic gain would be very modest and not worth the trouble or extra costs as the design program inevitably becomes more complicated. You definitely need to do a financial “development proforma” analysis to determine when the net extra value of the bonus or incentive really does kick in enough to be genuinely attractive to a typical developer.
Third, I would set a challenge that any height increase must be supported at a predetermined level by those who will be most directly affected by the increase. Of course, I mean primarily the neighbours. While in a democracy it is rare to find total consensus and therefore this is an unreasonable expectation of any public policy, at the same time a solid majority needs to be sanguine with a change like additional heights because the results can sometimes be so harmful in terms of both the utility and value of an adjacent property. Height increases hit people in two ways – one subtle and one blunt. A subtle impact is that their perception is hit and therefore their intuitive comfort with the building height is more or less affected. A blunt impact is that their use of the building is hit and therefore the practical utility of the building to them is affected – they might lose a view or feel a shadow or give up part of their privacy. So, part of this will involve a good process of general advisement of people of what is being considered. Part of this will be to complete a tangible assessment for people that illustrate for them what the impacts will be, if any. And part of this is clarifying for people what the public amenity benefits will be. I have found that people are tolerant to modest impacts if the community benefits they will enjoy are soundly understood and appreciated.
Then, the final parameter I want to talk about has to do with consideration of height increases that might be more than a reasonable person would call “modest”. This is Chris Leinberger’s proposition. You know what I am talking about: those situations where one or several buildings stand out strongly above all the buildings around them. They “pop up”; you just can’t ignore them. They are not one or two stories taller than their neighbours; they are significantly taller, maybe twice as tall, as their neighbours or even more. Should these ever be considered for Washington? Well, here is what would set my attitude about this. As I have already emphasized, on a random basis, even outside the “no go” zone I have talked about before, I would say “no”. Does anyone want tall buildings to go up just anywhere? I do not think Washington wants to find itself in the confusing situation of Buenos Aires. But, on the other hand, there may be a carefully concluded urban design reason that would endorse one or a cluster of taller buildings to achieve a real, direct urban design objective; a conclusion that comes at the end of an articulated urban design analysis and wide public discourse. For example, using the case of the “Le Defence” development in Paris at the far end of the perspective of the Champs Elysees as an illustration, if you can show that it is desirable to terminate a long perspective of one of Washington’s grand boulevards with a taller building massing, then that might represent a positive opportunity. Or, using that height strategy of Downtown Vancouver as another example, although this Parisian image probably better makes the point, you might want to strongly identify one of the contemporary new town centres outside of the core city with a marker of taller buildings that would sit expressively on the horizon. Whatever the reasoning, I think the potential opportunities would be few and far between, and the specific options would need to be defined at a technical level before any public debate because the search for such opportunities could set off a firestorm of negative forces on the quality and value of your city. Moreover, I would armature that initial technical analysis with a round of independent peer review because the subtlety of design, coupled with the subtlety of political pressure on even the best local analyst, could cause some inappropriate ideas to float into the agenda.
And, if you do find several of these opportunities for acceptable focal points of significant extra height, I hope that you will take great care in the form and architecture of these buildings and that the Vancouver model, the urbane podium and slim tower and expressive cap profile, will be some inspiration for how such taller buildings are realized on the ground. It would be prudent to adopt suitable design guidelines that are attached as performance expectations to the opportunity for extra height.
Well, over the last few minutes, I’ve tried to describe a rational analytical process with checks and balances to make it manageable. But, before I close, I want to step back and look at the whole picture. I can tell you from long experience that the kind of careful process that I have described, one that errs on the side of caution, will not yield a huge new opportunity for development that is somehow going to change the development economy of Washington. It will possibly create an array of small opportunities. Although, I have to say, it might not create much opportunity at all if the economics of mixed use hold too high a premium or if the regulatory mechanism lets the increased land value slip over to the initial land owners (as I described before). And don’t think that in some way you are going to open up some mysterious opportunity for better architecture or that this will be a magic bullet for green construction. I think that is a complete myth and a red herring. All over the world, there are splendid buildings and top-rated green buildings at all scales and certainly at the existing scale of Washington. For me, the example of the Athlete’s Village for the recent Olympic Games in Vancouver comes to mind. All of its buildings are less than 100 feet tall, they are clearly mid-rise buildings, but the project was recently awarded a LEED Platinum rating, which is the best you can get, and the architecture is just amazing. With a good architect, these issues simply become irrelevant.
So I think you might want to carefully consider up front, in the final analysis, if it is really worth all the trouble and effort to do some kind of comprehensive review of your height regulations. One benefit that will come from the review is a strong confirmation of explicit public policy that puts the issue to bed for another generation or more – and that is good. Another benefit will be a more fine-grained calibration of heights, picking up on any anomalies that are out there where reasonable, low-impact development is being held off just because of the current limits – and that is also good, so a few people could in fact gain and a little new wealth may be created. But there is a risk – there is a risk – let there be no doubt.
And this really brings me to my last statement on this topic – which I have to admit is more of an emotional statement rather than a professional one as a planner and urban designer. I opened by singing the praises of tall buildings. All over the world I am working to help people understand how to make these buildings work positively, how to transform unfortunate past practices in the design of tall buildings to achieve humanistic ends rather than the destructiveness that tall buildings have all too often represented. But that is because most cities have no choice; they have to live with taller and taller buildings because that has been the parti of their cities from the beginning and the economic results have shut out any other approach. That is simply not the case with Washington.
So, I want to close by loudly singing the praises of the existing height limits in Washington. I hope you see what an extraordinary accomplishment these height limits represent; what an extraordinary and unique city they have created for you over a hundred years of careful custodianship. And perhaps the most compelling reason for this, and one that I have not really emphasized tonight, is that the city is just so comfortable, so liveable, so humane at it’s current scale. You see, in the end, I am first and foremost a proponent of what I call “experiential planning” – planning and designing a city at all levels to understand and then create the direct day-to-day experiences that our citizens tell us they want for their city as they go about within it and use its buildings and spaces on a regular basis. And, of course, in the case of a capital, designing a place that all the citizens of an entire nation can feel delighted by and proud of and want to visit and be part of. This is what has all too often been missing in our planning and public policy making for all modern cities. But I would argue that if you get it right and the resulting city comes to be beloved by your citizens, then the economic benefits will flow naturally. I don’t have to do a survey to tell you that your citizens and people throughout America want Washington to be a liveable place, an elegant place, a place of beauty. It’s not just about economic prowess and jobs. It’s not just about expressing national power. It’s about their preferred experiences every day. It’s about the joyful pleasure of walking down a gently scaled street, of unexpectedly coming upon a magnificent public edifice that stands proudly superior to the mundane buildings around it, of feeling the gentle hospitality of a gracious green space, a square or park. It’s about the frantic life of our modern world being made more bearable because the place we inhabit offers a respite – and I think we all would agree that a gently scaled building does that more easily than any massive building. It’s about the historic buildings being preserved because their very caprice just makes us happier, sometimes when we least expect it but most need it.
So I close with a cautionary note. Be very careful as you gamble with the 100-year legacy of Washington’s Height Act. Take care not to open things up to casually. I dare say, those height limits may be the single most powerful thing that has made this city so amazingly fulfilling.
In Praise of Suburban Life: WHAT?!
2012 Diamond-Schmitt Urban Futures Lecture
Toronto – October 30, 2012
As a planner and urban designer, one of the great things about coming to Toronto is that there is so much to talk about. You have so many interesting initiatives here that deserve their own commentary or are relevant to the rest of the country. At this point in time, I could talk about the pros and cons of your massive inner-city housing boom or your continuing transit drama or the effects of your dramatic cultural expansion over the last few years. But I think you have a lot of people already talking about those things and, frankly, that’s what I’m usually talking about. I think Jack and Don want something different, something more on the edge than that. So, instead, tonight, I am going to talk about suburbs. For me this is a perfect forum of national importance to focus on suburbs – you have among the most extensive suburban patterns in the nation and what you do with your suburbs could be very influential in what others right across the country start to do about their suburbs. And, as you can see, I have titled this presentation “In Praise of Suburban Life”. What, me, Mr. Vancouver Urbanism, putting the words “praise” and “suburban” together? Have I gone nuts? Have I lost my hold on reality? I mean, it’s often said that I can’t even go east of Boundary Road in Vancouver without coming down with the flu (and I rarely get the flu). So, let’s face it, I have to fess up before we even get going: I actually deplore modern Canadian suburbs. I think most of them are ugly, vacant and dull – and I know absolutely that they are not sustainable. And, as I say this, I bet most of the people in this room will wholeheartedly agree with me. But, before we finish tonight, I am going to try to convince you to actually embrace the essence of suburban life – not its current form but its underlying appeal – and to use it as our guide in transforming this huge part of Canadian cities to be sustainable. I am going to ask you to embrace the suburbanite and the aspirations these people have for their homes and families. I am going to ask you if there is not a way to embrace a lifestyle that a vast majority of Canadians prefer and at the same time secure the level of compatibility with the environment, and social harmony, and fiscal prudence, and cultural richness – the pillars of sustainability – that all Canadians will absolutely need for our survival in the 21st century and beyond.
I think this is going to be a tall order. As the urban cognoscenti, the planning and urban design establishment, most of us have spent our lives trying to pull our cities away from the seemingly inevitable suburban trends of the post-war automobile era in Canada, and throughout North America for that matter, and we have built up a rich and wonderful set of concepts, principles and practices to help us do that. And, I have to say, we have seen some great success. In fact, it is not an exaggeration to say that right across the land, we find our core cities in a wonderful revival; we find transit-oriented development nodes coming together out in the suburbs; we find models of dense living that are beautiful to see and public places we have made that are delightful to be in. We have secured a beach-head in heritage preservation and mixed-use development and, more recently, in sustainable building. We are finding positive partnerships between government and the development community and citizens. And, for all of this, we can be very proud – we are in a very good place, compared to what we faced when I came on the scene about 40 years ago. It feels good.
But, to a greater degree than most of us realize, I think we are also in a fool’s paradise. We are very deep in a hole about the future of Canadian cities – and much of the success we have enjoyed over the last generation is not going to help us to get out of that hole. We are in what I call an intellectual cul-de-sac that, if we cannot punch through, will make it almost impossible to do what has to be done for Canadian cities, especially Canadian suburbs, in the future.
You see, I think we are facing a very tough and dangerous contradiction in regard to the future of our cities in this country. On the one hand, we have to find a way to make our future cities sustainable and affordable; and, on the other hand, the way we have in mind (in the collectivity of the professions of the urban design culture of Canada) is simply not endorsed by the majority of our people. This is dangerous because in a democracy, after all is said and done, it will be the people who rule the day. This is tough, because, once the status quo of our current thinking is rejected – as it is being rejected by a vast number of consumers every day – we have almost nothing fresh or new to offer that might be accepted and also effective to transform our cities to the sustainable mode.
To me, unfortunately, the numbers are just so telling.
60% of Canadians live in suburbs. Maybe about 15% of Canadians live in urban cores and the rest live outside cities, in towns and villages or in rural settings. We can quibble over these specific numbers – they are shifting all the time – but the reality is that no numbers in the country can challenge the fact that the majority of us have either foresworn or avoided city life. To address sustainability, we talk classical urban solutions, and everywhere we are showing excellent, liveable, quality examples. Because of lifestyle preferences and costs and background, most Canadians continue to make suburban choices. It was a shock for me to realize several years ago that in all my work over a lifetime (and I have been busy!) – in leading a huge group of very clever people to conceive and put in place the “living first” strategy to re-populate Downtown Vancouver – and with all the success in the market place of this new living option – and with the equal or greater success of people like me and like you in big and medium-sized cities all over the country – with all of this, we have only affected a 5 to 10% shift toward urban living by Canadians. 60% of Canadians still do not want what we offer. 60% of Canadians still prefer their single family home and their one or several cars and their private back garden and their quiet street and what they see as their modest scale, “family-oriented” and safe neighbourhood; their bucolic image of intimate neighbourhood life. 60% of Canadians will tell you in no uncertain terms that this is their best choice – and looked at from their perspective, I think it is hard to argue with them. I think, regarding their private interests, they are right.
Just for fun, let’s check the numbers in this room. How many people here tonight live in a single family home? How many of you usually drive a car to work or school? How many of you live next door to low-income people? How many live in a mixed use building (or at least over a shop)? Now, let’s do the same questions for only those over 35-years-of-age: single-family home; drive a car; have low-income neighbours; live in mixed use? I hope this makes my point. We are the most dedicated urbanists in our whole society but, even with us, looking at our consumer patterns, the numbers tell a different story.
Of course, just because the suburbs work for the majority of Canadians, as individuals, doesn’t make them sustainable or mean they work for the community as a whole. I think we all know they put huge pressures on our collective tax base and are impossible to service efficiently and economically. I think we all know that they put huge pressures on the ecology around them and are our single biggest national contribution to negative climate change. We may have founded Greenpeace and we may think of ourselves as very “green”, very environmentally conscious, but the facts of how we live put the lie to all that. I don’t need to detail the science on that in this room. And, I think everyone in this room would also agree that if we don’t fix this, we will be in very deep trouble as a species on this planet within a very short time – in fact, we are already living on borrowed time.
And, I know that everyone in this room actually has a good idea of what it will take to fix this situation. We all understand and believe in that well-articulated formula for smart growth as the answer for sustainable cities. Just to remind you, here it is– it covers both the structure and the infrastructure of cities.
From a structural point of view,
-it is about the form of our cities – clustered density and mixed use and all kinds of diversity and protected open space;
-it is about the fabric of our cities – environmentally neutral construction of buildings and spaces; and,
-it is about the character of our cities – placemaking and quality and local uniqueness and cultural richness.
From an infrastructural point of view,
-it is about the circulation within our cities – more and more transportation choices, transit, cycling, with less and less dependence on the conventional private car;
-it is about the community services and social safety net within our cities – recreation facilities and childcare and good schools and all kinds of accommodations for those with special needs; and,
-it is about the utilities of our cities – managing water and waste and energy in a conserving way and where possible accessing local inputs and food.
We are also all confident that this formula works over the range of many challenges we face in modern life – of course it works for the environment; but also to address endemic and growing health problems; and to mediate social isolation; and to generate cultural expression; and to enhance the simple quality of everyday life. All these things can be addressed through this same city lens.
But, now let me give you the experience of the “eco-density” initiative for suburban transformation in Vancouver that attempted to apply this formula at face value. It was a total disaster. The planners talked density and the public hate density and certainly don’t want tall buildings next door. The planners talked mixed-use and diversity and the public fears crime and strangers. The planners talked eco-practices for building and infrastructure and the public worries about increased taxes and higher costs. The planners talked alternatives to the car and the public thinks they are going to lose their cars. And then, the public talked about impacts and the negative effects they could see in the whole strategy and the planners scold them for “nimbyism”. The planners and the public were just on totally different wave-lengths. And, in the end, even though the politicians adopted something – some sort of charter – the issue is pretty dead from a practical perspective and from a political perspective and the whole movement for smart suburban growth has been set back for years.
My point in all of this, and my first theme for this evening, is that the planning and design establishment in Canada are going to have to work a lot harder to find sustainable suburban solutions that will also be attractive to most of our people and affordable for most of our people. None of our current solutions are appealing to most suburbanites – or I might say to the average person. These will have to be solutions that can find popularity not just at the level of theory and talk but more so at the level of consumer practices. These will have to be solutions that find wide-spread endorsement that can start
to make big inroads into that 60% majority of Canadians that has been impervious to our ideas to date.
These will have to be solutions that stay true to that formula of smart growth but that offer it up in a fundamentally different package than we have seen so far in Canada. So I want to spend the rest of my time tonight talking about some of the solutions that can meet this tough test; that might make this tough reconciliation between sustainable science and consumer preferences.
To start, let’s put on the table several widely held professional planning opinions that I think we have to expose for what they are – widely held myths that are preventing us from being creative, particularly about our suburbs.
The first of these is that the car is on its way out with the arrival of peak oil. I think the very opposite may be true. Automobile technology is now starting to move very quickly toward more and more alternative energy sources and I think it could become a carbon neutral machine before too long. I am now even hearing the idea that it could become a clean energy producing machine. In fact, it is overwhelmingly evident to me that we will definitely re-invent the car (for price as well as political reasons) long before we wean ourselves from the car as a society. But, even short of that, my experience everywhere I work in the world is that as soon as people are wealthy enough, the personal mobility of the car is the first of the luxuries that they secure – and they are prepared to pay a very high proportion of their income to maintain its benefits – and they just ignore the impacts that result from their car. Also, I am very skeptical that any Canadian government that is electable will have the guts to stop subsidizing the automobile infrastructure to shift the full costs back to car users. So those who are hoping that the car, and all its problems to the humane shape of our cities and the environmental impact of our cities, that all of this will soon be a thing of the past – and that we can move on from there – are just deluding themselves. They are simply wrong. My take is that we have to come to grips with the car; we have to tame it as much as we can, keeping the monster at bay from gobbling up the entire cityscape; and we have to plan for it to have a place among a nice attractive array of options for moving around in the future city. My second thought is that the best alternative to the automobile will not be another device; it will be our feet – walking. And that will mean that we have to be very clever about proximity and connectivity as we look at the future shape of our suburbs. I suspect that the whole transportation drama in the future has to be about less mechanical movement: fewer trips and shorter trips and a lot more trips that use body energy rather than fuel. And in all of this, there will be definitive answers. It will be about adjusting probabilities in the right direction.
The second myth is that the single-family home is moving toward obsolescence and very soon we will start to see a natural shift to higher density multiple housing. Planners talk about the demographic shifts that are underway in the population (people marrying and having children later, living longer, retiring earlier), the affordability problems that are growing and the proliferation of housing alternatives that are now available in the marketplace. Again, I think the opposite may actually be more probable. In my view, the fundamental pre-disposition that most Canadians have against density and height and loss of privacy and loss of access to nature – these will all limit the shift to dramatically different alternatives. And, in most parts of the country, the single-family home in the far suburbs is still cheaper and more available than multi-family options. As a developer, I tried to fight that battle – and in places like Fredericton, the “split level” wins over the apartment every time. My take is that the changes that we will motivate will most easily happen within the context of the single-family morphology of the suburbs. These will be changes of tenure and infill and diversification and other subtle elaborations. These will be augmented through special opportunities at the neighbourhood margins that stay true to the modest scale and height that most people find most comfortable. Yes, we will have our TODs and town centres and clusters along arterials, all of higher scale and density, and these will help, but I am convinced that the changes that will accommodate the most people will be the incremental gentle changes.
The third myth that seems to limit a lot of creative thinking is that there are certain laws and standards that just cannot be changed. After many generations of building codes and street standards and sub-division standards and fire regulations and health regulations, a lot of planners seem to feel these are fixed, immutable laws that if we abandon or change too radically will cause our society to simply fall apart. Or they feel these requirements are just too vested, in control of powerful forces or made imperative by our fear of liability. I have come to the opposite conclusion. I think almost all the standards and laws that have shaped the post-war city have to be abandoned or changed because they reflect a reality that no one really wants. They also reflect a view of the world of at least a half a century ago. That’s what we found in core cities and that is what I think is equally true in the suburban context. Each standard or law or regulation trying to do the most regarding its own area of control has distorted the totality of urban experience to become what people just don’t enjoy or even need. They provide levels of protection that are just too protecting. They limit the kind of diversity and serendipity that is just too limiting. And one of the strangest results that we see in all of this for the modern city is that to do what we really want, having full confidence that what we want to do is not going to hurt other people or create hazards, many otherwise law-abiding people have to become “outlaws” in their own community. I bet there are many outlaws right here this evening even though I am also pretty sure that you are all really nice, well meaning, socially responsible people.
Well, I could go on; but, having tabled these myths, what is more important to talk about is what might be positive, acceptable directions for sustainable suburbs in the future. Also, what might be the process to discover the solutions?
To talk about the process, I can go back to how we approached the dilemma of inner-city revival all those years ago. Essentially, we took nothing as given, realizing that the entire formula for the inner-city had to be rethought; nothing was sacred. And, on that basis, we did two things that made all the difference:
-we had to focus on people as consumers; and,
-we had to drill down beyond basic needs to look at the emotional drivers of consumption that really cause people to shift their behavior.
None of these things were natural things for planners to do or to think about at the time.
Even now, because most planners work for government, either directly or indirectly, the tendency is to see the urban challenge as a policy challenge. In other words, we see people as “citizens”, whose behaviour is directed by laws, and who express themselves as voters, as members of the body politic. In fact, we are a little skittish about the marketplace and understanding how it works or what effect it has. Well, those that have been involved with inner-city revival, where the whole strategy was to entice people to freely come back to live Downtown, will remember that the key to our success was to start to see people as consumers, and to spend a lot of time understanding what people think about and want and need as consumers. We had to know that well enough so that we could start to offer the essential needs and wants but in new ways that fit the potential and reality of higher density inner-city life. So we did huge programs of public consultation and engagement and genuine empirical research, involving tens of thousands of people, to find out what people might be pre-disposed to want to consume and how that could be manifest in new ways in core cities. We used different words, but what we did was not much different from what smart companies do when they want to introduce new products and build new demand. And the result was that the “living first” strategy was not shaped by requiring consumers to do anything as much as it was shaped by tapping into a shifting sense of what consumers might really want to do by giving them cool new and different options that also met all our civic needs. The development community joined us in this inquiry and, together, we found new ways to fund what was needed, not depending upon the traditional municipal tax base, and we broke every rule in the book that had previously applied to downtowns (admittedly putting in place new rules so that the trends of growth would be directed to the kinds of things consumers preferred and to the standards they needed), and we created the new urban places and the new urban products that now make our downtowns everywhere in the country incredible market successes. My theme here is that even a modest shift in trends of consumer demand, being a spontaneous, widespread and positive thing, can have a lot more impact than all the government rules and regulations put together, which, of course, tend to prescribe what people can do in a negative way. Once we made the consumer the focus of our thinking, we started seeing success.
And, of course, what this meant was that we had to go beyond the traditional agenda of municipal public policy; we had to look deeper at how consumers view the world. As government planners, we tend to see cities as land-use maps and as the basics of housing and offices and industry and all the rest, and then as the community infrastructure and transportation arrangements to serve these sectors. We tend to shape all this within a web of policy. Well, that is just not where consumers are at. They expect the basics – civic and market offerings and protections – but they are searching for a lot more; they want meaning and relevance and image and those things that make life worthwhile. They want the emotional side and therefore see the city as potential experience – that meets their emotional expectations. In modern life, you all know that people will search a lot and pay a lot for wonderful experience – or even just tangible experience in a homogenizing and standardizing world. Look at the phenomenon of Starbucks where the product costs pennies to produce but is sold for dollars because it is delivered with the rich offering of a hip experience. People want what is stylish and cool and new and exciting and meaningful; and it’s not just a superficial thing, many go much deeper to what is socially responsible and culturally rich and beautiful and moving and, yes, many people do want what is environmentally sustainable. So, for downtown revival, we had to build all this back into the urban equation. In planning circles we often call this “placemaking” but really it goes well beyond that. My theme is that contemporary planning has to be about offering the fulfilling moment-to-moment experience that people tell us they want for themselves and their children in a way that is delivered on their terms and in their image. In fact, this became so big in the agenda that I’ve coined a word for it – I call it “experiential planning”. For core cities, it was about realizing that government or the private developer could not alone deliver the totality of what people want and expect and therefore they had to collaborate to put the package together. It was about realizing that people themselves have a lot to do with delivery because it is the “society of others” that makes the experience most powerful – and so putting the institutional and social foundations and infrastructure in place for community life at the same time as the physical place was constructed was very important. And, it was about design – so for the first time in many years, the urban design agenda became just as important as the policy agenda at City Hall and the talents and expertise of architects and landscape architects and other real designers was again honoured in the way it should always have been. This kind of planning was very different in agenda and process from the planning that went on before it.
And now, these same attitudes and approaches for planning have to be brought to the suburbs. We have to reach out to suburbanites by the tens of thousands, we have to tap their needs as consumers and we have to search deep into the rich totality of those needs. And, to do this, we cannot continue to disdain the suburban aspiration and badmouth suburbanites – if we do, they will see and feel that and we will never be trusted.
We actually have to embrace their underlying values. Then, with the knowledge we get from this kind of process, we have to actually design these communities with all the prowess we can muster, not just draw them up or lay them out as the result of applied standards and regulations and requirements and templates. And, if we do this, I have faith that we can conceive completely new suburban typologies that will achieve that transformation that we need.
The reason I have that faith, is because of one more recent discovery that I want to share with you. I have discovered, in my work in places like Dallas and Regina and even in Abu Dhabi and Rotterdam, that the preferred suburban lifestyle that people describe and the suburban patterns that the modern world has delivered since the war are not actually in sync. People are not living in their definition of paradise in post-war suburbs; they are just living in the best choice they’ve had from the limited choices that have been available since the war – the suburbs that you and I abhor are not the ideal manifestation of the suburban lifestyle. Once you talk to suburban people, you learn that there are many changes and improvements that they need and want. So when, at the beginning, I asked you to embrace suburbanites and the suburban lifestyle, I was not asking you to embrace those ugly, vacant and dull places that are out there right now. I am confident that suburbanites want those places and typologies to be significantly improved and they will collaborate with us to determine how they should change – and I am confident that there is enough room to maneuver in that process to insinuate sustainable typologies and densities and mixes and movement options and all the rest as we bring on the other improvements that people really are asking for and hoping for.
So having thought about the appropriate process for planning, starting with the declaration of a positive support for suburbanites and their expectations, and then getting everyone into the action – citizens, and the development community and civic administrations and elected officials along with the most creative and artistic invention of the design professionals, the architects and landscape architects and engineers and city planners – what might be some directions that people would accept and that would be truly sustainable? Where do we start?
Well, I think we can take inspiration from a place that most people already feel good about and every city has good examples of, that people can go and have a look at – a place that’s nearby and filled with solutions that planners have been overlooking for too long. I’m talking about the pre-war neighbourhoods, built between the early 1900’s and the 1930’s, which exist in every Canadian city and in every North American city. They are close-in now, but in their time they were certainly considered “suburbs” – in fact they are best known as “streetcar suburbs”. I’m using pictures today of both Canadian and American examples.
Whether we look at these places from a liveability point of view or a sustainability perspective or as a visual statement or at a functional level, the pre-war neighbourhood has two things that pull it all together as an inspiration for the future. First, it has a sound basic urban structure and scale; and, second, it has been evolved and added to over time to include a richness of activities, people and supports. It has a charm and beauty that comes from its age, no argument about that, but that attractiveness also comes from the way it all fits together into a coherent logical whole – it offers the complete package that you just feel comfortable about when you are in these neighbourhoods. These are places average suburbanites would aspire to live in – in fact they are the very image of what people are often describing when they talk about or draw examples of ideal suburban life. These are places of real financial value and real emotional value.
The typical pre-war neighbourhood urban structure is usually a simple pattern of blocks of apparently single houses extending out from a commercial “high street” of shops (where the streetcar used to stop), with offices or apartments over the shops. There are often back lanes. There is always the local park and often some nice smaller greens as well. Streets are lined with big trees. There are lots of private gardens and many people even include a vegetable garden in the back. There is almost always a local community centre and school and other local services. Over the years, lots of additional housing has been tucked in along the lanes and as houses were converted into suites or a new infill development happened from time to time but just as often, many people have chosen to keep their single family home and that is OK as well. Overall, though, without anyone really trying, the density and social diversity have increased while the predominately one- and two-storey scale has been maintained. I remember Jack Diamond saying several years ago that a sustainable, walkable neighbourhood starts to work at no more than 40 units per acre – and many of these older neighbourhoods have that and more, even if most people would not realize it. The streets are usually quite narrow with parking on one or both sides. These neighbourhoods are certainly accommodating to the car but they do not let auto standards dominate every other consideration. I hope you get the picture of what I am talking about – and I bet every person here has a good example in your mind of one of these neighbourhoods; and I bet that you feel quite good about it. In fact, in this room will be a lot of people who actually have chosen to live in these places over the further out postwar suburbs for the simple reason that, intuitive, you found them so much more fulfilling.
Now, I do not want you to read me as “Mr. Nostalgia” – I’m not saying we can replicate these old neighbourhoods in whole cloth. We have to acknowledge the limitations of these places as well. While the houses are usually sturdily built, they do not have what we now call “green building” features – this idea didn’t exist when these places were built. Also, the utilities are pretty conventional, although the pattern is very amenable to conversion to more sustainable delivery arrangements. Some of these neighbourhoods have traffic problems and so special traffic management interventions have been necessary. And sometimes, if there are lots of housing conversions, on-street parking becomes difficult. They are almost never universally accessible for the disabled and aged. And, if the neighbourhood has really kept its “polish and shine”, it is often quite a consumer draw so housing prices can become disproportionately high even though the housing styles and layouts are not up to current expectations.
But, you know, we are talking “inspiration” here not a ready-to-wear “model”. There is no question that we have to build suburbs of the future that are contemporary, not nostalgic; and functional to today’s demanding consumer standards, not out-dated; and with state-of-the-art utility systems and public services. But the inspiration is still pretty powerful.
My big question is this one. Why can’t we build in the beginning of the 21st century, with all our wealth and knowledge, something as fulfilling as our great-grandparents were able to do at the beginning of the 20th century? Why can’t we build something as sustainable but, more importantly, something as suitable for suburban life?
My answer is that I think we can and I think we must. So, what are the “take-home” features from these classic older neighbourhoods that might work for sustainable suburbs of tomorrow?
Here’s the list that comes to my mind.
First, we can learn a lot from the prevailing scale: more housing, definitely, but maintaining the one-to-three storey building heights as well as the fine-grained, smaller building pattern. As much as I personally love the striking architecture of towers and the geometry of big building ensembles, and feel they make a lot of sense in downtown areas and TODs and along arterial routes, I think most people don’t like to see them popping up just anywhere, especially right next door. Small is simply better for the suburbs.
Second, the concept of incremental additions over time – very delicate densification – makes a lot of sense, so putting a lot of options for change within the zoning of a new suburban subdivision allows that community to evolve in a natural way as the local people want and need new things – slower or faster as the case may be. Planners who are thinking about this call this “invisible density” or “hidden density” or “gentle density”. You start with a slightly higher density than we generally see in recent subdivisions because lot sizes and street space are smaller but you add more as you go along, achieving the 30-to-40 units per acre target in a painless way. Remember that recent subdivisions usually start at about 6-to-10 units per acre, so it is not a big jump to get to the densities we need. And because it is incremental and can be done at a modest scale, the profits of change remain with the existing resident landowner, rather than going to an outside developer who takes it out of the area, so there is less resentment and “nimbyism”. Many who are impacted also benefit.
Third, we can learn a lot from the diversity that you see in the old neighbourhoods on all fronts: all kinds of households; many lot and house sizes and types (single family homes but also duplexes, back lane units, apartments over shops, home conversions, infill housing); and many architectural styles; a rich socio-economic range from low-income to quite wealthy households; and many kinds of retail outlets and a lot of independent retail potential rather than just strip-mall options and “big boxes”; and many workplace opportunities and live/work possibilities. This diversity opens up economic opportunity close by as well as providing a plausible framework for a wide social engagement and supportive community life.
Fourth, there are so many benefits of the local commercial “high street” model, with building fronts proud to the sidewalk, parking lots behind, shops at hand and offices and apartments above. This can also be a good template for conversion of the existing malls and that strip retail that sits within a sea of parking. This is the “placemaking” form that engenders localized uniqueness and really sticks in the memory but it is also the realm for sustained social relations and interchange. It offers the economic potential for the start-up operation and fosters walking.
Fifth, the narrower streets and back lanes can be a big bonus. The traditional lane-and-a half driving area for a residential street naturally calms traffic, is a lot safer for children at play and takes up a lot less land than the current standards. The back lanes offer utility access and trash handling without compromising the streetscape, and cut the number of vehicle crossings over the sidewalk. The lanes actually give the “front door” primacy back to the façade of a house rather than that ever-present “garage door” image.
Sixth, related to what I have just said, whether you see curvy streets or a straight grid pattern, the connectivity of the whole system, especially for pedestrians, is just so beneficial in the old neighbourhoods. Many planners don’t like cul-de-sacs but it seems a lot of consumers do like them – so what I think is important is that they not be designed as pedestrian dead-ends, but include walking linkages one to another – that’s what you generally see in the 30’s pattern and it works very well to tie everything together.
Seventh, you will find the old neighbourhoods always work well for transit and the levels of ridership usually make transit viable without much subsidy. If we can achieve the factors that make transit work in new communities it opens up great opportunities for residents: they can own fewer cars and spend less for their mobility (but this is not about getting rid of cars – it’s about offering other options for many of the trips that don’t need to be done in a car); people are also less victimized by gas price fluxuations; and more people in the household can get around more independently.
And lastly, that whole emphasis on landscape and gardening in the traditional neighbourhoods is really important to bring back to future suburban planning, rather than have landscape be such a secondary consideration with new subdivisions. Nothing gives a place a more gracious, homey feel than a nice row of street trees. Nothing is friendlier than an attractive front flower garden, unique to each house and tended by the residents. Nothing helps local food sourcing more than an individual vegetable garden. We don’t need wide front yards or even extra-large lots to make these things happen – we simply need more motivation to use landscaping strategically in the first place and to keep it up over the long run.
Well, this list could go on but my point in all of this is not to say that the older pre-war neighbourhoods are the only inspiration for future communities – they are just a place to start. All I want to do tonight is engender a new kind of discussion. My real theme is that the smart growth formula can be reconceived in the suburban image. All the elements of smart growth can be insinuated into existing mundane suburban areas and can be built in from scratch in new suburbs. My related point is that this is not just an interesting exercise, it is a vital exercise since most of the growth that will happen in every Canadian city over the next 30 years will be growth in these suburbs, so if we don’t get them right in terms of what they deliver in liveability, sustainability, health and economic viability, then we will continue to be in deep trouble. It is as simple as that.
Everything I have been talking about tonight doesn’t really involve the big bold moves of planning; it is about embracing the essence of suburban living in the little stuff that affects people every day. Yes, you have to have those major land-use allocations and the complete transportation strategy, with massive expansion of transit, and the overlay of natural assets and a lot more. But make no mistake, when we take the domestic view, when we pay full attention to the specific features about how suburban communities are going to come together, we will have a dramatic positive impact. When we change the DNA of new suburbs, we definitely will change the DNA of the whole city. If we go back to the basic principles of good urbanism, in delicate forms from examples that are handy all around us, then new suburban neighbourhoods can deliver on all the big challenges but they can also have a great chance of being embraced by modern consumers and becoming truly beloved places. We haven’t done it yet; there are no pictures I can show you because new neighbourhoods that meet this test just do not exist. But they can – and this kind of re-imagining will truly liberate people to draw out the very best from their home base. And, it will finally reconcile that contradiction between sustainable science and consumer preferences. It will provide the gentle urbanism that suburbanites want while supplying the responsible urbanism that all Canadians need.
Thank you very much.
The Dream for True Urbanism in the Middle East: Recent Planning and Development in Abu Dhabi
Presentation to the Chicago Architecture Foundation, March 2009.
Who would have thought that the whole vision of a community could be inspired by a bird – well that is the story I have to tell you.
The community is the Emirate of Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.
The bird is the falcon.
And the motivation for all of this was this man – His Excellency Mohammed Al Bowardi – the Abu Dhabi Minister of the Environment, General Secretary of the Executive Council and god-father, mentor and advisor of this man – His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nayhan – the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi.
You see, Mr. Bowardi is a falconer – one of the world’s greatest falconers and the person who, almost singlehandedly, has brought the sport forward into the modern world from its ancient beginnings. He loves his birds and he makes sure they are very well taken care of – but several years ago he began to notice that they were losing some of their vitality; they weren’t as robust as he knew they should be – and he realized it was because of the harmful impacts of pollution and degradation of the magnificent desert that is his and his falcons’ ancestral home.
So Mr. Bowardi set off an audacious process, still underway, to revise the very relationship between man and the environment in Abu Dhabi – towards a more sustainable future – and this, in and of itself is a very good thing.
But the fate of the falcon became for Bowardi and many other people – and ultimately for the Crown Prince – a metaphor for the impact of unrestrained growth on the culture and habitat of the people of Abu Dhabi.
-Just as the oil industry throughout the Middle East, unconstrained, has started to despoil the environment, the massive new urban development, unconstrained, has started to press the social tranquility, traditions and connection to the land of the people – think Dubai here, although people in Abu Dhabi would never say it because they always present a positive united front among the Emirates to the rest of the world.
-And this has been compounded by the free importation of North American and European settlement patterns and scale and architectural styles – trends that do not sit well with the landscape, climate or culture of this Arab, Islamic, Bedouin homeland.
And so, a profound – and far reaching – decision was made by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed to go a different way: to shape his capital city, Abu Dhabi City, and all the settlements in the Emirate to emphasize quality of life for its citizens and sustainability for its setting; opening up the potential for a special model in Abu Dhabi of smart growth and true urbanism, in an Arab, Muslim form.
And that is where I come in.
-In mid-2006, I was the long-sitting Planning Director of the City of Vancouver in Canada, and had just announced my intention to retire after 32 years of public service. I had spent the previous 20+ years, along with hundreds of other Vancouverites and especially my closest colleague and Co-director in Vancouver, Dr. Ann McAfee, reshaping our city – especially our inner-city – as a more dense, mixed use, diverse and interesting place. Our work had received a lot of attention and we were increasingly identified as one of the more liveable cities in the world – Vancouver has even been identified as one of the early emerging “eco-cities” of the world, at least according to one writer, Richard Register of Berkeley.
-Well, I went to my e-mail one day and discovered what I thought was one of those scam e-mails from the son of a Minister of some Central African country that wanted investment – I’m sure every one of us has received this e-mail at one point or another. Frankly, I didn’t even open the note.
-Then I received a second similar e-mail but something about the title suggested it was legitimate; and it was, indeed, from an official from Abu Dhabi and the rest, as they say, is history.
I became the Special Advisor to Sheikh Mohammed and the Government of Abu Dhabi for urban planning – well, actually, all land planning in the Emirate. Then I discovered, upon assessing the situation in my first visit, that the land was, indeed, suffering like the falcon – we had a very tall challenge ahead of us.
-There were no contemporary plans at any scale for the Emirate or its settlements (all the previous plans were very old, out of date and actually counterproductive in their directions) – look at these pictures; can you imagine the City of Abu Dhabi started at this scale back as recently as the 1960’s?
-There was no planning underway (well, except some very crazy and backward transportation planning).
-There was no affective planning agency.
-There was no planning capacity.
-There was no development management (this was the world of the “computer fly through”).
-There were no development regulations or policies – or, for that matter, even subdivision or land title arrangements.
-In a word, it had become an “accidental” place – developing randomly, in a totally unsustainable way; water hungry, car obsessed; with the most rudimentary public realm.
-But there was a tidal wave of development proposals (some very awful schemes but, admittedly, also several very cool initiatives that I will come back to).
So, the purpose of my talk tonight is to tell you the story about how we have changed all of that – how we are bringing coherent planning and development management to the Emirate – and how we are trying to channel this to the most progressive planning principles in the world but also ground it in the reality of this most unusual place and people. My other purpose is to highlight some of the inspiration that I have discovered from this work for the problems facing our cities back here in North America.
And as I tell you this story, you can enjoy a backdrop of images meant to give you a tangible feel for the ambiance of the place. You might think of this as a photo essay to go with my talk.
Let me start by telling you something about this unusual land and its people.
-Abu Dhabi is one of the seven Emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates, which is a relatively new country, having been founded less than 50 years ago; and which is a very interesting place.
-It is a peaceful land of about four million people located on the edge of the Persian Gulf (they call it the Arabian Gulf) – but in a very dangerous neighbourhood.
-It is a relatively liberal Muslim country sitting within a network of much more fundamentalist Muslim countries.
-It is a very rich country, having about 10% of all the known oil in the world – and the Emirate of Abu Dhabi has about 80% of all the oil in the whole UAE.
-Included in the country is Dubai, the next Emirate over, which is much more famous than Abu Dhabi – but Abu Dhabi is the homeland of the UAE’s founding royal family and is the capital of the country. To clarify a continuing confusion, I do NOT work in Dubai – in fact, I don’t even like Dubai very much. But I will definitely come back to Dubai time and again in this talk because it is such a defining force for Abu Dhabi.
Abu Dhabi is a place of contrasts.
-While it is a pervasively Muslim society, it is also a modern secular society (you really see that in the various roles of women, from the most sequestered to the absolutely liberated).
-While it is a monarchy, with total power focussed in the royal family, Emirati citizens enjoy extraordinary rights and privileges, including free health care, education, land, housing and support for their many endeavours. There is no democracy but citizens tell me they strongly prefer this because their royal family respects them and satisfies their needs – in fact, there is a very interesting distribution of wealth that is very fulfilling for most citizens .
-While the native Emirati culture is strong and Emiratis’ sense of themselves is strong – you always know them because they even dress differently than everybody else – they are an extreme minority in their own country. The native population is only about 20% of the total population; foreigners make up the other 80%. And this includes a minority of well paid managers and professionals commonly called “Expats” and a huge majority of modestly paid labourers known as “Visiting Workers”, because their tenure is very tenuous.
-Conditions for Emiratis are extraordinarily good but conditions for everyone else vary dramatically – the poorest paid are also poorly housed and, sometimes, poorly treated. And yet, Visiting Workers widely talk about Abu Dhabi as their “land of opportunity” – even though they can never be citizens and are generally excluded from the discourse of the country. I guess it is an understandable perspective given where they come from.
-There is also a vivid contrast between the natural environment, with its hot, desert austerity, and the urban environment, with all the modern conveniences – the good, the bad, and the ugly. They may be “accidental”, but these are not backward or deprived cities – they are not the typical “third world” cities that we have in our mind’s eye. But one mostly remembers the desert as such a powerful physical and spiritual force and presence in the Emirate.
-There is also contrast between the island environment at the edge of the Gulf, with the complexity of the inter-tidal zone – including those lush mangroves – and the overwhelming humidity; and the vast inland desert, called the “Empty Quarter”, with its simplicity and dryness.
The thing that makes the United Arab Emirates so fascinating is that they have just begun an extraordinary process of transformation, set off primarily by the hand-off of power from the founding generation to the new generation.
-It occurred first in Dubai, and so that city has been in a vanguard of change that has set the pace but also identified the contradictions for the rest of the country. Professor Michael Larice, of the University of Pennsylvania, has developed a characterization to compare and contrast modern cities and he calls the Dubai approach that of the “global city”. Dubai is both a phenomenon of massive development and one of the world’s big messes. With little oil for the future, it has pursued a strategy of land development to generate its wealth – a process meant to establish the city as the financial and business metropole of the country and even of the whole Middle East – with a global profile and image to match that aspiration. But it may have gone too big, too fast and with too much speculation, if you look at the current situation of the last few months where the sparkle that we’ve heard endlessly about for the past few years has started to tarnish with the world-wide economic downturn.
-Abu Dhabi, so far, has been more deliberate – either because of the temperament of its leadership or from the lessons of watching its neighbour next door. It was only about 3 years ago that Abu Dhabi opened up their country for limited private ownership of property by non-nationals. They immediately also saw a barrage of new development proposals of massive scale, not unlike Dubai, but, remember all that anxiety related to the falcon, they also started asking some essential questions. Would their environment be ruined through this explosive urbanizing process? Would their culture be able to survive? What would happen to the joys of their Bedouin way of life – the intimate engagement with the desert and the sea? Would their children be as happy and safe and healthy as they were hoping for and expecting because of their newfound oil wealth? And so they were predisposed to try to shape what was going on to meet a wider set of public and cultural objectives – yes, they were direct about the economic objectives – but they were also clear about wanting a lot more. Back to Dr. Larice’s characterization, he calls this the approach of the “post modern city”.
Now, just because Abu Dhabi was more deliberate, it does not mean that they were not in a hurry. In fact, they felt a great urgency, not just because of the natural competition with their neighbour but also because they faced so many proposals of such huge import to the future of their cities. They didn’t want their anxiety to turn away the schemes that would be good for their growth and they faced – and still face – strong demand for space and services in every sector. So I set them off on two trajectories.
-First, I urged them to found a proper planning agency and to give it the power and regulatory framework from which to be able to shape a wide array and continuous stream of proposals. So we designed and set up the agency with hyper speed. The “Urban Planning Council”, as it has come to be called, directed by a smart, young, well-placed Emirati leader, His Excellency Falah Al Ahbabi, and chaired personally by the Crown Prince, was created just over a year ago and already has over 100 staff, now hard at work on planning for Abu Dhabi’s future.
-Secondly, although they initially wanted a full “master plan” for the Emirate in 4 months, I urged them to take a more strategic policy approach. I explained that master plans, if they are any good, are not created in a day; but that strategic “urban framework plans” could be put together for each city in about 6 months each, followed by an overarching policy guide for the entire Emirate. We’ve used a 25-year time horizon for these framework plans and have now completed plans for the capital, Abu Dhabi City, and the romantic royal oasis city of Al Ain; and we are now completing plans for the oilfields, called the Western Region or Al Gharbia, and for the agriculture district, called the Eastern Region. In each case, we started with a detailed analysis and projection of the realistic growth potential of all sectors of the economy at play in the particular community or district – all the plans take off from that point of unavoidable realism – the “reality check”. We came at all this from the demand side, not the supply side. Then, as soon as the plans have even come to draft form, we have put them immediately to work for the Emirate. They have been used to evaluate all pending major developments to bring them in line with the realistic economic potential and the future image of Abu Dhabi as it is now gelling. In fact, many people in Abu Dhabi have said that this process warded off the worst aspects of the global downturn because in almost all cases we have scaled down development schemes to be in line with true end-user demand, which is a novelty in the Middle East. Secondly, these plans have set the agenda for ongoing planning work. In the case of Abu Dhabi City, the framework plan set off the design for a new national capital district for the city that will accommodate about 300,000 people and just as many government and private-sector workers. In the case of Al Gharbia, we are now starting design of 3 completely new cities to serve growth in a way that is sensitive to the local ecology and impacts of the oil industry on inhabitants, rather than the random sprawl that was starting to unfold. And now a whole process is underway of regulatory development to bring predictability to the development approval process and of area planning to put shape and detail to growth patterns at the community level.
-Now, if you know anything about planning, you know that any planning exercise takes time – to put the process together, to gather data and understand issues, to be creative, to let creative ideas gestate and to put it all on paper with accuracy. We had to do all of this in breakneck speed in Abu Dhabi to achieve those 6-month targets so we have used what is called a “charrette” process. This is a highly productive, focussed and intensive, fast and vividly creative engagement among experts and local people to learn the situation quickly and then generate the key ideas and themes of each framework plan. We were able to get among the world’s finest professionals because His Highness told me that he wanted the best people available regardless of cost. This includes a splendid “Base Team”, shown here, and some of the leading lights of contemporary urbanism, shown here and here and here – these only being some of the over 40 top thinkers and practitioners that we have brought in so far – including, of course, Chicago’s own John Buck. We clashed these visitors together with the most senior local authorities and opinion makers, including the personal involvement and direct guidance from the royal leadership. We added in very wise and involved locals. And with this mix, the magic just happens. The falcon soars! We tap into the genius loci of the place and the spirit of the people by looking and listening carefully. We mix in the best ideas in the world and challenge these ideas with the specifics of the place. We integrate it all together into the most progressive concepts we can imagine. And we press everyone’s boundaries to grasp a new kind of city: contemporary, sustainable, Arab, humane, Islamic, beautiful and a real contrast to Abu Dhabi’s own past and also to that of its neighbour, Dubai.
-Now, I want to be upfront, the process has not been without its conflicts and confusions – and there are still contradictions in the pattern of development and the unfolding of events for change in Abu Dhabi. Some of the ideas in the plans, even though the plans have achieved formal government proclamation and clear endorsement, remain challenging to past practices. People are still trying to wrap their heads around some of the themes that deny bad habits of the past. Some problematic development proposals are still moving forward because they were too far along and some still get approved contrary to the specifics or principles of the framework plans. Some big initiatives, with powerful sponsors, are still not yet reshaped to their optimum form according to all the creative visioning that has been underway. But, to some degree, these are growth pains as the transition occurs from a random to a deliberate approach.
But, by-in-large, the Emirate means business. They are making it happen more-or-less as we have envisioned it.
-The Urban Planning Council has solid and deep powers and is under the personal auspices of the Crown Prince. It has quickly become the force to be reckoned with in the Government of Abu Dhabi.
-The Abu Dhabi 2030 Plan is totally operational and becoming more influential every day. Just a few months ago, we used it to stop a freeway proposal, under technical design and development for over 2 years, which would have crashed through the historic inner city and changed forever how people move around the city. Development sites are already being assigned in the newly designed Capital District. A completely new and more responsible approach is now being implemented for the design of Emirati neighbourhoods, moving away from those totally inappropriate “Minnesota subdivisions”, as I call them, which had been stretching out at the urban fringe. And the ongoing planning agenda is a very aggressive one by any standards.
-The Al Ain 2030 Plan, proclaimed just last week, portends to be just as influential. This is the plan for the royal oasis city that I told you about. It will set a new standard for the protection and revival of the 5 great historic oases of that city. It will protect the few heritage buildings that exist in a society without a rich building history. It has set an unprecedented scale of maximum 5-story building heights for the entire city except for mosque domes and minarets; and already many proposed buildings have been brought down in height to be consistent with this vision.
-Both the Abu Dhabi and Al Ain 2030 Plans dreamed of a new green architecture that would reflect or surpass world standards and start to address the water and energy demands of the Emirate’s aggressive climate. Now, in a program soon to be proclaimed, called “Estidama”, which means “sustainability” in Arabic, all of this will be made patently real. Once in operation, there will be no environmental shame in Abu Dhabi’s buildings as they will compare in green performance with the best in the world – and, like LEED in North America, the same themes are being extended to the neighbourhood scale.
-And now, upon completion of the final plans for the oil fields and agriculture district, the government is starting to consider our idea of doing a strategic plan and implementation program for what I call the “profound sustainability”, including carbon and waste neutrality, of the entire Emirate by 2050. This builds upon their “Masdar” initiative that has become famous around the world. This is the project to build a carbon and waste neutral community for 50,000 residents and 50,000 workers that is currently under detailed design by Norman Foster and Partners from London. Masdar was a forerunner to our work and is a strong start that our Emirate-wide initiative would echo.
-And all of this time, we have been training, training, training – to build up an indigenous planning capacity and sophisticated perspective of cities among both public officials and private business. My whole idea has been to plan myself out of a job as soon as possible so that the destiny of Abu Dhabi will then be in strong, informed Emirati hands – not just at the level of the leadership, which has always been strong, but at all levels, private and public, so that all the thousands of upcoming urban and environmental decisions that will be made will be very forward looking, with long-term implications in mind.
So what are the substantive themes upon which all this is being shaped for the future? Let me go back to the Abu Dhabi 2030 Plan as a case in point to show you the personality of our work. Of course, this is the framework plan for only one city in an Emirate that will ultimately have many towns and cities, but it clearly shows the direction that the Emirate wishes to go in building its settlements and managing its environment as it moves forward. Here’s a snapshot of Abu Dhabi Plan 2030.
-The Plan is driven by an aggressive environmental protection agenda – we call it the “green gradient” of protected places: channelling development to less sensitive locales; preserving most of the offshore islands and wide desert fingers; and establishing “national parks” to make this all a serious reality.
-The Plan shapes development for major growth, up to a projected population of 3.5 million inhabitants, into two intensive and mixed use focal points that are the big shapers of the whole city: an expanded and revived inner-city Downtown; and that new Capital District that I have already alluded to (with the detailed design, by the way, completed by a great Chicago firm, based upon the conceptual plan done by our Base Team). And this Capital District is surrounded by urban neighbourhoods and a constellation of smaller, widely separated, outbound settlements that the Plan calls “eco villages” on suitable islands and at carefully selected locations within the desert. These eco villages, in particular, will accommodate the unending rhythm of migration that has shaped Abu Dhabi life from time immemorial and still holds strong sway today: the move to the sea to fish in the cool, less humid winter months and then the shift to the deep desert to ranch camels and farm dates in the hot summer when life on the humid coast becomes almost unbearable. Locals are no longer driven by the economic imperative of this but the climatic advantages and the related traditions are still meaningful to them. Neighbourhoods and villages are shaped for an Arab culture with what is called the “fareej” or clustering of housing for extended families and a focus on the mosque. There is still a very strong social organization of blood linkages in families and tribes that define the day-to-day life of Emiratis so we wanted their settlements to facilitate that rather than deny it as today’s subdivisions were tending to do. And the Plan has many more areas of an array of densities and diverse mixes of uses that respond to the urban preferences of the growing population of Expats as well as younger Emirati Nationals for whom a more urban lifestyle has become more appealing with their international education. Our inspirations here are the fascinating ancient communities of North Africa that have a long built tradition but also share common cultural roots with Abu Dhabi – places like Marrakesh and Beirut. There are new and better standards for worker housing and worker communities, with more integration into the urban fabric close to where labourers work.
-The Plan pulls Abu Dhabi away from a formerly massive program of freeway expansion and construction; instead, creating a dense network of human-scaled boulevards and streets that widely distributes auto traffic. It insinuates a major network of new transit, with special provisions for Arab women. It emphasizes walking and the idea of a street culture that, generally, does not currently exist – remembering that for at least half the year it is very pleasant to be outside, even though the climate can be brutal at other times. And I have to say, stopping that one freeway link, that was within days of letting contracts, has been one of the high points in my time there.
-The Plan supports a whole suite of initiatives for high culture – such as the amazing set of proposals for museums and galleries in a new island district, by the world`s greatest architects: Frank Gehry; Jean Nouvel; Zada Hadid; Tadao Ando that were already in the conceptual design stage when we arrived.
-The Plan gets right down to the level of the details to show what the emerging city should look and feel like. For example, in what are called “building blocks”, the Plan outlines a strategy to revitalize inner city blocks that are now overrun by traffic and parking and offer few opportunities for pedestrian life, even though a great majority of the people are pre-disposed from their home cultures to outdoor living. By decanting the pervasive on-street parking into strategically located parking structures, it will be possible to insinuate a delicate pattern of local streets and walkways, called in Arabic “mushtaraks” and “sikkas”, add finely scaled open spaces, maximize shading and cool areas, mix in desperately needed local services, focus on the mosque and local shopping opportunities and therefore build an attractive nearby streetlife that will cut the trips people now take by car. In other detailed expositions, the Plan sketches new cross-sections for streets, new ideas for weather protection, and new policies for low water-use landscape and green architecture that has been picked up in Estidama, the building certification initiative that I have already mentioned.
-And the Plan shapes everything to reflect some profound principles rooted in Abu Dhabi’s unique Arab way of life – that it will be an Arab city, have measured growth, be sensitive to the natural environment, manifest a capital destiny and reflect the unique community values of local people. These are principles that truly respond to the plight of the falcon.
Well, I am sure you might well be asking yourself right now what my experience in Vancouver and what the experience of the many people we have brought from around the world have to do with the unique circumstances of Abu Dhabi. You might well be worrying as I always do about the effects of globalization in the spread of similar ideas and similar theories all over the world, creating places that are more the same rather than more different as we might all prefer. I think you can see that we have not been in the business of bringing packaged solutions to Abu Dhabi – we let the place and the people generate indigenous solutions. Our mission is not to implant a way of life from somewhere else but, rather, to realize the cultural potential of these people in this place and at this time. And that is where we are quite different from many Expats who are in the design and planning business in that part of the world.
But we do bring an ethos about planning and the need for a community to move forward with a clear vision and a clear sense of direction; we talk a lot about deliberate choices, which is definitely in contrast to the randomness that seems to be more the norm in the Middle East. We also bring a kind of planning practice that reflects a re-integration of land use policy making and urban design – I call it “experiential planning” – which involves creating the real, direct experiences within any setting that people tell us they want, and making sure our places are accessible to and are fulfilling for people on their own terms. This means getting beyond the broad patterns and systems of the city. This means getting down to what people see and smell and hear and feel, at the level of the street, and shaping things in four dimensions to deliver the emotional side for people, not just efficiency or fiscal prudence or even environmental sustainability. And this is how we stay absolutely grounded wherever we are working. And, finally, we bring a strong set of dependable urbanistic themes that seem to be applicable wherever humans build cities. Here in America you call this the “new urbanism” but it carries many different names around the world. It is about density and mixed use and diversity and human scale and alternatives to the car and character specificity.
But, you know, this is not a one-way street. I have found my work in Abu Dhabi is very inspirational for our efforts to build better communities here in North America. Frankly, my work there offers me a cold clear view of where we stand in the United States and Canada when it comes to the best of contemporary city building.
-For example, we are not nearly as far ahead as we think we are on the ENVIRONMENT agenda. I’ve told you about “Masdar” and “Estidama” and their advanced environmental protection legislation and now the talk of a proactive program for profound sustainability and carbon and waste neutrality for the whole state. Even with some great and commendable efforts, such as what is occurring here in Chicago, who can say that we are ahead of this thinking in Abu Dhabi? And remember this is a country where the harsh climatic conditions and aggressive economic development imperatives could easily have given them ample excuse to fall behind on sustainability. Their forward thinking has brought vividly to my mind the message of Dr. Bill Rees, the professor at the University of British Columbia who invented the concept of the “ecological footprint”. He has said over and over again that every city must go so much further and our actions have to be pervasive if we are to get our ecological footprints anywhere close to what is our fair share of the earth’s resources. Can we match the kind of initiatives that this newly minted country is up to there in the Middle East? Well, I think we have to.
-Abu Dhabi has also taught me something about the extraordinary impacts that are possible with strong investments in CULTURE: growing and supporting a wide array of cultural institutions not just as the best expression of a society but for vital reasons of economic development. You certainly know something about this here in Chicago; and your experience parallels that of Abu Dhabi, where, as I showed you before, they are bringing a branch of the Louvre from Paris, and the Guggenheim from New York, along with other primary museums and galleries, as part of that cultural island that I was showed you a picture of before. This has to be seen as an audacious move for a small emerging city. In fact, these initiatives are symbolic of a world movement to support culture – but most cities are still just not with it. This has to change.
-Many western cities are on the verge of seeing a diminishment of their QUALITY OF LIFE because they increasingly cannot house their people nor offer them affordable housing options. The spectre of homelessness and inadequate housing is pervasive throughout North America. It should inspire us all that Abu Dhabi is committed, as a prime government policy, to GIVE every citizen a comfortable home – housing is seen as a basic right of citizens. I have not seen one homeless person on the streets of Abu Dhabi. We North Americans seem only to be able to give the illusion that comes with sub-prime mortgages; and the disillusion that comes when those mortgages backfire on a vulnerable family. And this has starting me thinking more and more about the need for a third sector of housing – beyond the private market sector and the public non-profit sector that is our western tradition. Like many other people, I’m thinking about a private non-profit sector, where, to keep prices affordable for at least a portion of the population, we will have to find a way to get some housing out of the spiralling value stream. We might take the Madrid model, where they build and sell the housing and then if a person wants to re-sell, they have to sell it back to the builder at a predetermined rate so it can be sold again and again at an increasingly affordable price as general market prices go up. People in this housing forego the investment dimension of the housing, although they do build equity, but in exchange they get much better affordability at better locations and more housing for less money. Surely we can do this kind of thing – as well as invent other models that help our modest income citizens find a way to stay in the city. What will our cities be like if the range of incomes is not represented? How will we get our basic services done? How will we ever achieve sustainability if people are pushed more and more to the edge with longer and longer commuter trips? What will happen to our social diversity? Abu Dhabi may be rich, but so are we – and if they can dare to make housing a human right, we better start to consider this as well.
-And what about SOCIAL EQUITY? Even Abu Dhabi, who does not have a defensible record on this issue in regard to their Visiting Workers, is starting to face the Emirate’s profound social contradiction between rich and poor – their aspiration is a harsh reminder to us that we have been cutting back on our social safety net for about a generation and the victims are all around us in the drug culture and the mentally ill zombies that float around our streets along with the dispossessed, often abused children. The struggle just beginning in Abu Dhabi would suggest that we are just too complacent.
These inspirations could go on…. but I want to come back to the situation in the United Arab Emirates – particularly the contrasting reality of Abu Dhabi and Dubai. It has been said that these two new and growing cities out on the “edge of world experience” actually offer the essential metaphor for the modern process of urbanization. As I have said before, one is the “global city”, exploding with growth, relevant to the world investor, with high international profile. This kind of city wants to be big and bold and brash – and it will sacrifice a lot to get there. This is the Dubai reality that is targeted to create great wealth fast and secure its place in the world from that wealth and the business prestige that goes with it. The other is the “post modern city”, growing more deliberately, carefully balancing public and private objectives, sensitive to the human implications of what it is becoming. This kind of city will be the opposite of big and bold and brash – and it will sacrifice just about as much in economic strength to get to where it wants to go. Of course, this is said to be the Abu Dhabi reality, especially since the environmental frame and our experiential planning have arrived on the scene; and especially because the huge economic strength of the Emirate in not drawn first from civic growth but comes from the ground, from the vast oil reserves.
Well, a metaphor for the world these cities might look like from outside, but the story from inside is a lot more complicated. Abu Dhabi undoubtedly also wants to be a “global city”, but of a different kind. It too wants to be known and to be acknowledged for its innovations and to be iconic – but perhaps for a different set of themes. I think it wants to become a model for a humane urbanism that the world is searching for. I think it wants to become a model for a sustainable urbanism that the world is also searching for. I think it wants to become a model for an Arab urbanism that at least the Arab, Muslim world is searching for. And I think it wants to be a model for achieving a unique, differentiating character in its urbanism that confounds the down side of globalization while taking maximum advantage of its benefits. And I think that the Abu Dhabi approach may in the end be the preferred approach for smart cities in the future – rather than the “quick fix” that is now represented in what are so often called the “global cities”; but a “quick fix” that is found to be very disappointing when you actually experience what these kind of cities have to offer on the ground.
And this brings me back to what I hope you have begun to see as the pervasive metaphor for my message today: the falcon. For Abu Dhabi, the falcon is really a metaphor for their aspiration for excellence – and we can all be inspired by that.
William Butler Yates, the great Irish poet, paints a horrendous portent. In his poem, “The Second Coming”, he says:
-“Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot HOLD;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…”
For Abu Dhabi, and for all our modern cities, we have to push back this image, this potentiality. Let us be the falconers that can be heard; let us bring our falcons safely to ground. I hope Abu Dhabi does become the model that it wishes to be. And I hope their model motivates us all to dream about – and create – cities that are not only productive but are also fulfilling for all of us on every level.
My dream is that one day that falcon – that beautiful bird – might fly high above the City of Abu Dhabi or any city in the world in tranquility and health as a powerful symbol of our success in making our urban world humane, beautiful and sustainable.
“Rekindling the Urban Love Affair” -Conference Keynote: Green Cities, Melbourne, March 2015
It has been said that the modern city is soulless; that it is heartless; that it is brutal. And, I think this is all too true for many people today – and maybe even for many people in this room today. The great irony of modern culture is that the more we choose city life – and well over half of all human beings have now made this choice – the less city life is satisfying us; and the more cities expand as our primary human habitat, the more damaging they are to the natural eco-systems that allow us to survive as a species.
We need to fix this and in many places creative people are slowly putting the pieces together for a new urban model. All over the world, there is a growing recognition that this brutality must stop; that we have to imagine a different kind of city which addresses human needs and that puts the soul back into the city. Put another way, there is a growing understanding that it is actually “love” that will be the prime force in the future evolution of successful 21st century cities– and that is really my main theme today.
Who would have thought in the last generation that “love” might become a meaningful topic in a discussion about civic economies, much less a prime force for environmental reconciliation? Yet, over the last few decades, we’ve seen cities hit with fundamental challenges that they can only respond to if their citizens are solidly on their side, which is to say, if their citizens hold a strong enough personal affection for their city to be loyal and to do their part for it.
The first and most direct of the urban challenges that I want to highlight is the incredible struggle today among cities for hegemony. It’s a dog-eat-dog competition among modern cities – all driven by the incredible mobility of people. The world has become footloose, with people and their ideas and capital moving at will: business can be done anywhere; other aspects of life are more important than one’s livelihood; and where people choose to settle is not tied down the way it used to be. We can do and be almost anything anywhere. So what a city feels like can be a determining factor in its competitive edge.
But, let’s hold that thought for a moment so we can weave it together with a second set of challenges that are even more fundamental. These challenges are now focussing around two profound urban themes: the sustainable city and the liveable city.
There has been endless talk at City Halls around the world about sustainability – of course, this audience knows as much about this as anyone anywhere. We know what needs to be done but the roadblock here is the human reaction to these new ideas and this brings us to the theme of liveability. You see, I worry that in all our scientists’ creative thinking about sustainable technologies, and in all our retooling for sustainable products, there may be some strong denial going on about average people and their typical inclinations; denial that will block the way towards sustainability. And I think to respond to this situation is going to take a new way of planning – so I want to talk about that.
Now, to set the frame for my remarks, let me remind us of the simple formula for “smart growth” that we all know so well.
You know that, from a structural point of view,
-it’s about the form of our cities – clustered density and mixed use and all kinds of diversity and protected open space; and,
-it’s about the fabric of our cities – the green construction that you are leading here in Australia;
From an infrastructural point of view,
-its about the circulation within our communities – transportation choices that put the private car into a logical array of movement alternatives that include and favour transit and cycling and walking;
-its about social and community and cultural facilities that offer support for people and stability for their communities; and,
-its about the utilities of our cities – managing water and waste and energy in a conserving way and locally accessing inputs, including food.
We all know this is a very useful formula – but now we come to the essential denial that I want to expose today. Is the public with us in all of this? Will they change their life patterns and habits to achieve the kind of ecological footprint that is necessary?
After all, we live in a free society – people will listen but they can do whatever they want. This is especially true when we talk about the things people make personal choices about – like density and mixed use and diversity and active transportation? Frankly, most consumers in modern cities, except in a very few special, gracious places, have shown very little interest in being a part of the kind of city that these factors create. In my country, over two-thirds of Canadians live in unsustainable situations that boast none of these qualities – and that proportion is even higher in America. I wonder what the numbers are for Australia.
Let’s be blunt: most people hate density because most of it has been so bad; they think of mixed use as probably hitting them negatively and diversity as unsafe and transit is not even in most peoples’ vocabulary. But I also have to say that, to some degree, I understand and sympathize with their predicament. Could you fall in love with this…or this….? I don’t think so.
We have to change that – and I think we can change that by making one addition to that formula of smart growth. That addition, which fosters peoples’ genuine affection for the city, is “placemaking”.
And this is where urban competition , urban sustainability and urban liveability can be seen through the same city lens – because in each case the bottom line is that making progress on these issues requires us to conceptualize the city from a people perspective – bringing back the human touch; no longer casually trading away the things people care about for the urgencies of the moment.
I call this “Experiential Urbanism” – learning about and then carefully designing the community to deliver the direct tangible experiences that people tell us they want in their lives and for their families every day. These become the fragments of DNA from which the urban pattern is built up, layer upon layer. This has two fundamental aspects. First, it takes a consumer focus to define what needs to be done in the formation of cities; and, second, it takes a physical urban design focus at a basic level to realize those consumer hopes and expectations.
For as long as anyone can remember, the shape of modern cities, with very few exceptions, has been the result of the city exploited as a commodity. But that doesn’t have to be the case. We can define the quality city through careful design. Modern people are very savvy about the design of things – look at the Apple Computer. Yet, most of the contemporary city is not actually designed. It is just laid out. Many of our buildings and spaces are not even designed by architects or landscape architects. We use artists only occasionally. Whole districts have never enjoyed the touch of an urban designer. It is all so utilitarian and it turns most people off. They just want to escape it – if not physically then at least metaphorically. We must bring the great prowess of design back to the task of building the city so we can create something that people will actually get excited about – see as chic and hip – invest in and live in happily – for a life time.
Well, how do we engender an urban environment rich in genuine human interest?
Of course, I could go to the obvious. I could talk about the broad urban arrangements of the city: the overall regional structure that preserves the green lungs and offers the essential respite from the frenetic civic chaos that people long for. For example, I’m thinking of the regional growth boundary in Portland, Oregon and the Agricultural Land Reserve in Vancouver.
Or, I could talk about shifting attitudes about transportation – where there is an awfully lot to say. There is no question that we are an automobile world and the trend is for that to become even more so in the future. 2.6 billion vehicles predicted by 2030 is a lot of personal mobility – and I cannot see people, in mass, weaning themselves from the extraordinary benefits of the car, but that does not mean that there is no room for transportation diversity. We can enhance transportation choices and cut the negative impacts that cars now have on our cities. There are more and more inspirational examples out there. Few cities went the Vancouver route of avoiding freeways altogether but many cities are now editing out there excess freeway infrastructure in favour of parks and elegant boulevards – such as the remarkable freeway demolition and daylighting of a river in Seoul, South Korea, and the Tom McCall Park replacement for a freeway in Portland, or the transformation of the Embarcadero Freeway to a regular street in San Francisco. There are also moves to submerge freeways under parks, such as the Madrid Rio project along the Manzanares River, the freeway cap of Klyde Warren Park in Dallas, and the “Big Dig” in Boston. By the way, these projects and more are detailed in my new book with Jonathan Barnett that will be out this June. But the important story is the worldwide diversification of transit, and new emphasis on bikeways and walkability. Think of the initiative for the webbed transit network in what is called “Toronto’s Big Move” and the building of economic and flexible Bus Rapid Transit, started in Curitiba, Brazil, and now used in Istanbul, Bogotá, Seattle and many other cities. Everywhere in the world people are mimicking the success of Amsterdam and Rotterdam with networks of bikeways. And as we tighten up the scale of our cities, the walking culture is taking hold. Walking is cheap to accommodate and it is the most naturally attractive alternative to the car.
But, I’m not going to talk about any of that. These are all structural concerns that may miss my point. Instead, let me talk about the relatively untapped potential of basic urban design – first in the core city and then in the suburbs, because these are the two fundamental formats of contemporary urbanism and they require absolutely different solutions even if the principles stay the same.
For core cities, I will use my home town of Vancouver as an example of a different way to handle density, and mixed use, and built form through a detailed attention to urban design, in a quest to improve the quality of everyday life.
The most powerful inner-city policy that Vancouver has pursued is an intensive, residentially-based growth strategy that balances the natural inclination for commercial growth. It is called “living first”. It’s based on the concept of coherent neighbourhood units because consumers make housing choices based on everything essential for their day-to-day living. This includes walkable distances, all the amenities and services at hand and a local shopping “high street” at the centre for basic needs and to provide the places where a neighbourhood creates its culture (the standard amenities we require are listed here and the targeted basic scale is noted here).
Also essential is that open space and the public realm be used to contribute to neighbourhood identity and amenity. 65 acres of new parks in Downtown Vancouver have been very carefully designed – avoiding useless private plazas and using buildings to give memorable form to public park spaces and squares – and managing sun and shading – and embellishing parks with public art. The park pattern is then tied together with a growing walkway/bikeway network. The street has also been identified as a centre of public life so sidewalks are detailed with grass boulevards and a double row of trees and lush landscaping to screen the density. Private open space is provided in delightful enclosed courtyards and roof gardens where residents can have their own small gardens.
Density is the goal – the idea is for the city to be as compact and dense as possible. But we found early on that the impacts of large-scaled buildings cannot be left to chance or else there are some pretty unpleasant results. So design expectations are carefully codified to insure quality materials and to manage security and noise and privacy, and interface conditions to insure what we call “neighbourliness”. Almost all parking, except for visitors, is tucked away – and parking standards are pushed as low as practical. Car shares are also being pushed hard to cut the number of cars.
There is a cool reciprocal formula for success when density and quality are tied together: the architectural solutions allow the density to work; the high density generates enough value to carry quality construction, great on-site amenities and a very nice contribution to the neighbourhood infrastructure; and the supportive neighbourhood draws all kinds of people back to a truly urban lifestyle.
Now let me turn to social mix.
First, this includes targets for a genuine economic mix of both non-market and market housing in every multiple-family neighbourhood (in these areas, 20% of all units have to be developed for low-income people). Everyone is mixed together, not necessarily within buildings because of problems that worried both the non-market managers as well as the condo sellers and consumers, but certainly mixed within the neighbourhood among buildings. But design attention keeps the buildings indistinguishable.
Second, it also includes a mix of household types; building at high densities for special needs and seniors and families with children. For example, in addition to traditional apartments we have facilitated live-work units and lofts and artists’ studios and even houseboats. But the biggest quest has been for households with children. This is where the urban design agenda has to switch into high gear because drawing families to higher density is a tough bet. In Vancouver, we have special design guidelines for family housing at high density and 25% of all new dense housing has to meet these guidelines.
So what do these guidelines talk about?
-For the unit, appropriate bedroom count and separation from active living areas; child-proof finishes; private open spaces for supervised “outside time”; minimum storage provisions; and in-unit laundry – among other needs.
-For the building, clustering of family units for mutual support; secure and visible semi-public outdoor spaces where children can meet one another; family gathering and gardening and party facilities; grade-level units and separate entrances for people who fear heights or want a dog or their own front door.
-For the neighbourhood, adequate numbers and quality of parks and schools and community facilities and childcare; safe areas without traffic cross-streets, and nearby transit.
But now to the real heart of urban design – let me turn specifically to built form. Of course in Vancouver, there is no debate that the high-rise has generally been our preferred form, especially where everyone wants a glimpse of the water or mountains, even though most of the smartest cities of the world seem to prefer mid-rises. For example, here’s a typical low-rise form preferred in Rotterdam. But whatever the height, we’ve found that with complex buildings, you have to get the architecture right – success or failure for liveability rests in the details.
For high-rise Vancouver this has meant design codes for tall thin towers to get people up to the splendid views; and ample separation among towers so people can see around and through them. Of course this also means carefully brokering private views with every new proposal. And then, we modulate Vancouver’s skyline to protect key public viewsheds and corridors. For mid-rise buildings, a careful sculpting of the architecture opens up vistas and protects natural light.
But equally important in either case is a coherent, dominant street wall at the traditional scale with the bases of tall buildings shielded from the sidewalk to cut their powerful impacts, allowing them to float almost out of one’s perception. This is how tall buildings can be humanized.
It’s important to bring active residential use right down to the sidewalk level as often as possible – fostering the shop-house form where it makes sense but more often pushing for row houses to truly domesticate the street. This means no blank walls; and lots of doors and porches and stoops and windows and almost any engaging detail down at eye level. This includes weather protection along commercial routes. Essentially, within the first three floors, there needs to be the fascinating, intimate urbanism that engenders a strong sense of place, comfort, hominess, civility, safety and vivid memory. – and value, value, value.
The results in Vancouver are very encouraging. Our inner city has more than tripled its population to over 120,000 people in little over two decades and it continues to grow and thrive. Families are flooding back downtown in record numbers – we now have several thousand row houses downtown and over 9000 children. Almost 30% of downtown households built in this generation include children.
I’m not saying this is a perfect story. Vancouver still has its problems – homelessness remains a concern and not nearly enough has been done for middle-income housing so affordability is a top issue. But this attention to urban design has made a big difference. The point of this illustration is that new demand has been built for a sustainable city by also making it deliciously liveable.
Now, let’s move to the suburbs – and here we are talking about a very different kettle of fish. I’m afraid we’re back to that contradiction I talked about at the beginning.
If you look at the car-friendly suburban communities we have been building, around the world, since the War, from a sustainability lens, the picture is not very positive. They sprawl, they hit the environment hard, they are short on services and those services are expensive to deliver, they cannot support public transit without vast subsidy, they are socially exclusive, and they are often one-dimensional.
But most people live in these post-war communities not because they have to but because they want to, enjoying the benefits even though they also have to suffer the consequences. Most consumers absolutely want the independence and self-sufficiency they offer, their spaciousness and human scale, the absence of towers, and the safety, especially for children, they are said to represent. We want that image of “neighbourhood” rootedness – who could blame any of us for that.
So, how can we re-invent suburbia to be both in the consumer image and in the image of a responsible urbanism? I think this will be the biggest issue for the next generation. And, this is where, frankly, there are few credible solutions anywhere in the world – we have our TOD’s and our remake of redundant shopping malls, but we are not going to fundamentally reshape the suburbs with these moves. But there are some tantalizing inspirations out there that could take us a lot further.
There is one template that I think has great potential – both to retrofit existing suburbs and to build new ones – and it is also very popular with the public. It’s a place filled with solutions that planners have overlooked for too long. I’m talking about the pre-war, “streetcar” neighbourhoods, built between the early 1900’s and the 1930’s, which exist in every modern western city. You have some of the best examples in the world right here in Melbourne. I’m using as my reference today a combination of pictures from a Regina neighbourhood in Canada and a Dallas neighbourhood in the United States but you don’t need to go that far to find similar examples everywhere.
Whether we look at these places from a liveability point of view or a sustainability perspective or as a visual statement or at a functional level, the pre-war neighbourhood has a lot going for it. It has a charm and beauty that comes from its age, no argument about that, but that attractiveness also comes from the way it all fits together into a coherent logical whole. These are places average citizens aspire to live in. These are places of real financial value and real emotional value.
The typical pre-war neighbourhood urban structure is usually a simple pattern of blocks of apparently single houses extending out from a commercial “high street” of shops (where the streetcar used to stop – or maybe a bus still stops), with offices or apartments over the shops. There are often back utility lanes so there is a nice sense of decorum at the front door. There is always the local park and often some useful smaller greens as well. Streets are lined with big trees. There are lots of private gardens and many people even include a vegetable garden in the back. There is almost always a local community centre and school and other local services. Over the years, lots of additional housing has been tucked in along the lanes and as houses were converted into suites or a new infill development happened from time to time; but just as often, some people have chosen to keep their single family home and that is OK as well. Overall, though, without anyone really trying, the density and social diversity have increased while the predominately one and two storey scale has been maintained. We know, for example, that a sustainable, walkable neighbourhood starts to work at no more than 100 units per hectare – and many of these older neighbourhoods have that and more even if most people would not realize it. The streets are usually quite narrow with parking on one or both sides. These neighbourhoods are certainly accommodating to the car but they do not let auto standards dominate every other consideration. I hope you get the picture of what I am talking about – and I bet every person here has an example in your mind from here in Australia. And I bet that you feel quite good about those examples. You instinctively relate to them.
Now, I do not want you to read me as just nostalgic – I’m not saying we can just replicate these old neighbourhoods. We have to acknowledge the limitations of these places as well. The houses are sturdy but surely don’t have “green” construction features or universal accessibility. The utilities are pretty conventional. Sometimes there are traffic problems and on-street parking can be difficult. And, if the neighbourhood has really kept its “polish and shine”, it is often quite a consumer draw so housing prices can become disproportionately high for what you get.
But, you know, we are talking “inspiration” here not a ready-to-wear “model”. The take-away features that we can explore for future suburban reform are simple but powerful. They have a great prevailing scale that people intuitively like. They show us that densification can be gentle and incremental. They offer an organic diversity that is set to the preferences of each community rather than following some theoretical model. They are full of pleasant and useful places. They are walkable, with good permeability and connectivity and they work for transit, cycling and the car – so they offer a natural balance of transportation. All the design standards are scaled down so space is not wasted and patterns are just tight enough for public services to be cost effective. And, lastly, they are lush with landscaping and diverse architecture so they are full of character and charm that touches consumers deeply. Of course, this all sounds a lot like the smart growth formula that I outlined at the beginning.
Unfortunately there are very few places like this newly built on green-field sites in the post-war era. However, there is one example that has many of the right features – and that is the Subiaco Community in Perth. This, to me, is one of the most brilliant new neighbourhood designs in the world. Make no mistake, the “Subiaco model” could redefine the suburbs. It would offer the gentle urbanism that people want while supplying the responsible urbanism that everybody needs.
Well, now we have to ask: are most cities positioned well to build an urban design ethos and culture? Generally, the answer is “no”. This will take three key moves that I can tell you from experience will bring out the urban design and architectural and landscape architectural talents of any town. All of this can be done without touching the required profitability of development – in fact there is often a lot of money to be saved and new money to be made. Let me talk about each of these by asking a few questions.
First, let’s talk about regulation and design. Does your zoning and other development regulations here in Australia require and facilitate excellence in design? Are you able to deny approval when you face a poor or mundane or insensitive or imported design – or to motivate a reshaping of that design with attractive bonuses? In the modern world of competitive and sustainable cities, you have to be able to say “yes” to these questions. And the way to do that is to reform your zoning, adding a strong design imperative and making your zoning into a wealth creation device, not just a policing mechanism, which you can then apply to quality design through incentives that do not touch the civic budget. This takes a discretionary regulatory system that is flexible – light on rules and heavy on design guidelines and that allows people to build more if they sponsor great design and add public goods in and around their projects. This system sets things up for a natural collaboration among city builders based upon parallel and reconciled interests.
Second, let’s talk about managing for great design. Who adjudicates the design questions in your community? This activity takes learning and experience and taste and design prowess. So a smart city will make sure it has that expertise in house. It will have civic architects who can speak the language of private architects as professional equals. And really smart cities will go beyond that to offer peer review of all major developments in the form of an advisory “Urban Design Panel” of local design professionals. This makes available your community’s best home-grown advice on design to developers and decision-makers and it brings design questions to the fore for everyone to see and think about. I can tell you from the experience of cities as divergent as Vancouver and Abu Dhabi or Dallas that peer review is an almost cost-free way to transform your city into a design savvy and a design demanding community resulting in better design of every single new project.
Third, let’s look at the bankrupt formulas that tend to shape modern cities, especially the suburbs. Is your city created from an application of off-the-shelf standards or is it the result of tailored design? The most damaging roadblocks to progressive urban design are the outdated street and road standards, and obsolete subdivision standards, and insensitive corporate architectural formulas and the layering of all kinds of single-interest rules in building codes and parking bylaws and health requirements and security regulations. These things each had their logic when they were created but the people who invented them were not thinking of the whole picture and they were certainly not thinking about maximizing human experience. These kinds of fixed rules are most manifest in our suburbs around the world because that has been the big building boon since most of these rules came into effect, and wherever they apply our cities have become more mundane and harsher and less special. I think we need in every city a ritual burning of these outdated and single-minded rules. And then we have to say to everyone “let’s take those interests and meld them with other interests for liveability and sociability and sustainability in specific urban design work to create genuine, unique communities”. We must go from this to this and from this to this. It is that simple.
Now in all three of these moves I want to be clear that I am not talking about de-regulation. For real excellence, we have to more carefully regulate the more we grow. But future regulations will tailor not homogenize, they will sharpen profits not diminish them, they will adjust to contemporary needs not drag along the obsolete.
I’m also not talking about a “top-down” agenda. This new way of doing business requires a strong and diverse engagement of the public at every step along the way to articulate the public perspective and to insure public buy-in and ownership. We have to speak to people as citizens, voting members of the body politic, and as consumers driving market trends that are way more powerful in shaping any city than all the civic laws and policies put together.
But I will tell you that if you do those three things in any modern city, you will create the conditions for collaboration between government, developers and citizens – because these civic forces have to work together to create the city that meets the high expectations of consumers and shapes consumer choices – one sector cannot do it alone. The success of one amplifies the others. This is the only way to meet the challenges that I talked about at the beginning – to build green performance comfortably into proformas and to build demand in new market segments that were just too risky in the past.
Tomorrow’s city must meet the environmental test and the economic test but it must also meet the experiential test; and that is the test of love; that is the test of soul. It’s simply got to have that “wow” factor. When we achieve that, then these little ones will do the right thing as they grows up and take their places within the community. They will understand what is at stake – they will appreciate what they have received – and that we are all in this together – and they will do whatever is necessary to hand on their city in a better condition to their children. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the true power of rekindling the urban love affair.
“Another Dream for Dallas” – April, 2015
I am here today to tell you about some very exciting creative thinking for Dallas that I have been a part of with a number of people over the last few months – what I have called in the title of my talk “another dream for Dallas”.
-We continue to be dreamers for Dallas – many of you will recall that last year I told you about some serious dreams to reconnect downtown Dallas to the corridor of the Trinity River – as a result of what was called the “Connected City Design Competition” undertaken by the CityDesign Studio at City Hall under the inspired leadership of Brent Brown. I am happy to report today that Brent has technical work now well underway to make big parts of that dream come true over the next few years. It is exciting to see that moving forward.
-This year I want to tell you about a different dream – a particular dream for greatly enhanced access to the Trinity River corridor that has come from a group of interesting and smart urban designers that I had the honor to lead and facilitate since last December.
-I want to tell you about our idea for a gracious and harmonious parkway for part of the Trinity River corridor area in central Dallas.
Now, wait a minute, you are probably saying, isn’t there already a highway proposal for this area and isn’t there a big debate going on about that right now and isn’t this a big issue in the current civic election? Of course, the answers are yes and yes and yes – but what our little group came together to talk about is quite different from the highway that has been proposed and totally separate from the current political debate and the governments and groups that are involved in that debate.
-In fact, as I present this to you today, I want you to put that highway and that debate aside for just a moment so you can hear what we came up with. I think you might be pleasantly surprised.
-I want you to know that the group I was working with does not see itself as contributing to the current “yes or no” battle regarding the highway – we are sure you have all the insights you need here in Dallas to fully play out that drama and to make your political decision about that. It is a healthy debate.
-I also want you to know that the group I was working with does not see itself as affiliated with any government or agency and really has nothing to do with the specific highway proposal that is currently before the Federal environmental authorities for approval – although we have been quite excited to see some very influential people take up some of our ideas in recent weeks – including His Worship, Mayor Rawlings.
-We were simply asked by a group of well-meaning Dallas citizens to take a fresh look at a situation that has dogged this town for a very long time. I think the people who sponsored our dreaming session felt that there might be another vision out there that would better meet the needs of this great new Trinity Park that is under development in the heart of Dallas.
-They felt that maybe the park needed a little special care and attention as this big debate about a highway takes its natural political course. They asked us to look at the whole question of access and circulation from the perspective of the park – so that is what we did.
You may still be skeptical out there – you may be saying, well haven’t a lot of technical people already dealt with these issues and hasn’t a lot of money already been spent on a highway design? Again, the answer is yes – but that has been for what you might call the “big boom solution” – for a scheme that was conceived to fully serve the maximum transportation needs in this area of Dallas for a hundred years or more, a scheme that may not need to be fully built out for the foreseeable future, a scheme that may not have considered the needs of this magnificent new park as the top priority that we think it should be.
-We asked ourselves a different question: what does the park need, what will be good for park access and visibility and what would have the least impacts on the park?
-We also asked a parallel question: what would be the best for park access to set off a positive redevelopment of the very large landholdings that are adjacent to the park? We could see that this economic development inquiry is very important to that larger question of connecting Dallas with the Trinity that we worked so hard on last year in the Connected City competition.
-Then we asked, with those considerations tied down, what kind of vehicular access way, if any, would be appropriate and was it possible to also meet the through-traffic aspirations for this district – so we felt it was smart to look again at the design of whatever street or way might be compatible for the area.
Having said all of this, there is no denying that our work was only a free-flow inquiry, not a detailed design process. What more can it be with just a few days’ work, even if it was intensive, studio work. But in the world of city-design, it is often necessary to get disconnected from the web of details and all the noisy debate in order to see clearly the whole picture – to be able to see the forest instead of all the trees.
-We did not collect new data. We did not discuss funding. We did not try to work out every detail. We worked primarily from our own knowledge and experience, augmented with information that is already readily available on the table.
-Initially we heard from some of the local experts that have been working on this but after that we worked alone, with several representatives of our sponsors coming along for the ride – we did not see ourselves as having to sort out all the rules and regulations for this kind of thing the way all the local experts have to do. But, as Jane Jacobs used to say, sometimes the rules rule out the right things.
-What we conceived is only a dream – a vision for a different way to look at the questions that you have not been able to put to rest here in Dallas for this roadway.
-There are a lot of people that have started to think that maybe there is a new idea – a better idea – that would take a different trajectory from the “yes or no” scenarios – the massive freeway or the do-nothing options that are the hot topics and the only choices at the moment here in Dallas.
So, we got together back in February and had a creative jam session over 4 days with some very distinguished visiting urbanists and we came up with a proposition that surprised even us.
-We had some of the smartest people in the country here for our session – the likes of Alex Kreiger from Harvard and Allen Jacobs from UC Berkeley and Jeff Tumlin from San Francisco and John Alshuler from New York – in fact, a group of some 12 very with-it professionals with no axe to grind here in Dallas but big reputations under their belts – here are the names; I’m sure you will know some of them from their profile here in Texas: people like Ignacio Bunster-Ossa, Alan Mountjoy, Tim Dekker, and Mark Simmons.
-We didn’t make it a big public event for three reasons – first, we were not sure we would come up with anything interesting or helpful so we did not want to get any hopes up – second, we did not want the whole thing to be taken over by the “yes or no” debate that is raging here right now (not much air time would be left for the kind of fresh inquiry we felt we might be able to do) – and, third, for creative things to spark in our field, you have to have a studio atmosphere of design and exploration not an argumentative debating platform. In any event, we felt that anything we came up with would need full community review and discussion before it could be taken too seriously by anyone. Of course, it would also need a lot of technical testing.
In a preamble meeting back in December, we came to a few basic conclusions and set a simple set of objectives for our big creative jam session. Then when we actually all got here, again in February, those conclusions were strongly confirmed.
-First, we reviewed carefully the original Balanced Vision Plan completed back in 2003 and we all strongly agreed that it was a very solid plan and should be the philosophical basis for all of our work. It is the foundation – and it is very good.
-Second (and this will surprise some people in this room), we concluded unanimously that there needs to be some sort of auto access route into the Trinity Park corridor because the park lands are just too cut off from the city by that unrelenting tall wall of levees. The park is so close but also so profoundly isolated. If all the park can be for most Dallas people is a distant view from atop a bridge as you speed by and if there is a struggle otherwise to get into the park, then it will always stay peripheral to the day-to-day experience of Dallas residents and visitors – and peripheral to the image and life of this city. There really does need to be a road of some kind into and through the place over those levees.
-Third, we decided to work toward three basic objectives that would put the needs of the park and park users first. We decided: (1) we would maximize visual and physical access to the Trinity Park corridor; (2) we would try to bring the park and development sites close together at the key points so the park can really become a genuine catalyst for development of the adjacent urban district; and, (3) yes, if possible, we would try to facilitate the auto bypass of the downtown that represents 80% of the demand for vehicles coming through the area, that is, if we put aside the un-estimated number of cars that might actually want to stop to visit the park – it fascinated us that that particular figure, the auto demand for direct park access, has never actually been projected. We agreed we would pursue these objectives if it did not diminish the park design and experience – in fact, we felt we needed to expand and enhance that experience. We felt this was a reasonable and responsible agenda for a project of this kind.
-Fourth, at a highly conceptual level, we hypothesized what kind of auto access route might be suitable. We concluded that a limited-access highway and access ramp pattern, much like the size and capacity of the current maximum build-out design, is simply not needed – the traffic projections to 2030 confirm that point in no uncertain terms – and that kind of scheme does not offer much for the park or adjacent development. On the other hand, we found that a typical city street with lots of intersections and lights is not very realistic because it can never connect with the city street system on the other side of that wall of dikes. We found that no street at all, well maybe just a pattern of access lanes and loops where convenient over the levees, is also not very helpful because it would offer no real expansion of the experience of the park for passers-by. This would miss a fundamental opportunity to open up the park in a big way to the people of Dallas. But we did conclude that a meandering parkway of a calibrated humane scale and slim, low-impact design might do the trick. We concluded that our design time in the charrette would be spent on that kind of scheme, in the great tradition of North American parkways – and I will come back to what that really means and to the design of that in a minute.
So what we designed in February is a “gracious and harmonious all-American parkway”. That’s what we think Dallas needs for the next generation or maybe even longer and that’s what we felt could fit comfortably within the beautiful park that is coming together on both sides of the Trinity River. The report of our work is available as of today.
And here’s what it might look like. It is a complete, integrated concept but we highlighted 20 specific features that we think would make this place sing and I want to quickly take you through our ideas. There are 10 big moves and 10 supporting ideas.
First and foremost, this parkway only needs to be 4 lanes wide to comfortably carry all the traffic that is projected for the foreseeable future. That means building only one-half of the big freeway for the next generation. Those lanes can be narrower than is currently designed, they can include grass shoulders, and they can meander back and forth along the road corridor that is currently plotted.
I found a perfect inspiration for what is needed in a nice little parkway I came across in Perth, in Australia, and here is something like what might be the Dallas parkway cross-section.
There are similar examples in San Diego, Boston and along the Hudson River in New York, just to name a few other references. There’s quite a tradition of integrated parkways in North America.
Second, all those ramps that have been projected are just not needed – and it is the huge ramp systems that will really impact everything around them in a negative way. All you need is one set of ramps in and out on the north and another set on the south – remember only about 20% of drivers want to get off in the downtown; most will be passing right through – and there are perfectly good access streets downtown to channel the traffic once it is off the parkway. You can put the other many unnecessary groups of ramps on hold for a very long time and no one will even notice – maybe you will never even need them. And with this change, the whole arch design standard can be brought down to a more relaxed approach which you see in that Australian example I showed you a moment ago.
Third, if you carefully align the gentle meander of the parkway, not only do you open up more interesting views of the park, lakes and river, all along the route, but you can now slip in a batch of places to pull off and park on spots that might become paved roadway in the far future. You can have them on both sides of the parkway which opens up the park to users like you have never dreamed of before. That means people will not only be able to see and feel the park up close and personal as they drive along but, if they want, they can stop and dive into the pleasures and recreation of this amazing space or relax and embrace a fine scenic overlook. This is the single most important idea to come out of our work – direct park access as a top priority, not just park views. It really needs to happen with this parkway.
Fourth, we think the treescape can be refined and enhanced in a dramatic way. Remember that lovely Australian example. We envisioned a consistent linear planting of large trees, closely spaced, all along the parkway giving it an elegant “tree-lined” character and beauty – and changing the highway image dramatically.
Fifth, we really loved the aspect of the current concept of creating a higher bench or elevation of land for the parkway above the low valley of the river by using the excavation when digging out the new lakes. Along this bench, the general corridor and end connections that are shown in the current scheme work just fine, as the boundaries for swinging the meanders in the parkway gently back and forth; and also for getting the parkway over the levies north and south of downtown. This system will fit together really well. But, the bench is the best part because it offers more interesting contours for the parkway drive, good flood control, more opportunities for viewpoints in the pull-overs and a greater potential for ecologically generating landscaping all along the route. The bench will be the foundation for a really smart scheme that adds lakes and raises the parkway above the natural floor of the river corridor – so we like the bench of land a lot.
Sixth, we also loved the many pedestrian crossings that are included in the current proposal, so we included in our design all 15 and added a few more of the under and over pedestrian links from the city to the park that will give generous access for people on foot and bikes at least every quarter mile or less. But we are suggesting that they become things of real beauty and real amenity as they are designed in detail.
Seventh, we felt that a lot more elegant design improvements can be completed on the flood protection barriers that are a necessity of any parkway scheme within the levees. They do not need to be ugly blank walls. They can be completed as hillocks and berms with landscaping and public art and the few actual walls that might still be needed can be finished as green features or with artistic treatments that tell some of the story and history of the river and the park. We actually think you could refine the design to a 10-year flood standard rather than a 100-year flood standard, which would dramatically open up new views and interest and character all along the parkway with very little risk. This might mean once a decade or so the occasional flood and momentary closure of the parkway but the beauty and character that would be achieved, we think, would be more than worth this tiny inconvenience. However, if the people of Dallas really want that 100-year flood security, then so be it – but it can still be much more sensitively designed as an enhancement of the park experience.
Eighth, we think it is absolutely essential that you really go to town on a top notch landscape plan for the entire bench and bench edges down to the lower park – and especially at the stream outfalls all along the route. We think this is the place to instill a strong ecological strategy to regenerate habitat and enhance the natural landscape seasons and diversity of the park. For example, we could easily see this as a key stopping-off point for monarch butterflies on their annual migrations. The edges and stream outfalls could be places of remarkable beauty for the park that would entice people out of the city and into the park.
Ninth, we absolutely embraced the provision of the top-of-levee continuous bikeway and pedestrian pathway that is included in the current proposal. There had once been the hope for a full street at the top of the levee that could be a frontage street for the front doors of the new development. But now we see that is not possible while protecting the integrity of the levee structures – but the bikeway/walkway is the next best thing and we think it is absolutely essential to make it easy to enjoy the park from hundreds of levee-top locations.
And then, tenth, all of this careful work to insinuate a delicate parkway and build up the park landscape and character and cut the impact of excessive ramps – all of this can become a powerful catalyst for private development outside the levees at the center of the alignment as an extension of downtown if every effort is taken to associate that development as close to the park as possible. This will take an extensive cluster of decking structures over the parkway with links directly down to the park. I’m talking about the vicinity of Reunion, where the jails are currently located – as I said last year, those penal institutions need to leave the edge of the river and find another location so that these prime sites can become the home of thousands of new Dallas downtown residents and offices. I’m also talking about the “mix-master district”. These pivotal private development parcels can be brought on years earlier than would otherwise be expected if the links to the park and spacious boardwalks for the park can be built right up front. But, of course, none of this will happen if the highway and all the ramps create a harsh barrier between the development sites and the green corridor.
Those are the ten big moves and they will create a wonderful parkway framework that opens up and plays up the park to the highest possible degree. But even this can be enhanced with a few more very special features – here is a list of the reinforcing secondary moves that would really make the whole design sing.
-As you see, this includes banning trucks from this alignment – the trucks do not need the route and the park does not need the truck impacts.
-This includes allowing on-street parking along the parkway during the weekends when through traffic has no need for the route but park users would surely enjoy the convenient parking.
-This includes implementing a variation in the tolling procedure to facilitate equitable park use – actually forgiving the toll if a car stops for two hours or longer in one of the pull-offs along the route. This would really incentivize park use without sacrificing very much tolls revenue.
-This includes adding a simple u-turn opportunity somewhere mid-point along the parkway so park users can move around more freely to access the key park attractions.
-This includes implementing every one of the network of service roads and bikeways and pedestrian paths along and around the parkway that are already included in the current plan. These all open up the park dramatically for people once you add the pull-off points that we are suggesting. It is like an enticing web of access and it will be a magnet for people.
-This includes locating new transit stops to enhance transit-user access to the park over the parkway – for example at Houston Bridge and Riverfront Boulevard.
-And this includes some clever design refinement for pullovers at the location of five major “wow” views that we discovered that give astounding perspectives over the park and parkway to the city skyline.
And then the whole ensemble can be used to spread the economic development pattern all along the route.
-For the “design district” adding a regular and attractive pattern of pedestrian connections across the parkway to the park will speed up the incremental development trend that is already evident.
-For the “southside district”, doing a major overhaul of the existing water bodies, now called the “sumps”, will rev up the current development inclination, because these “sumps” have the potential to be the knockout amenities that are more important than even the park and parkway in this area.
-For the districts at the far north and south ends of the parkway, just before it would join the existing highways, a strategy to build public and private facilities under or over the parkway will spur private investment that can augment the existing neighborhoods – developments like these.
So there it is – twenty ideas that make a dramatically different vision for what a street and a park and economic development can do for one another and for the city of Dallas – if all the thinking is driven by the vision for the park; if it is all carefully designed and managed in the interests of that most magnificent transformations of all – the vast park, river and nature corridor. Yes, this vision has a road in the corridor but, you can see, this road is nothing like the limited-access highway that has been talked about for this area for the last few years.
And the amazing thing about this vision is that it fits nicely within the framework of the design that is already under scrutiny for federal environmental approval. We did not really plan it that way. We just said that we should design what we felt Dallas needs for the foreseeable future. But when we completed our sketches we realized that it would actually fit as a compatible “first phase” of the proposal that is currently on the books – either it was a confirmation of components of the current proposal or it reflects compatible variations for immediate construction or it predicted the kind of design refinements that have to yet be undertaken anyway or it reflected economic development ideas that had not been addressed before. So anyone who wants to can see it as a practical, comfortable first phase. But to be frank, it is a first phase that might never need a second phase – or that might become so beloved by the people that a second phase would simply no longer be appealing if it swept away the benefits that people will have come to enjoy and treasure. The point is, your children’s children can decide what they want when the time finally comes to think about further phases and further construction.
We think our 20-point concept represents a powerful and compelling dream for Dallas.
-Of course, it needs full review with the public in a wide public process. Yes, it will also need detailed multi-disciplinary design refinement and careful testing.
-But not another pencil should ever be put to paper on this project without a strong urban design hand – this parkway cannot just reflect engineering standards. It needs the engineers working hand-in-hand with architects and landscape architects and ecological scientists and water artists and all the rest.
-But also, it will need a conscience that is “of the people” if this moves forward. Our suggestion is a carefully arranged monitoring of implementation, now and on an ongoing basis into the distant future, by a panel of both professional and citizen monitors who can make sure the good design does not again get distorted.
The participants in this review had to walk a very fine line between their general philosophical views of what they consider best world practice, the particular circumstances and needs here in Dallas, the official status of the process for this particular project, and their judgment about the expectations of future Dallas residents. Having said this, throughout the review we have tried to err on the side of what will be best for Dallas now and into the future, not what have been the conclusions of the past. We were also trying to discover how to move a compatible project forward so that the needs of many interests can be satisfied but also balanced. In our preferred scheme, no one interest prevails over another and all interests have been subject to some concessions and compromises. At the same time, we firmly believe the proposed pattern works well as a whole and favors the park every step along the way.
You don’t need that big aggressive new highway in your wonderful park – so don’t let it happen. Go for something a lot better. We think a gracious and harmonious parkway, done in a gentle and humane way with nature as its inspiration and the park as its client, is a very practical thing. We think it is a necessary thing. We think it can be a thing of utility and of beauty. And it can be brought within reach if you, the people of Dallas, have the courage to insist that it happen.