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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.

Thank you.

Review: Ecodesign for Cities and Suburbs

Originally published on April 19, 2016 in the Journal of Urban Design

By Ann Forsyth

Ecodesign for Cities and Suburbs is the work of two practitioners turned academics. Jonathan Barnett, emeritus Professor of Practice at the University of Pennsylvania, has practised internationally and is the author of five previous books, starting with the classic Urban Design as Public Policy (Barnett 1974). Larry Beasley, currently a Distinguished Practice Professor of Planning at the University of British Columbia, retired from government service in 2006 after over a decade as Director of Planning for the City of Vancouver. This appears to be his first book.

Ecodesign is a concept bringing together various ideas about good urban design and planning in a time of change. As the authors outline in the introduction, eco-design is:

A way of looking at cities and their hinterlands that integrates considerations of environmental soundness and resilience with human health and well-being. it is an attitude about how the city needs to be built or transformed, but also managed and operated, to find harmony between urban systems and natural systems in a way that also contributes to human experience and social life.

The authors elaborate on this concept through set of broad axioms about ecodesign related to managing complexity, promoting sustainable growth, using interdisciplinary processes, incorporating public involvement, respecting both natural and built context, and drawing on multiple design methods.

The book is organized around four broad ecodesign themes each with a major chapter: adapting to climate change; balancing transportation modes; developing more progressive regulations; and creating a better public realm. in covering this material Barnett and Beasley touch on a variety of topics from regional planning to housing affordability, from developing higher density areas for families with children to marketing new kinds of environments. As they explain:

Ecodesign concepts can inform the details of specific places, such as clusters of buildings, streets, and gathering areas. They can help mold the structure of neighborhoods, districts, and whole cities. They can guide the systems that handle the dynamics of full city regions. Ultimately, they can reconcile the human presence in in broad ecological zones: the setting for the city, its suburbs, and its rural hinterlands. 

Among all these axioms and themes, the book’s main argument is that the exemplary should become commonplace. Barnett and Beasley point out that “urban growth is produced by the interaction of many component parts, and each of these components has been significantly improved somewhere. if all these improvements could be put together, they would produce a far different and superior growth pattern”. They see climate change ‒ sea level rise, storms, floods, droughts and fires – as an enormous threat needing urgent action in urban areas. As they conclude, “ecodesign, as an amalgam of environmental responsibility and progressive urban design ethic[s] and practice … must become the new status quo” (241).

The book covers a lot of familiar material. Reflecting the authors’ experiences there is a great deal about vancouver (“a partial success” [7]), substantial material on the US and other Canadian cities, and some relevant minor cases from elsewhere. The book provides a broad overview of topics such as climate change and the authors mention a few earlier books such as McHarg’s (1969) Design with Nature or Sprirns’ (1984) The Granite Garden. However, the main focus is on solutions and examples that seem based on direct experience; the book itself is minimally sourced so in order to find out more about various projects, programmes and policies the reader would need to go to google. However, it is not meant to be an academic book; rather, it reflects the wisdom and opinion of two experienced practitioners who have worked hard to change urban areas for the better. Barnett and Beasley very obviously want to share that experience in a relevant and updated way that engages with some of the large issues of our times, particularly related to climate change.

There are many ways books in this general subject area approach this task. They variously pro- pose specific guidelines and tools in some detail; have lavish photography and drawings; create strong and explicit theoretical or conceptual frameworks for creating better cities; or translate research evidence into lessons for urban areas. This book does none of these, at least in great detail. Barnett and Beasley certainly make it obvious that the world is facing large ecological challenges requiring regional and local solutions; higher densities and more balanced transpor- tation will help make urban areas better; public spaces need to be well crafted for both people and nature; and implementation requires better interactions between public and private interests and better coordination within governments. The book is illustrated, although more in some chapters than others, and the lengthy captions really add to the overall readability of the book. However, it is written as a narrative reflection on lessons learned from years of experience rather than a specific set of guidelines or a tight proposal for a model community.

Peter Hall’s (2014) Good Cities, Better Lives, with contributions from practitioner Nicholas Falk, covers very similar material from a european perspective. Ecodesign for Cities and Suburbs is some- what more based on experience and general knowledge, but there are many parallels in content and tone. while i did not agree with every one of Barnett and Beasley’s interpretations or pro- posals, generally their approach has much to admire and reflects a very deep understanding of how difficult it is to change the trajectory of a large urban area. i liked the term ‘ecodesign’ ‒ so much better than yet another ‘-ism’. They point to many examples of better design and planning already implemented that may be modest individually if pulled together in one place could make a difference. This core argument of the book is something that would make sense to the public and political leaders who are key in any change. overall this is a thoughtful compendium of examples from an experienced team with much to offer urban design.

 

References:

Barnett, Jonathan. 1974. Urban Design as Public Policy. New York: Architectural Record Books. Hall, Peter. 2014. Good Cities, Better Lives. London: Routledge.
McHarg, ian L. 1969. Design with Nature. New York garden City: Natural History Press.
Spirn, Anne whiston. 1984. The Granite Garden. New York: Basic Books.

 

Ann Forsyth

Department of Urban Planning and Design, Harvard Graduate School of Design, Cambridge, MA, USA

aforsyth@gsd.harvard.edu

Connecting a City to the Water: Baker Program’s Inaugural Trip to Vancouver, Part One

 

JW_SHATour Van_Thursday-8692

Larry Beasley, center, leads the group along the waterfront walkway

By Jason W Henderson

This article was originally published on the website of Cornell University’s Baker Program in Real Estate

In March 2016, second-year students in the Baker Program in Real Estate embarked on a trip to Vancouver, British Columbia to meet with the people and companies that have played a hand in shaping Vancouver into the celebrated international city it is today.  Starting with a bold plan hatched in the 1980s to connect the city to its waterfront, Vancouver has spent the following decades on a transformation spree that is the envy of urbanists the world over.  Throughout a five-day itinerary, students visited the projects and neighborhoods that epitomize this transformation.

The trip began by meeting at the waterfront with Larry Beasley, former Co-Director of Planning for the City of Vancouver.  Beasley was instrumental in driving the City’s efforts to build the seawall, the pedestrian and bike paths along the water, and in crafting the zoning and developer requirements that would allow for the appropriate density, housing types, and public spaces.  The resulting development has been coined “Vancouverism,” a planning movement that has spawned inspiration in hundreds of other cities across the globe.

Beasley spoke of specific measures such as mandating the right amount of space between towers so that occupants aren’t uncomfortable (90 feet), and requiring ground floor uses of retail in the right areas, as well as townhouse-style housing product along the edges of residential towers that are popular with families moving from less-dense neighborhoods.  Underground parking also provides for efficient land-use without the impediment of parking lots or lost floors above-ground.  The urban form along the waterfront has also been carefully designed to allow for large view corridors so that residents along the waterfront and further-inland are able to see the water.  The spaces are ideal for streetscapes, parks, and openings that enhance the pedestrian experience, and provide residents with public amenities right at their front doorstep.

View corridorIMG_0988

                     View corridor                                          Split bike and pedestrian paths

Another challenge is how to manage the two modes of travel along the waterfront.  No- not cars!  But pedestrians and cyclists.  The waterfront paths are split between bike and pedestrian modes, with the pedestrian path along the edge of the seawall, which is embellished with ample trees, planters, and benches so that residents may enjoy the water at their leisure, or get to where they’re going with ease.  The split helps to keep accidents to a minimum, and the flow of travel at the right pace.

In addition to parks and open space, the waterfront development included the construction of a new school and playground so that local residents could easily raise children in the area without the need of a car or bus to deliver their children to school.  The convenience factor and space programming was intended to “crack the nut” on getting suburban families into the City- and it succeeded.  Beasley, the team at the City, and the waterfront developers came together with the public at large to determine what was necessary to drive interest in families to move to the City through hundreds of public meetings, thousands of private consultations and conversations, and a marketing effort that played directly to each housing group.

JW_SHATour Van_Thursday-8878

Through a strategy of transparent and open engagement, Vancouver developed the model for comfortable and sustainable urban living.  Though a City of over 600,000 (2.3 million in Metro-area), Vancouver can be comfortably traveled across by foot or bike in the fraction of an afternoon, and the City is consistently ranked as one of the most livable cities on the planet by a range of publications.  Newer developments such as the Olympic Village area even incorporate their own greywater-recycling and efficient power and heating as a whole integrated system- the City even boasts its own steam district, and new transit stations have recently opened to continue expanding the light-rail network.  The City is a shining example of what can go right in a City’s development when parties come together collaboratively, and effectively.

Part Two will explore the history behind the 1986 World Expo site, and Concord Pacific’s development along the waterfront.

Exit interview: NCC adviser Larry Beasley on surviving the Harper government

 

"The last government looked at the NCC and its role of custodianship of capital interests differently than previous governments," Larry Beasley says.

This article was originally published in the Ottawa Citizen on March 27, 2016. 

By Don Butler

When Larry Beasley stepped down earlier this month after 12 years as chair of the National Capital Commission’s advisory committee on planning, design and realty, he posted this tweet:

“Through all the trials of the last government, the @NCC-CCN remains strong, caring and innovative. I am sad to finish this assignment!”

Since joining the advisory committee in 2000, the 68-year-old Beasley, one of Canada’s most eminent planners and urban designers, has quietly helped shape virtually every federal project in the capital. He’s no Larry-come-lately. So both his departure and his parting words are worth noting.

That reference to the trials of the former Conservative government, for instance. What’s that about?

“The last government looked at the NCC and its role of custodianship of capital interests differently than previous governments,” Beasley says. Previous governments often delegated responsibilities to the NCC. “The last government felt they wanted to pull some of those things back to the centre of government.”

One of those things was the management of new monuments, notably the proposed Memorial to the Victims of Communism. Another was responsibility for programming, which, Beasley says, “was a very strong and innovative part of the NCC for many, many years.”

The period of Conservative rule, he says, was a “difficult time” for the NCC. The highly political victims of communism memorial is a case in point.

Beasley had never encountered a government that just said: “We’re deciding on the site and we’re carrying forward and we’re not going to go through the normal process that makes sure those things are the right scale and the right nature and the right quality.

“They had their own agenda, they carried forward with it, and they did that in part by how they shifted responsibilities for those things,” Beasley says. “But they also did it in part by just deciding they were going to do it in a particular way.”

Beasley, who lives in Vancouver and works on projects around the world, is pleased the Liberal government is relocating the victims of communism memorial to another “decently high-profile” location. “And, frankly, I’m very happy there will be a new (design) competition.”

Monuments and memorials, he says, “tell a story about our country and about us as a people. And we have to be careful about that.”

The Conservative government’s strong-arm tactics had no impact on the advisory committee’s deliberations, Beasley says. “We were very clear that our job was to give the best advice for the country, not to meet any political agenda of the day.”

Not that there was never any pressure to toe the line. “There’s always a sense of pressures,” Beasley acknowledges. “Governments are powerful. Prime minister’s offices are powerful.”

But the advisory committee’s members are independent-minded and “a little immune to pressure,” he says. “We’re not there all the time, we don’t have vested interests (and) we don’t have really anything to lose.”

Beasley never felt any direct pressure. “No one ever came to me and said, ‘Boy, you’d better do this right or you’re out of here.’

“But there were times when people said, ‘This is a top government priority – you don’t want to stand in the way of this,” he said. “We said, ‘Yes, but getting the best should also be a top priority,’ and we would stand our ground.”

Though it only advises the NCC and has no decision-making power, the committee’s expertise has made it extremely influential. Its advice is accepted most of the time.

The committee took the plan to develop LeBreton Flats from a “fairly mundane project to a much more sustainable concept,” Beasley says. It had a big impact on the Zibi development in its conceptual stages and had input into signature projects, including the rehabilitation of the Parliament Buildings.

“I know that we have improved the urban design of many, many projects,” Beasley says. “The aspiration is that the capital be a bit of a model in the country for an intelligent, sustainable development of a city, and I think we tried to do that.”

One high-level project Beasley and the committee considered numerous times was 24 Sussex Drive, the official residence of the prime minister.

“There’s no question it needs a complete overhaul,” he says.”It’s been an embarrassment to the country that the prime minister’s residence has portable air conditioners in the windows and things like that.”

Though the NCC is still trying to decide whether the house should be fixed up or replaced, Beasley strongly favours renovation.

“I’ve heard the argument that it’s an opportunity to express the best architectural mastery in the country, and there’s some merit to that,” he says. “But I think there’s a strong symbolism in 24 Sussex that’s very important to reminding people of the long history of our country and our democracy.”

If it was purely Beasley’s decision, he’d happily carry on with his work on the committee. But his term had already been extended by a couple of years. “They felt it was time to bring other representation.”

He’s hardly retiring, however. He’s doing work in Dallas, Rotterdam and Scandinavia, and is just starting a project in Canberra, Australia’s capital. “I’m a busy person.”

He hopes to have some continuing involvement in Ottawa, as well. “I’ve come to love the city,” he confesses, “and anything to contribute to the capital is a good thing to me.”

The thoughts of (ex) Chairman Larry

  • City building is a very complicated thing and you can’t guess it all right. You have to be courageous and try things.
  •  When a development is in the phase that LeBreton Flats is in right now, a lot of people are critical of it. If the first move isn’t absolutely splendid, they become negative about the whole thing. Once the thing builds out and they can begin to see the formation of a real community, all that starts to change. I think that will change there.
  • Victims of Communism was a contentious monument. It did not make sense to a lot of people. It certainly did not make sense to vest that kind of image, regardless of what it was trying to say, next to the most important images of our national government.
  • Capitals are always in a process of transformation, because the culture and governance of countries is always in a process of transformation, and the capital needs to reflect that. A capital city is always an unfinished art.
  • Parliament Hill, to me, is an extraordinary thing. It needs to be protected and nurtured. In 150 or 200 years, people need to be able to see the same thing and remember where it came from.

dbutler@postmedia.com

twitter.com/ButlerDon

“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.

Thank you.