We will be meeting at the Roundhouse Plaza in Yaletown at 2pm. More info here: http://janeswalk.org/canada/vancouver/tour-false-creek-north-neighbourhood/
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” ), 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.
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.
Department of Urban Planning and Design, Harvard Graduate School of Design, Cambridge, MA, USA
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 following article appeared in the Vancouver Sun on October 30, 2015.
By Larry Beasley
Suburbs — they are the most dramatic phenomenon of city growth since the onset of the Industrial Revolution. Enabled by the mass availability of the automobile and growing household wealth, they stretch out over the landscape in almost every modern city as far as the eye can see and the mind can comprehend. They have a vast footprint and very low scale and intensity. They waste space; they gobble up nature; they homogenize the urban experience. Professional planners and city designers speak of them as profoundly unsustainable, impossible to provide with services, socially exclusive, and personally alienating. For the last half century, they have been anathema to any progressive, forward-looking view of how to build cities for the future. Even the name has been a negative expression: “SUB-urb”, less than a city, not quite what it should be, a lower form of living.
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.