Monthly Archives: October 2010

Upcoming Downtown Tour

I keep meeting people who were on a Jane’s Walk of Kitchener’s Warehouse District last May 1st, given by me and enjoyed by about 80 participants. Lots of community connections were made that day, and it was a great way to see the district with a fresh eye.

Coming up this Monday, November 4, 2010

I’ll be leading a group of cultural geography students from Wilfrid Laurier University on a different tour, but with a similar focus on the realities of design, culture, and the built landscape that is Kitchener’s Downtown.

We are assembling in the Rotunda of Kitchener’s City Hall, at 3 pm, and will be heading out, rain or shine, for a 2 hour walk through the downtown and warehouse district. We’ll examine issues of place-making, heritage and culture, our understanding and use of the idea of downtown, and the relation of built form and architecture to the patterns of our everyday lives.

The tour is part of a third year Cultural Heritage Landscapes course given by Dr. Jody Decker of WLU’s Department of Geography & Environmental Studies. I met Dr. Decker through our efforts to derail the demolition of a cultural heritage landscape in Kitchener’s Warehouse District (unfortunately a lost cause).

Everyone is welcome to join us. It will be fun and informative.

The themes of Dr. Decker’s course, as stated in her abstract, are as follows:

  • The concept of culture
  • The concept of place (community, neighborhood)
  • The concept of landscape
  • The discourse of heritage (conservation, preservation, restoration, revitalization, as resource)
  • Cultural heritage landscapes (CHLs)

I’ll probably be talking about concepts that are most interestly presented in Italo Calvino’s work Invisible Cities, and I’m sure there will be lively debate about what we’re looking at.

Calvino’s imaginative work catalogues 55 cities in a fictional conversation between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo, as Marco describes (in fanciful terms) the cities of Khan’s empire. For the short first chapter, see here.

Here’s an excerpt:

In Ersilia, to establish the relationships that sustain the city’s life, the inhabitants stretch strings from the corners of the houses, white or black or gray or black-and-white according to whether they mark a relationship of blood, of trade, authority, or agency. When the strings become so numerous that you can no longer pass among them, the inhabitants leave: the houses are dismantled; only the strings and their supports remain.

From a mountainside, camping with their household goods, Ersilia’s refugees look at the labyrinth of taut strings and poles that rise in the plain. That is the city of Ersilia still, and they are nothing.

They rebuild Ersilia elsewhere. They weave a similar pattern of strings which they would like to be more complex and at the same time more regular than the other. Then they abandon it and take themselves and their houses still farther away.
Thus, when traveling in the territory of Ersilia, you come upon the ruins of abandoned cities, without the walls which do not last, without the bones of the dead which the wind rolls away: spiderwebs of intricate relationships seeking a form.

Look forward to seeing you on Monday. 3 pm, City Hall, Kitchener.

Community Tensions

Recent municipal elections here in our watershed included a referendum for both Kitchener and Waterloo voters on the question of whether each city’s council could discuss the pros and cons of amalgamation. Since these communities have been joined at Union Street for nearing half a century, this is a sort of “across the fence” conversation.

The tension around the dynamics of local and regional governance are real, with many concerns regarding changes to the present uneasy balance of shared and autonomous authority. The tension might even be a good and necessary aspect of our community’s recipe for success.

Other amalgamations in our province (Ontario) have had mixed results, so there’s little evidence that such actions increase efficiencies at the neighbourhood level, and some evidence that decisions move further from the citizen.

In the end the larger municipality, Kitchener, voted 2-1 in favour of conversation. The smaller, Waterloo, 2-1 against. So the politicians won’t be discussing the question. Which doesn’t mean that it isn’t important, or that citizens can’t have that discussion.

A local blogger, Hilary Abel, has started a conversation forum asking Waterloo citizens to share their reasons for voting no. It’s an interesting read.

Dear Residents of Waterloo

Working with Waterfront

Brantford has approved a Waterfront Master Plan. Hopefully it’s a strategic plan more than a master plan. Master plans envision futures that never appear. First phases of master plans do get pursued, however, so let’s hope the first phases are strategic and beneficial, and provide flexibility for inevitable change.

Brantford’s Waterfront Master Plan

The goals (from the Report introduction):

“The Grand River and its tributaries are the lifeblood and a defining image of the City of Brantford. The Grand River valley has a great diversity of natural features and is enriched with an extraordinary historic legacy, evident of the aboriginal and european cultures that have settled this land for over 11,000 years. The Waterfront Master Plan will respect and reinforce this legacy and will define bold new directions that build on the tremendous successes of the City and its partners, who together have established 70 km of trails and hundreds of acres of public space.

  • The waterfront Master Plan will set forth a framework to protect the Grand River and its tributaries as a fundamental public resource for the residents of Brantford.
  • Natural features will be protected and enhanced and the cultural heritage will be interpreted so that all can understand and appreciate this area’s rich history.
  • The trails will be easily identified and accessed, and the network will become a widely recognized destination.
  • A diversity of places to access the water will be offered, providing for a variety of educational, recreational and leisurely activities that celebrate the Grand River and that will engage residents and visitors alike.
  • Appropriate development on adjacent lands will recognize the significance of these locations; be rooted in best practices in city building; strive for design excellence; and contribute positively to the waterfront and Brantford’s image.

And finally, the Waterfront Master Plan will inspire all residents to embrace this vision for sustainability and become stewards of this vital environment.”

Are all communities along the Grand working as hard to build upon this central and defining feature of our region?

Kitchener is working on a park master plan, available here but I’m not sure that the Grand River is properly viewed in the context of a parks plan. The river itself is obviously more central to Brantford and Galt, as the Speed is to Guelph, but the Grand River has the potential to unite us as a significant region in Southern Ontario.

Fool Me Once, Shame On Me: The Real Case for Quality

Some tidbits from our lives as architects, consultants, and designers.

The diagram above shows the inverse relation between changing your mind at the beginning of a project and changing your mind after you’ve built it. Just so you know!

That’s why thinking about what you’re going to do, and testing it, and investing in that thinking, makes a lot of sense. The farther down the road you go, the harder it is to make changes, and the more expensive it is to even make those small gains.

The  diagrams below illustrate a rough relation between your facility choices and your overall business or life cycle occupancy and project costs. Decide what to build. Build those decisions. Live with them for 20 years. What’s that like, in total cost terms? Analysis of that is called life cycle costing. It can get very complex, but hopefully these diagrams will illustrate why quality decisions and quality building are necessary if our built environment is going to get off the build-it-and-scrap-it treadmill.

Let’s assume the total cost of your facility, over its life span, is $1. Where does that buck go? We’ve prepared some diagrams to help. They’re based upon research into facility life cycle cost over 20 year periods, some studies coming out of California, and some elsewhere. Although the climate is different in California, the operating costs for our heat are replaced with their air conditioning, so the studies are somewhat applicable here in Southern Ontario too. And for the cogniscenti, no, they don’t include project wrap-up residual values!

The first diagram shows the relation we’ve accepted, whether as home or business owner, for every facility dollar: spend two pennies thinking (or often less, or nothing at all); spend a quarter building the decisions; and inherit 73 cents in operating and maintenance costs.

The next diagram shows what can happen if an additional 3 pennies are wisely spent on better thinking and better building (a further 1/2 cent more in the thinking, perhaps 2 1/2 cents more in building).

That 73¢ cost for operating and maintenance for most building types can drop by 10¢ or more. That saving pays for a third of the whole building project (and many times the additional investment in thinking and better construction), without even considering the higher value of the 20 year old asset that you own at the end (residual value).

But wait, buy now and get a free bonus offer!! Better buildings increase staff productivity through reduced absenteeism, staff turnover, job performance and satisfaction, estimated at about 7% across many building types both public and private.

Your bill for productivity (as salary and benefits) over that same 20 year period, the real reason you built the facility in the first place, is about nine times the facility dollar.

So that 7% productivity gain translates into a dollar in your jeans for every 10 dollars of salaries and benefits, courtesy of the careful and responsible project you constructed with the savings.

Oh, and what does your architect spend your thinking cent on? That’s the last diagram.

Think Better. Build Better. Enjoy Forever! It’s worth a cent!

Prosperity Without Growth?

How do we generate equitable prosperity within an ecosystem (a planet, a watershed, a community) without using the growth model that we are addicted to?

as governments, as consumers, as businesses.

All the numbers tell us that the growth model is unsustainable, but are we listening? The following link will take you to a talk by Dr. Albert Bartlett of the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Please take the time to view this series of Youtube videos (8 parts) where the mathematics of our reliance on the growth model are explained in simple, yet powerful terms. While the talk is called Arithmetic, Population, and Energy, the series is posted under the title

The Most IMPORTANT Video You’ll Ever See

Then, if you’re still up for it, take a look at Dr. Tim Jackson, professor of Sustainable Development at the University of Surrey, setting the stage for positive discussion of what we must work toward if we are to create viable alternatives to the growth model that informs so much of our present dilemma:

Prosperity Without Growth

The United Kingdom has a Sustainable Development Commission (SDC) that issued in 2009 its report of that title, a “thinkpiece” offered by Dr. Jackson.

both the report and its critics key in on the components of the present system: reliance on growth and consumerism for the expanding economic pie that allows for stability in the face of inequality (that is, I am better off so increasing inequity is less painful to bear) and its relation to the destruction of the environment that appears so necessary to sustain the model. A trajectory that we know leads to the cave.

An important part of how we design our communities and spaces, says Dr. Jackson, is the role that public space plays in ensuring that inequality remains tangible, and consumers do not retreat fully from relation with one another, so that the larger issue of where we are headed can be discussed and addressed.

We agree.


Oh    how     we     love    to    divide our Communities!

Work, Play, and Living

the compartments of our modern day.

Work is further divided into its performance, its management, and its capital. To this capital, in the view of some, accrues all the risk and therefore all the rewards. For others, the performance of Work is value added rather than a wage-time equation, and that value should be rewarded. In the face of economic calamity, we now wonder whether managers have managed anything except their own self-interest, in a world where the virtues of self-interest are everywhere lauded.

We’ve been busy parsing Play as well, so that the family’s rush from one activity to the next often seems more like Work in another form. Concepts of leisure and play as an unstructured and open-ended creative activity have been pre-empted by organized sport and rules.

And Living? We’ve divided that into styles. “Lifestyle” is an image of ourselves, separate from Work and Play, a treadmill of consumption powered by marketing. Pursuit of image takes all our gains from the world of Work and turns them into brief moments of self-respect won through a purchase, only to be lost as the treadmill moves on.

Our cities have evolved so that each of these three compartments of existence has its rightful place:

  • the business district and industrial zone for Work;
  • the park and the “natural” landscape for Play;
  • the suburb for Living.

As an integrated design for improving the quality of life for the many, we might argue that is has served us well. We might, but only if we ignore its “externalities” (to borrow from those dismal scientists, the economists).

To illustrate the inherent problems with division as a prescription for progress, consider the following. Two economists are walking down a road, one more experienced than the other. They come upon a pile left by a horse, and the more experienced offers the junior $10,000 to eat it. After careful cost-benefit analysis of this opportunity, the junior agrees. The transaction is completed, and they set off again. Further along, another pile of manure is encountered. In a spirit of equality the junior then offers the same bargain to his companion, who comes to the same conclusion with a reciprocal result. Onward they go. After some time, however, the junior economist gives voice to his suspicion that they are not really better off for having the same money but having both eaten a pile of horseshit. “Well, that may be true”, said the more experienced, “but you overlook the fact that we’ve just been involved in $20,000 worth of trade.”

I introduce this unsavoury story as a segue to three ideas.

One is that our present world situation obviously involves experts, phantom trade and large amounts of excrement, lacking only a fan to complete the picture.

Second is that as a result of this turmoil our design for living is to undergo a radical transformation. It involves dealing with the by-products of decades of wasteful consumption, whether our monied and middle classes find it palatable or not.

Third is that rather than swallowing the offerings of expertise applied to each individual transaction and compartment of our lives, each pile we encounter, we might benefit from a more holistic, and arguably more sophisticated, approach practiced in that literal “externality” to our cities: our surrounding agricultural landscape.

Oh those hicks! What has the farmer to teach us!? Well, perhaps quite a lot.

First and foremost is that we are part of a larger system: of climate and land, of production and sustainable input. Sophisticated and sustainable farming practices may divide the fields among pasture and crop, apportion herds between milk and meat production, and make use of sophisticated technologies, but the farmer always views the land and his family’s living as a sustainable system. The system must incorporate, rather than ignore, its by-products, and actually deal with the externalities of weather and market. Careful husbandry involves longterm solutions and continuous adaptation through dedication to the efficiency of the system rather than a middleman content to maximise only a part of it.

Expertise and innovation can be applied to aspects of the operation, but is judged in the context of the whole. Farming is not about the divisions among work, management, and capital, but their integration. The family farm is a functioning enterprise where Work, Play, and Living cannot begin to properly describe what is at stake. The farmer’s connection to his land, his animals, and his family is pastoral in the best sense of the word: neither romantic nor idealised, but based on a deep understanding and care, an enormous amount of work for the benefit of others.

Can you design the farm and farm life? Krista Duynisveld, in her recently defended Masters Thesis in Architecture, has grappled with this question. For her, the seed of the answer lies in the nature of design itself: “energy, community, land stewardship, ecology and environment, architecture, mechanisation, economics and agribusiness, urban sprawl, aging farm population, and consumerism are the issues that design must work within and develop solutions for.”

It is clear that design can play a role in our environment and our communities, but not in the way that we have designed our buildings, our cities, and our suburban life to date.

Perhaps our efforts  should be directed toward a new and more sustainable design for living, and perhaps, just perhaps, a greater appreciation for the sophisticated and integrated design that hard and enduring work upon the land can accomplish.

Healthy Cities Help Raise Children

A few years back, our neighbours across the street in our downtown Kitchener neighbourhood (Victoria Park) proudly announced the impending arrival of their firstborn. “Fantastic!”, we said. “A playmate for our own children. More laughter up and down our street!!!” Alas, it was not to pass. The parents-to-be had another plan: a quick getaway to the outskirts of town. “We can’t raise children here. It really would be better for them in the suburbs.” Ouch! We waved goodbye through the exhaust of their moving van, and slunk back to our front porch to ponder our failure as parents. We knew as well as anyone the litany of evil that permeates our culture’s notions of “the City”, in stark contrast to its healthier and morally superior country setting. What were we thinking in exposing our offspring, their minds tender and not yet made up, to straight streets named after citizens, mature trees, and schools with two floors? While we weren’t swaddling them directly in unspoilt nature, couldn’t we at least procure the safety of pastoral scenes but a few subdivisions yonder?

As early as the 1950’s, that prescient urbanist Jane Jacobs lamented the geographic cleaving of North American cities along the lines of age and gender. Communities designed as a daily pattern of break-up, with breadwinners commuting each day to the concrete jungle, leaving the women and children safely ensconced in a more predictable, healthier, and “natural” setting. The gains we have made since those times (for women, for instance) have largely been about participation in this model, not as a fundamental change to it. If anything we have further reinforced the geographic isolation through public school closures and the relocation of high schools out of our downtowns, so that a teenager’s exposure to “life on the streets” is first minimised, and then redefined as a fearful dead end. Our children visit Downtown Toronto more than their own community cores, and they are now a second and third generation removed from any experience of the healthy hustle and bustle of a 1950’s main street.

We have planned our cities to reinforce a perception of urban streets as inherently dangerous. Our media dutifully report and dramatise this state of affairs. Statistics and facts are skewed in support of a powerful piece of urban mythology: Downtown is where the crime is! If we cannot eliminate it, then we should at least contain it geographically. Our hopes for the young and vulnerable are that they be protected from this den of iniquity, only bearing witness to the carnage through the flat screen of NYPD Blue, Cops, and sundry reality shows: the prime-time line-up from which our potential assailants are stereotyped.

Urban districts that do not include for children must surely be condemned as inadequate. The active presence of children is a fundamental measure for the health of our streets. Where they are absent, our design has failed. It is unfortunate that we have so few examples in North America for the integrated design of schools, shops, work, entertainment, recreation space, cultural experience, and accommodation within one geographic district. The City of Vancouver and other municipalities that lack a farm belt into which they might endlessly expand are leading the search for this new city form, and a return to a sustainable urban model for living. In the words of Larry Beasley, former Director of Planning for the City of Vancouver: “without its comprehensive ‘living first’ strategy, Vancouver would be lightyears behind where it needs to be. Most of all, the city would not have realized its dream for an urban lifestyle that will draw people back from their 50-year romance with the suburbs, bringing with them their resources, energy, and creativity to build the kind of remarkable city that an extraordinary natural setting and the city’s people so richly deserve.” Sound appealing? This weekend, why not explore a new frontier.  Bring your kids downtown.