Thursday, May 26, 2011

Video: Rear Window, Canucks Edition

Here's what part of downtown Vancouver sounded like when the Canucks scored a tying goal with seconds left.

video uploaded by chloejohns

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Ken Greenberg Talks Flexible Urbanism in New Book

(this article originally appeared on Spacing Toronto on May 24, 2011)

Walking Home: The Life and Lessons of a City Builder by Ken Greenberg, Random House Canada, 400 pages, $29.95

After the election of Rob Ford, it seemed as though many urban-minded people in the city wanted to Rip Van Winkle-themselves through the next four years. And, as we hear about the collapse of the Fort York Bridge and rumblings of a potential waterfront shake-up, it’s difficult not to read Ken Greenberg’s new book on city building, Walking Home, without a bittersweet tinge.

Walking Home is, as the subtitle says, the life and lessons of a city builder. In this case, one Ken Greenberg, born a New Yorker, former Director of Urban Design and Architecture for the City of Toronto, and current principal at Greenberg Consultants.

Anyone paying attention to recent debates in urban planning and design won’t be surprised to see discussions around walkability, sustainable neighbourhoods, bikes, density, and active streetscapes. What makes Walking Home interesting, however, is Greenberg’s pitch for a flexible, adaptable urbanism.

In Greenberg’s view, a static city is a dead city. Instead, he argues, the city should be recognized as ever-evolving, fluid, and responsive. “I began to grasp,” he writes, “that building places where people lived was not a matter of determinism through design but a matter of creating ‘platforms’—open-ended frameworks that people could build upon as they wished, with the underlying design as enabler or inhibitor.”

Think of cities as open-source software, a kind of urban Wikipedia in which we are all constantly adding, deleting, and modifying. The truly dynamic places in our city need to have that flexibility built into them. This doesn’t mean we should leave our cities to chaos, though. Coherence and flexibility must both be balanced, Greenberg says.

The point is that true city builders are aware that the reason places become places rather than just spaces is because of the people that use them. If no one wants to use them, they sit dead and empty. The difference, Greenberg suggests, is flexibility. Don't overdesign. "Less is often more," he writes. Kensington Market is a perfect example of a place that has grown and evolved over time, where old houses are reused for other means.

And what worked then might not work now, Greenberg says, cautioning against mimicry and nostalgia. This reminded me of Cornell, a community in Markham built following the New Urbanist credo of harkening back to a small town design. Houses are close together with driveways in the back, trees abound, and there is even a main street with small retail spaces and residential units above. While it sounds like the Annex—and the planning philosophy of creating a walkable, green neighbourhood is commendable—the result feels eerily like a set for The Truman Show. What makes the Annex the Annex is how it has evolved over the years into a neighbourhood of architectural diversity, spontaneity, and a comforting messiness. Maybe, given enough time, Cornell can do the same, but we can’t expect places to cohere just because we are following a formula.

He also expresses wariness toward what he refers to as the “Big Bang Theory” of city building. The idea that we can just plunk a casino or a starchitect-designed building or—ahem—a waterfront stadium somewhere and, just as if we were sprinkling fairy dust, watch our city grow into an exciting place. What he advocates for instead is the incremental approach, which doesn't treat the urban realm as a giant game of Sim City, but allows for change and growth over time in a more organic way. Finding intelligent ways in which to graft and insert density into our cities, like infill projects, are ways to do this, he writes.

There are many negative books, ones that gleefully detail the downward spiral of our urban spaces, our rapacious hunger for energy, our sprawling suburbs, our deteriorating infrastructure. (For a good urban tongue-lashing, read James Howard Kunstler’s The Geography of Nowhere). It's far more difficult, however, to write a book that recognizes the challenges we face in our cities, while starting a constructive dialogue about how we might be able to get there. Greenberg manages to keep his head above water, and the end result is a book that feels hopeful and invigorating.

Although the book follows the path of Greenberg’s own life and work in placemaking, it avoids the danger of becoming simply a listing of his credentials and past accomplishments by weaving each project into a larger fabric.

Physical designs and theoretical concepts are written with the same fluidity and engagement, keeping the book smart, but accessible. And those that know little about planning history have nothing to fear, as Greenberg does the sweep through history picking up the usual suspects like Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, and Jane Jacobs on the way.

One thing, however, that kept nagging me throughout the book was the fact that our cities are growing increasingly unaffordable, pushing low-income people out of the very areas that are the beneficiaries of this kind of exciting city building. Although Greenberg touches on the issue of affordability throughout the book, it was never explored in depth. Many of the places mentioned, such as Vancouver's Yaletown are not exactly known for their affordability, and affordable housing units are usually the first on the chopping block when projects inevitably nudge over budget.

As we work our way towards the future, not only must we heed Greenberg’s call in creating these open-ended frameworks that build the kind of vibrant city we enjoy, but we must make sure that they are equitable places as well.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Photo: Euclid Street's New Racing Stripe

This lovely blacktop racing stripe is the newest edition to Euclid street and is part of the City's new beautification program in which construction work is combined with aesthetic upgrades.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Video: Goodbye Water, Goodbye Life

Check out this video made for the Stop the Quarry campaign by Dyson Forbes, which aims to educate people on the deleterious effects of a 2,400 acre limestone quarry proposed for the Town of Melancthon.

For more information on the proposed Ontario quarry, read this excellent Torontoist article from November 2009 by now Torontoist editor Hamutal Dotan. Torontoist also covered the more recent Stop the Quarry protest march that happened on April 26, 2011.

Pit Stop from Dyson Forbes on Vimeo.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Friday, May 6, 2011

Walkability Exhibit at Urban Space Gallery

Yesterday, I noticed a Walkability exhibition in the Urban Space Gallery at 401 Richmond that celebrates Jane's Walk--the series of free walking tours around the city in the memory of Jane Jacobs. There are dozens of walks in Toronto to choose from and even a handy iPhone app that helps you organize, search, and remind yourself about walks you're interested in.

The exhibit, draws on the work of Paul Hess, a Professor in the University of Toronto's Urban Planning and Design Program, and Jane Farrow, executive director of Jane's Walk. It showcases large poster-boards, each expressing a different tenet of walkability, from crosswalks needing to be properly spaced to creating paths where people actually walk to trying to avoid blind or narrow lanes.

One of the things not in the exhibit (but I can't remember all the poster-boards, so I could be wrong) was the fact that diversity in visual style can affect an area's walkability. I live on Bloor St West in the Annex, for example, right near where Spadina Ave cleaves Bloor in two--essentially acting as a dividing line between two very different streets. On the west side, you have small three-storey buildings with retail along the bottom, while on the east side you have increasing larger (and longer) buildings that all tend to look the same.

What I quickly found out living here is that walking west down Bloor is much more interesting and feels like it takes a shorter amount of time than walking east down Bloor, even if I'm actually walking the same distance. There's something about the shorter, older buildings and the fact that the stores change every ten feet that makes it much more interesting to walk west down Bloor, going so far as to even affect my sense of distance and time.

This happened, too, when I lived in White Rock, British Columbia and had to walk to high school every morning. We didn't live very far away (it was only about a ten minute walk), but it felt so long to me because it took me along boring suburban roads with no sidewalks, through a park with a hole cut into a fence, and then finally across two defunct asphalt tennis courts. It was boring, and therefore seemed much longer than the ten minutes it actually was, which meant that when it was offered I would often choose to hitch a ride in my mom's car.

All images were taken by me at the Walkability Exhibit at Urban Space Gallery, which features photographs by Katherine Child and graphic design by Mia Hunt. The exhibition was designed by Adam Zinzan-Harris.