Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Seven Rules for Sustainable Communities

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Patricks Condon launched his new book yesterday at SFU. I was there – and I was also one of the first to get out my credit card. I am proud to have a first edition signed by the author.

The organisers had moved to a bigger room due to the level of interest but even so I felt crowded: there were lots of people standing around talking, drinking and schmoozing. A number of former politicians were invited including Gordon Price (of course) Darlene Mazari and – to my delight – Anne Edwards who was Minister, when I worked for Energy Mines, and (back then) gave me peppermint tea at the leg. No other minister of my acquaintance has ever done such a thing.

Former Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan spoke first: I wrote down his main points

“Anything I ever said I copied from you. Thank you for this gift. It will provide guidance for cities across the country and we really need some guidance.”

Brent Toderian, current Director of Planning said that the book shows Patrick’s deep understanding of the Vancouver model. He thought the book would be of value to many different audiences – students and practitioners – and was “completely relevant to urban issues”. He also thought it important for citizen activists – very complex issues being covered in an accessible way. “I don’t necessarily agree with everything the book says but I am sure it will be quoted on the UBC line corridor … You do us a great service”

Patrick Condon responded by contrasting our political culture to that of Boston. There, he said, decisions are made by groups entrenched since the pilgrims. This is a region where there is vibrant dialogue about what sort of region it should be – and that dialogue been going on for 40 years. While we may feel less than successful, everyone else [in North America] sees us as the great urban hope for other places to emulate – and that is what is happening in St Louis, San Franciso and even Minneapolis!

We have created a powerful force. He said he felt “quite anxious: since the work was done in charrettes and communities – by thousands of people. His aim had been to keep the book simple and organised “to be read on a cross country airline trip”. He noticed that in airport book stores “fully half of the books were self help manuals” so he chose to follow the same formula – chapter 1 theory, chapters 2 to 7 – rules. This method was originally adopted as the 12 steps to sobriety but now gets applied to almost everything we need to achieve.

He hopes that is has reduced the complexity into one theory and seven simple rules that we can follow. But he cautioned that at best it will only be partially successful but all the issues connect.

I want now to address the people who regularly comment on this blog and who have seized on Chapter 2 to once again rehash the very stale debate about streetcars versus skytrain that seems to obsess us. I suggest that they reread the title first. Patrick has produced a manual for urban planning “Design Strategies for a Post-Carbon World.” While the first one of his rules is “restore the street car city” that is only one of seven, and mainly applies to the areas which used to be streetcar cities. He also says “concepts that presume extremely high density urban areas linked by rapid transit systems seem inconceivably at odds with the existing fabric of both prewar and postwar urban landscapes and beyond our ability to afford”.

I would add that we have singularly failed to adopt such a concept – despite what the Livable Region Strategic Plan and Transport 2021 said. Firstly, the language they used was emollient – and wide open to interpretation by people who had no sympathy at all for the plans’ objectives (though mostly they kept that quiet). Secondly, the regional bodies who produced those plans and who were charged with implementing them had no powers to do so. The decisions were also made by entrenched groups – who felt little responsibility to the people who lived in the region, but served the interests of the developers and other large corporate investors. This had much more to do with continuing the processes of turning “raw land” into profits as fast as possible that has characterised the European approach to what they call BC since they got here. Developers decided they wanted the Olympics, the Sea to Sky, the Canada Line, the Gateway program and all the rest. The choice to go for grade separated rapid transit was more about leaving car traffic as untrammelled as possible. But that was not the most – or the only – decision that mattered. Regional town centres are not high density – higher in spots maybe but overall we are still a low density region. Most of Vancouver is still “single family” designation and density – even though that now includes lots of secondary suites. The region as a whole has become more like every other North American suburban area than the distinctive place that the LRSP sought to make it. Above all, we still mostly drive everywhere for everything. Those who choose to be car free are the exceptions. And it is the accommodation of those cars that still decides what sort of places get built – even where there is some good quality transit service nearby. Mostly the region does not have high speed rapid transit – and if you ignore West Coast Express (which only serves commuting to downtown Vancouver) – the map of rapid transit coverage is very obviously only a small part of the region. And mostly not the part that will be absorbing the next million people.

So we need to follow not just Rule 1 – restore the streetcar city. We need to read and understand all seven rules.

2   Design an interconnected street system

3   Locate commercial services frequent transit and schools within a five minute walk

4   Locate good jobs close to affordable homes

5   Provide a diversity of housing types

6   Create a linked system of natural areas and parks

7   Invest in lighter, greener, cheaper and smarter infrastructure.

And it is those last six I want to see discussed below. We have had quite enough discussion about rule 1, thank you very much, and that can stop now. If your comment on this post does not address issues other than rapid transit technology choice it will be deleted as off topic

And for everyone who can go buy this book – that link goes to the $60 hardback version: here is the $30 paperback

Make sure your local library buys them too!

Written by Stephen Rees

May 11, 2010 at 10:39 am

Posted in Urban Planning

8 Responses

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  1. Condon does say some interesting things but his insistence that we don’t need high speed transit to UBC is insulting to students like myself (although I attend UVic). Students cannot afford to live near UBC and thus by opposing high speed transit to UBC all you are doing is condemning large numbers of students to extremely long rides in buses, possibly putting them off riding transit after they graduate. Counter-productive at best.

    Corey Burger

    May 11, 2010 at 10:57 pm

  2. The characterization of Boston is dead wrong, as it is a city with a hodgepodge of mixed subway/lightrail/BRT and higher-speed heavy rail. The MBTA is hardly made up of an ossified group of pilgrims, but more likely sixties radicals who spent too much time in Timothy Leary’s acid lab. Just consider for a second the recent Silver Line!

    On transit policy, no one is looking to Vancouver for anything other than how NOT to route or construct rapid transit: a curlicue shape like Expo? P3 DBFO’s that suck $70 million out of T-link’s budget every year?

    But back to Rules 2-7.

    Rule 2 is straight out of Jane Jacobs; unimpeachable!
    Rule 3 is the medieval village model, a piece of history Vancouver missed but which could be recaptured through the Neighbourhood Centres Program IF Vancouver planners listened to citizens with area knowledge.
    Rule 4 would be great if Vancouver had a more vibrant and stable industrial base, but high real estate costs and a lack of commitment to industrial policy have destroyed the city’s well-paid jobs base. Employment is in crisis, and is worsening!
    Rule 5 is absolutely essential given the Van Special/Duplex/Tower tri-culture that defines the city. The most sustainable, affordable, and ecological building form, the mid-rise apartment block, is being torn down with abandon, while poorly-insulatable and -enveloped glass and concrete towers replace them.
    Rule 6 is being eroded by policies that currently promote development in parks, such as NEFC and Hastings. This is where Vancouver’s livability is most at risk.
    Finally, Rule 7 brings us back to Rule 1, which is off bounds.

    A “city of neighbourhoods” could thrive under Patrick’s Seven Rules, becoming a unique multicultural mosaic woven together by transit and by a deeper respect for diverse built forms and lifestyles. The current monocultural model is doomed to fail, and waste resources now best spent on the transition to a post-carbon world…before we lose sister-city Richmond to floods.

    Randy Chatterjee

    May 12, 2010 at 12:36 am

  3. Moderator’s note

    This comment has been deleted as it deals solely with LRT v Skytrain

    D. M. Johnston

    May 12, 2010 at 7:03 am

  4. 3-Locate commercial services frequent transit and schools within a five minute walk
    I have visited several dozen medieval towns (out of the several hundreds there are in the region of my birth), built between the 13th and 14th cent. with streets at straight angles from one another. I lived in one for several years. It has now just over 2000 people, including the suburbs.
    The stores are concentrated on the main street and around the main square. The school is outside the historical centre as the later was too densely built to have enough room for a school.
    This is perhaps an extreme example, but the 5 minutes rule is unrealistic. In all the tightly built towns I have lived in (in several European countries, not just one) most people walked or biked for 10-30 minutes to get to stores, school etc. It was not much of a hardship…in fact my grandma walked 1 km and back to the shopping area twice a day..not by need but for the exercise and the chance of talking to different people.

    4-Locate good jobs close to affordable homes.
    What is the definition of close? and affordable?
    Until recently many people in Europe worked from the home, as people have been doing for thousand of years. It wasn’t just the owner of a small grocery store that lived above or behind it. A pharmacist, doctor, notary, lawyer, architect, tailor, shoemaker, cabinet maker, and many others in various white and blue collar jobs, lived and worked in their home.
    There was a zoning that came out of common sense as much as from bylaws. Businesses that had to have a storefront were on major streets were they could be easily seen. Other businesses, like a doctor, notary, lawyer, architect,etc lived anywhere.
    It wouldn’t be realistic to have a noisy factory near homes.

    5-Provide a diversity of housing types.
    In many European and Asian towns there are low to mid-rise apartment buildings (up to 6 stories), with stores on the ground floor, along major avenues. Along secondary streets within a block made by major avenues, the buildings are often row houses for one or several families. No lawn in front, or a small one, but there is usually a private garden in the back.
    Toronto and Montreal pretty much follow that planing outside the downtown core.
    However many of the European suburbs built since the 70s look like North American ones. including big shopping malls with huge parking lots.

    When I first visited Japan I was quite surprised to see that there were so many single family homes in the central area of major towns like Tokyo and Osaka (within the railway loop line surrounding the oldest part of the town)

    6-Create a linked system of natural areas and parks.
    This is definitely a must but not always easy to do. Linear parks separating neighbourhoods would be especially practical and more accessible on a weekly, if not daily basis, than the 1 or 2 giant park found in so many old cities, parks that are too far from most homes to be used regularly.

    7-Invest in lighter, greener, cheaper and smarter infrastructure.
    This is fast becoming a legal requirement in many countries. By 2013 all new houses in several Euro countries will have to be “low consumption buildings” i.e using a maximum of 50KW per square meter per year (the floor area used for calculating energy consumption is smaller than the built area). Already many LCB houses (BBC in French) are being built as the buildings materials and the technical knowledge is there.In most cases they use alternate energies.
    Some companies even build zero energy homes.

    Unlike here the general public has been sensitized to the need to save energy. Monthly architecture and decoration magazines have monthly articles about it and national Hydro and gas companies have ads on TV, in the printed media etc.

    Besides hammering the message about energy saving, Euro governments have a whole range of zero-interest loans, grants, sizable income tax reductions etc.to help

    The construction industry in Europe is also totally different from here. By and large average single family homes are one off, meaning custom built. Either by a small builder or, more often than not, by a small builder that is a franchisee from a major company. And no they aren’t that expensive.

    Because the building companies compete for customers they have an incentive to adopt the latest energy saving requirements.
    Even homes built as part of a subdivision opened by a company are partly custom-made. The builder doesn’t build houses for a future average customer. He will wait for a client and help the later chose one of several possibles houses, then tweak it, especially the interiors, to the client needs. The builders, expecting owners to choose what they like and need, offer a big choice of everything, from appliances–in many more sizes and styles than here–to wall plugs and switches in a hundred of colours and styles.

    Even condos apartments are custom-made to a great extent. Not the building itself but what is inside each apartment. Even non-load bearing partitions can be easily moved around.

    Single family homes in Japan are also custom made for the most part. Toyota build some pretty nice homes..

    Red frog

    May 12, 2010 at 1:25 pm

  5. Thank you once again Red Frog for all the information.

    East Vancouver is the land of the “cookie cutter” home. Virtually every house built since WWII is identical to every other house built in the same year, right down to the floor plan. Only on particularly large/small lots is there any variation and even those are easily predicted once you’ve seen an example.

    A well trained observer could probably draw the floor plan of every house on my block just by looking at Google street view.

    OK, onto the rules.
    #2 as Randy said, unimpeachable. The suburban cul-de-sac has only one redeeming quality: it’s a great place for street hockey games.

    #3 I agree with Red Frog that a 10 minute walk makes more sense and is probably an order of magnitude easier to achieve.

    #4 This is standard mixed land use stuff. Great in theory, but difficult to achieve in practice. There are now 3 generations who have been trained that they should aspire to own a single family home in the suburbs. Although there are signs of change in attitudes I’m still seeing huge developments that consist entirely of residential floor space.

    The days of a small business operator living at his/her shop are gone and even in areas with mixed uses there are financial incentives to leaving the area to shop. Costco, WalMart et al often undercut local businesses by so much that it’s worth burning a whole tank of gas getting there and back. Looking into the future, peak oil should bring some balance back to the neighbourhood, but we must remain wary: the search for balance essentially wiped out the Jedi ;)

    Also gone is the concept of someone doing the same job his/her whole life. People cannot be expected to move every time they change jobs so actually achieving this goal is extremely difficult. If you de-centralize employment too much you run into the problem of never having enough people heading in the same direction at the same time to justify public transit.

    #5 No sane developer is going to under-build a site so you wind up with the maximum permitted. The owner of the land next door doesn’t want to be left out and petitions for the same zoning. This continues until a rather large homogeneous area is developed. Unless a developer chooses to produce a mix of housing within a given site there may be little variation across several square km.

    #6 Another great idea that’s hard to achieve. Even when a master plan contains the required amount of green space, it’s next to impossible to ensure it connects with the green space in or planned for all the surrounding sites. Too many connected parks actually works against #2.

    #7 As mentioned in my comment on #4, dispersed housing and employment combined with employee mobility makes commuting patterns far more complex. Instead of a 100 people leaving a subdivision and heading for the paper mill, we now have 100 individuals going in 100 different directions.

    All forms of heavy transportation infrastructure owe their very existence to the idea that one route will satisfy many people. In an era of decentralization freeways and subways lose their raison d’être. Lighter and cheaper becomes a necessity.

    David

    May 12, 2010 at 4:22 pm

  6. Well, first of all, as one of a few trillion carbon-based creatures, I find the title rather distressing:)

    3-6 seem fine. I’d have to see 7 but the principle is OK.

    Unfortunately, from what I have seen of the book, assuming the intent is to provide a way forward to a fossil fuel free world, several of the ideas and the arguments used to back them up are far from compelling. For one, corridors should be evaluated on a case by case basis to determine the best form of transit. There is little value in providing average costs for certain technologies as Condon has done in the book as the averages will vary widely as ridership varies and increases in the future.

    Including automobiles is a bit ridiculous as all of the transit technologies provide much greater capacity. To expand the capacity for automobiles on many corridors would be several times that of any transit system, gold plated or otherwise. The predictable result is sensational headlines saying it is cheaper to buy everyone a Prius, which really doesn’t help the debate.

    The discussion of the streetcar city ignores the fact that there was both interurbans and other intercity and inter-province trains that provided people with choices for longer trips.

    I find it very North American centric ignoring what has been very successful in European cities.

    An interconnected street system is a particularly bad idea unless it is only interconnected for cyclists and pedestrians. What ever the network, walking and cycling trips should be faster and more convenient than driving. The city should be designed around walking and cycling first, then transit. Many European cities and towns have car free centres. Drivers must go around the city to get to locations on the other side while cyclists and pedestrians can go through the centre where the train station is often located.

    Copenhagen and Amsterdam are excellent examples of cities that have very low levels of car use. This has been accomplished through car-free streets, providing great cycling facilities and by fast trains for longer trips. Copenhagen has a grade separated light metro that is almost a carbon copy of the Canada Line. This was not done I expect to minimize the impact on car traffic.

    Regarding your comments on the region. It is really important to not lump the whole region together. There has been significant progress that has been made in the portion of the region that is served by rapid transit. Sure, there is much to be done in all parts of the region but to totally say the plans have failed is not correct.

    In Vancouver, Burnaby and New West the transit mode share for work trips was 25% in 2006 and, especially in Vancouver, I expect it is much higher now. In Vancouver, the number of people commuting to work by car was only 55% in 2006. It could be lower than 50% now.

    Yes, there is much work to be done. However, I find little reason to totally change the regional land use and transportation plans. What is needed is execution and leadership, nether of which is well served by the kind divisive debates that this book tends to spur.

    Richard

    May 12, 2010 at 9:16 pm

  7. One important factor that I forgot to mention, likely because it is for me so obvious, is the importance that many people give to established historical neighbourhoods. In many cities, not just in Europe but on other continents (including towns in Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes) there is a respect for older types of town planning and housing styles that have been found flexible and adapted to human needs. There is no large scale destruction of homes over 50 years old to replace them by bigger new ones.

    A few weeks ago I was looking at homes for sale in midtown and downtown Toronto and was happy to see that whole areas full of older homes are still the same as in the 1970s (most of the houses have been redone inside but the outside looks the same. There has been some infill or a replacement by a modern home, here and there, but in a similar size.

    I rented a studio in a big Victorian house, a few blocks from Bloor st West and Saint George st, a very appealing area real-estate wise, with lots of these big Victorian houses. My former house is still there though now it is a B & B.
    Yet I am pretty sure that Toronto doesn’t have the very protective bylaws preserving huge historical areas that European towns have. It is the people that want it that way. And no the houses aren’t more expensive than here, even those, like the one I lived in, that was near 2 subway lines.

    Red frog

    May 13, 2010 at 1:52 am

  8. While I appreciate Patrick Condon’s work on sustainable urbanism, especially pertinent to local applications and real planning processes (i.e. charrettes), I found Seven Rules largely replicates previous works by others with a wider view.

    In addition, his advocacy of one transit technology over practically all else has become a forced distraction locally, and esentially places ureasonable limits on the responses to the plethora of challenges facing a wide diversity of North American cities this century.

    I recommend picking up published works by the following urban designers and social scientists and putting them on the shelf next to Seven Steps.

    http://www.pps.org/jgehl/

    http://www.gehlarchitects.com/#/159108/

    http://sustainablecities.dk/en/actions/interviews/jan-gehl-making-healthy-cities

    http://www.calthorpe.com/publications/pedestrian-pocket-book-new-suburban-design-strategy

    http://www.theupsideofdown.com/

    http://www.homerdixon.com/index.html

    MB

    May 18, 2010 at 11:33 am


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