Stephen Rees's blog

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

“Ecodesign for Cities and Suburbs”

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Yesterday evening we attended this free City program lecture by Larry Beasley and Jonathan Barnett. The large room was full and in his introduction Gordon Price said that bookings had filled up over the weekend after it had been posted late one Friday afternoon, something that had never before happened.

The event was video recorded is now available on YouTube

Here are two extracts from the SFU City Programme site announcement

A couple of North America’s best urban designers have distilled two careers’ worth of knowledge into a new book:Ecodesign for Cities and Suburbs. The SFU City Program is pleased to host both Larry Beasley and Jonathan Barnett for a lecture that will explore the important themes from their book and their experience.

Come learn how cities can reshape themselves to limit global warming, re-energize suburban commercial corridors with bus rapid transit, reclaim wasteful transportation infrastructure for public amenities, and make cities more attractive for family living.

Specifically, Larry and Jonathan’s talk  covers the following:

  • Solutions for a city’s environmental compatibility
  • Diversifying movement choices
  • Urban consumers’ aspirations for quality livability
  • The pros and cons of community amenity contributions

About the Speakers

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus professor of practice in city and regional planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program at the University of Pennsylvania. He has extensive experience as an urban design consultant as well as an educator, and he is the author of numerous books and articles on the theory and practice of city design. Along with his PennDesign colleagues Gary Hack and Stefan Al, he teaches an online course called Designing Cities, available on Coursera.

Larry Beasley is the “distinguished practice” professor of planning at the University of British Columbia School of Community and Regional Planning. Along with Ann McAfee, he was the long-serving co-director of planning in Vancouver during the transformative years for the core city. He now teaches and advises cities around the world through his consultant firm, Beasley and Associates. He has been recognized with an outstanding alumni award and an honorary doctorate degree from SFU. He is also a member of the Order of Canada.

The event was a book promotion but was sponsored by Concord Pacific. There were copies of the book for sale at the back of the room and most of the illustrations used in the presentation were taken from the book. I was somewhat surprised to hear that the two authors had not physically been together during the book’s writing. I was also expecting – given the title and indeed the predominance of the design community in the room – that the content would be mainly about design. The term “ecodesign” was apparently coined by Kim Yang an architect from Singapore applied to buildings. The authors stated that they were applying it to cities. There was almost no reference to design thereafter.

Most of the talk from both presenters was about policy and implementation – and much of it concerned transportation. Very little of what I heard was either new or even very remarkable. Much of it would be very familiar to readers of this blog, and I feel that it would be pointless for me to type out the extensive handwritten notes I made during the presentation, which would be my normal mode of operation. As noted above for those who could not get in last night, there is the youtube video which is both more accurate and less coloured by my opinions.

I was also very surprised that both presenters read slabs of text from their book to top and tail their presentation, and while they did so the screen displayed what they were reading. Larry Beasley did not appear to have noticed too that there were slides to go with his opening introduction. Given that he is an educator, Jonathan Barrett’s presentation style was not exactly sparkling either.

In the section on mitigating the impact of climate change they concentrated on sea level rise – or rather the way that storm surges amplify that issue. They used New Orleans as one example. There is indeed a design issue here – as the US Army Corps of Engineers has now admitted. They also referred to the Thames Barrier in London, which was installed in the 1980s, long before sea level rise due to climate change was in the political cross hairs, but was said at the time to be a response to the south east of England slowly sinking. At least, as an employee of the Greater London Council at the time, that is what we in the Department of Planning and Transportation were told. It has apparently been raised far more often than was originally intended and will be inadequate by 2030.

I was also somewhat taken aback by a slide which showed a “regional solution” – which was not actually described in detail but shown on a map as red lines across the Juan de Fuca Strait and the outlet of the Salish Sea at Port Hardy. It was said that this would require international co-operation. Quite how the ports of Vancouver, Seattle and Tacoma would continue to operate was not revealed.

Larry Beasley’s section on how to get buy in from the suburbs was all about “experiential planning and urban design” by showing examples of what has worked in other places. By that he meant that people “spontaneously and of their own accord buy in to sustainable and more interesting practices” (as though the High Line had not been skillfully promoted for years). The book starts with examples and then tries to extrapolate common themes rather than starting from a theoretical construct. All the examples were familiar and a lot of them I have my own pictures to illustrate. Not Cheonggyecheon or Boston’s Big Dig, I’m afraid.

Promenade Plantee in Paris

Walkers and runners

Highline New York

More people
Times Square

 

Herald Square

Herald Square

False Creek North (Yaletown)

#1 Public space in Canada

The big challenge will be the suburbs, and change there will of necessity be incremental simply because the area they cover is so large. Cars will continue to predominate travel for a long time even though traffic congestion is a symptom of “suburban dysfunction”. Growth boundaries are essential and work but behind them is business as usual. Tysons Corner VA was cited as a good example where an extension of the Washington Metro will facilitate TOD, but for others places Bus Rapid Transit was actually referred to as a “silver bullet”. But not a B Line as we know it.

I must admit I was a bit taken aback at this assertion. The 98 B Line was actually quite close to BRT standards on part of No 3 Road and might have been convertible to LRT had the province listened to what Richmond actually wanted. Within Vancouver, of course, the City’s Transportation engineers insisted that no bus priority of any kind was acceptable. And Linda Meinhardt ensured that parking along the curb lanes and access for her deliveries would never be compromised.

So the solution to our problems is – they said – adopting more generally the regulatory and management techniques pioneered by Ray Spaxman, the collaboration and public engagement as practised by Anne McAfee and regulatory reform which would expect rather less from Community Amenity Contributions than the current practice here.

I did not stay for the Questions and Answers. Sorry.

 

2 Responses

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  1. It’s good to see Larry Beasley continuing on, if primarily concerned with a planning orientation over urban design.

    There is much more actual design on the menu, though, in Ken Greenberg’s “Walking Home” and Jan Gehl’s “Cities for People.” Both are retrosepctives of a collective 80 years or so of architectural and urban design projects between them all over the world. Greenberg is based in Toronto but had decades in NYC and the Netherlands in both the public and private sectors before landing in Canada.

    MB

    September 11, 2015 at 2:26 pm

  2. There is also a very good piece by Ray Spaxman in the Straight about the current vacancy in city planning

    http://www.straight.com/news/528481/ray-spaxman-regarding-vancouvers-next-director-planning-and-pursuit-truth?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter

    Stephen Rees

    September 11, 2015 at 2:43 pm


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