URBAN DESIGN: A brief insight!

There's a hell of a lot more to city building . . . than floggin' real estate!


"Urban design is politics"
Charles Christopherson 2009.

"Narrow covered pedestrian passageways wind through the block, creating links to surrounding streets. A small atrium courtyard, large central courtyards and arcaded walkways alternatively compress and explode the experience of the pedestrian."
Debra L. Bodner BA MA MCIP: graduation thesis SCARP 2008.

Cultural/economic/social under pinnings?
Or what!

NEFC Vancouver BC.

Focusing on
VANCOUVER's defining public place.

Don't let those smooth little men in expensive suits into your neighbourhood!

Two contrasting
nice little places in Yorkshire.

Prescient observations indeed: the essence of urban design. Put aside, planning departments, guidelines, confusing jargon, that's all it is! And if we can get beyond entrenched fear, let the conversation begin.

Discussion of our cities is wrought with emotion. Understandably no one wants to bad-mouth home. Huge vested interests have a stake in the status quo. Nevertheless there are many un-addressed issues: like it or not our cities, for the most part, are kept afloat by dissembling, face saving and self indulgence. Obsessively, and often illusively, the mantra "view of the mountains," or "the water" has crowded out our attention to tactile public space. Over-priced condos, over-built, incompatible neighbours and bland stumps, surrounded by tired by-law planting, in some places floors for doggie runs, while people sleep on the street . . . is that success?

Crushing sprawl envelops everything. Walking is enervating. Public transportation is none existent. Is that success?

Struggling to convince ourselves of our paper wealth, we survive on bail-outs. Vancouver became victim to this delusion in the early '70 when Team, a civic party, took over. Then Mayor Art Phillips declared Vancouver to be an "executive city", hiding the loss of forestry and fishing as its once essential industries of wealth-creation. The observant Alderman Rankin was sceptical. And, as he foresaw thirty years ago, the city is now up to its yings in Olympic Village debt. Is that success?

When we listen, with hope, to the advice of real estate direction we are really in a state of cognitative dissonance! Is that success?

Reluctantly, we must conclude, huge expenditures on decades of civic planning, the results are left seriously wanting! Is that success?

In my experience, in over half a century, we are closed minded to anyone who is not from out of town and bloviating "adoring feel-good". We have lost our hearts and souls: that is what the grey, wind-swept canyons of our creation are telling us. Conform and we are allowed to play!

Do we have the perspicacity to acknowledge failure?

" Chinas Grand Plans for Eco-Cities now lie abandoned. Mostly conceived by international architects, Chinas eco-cities were intended to be models of green urban design. But the planning was done with little awareness of how local people lived, and the much-touted projects have largely been scrapped."

What is a city supposed to be?

There is no apparent reason why architects and planners are sought for their opinion when the "urban" conversation heats up. Certainly they are ill-equipped to address multi-building inter-relationships, architects strive to be heroes, planners burrow through warrens of "regulation." Both are egregiously control-bound.

The contemporary city is left to the epic vagaries of the infallible "invisible hand"!

So, is it supposed to be pretty, or just a machine for living? Is it a big plum pudding wherein a lucky few can enjoy the view while ripping-off the earth? All this is conducted within the auspices of endless catch phrases, Paradise, or "world-class", or "new urbanism", or "growth", or "eco-density," or "sustainability" or "green": all cover for aggressive marketing.

When we speak so glibly of such words, bear in mind Newton's second law of thermodynamics, "Entropy" . . . nothing is sustainable.

And there is far more to cities than attractive fronts. So, understand the essentials: i.e. fractional reserve banking and the nineteenth century "closures." Most people live in debt! Good public urban space is rare!

Misleading public relations propagating the official distopia must be read in the context of a more enlightened point of view.

COOPERAGE VILLAGE, Vancouver BC: a humane improvement on what the city planning office proposes.
"Cooperage"Details here..

Suffice it to say past planning techniques have not served us well . . . time to move on . . . but old habits are not going to go "gentle into that good night". We need to make clear we don't need this any more . . .

Piazza del Campo: Siena

We know La Ciudad de Mexico recognises 12,000 urban spaces, we know La Condesa. You may walk to and fro: the Metro works best. We know about Ghibelline Siena. We know about Phillip II's "law of the Indies" and we know there is a better way. We enjoy the walk from Piccadilly Circus to Park Crescent: from Rue de Rivoli to Place de la Concorde . . . so what is the problem?

Hipodromo La Condense: Mexico City.

What is urban design, anyway? Intrinsically, urban design is politics, the equitable (or otherwise) distribution of the essential urban resource: land. But equally important it is a bridge between security and the sovereignty of home (tenants take notice), sustenance and work.

Succinctly urban design is the creation of public urban space within which we can freely roam and relax. It is that matrix of nothingness we spend a good deal of our urban life within and surrounded by. But it is more than socialising. It is also space for work: administration, exchange, wealth creation and connections.

If, then, it is that simple why are our cities in the twenty-first century so dysfunctional? Is it because the history of western development over the last two-hundred years, or more, is the co-option of the commons? The closure the laws of the eighteen and nineteen centuries, is it, privatisation of the money supply, debt by fractional reserve and privatisation of public services.

My personal opinions are . . .

1. Approval process:

a. Labyrinth creep has ossified the system. Every suggestion becomes a challenge. Public participation has degenerated into public information. Users take second place to cronies, an insitutionalized carapace is impossible to penetrate: our swagger is not developing liveable cities. Nothing short of a complete epiphany will suffice.

2. Form:

a. The AIBC / City FORMSHIFT competition became a fiasco.
b. So too, WHERE's THE SQUARE?.

b. Go here

c. . . . and here.

3. Use:

a. Any use will work so long as uses are integrated, and not intrusive.
b. Huge developments, from Canary Wharf to False Creek North are inhumane and should be incrementalized. The city's proposal for North East False Creek show the planning department has learned nothing.

4. Access:

a. Public space is of the essence. It identifies neighbourhoods.

5. Ambience.

a. Noise: the once omnipotent NBC had an urban limit of 50 dcbls. Heavy trucks on a busy street 50' away can generate 90 dcbls. I have taken readings, mid-day, mid-week at Dunsmuir at Howe, downtown Vancouver, of 90-94 dcbls. Noise seems not to be a part of our urban design conversations yet!
b. Air quality: IMECA reading for Mexico DF over 100 is unacceptable. 200 is not uncommon: that's when the schools close. There are no such readings in Canada: there should be! The debate continues: do carbon emissions cause global warming? The air we breath is foul, odorous and sometimes toxic. Not irrelevant to air quality, is global warming caused by Sun spots? If the air we breath is both odorous and foul remedies are of the essence.
c. Recreation: "Corb" designed for recreation on the roof. Why not?
d. Sun light: at least our over-developed urban towers are an improvement on the Mietskasernen or "Dame Henrietta's" efforts to replace the erstwhile Oxford Street "Rookeries." "Corb's" well intended response went too far. Hence today's "closers-and-closer" tower clusters.

6. Appearance:

a. Cone of vision: views are important. Recent evidence shows, however, that when development pressure increases public views gives way. Ultimately, though, in a dense point-tower configuration, view becomes the neighbouring buildings. Views, indeed, are of a real estate marketing concern rather than of sociability, affordability or urban design.
b. Build-to line: use it to define public urban space.
c. Appearance is generated by social economics.

7. Wealth creation:

a. Jobs: The essentials of growing and processing food. Intensive farming and food processing is the unrecognised wealth and jobs generator of the future.
b. Social. We cannot condone rising unemployment and believe we have a healthy society.

8. Nodes:

a. Nodes and linkages.: courtesy Daniel Appell.

Incomplete, but, hopefully, you get my point.


Market square, Victoria BC.

Fan Tan Alley, Victoria BC.

Bastion Square, Victoria BC.

Granville Mall, Halifax NS.

Spring Garden Road, Halifax NS.

Plaza Hidalgo: Coyoacan DF.

Metro General Anaya to San Angel: La Ciudad DF.

Carlton House to Regent Park: London UK.

Bastille to Place de la Concord: Paris Fr.

We have seen the end of growth, time to drop our expectations . . . QED.

Check in with me please!

Roger Kemble. The Canadian City. From St. John's to Victoria: a critical commentary. Harvest. Montreal. 1989.
Roger Kemble. "Out from Denial." Issues in Canadian Urban Design. Institute of Urban Studies. Winnipeg. 1995.
Stephen Hawkins. A Brief History of Time. Bantam, Toronto, 1988.
Roger Trancik. Finding Lost Space. Van Nostrand Reinholt. New York. 1986.

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