As most of you know, I’ve just started a new position at the Dalhousie University School of Planning. I’ve often thought that one barrier to effective public consultation in planning is the lack of knowledge about urban planning issues, such as the relationship between density and public transit provision or how a municipal plan sets out land use guidelines. It’s great to find out that Dal students are on the same page.

A few years ago, two undergraduate students, Byung Jun Kang and Uytae Lee, started producing videos that aim to educate the public about a variety of planning issues. The videos are between three and six minutes in length, and they often use humour to illustrate thorny issues. In September 2015, they incorporated as a non-profit co-operative called PLANifax that includes Byung Jun and Uytae as executive directors, three board members (current students and alumni), and many volunteers. Students do all kinds of work such as GIS mapping, finding planning documents and getting permission to use them, filming, and conducting interviews with planning staff. For example, third-year student Juniper Littlefield has directed and narrated a number of videos and Uytae (now in his fourth year) has acted in many.

Some of the videos are general in nature, such as their “Planning Basics Episode 1: Planning Process” (2016) which gives a brief overview of how planning works in Canada, including the Planning Acts, regional and municipal plans, and the role of planners and councillors. This is the first in a series aims at people who know little about the planning process, so I’m really interested to see how it progresses.

Transportation is a major theme in the videos: an upcoming initiative will involve how we use transit maps for navigation and information. In “A Case for Protected Bike Lanes” (2014), students partnered with local paper The Coast and the Halifax Cycling Coalition to show the cycling environment on some of the city streets by showing how dangerous it would be for a pedestrian to use the narrow afterthought of space on the right side of the road. They peppered the video with statistics on cycling safety: in the city’s Active Transportation Plan, over 40% of Halifax residents expressed an interest in cycling if it were safer. Halifax’s transportation plan states that it wants to double the rate of cycling by 2026.

In “Cars vs Pedestrians” (2015) students discuss the proposed hike in Provincial fines for pedestrian crossing infractions to almost $700. They ask whether our crosswalks are set up to encourage or deter use, showing examples of intersections that are difficult to cross as pedestrians: long signal timing, deceptive curb cuts, very long blocks present real barriers.

“What you Need to Know about HRM’s Centre Plan” (2016) goes over the region’s newest planning initiative and interviews some of the planners at HRM, and lets people know how they can get involved in the process.

Some of the videos explore historical issues. In “Down with the Cogswell Interchange” (2014) students explore the historical and present-day plans to take down the interchange and replace the streets with a more traditional grid street pattern. The stretch of arterial overpasses is just 1 km long, and doesn’t do much to handle traffic anymore. Students do a good job of reviewing the critical planning decisions that changed history, such as Gordon Stephenson’s A Redevelopment Study of Halifax, Nova Scotia (1957). It was based on this report that city council decided to build the interchange, among other ill-fated decisions like demolishing the existing African Canadian community Africville (which the students show as the proverbial “elephant in the room” at about the four-minute mark in the video). They really packed a lot of information into a six-minute video!

In a video profiling Halifax’s Viola Desmond (2014), a black businesswoman in the city with a hair salon on Gottingen Street, students touch on the history of racism in the city. Desmond’s car broke down on a business trip through New Glasgow in 1946, and while waiting for it to be repaired she decided to watch a movie at the Roseland Theatre. She was asked to leave because she was sitting in the whites-only main floor seating, refused to pay the one-cent difference in ticket prices to sit in the other section. She was eventually escorted out by police and spent the night in jail on a tax evasion charge. This occurred nine years before the famous Rosa Parks incident in the US. Desmond took action against the Province of Nova Scotia, who didn’t formally apologize and pardon Desmond until 2010. Her gravesite is in the Camp Hill Cemetery in Halifax.

PLANifax shows a tremendous initiative by students, many of whom are undergraduates who moved to the city to study planning. Their “outsider view” on the city and region is critical, because this distance allows their work to be instructive for anyone who is just beginning to understand planning as a practice that shapes so much of our urban environment. Here’s hoping PLANifax can live up to its hope “to be to planning what Bill Nye was to science”!


The City of Guelph has just published a User Guide to Local Government, which is attempting to make its processes and data more transparent and accountable to the public. The Guide introduces the user to the roles of the council, staff, and committees at the City, community engagement, and all kinds of in-depth information about bylaws, plans and policies.

In addition to introducing residents to Guelph’s history and demographics, the guide makes it easy to understand the structure of city council and administration (e.g. elected and appointed roles, standing committees), the corporate strategic plan, the financial and people practices strategy, and ways to get involved in the community. Basic information such as how to vote, the ward system, and how to get involved in planning processes is balanced by tips for those who want to become more engaged (e.g. become a member of a board, become involved in a community garden, volunteer). The guide is available online which makes it very user-friendly and accessible.

While the Guide attempts to take the mystique out of local government for residents, it will also be used in an orientation program for Council members after this fall’s municipal election. The City plans to use it with elementary and secondary school students during Local Government Week in October. As many of us planners know, providing people with more information is always a good thing–often a barrier to good planning is misinformation among various stakeholders. The more people understand the long-term goals of municipal governments, and the tools we use to achieve them, the easier our work will be.

Last spring, a rare atmosphere of youth activism emerged in Canadian politics. Spurred by Rick Mercer and young people at the University of Guelph, thousands of students organized VoteMobs to increase the youth vote in the May 2011 federal election. Determined to prevent a Conservative majority, viral videos like ShitHarperdid swept the country. Several clashes occurred between young voters and Conservative staffers, including one at the University of Guelph. Polls predicted tight races in ridings across Canada, but none correctly predicted the outcome: on May 5, 2011, millions of Canadians watched the election results in shock: not only did Stephen Harper’s Conservatives have their majority, but the NDP was firmly ensconsed as the Official Opposition.

Although rumours of odd phone calls surfaced just after the election, with voters in highly-contested ridings claiming they’d been directed to vote at non-existent polling stations, it’s taken ten months for the story to surface. It’s now been alleged that in up to 70 ridings across the country, automated “robocalls” were made, with Elections Canada registering more than 31,000 complaints before the scandal hit. In some cases, voters changed their votes as a result of the calls; in others, they gave up when they arrived at the polling place they were incorrectly directed to. Oddly enough, one of the Conservative staffers linked to the robo-calls is Michael Sona, the same person who walked into a University of Guelph special ballot station during the election and tried to steal the ballot box to prevent students from voting. Sona resigned but denies any link to the robocalls. A voter suppression scandal with a culprit named Pierre Poutine, who is being hunted down by forcing information out of PayPal and RackNine? Something stinks.

Image from a Wired magazine story about robocalls aimed at voter suppression in Los Angeles

Sean Devlin of Truthfool Communications, who founded the campaign, said recently that he didn’t trust Elections Canada to get to the bottom of the robocalls. He points out that the Conservative party was recently required to pay a paltry $52,000 fine and four of its senior officials were cleared of all charges when Elections Canada determined it had vastly overspent on its 2006 campaign: this for improperly reporting $1.3 million in advertising expenses, offenses that the judge said were “of a regulatory nature but significant to the democratic process.” Those following the youth VoteMobs last year might recall that after Sona alleged that the University of Guelph special ballot was not legitimate, Elections Canada cancelled all special ballots at universities. Not all special ballots, just those at universities. At the time, Michael Ignatieff criticized the Tories’ move to have the 700 student votes annulled as “another example of the [Conservative] party’s contempt for democracy”. The whole time the VoteMobs were surging, youth bloggers and activists noted that the Liberals, NDP and Green parties made small overtures to the growing student vote, but the phenomenon drew little response from the Conservative party…so why would they bother with 700 votes?

Of course, some deny that there’s a robocall scandal at all. Margaret Wente wrote that, “It’s ridiculous to think there was some massive cheating scheme engineered by higher-ups. We’re not Russia after all. It’s unpopular to say so, but we’re just a boring little democracy that usually functions pretty well.” (“Robo-calls? Get a grip, we’re Canadian”, The Globe and Mail, March 6). Voter turnout was higher than average in the disputed ridings, and these ridings definitely saw competitive races (“If robo-calls were designed to keep voters away, they failed miserably”, Eric Grenier, The Globe and Mail, March 5). I’d be interested in how things played out in ridings with high populations of students; I’ll bet things are anything but boring and well-functioning there. Critics like Antony Hodgson of Fair Voting BC say that the current first-past-the-post system encourages candidates to focus on only a few swing ridings, ignoring the majority of voters; given the surge of student activity, some of those ridings could have been targeted. Undeterred, Truthfool and the folks at have already assembled a petition with over 40,000 names calling for a full public inquiry and real consequences.

This week the Prime Minister stated that the Conservative Party supports stronger investigative powers for Elections Canada, but there has been a lot of debate over the extent of those powers: would the chief electoral officer be able to force parties to produce proof of their campaign spending, as the provincial counterparts would? So far, the Conservative party seems unaffected by the scandal; election fraud or wrongdoing has not been proven. Things could change drastically if an investigation digs up concrete proof like tampering with voter registration or paying for mysterious services on election day. It’s one thing to do shit, as TruthFool knows, but it’s another thing to do illegal shit.

Update:  Protesters in several cities, including Halifax, Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto, took to the streets yesterday (Sunday, March 11) demanding a public inquiry into the robocalls.

In my previous post, I wrote that many Canadians don’t know much about municipal planning processes, the implications of the legal division of powers in Canada, and what this means for service provision in our cities. In this vein, readers might be interested in some examples of municipal efforts at citizen engagement that go beyond the often-uninspired public meeting.

Participatory budgeting originated in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 1989. It’s driven by core principles such as democracy, equity, community, education, and transparency. Thousands of citizens assemble in Porto Alegre each year to elect delegates to represent each city district, prioritize demands, serve on the Municipal Council of the Budget, and produce a binding municipal budget. Proponents of participatory budgeting say that because people with the greatest needs play a larger role in the decision-making process, spending decisions tend to redistribute resources to communities in need. In Porto Alegre, for example, there has been a marked increase in funding for badly-needed sanitary sewer projects and schools. Participatory budgeting is used in about 140 municipalities in Brazil as well as towns and cities in France, Italy, Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom, India and Africa. It is used for municipal school, university, and public housing budgets.

The process has also been used in several Canadian municipalities: Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC) allows its tenants to participate in decision-making on local, neighbourhood and city-wide spending priorities. TCHC’s participatory budgeting process first took place in 2001, when tenants were asked to help decide how to spend $9 million per year (13.5% of TCHC’s budget); 237 local capital projects were funded. In Guelph, residents allocate a small portion of the City’s budget through the Guelph Neighbourhood Support Coalition. Since 1999, neighbourhood groups have been sharing and redistributing resources for local community projects, including recreation programs, youth centres, and physical improvements to community facilities. In 2005 some 10,000 people participated in the process and 460 events and programs were funded.

In a review of participatory budgeting efforts in Canadian cities, Josh Lerner and Estair Van Wagner outline several challenges for participatory budgeting in Canada: the fact that Canadians are extremely diverse in language and culture, the small scale of these efforts so far, the limited power of citizens in the process, the fact that none of them have fundamentally changed their cities’ political systems or created a more progressive social agenda, and the potential for the process to become co-opted by politicians.

City of Calgary "Our City. Our Budget. Our Future."

Other efforts at participatory processes in budget planning have included the Cities of Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver. In each case municipal officials encouraged citizens to get involved in the City’s budget planning. For the 2004 City of Toronto budget, Mayor David Miller initiated the Listening to Toronto consultations. A City Budget Community Workbook was posted on the website and seven public sessions were held. This wasn’t participatory budgeting (participants didn’t help formulate priorities that were then adopted); in a process similar to integrating feedback from public meetings, participants’ ideas were used to guide City Council during the drafting of the budget.

In February 2011, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nehshi opened up the budget planning process to the public through a citywide engagement process. In “Our City. Our Budget. Our Future.” the City aimed to help people feel like they were part of the process, make the budgetary process clearer by simplifying communication from city staff, and gather ideas on the budget. Their online budgeting tool allowed users to see how much each department currently spent, and what an increase or decrease in areas like transportation or safety would look like. The City heard from 24,000 people during this process. Again, citizens’ ideas were considered in drafting the budget, which was adopted in November 2011. The new three-year budget resulted in property tax rate increases of 6.0% in 2012, 5.7% in 2013 and 6.1% in 2014 and included (among other things) additional funding of $1 million for Calgary Transit, a reserve fund of $3.5 million for snow clearing in 2013 and 2014, a $225,000 increase to the Calgary Arts Development Authority.

“We used to do things like open houses and town halls when we had those discussions. And what we learned this time around is that the open houses and the town halls are the most expensive and least successful part of the process.”– Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi

A screen shot from the City of Vancouver Budget Allocator

The City of Vancouver followed suit this year, encouraging citizens to get involved in the 2012 budget process. In addition to attending public meetings and completing an online survey on budget priorities, a section of the City’s website lets users to download a primer explaining how the budget works (how the city raises funds, what percentage of taxes goes to pay for utilities, fire and police services, etc.). The interactive tool lets them “be Councillor for a day, see what it costs to run a city.” This simple tool gives you options to remain at the current level of funding or to increase or decrease funding levels in each area. When you’ve finished making your budget, the Budget Allocator tells you whether you have a surplus or a deficit, and how much you would have to raise taxes to cover the increased costs. You can submit your budget, along with the reasons for your choices, directly to city staff: if you’re a local, go to 2012 before February 10th to have your say.

In short, there are varying levels of participation in budget processes, from consultation to surveys to participatory budgeting. In addition to various levels of power for the participants, the educational aspects differ as well: one could argue that while Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver have made strides in educating the public on the budgetary process, they stop short of allowing residents to learn how to prioritize spending objectives and vote on them. Nevertheless, Canadians in other municipalities might want to find out how their budget works, when their budget is up for adoption and what the process is for citizen involvement. With so many online and interactive ways to get involved, there seem to be many opportunities to inform and involve communities that may not participate otherwise: young adults, immigrant groups, seniors living in facilities, etc. High school teachers, college and university professor could use the online budgeting tools in civics, planning, political science, or urban studies courses. Immigrant groups could organize online participation at a community event. Residents and health care support workers could help seniors participate. If your municipality doesn’t currently encourage participation in the city budget process, ask your councillor to suggest the idea.

Update: check out the latest national issue of Spacing magazine for integrated approaches to public engagement in Saskatoon, Vancouver, and Halifax (“Speaking with Your City” by Rachel Caroline Derrah).

The multitude of planning concerns faced by Aboriginal communities across Canada hit national headlines a few weeks ago when Attawapiskat, a First Nations community of about 2,000 in northern Ontario, declared a state of emergency. Horrific health conditions exacerbated by poor water supply, sewage problems, inadequate housing and schools resulting from decades of wrangling over governance and funding have devastated the community. The conditions prompted the Red Cross to provide emergency relief, provoked international criticism and launched intense debates in the House of Commons (“NDP challenges Harper to visit Attawapiskat himself”, The Globe and Mail November 30, 2011, “Aboriginal Affairs Minister dispatches team to Attawapiskat“, The Globe and Mail November 25, 2011). This is, in fact, the fourth time Attawapiskat has declared a state of emergency due to chronic infrastructure failures. Many serious health and housing issues persist in Aboriginal communities. The need for First Nations, Inuit and Métis (who comprise Canada’s Aboriginal peoples) to use their own knowledge and self-determination in planning their communities, for planners to help with the development of local plans and help negotiate collaboration, has never been greater. On a hopeful note, the UBC School of Community and Regional Planning (SCARP) is embarking on a new initiative in 2012: the launch of the Indigenous Planning concentration within our current Masters program with the First Nations House of Learning.

SCARP professor Leonie Sandercock has been working with First Nations communities for several years. Her most recent work, the documentary film Finding Our Way, highlighted the decades of turmoil faced within the Ts’il Kaz Koh First Nation (Burns Lake Band), the Cheslatta Carrier Band, and the Village of Burns Lake, BC. Dr. Sandercock has been instrumental in working with the First Nations House of Learning and members of the Musqueam, Carrier, Nisga’a and Cree Métis Nations to develop the Indigenous Planning concentration at SCARP. Professor Ted Jojola of the University of New Mexico Community and Regional Planning program also advised UBC on the creation of the program; the planning program at the UNM School of Architecture and Planning has an Indigenous Planning component and hosts an Indigenous Architecture lecture series. Dr. Jojola visited UBC recently for an “Indigenous Planning Teach-In” hosted by SCARP and the First Nations House of Learning. At this event the Tsawwassen First Nation, Musqueam First Nation and Westbank First Nation presented their community plans, highlighting public participation processes and the role of external planners as consultants in plan development. Several non-Aboriginal professionals specializing in law, governance, community economic development, and cross-cultural planning spoke about their work with Aboriginal communities across Canada. (Watch a video about the development of the degree, featuring scenes from the Teach-In, here.)

There have been some fantastic examples of Aboriginal community planning in recent years: the Seabird Island First Nation in BC built its own housing in partnership with Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC), National Resources Canada (NRCan), and 25 building industry and community groups in 2003-2004. They later launched the Seabird Sustainable Community Project to provide “information to First Nations and other communities across Canada solve housing challenges in an environmentally sensitive, healthy, energy-efficient and affordable way.” The Ty-Histanis Neighbourhood Development, about 10km from Tofino, BC, is a new community being developed by the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nations (TFN) in partnership with CMHC and NRCan (ecoAction and EQuilibrium Communities Initiative). It is applies the TFN concept of Hishuk nish tsawaak (all is one), through practical, sustainable community development principles. The new community will include 171 single-detached units, 32 duplex units and a 12-unit elders’ complex; a school, health clinic, pharmacy, recreation centre, youth centre and elder centre are all located in the core area. The project target is a 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gases, mostly through building and energy efficiency. Forty per cent of the development site will remain undisturbed protected habitat, bogs will be used for natural water retention, and walking will be encouraged through footpaths and the mixed-use design of the site.

Clearly, there are many opportunities for planners in Aboriginal communities, whether they are local, community-based planners or  external consultants in the planning process. SCARP’s new Indigenous Planning concentration will consist of five core courses covering law and governance, community economic development, regional sustainability planning, cross-cultural skills, and indigenous planning as an emerging paradigm. It will also feature a one-year practicum working in a First Nations community in BC and an optional internship with a First Nations community in the Lower Mainland. It is hoped that graduates (both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal) will go on to ensure immediate infrastructure concerns are addressed, help communities across the country plan for their futures and, over time, prevent crises like Attawapiskat.

Many of you (hundreds, in fact) have been following my posts about the new SCARP/SALA building. As you know, Shape Architecture/FeildenCleggBradley Studios (architects) and PWL Partnership (landscape architects) will be producing a feasibility study and the anticipated full design for the UBC Integrated Planning and Design Facility. Andrew Harrison (DEGW), a leading expert in learning environments, and Atelier 10 are also involved. In addition to the public events planned this semester, an IPD Working Group has been created with the design team and representatives from all the stakeholders: SCARP Masters students, PhD students and faculty; SALA Masters students and faculty; UBC Properties Trust, Buildings Operations, Campus and Community Planning and Infrastructure Development; the Belkin Art Gallery, Applied Science, and the Faculty of Arts. I am a PhD rep, with fellow SCARP students Rohit Mujumdar (PhD), Erica Lay (Masters) and Jessie Singer (Masters), so I have an inside view into this stage of the design process. I’ll be providing regular updates on this after the three “event weeks” that are planned: Learning Landscapes (Jan 14th), Spaces for Learning (Feb 11), and Low Energy Landscapes (March 25).

Each Event Week begins with a kickoff event in a social environment, then there is a public lecture on campus, and an all-day IPD Working Group workshop. This week was focused on Learning Landscapes.

The kick-off event was held downtown and got a great turnout. The public lecture featured presentations by Andrew Harrison and Peter Clegg, and short segués by Nick Sully and Alec Smith from Shape, and Derek Lee from PWL. Andrew’s presentation did a great job of showing different types of learning environments at universities and colleges: from specialized spaces (science labs, workshops, computer labs) to general use spaces (student lounge, reading room, café). Even hallways can be designed to facilitate conversation and collaboration (he called them “learning corridors”). I’m hoping Andrew will make his presentation available online so you can all see it.

The Working Group meets every two weeks, including the workshops each month during the Event Weeks. For this first workshop, we were asked to consider questions such as “How does a changing studio culture within architecture resonate with SCARP and the Arts?” and “How much time do students/faculty spend teaching/researching/writing/drawing/discussing ideas?” We were asked to submit images that represented the culture of learning in our programs. Then at the workshop, we discussed these ideas in more depth, both in large-group and small-group conversations. The five images shown on the right were provided by the SCARP Masters reps. (Outside of the IPD Working Group, SCARP is running a Directed Studies class, which will be meeting regularly with the design team to discuss their ideas. The students organized a survey, held a visioning workshop and presented the responses to the survey in the format of images to the Working Group.) The text images (general, specialized, and informal learning spaces) were produced with Wordle, which allows you to represent the number of times each word/concept was raised by font size (similar to my website’s “tag cloud” on the right).

It was really interesting to hear from the UBC folks as well as those in the adjacent arts buildings (Music in particular). Some ideas that were discussed were the switch from hand-drawing to digital work in architecture, the need for more social space to discuss ideas, the need for a shift in educational approaches, and the possibilities for shared infrastructure (like photocopying/printing space). Another interesting idea was having faculty offices closely aligned to the student workspaces: Larry Frank from SCARP said he’d like his office to be closer to the transportation modelling lab and also students who use the space. Peter Clegg told us about his virtually paperless office in Bath, where there are no drawing tables at all because everything is done digitally. Scott Watson, curator of the Belkin Art Gallery, raised the idea of having informal exhibition space available in the studios so that students could look at each other’s work as it progressed, and we discussed the idea of “open studio week” where students would host visitors from the broader campus and community.

However, as a research-based program, I still feel that SCARP’s needs are not being addressed: Peter actually admitted that we needed to tell him what we meant by research. SCARP Director Penny Gurstein and Larry Frank both raised the issue of research space, but all of us still felt the issue needed to be further discussed. Larry’s definition of a studio was a good fit for SCARP (a space where people learn in a collaborative way), and the studio culture is changing so much anyway: no need for glassed-in spaces when everyone works on computers. When I said that most SCARP students would graduate without ever drawing anything, Peter asked if that was okay. I think it is, but then I may be biased because I already have those skills from my undergrad in landscape architecture. I should have asked if it’s okay that SALA students graduate without knowing participatory planning or municipal planning processes? We have a lot to learn from each other: many SCARP students would like to learn how to draw, read plans and understand design terminology, and likewise I think SALA students would like to learn about how to build the structures and landscapes they want within the current planning framework and processes. I also think SCARP students could learn how to represent written work in a visual format through diagramming, short film/animations, and the like; and as a former landscape architecture student myself, I imagine that the SALA students could benefit from more attention to their research and writing skills.

Another alarming comment: when Leslie Van Duzer, Director of SALA, discussed the three areas used in assessing faculty for tenure (teaching, research and service), one of the SHAPE architects asked what service was. Now this could just be a terminology issue, but it’s also possible that SALA does a lot less community service than SCARP. Both Larry and Leslie raised the need for specific spaces that could be used for community meetings and to welcome visitors to the new building. Of course service means more than that (participation in groups such as the IPD Working Group or on committees/councils for your professional association are also service activities), but I get the sense that because architecture isn’t a field where all the faculty are PhD-holders with tenure-track positions, there’s a weak understanding of both research and service.

At the end of Event Week 1, I’m cautiously optimistic about the IPD design process. There seems to be a great deal of interest from all the stakeholders and the public, people are raising many innovative ideas and willing to collaborate with each other, and there’s a general feeling of trust among the various players. But there are definitely some issues that need to be worked out: a better understanding of SCARP’s teaching and learning processes, a governance model for the new building (considering that SCARP and SALA are under two different administrative units), and the issues of research and service. It’s also unclear how much these workshops will influence the design: how will the design team use our ideas and responses to their thought-provoking questions? Planning students and faculty will continue to watch the process closely, since “that’s what planners do.”

If you’re interested in keeping up with the IPD process, or giving the design team feedback on any element of the process so far, go to The site has photos from the events, news from the design team, and details on upcoming public lectures. Here’s the current list, but any changes would be listed on the website.

Event Week 2: Space for Learning

Public Kick-off Event February 11, 2011 5:30-6:00 pm Lasserre Lobby

Public Lecture February 21, 2011 6:30-7:45 pm Math 100

Working Committee Workshop February 22, 2011 8:30-4:30 pm Liu Centre Multipurpose Room

Event Week 3: Low Energy Landscapes

Public Kick-off Event March 25, 2011 5:30-6:00 pm Lasserre Lobby

Public Lecture March 28, 2011 6:30-7:45 pm Math 100

Working Committee Workshop March 29, 2011 8:30-4:30 pm Liu Centre Multipurpose Room

As I wrote in my last post, SCARP and SALA are currently choosing an integrated design team for our new building, an addition to the existing Lasserre building at UBC. Two teams presented last week, and two this week. The winning team will be announced October 20th. Since we were encouraged to send along our comments on the presentations to the committee who will be choosing the best of the four teams, I thought it might be worthwhile to discuss them here.

The four short-listed teams were follows:

Here are the videos for these presentations online: Week 1 (Patkau and Teeple) and Week 2 (Shape and OMA).

I’m sure that Patkau did think about how classroom space, lecture spaces, and offices would be designed compared to studio spaces, because they had diagrams showing the breakdown of program space in the new building. However, it was not clear from their presentation how they planned to differentiate these types of spaces and functions. I was alarmed by their use of the Harvard Graduate School of Design as an example of “good” studio design. Having visited the GSD, I felt that the student spaces were cold and mechanistic, and sound control in this space is not great. The other examples Patkau showed (like the Winnipeg Public Library) were all basically glass boxes. Obviously, in Vancouver it would be great to use as much natural light as possible, but sound controls are going to be an issue. Likewise, they did use students’ quotes and work in their presentation, but it was not clear how they might involve students in the design process. Moreover, the landscape design was still too embryonic to figure out at this point, and do we really want to bring the focus of the building inward, like every other modernist building on campus? Why not address the street (either one) and create a space that can actually be used during the (rainy) school year?

Teeple went a little further in their approach. They did show some specific examples of small-scale student spaces (at Langara, SFU, MacMillan, the Stephen Hawking Institute), perhaps because Proscenium focuses on interiors. While Patkau talked about the need for social spaces, Teeple actually showed examples of comfortable smaller student lounges and work spaces. As a landscape architect I will add that since the proposed SCARP/SALA building aspires to be a green building, it is a huge coup having Cornelia Oberlander as the landscape architect on their team. She was designing sustainable landscapes way before they were trendy, and has decades of experience understanding site, microclimate, and people’s use of space, which will be crucial in the design of the open spaces and axes that will anchor the new building. Although the team didn’t let her speak much, Cornelia is very careful about working with architects who will allow her to play a major role in the overall building design.

I definitely felt that Shape and FieldenCleggBradley have the necessary experience, collaboration with each other, and the most interesting proposal. In particular, I felt that their presentation style was indicative of the close working partnership the team has: each spoke for an equal amount of time, each spoke highly of the other team members, and each fielded questions in their areas of expertise. I felt that the landscape architects, with their local UBC experience in participatory process, was also a major strength. They seemed to “get” the idea of collaboration, combining these three different areas of study in both the building itself and the building process. I also liked the projects highlighting their use of artificial light made to look natural, as this will likely be needed in the rainy, dark Vancouver climate. FCB’s experiences in the UK, a very similar climate to ours, will be very useful in terms of the building’s design, lighting, and materials. Teeple was the only other team that convinced me that they would design interesting, functional, and well-designed smaller spaces within the SCARP/SALA building. These two teams were the strongest in terms of their commitment to the overall design: landscape, relationship to existing buildings on the site, the building itself, and its interior spaces.

As expected, OMA’s approach to “iconic” architecture was troublesome and problematic for our site and building, since it is a small addition, rather than a brand-new structure. Ultimately, we don’t want form over function. In terms of function, although they were the only ones to offer a glimpse of how the interior space might be broken down, the hierarchies emerge: the majority of the space was designated as studios, and the highest floors and best views as private offices. Even though the firm supposedly does landscape architecture as well as architecture, their proposal was particularly weak in the interaction of the building with the site: the weakest of all the groups. I don’t even remember OMA mentioning the name of the landscape architecture firm they would be working with, which I think says a lot about their attitude towards their collaborators. I feel that they are still working in the modernist-brutalist tradition, and frankly UBC has enough giant, bland glass and concrete buildings and vast empty open plazas already.

In general, I felt that Patkau, Teeple and OMA were overwhelmed by the concept of designing a design school, and spent way too much time claiming they were going to build something that would put Vancouver on the map. We need well-designed, functional spaces for students and faculty. It would be nice if the building was also innovative, but I would leave that to the sustainability features rather than the mere design characteristics. Star-chitecture is not always great design, and in most cases the interaction of these buildings with their surroundings is jarring, not to mention their impact on the pedestrian realm. I still think that all three of these teams think they’re designing an architecture building, and while several have designed research-based buildings before, they don’t consider this to be a research facility, since SALA students don’t do the type of social science research we do at SCARP. I think this is problematic since about 80% of SCARP students are in streams other than urban design, and will not be working in studio-type settings. This is partly why the Shape team is the strongest: they had a more developed design process and seemed to anticipate the difficulties of designing a building that would house three different programs with different needs. OMA emerges as the weakest not only because their previous work highlights their modernist attitude towards design and collaboration, but also a lack of interest in participatory processes; all three of the other teams mentioned specific steps they would take to involve students and faculty at all three programs (particularly Shape, who had very specific events planned to involve the public in the design process).

Of course, we see only the public presentations. The committee responsible for choosing the winning team (made up of faculty and students in all three programs) started by interviewing 23 teams and shortlisting these four, who were also interviewed in depth after their presentations. It will be interesting to see which emerges as the winner come October 20th.