I’m live blogging today from the Dalhousie University SHIFT conference. This student-organized conference began Thursday March 1st and ends today.

On Thursday night, the conference opened with a talk from Tamika Butler on social justice and equity in planning. Ms. Butler, a lawyer with a background in civil rights, has worked to increase transportation options for low-income and minority communities. She spoke about ways in which we need to confront our own biases and address intersectionality (e.g. ways in which individuals’ gender, age, ethnic and other identities can mean they face multiple barriers) when planning services and addressing issues like gentrification. Friday’s keynote speakers were Vikas Mehta and Katrina Johnson-Zimmerman.

Today’s keynote speakers include Susan Holdsworth and Gerry Post, an advocate for accessibility and equity in Halifax. Mr. Post addressed the need for a shift in regional governance to address the rural-urban divide in the huge land area of the Halifax Regional Municipality; integrated regional service delivery (e.g. for transit, location of services like Access Nova Scotia); and simplifying density bonuses so that it’s a more fair, equitable, and transparent process. He also advocated for the ability of citizen/community groups to advise development, using the example of Planning Aid in England.

This afternoon there will be a couple of workshops on redesigning streets, along with our monthly Planning Social at the end of the conference. If you’re in town, come and join us at the East of Grafton at 5pm!

It’s fall, which means that my fourth year undergraduate planning studio at Dalhousie University’s School of Planning is working on another complex project. As some of you know, last year my students worked on improving the social and open spaces in Mulgrave Park. This year, students are developing a proposal for affordable rental housing on Quinpool Road.

Students work on an in-class exercise

For students in the fourth year honours program in planning, it’s the first time they have worked in a studio setting. I’ve designed the course so that they can develop skills in drawing and design to help bring them up to similar levels (some of them have taken drawing classes and some have not). For example, in-class exercises teach them how to draw floor plans, axonometric drawings, and site analysis diagrams.

But because it’s a planning studio, and combines students from urban design and environmental planning, the course also incorporates financial aspects of development, demographics and policy aspects, and sustainability. Our partner on the project, Jeffry Haggett, is a planner at WSP. He helped determine the site for the project, a now-vacant lot on Quinpool Road where St. Patrick’s High School once stood, accompanied the students on a site visit, and has provided them with technical information such as GIS data. Neil Lovitt, a planner specializing in financial considerations at Turner Drake, taught them how to do a pro forma to determine whether their proposal is feasible. Both Jeffry and Neil are alumni of our planning program, the Bachelor of Community Design.

Councillor Lindell Smith (center) brought his own experiences of living in social and affordable housing to the class

Yesterday, Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM) Councillor Lindell Smith came in to discuss his experiences living in social and affordable housing in North Halifax. Smith grew up in the Uniacke Square public housing and the Gottingen Street neighbourhood, where he still lives. Just 26 years old when he was elected last fall, he is the first African Nova Scotian elected to city council in 20 years. He encouraged the students to think about the needs of the demographic groups near their site, and everyday considerations of people living in mid-rise and high-rise developments (e.g. access to open space, services for the community). For the mid-term review next week, Bob Bjerke is our guest critic. In addition to working as the chief planner in both HRM and the City of Regina, Bjerke was Director of Housing for the City of Edmonton, which is doing innovative policy work on integrating affordable housing and community supports.

Students are working in groups on their proposals, which must include:

  • a site plan and landscape plan
  • floor plans for the proposed buildings
  • information on their target demographic groups and relevant policies (e.g. land use, funding programs)
  • financial feasibility (pro forma)
  • a sustainability framework (e.g. financial, social, and environmental characteristics)

Groups will continue to refine and redesign their proposals until the end of this term. They developed group contracts the beginning of the term and will have a chance to evaluate each other at the mid-term and end of term. This helps keep group members accountable to each other and identifies uneven participation. Their individual grades on the in-class exercises also help evaluate their skill development and performance. In this way, the course also blends structured (time-limited assignments) and unstructured learning (group dialogue, consensus building and decision-making).


In experiential learning, students work on a real-world project, building the skills they will need after graduation and contributing their knowledge to a community organization, municipal department or other client. Experiential learning is a natural fit for the urban planning discipline, but has been used in fields as diverse as social work, biology, and computer engineering. At some universities, like the University of Oregon, the university partners with a different municipality each year, the municipality provides a list of projects they need help with, and different departments commit to developing workable solutions. It’s a win-win situation: students get the experience they need and often small municipalities or organizations without sufficient human resources are able to get projects completed.

As some of you know, last fall I taught my first urban design studio here in the Dalhousie University School of Planning. We focused on Mulgrave Park, a public housing community built in the north end of Halifax using federal-provincial funds in 1960. The students each  developed a small-scale proposal to improve the open and social spaces in Mulgrave Park. They included information for the client, the Mulgrave Park Caring and Learning Centre, on how such a proposal could be implemented and funded. One student, Justin Gosse, conducted an analysis of the retaining walls and their conditions on the steep site, suggesting ways in which they could be modified in the future. His project, in addition to other student work surveying the retaining walls, is informing Housing Nova Scotia as they proceed with detailed design and repair of the walls and infrastructure badly in need of repairs. As part of an effort to preserve social housing in Canada, the federal and provincial governments announced today that they will fund repairs to Mulgrave Park. The funding will pay for badly needed exterior building repairs, the restoration of crumbling retaining walls, and burying services. Construction will run from July 2017 until spring 2019.

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MP Andy Fillmore announces the $5 million in improvements in front of the students’ posters

MP Andy Fillmore (second from left) and Elaine Williams (second from left), a lifelong Mulgrave Park resident, at the announcement

MP Andy Fillmore (second from left) and Elaine Williams (second from right), a lifelong Mulgrave Park resident and President of the Mulgrave Park Tenants’ Association, at the announcement

The work of other students, including Amy Greenberg (window boxes with flowering plants for residents), Mona Al-Sharari (second community garden and greenhouse), Leen Romaneh (perception of safety), and Yuedi (Martin) Zhan (lighting) is also being integrated into future improvements at Mulgrave Park.

Congratulations to these fourth-year Bachelor of Community Design students, and to the often-overlooked residents of Mulgrave Park, who will benefit from these improvements for years to come. Our client Crystal John, Director of the Caring and Learning Centre, is very excited to think about the improvements coming soon! Crystal grew up in the neighbourhood and like many others living there, is truly invested in improving the community; her sister Elaine Williams, pictured with Andy Fillmore at the announcement, has also done a lot of work to improve conditions in the neighbourhood. Metro News reported that Elaine was in tears at the announcement, having campaigned for improvements for many years.


Public housing developments across Canada have been targeted for redevelopment for a complex set of reasons: designed in the 1950s and 1960s through federal-provincial urban renewal funding, their management has been a sore spot for the municipalities in which they are located. Many actually tore apart existing street networks and concentrated the poor in small areas, resulting in more isolated communities that were inward-looking. Most were designed without critical social infrastructure like community centres, schools, shops, and playgrounds so that young people had nothing to do. And most critically, most were sited in inner city neighbourhoods that, in the 1960s, were considered undesirable by the middle and upper class households that were fleeing the city for the suburbs.

Now of course, things have changed: most of these communities, like Regent Park in Toronto and Uniacke Square in Halifax, are in central neighbourhoods now considered to be highly desirable. Regent Park is in the middle of a twenty-year multimillion dollar redevelopment that, like many others of its kind, aims to replace only some of its public housing for very low income families. The main thrust of this type of redevelopment is better design (e.g. reinstalling the pre-existing street network, introducing mixed uses such as shops and services) fuelled by income mix: integrating market rate housing with some lower priced units.

A couple of months back, I introduced my readers to Mulgrave Park, a public housing community in Halifax which was the basis for my fourth year urban design studio this term. Beginning in September, students have been working with the Caring and Learning Centre and the Phoenix Youth Centre to redesign and reprogram some of the social and open spaces in the neighbourhood. I’d like to summarize the work they did as well as my own success in imparting some key policy and planning lessons.screen-shot-2016-12-18-at-6-12-47-pm

Students began individually, working on a historic analysis of the site, then proceeding to an individual design or programming element where they were encouraged to coordinate with each other towards a cohesive set of solutions. For the last four weeks of the term they put their ideas together into a comprehensive set of design/programming recommendations for the community. For their final presentation, they used posters to present their ideas to Crystal John from the Caring and Learning Centre and Maurice James from the Phoenix Youth Centre, and two of their staff members. They answered questions about feasibility, budget, and funding opportunities for their projects, which for the most part the clients really liked. The posters were also left in the Centre so that residents could see them and make comments on them with Post-it notes, with the intent to incorporate comments into their work. At the end of the term, the students submitted a final report to our clients which introduces the site characteristics, the rationale and criteria they used to develop their ideas, and a summary of all the concepts with maps and drawings.

One of the most interesting challenges the students had while working on this site was the way its original design, typical of urban renewal projects of the 1960s, eliminated interior streets so that the community ended up becoming quite insular. This, combined with the reputation of public housing residents among the rest of the city, has contributed to both social isolation from the city and a tight-knit community where everyone knows each other. Attempts to reduce this isolation can be detrimental to the community (as has happened in the redesign of many urban renewal projects including Regent Park in Toronto), however planners may feel about correcting the wrongs of the past. Another challenge was the physical characteristic of the site as having a steep slope, rendering much of its plentiful open space unusable. These two aspects in particular were constraints that impacted many of the students’ projects.

For the design elements, the students decided to pursue the following options:

  • Redesigning a gravelly, uneven field in the center of the community as a level playing field for kidsscreen-shot-2016-12-18-at-6-08-54-pm
  • Removing some unnecessary retaining walls and using plants to improve the appearance of others
  • Adding a second community garden and greenhouse
  • Building a skate/scooter park with lighting for evening use by removing five parking spots
  • Redesigning the existing basketball court so that it has a level playing surface and can accommodate younger kids as well as older
  • Redesigning two of the main staircases into the neighbourhood by making them wider and shallower to accommodate the socializing that happens in these locations
  • Better universal access into and around the site through introducing ramps and level pavement where possible
  • Introducing a boulevard with planting and seating, which can be used for activities like a farmer’s market

The programming elements included:

  • A Paint the Planters program to allow residents to paint window boxes and seed them with annualsscreen-shot-2016-12-18-at-6-09-25-pm
  • A program to install seating, garbage bins, bike racks, and an outdoor community events board
  • Elements to increase the perception of safety on the site (glow in the dark paint for the existing murals, a Brighter Nights program, and CCTV cameras)
  • A farmer’s market on the new boulevard, which could also be used for education about nutrition and winter events such as a holiday market
  • Better wayfinding and signage, since many buildings have street numbers that don’t correspond with the residents’ knowledge of the layout, and the internal streets are incomplete
  • Better and different types of lighting, including some solar-powered and LED fixtures, implemented over time
  • Building on the strong social networks and expanding these to allow residents to take advantage of cultural, sports, and entertainment activities around the city
  • Developing a community van that can be used to improve access to grocery stores, medical centres and other amenities


You can read the full report here.

Students seemed very keen to learn about aspects of housing policy, see the types of redevelopment that are happening in other public housing neighbourhoods like Regent Park, and figure out how their projects could actually be implemented through different types of funding. screen-shot-2016-12-18-at-6-08-34-pmThey struggled with the larger concepts such as social justice and how this is manifested through things like redesign, redevelopment and even simple maintenance of the site. In part this is part of the Millennial trend towards skimming the surface of a topic, without diving in deeply. But another part of this is the conflict between redevelopment and preservation of social networks and social capital. While the design of many public housing neighbourhoods was problematic, in many cases it contributed to tight-knit communities with members who look out for each other, improve their neighbourhoods together, and help generate a strong sense of community pride. City living is in again, and that means rising land costs in inner cities are threatening to displace renters, low-income households, and longtime neighbours who cannot afford the high-end luxury condominiums that are usually the markers of redevelopment projects.

When students were asked how they think the course could have been altered, they suggested using a more iterative process to develop their design/programming elements, and beginning to work together on the final report at the same time as their individual designs. These changes would have helped them to create a cohesive whole rather than a package of separate ideas. They felt that their first assignment, the historical analysis, could also have been shortened to allow more time for the design/programming component.

We are hoping that the Caring and Learning Centre will be able to slowly implement the small-scale projects, particularly those dealing with children and youth, through grants. Students were able to find many grants, both local and national, for projects supporting health communities and active lifestyles for children and youth. For larger-scale and longer-term projects, we will continue to consult with Housing Nova Scotia, largely due to the fact that one of the students will be doing his internship with the urban design team there. Crystal will also continue to advocate for the longer-term projects to Metro Housing, who report to Housing Nova Scotia. Hopefully this collaboration results in some real change for Mulgrave Park.

Yesterday urban planners Asher Mercer (Urban ID Consulting) and Edward Nixon (EN Consulting Group) hosted a walk along Queen Street as part of their project, The People’s Queen Street, which is attempting to reimagine the major east-west corridor as a public space prioritizing people. Partnering with the Toronto Community Foundation, Evergreen Foundation, the Centre for Social Innovation, and 100 in One Day Toronto, Urban ID Consulting and ED Consulting Group are organizing several events from summer 2014 until spring 2015 to help people experience the street in new ways and think about ways in which it could be redesigned as a better space for pedestrians.

Yesterday’s walk began at Neville Park, where the 501 Queen streetcar begins (Neville Loop) and continued all the way to Queen and Roncesvalles. Joined by intrepid walkers from Toronto Trails and Ontario Walks, a group of about 35 walkers crossed the city, stopping to think about development opportunities at Queen and Broadview, view historic Ashbridge House and Campbell House, and finish the day at Beaty Boulevard Parkette. The walk is about 17km in total, but I focus here on the first 5.7 km east of Broadview.

Neville Loop is a small unimposing turnaround for the streetcar (albeit with quite a long history as the City of Toronto’s easternmost streetcar loop) across from the Art Deco-styled R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant, which writer Derek Flack characterized as “one of Toronto’s most beautiful and mysterious buildings.” For our purposes, the westernmost corner of Neville Park provided a natural meeting place and amphitheater for Asher and Edward to introduce the purpose of the walk today and invite participants to submit their comments, tweets, and photos to the project website.

We began at a brisk pace on Queen, taking in some of the built form that spoke of an earlier main street. On the way, we passed a number of historic buildings, like Black’s Veterinary Hospital (founded in 1911) and the Ashbridge Estate, which are well known: Toronto’s Ashbridge’s Bay was named for Sarah Ashbridge, in recognition of her position in one of the city’s founding families. Other lesser-known marvels included the tiny Fox Theatre (opened in 1914) and the Beaches Library (whose original structure was a Carnegie library). Queen Street East has that intrinsically interesting pedestrian atmosphere of the early 1900s, with the recurring main street urban form of a two-storey brick structure with apartments over the shops, punctuated by unfortunate modernist intrusions, as I’ve shown in the photos below. You can tell the street was gradually widened, giving even the most charming main street areas very narrow sidewalks.

It’s also impossible to ignore the hipster influence on the street, as the traditional dry cleaners and butchers of The Beach give way to coffee shops and restaurants in the popular neighbourhoods of Corktown, Riverside, and Leslieville. The urban redevelopment of the New Broadview Hotel and the Riverside Square project (check out streetcar.ca for more details) will continue this character shift towards upscale urban living. Displacement of the current residents is seen as a necessity: Streetcar Developments has been working with the City of Toronto and Woodgreen Community Services to assist transition of the existing residents to other community housing. Aaron Knight from Streetcar met us to explain some of the changes that will happen near this historic intersection, particularly the south side of the street meeting Munro, which will be reinvisioned as a pedestrian and urban space open to the public.

From Queen and Broadview, the group continued west on to Campbell House, and finished up at Queen and Roncesvalles. If you have any thoughts on Queen Street, and how to improve its public realm and pedestrian amenities, share them with Asher and Edward at peoplesqueenstreet.org/queenstsurvey, on their Facebook group, or on twitter.


The Fox theatre (opened in 1914 as “the theatre without a name”)


The pedestrian amenities are minimal east of Woodbine

The pedestrian amenities are minimal east of Woodbine















Beaches Library

Beaches Library featuring a one-ton sculpture of an owl (Philip H. Carter, Ludzer Vandermolen), was one of Toronto’s original Carnegie libraries

Bike parking and seating in front of the Beaches Library

Bike parking and seating in front of the Beaches Library and Kew Gardens, offers a much better pedestrian realm


Bam! Breakfast and Bistro displays one of many colourful murals along Queen Street East

Bam! Breakfast and Bistro displays one of many colourful murals along Queen Street East–but note the narrow sidewalk


Much more space for pedestrians, but no amenities

Much more space for pedestrians, but no amenities at Queen and Northern Dancer Blvd. (named for the horse, as the Greenwood Racetrack was here until 1994, before it was demolished and replaced by Greenwood Park). I’m guessing the owner of this building would be able to attract tenants with some seating, bike racks, and public art



Squeezed for space at Eastern Ave.–it’s difficult to get around the bus shelter. Why not just ask building owners to construct an overhang?


Another pedestrian desert at the Alliance Theatre (Beaches) just west of Eastern Ave.

Another pedestrian desert at the Alliance Theatre (Beach) just west of Eastern Ave. that could easily be improved with some seating–who doesn’t need somewhere to wait when meeting friends for a movie?


Velotique making an imprint on the urban fabric at Queen and Rhodes

Velotique making an imprint on the urban fabric at Queen and Rhodes


Playground and chain link fence protecting the private realm at Queen and Craven

Playground and chain link fence protecting the private realm at Queen and Craven (see below for the north side view) makes the street uninviting for pedestrians


The northern side of the street at Queen and Craven shows a very different view--the old main street shops

The northern side of the street at Queen and Craven shows a very different view–the old main street shops. Again, note how little space there is for pedestrians, especially when signage and street trees are added.


Ashbridge Estate, the remains of Sarah Ashbridge's plot of farmland that stretched south to the lake

Ashbridge Estate, the remains of Sarah Ashbridge’s plot of farmland that stretched south to the lake. Ashbridge’s Bay and Ashland were named after her.


The street in front of the Ashbridge Estate feels like a country road with its white picket fence

The street in front of the Ashbridge Estate feels like a country road with its white picket fence


East End Garden and Hardware Centre spilled out onto the south side of the street with its Halloween display

East End Garden and Hardware Centre spills out onto the south side of the street with its Halloween display, taking advantage of its private space.



Black's Toronto Veterinary Hospital, just west of Carlaw, (opened in 1911) gives a glimpse of the old main street

Black’s Toronto Veterinary Hospital (opened in 1911), just west of Carlaw, gives us a glimpse of how buildings used to meet up with the old main street: with a sidewalk, lawn, and garden.


Queen and Coxwell has vestiges of the past, but the pedestrian realm is barren here

Queen and Coxwell has vestiges of the past in the Woodgreen Pharmacy, but the pedestrian realm is barren here. Note the brick only faces Queen Street, obviously the higher impact was needed on this street over Coxwell.


Slices of Canadiana--Canada Dry, immigration/citizenship, and the streetcar

Slices of Canadiana–Canada Dry, immigration/citizenship, and the streetcar. In the Leslieville area now, the sidewalk is far too narrow for the amount of foot traffic the newer shops and services attract.


Queen and Broadview, until recently home to Jilly's adult entertainment. The New Broadview Hotel is currently undergoing a major redevelopment through Streetcar Development

Queen and Broadview, until recently home to Jilly’s adult entertainment and a residential hotel with long-time residents. The New Broadview Hotel, which dates back to 1893, is currently undergoing a major redevelopment through Streetcar Developments. It’s the kind of project that could change the character of this intersection for decades in the future.


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“Time is Money. Money is Time.” street art at Queen and Broadview


Aaron Knight of Streetcar Developments tells us about the redevelopment opportunities for the space currently devoted to a car dealership (south side of Queen at Munro). Redevelopment will see the space as an extension of the public realm.

Aaron Knight of Streetcar Developments tells us about the redevelopment opportunities for the space currently devoted to a car dealership (south side of Queen at Munro). The redevelopment project Riverside Square will see the space as an extension of the public realm.



As many of you know, I spent my undergraduate years at the University of Toronto, where I was enrolled in the Landscape Architecture Bachelors program. Five years of 36 hours of class per week, which included 15 hours of design studios and endless hours of preparation for the studio grind. Design projects are often frustrating and there is little guidance provided, but most students enjoy studio more than their other classes. Once students graduate and work in private practice, they thrive on design work. Within a few years, many become project managers so they can have more control over design projects. Some of my classmates from the Bachelors program are now associates in their firms.

However, studio is often taught in an adversarial way that doesn’t seem to benefit the students. It doesn’t accomplish much to hear, “Your design sucks!” Receiving daily criticism on your design work can be intimidating and, if it is not constructive, demoralizing. One of the most trying experiences in any design student’s life is the final ‘crit’, where critics from outside of the school are invited to comment on their work. This is a more formal than the ‘pin-up’, which happens throughout the semester at any given time, and usually just involves your teacher and classmates. Students may spend a night preparing for a pin-up, but they invest a week or more (including several all-nighters) preparing finished drawings for a final crit. Even the setting indicates a shift in formality: while the pin-up is usually held in studio wherever a suitable white wall can be found to pin trace paper drawings, the crit is often held in a larger, more public room on the main floor of the building. The critics are often local architects, urban designers, landscape architects, and occasionally urban writers or thinkers. Again, sometimes the criticism is useful, but it is often hurtful and demeaning: I remember one Chinese student whose crit included a vicious criticism of his English skills. Another student received a fifteen-minute harangue on her choice of paper for the final drawings, which the critic deemed substandard. In both cases, the critic never said a word about the actual design (click here for more typical crit comments).

You can see why, when I was asked to be a critic for a design studio last week, I warily approached the invitation. An architect friend of mine was going to be a critic at Emily Carr University of Art and Design, here on Granville Island in Vancouver, and the class needed more critics. The students were architecture students from the University of Oregon who were in Vancouver on a field studio. Their assignment was to design a new building for the end of Railspur Alley; two of the existing buildings are underused. Under the guidance of their teacher, Associate Professor Stephen Duff, they had met with Granville Island planners and local retailers to get a sense of what types of uses were most needed (more artist studios, performance spaces, and teaching kitchens) and what was lacking (nightlife). We were going to be giving them feedback on their projects at the mid-term point; there is still a month until their final crit.

As usual, the students pinned up their projects on the walls: their trace paper sections and plans, cardboard models, and flurry of last-minute activity were all too familiar. What differed was the crit process. There were about eight critics, most of us schooled in architecture or landscape architecture, and most working in private practice. We were each assigned a student for five 35-minute slots, and we rotated throughout the two small rooms. The student spent about half of the time presenting their work, and then we asked questions, we made suggestions, and got into discussions with the students about problems they were having. Occasionally we were paired, so the critic-to-student ratio was 2:1. I found the ratio, and the crit process, to be much more productive for the students: they were involved in a real dialogue about their projects, rather than meekly receiving commentary in front of an audience. The students also seemed fairly confident about their work, which shows they had been mentored more than cajoled (and says a lot about their teacher, an affable and open-minded sort). However, they weren’t stubborn or defensive about their designs; on the contrary, all of the students I worked with were interested in the critics’ opinions, and intended to use the new ideas to keep exploring their designs until the final crit in June. What we had, then, was an exercise in problem-solving rather than an adversarial “Defend your idea!” Of course, this wasn’t a final crit; the students had time to keep working and change their designs. But I have a hunch that their final crit would be pretty similar, even if they were required to present their ideas and receive criticism in front of the whole class.

This crit was so superior to the antagonistic crits I experienced that I wonder why they aren’t always done this way. I’m pretty sure that the harsh, and often personal, criticism that we received at school didn’t make us better designers (and I know for a fact that it debilitated many students). I can hear the murmurs of “too soft” and “not rigorous enough” already, but as someone who has crossed the disciplinary divide, I assure you that students don’t receive stinging critiques on a daily basis from their sociology or chemistry professors. Even PhD students, as aspiring professors, are taught to give their students constructive criticism  in the classroom setting and when grading assignments. Why aren’t more design studios integrating guest critics at the more informal mid-term crits, using a higher critic-to-student ratio, and spurring real dialogue about students’ designs?

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 ubcipd.wordpress.com. 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

UBC’s School of Community and Regional Planning (SCARP) is finally getting what it deserves: a new building. As I wrote in a popular post last year, there is considerable inequity among the faculties in terms of building facilities. Recently, SCARP joined forces with the School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture to expand Lasserre and create a joint building for all three programs. Currently, the four short-listed firms are working on their design proposals, which will be presented this month.

The Lasserre building

West Mall Annex

The MacMillan building

The Landscape Architecture Anne

SALA building presentations

As you can see, all three programs are in desperate need of new facilities. The architects are all within Lasserre, but the landscape architects are split between the MacMillan building and the Landscape Architecture Annex. SCARP has been housed in two buildings, Lasserre (administrative and some faculty offices) and West Mall Annex (classrooms, computer labs, student and faculty offices), for many years now. Architecture and landscape architecture are now within the same faculty; a few years ago landscape architecture was housed in the Faculty of Land and Food Systems. SCARP remains independent of this union: our parent department is the College for Interdisciplinary Studies.

These needless silos have undoubtedly contributed to what many see as deep rifts between the three professions: while there are many students who traverse the divide and take courses in these related programs, the isolation remains. Students in all three programs seem very excited about the prospect of having more interaction with each other, more joint classes, and possibly more interaction between faculty. There is a lot of logic in this aspiration: architects, landscape architects and planners will be working closely together in practice once they graduate, and it is a sad fact that we don’t know how to work together, resolve conflicts and appreciate each others’ expertise. The students (and to some extent, faculty) hope is that a joint building will help in creating mutual understanding.

I remain cynical on the subject, and for good reason: my own experience at the School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture at University of Toronto taught me that a joint building is not necessarily utopia. Acculturation is defined an exchange of cultural habits that results when groups come into continuous contact: both cultures change, but each group remains distinct. Acculturation allows acceptance or rejection of aspects of both the ‘old’ and ‘new’ cultures, while assimilation implies total enculturation to the new, dominant culture. I would argue that architects tend to assimilate other closely-aligned fields. In our case, the architecture program was much larger (300 students compared to 125 in the landscape architecture program) and had considerably more faculty members. In the entire 119-year history of the school, it has always been headed by an architect. Consequently, the Borg-like architects dominated decision-making processes, from faculty hiring to program offerings to facilities, leaving the landscape architecture program to scramble for courses and instructors. By the time the school was revamped and rebranded and urban design program was added, the landscape architecture program had been largely consumed by the larger entity: it is now the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design and 24 of its 32 faculty are architects. Resistance was, indeed, futile.

Outside of this administrative approach, there is something about the architecture profession that encourages a superiority complex. I’m sure this statement offends, so let me back it up with some concrete examples. In first year, our two studios were right next to each other on the same floor, so there was more room for social interaction (this was back when U of T had Bachelors degrees in both programs). But after that, landscape architects remained on the second floor (being a smaller program, there was enough space for us) while the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th year architects moved up to the third and fourth floors. The architecture students rarely condescended to socialize with the landscape architects, even they were only separated by one floor. As for joint classes, the accreditation boards of each profession require so many courses that in five years, we could only choose three classes ourselves, the rest being required. We did have history and theory together in first year, and site engineering (a class which the architecture students considered a waste of time) in second and third years. We also had a joint computer lab and library. But that was the extent of our co-mingling. I started out in architecture, but switched to landscape architecture in my second year. From the moment I made the switch, it was clear I was crossing the void: classmates no longer spoke to me, or asked condescendingly how I liked the easier workload in landscape architecture.

More than a decade later, I still run into acquaintances for whom the hierarchy is firmly entrenched: architecture is at the top, then landscape architecture, and then planning. At UBC, I ran into someone who had previously studied math and statistics, and had just finished his Masters in Architecture. When I mentioned I was studying planning, he replied, “Oh yeah? You must find that a lot easier.” (A common survival technique for architects, who work ridiculous overtime hours and rarely take time off, is to redefine the “normal” work week to have 80 or more hours; by this definition everyone else is a slacker). Many of my former classmates in both architecture and landscape architecture are still practicing in the field, and consider my pursuit of a planning PhD mildly amusing (and yet, surely they must consider this an achievement for someone who obviously has such a puny brain that she couldn’t hack it in architecture?) “Planners don’t actually DO anything,” they smirk. There is also the fact that architecture and landscape architecture are practical fields, and not research-based, so a PhD is not necessarily a requirement for teaching in these professions; consequently, it is viewed as a useless degree. “I’d rather do something real than something that’s just going to sit on a shelf,” is the common refrain. Having worked in the US, the UK and Canada, I can confirm that the hierarchy is firmly in place; I have friends working in Bombay, Shanghai, and Hong Kong who assure me things are the same where they live and work.

I think the opportunity for the new building and the opportunity for shared learning are exciting, but my own experiences at U of T have forever changed the way I think about collaboration. SCARP faculty and students, and planners in general, are big believers in participatory processes and collaborative decision-making. While we discuss the impact of power dynamics and imbalances in these processes and have some strategies in dealing with them, the fact remains that decisions tend to go in the most politically expedient direction, whether this means siding with the most vocal group, the group that is present at the most meetings, or the group with the most powerful friends. Collaboration and participation only work when each player is considered equal and is given equal opportunity to express views and impact the final decision. My limited experience with the current SCARP/SALA building suggest that this is not the case here, and I fear that again, resistance is futile: there have already been serious discussions about how much space each program would get, and if there will even be enough room for all of SCARP’s computer labs, classrooms and student offices. There seems to be little understanding of how planning students work and what types of spaces they might need (although we do have an urban design stream at SCARP, the majority of us don’t work in studios and most of us are not studying subjects that are related to urban design issues). Although urban design is a very popular stream at SCARP, in other years the community development/social planning stream has had the most students, or ecological and natural resource planning. Each year the admissions committee is very careful about admitting a balance of students to all the streams (currently there are six) in order to balance the number of students each faculty member supervises and the number that will enroll in each course. Most of the streams are thinly staffed (we have only one urban design professor) so this balance is important. A joint building with SALA might outwardly seem like we are heading towards the McGill model where planning is a studio-based degree, but actually this is unlikely.

I would love to be proven wrong on the new building and its design process, because nothing could be better for SCARP or SALA than to achieve a truly interdisciplinary melding of the three programs. It is a sad fact that in a city like Vancouver, which is held up as an example of urban planning and urban design, we don’t have a very strong urban design program. A joint building could give Vancouver designers and planners the chance to continue some interesting conversations on urban thinking in the city, the type of debate that happens at SFU’s lecture series; a laboratory for innovative design and planning. But we also need to preserve SCARP’s unique strengths: community development and social planning, ecological and natural resource planning, transportation planning, participatory planning and international development, many of which do not have a design component and are not usually offered at other planning schools. If you’re in Vancouver, come out to the architects’ presentations on September 23rd and 29th and get your chance to comment on them. The winner will be announced on October 20th.

July 13th, 2009 was a long-awaited day for cycling advocates in Vancouver. The Burrard Bridge, one of three bridges connecting the Lower Mainland to downtown Vancouver, officially began its six-month lane re-allocation trial.

Pedestrians on the sidewalk and cyclists in their own lane on the southbound side

Pedestrians on the sidewalk and cyclists in their own lane on the southbound side

One of the three southbound lanes was divided off by a concrete median for exclusive use of cyclists. Pedestrians finally get exclusive use of the narrow sidewalk on the south side, while the northbound sidewalk functions as a bike lane. You can see by the pavement markings above that each sidewalk used to be shared between pedestrians and cyclists. While the trial is far from ideal (pedestrians have to cross to the west side at busy intersections at each end), it is the culmination of more than a decade of efforts by sustainable transportation advocates. 

About half of the 8,000-9,000 cars that drive over the bridge each day are single-occupant vehicles, a number that the City of Vancouver wants to decrease. Safety has also been a major issue: because of the narrow sidewalks, shared between commuting cyclists and walkers, and the lack of protective elements between the sidewalk and roadway, there have been many accidents in which cyclists have narrowly escaped death. As you can see in the pictures, the sidewalks comfortably fit three people across, which is why cyclists had to move fairly slowly (15km/h) to avoid injuring pedestrians. 

The last time the Burrard Bridge closed off a lane for cyclists, back in 1996, the trial lasted only a week before angry motorists forced it to close. However, the number of cyclists using the bridge during the short trial increased by 39% while drivers decreased by 9%. Traffic delays of 20 minutes the first day decreased to only a few minutes by the end of the week. City Council admitted that it hadn’t done enough to prepare people for the trial, including advertising and new signage. This time around, the long delay in getting the trial approved meant that there was plenty of publicity, new signage and traffic police on hand at each end of the bridge to help direct people to the correct side of the bridge. Of the $1.45 million budget for the project, $250,000 was spent on public education.

Banner advertising the Burrard Bridge Lane Re-allocation

Banner advertising the Burrard Bridge Lane Re-allocation

Council has been considering closing two lanes of the bridge (one northbound and one southbound) for many years. Four consecutive councils have considered over 30 different proposals for the Burrard Bridge, and Vision Vancouver’s discussion of the bike lane trial in 2005 was thought to be a deciding factor in that year’s municipal election, in which Sam Sullivan (Non-Partisan Association) defeated Larry Campbell (Vision Vancouver). During Sullivan’s term in office  (2005-2008), Council members decided against the proposal.

This time around, Mayor Gregor Robertson and Council debated three options: 

  • Closing two lanes for bike travel (one northbound and one southbound), leaving both sidewalks for pedestrians
  • Closing one lane for bike travel (southbound), leaving the southbound sidewalk for pedestrians and the northbound sidewalk as shared between cyclists and pedestrians
  • Closing one lane for bike travel (southbound), leaving the southbound sidewalk for pedestrians and the northbound sidewalk for cyclists only

Gil Penalosa, Executive Director of Walk and Bike for Life, was one of the speakers at the May 5, 2009 meeting that decided the fate of the bridge. Penalosa is the former Commissioner of Parks, Sport and Recreation for the City of Bogata, Columbia, where he helped introduce 91 km of car-free roads on Sundays (Ciclovia). 1.5 million people use the Ciclovia weekly.

The usual opponent in this storyline, the business community (such as the Downtown Business Improvement Association), opposed the lane closure. They apparently still believe the 1950s fallacy that only cars can bring people into business districts. Try telling that to Vancouverites, who successfully fought a series of highway projects that would have destroyed downtown neighbourhoods back in the 1970s. At that time, businesses supported highways that they saw as bringing suburban residents into the city, a strategy that failed miserably in many cities across North America.

Some suggest that there the Burrard Bridge lane re-allocation trial is not as politically risky as it might have been in the 1990s. There has been a considerable shift in sustainable transportation policy and programming since 1996. In the Greater Vancouver Regional District, TransLink was created in 1997 and ridership has increased substantially. In the City of Vancouver, cycling trips have tripled while driving trips decreased substantially. The City has decided to decrease greenhouse gas emissions by 30%. Experts like Penalosa, UBC’s Larry Frank, and SFU’s Gordon Price, a former Vancouver City Councillor, support alternative transportation options and argue that increased cycling, walking, and transit infrastructure discourages driving. The final nail in this coffin might have been the vocal support of Gregor Robertson, a regular bike commuter; his opponent in the 2008 election was Peter Ladner, who also regularly commutes by bike.

Both sides are waiting to see how the trial lane allocation goes; it has been approved for six months but will probably be re-evaluated in September when traffic volumes resume. If you live in Vancouver, check out Vancouver Public Space, which has a list of ways, including old-school phone numbers and email addresses, plus blogs, Facebook and Twitter sites where you can voice your support of the trial. And go to the fun cycling-oriented events that have been planned along with the trial run (see below).


Bike-in movie at Vanier Park on the opening day of the Burrard Bridge trial

Bike-in movie at Vanier Park on the opening day of the Burrard Bridge trial

Among my colleagues in urban planning, suburbia is seen as one of the most powerful forces shaping our towns and cities. Suburban sprawl, which eats up prime agricultural land, forces residents to drive ever further to widely dispersed retail and employment locations. The suburb has an exclusive history, as many were designed to exclude those of lower socioeconomic classes or certain ethnic groups. In this era of recessionary caution, they are the epitome of wasteful. And yet, they remain the preferred landscapes of the vast majority of people living in both American and Canadian cities.

Like many people my age, I grew up in suburbia and return there periodically. To this day, suburbanites provide me with endless comedic fodder. This is particularly true of those considered to be “average people.” You know, the people you see on sitcoms who live in giant two-storey houses and drive SUVs, who shop at Costco and are completely paranoid (read: boomers like my parents and others of their generation). On the surface, they seem so safe and isolated in their brick-and-aluminum-siding cells; and yet, under the surface lurk nightmarish thoughts.

A couple of years ago on a visit to the ‘burbs, my mom told me to take a large stick with me on a walk around the suburb, as there had been a rash of dog attacks lately (I assured her that a stick would be little protection against an angry Rottweiler, but this did little to placate her). I once said I’d walk to the corner store to pick up milk, and was told that I should take the car since it was too far to walk (15 minutes, the same distance I’d walked to school as a child). One evening, I mentioned I’d go for a walk; my mother looked at the clock in alarm (it was 9pm). On my walk, I saw at least twenty different homeowners out trimming their hedges, mowing their lawns, or gardening; at one house a couple of kids were out playing. My mother shook her head at these convention-flouters: didn’t they know it wasn’t safe to be out after dinner?

My suburbanite friends get their milk at one store, eggs at another, and vegetables at a third, endlessly trolling for deals (and by deals I mean savings of twenty cents). They choose the apples from Chile over the apples from Canada (cheaper). They assure me that nobody could ever live happily in a rental, and wouldn’t I need a yard once I had children? The fact that I’ve been renting for 14 years doesn’t convince them, nor the fact that most kids stop playing in the yard around age 13. They read about greenhouse gases in the daily paper but shake their heads sadly (there’s nothing they can do about it). They rail at the traffic in their city and insist on road widenings; they fume if they’re ever behind a city bus or have to give road space to a cyclist. They comment on every pedestrian brave enough to cross the busy multi-lane collector roads. Nighttime TV consists of CNN, 60 Minutes and The National, to recharge the paranoia levels.

On the other hand, suburbanites have space to compost, space to grow those organic veggies, space to pick local fruits and tuck them away multiple deep freezers. Space to store the 20-lb bag of onions or the cases of mangoes, pomegranates or oranges so easily found at Costco. They get good deals on virtually everything, the costs of food, clothing, shelter, and entertainment being vastly lower than in the city. And then there are the smells: freshly cut lawns, sprinklers, chlorinated pools, beds of carefully tended flowers. While these scents may smack of greenhouse gases, pesticides and non-biodegradable plastics, even a whiff of water from a garden hose transports me back to my childhood; they are oddly comforting.

Suburbanites live in the type of neighbourhoods that we have long been told are good for us: good for families, free from crime, with lots of open space…basically, the landscapes of The American Dream. But to planners, suburbs are more accurately portrayed in films like American Beauty (1999) or Lymelife (2009). My planning friends might be car-free, child-free, renters, and supporters of local farmers. They might support gay marriage, encourage supportive housing in their neighbourhoods, or walk to work instead of driving. But these urban eccentricities are frowned upon in the ‘burbs, and attitudes and behaviour are some of the hardest things to change in planning our communities.

There are glimmerings of environmental awareness in the ‘burbs; even a hint of planning comprehension. My suburban friends have heard of car-sharing programs, LEED-certified buildings and New Urbanism. They understand the benefits of organic gardening, public transit and community development. They just seem to be having a bit of trouble connecting these ideas to their everyday lives. They need to know how much money they could save by growing their own veggies, and how much weight they could lose doing all that gardening. They need information on local agriculture versus buying from vast supermarket chains. They need practical information, maps, schedules, and cycling workshops if they are ever going to transition from two- and three-car families. They need to understand what housing options might suit them best: it may be a condo or townhouse if they really don’t use their yards or live in one- or two-person households. They need to understand their municipality’s Official Community Plan and its social, economic, and environmental impacts so that they can get involved in creating better communities. This is grassroots-level work, the same kind of marketing and promotion that was done in the 90s to advertise composting and recycling, two activities that most suburbanites now do on a regular basis.

Aside from workshops and social marketing, the crux of the matter is that some suburbanites define themselves as drivers, as those who live in large detached houses, as people in the upper echelons of society, even as bargain shoppers. The very ideals that we attack as planners are in fact prized in the ‘burbs. But we should remember that these ideals were created in the 1950s, supported by government funding and policies, and we have the power to create new ones. There is a wave of new developments in the US that includes organic farms in their subdivisions; people who buy homes get access to fresh local produce, which is increasingly appealing for many. In Canada, many people are drawn to smaller homes, neighbourhoods with sustainability features (Greenbrook in Surrey, BC, will derive 10% of its energy costs from solar power) and urban neighbourhoods with access to transit. We need to create neighbourhoods that have the appeals of suburban living but are more sustainable, which can translate into more affordable; in the organic farm suburbs, farmers’ rent is initially paid to the developer, but after all the lots are sold the revenue goes to the homeowners’ association. There are many ways to market sustainable neighbourhoods and communities, and eventually replace the old suburbia with something more socially and ecologically rewarding. More crucial, we need to market these ideals as the hip new trend in housing.