Tag Archives: urban planning

My home, winning prizes and making the news

As long time readers of my blog already know I live on a green a roof (which is so amazing I wrote about it twice). I also live above a couple of box stores including a Winners and Home Depot and not to mention a sushi restaurant, a cellphone shop, and a Starbucks as well as a Save-on-Foods.

As I tell my friends, I have the world’s largest pantry and workshop in my basement… I just don’t own anything in it yet.

Sounds weird? It would. And, it is awesome.

The building is called The Rise and yesterday, a few more people across the country got a chance to read about how great it (and other mixed-use developments are) are with the publication of Frances Bula’s piece in the Globe about it.

The piece (oddly) doesn’t even mention the green roof and garden we have in the middle of our complex. It does however go into significant detail about mixed use developments. Also odd is that the piece has the weird subtitle of “but not everyone is on board” where the reservations are few and limited to people in Toronto who, I suspect, have never seen the building:

In spite of that, many Torontonians, such as Mr. Klein and Mr. Jackson, are skeptical about Vancouver’s radical experiments in putting people on top of giant stores.

“The jury is very much out on the idea of residential on top of big box, like we’re seeing in Vancouver,” Mr. Klein says.

But Vancouver’s planning director, Brent Toderian, said he believes the Rise is a wonderful new example of mixed use. It’s one that the city went out of its way to encourage.

From my perspective, the jury is only out for those who’ve never lived or visited this place.

A Case Study in Open Government: The Burrard Bridge Trial


On Monday, July 13th the City of Vancouver began the Burrard Bridge lane trial. For those unfamiliar with the trial, the Burrard Bridge is a 6 lane bridge that connects the downtown core of Vancouver with one of the cities major suburban (but still relatively dense) neighbourhoods.

Historically bikers and pedestrians have shared the narrow sidewalks on either side of the bridge. This has resulted in a number of dangerous accidents (the Burrard bridge has more cyclist accidents than any other bridge in the city) and deters cyclists from using the bridge. During the trial the three vehicle lanes headed into downtown have remained unchanged. However, one lane headed out of downtown has been converted to a protected cycling lane.

Pre-trial: cyclists and pedestrians share a narrow sidewalk

Present: Southbound, Northbound cyclists and pedestrians each have their own sidewalk or lane.

A Case Study in Open Government

So what does this have to do with open government?

To access the trial’s impact the city began measuring traffic, cycling, and pedestrian levels 2 weeks prior to the trial started and has continued to measure them ever since. Traditionally, the data generated by a trial like this would kept hidden from the public until a certain date when a report is presented to council to determine if the trial should be made permanent.

Interestingly however, the City of Vancouver has opted to share the raw data on a regularly basis, as well as blog about the trial and give citizens an opportunity to leave comments and feedback. Indeed, the whole Burrard Street Lane Trial website – including twitter account and facebook page – is a well organized affair. Unsurprisingly, the data shows that the number of people cycling over the bridge has increased significantly.

The real story here isn’t about whether the Burrard Bridge Lane Trial becomes permanent or not. It’s about the process. For perhaps the first time in the history of the city citizens and interested groups can conduct their own analysis of the trials significance, in real time, using credible data. Better yet, the analysis won’t be limited to what public servants think. Anyone, in the city, or in the world for that matter, can take this data and mash it up with other data sets or simply analyze as it is. A debate grounded in fact, not emotions or anecdotes, can now take place.

This means cycling advocates or commuter/car advocacy groups can mash the data up with other data sets or take a crack at explaining why the trial is good or bad. I, for example, would love to see if the members of the cycling community who created this website might create a site that measures the reduction in carbon emissions made possible by the trial. Or if anti-cycle lane advocates can mash the data up with traffic reports to show if commuting times have been increased.

Regardless of the outcome however, the process, created by an open government, has ensured that Vancouver’s citizens are better equipped to see what is actually happening, to make suggestions for improvement and to explain to their fellow citizens the significance of the trial. That is the essence of what Open Government allows – it enables anyone who wants to become more engaged in their community by giving them more and better information.

Making it better

As great as the City’s website is, it could be better. To begin with, there is no RSS feed on the blog, so you’ve actually got to go to the website to get updates.

Much more important, there is no way for citizens to subscribe to or download the raw data. An RSS feed or XML feed for the data would allow other websites to automatically get updates. Creating such a feed would cost the city nothing and would vastly enhance the ability of news organizations and interested citizens to re-use, re-mix and re-purpose the data.

A final note. For full disclosure it should be known that I sit on the executive of Vision Vancouver, the political party that proposed and made possible, the Burrard Bridge Lane Trial.

I Live on a Green Roof – and you should too! (summer update)

A few months ago I blogged about how I lived on a green roof, how much I enjoyed it, and outlined some of the economic benefits green roofs create (as well as why they should be part of our stimulus package).

At the time I promised to repost pictures of the roof in the summer since – at the time – it was winter and so it wasn’t that vibrant. Part of me wished I’d taken these in the spring when the cherry blossoms were bursting but these pics are pretty nice too.

5 months later I can confirm that this building still is an example of urban planning done right.

The nicest thing about the roof is that it’s just an inordinate amount of green space to have just outside your apartment/townhouse in a urban setting. I confess that unlike some of the other tenants I haven’t played bocce or croquet in the green space in the middle of the building but at some point this summer I hope to. I do however use the collective BBQ’s quite frequently which is a real joy. Indeed, running across the street to the Whole Foods Paycheck and grabbing a pre-made burger and dropping it on the grill is just awesome.

Mostly though it is nice to open one’s door to a quiet city side walk, trees, grass and shrubs – despite being on a 5th story rooftop.

Now that it has gotten quite hot here in Vancouver I’d be curious how much lower the electrical bill is for the Winners, Starbucks, Save-on-Foods, Home Depot, TD Bank and other stores that are below us. (Of course, I wonder the same in winter as I’m assuming they are better insulated from both the heat and cold. One the downside my apartment (it is really more like a row house that is on the building’s roof) does not have a green roof above it and on warm days it gets pretty hot – especially the loft office space where I do most of my work/writing. Of course, this is probably true of many Vancouver apartments give  buildings here don’t tend to have central AC.

Also apologies for the stitching job with these photos – I’m working with some pretty rudimentary tools.

Roof 2c

This is the BBQ I use most, gives me a great view of downtown at the mountains, on the other side I look up at City Hall.

This is the BBQ I use most, gives me a great view of downtown at the mountains, on the other side I look up at City Hall.


I (embarrassingly) don’t use any of the planters but from what I can tel some residents grow herbs and vegetables, others just grow flowers…

North America and the Auto Sector: The Upside of Down

Anyone else notice how circumscribed the debate over the auto sector has been? Some news outlets have occasionally asked “is the bail out fair?” but the discussion has remained fairly limited. Specifically, pieces on the auto-sector bailouts tends to be restricted to the negative consequences in relation to the costs in jobs: the moral hazard the bailout creates, the (unfair) treatment the bailout affords autoworkers, the concerns over the enormous burden the bailouts imposes on taxpayers, the impact on affected communities. Even within this narrow discourse,few commentators have even been outspoken. Maclean’s has probably been the most interesting. It bluntly outlined the gong show the industry has become  with this set of amazing statistics and its columnist Andrew Coyne published has posted piece after piece where he rightly points out the opportunity cost of bailing out the auto industry.

However, none of the commentary on the North American auto-sector’s dramatic decline has touched on how this change will impact the continent’s political and policy landscape. It interesting because, while it isn’t polite to talk about it, the fact is, there are upsides to the decline of the North American auto sector.

Start wit the fact that we will now only have one or two (smaller) American auto companies and their relative importance to the US economy will be dramatically diminished. It is hard to imagine that the political muscle of this sector will not equally diminish. This is no small matter. Huge swaths of American (and thus, in part, Canadian) public policy is explicitly and/or implicitly focused on ensuring that people either need cars, or that cars are never a burden. (Remember, these are companies that, with political and government acquiescence, bought up public transport companies across the US just so they could tear up the tracks their trams ran on to push people into cars or, if they had to, the buses the car companies built.)

So everything from highways, to urban planning, to emission controls, to business hours… almost everything in our society, is shaped by the fact that cars and the auto-sector were a large and integral part of the North American economy and its social fabric.

And so all these decision, all these debates about how North Americans should structure their society, they are all going to open up again as American auto companies cease to exist or decline in importance. The US congress is much more likely to impose tougher emission restrictions if those restrictions most likely impact foreign companies. If more roads don’t create more American jobs and profits then public transport – not the auto-sector – becomes slightly more appealing to subside.

It is true that Americans (and Canadians) love their cars. But this love didn’t come out of nowhere, it was nursed by decades of social policy and economic planning. Now the incentives that created and sustained that process are potentially irrevocably weakened. The consequences are terrible for those who work in the sector, but they may end up being liberating and renewing for society at large. For cities, citizens and communities the implicit legal, political and policy barriers that have prevented alternatives are already beginning to decay.

At that’s a big upside.

I live on a green roof – and so should everyone

There has been an exploding interest in green roofs of late. During the recent Vision Vancouver fundraiser I was introduced to Erika Richmond who designed and built my friend Toby B.’s greenroof in the downtown east side. Walking away from the conversation I suddenly realized I may actually live on a green roof.

The building I live in has 4 floors of commercial real estate and a rooftop townhouse development built around a 20,000 sq ft garden and sidewalks. The “sidewalks” have ceders and trees planted along them, the main garden is a grass field and with over 14 decently sized wood garden plots.

Is it technically a green roof? I don’t know. But it does create a beautiful and relatively peaceful living space 25 meters above street in an increasingly busy part of town.

(I realize the photos do not look particularly green but you we are in the midst of what passes for winter here in Vancouver. I’ll try posting some new ones come spring/summer.)

But it turns out the beauty is the least important part of green roofs. For a policy geek like me there is a fascinating and increasing amount of research into the benefits of green roofs – some of the most interesting of which has been commissioned by the City of Toronto and available in a report it published in late 2005.

Savings to the city of Toronto, based the assumption that 100% of available green roof areas over 350 sq m. were retrofitted and that 75% of the roof area was made green, were:

Those are some large numbers.

What an enormous opportunity green roofs would have been for the federal budget. Buildings account for a significant amount of GHG emissions and the financial savings generated by such a plan are obviously enormous. Better still the greening of the aforementioned roofs would not require the equivalent planning of say building a highway, bridge or building and so could be undertaken relatively quickly. In short, they are shovel ready. Equally important, green roofs are probably more labour intensive (as opposed to capital intensive) than many of types of infrastructure projects. This means green roof projects might be better positioned to generate jobs and help lower our rising unemployment numbers. Massive year on year savings? Significant employment? Instant initial savings? An increase in property values? Sounds like a stimulus package winner to me.

Sadly, the trend appears to be catching on more in the United States than in Canada. A cursory exploration of the web reveals that New York City recently passed a city by-law that rewards building-owners who cover 50 percent of available rooftop space with a green roof with “a one-year property tax credit of up to $100,000. The credit would be equal to $4.50 per square-foot of roof area that is planted with vegetation, or approximately 25 percent of the typical costs associated with the materials, labor, installation and design of the green roof.” Philadelphia also has a tax credit (although it appears to be little used). Chicago however is an emerging capital of green roofs with over 200!

It is unclear whether Vancouver or Toronto have such a tax credit (it didn’t appear so, but please let me know if I’m wrong). That said, a growing number of Toronto public buildings now have green roofs and Vancouver will soon be host to Canada’s largest green roof. It’s a start, but given the size of the opportunity, we could be doing so much more.

Walking blues

As some of you know (and for reasons outlined here) I try to walk at least one direction to every meeting I have in Vancouver.

Obviously I’m interested in all things walking which is why – in a brief fly by of Boston – I was stunned to find this store. A specialty store dedicated to walking nerds. If only I’d had time…

Still interested? Well… fellow walking nerds may wish to know about Pednet. Founded by Chris Bradshaw, Pednet was started in 1995 and (according to the site):

“is the international list for those advocating for more and safer walking, focusing on urban environments. Topics include: intersection design, pedestrian-driver interface, effects of walking on individual & streetscape, weather conditions, trends, disabled/children/seniors, & cetera.”

Something that combines my interest in public policy with my zeal for walking… could be dangerous! But such are the opportunities afforded to us by the internet. H/T and thank you to Peter M. for the link.

Why Cambie St. Should have been packed up.

* first up – apologies for no post yesterday. It was a holiday in BC. Sometime later this week I’ll describe in greater detail my ridiculously BC-like day of island hoping, sea kayaking and BBQing. And to complete the leftcoast feel, a Smart Car was involved too.<!–

Second up… The Canada Line, the new subway being constructed between Richmond, the airport and Vancouver. The damage the construction has caused to businesses along the Cambie street corridor has been getting an increasing amount of buzz in the press. The whole situation is a fabulous lesson in urban planning and civic policy-making – one that sadly the press has not articulate.

For those out east who are not familiar with the Canada Line or its construction, it looks something like this:

cambie 2

Photo by Stephen Rees, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Sadly, these photos fail to do the situation justice. To put it bluntly, when there is a two story deep hole outside, traffic is at a stand still, the street is unpassable, and there is the endless sound of construction, people tend to stay away. This, needless to say, has made life difficult for the numerous businesses that populate the Cambie St. corridor.

As one can imagine, several businesses (most notably the restaurant Tomato) have moved, several others are complaining. The local MLA – Gregor Robertson – has even introducing a private member’s bill to provide affected businesses with direct financial support.

But is the construction responsible for the death of the Cambie st. businesses? Perhaps. But it is an inevitable death. And this is why the current public policy has so dramatically failed these businesses.

I’ve noted with interest that while businesses complain loudly about the construction and its impact, it is hard to find landowners who complain. One would think that the loss of tenants – and subsequent rental income – this would have generated a fuss. But it hasn’t.

Why? Because the landlords know that once the line is complete most of the Cambie corridor (currently composed of relatively low density commercial buildings) is going to be completely redeveloped. Higher density commercial and, more importantly, condos, are going to be common place along Cambie. Consequently, there is a good chance that if the construction hadn’t kicked these businesses out, their landlords would have in the ensuing rush to redevelop.

Thus the whole notion that Cambie businesses could be kept open was a mirage – a failure to look at the longer term implications of the Subway. Rather than waste time on a failed “Business is Open along the Canada Line” campaign (This is not a communication problem, advertising is not going to bring people to Cambie, only an end to the construction will) local businesses should have been offered money to move location and cover some of their transition costs. While this would have been painful for everyone involved, it would have been less painful then seeing their business dry up and having to move on their own dime.

I’m in favour of the Canada Line. I think it is great for the city. But that doesn’t mean that the Cambie St. businesses should have been left out to dry. The help they received wasn’t the help they needed. sadly, this is probably because giving them the help they needed wasn’t what they wanted to hear, or what politicians wanted to tell them…

* Aug 8th: The Vancouver Sun published this editorial piece on the same day as this post that provides a parallel but different perspective.

Mike Harcourt – Canada’s Al Gore on Urban Sustainability?

Yesterday evening, at Vanessa T’s prompting, I headed down to the SFU downtown campus to catch Mike Harcourt (former Mayor of Vancouver and Premier of BC) and Ken Cameron (former regional planner) present on City Making in Paradise their upcoming book about the history of city planning in Vancouver.

Two things struck me about the presentation.

The first was how the successes of municipal planning in Vancouver have largely been made possible by a history of local governments thinking, organizing and acting in coordination at the regional level. As Harcourt pointed out, growth and development meant the political and organic borders of the city ceased to be aligned after the Second World War. The regions cooperative approach to this dilemma – which began in the 1970s and that continues today – makes for an interesting case study. In addition to being broadly successful, it appears to have preempted an effort at amalgamation that was so contentious in Quebec and Ontario.

I’ve known for a while that Harcourt is laser focused on urban sustainability and will work with anyone, regardless of political affiliation, who will help advance this goal. That said, I was nonetheless struck by the degree to which he’s transcended partisan politics. While outlining the 9 decisions that “saved Vancouver” Harcourt was happy to praise individuals who’d once been bitter rivals. Given the recent (unusual) trend of provincial parties racing for the centre maybe this is just a sign of the times. Or maybe Harcourt pragmatic, results focused tonic that BC politics so desperately needs. Maybe it’s both. Anyway, for a guy who was dragged through the provincial political ringer, it’s nice see him so motivated and positive.

The Fit City: Five Days, Five Ideas (part 5)

Had an interesting time at the Fit City/Fat City dialogue the other week. As a result of the event and suddenly realizing that it’s the 5 year anniversary of Building Up (the Canada25 report on cities) I thought I would dedicate this week’s posts to public policy ideas for creating healthy cities.

Idea #5: Sport Leagues: Health Engine and Social Lubricant

I’m a big fan of small, simple and easy to implement ideas. Here’s one. While living in Ottawa one thing that really impressed me about the city was the breadth and quality of the organized sports leagues. It seemed everyone in the city belonged to a volleyball, ultimate frisbee, basketball or floor hockey team. In addition to promoting physical exercise it was also a great way to make friends. Most importantly, the city’s willingness to rent out the school’s gyms was instrumental to making these leagues possible. Want a healthy city? Let some young entrepreneur rent out your empty school gyms at night to run a sports league.