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human to human communication

“Thinking partner” model

black box_smRoss Dawson coined the term “black-box consulting” to describe low value consultant-client transactions in his book, Developing Knowledge-Based Client Relationships.

When I first read Dawson’s contrast between isolation and co-creation consulting models over a decade ago, his views struck me as the way of the future for anyone who is in the business of offering advice—including doctors, designers, real estate agents and tech consultants.

Now I am even more convinced of how important it is for clients and consultants to wrestle with questions and options together.

Black-box consulting happens when neither client nor consultant emerges from the assignment any wiser. Essentially, the client receives an outcome without meaningful participation in the process. Dawson says that this opaque model turns the service into a commodity because there is no shared knowledge-creating experience which leads to better decisions. Moreover, the black-box yields no learning, no ah-ha moments, no growth and no transformation.

Which also means that black-box engagements prevent any chance to think through fresh possibilities together. Black-box relationships are about minimal interaction, avoidance of risk and low personal commitment–the opposite of what’s required for innovation.

So clients and consultants do themselves a disservice when they rely on third-party selection processes and impersonal working relationships, which limit their ability to create value together.

We need thinking partners to wrestle through complex challenges. Dawson’s book presents a framework for clearly seeing why transactional advice-dispensing models lead to competition driven by price rather than value, as well as doing things the same old way.

– Sharon VanderKaay

Well connected

Goldring_AC_expectations contrast

These two university athletic facilities demonstrate vastly difference attitudes toward connecting with the street and campus. The University of Toronto Athletic Centre (left) is an unwelcoming fortress with no indication that healthy activities might take place within. By contrast, the recently opened Goldring Centre for High Performance Sport, designed by Patkau Architects and MacLennan Jaunkalns Miller Architects (right), is visually connected with the street and conveys a message of energy, health and accessibility.

Buildings that don’t connect with the street come in all shapes and sizes, but they tend to have the same dismal effect.

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Design insight from the Panda Cam

Much of my work is focused on motivating people to ask themselves: how does this place make me feel and why?

The purpose of my question is to raise awareness for the impact of physical space on our state of mind. Most people tolerate places that are bad for their psyche without considering how it affects their mood, their physical health, and ultimately their neurological health. Conversely, they rarely consider the design elements that make them feel better.

_bad street_nobodys happy place

Judith Heerwagen has studied the evolution of zoo design over recent decades in relation to environmental design for humans. Tight cages in zoos have generally been replaced (though sadly, not for the dolphins) by more spacious natural habitats. As in nature, better habitat designs offer more options for playing, resting and retreating from public view. She explains the incentive for this change, “A key factor was concern over the animals’ psychological and social well-being. Zoos could keep animals alive, but they couldn’t make them flourish.”

Neurotic behavior due to unnatural design is more obvious in zoos than in human habitats. Animals pace back and forth, pick fights and exhibit obsessive behaviors when they must cope with deprivation design. Diagnosis of human depravation design is more complicated.

My recent quest has been to find simple “test” questions that anyone can use to analyze any human habitat. A flash of insight came to me while watching the Smithsonian Institution’s National Zoo Panda Cam, which generously gives the public a window into the world of giant panda mother Mei Xiang and her cub, Bei Bei.

The National Zoo’s giant panda habitat appears to be well designed in every way. But one morning when Bei Bei was suddenly placed in a big sterile box, the contrast with his naturalistic rock bowl (aka his “happy place”) sparked my reaction, “this big box is not his happy place.”

AHA! Now there’s a test question that cuts through all the fancy design terminology about qualities of streets, buildings, public spaces, and other locations where humans spend time. Which of these locations can be described as someone’s happy place?

Every place cannot be a happy place. Some places need to provoke or protect us. A universal, constant state of happiness with no contrasting emotions would be boring. But we all need to ask whether we are spending enough time in “our happy place” from a design perspective.

At nearly five months old, Bei Bei makes his public debut this month. You can see him in person and observe his design preferences…because Bei Bei votes with his feet (see photos below).

My video, “Diagnose Your Habitat” suggests five vital signs that contribute to healthy cities and workplaces, in case you want to see lots of examples of happy and unhappy places.

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photo credit: Smithsonian’s National Zoo

-Sharon VanderKaay

A walk with the white squirrel

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Elusive. Celebrated. Mythical?

The many rewards of pedestrian life include unexpected encounters – such as with the legendary white squirrel of Toronto’s Trinity Bellwoods Park. Not only does the white squirrel have a street and coffee shops named after it, but the critter has taken on symbolic qualities. Some folks believe they bring good luck.

In any case, the white squirrel attracts celebrity-seeking paparazzi and adoring fans whose stories add to local history.

A much publicized accidental electrocution in 2014 further elevated this mammal’s mystique when questions arose as to whether we’d ever see a white squirrel again. But last week one came out to pose for my photo essay on animals that animate our streets. Then, like the White Rabbit and Garbo, it vanished out of sight.

Here’s a one-minute video about my white squirrel-themed walk:

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And here are some images from my upcoming series about animated streets:

animals on the street

The pedestrian experience: Is your street antiseptic or animated?

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-Sharon VanderKaay

Improving our visual diet

walkable assault on your psyche

How does this street make you feel? What effect does it have on your mental health?

There is more to walkability than providing safe, accessible walkways and removing obstacles. Walkability is also about visual qualities that feed our psyche by enriching our experience of every street. The slides below show thirty wide-ranging examples I’ve encountered during my recent travels.

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-Sharon VanderKaay

Expecting more than “pedestrian” design

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The lowly status of North American pedestrians has roots in the 18th century. Dismal walking conditions are enshrined in the dictionary definition of pedestrian: “dull, lacking in vitality and imagination.” Historically, pedestrians were too poor to ride a horse (equestrians). Then, during the 20th century, pedestrians were defined as people who had recently parked their cars.

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Streets need to be both walk-able and walk-worthy

For more than six decades, the design of our built environment rarely considered the mental health of pedestrians. Buildings were designed to be driven past at the highest speed possible, to be seen from a mile away and/or to be situated close to giant parking lots.

 

As the mental and physical health benefits of walking become more obvious, the desire will grow for places that are not just walk-able and safe but also walk-worthy. The question of how pedestrians feel is beginning to matter.

In essence, streets must become more than “pedestrian” to better serve pedestrians.

To accelerate the demand for walk-worthy streets and places, we must all become better critics. There can be no change without awareness, and no awareness unless we understand what we are looking at. How healthy is this place? How do I feel when I walk here?

Clearly we need a better visual diet. Only recently has public demand for healthier food changed what people expect from suppliers and restaurants. Higher food quality standards are shaking up the marketplace. Pedestrians have a comparable unmet need to feed their heads with something other than asphalt.

Higher standards for what can be achieved at the same cost can be more widely understood through the following approaches:

  1. DEMONSTRATE examples that embody higher aspirations
  2. ANALYZE elements that add up to uplifting, safe, built-to-last design
  3. COMPARE demand for quality design to concerns for healthier food and green standards
  4. EXPERIENCE places and the feelings they evoke through facilitated walks and tours
  5. ENGAGE clients and the public in a dialogue regarding these issues
  6. QUESTION marketing hype by asking, how does this place really make you feel?
  7. CONTRAST elements of health-causing and dis-ease causing design
  8. STATE a higher purpose and legacy for design than to simply contain programs and/or replace infrastructure

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DEMONSTRATE examples that embody higher aspirations

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ANALYZE elements of uplifting, safe, built-to-last design

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EXPERIENCE the feelings that various places evoke. Diagnose your habitat.

Every citizen can learn to be a better critic. In this video, I suggest a simple way to begin sharpening our awareness:

-Sharon VanderKaay

Labyrinths: therapeutic paths in the city

Himy labyrinths YIMBY 2015_1

This weekend I participated in a Jane’s Walk led by HiMY SyED who has created over 100 labyrinths across Toronto using a tactical urbanist approach. Tactical urbanism is the act of making low-cost, often temporary changes to the built environment to improve public places, frequently without formal approval from authorities having jurisdiction. When these interventions are in place and demonstrate their value, they are likely to remain in some form.

Unlike mazes which tend to be frustrating puzzles, labyrinths can clear your head and provide fresh perspective.

Toronto may have more public labyrinths than any other city in the world.

I also discovered this weekend that Toronto is where the world-famous Pumpkin Parade was launched at Soauren Park eleven years ago. This community participation activity has spawned 28 similar events in Toronto, as well as globally. It’s kind of a Boxing Day for pumpkins which occurs on Nov 1.

Labyrinths and the Pumpkin Parade are two grass roots initiatives that add to the therapeutic benefits of urban parks.      

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UPDATE from HiMY SyED  – Toronto is also a pioneer in pumpkin labyrinths!

Behold the Jack o’Labyrinth:

JackoLabyrinth 2

-Sharon VanderKaay

L.A. pursues new “freeways” to the future

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Can anyone remember when the open road evoked images of unqualified optimism and possibility? Can we imagine how this might actually happen in the future?

Not long ago, one word captured how people felt about the automobile: freedom. Back then, we could rely on expressways to escape stop-and-go traffic that might impinge on our freedom. We could even bypass a city altogether, which wouldn’t say much for the city.

Now freeways have become places to get stuck, and their ecological toll has turned “freeway” into a anachronistic misnomer. There is nothing free about the freeways of Los Angeles.

Last September I received the welcome news that two of my urbanist films would be screened at a festival in West Hollywood. But the thought of actually attending the festival didn’t appeal to me because I pictured myself either stuck in traffic or stuck without a car.

And yet…my recent visits to the global mobility meccas of Amsterdam and Portland, OR made me wonder if I could learn something from the opposite extreme. Maybe I would find seeds – and even green shoots – of healthy city development in Los Angeles. Maybe (as I’ve seen in my hometown of Detroit) there are positive ways to take advantage of decades-long neglect by leapfrogging ahead of cities such as Toronto that must deal with the burden of aging infrastructure and the entrenched belief by governments that they can afford 20th century thinking.

Indeed, as it turns out, Angelenos are beginning to appreciate the greater freedom and human contact made possible by alternative modes of transportation. Urban multi-modal mobility experts Chris and Melissa Bruntlett report in their post “6 surprising ways L.A. is looking beyond the automobile” on impressive initiatives toward “healthier, happier, simpler” ways of getting around town.

While bicycle lanes in Los Angeles are still rare and many sidewalks lead to nowhere, I was amazed to see so much evidence of interest in new style “freeways” to the future. I can even imagine this kind of bicycle infrastructure, designed by Ipv Delft and opened in 2013 in Eindhoven (The Netherlands):

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and entire parking garages repurposed for this kind of bike storage, which has existed in Amsterdam since 2001:

_Amsterdam bike storage_Yikes Bikes

Plus the quiet, efficient trams of Portland which seem to glide into view whenever you need them:

Portland trams

Awareness of what transportation freedom might really mean is a vital step in changing auto-centric cultures. Here is Diego Cardoso and his team from the City of Los Angeles Planning Department talking about the advantages of biking and walking (in connection with public transit) at the New Urbanism Film Festival (#NUFF2015 on twitter) earlier this month:

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In Straphangers: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile, Taras Grescio reminds us, “if even a fraction of the money allocated to maintain the freeway system every year went to transit, Los Angeles could build itself the best public transport network on the continent.”

To do this will require a new concept of freeways.

One big thing I noticed about Amsterdam and Portland was the overall lack of traffic, stalled or otherwise.

My latest 57 second video, “Traffic” was shot in Los Angeles, but not of Los Angeles. First hint: these cars are moving:

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-Sharon VanderKaay

Lessons from a parking lot

 

There’s a parking lot in Ann Arbor, Michigan that contains a MBA course worth of applied innovative thinking. It also demonstrates how to create a beloved civic asset.

If we want healthier cities, we need to ask, “What more can happen here?”

Mark Hodesh and Bill Zolkowski are long-time business associates who saw the untapped after-hours potential of eight parking spaces at Downtown Home & Garden. Parking lots rarely come to mind as the scene of healthy interaction and civic-minded commerce. It took imagination and gumption to act on the idea that has become Bill’s Beer Garden six nights a week during high season.

The 20-photo essay above introduces a place that must be experienced. Bill’s Beer Garden is the setting for diverse conversations, special performances, organized political discussions, movie nights and celebrating the arrival of Spring.

Some lessons that can be found here:

  • Grow a thriving enterprise based on deep roots and values
  • Expand revenue on a site without extensive construction
  • Stay universally relevant by transcending a young, hip market for entertainment
  • Add to the aesthetic quality of streets and urban life
  • Rather than a big vision, see opportunities that are hiding in plain sight

Innovation happened here as a result of:

  • Being proactive in thinking about change
  • Seeing a gap in the market for cross-cultural social interaction
  • Collaboration between business associates with energy and diverse experience
  • Paying attention to business examples elsewhere (Mark adapted BBG from a model he saw in Brooklyn, NY)
  • Pursuing an organic way forward that emerges naturally, rather than pursuing a rigid plan

Here is a one-minute video which conveys some of the conviviality:

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-Sharon VanderKaay

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