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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:

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-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

Changing our visual diet

 

Barry Lord has written an important book on the current (slow-but-sure) shift from our dominant culture of thoughtless consumption to “stewardship of the earth and the body.”

My photo essay explores the evolution of public markets as an early indication of that shift.

-Sharon VanderKaay

Public seating for a new social era

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This photo essay is about the role of public seating in nurturing human relationships and a healthier state of mind.

A decade or so ago it was common to see hostile – and sometimes pathogenic – parks and public spaces. I remember sitting in NYC’s Bryant Park (for a few minutes during the ’80’s) when it was scary. Decaying conditions and anti-social behavior were the norm when there was no direct involvement by each community in ongoing improvements.

In recent years, new standards for civic engagement and quality have been set by such places as Bryant Park, Campus Martius in Detroit and Sugar Beach in Toronto.

Rather than simply aim to “do no harm” in line with the 30+ year old “broken windows theory“, today’s best new and revitalized parks and public seating is salutogenic (v. pathogenic).

Sharon VanderKaay

How rough edges inspire innovation

Fifteen years ago, NDSM in Amsterdam Noord was at risk of becoming a boring, generic development. Today it is Europe’s largest broedplaats (breeding ground) for makers, inventors and artisans. NDSM is an enormous shipyard with a second life at the heart of an emerging economy.

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NDSM werf in Amsterdam Noord

The booming era of shipbuilding at NDSM can be compared to the glory days of car building at the Packard Plant in Detroit. Workers in both cities endured hard lives in the factories, yet their jobs gave them some sense of security, purpose and belonging. While their industries were thriving, they were proud to be part of a bigger identity that gained worldwide respect.

That purpose-driven work is long gone. Our need today is for new jobs that are meaningful and sustainable; in other words, the future is about making and doing things of enduring value rather than a life of empty consumption.

In particular, what can developers and friends of Detroit’s Fisher Body Plant, Packard and other emotionally-charged industrial sites learn from the nature of work at NDSM and other emerging models? And how can my hometown of Detroit reflect its roots as a place for inventors?

In many ways NDSM shows us new, healthier ways of working in an innovation-friendly setting. This rough-edged creative habitat is the antidote to disturbing stories about “a world without work” and armies of job-replacing robots. The NDSM raises and responds to several pressing questions:

  • What is real job security today?
  • What is the best work setting to spark innovation?
  • How can we aim for more than merely a sustainable environment?

It’s unlikely that these answers will ever be found here:

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The polished, anonymous “office park” developments of the post-industrial era were known for killing any sense of identity while draining the creative energy out of its hapless victims. The resulting recipe for alienation, conformity, false illusion of predictability, and norm of complacency was not a recipe for innovation.

So how can a place help us thrive by creating new job opportunities, rather than to merely survive as consumers?

Below are five essential ingredients which draw on NDSM and the model pioneered in 1994 by Margie Zeidler at 401 Richmond St West in Toronto as well as other creative hubs such as Evergreen Brickworks.

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Life at 401 Richmond St. West and painting “What Would Jane Jacobs Do?”

 

1. ROUGH EDGES and RUST: When big new ideas are born, they are naturally messy, unpolished, imperfect and unfinished. Rough edges encourage thinking about possibilities. Polished places are hostile habitats for unconventional approaches.

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NDSM werf

 

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Evergreen Brick Works

 

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Hearn Generating Station, Toronto during Luminato

 

2. ROOTS: Humans have an innate need to be part of something bigger and more enduring than themselves. Tangible historical connections have an effect on our mental health–they are not simply about being sentimental. Shiny office parks are depressing in part because they are rootless.

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LEFT: Detroit Design Center  RIGHT: NDSM werf

 

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Granville Island, Vancouver, BC

 

3. IDENTITY: The NDSM not only has its own special character, it encourages 230 creatives to express their individual identity. The design of each studio has a different personality, yet the whole effect is pulled together by strong structural elements. These expressions spill over to enliven shared spaces (which would be forbidden in an office park).         

Netherlands Shipbuilding 1

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NDSM werf

 

4. INTERACTION: The future of work and job security will be through human relationships and collaboration. The NDSM encourages idea development and fluid work arrangements by providing a variety of stimulating, changeable spaces that attract people with shared interests.  

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LEFT: from the Diego Rivera mural at Detroit Institute of Arts   RIGHT: A face in the hood by Tyree Guyton at the Heidelberg Project, Detroit.

 

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NDSM werf

 

5. SHARED OWNERSHIP: Whether through a formal shared ownership agreement (example: NDSM) or a sense of ownership instilled by the owners (example: 401 Richmond W) it is essential that people feel they have a personal stake in something that is enduring.   

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NDSM werf

Packard swan_sm_rightMy ideas for the Packard Plant combine respect for the past with the rough edges that feed a new generation of innovators. I believe that to be a truly healthy place, it must inspire people to build their identity around things they create, not around things they consume.

– Sharon VanderKaay

Lovable, not just sustainable

 

Recently I led a Jane’s Walk which looked at a wide range of settings in terms of how they make us feel and why.

My message was that our daily visual diet affects our state of mind. We can make better choices as individuals and as a society if we become better critics.

During my walk I mentioned that “building beloved places is a sustainability issue.” Up to 40% of solid waste in landfills comes from construction debris. If we aim to build places that are love-worthy, they will not be destined for demolition. A SAB Magazine article I co-wrote explores this idea in more detail.

Everyone has a different “Love List.” I’ve noted in the slides above some of my reasons for choosing these particular places.

What places do you love in your city?

Top Ten Places to Feed Your Psyche in Detroit

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