Wednesday, 27 July 2011

The Beauty of Small - Urban Acupuncture

Seeing a disused rail line in the vicinity of West 8th Avenue and Arbutus Street got me thinking about the oft forgotten smaller urban spaces.  Though this specific rail line has been converted to a community garden on part of West 6th Avenue (see here), it remains under-loved in other parts.  It was therefore timely when I stumbled upon the design concept of 'urban acupuncture', as featured in The Guardian here.

The term urban park commonly conjures images of Hyde Park, Central Park or Stanley Park.  Yet this neglects the importance and role of smaller 'pocket' parks.  These smaller parks are often more convenient to use and can easily provide the children's facilities or sun bathing spot we demand.  This is where urban acupuncture plays a part.  The concept of urban acupuncture focuses on smaller design interventions in the urban fabric, in lieu of major urban redevelopment proposals.  This could take the form of de-cluttering a sidewalk or providing allotments on a disused green space.  It focuses more on the everyday spaces that could be improved by simple design solutions and community interest. 

The disused rail line in Kitsilano, Vancouver
This re-focusing on the smaller parts of the urban environment is especially enticing at a time of pubic sector cut backs.  With Government less likely to pump-prime large development schemes through the provision of up-front transport infrastructure or remediation, these schemes become less viable than five years ago.  Though large urban redevelopment projects receive the support of politicians for the anticipated tax dollars and Kodak moments, we must not forget the beauty of small and its role in improving existing neighbourhoods and kick-starting the development sector.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Wind Farm Wars

When the BBC ran a programme entitled 'Wind Farm Wars' recently, I'm sure even the creatives in Television Centre couldn't imagine a wind farm would actually cross paths with a war.  Well, that might just be about to happen in France.  The French government are currently receiving tenders to develop a wind farm off the north western coast, an area that includes Juno Beach, made famous during the D-Day landings.  As expected, D-Day veterans are not particularly happy, in particular the Canadians who were the largest landing force at Juno (see here).

I am familiar with wind farm objections relating to noise and visual impact, but this case raises a wider point about cultural and historical relevance.  Does an offshore wind farm impact the connotations associated with the shoreline?  The battle lines have been drawn.  

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Tightening One's Belt: The Future of the Green Belt

Planners.  You can't live with them and you can't live without them.  Rarely does the media present a news story expanding on the benefits of the UK planning system.  Often planning, and by association planners, receives criticism for being overly bureaucratic and frustrating economic development.  Indeed, the Prime Minister went as far as calling the profession an 'Enemy of Enterprise'.  Yet there are times when the detailed oversight and collaborative nature of planning combine to create a positive reaction in the general pubic.  The longstanding Green Belt policy is one such example.
The rolling hills of a cherished Arcadia

Britain has an undoubted historic connection to the rolling green hills of Albion.  The countryside presents a purer version of the nation in contrast to the supposed dirt and grime of the growing cities.  This imagination may have been formed in the Industrial Revolution but still holds sway today and explains the popularity of Green Belt policy. Put simply, this policy safeguards rural land around cities from inappropriate development and contains urban sprawl.

It is no surprise therefore that a proposed relaxation of Green Belt policy has caused outrage among the chattering classes.  Geoffrey Lean, writing in the Daily Telegraph, was one who suddenly shone a light on the unrecognised benefits of planning's supposed 'boring' work in protecting quality of life (see here).  He was frustrated not just by the proposed concreting over of the countryside, but also by the way the Tories have conducted a volte face on the issue of planning.  In opposition the Tories published a Green Paper entitled Open Source Planning which extolled the benefits of Localism.  However, Lean is angered by how the Tories have moved from a policy of Localism in opposition (which he implies would protect the Green Belt) to greater central control since in Government.

This move to greater central control should not come as a surprise.  Firstly, many political parties preach about greater local powers when in opposition and then quickly forget it when in power.  Once in Government the Tories, like many others before them, realise they must keep wayward local governments in line and this requires a degree of central control.  Secondly, economic growth is stalled in Britain.  Despite the efforts of Eric Pickles MP the concept of Localism, like the Big Society, has floundered and has not convinced the Treasury it can deliver the required growth.  This explains why central government is now issuing policy regarding a relaxation of development in the Green Belt to stimulate much needed growth.

Containing the beast
I will be interested to see how the National Planning Policy Framework and presumption in favour of sustainable development progresses and the impact on the much cherished Green Belt protection.  I have always thought that Green Belt policy is too rigid and fails to take account of the dynamic nature of rural areas.  The countryside should be a diverse area that includes small industry and affordable housing.  Unfortunately the Green Belt has a mythical status that local planners and politicians can easily use to prevent required development.  The debate needs to move beyond vague conceptions of the countryside and understand that the country requires more housing.  This doesn't mean that the countryside has to be concreted over.  A more sophisticated debate would look to places such as Copehagen where the Green Belt forms a more wedge-like design (dubbed the 'Finger Plan').  This allows transport corridors to develop out from the city and higher density housing to complement the urban form.  

While it is good to see planning praised for once, let us not fall back on a dated assumption of what the Green Belt is and the purpose it fills.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Obsessing Over City Rankings

Barely a day goes by without the Vancouver media presenting a new city ranking.  Last week it was that Vancouver is the 2nd 'greenest' city in North America behind San Francisco and today the Vancouver Sun reports that the city has the fourth most expensive parking rates in Canada.  This follows yesterday's gleeful reporting of the new Mercer Cost of Living Survey which places Toronto above Vancouver.  Although as a new resident of the city, I was just pleased that Vancouver was 47 places below my old home, London! 

I'm still awaiting the city ranking on 'rioting for meaningless reasons'
The constant benchmarking of Vancouver against other cities is only helpful if it moves beyond self satisfaction and towards actual lesson learning.  Unfortunately a number of local professionals have told me that the city is too insular and content that it always knows best.  This is dangerous because urban policy is moving apace globally and Vancouver should not rest on its laurels.  The recent passing of the Greenest City Action Plan is a step in the right direction but must be substantiated with greater operational and financial details.  Looking at the facts behind the various city rankings could be a good starting point.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Going Underground - London Transport Maps

Harry Beck's map of the London Underground network, first released in 1931, is rightfully recognised as a design classic.  However, when Beck first mapped out the Underground network only seven lines existed.  Since this time numerous lines have been added as well as Zone boundaries, information on disabled access and connections to additional public transport.  Yet the tube map still remains an excellent piece of design and a key information resource.

Despite this many tourists can still be found with a look of puzzlement in station ticket halls across the city as they plan their journey to Buckingham Palace and Harrods.  What the tube map gains in design quality it lacks somewhat in geographical representation.  A test site has therefore been established to present a geographically accurate map for all London Underground and Overground lines. The map can be found here and while some tube lines retain their original depiction, the proximity of Central London stations becomes crystal clear. 

A geographically accurate depiction of the London Underground in Central London
Central London is spoiled for choice with access to different tube lines, a situation that would not be repeated today if the tube was planned from scratch (as I have discussed before here).  Therefore this geographically accurate map could save commuters (Londoners and non-Londoners alike) from switching between lines when on the surface it would be more efficient to walk for a few minutes.  Overall I have found the level of public information on the London Underground very impressive (especially compared to Vancouver - see here) and this new map could complement Beck's original map to avoid people having to reach for Google Maps at the first sign of being lost.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Imaginary City

I have been a big fan of British author David Mitchell for a while, in particular his most recent book The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.  Yet he has gone up in my estimations even more after I found this short passage he wrote on Vancouver for Geist magazine (see here).  Mitchell was visiting the city for a writers festival and wanted to capture his imagnary Vancouver before the reality of the city erased his initial musings.  And yes, Canadians do actually manage to concentrate on work, what with all those hockey scores and Rush songs!

Enjoy the full article here

Thursday, 7 July 2011

The Subjective Perception of Bus Stops

With the City of Vancouver currently engaged in a long-term strategic transportation plan up to 2040, it could be easy to forget the everyday transport issues that appear relatively minor in scale.  Yet these so-called minor issues are often the key to unlocking vast improvements in the transport network.  In the current issue of PORT, advertising guru Rory Sutherland writes an excellent article on our perceptions of value.  He argues that value is as much a function of subjective perception as it is of actual material form.  Sutherland questions whether the UK should be spending £15bn on a high-speed rail link when it would cost 99% less to upgrade the carriages and stations in order to make the journey more pleasant. 

Where to go? A bus stop in Vancouver.
This got me thinking about small improvements that can be made to transport infrastructure which often get drowned out in the call for new roads or railways.  I am slowly becoming familiar with the public transport system in Vancouver and cannot help make comparisons with where I have just arrived from, London.  With very low rail coverage, Vancouverites rely heavily on buses yet I have noticed a distinct lack of public information at bus stops.  Having already traveled around Downtown and some key routes in the Lower Mainland, I have yet to find a bus stop with a timetable or map!  It appears that the transport operators expect bus riders to either know their route in advance or rely on a friendly bus driver for directions.  This compares to London where I have always been impressed at the level of information provided at a bus stop/shelter.  This information often includes geographical maps of local buses, timetables, expected duration between stops (see below) and finally the electronic countdown.  

An information sign found on all London bus stops
I accept the argument that many people have smartphones and can track routes on Google Maps, but not everybody has internet access and neither should they be expected to.  I would not expect Vancouver to provide all this travel information as it is a much smaller city than London.  Yet even the addition of a route timetable could increase the bus experience by much more than the minor costs involved.  If the city is to achieve the ambition of being the Greenest City in the World by 2020 it should start paying attention to the smaller things in life.