Disposable City

I love the concept of the City sponsored open house. City staff and occasionally elected personnel, can truly engage with residents and stay connected. This platform for public responses to proposed developments is a great kind of interface. Together we build our city. But “Is this the best we should expect?” I paraphrase on the statement in one of the presentation boards.

In October 2011 I’ve submitted my proposal for the re:CONNECT open ideas competition. There are always good reasons for not winning. There’s never a good excuse. However, I enjoyed participating. This is another good way of generating a wealth of insights for the benefit of sensitive city building.

The background material (13mb pdf in this link) in the competition website didn’t seem to support the subtitle of ‘open ideas’. It showed a clear leaning towards demolition of the viaducts. Nevertheless, inspired by Italo Calvino’s classic ‘Invisible Cities‘, I felt compelled to pull the other way: “I will put together, piece by piece, the perfect city, made of fragments mixed with the rest, of instants separated by intervals, of signals one sends out, not knowing who receives them.” (Marco Polo in his concluding words to the Great Khan, Invisible Cities)

A panel of five discussed the results of the competition back in December 2011: Ken Greenberg, Joe Hruda, Dr. Tom Hutton, Patricia Patkau and Helle Soholt. My memory keeps a few fractions of insight from that gathering. They are less the exact words of the speakers and more my understanding of their concepts.  Helle Soholt from Gehl Architects suggested trying not to plan evrything. Indeed a city is built “piece by piece”. There are always pressures pulling and pushing in all directions. Many times the balance achieved comes naturally. Ken Greenberg, author of ‘Walking Home’, mentioned the prospects of climate change, floods and earthquakes. The seemingly boring technical issues must be at the base of our public discussion on the way to creative, functional and bold solutions.

Back to June 2012: A few of the presentation boards in the open house use the title a bold new concept. My eyes move from this statement into the details and two questions come up: 1. Is it really bold and new? (or in bolder words, isn’t it just another case of ‘same old, same old’?) 2. Does it have to be bold? (Helle’s “try not to plan everything”)  It is challenging to translate the complex processes of planning into useful communications. It is crucial that we have this done. The challenge of leadership is to keep steering the ship of a city. But the vision of a great city can only come from true collaboration between its residing leadership and the city’s real owners – its residents.

Another presentation board mentions the window of opportunity. This is where my appreciation for City staff has to be expressed. They have to transform into sales people of a questionable “bold new concept”. With very few if any good responses to questions and claims from the public, the ‘open house’ starts to feel less transparent than its hopeful intent. Back and forth between ‘house’ and ‘ideas’: Was it Joe Hruda from Civitas Urban Design and Planning who argued that re:CONNECT means removing barriers? From this it was almost clear that the competition wasn’t openly searching for ideas.

In the turn of the seventies, our city said no to the freeway. Following Jane Jacob’s (immortal) ‘The death and life of great American cities’, western society is still growing out of car centered development. Vancouver was a leader in that sense. The success in stopping the freeway came with real casualties to Vancouver’s urban fabric. These structures are now part of it, as well as a symbol to a place and time in history. In the demolition of the viaducts we are facing another type of freeway. They have their merits and drawbacks. Demolishing them expresses the same mindset that pushed for the freeway. Demolishing them does not promise any improvement in our joy of the city.

It was great to see so many people participate in the open houses. Some points brought up by others showed a diversity of concerns. It becomes clear from these discussions that the viaducts project will have influence on four main scales: the block level, the neighborhood, the city and the region. This is not new in urban planning but is always in danger of neglect. The seemingly small scale of planning for bikes shows how careful we have to be. Careful in facilitating instead of dictating. The way to tie the scales together is by weaving our story to include the four of them in it. This is our opportunity and our responsibility.

We should consider the built environment as our cultural landscape. The tools we have enable us to do almost anything we want with the resources at hand. Demolition is the easy way out. It’s like turning the built environment into a disposable cup of coffee. We all want to step forward in life. For that to lead us to a better place, yes, we have to be bold. We should be careful. We need to be creative.

Although we are not there yet, a wealth of ideas is still waiting to be harvested. The re:CONNECT competition provided fantastic insights for the future. The question what is our story has to be answered. “If I tell you that the city towards which my journey tends is discontinuous in space and time, now scattered, now more condensed, you must not believe the search for it can stop.” (Marco Polo to the Great Khan)

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6 thoughts on “Disposable City

  1. Fantastic! You summed up my feelings from the “open” house here as well. In fact, there was one precentor that as soon as you began questioning their approach and this “bold new design” he simply ignored you and turned to someone else. This attitude put off myself, and indeed several other participants. Vancouver is loosing much of what makes a true great city, and that is an organic, natural process to urban building. The viaducts have already began their organic amalgamation into the urban fabric (the skate park, the Cosmos development, the area around the stadiums) and indeed Concord original condo proposals to have towers built beside, between and even over them. this process would have created a very unique and funky urban neighborhood. Instead, what we are getting is another cold, emotionless master planned community with vacation style living standards. Again, we are becoming more of a resort, than a city.

    • Thanks Hilla.
      As I was busy writing it, it felt
      fascinating, sometimes
      frustrating, occasionally
      frightening and at times
      depressing, just for the
      fun of using a word that starts with a different letter…

  2. The Viaducts submission left me feeling both excited and disappointed. Excited to see the prospect of them coming down; disappointed in the city’s underwhelming proposal. More big streets, towers and downtown focused parks, with little consideration for reintegrating the areas that the highway has cut off into something better. In short, another big mega-project.

    Forty years ago the city got the idea to raze several neighbourhoods in order to build the viaducts. Ironic that this proposal feels like more of the same.

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