Archive for public spaces

Ordinary working people own financial districts

The Occupy Wall Street movement is spreading to financial districts across North America and the world.  Seems an appropriate time to think about who actually owns and profits from that real estate.

Union pension funds are the owners of many office towers in Canada’s financial districts

Increasingly Canadian union pension funds are buying up US office towers too. US pension funds are also big owners of real estate.

Gatherings and protests can sometimes become destructive, often against the original organizers vision. We’ve all seen the TV footage or been first hand eye witnesses when a peaceful gathering turns into something else.

Various unions are now endorsing the “Occupy” movement.

They just might want to be extra vigilant to make sure no one trashes their pension fund’s office buildings or those belonging to the pensions of fellow unions from across the country or around the world.

The banks are merely tenants–renters.  A lot of hard working ordinary people are the actual owners of the real estate via their union pension plans.

Keeping people honest

Jane Jacobs once commented that “eyes on the street” was an effective deterrent against crime.  And it is.  But it’s how it works that’s important.  Lots of eyes tend to keep those marginal criminals honest.  Committing a crime without getting caught is too difficult, so they’ll go elsewhere.

The advent of video surveillance and now “crowd-sourced” policing or evidence gathering (as happened in Vancouver during the riots) is another layer of “eyes on the street.”   Now even if there are only a few witnesses, they might be photographing or video taping you.

Professional or determined rioters will not be deterred by this, of course.  They show up at crowded events in gas masks, obscuring their identity.

Unlike the editorial in the Harvard Business Review, I am not alarmed by citizen evidence gathering.  It’s how people who don’t feel strong enough to confront a criminal directly can fight back and it could well serve as a big preventative tool for the future.

Time for lessons in urban mob temptations

If more North Americans are going to live in dense urban areas–and celebrate together–there are some good lessons and insights to take away from the Vancouver riots.  I’m not talking about lessons in policing (I’m sure those will come), but lessons about appropriate behavior in large crowds in the 21st century, and the dynamic of crowd-sourced evidence gathering.

Behavior in large crowds:

Clearly, a lot of young people were not prepared to make appropriate decisions when faced with the challenging situation of a large crowd, disappointment over the hockey game, and some determined trouble makers–as well as the temptation to stay and watch or even participate.

A lot of people with no prior criminal histories got caught up in the moment and others wouldn’t get out of the way, instead hanging around filming or just watching. As mentioned in a previous post, many of them were recent high school grads all primed for craziness because it was grad week.  They came downtown hearing there might be a repeat of the 1994 riot. They didn’t think of the consequences.Three lessons here:

1. This could have happened anywhere you had a large crowd suddenly swelled by a large number of 17-18 year olds (esp. teenaged men) hyped up with grad.

2. This isn’t some exceptional generation clash or a sign that today’s 17-20 year-olds are somehow more angry on alienated that teens of the past.  I don’t know too many people who can honestly say they never got caught up in something rebellious when they were 18 +/- (smoked, drank, graffiti, minor shop lifting, steeling a street sign, skipping school for a day, joined a protest, etc).  In Vancouver hundreds feeling rebellious all ended  up in the same place at the same time–when everyone was saying there was going to be a riot.

3. Most important: Everyone needs some education on mob behavior in the 21st century–both what not to do, and what to expect.

Throughout history “large crowds” have been able to act to bring down governments or express displeasure.  Or, groups of people have rioted simple to release some energy.  By being part of a crowd, there has traditionally been safety in numbers but also anonymity. There is nothing particularly exceptional that a crowd got out of hand in Vancouver on June 15. What was different was that it was all caught on about a thousand different cameras by participants and witnesses.  The police have over 1 million images of the rioters and looters.

As more people live in urban areas, and urban spaces are taken from cars and given to people for special events (as happened in Vancouver), all citizens will need to be educated on mob behavior 21st century style.

Think of it like drinking and driving education.  Friends who parent kids in their late-teens or early 20s are all impressed at how determined these kids are to not drink and drive. The message has been loud and clear.  And even for seasoned adults, people of all ages today typically plan ahead (to a much greater degree than in the past) and incidents of drinking and driving is way down. We’ve all been educated as to the consequences and to avoid the temptation.

Acceptable behavior in a large crowd needs to be taught.  One lesson for young people is that you may be tempted to join in anti-social or criminal behavior when others are doing it–but don’t.  The long term consequences are too great (as they are with drinking and driving).  You will be caught in photos and video, whether people’s iPhones or HD surveillance video.  You could be charged by police, but even if you avoid that, everyone will know what you did.  The young Vancouver rioters face having their name on a permanent list that will forever be on the internet of those who looted stores or burned cars.

Another lesson in being in large urban crowds is that when the police say “this is now an unlawful assembly; you must dispurse” – it means “go home now!”  The tear gas or pepper spray or rubber bullets are coming. Too many young people didn’t seem to understand that they needed to get out of the way and let the police do their job.  The riot kissers were an example–they were not rioting or looting, but they were blocking the way of the anti-riot police.

No one should ever forget how many peaceful parties with 50,000 to 100,000 or more Vancouver has hosted over the past decade–I can think of dozens in just the past 18 months.  Almost every other time all has gone well–fun family events.  But when things start to unravel, as they did on June 15, 2011, a better prepared crowd would have made a huge difference–a crowd trained to resist temptation and to recognize when to clear out.

Mental Maps, Subways and Walkability

Mental maps refers to how people perceive urban spaces.  For example, is a place far away or close by?  How easy is it to get from point A to point B to point C?  The concept of mental maps can also include places people frequent.  A person with young children might have a lot of playgrounds in his or her mental map of their city, whereas the child-free music lover might know how to get to every small music venue.

Your mental map of your city or community will differ from other people’s.  Whether you tend to walk, drive, take transit or bike will also affect your sense of distance.

Travelling underground–on submays or metros in particular–can distort people’s sense of  distance and the relationships between places.

In London, it’s apparently quite common for people to take the tube only a few short stops because they don’t realize that their destination is close enough to walk.  Metro maps tend to portray routes as straight lines, and often with all stops equidistant.  Yet, in reality, the tracks often bend and some stops are closer together.  Two places that look far apart on the metro map may only have a few blocks separating them.

In London new maps are being placed around the city helping Londoners (and presumably tourists) understand the spatial relationships differently.  One goal is to get people walking both for their health and to relieve transit congestion.  Apparently there has been a 5% increase in people walking in parts of London with the signs, and the number of people getting lost has dropped by  65%.

Does your city offer maps?   Do they encourage you to walk?

Has seeing one affected your mental map of a city?

Turning off WIFI and plugging into cities

Cities are changing along with the role of the internet in our lives.  Consider this:

Some of the hippest coffee bars on the continent are shutting off their wifi Internet service.  What initially drew in customers is now hampering the growth of business for the cafes with great food, coffee, and locations — at least in prime time.

When one person sits at a table, slowly sipping one cup of coffee for 2 hours while surfing the net, it can repel other customers, especially those that come in small groups and order food as well as espresso beverages.

There are a couple significant developments for urban life to note in this shift.

First, WIFI has become so common in “third place” businesses like cafes and fast food restaurants that in many ways its a “unique offering” to not offer it.  It suggests that this cafe is for food, coffee and socializing, as well as being “unplugged” and thinking without the distraction of constant information.  Kinda retro, if you will, or maybe chic depending upon the establishment.  And also very urban–after all, why are people in cities if not to experience other people.

Second, freeloading internet access off restaurants and cafes may start to become very “low brow” or “un-hip.”  This may make the access at libraries and other civic spaces more utilized and valued.  It’s okay to sit in the library for hours reading books or magazines or newspapers–always has been.  Now it will also be a place where it’s okay to freeload internet access for the day.  This could help rejuvenate libraries.

Third, from the popularity of working in third places, like coffee houses, it seems that many urban residents actually need a place where they can get out of their house or apartment, meet the occasional customer, and have a coffee while working.  Starbucks isn’t always the right venue as it can get loud, parents with crying babies can come in, etc.  Maybe there is a need for a more professional, business centre that looks a bit like a coffee house with a variety of seating options, serves coffee (employs a barrista) but also offers a printer, a scanner, fax and other services.  Perhaps you pay by the hour to be there, or a monthly membership and the latte is included.  Maybe such a place already exists.

As more people live in dense areas, and as more people work freelance or are permitted significant flexibility by their employer, urban spaces for working and collaborating and unplugging continue to change.  What’s next?

Do a Jane’s Walk!

 Jane Jacobs was an urban thinker ahead of her time.  When the great thinkers of the day were promoting freeways and auto-centric suburban development, she spotted what was being lost.  To her, the best cities and neighbourhoods were organic, constantly evolving communities, or networks of relationships.  People knew each other and looked out for each other.  Walkability was a key component in her vision of what made a city livable.

One of her famous lines was that to know a city, or to know a neighbourhood, you needed to walk it.

She died just a few years ago, in her adopted home of Toronto.  To honour her, friends in Toronto began the tradition of prompting people to host walks through their neighbourhoods, pointed out what they like, or what Jane might have liked.

In a recent interview that discussed neighbourhoods and Jane Jacobs, Richard Florida offers some reasons why we might love our home area:

So in essence a neighborhood is not just a set of individuals, but a set of relationships. I think that’s right. And the relationships are fluid. Some are longstanding and some you can plug into and play. And the places that enable those relationships to form are the places that do better.

Every time we come back to these neighborhoods that are exciting, that are great, there’s a long history behind them. 

A Jane’s Walk is a chance to learn more of the local history and relationships that made local history.

I’ve attended walks the past two years.  The experience of learning dozens of new things about your own city, and how cities work at the ground level is amazing.  This year I’ll also try the experience of hosting, and sharing some recent history of my own neighbourhood.

Find one in your city, or offer to host one… Click here for Canada or global cities. In the US try this direct link.  They will happen simultaneously across North America and around the world on May 1 and 2, 2010.

Supermarket parking lots as new neighbourhood hubs

Could supermarket parking lots in now-dense urban areas become public squares? or be re-designed as great public places in other ways?

Neal Pierce recently penned an intriguing piece about supermarkets on

We perfected the buy-and-drive model from the post-World War II expansion onward. But is it necessarily the future?

No, asserts my Seattle friend and urban design planner, Mark Hinshaw. He sees a dramatically transformed role for supermarkets. They’ll actually become the anchors of new and walkable neighborhoods, he predicts in a Planning magazine article co-authored with markets analyst Brian Vanneman.

Why the shift? Americans’ high personal consumption levels were starting to wind down even before the Great Recession. Households have shrunk in size and the population is aging, with more taste for close-by shops and facilities. Many young people are eschewing the scattered suburban pattern in favor of denser urban living. Buying a house on the urban fringe, once seen as a ticket to wealth-building, now looks to be a big risk. Walking for health and weight loss has begun, for many Americans, to outshine the sedentary lifestyle of using an auto for every conceivable errand. And many people are looking for ways to reduce their carbon footprint.

Neighbourhoods that offer the option of walking to do one’s errands have grown in popularity for all the reasons cited above.  In some places this has resulted in homes (including town homes, mid rise and high rise buildings) now surrounding what used to be a more isolated supermarket with a massive, attached parking lot.

In these cases, it seems that turning this space into something more could be great for everyone.

  • If additional small stores or service businesses were added to the space, it would attract more shoppers–great for business.
  • If there was some public space like a small playground, or a sitting area to enjoy one’s coffee, people would come to connect with their neighbours and not just to shop.
  • And if this space connected to other walkable–perhaps retail–streetscapes, more customers would be drawn in.

The owner of the supermarket and parking lot could also benefit through increased property values or options.  A redevelopment of the space might allow for the creation of office or residential space above.

To be sure, parking would still be required at these new versions–sometimes the groceries you need to get are heavy and the car is the logical option–but perhaps fewer spaces, or underground.

While many suburban supermarkets-and-parking lots will likely remain auto-centric destinations for a while.  There are places where density has grown up around these expansive uses and the whole community could benefit from the “accident” of having a big empty space that can now be used for community building rather than parking.

Toronto needs a boost

This is the first of two posts on Toronto.  First, before anyone accuses me of being a self-centered Torontonian (which tends to happen when I say nice things about Toronto), let me say that I’m not from there.  I was born and largely raised in Vancouver and after stints elsewhere have chosen to make Vancouver my home once again. 

No city is 100% unique.  In fact, many of the things I like about Toronto are also great in other cities, but Toronto does have its own unique blend of messy urban spaces and realities.  Those of you less familiar with Toronto will hopefully be able to see aspects of your own city in these thoughts.

Why I like Toronto:

  • Downtown Toronto offers a history of central North American residential and office architecture all squished together.  You can see 100 year old Edwardian brick houses, next to a 70 year old office building with the new RBC Dexia glass office tower in the background along with new glass condominium towers.
  • Toronto has so many cool, interesting walkable streets (too bad the weather isn’t always conducive to appreciating them), built in the day when automotive transport did not rule. Kensington Market, Bloor & Spadina area, Queen Street, for example, offer food, sounds and goods from around the world.
  • Toronto has this messy, interconnected international urbanism where people, sounds and foods mix.  If you haven’t watched K-Naan perform live with his Toronto band, check this clip from before he became the famous 2010-World-Cup-Theme composer and singer.  I love the look of the whole group – so reflective of the new Toronto that is over 45% foreign born.

What else is exciting about Toronto

  • Toronto is evolving into a 21st century knowledge economy hub. Manufacturing has been in a long term decline and although still important to the region’s economy, the job growth over the past 15 years has been in financial services. In fact over 11% work in financial services in Toronto, the highest percentage of any city in North America.  Yet, Toronto is not all about banking.
  • Toronto is where so much of Canada’s media is based.  It’s where people interpret national and world events for the entire country; so many TV shows are filmed there.  Yes, this can create a Toronto-centric perspective in the media, but it also makes it a cooler place to visit (in a similar way that New York and Los Angeles are fun to visit because US media emerges from these poles). 

To be sure, Toronto has challenges.  See my next post.  But it’s also becoming–or is already– a cool, fascinating, international city to watch.

What puzzles me is how pessimistic so many people in Toronto seem about the city in its current form, and prospects for prosperity over the next few years.  Feeling an ambivalence among the locals last week made me think that the city needs a boost, and inspired this post.

Finally, a city celebrates its successes

Vancouver frequently receives positive accolades, whether as the world’s most livable city, for its sustainable nature, or as one of the more attractive tourist destinations in North America.

Despite these, or perhaps because of them, local residents and the media tend to focus on the problems the city has:  drug wars, homelessness and crime; as well as other challenges for residents like high housing costs, the fact that transit isn’t perfect, nor is the weather.

In the years and months leading up to hosting the 2010 Winter Olympic Games, it seemed like everyone focused on the problems, and that protests about these would overshadow the global event.

And then the Olympic flame actually arrived.  Everyone came out to see it (or protest it, but more to see it and wave a flag at it).  And as everyone became acutely aware of being in the global spotlight, suddenly the citizens of the city decided to celebrate the positive — what they love about their city, and not the problems (which are hardly unique to large urban areas).

Major downtown shopping and urban thoughoughfares were closed to cars, allowing buskers, artists, athletes, sponsors and ordinary folks to mingle, cheer and participate. At first, thousands came out onto the streets.  And then tens of thousands.  And then perhaps more than that by the time Canada’s men’s hockey team won gold.

What were people celebrating:

That Vancouver is pedestrian friendly.  You can walk along the waterfront on seawalls, or through downtown streets that are always alive.

That the transit system worked, somewhat to the surprise of many.  And it worked spectacularly well.

That Vancouver is all about being surrounded by water: the False Creek Ferries and Aquabus were jammed, taking people around the creek between Granville Island and Yaletown / Downtown; the SeaBus was a crucial transit link to get spectators to mountain venues.  To me, a great symbol of this was the Olympic Rings being projected into sea-spray during the nightly fireworks and waterworks show.

That Vancouver is fun:  Whoever thought of putting the zip line across Robson Square was a genius.  It showed the whimsical and youthful side of the city, and reflected a unique activity possible at nearby Whistler and Grouse mountains.

This may well be another transformative event for the city and its residents, like Expo 86 but crammed into 17 days.  Although I expect residents demands to improve the city and not accept the foreign accolades at face value will continue, I also predict that locals will spend more time appreciating — and celebrating — what makes the city successful. Finally.

To my regular readers, I’ve spent the last two weeks enjoying the most phenomenal urban street party and experience.  Regular posts will resume next week — feel free to send me an e-mail with topic suggestions.

Roads: not just for cars anymore

 Using roads only for motor vehicles is wasteful.  As gasoline prices reach record highs and increasing numbers of North Americans embrace higher density living, allowing roads to be more than conduits for cars needs greater consideration.

Special events would be a place to start.

Today (Sunday) in North Portland an entire region of the city is going “car free” allowing pedestrians and cyclists to monopolize the streets. 150 blocks will be closed to motor vehicle traffic for six hours. Residents and visitors are expected to mingle, enjoy free events in the parks such as yoga classes, and enjoy the fresh air.  Portland’s event is modeled after one in Bogota where 2 million people come out on car free day.

I doubt that many will enjoy Portland’s day, in part because I doubt the combination of public transit and the roads could get that many people to the area.  But I expect it will be popular nonetheless and if it becomes an annual event — or even more frequent — it would draw more people each time.

Last weekend Vancouver had four car-free festivals in the city, each closing about an 8 block long stretch of a commercial/retail street. The traffic jams in the blocks around some of these areas were unbelievable — particularly the one in my neighborhood.  Many people clearly drove to car free events.  But, the events were packed.  There would definitely be popular interest in having a whole community car free.

We also can’t forget the spontaneous ones in which jubilant citizens take over the streets. In Germany — and probably much of Europe — soccer fans are joining together in the streets to watch and celebrate their team’s performances during the Euro 2008 soccer championships.

Perhaps these car free events will lead more city governments and residents to consider permanently closing some streets, making them pedestrian malls.  Or, if not every day, then maybe every Saturday or Sunday.  Allow the restaurants and cafes to add seating, creating a European-like sidewalk cafe culture.   Allow other retail and food sales to happen on the street.  And leave space for buskers.

Roads: lets see them put to use for community building and turn some cities from car-tropolis into places for people.

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