Archive for public spaces

Have stadium, will travel

Apparently it will be possible to dismantle the stadium being designed for the 2012 London Olympic Games in order to move it elsewhere.   Bldgblog reports that the city of Chicago may end up with the edifice.

This all reminds me of the old Expo 86 structures, seats and other World’s Fair leftovers.  The idea was to share the wealth — so to speak — around the province of British Columbia.  Some cast offs continue to provide pride or purpose — such as the world’s largest ice hockey stick now in Duncan BC or the Inukshuk that remains in Vancouver.

But others serve as a reminder that some new investment in public infrastructure may be well overdue.  During a walk on a suburban beach recently we saw some of the iconic Expo seats, now rusting missing bolts and otherwise desperately in need of repair and paint.   You can find these all over the province along with the ugly exo-skeleton pavilion buildings which for a time became the new Atco trailers.

And BC Place Stadium has been a white elephant ever since the fair for which it was built.  Rarely has a sporting team in Vancouver been able to sell 60,000 seats (well the Canucks could, but BC place is for Football or Soccer, not ice hockey).  The roof structure is starting to fail.  There are now plans to revive and renovate it — after the 2010 Olympics which will in fact make use of it as Olympic Stadium.

Thinking back 22 years, it might have been more practical to have done the London plan — a temporary stadium that could have been moved to a city that needed such a large one.

Jane’s Walk

This weekend in nine Canadian cities and two American ones, volunteer neighborhood residents are offering guided tours of their communities to the public in a national celebration of the late Jane Jacobs and of cities.

As Jacobs said, to understand cities and to know what will work, “you’ve got to get out and walk.”

Some tour guides are well known local urban activists or afficionados (like Ned Jacobs [son of Jane] or Gordon Price).  But anyone can offer a tour.  Because the guides are varied, the topics and agendas vary too.  Some are offering insights into hot political issues like homelessness.  Others are more historic or architectural.  Had I heard about it before this week (a hazard of vacationing) I probably would have considered giving one.  Maybe next year if the event happens again.

So, if you live in or can visit Vancouver, Winnipeg, Calgary, Toronto, Guelph, Charlottetown, Halifax, Thornbury-Clarkson (Ont), or Ottawa in Canada, or Salt Lake City in the USA, consider joining in.  You need to sign up in advance.

Unintended consequences of a new bylaw

In Vancouver a new bylaw came into effect last week banning cigarette smoking on restaurant patios and within 6 meters (about 20 feet) of doorways. Smoking has been banned at indoor public places for a long time.

I had a positive and a negative experience with this new bylaw this week. The positive experience was visiting a favorite local coffee house with my kids. My son likes to ride his trike in the door and down the ramp to order banana loaf for himself; I typically add an expensive but tasty coffee drink to the order. In the past, we’ve had to enter through a cloud of smoke and then go elsewhere to consume our snack outside. But now, we can sit on the patio, watching the world go by. This is nice.

The negative experience was the next day at the small local park with a large, new playground. Every table and bench in other parts of the park was filled with people smoking, and enjoying a take-out coffee from one of the local haunts. This meant that overflow smokers ended up sitting around the playground smoking, both cigarettes and another substance that this region is well known for. I’m quite allergic to both, so it’s now hard to enjoy the playground with the kids. More importantly, neither the example nor the smoke is good for children.

Having smokers take over parks and playgrounds seems to be an unintended consequence of the new patio and doorway smoking restrictions.  I’m pondering writing a letter to the politicians who sponsored the bills that created the restrictions to suggest they also ban smoking within 15 meters of a playground (dogs are banned from being within 15 meters, so why not cigarettes?).

But, I’m also worried about what the unintended consequences of that bylaw might be.

(Oh, and I know many smokers — likely the majority — wouldn’t dream of lighting up around children.  But unfortunately, not everyone is so considerate, hence our problem).

Creativity, anarchy and civilization

From Journalist Frances Bula’s City States Blog:

My son, who does visuals for DJs … sent me an email from Austin today. He’s of course at the South by Southwest music festival … It seems he also has something to say about city policy.

“we went to a show last night that started at 3am and was on a bridge. like basically imagine if a band played a show on cambie st bridge and 800 people showed up and it didn’t get shut down. i asked a cab driver how it’s possible that all these shows can happen in such crazy locations and he said sxsw funnels something like 30 million dollars into austins economy so the city just turns a blind eye to all these crazy events. i thought it was really funny imagining these bands filling out paperwork to get a permit to play a show on a bridge at 3am but i guess there is none, the city just lets people do whatever they want.

i wish vancouver would relax it’s liquor license laws and take the same attitude, which would promote art and culture, instead of spending millions of dollars trying to force designated “culture” or “club” sections of the city. and only giving liquor licenses to people who can afford the 250 thousand dollars or whatever which only corporate superclubs can really afford. a similar sxsw event could happen in vancouver if only they would do that.

[apparently there is some organization of the spontaneity according to a reply from Gary Etie, an engineer and consultant in Austin]

“I just want to get the word out, because, as you say, it is a very critical issue, that affects the arts, and the ability to party, while preventing disasters that can occur from overcrowding in unsafe buildings, if not done properly and professionally.”

[Bula:] Now that is what I call one dedicated watchdog.

So there is in fact a permit system. But, from the sound of it, it’s a unique and flexible one that Austin has developed so that, yes, it can encourage exuberance and, yes, bands can hold concerts on a public bridge at 3 a.m., but there are also some rules in place so that the city doesn’t end up with bodies floating in the river, major disasters, etc.

For those who want a closer look at Gary’s site and blog, go to and

Urban areas can be like the frontier, where new forms of living or expression can be tried, beyond the reach of the state. Or, cities can be highly prescribed places where order is the main goal of government. It seems that many cities drift back and forth from “over ordered” to a state of nature.

As cities attempt to offer more space for creative expression and fun, I predict many challenges from business, citizens and other organizations to where a city policy will sit on the spectrum between anarchy and boring, excessive order. Austin is known as a “creative” hub, and a festival like this furthers that image, which probably helps attract talented, highly creative people.


More semi-random thoughts on this:

I like the idea of relaxing the order for certain occasions, like sxsw, to let creativity reign anywhere and everywhere for a few days so long “as bodies are not showing up in the river” the next morning. Locals can participate or leave for the duration. And, such an event can contribute to a city’s creative “brand.”

To me this approach seems more inspiring than having a designated “entertainment” zone in a city where the anarchy can take place most nights — like the New Orleans French Quarter. The latter almost seems artificial — a disneyland for young adults.

But I also wonder: could the Austin SXSW festival disorder work in cities and places that are normally tightly controlled? Or would the removal of some authority create a situation that many people cannot handle responsibly?
My reasoning (based on perhaps debatable premises) is that places like Texas naturally have less state presence and control so people are accustomed to being more responsible for their actions and looking after themselves, rather than relying on the state. So, relaxing regulations further for a few days isn’t a shock to the system … as it might be elsewhere.

New playground as community anchor

Like many public spaces in East Vancouver, the park by our house used to look tired — exhausted, in fact.  Some playground equipment became so dilapidated, it posed a hazard and neighbors asked the city to remove it.  Other plastic slides had more endurance (does plastic ever break down?), and children belonging to families living right near the park enjoyed it as a quick playground fix when there was not time to go elsewhere.  The entrance sign and bathroom were covered in graffiti.  Drunks and drug dealers could be found under the larger trees.

Then, a renaissance.

After 5 years of lobbying, a small group of neighbors got a full park renovation into the city capital budget.  Half a million dollars later, there’s a new park — and spectacular modern playground.

Suddenly, the park and playground are packed — all day long — unless it’s raining.  Daycares, families, children with nannies are there, enjoying the six slides, multiple climbing aparatus, sand box, mosaic stones and natural boulders and logs to jump and climb.  Picnic tables abound, offering spots for a snack or to sip a juice box.

There’s a stroller jam along the edge of the playground as everyone walks here.   A few trikes and bikes-with-training wheels are there too.

Where did all these children and families come from, I wonder.  Certainly, there are some familiar faces from other toddler activities nearby.  But the majority of these people I’ve never seen before.  From chatting, I learn that most live within 6-8 blocks, some even closer having moved in recently.  Most kids playing are under age 5, while the parents seem to range in age from early 20s to early 40s — part of the urban baby boom that seems to be happening.

Suddenly this playground has become “the” neighborhood spot.  It allows parents to meet and chat informally while the kids play — share parenting tips, discuss pre-school options or daycare possibilities.

Dozens of laughing, shreking children have pushed the last of the drunks and drug dealers somewhere else.

A new playground in a tired park won’t revitalize or anchor every neighborhood — but in one with lots of children and a baby boom, it might.  It certainly helps to reinforce and build community — and allows the community to take back public spaces from less desirable elements.

Crashed Ice: Every city needs a unique event

Quebec City, founded in 1608, is one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever visited.  The historic buildings and the spectacular setting make it unique and special.  But in the 21st century, a place seems to need more than this to be a source of household conversation.  That’s why so many cities compete for major events like the Olympics.

Quebec City has what is arguably the most unique sporting event around: Crashed Ice.  

People dressed in full hockey padding race on a steep, downhill ice track that winds through the historic old part of the city.  Here’s a description.

Racers will reach speeds of over 60 km/hr before hitting a steep right turn in front of the Post Office, which sits across from the Parc Montmorency . . . This is where the real fun starts.

Skaters will battle for position as they shoot down Côte de la Montagne and directly under Porte Prescott, one of the remaining arches of the original fortifications that surround Vieux-Québec. Then, in the middle of the steepest part of Côte de la Montagne, the track will make a sharp left at the level of the infamous Escalier Casse-Cou, otherwise known as “Breakneck Stairway”. Before hitting the bottom of the hill, skaters will literally fly over the Parc de la Cétiere before careening down on Place Royale where, fittingly, scenes were shot for the Hollywood blockbuster “Catch Me If You Can”.

It’s also home to the oldest church in North America. No time for prayer however, as one last sprint down the stairs of rue de la Place and the skaters will hit the finish on Place de Paris, only a few yards from the powerful currents that seemed so peaceful atop the course, the waters of the Saint Lawrence River.

Yes, Quebec City also has the Quebec Winter Festival, somewhat unique and special.  But in this era of extreme sports, Crashed Ice could become as big a draw.

Oh, the 2008 event is on.  The final heats will runs Saturday night, January 26.  In Canada it will be broadcast live on TSN.

Watch footage of the event and last year’s final here:

Hope against the spread of generica

Visiting a new city becomes far more meaningful when you can find unique places where local people live and interact — when you can find an actual community.   Usually this requires finding locally owned and operated restaurants, cafes, shops, etc. that often anchor neighborhoods.
In so many cities, whether in North America or around the world, global brands have taken over certain commercial areas, including (or particularly) around where visitors might congregate such as off ramps from freeways, around tourist hotels, and near tourist attractions.   Not knowing whether any alternative exists just a few minutes drive or walk down a side street means that people often patronize the familiar generic chains at the expense of local independent business.

Brendan at the Where Blog offers hope against the spread of generica.  He proposes that RSS feeds on small devices like the Blackberry might offer a way for visitors to explore a new neighborhood.

Now imagine that you’re a tourist on a first-time trip to New York. Subscribe in advance to a feed like this and have bite-sized neighborhood tours sent to you every three hours. These tours could even be sequentially linked to start you off in each neighborhood, allowing for a few hours of independent exploration between tours. Heck, with the ubiquity of GPS technology, you could download a series of geo-coded tours in advance that would be triggered when you passed from one neighborhood to the next. As you walk north across Houston Street from SoHo to the Village, your phone rings. You answer, and a voice suggests that you walk three blocks east to Houston and Thompson to begin the Greenwich Village tour.

With this sort of technology, unfamiliar territory becomes a bit less intimidating. Recent transplants get out and meet more of their neighbors. Tourists get a boost in confidence that would likely encourage them to cover more ground and venture farther off the beaten path

What intrigues me about a technology like this is that it would allow many visitors to venture beyond Burger King for lunch and thereby support more independent businesses.

The same technology could provide links to restaurant menus, customer reviews and other information such as prices and speed or type of service (ie is this a restaurant for quick take out meals, or more of a sit-and-linger place).   Perhaps photographs could be available — or even live web cams.  The latter might allow locals could check to see who is there and would allow anyone to see if the place is busy or would have room for them.

With this information more people might try someplace new, whether close to home on when further away.

Neighborhood guiding technology, written by locals, could be a great way to preserve independent businesses and the character of communities within cities.

Cities as agents of change

“A new urban global community is emerging in which cities are collaborating with each other on common problems while simultaneously competing with each other in the global marketplace. The days of sitting back and waiting for national governments to act are becoming a memory, especially as cities are faced with challenges that require immediate action.”

- New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg in the Economist (pointer CEOs for Cities)

Many city governments, residents, and organizations are taking action to circumvent inaction at higher levels of government. Take the health of citizens.

As of January 1, 2008 Calgary banned trans-fats at fast food restaurants. New York did so last year. Assuming these food ingredients are as unhealthy as claimed, federal government food agencies in Canada and the USA should have banned them long ago. For whatever reason, they did not. And so we have city governments being the agents that push for change.

Another health measure cities are tackling is cigarette smoke. For example, San Diego has banned smoking at public parks and beaches. Vancouver city council has banned it on outdoor patios. Many other cities have similar laws, or have proposed them. In some cases, city governments and the residents who elected them can provide inspiration to higher levels of government to pass broader restrictions such as state-wide or province wide bans.

Automobile exhaust and traffic accidents are other health hazards in cities.   Stockholm and London have congestion pricing — and Bloomberg wants it for New York — charging high fees for drivers who insist on driving in the city in peak times.  The city of Calgary Health Region wants a share of the photo radar ticket revenue to pay for hospital services for traffic accident victims.

Cities are chronically underfunded to provide infrastructure and many other services for their residents. So it is intriguing that city governments are finding other ways to provide a stable foundation for their residents and economy.

New styles of work and older urban designs

Penelope Trunk recently provided seven predictions on the future of work. Many will require changes to how people live in cities.  Old style sprawl will not allow for new styles of working.   Here I’ll address her first two predictions:

The end of gender disparity
Pay is equal for men and women until there are kids. This inequality will change when Generation Y starts having kids because the men are committed to being equal partners in child rearing. We see already that among Generation X men and women are willing to give up pay and prestige in order to get time with their families. Generation Y’s demographic power will provide critical mass for big change.

The end of the stay-at-home parent
Women have already widely rejected the idea of sacrificing their time with children to a relentless, high-powered, long-houred job, and men are following suit. Women have also found that staying at home with kids all day is boring. Institutions are responding – finally — to these trends. Parents will choose some form of shared care. Each parent will work part-time and take care of kids part time.

These predictions and observations will require many families to abandon suburban life for a more urban existence. The suburbs evolved when one parent working outside the home was the norm. The other parent could then dedicate herself (or occasionally “himself) to getting the kids to schools and other activities, as well as looking after them at home. If the working parent had to commute 60 minutes each way, that was considered acceptable to have a large back yard and a white picket fence.

In order for both parents to share care and have careers, they’ll need to live in proximity to their employer or clients (for the self employed). Although the internet and mobile technology allows for some types of work to be done anywhere, face to face communication is usually essential some of the time. It builds trust, is part of networking, and is required at least occasionally for effective collaboration.

Having a home in a distant suburb makes it harder for two parents to blend work and family life. If you live 10 minutes from downtown (or a major employment area) — or live downtown — it’s easier to get away for a one hour meeting, which will only cost you 1 hour 20 minutes of time. If you live 60 minutes from downtown, a one hour meeting will cost you 3 hours, two of which will be fairly unproductive if you’re driving in traffic.

For those who need to make regular appearances at an “office” (or the equivalent there of), living close to work and the kids schools means that you can zip home in a few minutes if there is a problem or dash to the school to attend a concert for an hour. It also means less time wasted commuting and therefore more time with your kids. Plus, when it comes to negotiating flexibility — such as an option to work from home occasionally, or to work in the evening in return for having a shorter day at the office — it’s more workable (and an easier sell to employers) if you can get back quickly in an emergency.

So, the future of work and the future of cities are interconnected. Of course, living in higher density areas will usually mean living in a smaller place — maybe a condo or townhouse and playing at the park rather than in a big backyard.

Public toilets and cities

Jim Dwyer penned a fascinating story this month on the history of public toilets — or the lack thereof — in New York City.  A temporary collection of port-a-johns in Time Square created quite a stir, as few other options exist if you need to go in the city that never sleeps.

This got me thinking about different public toilets I have used around the world — and how they reflect the city or country.

In many cities and towns in Latin America toilets are often businesses.  You pay someone a few coins and in return they offer you toilet paper and a chance to use a public toilet.  They are responsible for keeping it semi-clean as well.  In some towns the toilet is a pit, but in most cities it is a cement house with flush toilets.   I assume the buildings were government-built, but local enterprising people, usually middle aged women, operate them to earn a living.  Actually, in some government buildings, a private individual seemed to run the washroom facility.   This mix of some government initiative combined with small enterprise is quite typical of the region (transit tends to work this way as well).

In Dresden Germany I saw my first coin operated, automatic, self-cleaning toilet.  It was amazing.  You put a coin in and the door opened like a space-aged pod.  You went it, did your business.  When you stood up the toilet flushed.  When you put your hands under the soap dispenser, it automatically dispensed soap; under the tap, and water flowed.   And then the air dryer came on the dry your hands.  When you exited the pod, it closed itself and went through a self-cleansing ritual before accepting a coin from the next person.  All very efficient (and stereotypically German?).   Someone probably made a little money on these things, but didn’t have to be there to oversee it.  And I assume they had a license from the government to place these pods in different places.

In Havana, Cuba, we found that the fancy hotels were the best options for foreigners needing a toilet.  Even though we were staying in a private guest house, when nature called we would walk into the hotel like we were staying there and use a restroom.  Locals couldn’t do this.  The two-tiered system with a different opportunity set for foreign tourists in comparison to local Cubans.

In Brasov, Romania the only public toilet was a “McToilet” — McDonalds.  Buy some fries and use the toilet.  There were no government run facilities and there was no private enterprise operating them either.   There was neither a strong state nor a strong sense of micro entrepreneurship among the people.  If you couldn’t afford McDonalds, which most of the locals probably could not, then they just went in an ally or went home, I guess.

New York City, by Dwyer’s account, sounds a lot like Brasov or Havana.

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