How Pressure from Pedestrians and Cyclists Make Better Cities

Depending on where you live you may think streets are for people or for cars. The correct answer is that streets are for moving people and not built for the need of inanimate objects. In an interesting series of videos the Toronto Star’s Christopher Hume examines the different urban design decisions between suburban and urban neighbourhoods. The urban areas that promote cycling and walking are understandably the most vibrant, interesting, and productive (economically and culturally). The impact non-car uses can have on streets is evident and something that every city can benefit from.

Unsurprisingly, Toronto’s most vibrant streets — Queen, College, Bloor — are generally narrow car-slowing thoroughfares lined with unspectacular buildings between two and six storeys tall — hardly the stuff of vehicular convenience. The major interruptions in these mostly intact streetscapes are largely the result of clumsy modern interventions beginning in the 1950s and ’60s. Decades later in what’s now Vertical City, we still have difficulty making buildings work at street level. Architects are slowly learning, but have yet to master the skills of contextualism. They prefer the silence of the vacuum and ignore the public realm whenever possible.

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Turning Homes Into Business Could Save the Suburbs

the suburbs

The suburbs are an energy-intensive housing solution that started in North America and has spread worldwide. The appeal of the tract housing the very thing that makes the suburbs detrimental to society: large lots, expansive houses, low density, and that they are reliant on individual use automobiles. With the mounting pressure of rapid climate change and urbanization of civilization what can we do to negate the poor planning of the suburbs? One solution is to rezone the suburbs to allow business to operate to make the neighbourhoods liveable.

It’s not specifically the built form of the suburbs that makes them unappealing; the buildings there—the houses—are perfectly fine. What deadens these areas is the homogeneity of the uses these buildings are put to. But a building that looks like a house can easily be altered and put to another use. Toronto’s two most iconic and walkable neighbourhoods, Yorkville and Kensington Market, were created like this 100 years ago. If the City took away restrictive zoning, suburban areas will change as local people set up stores and services in converted single family homes and these neighbourhoods will develop organically into complete and vibrant communities.

The permit office should parcel out permits to create a situation where you can go six blocks in any direction anywhere in Toronto and find one or two services. For instance, from my house in North York, you have to walk 12 large suburban blocks to get to the only services available, at Bayview Village. Why isn’t there a little ice cream store or cafe on the first floor of one of the brand new townhouses built across from Bayview Village Park, six blocks away? My home has a walk score of 38 out of 100. Gradually, the City should rezone wherever necessary until every home has a walk score of at least 50. The point isn’t to make all of Toronto like downtown or Kensington Market; just add reasonable access to services that will benefit the neighbourhood. The suburbs would still be the quietest neighbourhoods with the most green space, but they would be better off by virtue of a few local amenities. If a neighbourhood wanted to opt out of this scheme, it could cease issuing these permits altogether, or, alternatively, request that the City issue more of them and to try becoming a new Kensington Market.

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Building the WikiHouse of the Future

housing
Affordable housing is a problem for every country and over the years there have been initiatives to lower the cost of being a home, today some of those are efforts in digitization. The WikiHouse project is all about lowering the cost to design a house by providing people the files needed to plan and build their new home. The cost of construction is obviously up to where the house is built. The goal is to lower the capital costs through the digitization of knowledge.

Their mission:

  1. To put the design solutions for building low-cost, low-energy, high-performance homes into the hands of every citizen and business on earth.
  2. To use digitisation to make it easier for existing industries to design, invest-in, manufacture and assemble better, more sustainable, more affordable homes for more people.
  3. To grow a new, distributed housing industry, comprising many citizens, communities and small businesses developing homes and neighbourhoods for themselves, reducing our dependence on top-down, debt-heavy mass housing systems.

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Building a City From Mushrooms

forest and river

Climate change is destroying many parts of the world, which increases pressure on cities and farms to make more use of less space. Building flood walls will only buy so much time and the use of energy-intensive building materials contributes to faster climate change. This might sound like a catch-22, but it isn’t. We have other options for building our cities and using land: biomaterials.

Over at coDesign they look at the quickly growing biomaterials industry and what some companies are up to. It’s not inconceivable that in the near future we’ll be able to send robots into the desert to grow a city using mushrooms.

According to Bayer, this mycelium-based material is as structurally sound as—and priced similarly to—the materials they replace. He says the production can easily scale, as verified by the several partnerships they have with manufacturers, and he is confident that we will start seeing biomaterials replacing traditional building materials. But the process of actually getting these materials produced into the hands of construction companies—and convincing them to use them over the materials we’ve been using for centuries—remains challenging.

For Bayer, the largest and most prescient problem biomaterial makers face is getting the material out of the lab and into the factories of manufacturers who will incorporate it into existing product lines. “If we create bio products that are safe and healthy and get them out there so people can see what it is, that will create market pull,” he says. “We have to take it out from the lab and demonstrate [the science] to consumers with consumer-facing applications.”

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Celebrating Resiliency

The Rockefeller Foundation has produced a new documentary celebrating areas humans live in that are designed to be resilient to climate change. By building our cities and countries around the concept of resiliency we can better prepare for what’s ahead when it comes to unpredictable and extreme weather. It’s design thinking applied on a ecosystem level that allows human civilization to continue while supporting existing natural systems.

The clip above is focussed on Louisiana post hurricane Katrina, the movie explores other places around the world that have also rejuvenated their loyal ecosystems to thrive once again.

Resilience is also a key theme at Rockefeller, which believes national, even global change can start at a city level. In a way, municipalities are the perfect ecosystems to try transformational projects that other cities can tweak or adopt. To that end, the group has invested over a half billion dollars in various resilience initiatives including the National Disaster Resilience Competitionand 100 Resilient Cities.

According to Carter, the film’s concept began with the idea of chronicling several success stories that others could learn from. The group quickly realized that had they enough material for a movie about the broader global movement. Resilience test cases include New Orleans, which has rebuilt better, greener and stronger in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

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Watch the full movie here.