Organicizing Cities

Another riff on Urban Development – brought to you by yet another TED talk.

See Previous Posts of Interest:

My interest in urban development is just a dabbling, with the highly recommended the Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs (love her), and the Culture of Cities by Lewis Mumford (although the two of them were at odds).

It’s My Way: the Highway

Although the population in the US and Canada boomed after WWII, the biggest spurt in growth in cities followed shortly thereafter with the development of the Interstate Highway System, from the mid 1950s to mid 1960s. I happened to catch a documentary on the construction of the highways some years ago (and for the life of me can’t even remember what channel it was on), and found the whole process very telling. The documentary was presented in a fairly impartial voice, but the facts themselves explain the drive to develop our cities as we have in the latter half of the 20th Century.

The lobbyists behind the development of the Highways included oil, car and engineering interests. There was also a defense rationale, in that the system up to that point had proven to be a tremendous impediment to mobilizing goods, equipment and people in the case of national emergency.

In order to afford to purchase the land necessary to construct these roads, the least expensive options were taken – which in some cases cut farms in half, ran through swamps and other areas of little commercial interest. However, when it came to building these thoroughfares through our cities, this invariable lead them through poor neighbourhoods. The effects were sometimes devastating.

The documentary presented one particular case (sorry, don’t recall the city, or the neighbourhood), in which a vibrant community in the heart of the city was bisected by the highway, and the offramps. The new barrier, and resulting increase in traffic killed this community utterly, having driven a spear through its very heart. Many of the people left, others hung on, but only for so long. The damage was done, and their home had been rendered unlivable. You can’t have a neighbourhood without neighbours.

The most atrocious result of this development is the auto-centric thinking that permeates policy makers, planners and developers. Suburbs (aka bedroom communities) emulated the country estates of the affluent members of British society who were privileged enough to escape the industrial pollution of the city for the cleaner air of the rural environment. It was the spoils of the upper class, and seen as something to strive for.

And so we created a commuting ritual, from bedroom to workplace, from suburb to downtown. With this, the development of a city that caters to people travelling by car. Drive-in restaurants, shopping malls with a sprawl of parking, and services well outside of walking distance from one another.

In Europe, around the turn of the 20th Century, cyclists lobbied to have more roads built. They succeeded, and just in time to have cars use them and eventually take over. In the Netherlands, cycling is huge, but in the greater part of North America, it is still just an afterthought (although I’m glad to say one that’s gaining momentum).

It’s evident that city designers, for the most part, assume that cars are the principal means of transportation, otherwise, where are the communities build for pedestrians and cyclists (with concessions for emergency, delivery and transit vehicles)? There aren’t any. Why are there parking lots at transit corporation headquarters? Federal councillors in Switzerland (i.e. the Federal Government) often take the bus to work. Granted, if you live in the middle of nowhere, individual vehicles make more sense, but as most of us live in cities, there is no excuse not to use the bus in the city (a lot of whining, but no good excuse).

The more people who use the bus, the more efficient and inexpensive it becomes. In Portland Oregon, transit is free in the city centre. There’s a model to emulate.


More recently, these atrocious failures of imagination are losing their value, and wealthier citizens have been moving back to the inner cities. I’ve witnessed gentrification in two similar neighbourhoods in two very different cities: Commercial Drive in East Vancouver and Hintonburg in Ottawa. Both are at the nexus of the Italian and Chinese/Vietnamese districts. They both have an industrial/blue collar presence with a soupçon of skid rowishness. Both contained a variety of independently owed shops and services, and you could get everything you needed within walking distance. Also, the coffee was great in both. As these neighbourhoods gradually developed, at the slow place of generations of work and improvement, they gained the wrong kind of attention, and sure enough, condos began to move in, as well as chain stores. And what were once distinct neighbourhoods with their own particular personalities are being made-over to look like pretty much everywhere else. Not to mention that the rents go up, as if somehow bleaching the colour of the area makes it more valuable.

Thinking the Box

It’s as if the architects, designers, planners and developers have bowed down at the altar of Kilderkin in order to receive guidance in creating our cities. It certainly accounts for big box stores filled to the rafters with big boxes of stuff.

Kilderkin of Order

However, there are those who use natural forms in the design of their buildings. Although influential in architecture, they seem to have less sway in urban design.

There is the American genius, Frank Lloyd Wright, and the Canadian architect Douglas Cardinal, who is responsible for my favourite building in Canada’s National Capital Region (it’s located in Gatineau in Quebec, across the river from Ottawa, Ontario), the Museum of Civilization. The limestone blocks contain fossils, which adds to the already curvy design of the place.

Frank Lloyd WrightFalling Water

Douglas Cardinalthe Canadian Museum of Civilization

Organism Architecture

And her collaborator in this interesting innovation (her talk was from 2009 – his from 2011)

Green Housing

“Green” has taken a beating, like pretty much any word that falls into the hands of marketing spinners. Nevertheless, green roofs (rooves?) have grabbed my attention of late. Using local plants, they require less maintenance (since native plants live with whatever amount of rain there is, will survive dry seasons or rainy seasons or winter, as per the local climate). There are also other benefits, such as insulation, generating warmth, animal habitat, oxygen and in some cases honey.

Vancouver Convention Centre – Living Roof (including apiary)

This is definitely a step in the right direction. I think that using less technology and taking advantage of natural systems is a more effective approach to housing (and a great many other things). Plants are far better at capturing sunlight than synthetic solar energy collectors, because they store the energy more efficiently, and don’t require a toxic industrial process to create.

Passive Housing

I learned about passive housing some years ago, and haven’t heard much about it since. It’s been used in Scandinavia and Germany, and should be transferable to Canada – certainly the US. Essentially, buildings are designed so that the insulation and heat-exchange process allows the interior to remain comfortable, even without a furnace. I’m not sure to what temperature this is feasible, but I’m encouraged to see that Canada is looking into it. Can you imagine having a warm house in winter without having to pay an exorbitant heating bill? I can imagine a few utility companies that would be spewing vitriol in opposite to such a development.

Cob Housing

Cob is building material much like adobe, made of clay, sand, earth, water, and straw. It will stand long after concrete has crumbled, provided it hasn’t been knocked down with a sledgehammer. I met a number of people who ran workshops on building cob houses. In the process, they created a circle of people who would all help one another build cob structures. Sort of like barn raising.

There are several advantages to working with cob: it’s not toxic like concrete, the conduit can be placed inside the walls and covered over, and the houses can be molded into whatever shape one fancies (including artistic flourishes). If a problem should occur with the plumbing, th electrical conduit or whatever, the cob can be removed (not sure of the process) for the repair, and replaced afterwards. This isn’t an ideal building material for colder climates, but it certainly works on the Pacific Coast at least.

Planning Cities

All this to say that we have a lot of options available to us for constructing creative houses with non-toxic materials, however I would love to see this applied on the scale of a city. It’s not like planned cities (Brasilia, Canberra, Abuja and maybe Las Vegas) were designed for the benefit of the people who lie in them, more so for the people who run them. These three are capital cities, and part of their design is to protect the political structure from the unwashed masses (they stink on ice).

Another issue is that the same houses are built in a wide variety of environments. Why would we have the same house in a place with a snowy winter as we would in the desert, rainforest or wetlands? We change the environment to suit our houses, instead of customizing our houses to suit the environment. Instead of draining wetlands (which destroys habitat, leads to flooding and higher levels of pollution), we could simply build houses on stilts. This wouldn’t appeal to people who demand to have a basement, but they don’t have to live in a swamp, now, do they?


I’m moving in a couple of months. I wonder if I can build a winter-ready tree house before then.

254 Days to Dec 21st 2012

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