Thursday, December 30, 2010

In with the New Urbanism

It's that time of year —where one reflects on the year that's passed (the end of a decade!) and looks to the future with hope (or dread or a bit of both). I for one am feeling rather optimistic and I'll tell you why.

I've recently had the pleasure to chat with my new Alderman (or do you prefer Councilor?) (ward 9) Gian-Carlo Carra, in his new digs at City Hall. With the smell of fresh paint in the air, we sat down to talk about all the things new about City Hall.

Having been a practicing professional Urban Designer with T-Six Urbanists Inc., and a strong proponent of the principles of New Urbanism, Calgary is very lucky to have Carra sit on Council. Like Mayor Nenshi, he has a strong understanding of what makes a city great (Heh, he's lived in New York!) and his enthusiasm about his new job is positively contagious.

Gian-Carlo has spent the last decade on the 'other' side of City hall, as a community leader in the inner-city neighbourhood of Inglewood, and as a vocal urban-activist and academic who believes in a 'neighbourhoods-first' approach to City planning. Now with this new job, I had to ask what it was like on the' inside'.

First off, Alderman do not work alone. He has two devoted teammates in his office – executive assistant Jacqueline Brown and community assistant Lindsay Luhnau. Together they make up a kind of mini-corporation (team Carra) that takes care of the day to day needs of ward 9 issues.

On the importance of municipal government Carra notes "No one would particularly notice if the federal government and/or provincial government stopped working for a few days, but imagine what would happen if the municipal government stopped? You would notice immediately." Imagine if you will, the smell of your left-on-the-side-of-the-road garbage bags? He is profoundly aware of the importance of his job. And how much this election was a call to action by Calgarians for change.

Carra is also keenly aware that he can't change the City all by himself. It starts at the community level. "The future will be local, with a need to re-ignite the project of democracy by having citizens more involved with City hall". As a member of my Community Association in Bridgeland, I couldn't agree more with this strategy. There is a plethora of talented people willing to volunteer their time to help build engaged, sustainable neighbourhoods. The City would be silly not to capitalize on this assistance.

At one of Gian-Carlo's talks pre-City Council, I was introduced to the principles of New Urbanism, an urban design movement initiated in the United States in the early 1980s. Proponents of this movement noticed that around the mid-20th century, City planning drastically shifted towards accommodating the automobile. In addition, post-war City planning promoted zoning that segregated residential from commercial and industrial uses. Together, this spelled trouble for urban dwellers. Gone were the principles of compact, walkable neighbourhoods where you knew your neighbours, could conveniently get to work and other amenities, and were surrounded by aesthetically pleasing human-scale architecture. The New Urbanists wanted to re-introduce some of these lost aspects of pre-war City planning, and to integrate them into a model for streets, cities, even regions in an entirely new way today.

The benefits to a City that adopts New Urbanist principles include less money spent on sprawling infrastructure and utilities, an increased tax base due to more buildings packed into a tighter area, less traffic congestion, lower crime rates due to more eyes on the street, a City structure more conducive to public transportation systems, and an overall increase in community engagement through empowered community members. Sound good? Just think, now Calgary has its very own New Urbanist sitting on City Council.

Carra sees the 3 biggest questions facing the new Council: 1. Can we work together as a council? 2. Can we increase citizen engagement? and 3. Can we make City Hall more responsive?

I think everyone at City Council is aware that all eyes are on them, waiting to see what they will do (no pressure guys!). Like all things new, if you want a different kind of City, you need a different kind of system. If you want a new product, you need a new assembly-line. Of course there must be a balance between 'business as usual' and introducing change into such an established, extensive bureaucracy. Long-term change, the "new" that really counts, may be incremental and not entirely noticeable right away. But isn't it good to know that someone is there trying to make a difference?

Anyone who answers the question "What is your dream car?" with "Not having to have one." is someone who just might help move this City in a much needed new direction.

Let old City planning be forgot....

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Learning from Curitiba- the transformative powers of a Mayor

On Monday, October 18th you will be asked to choose a new Mayor for Calgary. This person, working with an elected council, will help shape the city you want to live in. So it's a big decision.

There are many candidates (15 at the time of this writing) some have dropped out of the race (like Paul Hughes and Kent Hehr) some are kind of alternative-fringe (like Oscar Fech and Bonnie Devine) some are seasoned professionals like Bob Hawkesworth, and three are now front runners - Naheed Nenshi, Barb Higgins and Ric McIver.

All this choice, and all the information that comes with it, can seem a tad overwhelming. Most candidates have their own website/platform/fancy ad campaign. But before we get into the nitty gritty of who believes what, I think we need to step back a bit and think about what a new Mayor could do for this city.

Could they be transformative?

Take for example the charismatic Mayor of Curitiba Brazil, Jaime Lerner, who almost single-handedly turned Curitiba into the model city for cost-effective sustainable public transportation. People from all over the world go to Curitiba to learn how it's done.

Of specific interest, the design of a surface bus system that works like a below surface subway. Passengers pre-pay their fare in slickly designed Plexiglas boarding tubes, waiting only 1 minute in between buses, then are whisked away to their destination via a designated bus lane. Launched almost 35 years ago (Lerner was way ahead of his time) the bus system provides service to approximately 2 million people per day and at a fraction of the cost of a subway system. This system, or something like it, has been replicated in over 80 cities worldwide. As Mayor of the city, the architect/urban planner Jaime Lerner was a key catalyst in this transformation.

There were other initiatives that Jaime and his crew brought to Curitiba including a recycling program that accepts both organic and inorganic inputs, a program offering food and bus vouchers for homeless people who help clean up the city, the promotion of mixed income neighbourhoods (fighting against the ever-present gated community model), and turning downtown shopping streets into pedestrian only areas (a 30 day trial period was so successful that neighbouring streets demanded to be part of it too). All of these ideas have shaped the city of Curitiba into an entirely new place, with the result that most citizens claim it's the best place in the world to live.

What, you ask is so special about Curitiba? No disrespect to Curitibans, but nothing really. The transformation could happen in any city. Do you need your Mayor to be an architect and urban planner? It doesn't hurt, but it's not necessary either. The most important factor is that your Mayor be genuinely concerned with improving the life of the citizens, to be innovative in their way of looking at the world, to be open minded to new ideas, and finally to be able to work collaboratively with others to make things happen. A little creativity goes a long way in politics. A Mayor should be an ideas person, a YES person, a force of positive energy.

There is no endeavour more noble than the attempt to achieve a collective dream. When a city accepts as a mandate its quality of life; when it respects the people who live in it; when it respects the environment; when it prepares for future generations, the people share the responsibility for that mandate, and this shared cause is the only way to achieve that collective dream. - Jaime Lerner

I'm guessing that you must have a list of things you would like done in the city. Is it the addition of safe commuter bike lanes or a disincentive tax on developments on the outer edge of the city? Perhaps you would like to see more work-from-home opportunities so that you don't need to use your car as much or maybe it's the development of a new form of public transportation like the Curitiba bus system.

I hope that whatever your wishes for the city are, you think about them when choosing your next Mayor (and Alderman). They have the power and platform to turn your wishes for the city into reality. Calgary could transform as Curitiba has. Our new Mayor could be as effective as Jaime Lerner, could become world-renowned for their powers of transformation.

It's all in your hands.

For an all-in-one website listing all the Mayoral and Aldermanic candidates, go to There are links to individual candidate websites here as well. I really like civic camp for information on public forums and a great survey on questions you should be asking of your new Mayor. Last but not least, for straight up information on how and where to vote, go to

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Sidewalk Citizen

I'm so thankful for people who are doing their part to make this city more vibrant, adding life to the street. I'm even more thankful when they can bake a beautiful loaf of bread. One such person is Aviv Fried, creator of Sidewalk Citizen Bakery. Inspired by none other than the urban planning guru Jane Jacobs and her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Aviv set out to build a business that engages the citizenry on its sidewalks –To add a new step to the distinctive dance of the city.

I paraphrase here from Jane's book:

Under the seeming disorder of the city, is a marvelous order for maintaining the safety of the streets and the freedom of the city. Its essence is intricacy of sidewalk use, bringing with it a constant succession of eyes. This order is all composed of movement and change, we may liken it to a dance — not to a simple-minded precision dance with everyone kicking up at the same time, but to an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole–The ballet of the good city sidewalk.

Sidewalk Citizen Bakery is not a place - but it's part of the sidewalk ballet. You don't go to it, rather it comes to you, through Aviv's niffty bike delivery service. Once a week, Aviv bakes scrumptious artisanal bread using local, organic ingredients (more on this later) and drops it off at your inner-city home or office at its peak of freshness. All you have to do is email or call to have your name added to the list of happy customers. Having savoured many a loaf of Aviv's bread, I can attest to its fantastic flavour and perfect texture. It's a loaf that you are more accustomed to seeing in France - all rustic and earthy. A bread that time may have forgotten, but is seeing a resurgence with a rise (pardon the pun) in more unique offerings by European-style bakers who want to satiate the desires of serious foodies everywhere.

Aviv's bread is made with Red Fife wheat. Unless you are in the artisanal baking business, you've probably never heard of it. The Fife family heritage wheat has been grown in Canada since 1842. Red Fife wheat was slowly phased out over the years, replaced by higher yielding varieties, but it took one women in B.C. to bring it back – Sharon Rempel. Searching for a higher quality grain that she could grow locally, Rempel was able to get her hands on some seeds and reintroduce the grain to Canada. Made into flour using the natural stone milling technique, the wheat is flavourful and full of healthy nutrients. Just as the wine industry identifies the 'terroir' where its grapes are grown, the artisanal baker is smartly starting to market the type of grain used in creating their bread. It does not come cheap. Organic Red Fife flour made from a stone mill costs three times more than it's industrially made 'enriched' equivalent. But it's worth it.

As Aviv put it, the goal of a good baker is to try and extract as much flavour from the wheat as possible. They do this by first grinding the wheat using a stone mill, an ancient process that slowly rolls and peels the grain, maintaining the wheat's nutrients and flavour, unlike the commercial process where metal edges sharply tear the grain, depleting it of important vitamins. Then the fermentation process must be allowed to take its time naturally (in commercial processing, they just add more yeast to speed it up), and finally, to use only the best, simplest ingredients. That means no extra yeast, sugar or artificial ingredients can be added. That also means taking your time and baking in smaller batches. It's doing things the old fashioned way!

Aviv could talk for hours on the science behind his bread (he does have a masters degree in biomedical engineering) but its the art of bread making that seduced him into a mid-career shift. Having studied under bakers from Vermont to Paris, he has discovered that it is the many intricate and subtle details that make the difference between creating an average loaf of bread and a loaf of bread of the highest quality. With careful trial and error, the use of the best ingredients, and feedback from some of the word's top bread bakers, he's finally found his stride.

Speaking of stride, it's his unique delivery system that really adds to the sidewalk ballet. His choice of bike for transporting the bread is deliberate. First, he does not want to add to an already growing number of cars on the street, and second, he is able to better interact with the street, to engage people in his activity. He's not hidden away behind a dark car windshield, but out on the sidewalk engaging in conversation, adding to the street life. And like the ubiquitous milkman of the 50s,what could be more sociable than someone delivering directly to your door?

I've noticed a growing number of articles cautioning us about the next potential global crisis –food shortages. With fires raging in Russia, and Canada experiencing some of the coolest, wettest temperatures on record – because of changing climate patterns, we may be at a point in our history where farmers cannot meet the world's grain needs. Grain prices are rising. Arable land is growing more and more scarce. I know I sound a bit alarmist here but wasn't it the high cost of bread that tipped off the French Revolution?

I think we take the abundance of food we have for granted and that's never a good thing. I also think we underestimate the need for vibrant, social engagement on our streets. Companies like Sidewalk Citizen Bakery enrich and nourish communities on the micro (nutrients) and macro (engaging street) levels. And most of all, its people like Aviv who add to the dance of the street, making the city a better place to live.

Making me, and many others, happy urbanists.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Give Peace a Chance

When I first found out that Santiago Calatrava was building a bridge in Calgary I was ecstatic. The world-renowned, award-winning, Spanish architect, famous for his bridge structures, was coming here, and building a bridge!

In my naivete, I thought the entire city would be as thrilled as I was.

In hindsight, I can see that if you had never heard of the architect Santiago Calatrava, what may have stood out instead in the press coverage were the words "foreign" "expensive" and "unnecessary pedestrian foot bridge". Hmmm....what a different picture formulates in one's mind.

Has ever a piece of infrastructure caused so many arguments/hate blogs/fodder for political posturing as the Peace (can someone say misnomer?) Bridge? There has been so much misinformation about this project that I don't even know where to begin. A big concern now, is that even if Calgarians get the correct information, they've already made up their minds about it (and they're stubborn, like me).

But I can't be the only one who thinks this is a great opportunity for Calgary to get a much-needed tourist-friendly landmark bridge built in the city center? I think we can all agree that the neigh-sayers have certainly had their opinion broadcast loud and clear. Now its time that all you Calatrava fans in the house get a bit loud.

Briefly, Santiago Calatrava - engineer/architect/artist is someone you should want to build your bridge. He's garnered an international reputation for designing and building award winning bridges (among other things) beginning with his 1984 'Bach de Roda Bridge' in Barcelona (pictured below). He's got the eye of an artist, giving his structures aesthetic appeal, and the PHD in engineering to give them physical staying power. With a self-titled coffee table book by Taschen and a solo-exhibition at MoMA , this is someone you should want associated with Calgary. If you haven't already, I urge you to visit his website to see the long list of projects/awards/publications under his belt. How lucky we are! I applaud those inspired enough in City Council and transportation to suggest him.

I do wish however that more information about him (and his huge talent) got out to the general public in a clear and concise way. Right from the start.

But that was not meant to be. What it became instead was an opportunity for those in politics and the media who were against the bridge to run amok, using it as a symbol of fiscal irresponsibility by City administration. This issue became more than the sum of its parts. Following is a quick review of the parts.

Part one: the City Centre Plan, unanimously supported by City Council, identified the need for two additional pedestrian bridges along the river. In the fall of 2008, the majority of Council members (that's right, the majority) approved construction of one of these bridges which would be located west of Prince's Island. The bridge met both Council's and the Transportation department's desire for more sustainable transportation options. And with a growing number of pedestrian commuters in the core, a smart addition.

Part two: We've got some excellent local talent here (some of my best friends are architects!) but even they, for the most part, are thrilled to be getting a Calatrava Bridge. It has been noted, but I'll mention it again, that this project is not devoid of local talent. Take for example Graham Infrastructure, the local construction company who, over a five month period, will be assembling the bridge pieces once they are shipped here from Spain. The majority of the project sourced local talent and was tendered through competitive processes, including construction, geotechnical investigation, hydrotechnical reviews, and input from lighting designers. Only the design of the bridge was single-sourced to a well-respected architect who wasn't born here.

Try this test. How many buildings in Calgary do you think were built without the use of outside talent or materials? Not many. This is a global economy allowing for the free flow of goods and services across countries. To hear the talk of protectionism from the right is so ironic. More proof that this issue is not about ideology but about cheap politics.

Part three: The story that your property taxes are paying for the bridge is misleading. 99.5% of the money came from an Alberta Municipal Sustainability Initiative grant. Awarded across the province to municipalities that would be building infrastructure that tackled the demands of growth in a sustainable way, with a side benefit of stimulating a lagging economy, this provincial money could have gone to Edmonton or Rocky Mountain House. But our City was awarded it. Only a tiny portion (0.5%) came directly from City funds. (all those worried about someone dipping into their snow removal funds, take a sigh of relief)

Lisa Rochon who writes a column on architecture for the Globe and Mail back in December 2009 took a positive stance when she wrote "...his red-and-white torpedo-shaped pedestrian and bicycle bridge designed to shoot across Calgary's Bow River is a necessary step toward building the culture of architecture there". Obviously it's a culture that still needs a bit of cultivating. (I salute Encana for hiring Norman Foster + Partners to design their new office tower - a giant step in the cultivation)

Part four: Even if you're not fond of the "look" of the red and white (chosen as Canada's colours) tubulur design, you have to be impressed with the feet of engineering this bridge displays. Unlike almost every other bridge on earth, the steel helix supports itself, needing no beams, arches, or cables for lower supports, other than embankments hidden in the river banks. So the entire bridge seems to float just a few feet above the water, like magic. It's an impressive display of technical mastery. I've noticed that Calgarians get nervous around anything that smacks of aesthetics but they are quite comfortable with the world of engineering (we have a high percentage of engineers in the city). This bridge gets points on both sides.

Let's not forget that there were many who wanted the Eiffel Tower demolished because it was considered an eyesore in 1889. Aesthetics are so subjective and they change over time.

And I haven't even mentioned my favourite part – that the bicycle and pedestrian lanes are separate - no jostling for position! And at over 6 meters wide, this pedestrian bridge allows for more elbow room than most downtown commuters are used to. It's like the autobahn of pedestrian bridges.

Part five: It's nice to see infrastructure money going towards something other than a standard suburban freeway overpass, but really, isn't that the biggest problem here? No one ever talks about the cost of summer road construction going on right now. They just talk about its inconvenience. For once some money is going towards a highly visible bit of pedestrian infrastructure! In Calgary this is a news item in itself! You can bet this wouldn't be an issue in many world cities.

Budgets are just values expressed. If you don't value an inner city pedestrian bridge designed by an award winning architect, it won't matter what the price tag is. It would be too much. Perhaps this issue has brought out the need to consider what we value. What does it say about a city that is only comfortable putting money into suburban overpasses?

Ignore the political posturing. Politicians are famous for using projects like this to gain political points. And try and read between the lines of media output. Controversy sells more papers than articles on boring city infrastructure.

Try and make peace with the Peace Bridge.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

A grocery store of one's own

My husband and I decided to check out Sunterra's new urban market at the base of the Keynote condos on 1st Street S.E. between 11th and 12th avenue. As I squeezed the squash and sampled the fresh baking, my body tingled with, I'm afraid to admit this, raging envy. A real urban grocery store – nicely designed, full of fresh produce, pedestrian friendly, stocked with some of my favourite brands, complete with cafe/restaurant. In my three year old voice I cried out "Why can't I have one?"

Why, I thought, do I still have to drive to get my groceries? (readers, you know how much I love driving).

Perhaps it's because I come from a family of grocers that I've become so obsessed with this topic. My Mom's family owned a wonderful well-stocked general store in a small town in Saskatchewan. (not the one pictured by the way) My Mom has been feeding people her whole life. She knows all about the power of good food. And so do I.

It's a basic need. If we are talking about designing a true walkable, vibrant, liveable urban neighborhood what is the one thing that is absolutely necessary? A grocery store. Unlike other commercial retail establishments, a grocery store is a necessity. Not a corner convenience store where twinkies are a major food group, but a real grocery store with fresh produce, healthy options and all the necessities in one spot. A store that is easy to access for those living in the neighbourhood not just by car but by foot/train/bus/bike/wheelchair. Because food is the basic element that ties us all together, rich or poor, young or old, black or white, employed or unemployed, sport fanatic or fine art lover – everyone needs to eat.

It's happening all across North America. There's a name for this phenomenon – 'the urban grocery gap'. The shortage began when many supermarkets left mixed-income central city locations in the 60s and 70s, relocating to the shiny, new and potentially more profitable suburbs. (Sadly grocery store developers are unaware that even though many urban communities do tend to be made up of lower income populations, the density of these neighborhoods means that they tend to have more income per square foot than suburban areas).

There is an obvious 'catch 22' situation at work here. Potential retail developers will not set up shop in an area without significant density and would-be inner city dwellers will not move into a neighbourhood that does not have basic services like a grocery store. Add to this the sometimes misguided fear of crime and deterrence caused by expensive real estate and you've got avoidance on the part of (grocery store)developers.

But times they are a changing. Statistics show that inner city communities are starting to lure people back with their proximity to urban amenities, walkable streets and smarter design. It's not uncommon now to hear negative comments about cookie-cutter-style big box grocery stores with their lackluster customer service, fronted by miles of pavement. There is a real need out there for a more European style store, where shoppers purchase smaller amounts, more regularly. Where customers walk or take public transit to buy food. Where, dare I say, a charming atmosphere prevails.

The fact that grocery stores had been avoiding setting up in certain areas for decades caused pockets of 'food deserts' (that's desert not dessert) some even referring to this issue as 'food apartheid'. More seriously, not being able to access good healthy food has been linked to obesity, diabetes and other health problems, with higher percentages of these diseases found in lower income neighbourhoods where the community often rely on corner convenience stores for their sustenance.

Many cities in North America are waking up to this problem and are trying to do something about it. Pennsylvania passed the first U.S. economic development initiative aimed at improving access to grocery stores that sell healthy food - this initiative included $41 million to build new grocery stores in under-served locations state-wide. New York city created a supermarket commission to aid in identifying policy solutions to the urban grocery gap and other issues around access to healthy food. Their city council has partnered up with groups like the food trust and the food industry alliance to pool resources. Even the farmer's markets and the united food and commercial workers union have joined in to help.

But one of the biggest changes is coming from cities that are willing to offer incentive packages like utility discounts, low interest loans and tax credits to grocery store developers who set up shop where they are really needed, not necessarily where profits are at their premium. City planning departments have become advocates for these businesses, acting like account managers, they offer subsidies and a streamlined approval process to encourage growth. It comes down to the belief that, because food is such an important issue, it shouldn't be left to the whims of the market.

Bridgeland, the place I call home, has won numerous design awards for its forward thinking plan, and indeed it is a nice looking neighbuorhood, but for me it has not lived up to the dream. That missing link is the missing grocery store. Indeed that might be one of the reasons why we were not selected as one of Avenue's top 15 places to live in Calgary. Don't underestimate the power of food.

Maybe this is the place that could offer a little incentive package to would-be grocery store developers out there?

Some urban grocery stores that I love include Meinhardts, Urban Fare, Sunterra Market, the Urban Fresh concept stores by Sobeys, Whole Foods, Dean + Deluca ...and would be very happy if anyone of them decided to set up shop in my neighbourhood. I also think that Bridgeland would be an excellent location for a local farmer's market. Hint-hint.

Eat. Pray. Love. Notice which word comes first?
Enough said.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Saving Place

Have you ever noticed how well Parisians dress? I have a theory about this. One of the reasons Parisians dress so well is to keep up with the beauty of their surroundings. Those steel gray Mansard roofs, the Fin de Siécle wrought iron lamp posts, that inherent beauty in endless epic vistas. This kind of one-upmanship is good for the city and good for Parisians. I like a place with high standards.

It's the 20th anniversary of Historic Calgary Week, and for many like myself who lament about Calgary's distinct lack of beautiful surroundings, it's a time of contemplation about what we have, architecturally speaking, and more importantly, what we have lost. It's a time to think about those well dressed Parisians.

My interest in architectural preservation/conservation began with my first visit to the Glenbow archives where I came across countless photos of Calgary as 'the sandstone city'. If you've never been to the archives you really should make a point of getting there. So much history, so much architectural legacy was destroyed in the name of modernization and progress, propelled by the prevailing belief that 'new' is always better. I was truly shocked. Judging by the architecture that exists today, one might think that Calgary had miraculously sprouted out of the ground around 1972. Not that there is anything inherently wrong with the 70s in fact there were some very nice buildings designed during this period, it's just that a city which appears completed built at one particular time in history can appear monotonous and dull.

My interest in historic architecture continued when in 2005, I helped set up a contemporary theatre in the historic Lougheed Building on the corner of 1st street and 6th avenue in downtown Calgary. (This re-use of an historical building won a prestigious Calgary Heritage Authority Lion Award that recognizes successful conservation efforts in the city - these are given out biannually and in fact this year's winners were just announced a few days ago). I think heritage buildings give character to our contemporary streets and preserve the historical stories important to our culture. Maintaining them, whether as museums or re-purposed for new uses, intermingled with new buildings, is crucial to a multi-dimensional and vibrant cityscape.

Many pit progress and economic development against preservation of historical landmarks and spaces as if the two can not live side by side. I just finished an excellent book by Anthony M. Tung - Preserving The World's Great Cities, where Tung affirms that we can have both, indeed that we need both.

Tung set out to explore 22 cities including Rome, Cairo, Athens, Venice, Amsterdam, Warsaw, Mexico City, Beijing, London and lovely Paris, to compare their practice of urban preservation and, for the first time, to collect the information in one place. He honed most of his experience sitting on the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission from 1979 to 1988, so New York takes up a few engaging chapters in the book as well.

In New York, the push for saving historical buildings was triggered by a now infamous event – the demolition of Pennsylvania Station, the magnificent Beaux-Arts masterpiece designed by Charles McKim in 1911. Think of the Crystal Palace (sadly gone) in London or the Musée d'Orsay in Paris. Now picture someone willfully tearing either down. Despite numerous protests, New Yorkers at the time (like Jane Jacobs) were utterly shocked to see that this historical landmark was taken from them forever so that the company that owned the building could make a small profit and that an average looking sports arena could be built in its place. Vincent Scully wrote that before "One entered the city like a god" in the original station and that "One scuttles in now like a rat."

Architecture can be enlightening at its best and disheartening at its worst.

Just ask Cynthia Klaassen, president of the Calgary Heritage Initiative, an organization created only 5 years ago to help ensure our architectural heritage is well looked after. They bring buildings and sites of interest to the attention of the Calgary Heritage Authority (an 11 member group appointed by city council), who then determine if the buildings have potential to be added to the inventory of evaluated historic resources using the Standards and Guidelines for Historic Preservation in Canada as their bible. We are so lucky to have people like Cynthia and the fine people at the Calgary Heritage Initiative acting as a kind of 'watch dog' for Calgary's architectural legacy.

Without going into too many specifics, this is how it works – Once a building has been chosen for evaluation, the first step is stakeholder engagement. Get the owners, community members, architects, heritage planners from the city and other interested parties around a table to start a discussion. A decision can be made whether to go for municipal, provincial or federal historical designation (being designated by one does not guarantee acceptance to all levels by the way). Using the standards and guidelines bible, the group will determine if it can be added on to the inventory of evaluated historic resources. Then its all about long term maintenance and upkeep, ensuring that the buildings are well taken care of. Cynthia stressed that one of the biggest issues Canadians have in preserving their architectural heritage is 'demolition by neglect' where irresponsible owners simply let a building deteriorate to a point where demolition is the only answer.

That and the ease of which a demolition permit can be obtained by someone.

In Calgary, getting a demolition permit could not be easier. That might explain why there are so many demolished heritage sites here. We need to create more incentives to save what we have and make it harder to destroy what exists. I applaud the valuable work that the Calgary Heritage Authority and other local groups are doing but heritage preservation has to work hand-in-hand with all levels (and laws) of city planning to be truly effective. This is something that Anthony Tung stressed in his book as well.

Try this exercise. Go on one of the many planned interpretive walks put on to celebrate Historic Calgary Week. Take a good look at buildings like the Grain Exchange or the Lougheed building downtown. How much will remain after another 100 years of modernization? What collective stories do we lose when historical architecture like this is destroyed?

Keep in mind, as Tang says in his book "When experienced as merely a local matter, as just another old building or historic neighborhood removed from the changing cityscape, the destruction around us may not seem excessive, but when viewed across the world over a century, the speed of this global ongoing transformation is alarming."

And irreversible.

It's simple really. Heritage buildings add character and beauty to a place. They help make a city distinctive and are a physical manifestation of a generation's ideas and values.

And, not insignificantly, they may even help to create beautiful surroundings that can, hopefully, make you feel like dressing a little better.

Links, links and more links here: - a series of photographs showing exact locations where historical building have been torn down and replaced with new.

Monday, July 12, 2010

High Speed beyond your internet connection

I take my high speed internet for granted. Having just this week lost a modem (they wear out), I was forced to consider my life pre-high speed. How on earth did I survive? Sure, I exaggerate, but really, life before having it seems completely different.

Imagine how improved life would be if we demanded the same high speed from our infrastructure? My husband can attest to this, I've been complaining about the lack of a high speed rail service between Calgary and Edmonton for years. He's probably very tired of this conversation which starts the moment we climb into our car to take the (featureless, flat, boring) 3 hour journey from our home in Calgary to my father in law's home in Edmonton. Imagine doing this by train, I say. Imagine sitting here now, reading a book or flipping through a magazine, checking your email on your iPHONE, oblivious to the dull scenery, sipping a cool beverage, and, God forbid, actually enjoying the trip. Imagine it taking half the time. Imagine cutting back on emissions and congestion. Imagine living like people in the rest of the world!

The numerous articles on this topic too many to mention here, include an excellent feature by Monte Paulsen in the June 2009 issue of Walrus magazine entitled Off the Rails, articles in both the Calgary Herald and the Edmonton journal, and even a Facebook group for high speed rail lovers in Alberta. My current favourite Monocle magazine launched its first Global Transport Survey in their June 2010 issue which has enlightening information on what the rest of the world is up to. It is mind-boggling the amount of material written about this topic and yet....and yet....we still have to drive to Edmonton.

The world has been enjoying the luxury of multi-modal transportation options, including the high speed train, for a long, long time now. Compared to Japan, who have had high speed rail for almost 5o years, Canada is in the dark ages. The Shinkansen officially began speeding through the countryside of Japan back in 1964, way before the words 'high speed' were associated with computers or transportation and, coincidentally, at the very same time that Canadian trains began phasing out passenger service. The need for speed infiltrated Europe a few years later and they've never looked back.

Currently China has jumped on the high speed train wagon, spreading rail lines throughout the country in world-record time. Construction which began in 2005 to connect the business hubs of Guangzhou and Beijing is now complete, with lucky riders boarding the train today as I write this blog posting.

As the Chinese were expanding their extensive rail system, Alberta was deep into study-mode, gaging the feasibility of a Calgary/Edmonton corridor high speed rail service (HSR) for the umpteenth time. In fact, in the time it took us to ignore some key findings from important studies like the one conducted by the Van Horne Institute, China had already completed the Guangzhou/Beijing line. In the time it took us to say 'maybe we need one more study', high speed rail systems throughout the world were being built.

Which begs the question, when exactly will we be ready to enter the 21st century? The irony that Canada was built on the railroad, one of the prevailing dreams of Sir John A. McDonald and gang, is not lost on me. The fact that Canada was able to construct a transcontinental railway in the 1880s, from sea to shining sea, through the Canadian shield and the Canadian rockies, and the fact that Canada is the home of a world-renowned train builder, Bombardier, makes it even harder to take. We could have a home-grown, world class, Canadian-made high speed train if only we could change our attitude.

It does seem to come down to that, and political will, which often reflects public attitudes. Some would argue that it is about money, but when did that stop us from building highways or the original CP Rail for that matter? Just think, we were able to fund and carve out spiraling train tunnels through mountains over 100 years ago. This super feet of engineering was by far the longest and most impressive railway ever constructed at the time. Why then today are we so adverse to putting money into public transportation like a HSR in our province? In a time when the entire global population is aware of the necessity to wean themselves off an ever-present oil dependency, when the prospect of relying on private automobiles alone to get you around feels like something out of a Leave it to Beaver episode, why on earth are we afraid of the train?

The money needed to build a high speed train is not insignificant but what long term public infrastructural system ever is inexpensive? Especially one with so many obvious benefits? Many argue that the time to invest in public infrastructure programs like this is in a recession – something like we are in now for example, if nothing else because construction costs are lower and it's a great way to create jobs. Even die-hards who don't care about the environmental benefits of trains, can't argue with job creation! It's important to remember that even the CPR of the 1880s quickly turned a profit and so were able to repay loans to the federal government years ahead of schedule.

Sifting through the list of findings from the 2004 Van Horne Institute's study on high speed rail in Alberta is both informative and frustrating. It's informative as it gives a great overview of history, context, financial, environmental and socio-economic benefits of building an HSR in the Calgary/Edmonton corridor along with possible rail system options (a retro-fit of current CPR tracks, or a totally new Greenfield electric and a non-electric version) and frustrating in that it was completed 6 years ago!! (side note: the study mentions that it would take approximately 6 years to build the system). In the time it took us to ignore the study results which were pointing positively in the direction of a high speed train, we could have completed the project and been comfortably and safely zipping through the Alberta countryside in high style.

It's interesting to note that the Van Hornes have been involved with rail building in Canada since the mid 1880s, when Sir William Cornelius Van Horne was the executive director of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) whose job it was to oversee the historic build across Canada. I wonder what he would think of modern day Albertans? Our stubbornness, our near pathological blindness of the changing world around us, would be baffling to someone like him.

He might be impressed with our internet connections, but for the rest, he would be sadly disappointed.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Pumping up the Volume in the East Village

It won't be long before Allied Works of Portland unveil their architectural plans for the eagerly awaited National Music Centre at the King Eddy Hotel in the East Village. After winning out over four other international finalists last fall with their 'building as instrument' proposal, Allied Works have been busy collaborating with the folks at the Cantos Music Foundation to arrive at the next stage of development. Many have high hopes for this Centre, which will act as a gateway for the East Village – the vibrant up-and-coming inner city community in the heart of Calgary.

I've been a fan of the Cantos Music Foundation for some years now, and have recently had my attention riveted to its transition into the National Music Centre (NMC) with the much publicized international design competition that included entries from Paris, New York, Montreal and Los Angeles. It was a pleasure to see such high caliber architectural firms bidding on a project here. Taking nothing away from our amazing local architects, we should be proud that Calgary is drawing the attention of well-known internationally acclaimed design firms. There's plenty of room for a few more architectural gems.

On the topic of gems, currently one of the city's hidden gems (it won't be for long), the Cantos Music Foundation houses an extensive collection of historical and contemporary musical instruments and offers a highly regarded selection of educational and outreach programs. Much loved by those who know it, with the construction of this handsome new facility, it is poised for much deserved fame.

Cantos' tireless executive director, Andrew Mosker, graciously took time from his busy schedule to chat with me about the project's progress. Whether your iPOD features hip hop or classical, jazz or folk, Andrew has your number. The vision of the NMC is to reflect Canada's unique music story, to resonate with all music lovers no matter what your style. No isolated monument, the construction of the NMC is hoped to spark more development in the East Village and perhaps create a music district for the city.

This is a $130 million project ($105 m for the building and $25 m for an endowment fund), so fundraising is top of mind for Andrew and his staff. With $25 million already promised by the municipal government, they are eager to launch a national fundraising campaign in early 2011. The target completion date is set for 2012/13, hoping to piggy back onto the 100th anniversary of the Calgary Stampede celebrations. If you would like to find out ways you can donate to the campaign, visit Look for the Music Centre's new brand created by Identica to launch this fall.

Andrew spoke with me from Ottawa where he's been busy raising funds and forging partnerships with groups like the National Library + Archives. In his quest to make this a truly Canadian experience, Andrew is focusing on building relationships across the country, from the Country Music Hall of Fame to the Juno Awards organization – to gather together the nation's music lovers and provide them with a place to share their love of music.

The NMC includes a partial historic preservation of the much-loved King Eddy Hotel, once home to the famed blues club. Originally slated for knock-down, groups like the Calgary Heritage Initiative and Cantos spotted potential in the run-down space. Perhaps they could recapture some of the historic musical moments of the past by including portions of the building in the plans for the Music Centre. Any time a historical building in Calgary is saved is a day to cheer considering how cavalier we've been in tearing them down in the past. Bravo Cantos.

Not only will it be saving a bit of local history, the Centre will be displaying an amazing instrument collection (with heavy concentration on the newly coordinated keyboard collection), providing a space for live music, recording studios, a radio station, as well as educational spaces with room for 12 artists in residence. It will be unlike anything Calgary has seen before (Canada for that matter) and will offer a great reason for us to spend more time, outside of business hours, downtown.

Brad Cloepfil and his team at Allied Works have their work cut out for them, but they're certainly up for the challenge, having completed several high profile cultural and commercial projects in the past. Projects like the offices for ad agency Wieden + Kennedy which quickly became the catalyst in the re-development of a formerly industrial area (sound familiar?) into the now successful arts district in Portland. They are just what the East Village needs.

I could go on more about the East Village but I think I'll save that for another posting. Like Allied Works past projects, here's hoping the Canadian Music Centre is the catalyst for further development in, what could become, the hippest part of town.

A national treasure right in the heart of our city. Isn't that music to your ears?

Monday, June 28, 2010

The beautiful city

If you are like me, you've had your eyes glued to the FIFA world cup, taking place this summer in the enchanting South Africa. While certainly intrigued with the beautiful game, in my role as happy urbanist, my attention is divided between football and Johannesburg's recent inner city renewal. An article by Geoffrey York in the Globe and Mail on June 5 introduced me to Gerald Olitzki, a visionary Johannesburg resident and businessman who has almost single handedly re-invented the city core.

Joburg or Jozi as South African hipsters call it, has certainly changed in the last 20 years thanks to people like Mr. Olitzki who had been sadly watching it's slow and steady deterioration and decline. As the largest city in South Africa, Johannesburg's metropolitan area has a population of over 10 million people. Racial segregation goes back to colonial times but more recently, Apartheid (1948-1994) wreaked havoc with this country and certainly put a strain on the inner city, with mass migration out of the city center into the more affluent all-white suburbs. The empty city became a haven for gangs, squatters, drug dealers and other undesirables who quickly became responsible for giving the city the disconcerting title of 'murder capital of the world'. People became afraid to set foot in the downtown.

One of the key players associated with the turn around, Gerald Olitzki, a lawyer and property developer, did not flee. He stayed put, determined to turn the inner city around. Concentrating around Ghandi Square (formerly Van der Bijl Square) where the city's central bus terminal resides, Olitzki started buying up worn out abandoned buildings, some of which were historic, and, along with the city, began the slow but steady necessary clean up. One of the more visible public/private partnership revitalization projects, Ghandi Square, once home to a host of crimes and a holding area for city buses, is now a thriving, safe, cafe-lined urban square.

Mr. Olitski had dreams of changing this area for years and thankfully stuck to his ideals after being turned away year after year from local governments who thought he was crazy. It was not until 1994, that watershed year ending apartheid, that the Greater Johannesburg Metro Council took Olitzki up on his offer. Now after over 15 years and millions of Rand spent, all are in a agreement that the project was a huge success. The Ghandi Square face-lift sparked further inner city re-development. Slowly business began returning to the central core.

With technology making it easier to work from anywhere, central city buildings no longer need to be workplace-only facilities. Olitzki knows that the next step in rounding out the inner core is to provide vibrant residential spaces to turn it into a place with 24 hour activity. He wants to provide options for both singles and families who want to live in the urban core. (Calgary take note) and is making safety a major objective towards this goal.

He hopes world cup visitors will venture further than the affluent mostly white shopping-mall-filled suburbs to see the real Africa in places like downtown Johannesburg, Newtown and Yeoville, (other up and coming inner city neighbourhoods).

Olitski is by no means the only Joburger with great inner city aspirations. People like Neil Fraser (Central Johannesburg Partnership) and Isaac Chalumbria (Lionshare Holdings) know that they are part of a positive trend. With events like the Halala Awards (Halala means 'to celebrate') established to recognize the acheivements of people who have changed the face of Johannesburg, Jozi's inner city is on the cusp of something special. Don't just take my word for it, read Laurice Taitz' amusing city guide to Joburg blog.

If the wise folk of Jozi were able to turn around 'the murder capital of the world', (the centre's murder rate has dropped by 27 % since 2005) doesn't our own inner city renewal seem simple in comparison? People like Mr. Olitski had to change the perception of the inner city as much as he had to change the physical infrastructure. People have to understand that it is worth renewing.

The tipping point may just have come with the arrival of the FIFA world cup. With international eyes on South Africa, let's all wave the flag for inner city renewal.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Plan it Calgary for Dummies

I wanted to get up to speed with the latest Municipal Development Plan for the city so I popped into the free workshop presented by the Federation of Calgary Communities and the city. I've been to a few of these and highly recommend them - you meet the most interesting people and find out about the workings of your city all at the same time.

Intended to give a general overview on the somewhat unwieldy document (actually two documents) the workshop introduced us to Plan it Calgary - the process (not the document) for developing an integrated Municipal Development Plan (MDP) and Calgary Transportation Plan (CTP) that the city will (may?) be implementing shortly. How close they follow the plan is subject to mayoral election coming this fall.

Some of you smart readers have probably already heard about it, but for those who may not of, or for those who have heard of it but could still use a few pointers to help with navigation, here follows a brief overview.

Back in 2005, the city initiated imagineCalgary, a visioning exercise open to all Calgarians. Here was an opportunity for all those with active imaginations to tell their story about what they wanted their city to be like in the next 100 years. Did you want Jetson-like spaceship launching pads from every home or a wildlife petting zoo downtown? If you could imagine it, it could be documented. I put in a couple of brilliant (I thought) ideas but have noticed none have come to fruition. In their defense, they did say 100 years.

From the ripe imaginations of Calgarians came the more down-to-earth (no Jetson landing pads) integrated land use and mobility plan, which was given council approval in 2009. Can we pause for a moment to make note that this is the first time that the transportation plan and the city development plan were developed together as a unified integrated plan. How, you ask, can you possibly plan one without the other? Good question. Needless to say, I give thanks to those who made this happen. Better late than never.

One of the informed City facilitators posed the question "How can Calgary grow up, not just out?" Amen sister. I'm hoping it's with processes like Plan it Calgary.

Grounded in the philosophy of Smart Growth, Plan it starts with 11 principles: 1/ create a range of housing opportunities and choices, 2/ create walkable environments, 3/ foster distinctive, attractive communities with a strong sense of place, 4/ provide a variety of transportation options, 5/ preserve open space, agricultural land, natural beauty and critical environmental areas, 6/ mixed land uses, 7/ direct and manage redevelopment opportunities within existing areas, 8/ support compact development, 9/ connect people, goods and services locally, regionally and globally, 10/provide transportation services in a safe, effective, affordable and efficient manner that ensures reasonable accessibility to all areas of the city for all citizens and 11/ utilize green infrastructure and buildings.

This might be a good time to mention how it differs from Smart Growth. Even with only 10 key principles, Smart Growth offers a tad bit more. I might add that what is missing may compound some of the same issues currently plaguing Calgary further into the future. Two key principles conspicuously absent from Plan it include providing an urban containment boundary to protect and enhance endangered agricultural lands and to stop urban sprawl. In an earlier blog I mentioned that Portland did this with much success. Why are we so squeamish about making it a key principle?

What might have been an innocent oversight, also missing from the list of principles in Plan it is to nurture engaged citizens, knowing that places belong to those who live, work and play there. Engaged citizens should be encouraged to participate in community life and decision- making.

In general, Smart Growth-ers would prefer that we stop building on Greenfield (fresh land) all together and densify what we've already built. This is a great way to stop sprawl. Alternative development on old Brownfield (former or current industrial sights) or even Greyfield (former or current commercial sights) is another option. Green, brown, grey - are you following me with all these colours? City council, with some say pressure from suburban developers, made a last minute amendment to the original Plan it document, relaxing the density targets for Greenfield development to 60 residents/jobs per hectare down from 70 residents in the original plan. The good news is that the rest of the plan went forward as designed. The bad news is we still seem to be afraid of ticking off those who wish to expand our footprint.

In both Plan it and Smart Growth, the focus is on intensification and diversification of key urban activities, with a huge emphasis on improving the myriad ways in which we move around, be it by bike, foot, public transit or car. Nothing would make this happy urbanist happier than a segregated bike lane throughout the city's urban core! Or how about a five minute wait for the C-train even during non-peak hours?

Plan it Calgary acknowledges an account reporting called the triple bottom line. Where traditional accounting models focused solely on profit, the triple bottom line calculation includes two other key factors - people and the planet- often the bearers of the hidden costs of all that profit making. It has now been recognized that if you don't factor all three into the equation, you have a false economy.

In a 2009 article on Plan it in Fast Forward, Ben Brunnen, manager of policy and research at the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, was quoted as saying if the city doesn't change the way it grows, it will eventually go bankrupt (can anyone say CALIFORNIA?). If you don't know by now, not only are the suburbs unsustainable, they are expensive for tax payers. The infrastructure costs go up considerably, the further out you build. Until we start installing parking meters out there, suburbanites will never know the true cost of their style of living.

You're no dummy. You know that all the visioning and planning exercises in the world does not a city make. Implementation is where the real work comes in. An upcoming mayoral election just might be the right place to make sure implementation happens. Just because Plan it did not include the need for engaged citizens doesn't mean you should let them off the hook. How does your candidate intend to implement the plan? If the next 60 years mean anything to you, find out. Now that's smart.

Monday, June 14, 2010

(PUNK) ROCK Gardening 101

"For those about to rock, we salute you" – AC/DC's famous line plays in my head whenever I think of my friend Stephanie Ferguson, a hardcore urban (punk)rock gardener here in Calgary. She's the real deal, walking in the footsteps of people like William Roland Reader, the well-known parks superintendent who started planting the recently restored Reader Rock Garden way back in 1913.

He was (punk) rock gardening way before punk rock.

Only hardy types need apply for rock gardening. Needing both a hard and a soft touch, prepare your biceps for some heavy lifting of solid rock along with the delicate task of year round tender loving plant care. For all those who say you can't be a good gardener in Calgary, let's talk rock gardening! Our climate happens to be very well suited to plants from the Alpine/Steppe-Dessert region. We share certain geographical characteristics with places like Turkey, central Asia, Argentina, Greece, Spain, China, parts of South Africa, Mongolia and Kazakhstan, not to mention the less exotic western half of North America.

If you can grow it in Kazakhstan, you can grow it here! Above the tree-line, no problem!

The key is in the garden's structure. Stephanie walked me through her 'oasis of slate', giving me the step by step narrative in how it was built. First a layer of water-retaining silt is laid down and sculpted into ridges (cleverly resembling the hogback ridges of Longview). These built up ridges are covered with a thin layer of sand, on top of that, crushed gravel and then on top of that, a coat of broken slate (rock mulch). Hand-cut slabs of Rundle stone (slate/shale) from Canmore's own Kamenka Quarry are wedged vertically into the ground, on a slight slope, creating both a picturesque design as well as those much needed crevices crucial for the plants survival. Once the rocks are in place, each plant is carefully placed, close, but not too close, to other plants. (note to miniturists: you are going to love Alpine plants - designed to stay low in cold windy climates, these plants look like tiny replicas of larger variety plants)

Plants begin as seeds, purchased in the late fall, carefully cultivated indoors throughout the winter, ready for planting in April, and then enjoyed throughout the summer – that's right, the fun never stops all year!

Also known as zero-scaping (xeriscaping), Stephanie's garden takes very little maintenance (once it's all built and planted) with very little water and only natural fertilizer, (in the form of bone meal) needed. Originating in the Czech Republic (or the UK depending on who you talk to), this style of rock gardening also called 'crevice gardening', is extremely eco-friendly, with the north sloping sides of the rock garden staying cool and south-facing slopes retaining heat, the structure is always in perfect balance. Weeding is a cinch because there's very little space for the roots to take hold, and to top it all off, the garden attracts a wide variety of (good) insects like bees and dragon flies. Some plants (like the one pictured below) even attract humming birds!

Did I mention that Stephanie can name all 1,500 species of seedlings planted this year using their Latin names? Told you she was the real deal. In addition to having a green thumb, Steph's archiving skills rival those of a tenured professor. Each plant is carefully marked with detailed information including the aforementioned Latin name and place of origin (first with a temporary plastic marker and then, if it survives a season, with a permanent etched aluminum one). Not for the faint of heart, be prepared to lose around 25% of what you plant. Its all about trial and error, learning from the pros, and swapping notes with fellow enthusiasts.

It starts with seed swapping. Sounding vaguely solicitous, some well known swappers include the Alpine Garden Society in England, the Scottish Rock Garden Club, and the North American Rock Garden Society. A new arrival just launched this month, is the home-grown (pardon the pun) seed swapping website Every fall, conscientious gardeners all over the world harvest their seeds, package them up and send them half way across the globe for others to try out in their own backyard. Planting from seeds is relatively inexpensive, making this form of gardening open to everyone, not just those with an account at the garden center.

I'm not even going to attempt to tell you all the plants that can be found in this 70' x 30' space, but if you are interested, the garden is located in Mount Royal at 1412 Premier Way S.W. Although a private garden, because of its location in the front yard, it has become a bit of a public spectacle. If you are genuinely curious and extremely polite, Stephanie is a wealth of information with a good 15 years of experience under her belt. If you are lucky, she might even teach you the Latin names.

Rock on.

more links for rockers:

The Calgary Rock and Alpine Garden Society
Chandigarh Rock Garden in India
Brooklyn Botanic Garden- designing a rock garden

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Lost in Transition

Change is good, at least that is the message I've been picking up at the Cities and Towns in Transition two day conference, jointly organized by the faculties of Social Work and Environmental Design at the University of Calgary held June 4-5. My head is buzzing with ideas of how I can transition into a lifestyle that is both more sustainable and kinder to our kicked-around planet.

As we are all well aware of by now, mother earth has reached a period in existence where all the things we've taken for granted – oil, water, food, cars, unlimited consumerism (I could go on here - what hasn't reached its peak?) are on the endangered species list. If you haven't started thinking about ways in which your own lifestyle should be altered, you might want to put that latté down and start now.

I was intrigued by the message brought by Portland Metro Council member Robert Liberty who founded the influential 1000 Friends of Oregon organization that has helped to make Portland a model city, sought out by urban planners all over the world. That message was that Calgary is not that much different from Portland, up to a point. Up until the mid 70s they were pretty much on equal footing, with a similar population base, values, and physical city structure.

But then something happened. An influential forward thinking governor named Tom McCall decided he didn't like where Portland was headed. With an unlimited space for building, the city was sprawling beyond a reasonable size, making life for its inhabitants more and more dependent on cars to get around. The waterfront view was often marred by large roadways, and people were moving out further away from their place of work. The city was losing its grip on building a sustainable system. This wasn't going to be a model city that world leaders would look up to until he did something to change its course. And he had a group of willing citizens to back him up.

Why are we always so resistant to transition? Is it partly because we all just want to live a 'normal' life? Afraid to act in a way that may not be acceptable today?

The thing is, 'normal' changes.

Take the incredibly well designed Brama Project, a Platinum LEED® semi-detached inner city townhome in Calgary completed this spring. Designed by the talented David Ferguson and built by the forward-thinking Coley Homes, The Brama Project should be considered a normal house.

But right now, its not. It's spectacularly special because of two things - it's smart and beautiful. It's smart because it takes into account the fact that resources are limited, be they material or energy. Its beautiful because David Ferguson (David Ferguson Architecture) and Nicolle Pittman (Coley Homes) decided that just because a house is net-zero doesn't mean it has to be net-elegant.

The Coley Homes website is chock full of details and documentation on the design/build of this pioneering project. They've built with R-2000 construction technology, a Canadian based construction standard that goes way beyond typical building codes, 'with a worldwide reputation for energy efficiency and environmental responsibility'.

The R-2000 standard is based on the concept that a house is a system and the flow of air, heat and moisture within the home is affected by the interaction of all the components – if you make changes in one area it will affect other areas. Sounds like common sense (and a lot like how the entire ecosystem works).

The national LEED® Canada for homes rating system promotes the design/build of green homes. Since sustainability can be quantified and measured (up to a point), the Leadership in Energy and Environmental design standards were created. They comprise nine minimum conditions over six different categories and are awarded in silver, gold and platinum.

The Brama Project is one of the first LEED® certified homes in the city. Yup, one of the first. They've not been timid about embracing the new. This is what normal should be. Right now it really stands out. I'm looking forward to the day when it doesn't stand out on the block. When it's just one more house, built to a standard that we can all be proud of and that our planet will thank us for.

Let's all be more like Portland and the Brama Project. Just 'normal' places that have decided that they will not do more harm to the planet then they can help. Places that are not afraid to transition.

Come on, don't be shy. Change is good.