Images from Google Street View.

I personally think that the entire stripmall areas surrounding the highways through Kamloops are the largest eyesores, and contribute greatly to many foreigners attitudes that Kamloops is not much more than a blue collar pulp town. However in my eyesore column I do not plan to address them, or any of the sub-urban sprawl up the hills, as I do not believe that there was much opportunity to build those houses in a truly long-term sustainable fashion in the first place.

Calling a building an eyesore, I think, is immediately a negative connotation. I choose to highlight some things that I believe have gone wrong in the planning and construction of some buildings, in order to provide a vocabulary to readers to understand why some things in our built environment feel the way they do, and why people interact with them the way they do.

The building above is the Worksafe BC building on the SE corner of Battle and 3rd Avenue downtown. It is clearly a downtown building, yet the surrounding does not seem to foster the lively atmosphere surrounding Victoria Street at a similar time of day. In this article I will explain the elements of design present that have the most to do with the immediate environment. In a second article I will continue by speaking to the finest grain of the building. This is all to answer the question, “Why are the places we are building so different from the places we like?”

If we walk around the immediate surroundings of the address, you notice one thing straight away. There is not really many other people. This is because the only reason a person would need to be in this area is to store their car, which clearly takes up and renders otherwise useless large areas of land. In this central location, our city planners, developers and even citizens and business owners have decided that the highest and best use for this land is to store our cars. Of course there is little beauty in a car, not much personality: some try to impose our personality on our cars, with political bumper stickers, and flags and reindeer antlers (which I really cannot understand how they we’re ever a good idea), or finally my favorite, testicles on your truck (which always struck me as fairly homo-erotic). If this land was not being used for car storage, what other uses might it have? Park land for childrens activities and frisbee playing? Homes for people, art studios? Perhaps it could even create jobs? A small orchard, or even a brewery, or soap factory, or book printer? If this, and similar spaces throughout our town we’re utilized for more than single uses, there would be many economical means for all of our citizens to traverse the town safely, conveniently and comfortably. It takes mixed-use and density to attain this. Car storage is the ultimate in single use, no density space.

Another significant difference between pedestrian rich Victoria Street and this location exists. The width of the sidewalk. Just as important is the proportion of the sidewalk width and the width and speed of travel on the street. Lets talk about vehicle traffic speed first. In ‘Traffic’ by Thomas Vanderbuilt, the authour acquaints us with the idea of ‘friction’ on cars and the speed that they travel. It is known to all of us that the faster a vehicle is travelling whenever it hits anything (person, child, lamp-post, car, truck, etc.) the higher the likelyhood of death. It is not unsurprising then that places which have faster vehicle speeds would be more dangerous for a person on foot, and would therefore be worth aversion. The element of friction that I refer to then is the environment of that which the vehicle travels in, and what it communicates to the driver, “What is an appropriate speed for me to be travelling here?” There are simple ques that a driver will take into account, such as the width of the road (cars always seem to travel slower on the Red Bridge, especially when there is an on-coming car). Another is cars parked on the sides of the road, things that prevent the driver from seeing far into the future. Probably the largest one though is proximity to on-coming traffic. The simple logic is this, roads with cars only travelling one direction, like 3rd Avenue, Lansdowne and Seymour, all have incredibly high traffic speed largely due to single direction traffic. A driver on these roads perceives very little friction, and there-fore, logically perceives the safety of driving faster to be worth the risk. And so the cars travel faster.

There is one more consideration in this circumstance in the eyes of the driver, “How many pedestrians are there?” The pedestrian inserts all kinds of variables into a driving relationship. “Will those children run in front of me?” “Hey guys/girls, did you just see that good looking member of the opposite sex?”, “Look at the hat that lady is wearing!”,”I think I went to Antarctica with that guy.” The relationship between a driver and a pedestrian is a very human one, full of risk, interest, community and relationships. The difficulty is that two pedestrians are safe in their interest travelling at 2 or 3 kph. A person can usually perceive their surroundings at this speed to accommodate any unforeseen difficulties like broken pavement or speeding children. That is a luxury that a driver does not have, as they cannot hear the sounds properly outside their car, nor perceive the smells. In addition they have large blind spots and are travelling far faster than 2-3 kph. It is easy to see how so many “accidents” happen. The car is intentionally created to instill security, however it takes away many of the human functions that we require and have adapted to secure ourselves. The experience of being on a pedestrian street is so rich that even in a car you choose to drive slower. In fact, rarely in Western Canada, you must sometimes ask yourself, “is it even appropriate to drive my car here at all?” For example the picture from China in the slideshow:

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Now lets consider the experience of being on 3rd Avenue as a pedestrian with the speeding cars. There is not much protecting you from them. The sidewalk is narrow, barely enough for two wheel chairs to pass, infact it is much narrower than the building code for service hallways in commercial buildings. The indication is that people are clearly not expected to walk here. Simultaneously there is nothing protecting you from the elements, like trees from the sun or walls from the wind. Trees in fact serve many purposes on a great pedestrian street. During the hot months they filter the sun and provide shade to walkers. During the cold months the leaves disappear and let in the needed suns heat. The organic angles and textures soften the buildings enclosing the space (unlike the UFO like bushes and weeds that appear in parking lot ‘landscaping’). They provide a feeling of safety and separation from the vehicles on the street (parked cars also do this, but much worse). They also become convenient places to lean, and to park bicycles. 3rd Avenue has none of these features, and most people do not walk on this street unless they have no other choice.

We have got this far and not mentioned even the ill health effects of air pollution from cars (greater than a mine on the other side of the hill), or how travelling while sitting right from birth fosters in-activity, lethargy, diabetes and obesity (or the financial burden on the health care system resulting). In fact we have not even mentioned the outrageous tax-payer funded infrastructure costs to build an maintain all the car infrastructure like traffic lights, and traffic police. We have still avoided the paradox that the more parking one builds the farther things are away, which creates the need to drive more, which puts more cars on the road, which means the roads have to be wider, which means there needs to be more car storage, and the cycle continues. Have you noticed that the cities only traffic jams occur at locations engineered to make car travel the most efficient (8th Ave. North Shore, Summit Drive, Sahali Shopping Centres)? In fact we haven’t even gone into the large segment of our population that is refused the right to participate in our soceity because they cannot afford, or no longer have the ability to drive. For that matter what about the 15 year olds, which by all intensive purposes posses the tactility and intellect to hold a job, ride a bike and have a mature conversation which cannot get themselves to their own school effectively? I suppose we shouldn’t even bring up the emissions which could be contributing to climate change, or the consumption of oil which is making everything in our lives more expensive.

In the end, the environment surrounding this eyesore is one which accommodates the car at all cost. Provisions to encourage walking, or comfort, or even basic safety for someone who needs or prefers to travel by other means has been removed or ignored. The cost to our economy, social relationships and environment is largely ignored. Stay tuned for Part 2, The Building