This is the second half of the article published as “The First Eyesore – Part 1, The Environment”. Both articles are critical of the built landscape in and around Kamloops. The intention of the articles are not to be harsh or negative, but to introduce citizens to a language that will give citizens the ability to participate in a dialogue about how we have built, how we are building, and provide a foundation on which we as the citizens can be active participants in how we continue to build. Many articles in the rest of the blog will touch on issues such as why we built the way we did, why we are building the way we are and what circumstances may influence how we need to be building and how we will build in the future. The first part of this two-part article dealt with everything surrounding the pictured building at 3rd and Battle. This article will deal with what this building is telling us about itself. It is always important to remember Peter Calthorpe, “Cities are more than a collection of buildings in space, cities gain their life and vibrancy from how those buildings and streets relate to one another and relate to the citizens.”

In the first part of the article we touched briefly on the concept of the “Human Scale”. It is now time to expand further on this. We previously touched on how a pedestrian interacts with his/her environment and how a vehicle does. We understand why a street is more vibrant when there are no cars on it, but it takes more than a stick to make a walking journey a worthwhile one. There needs to be carrots as well.

Density is the first key in creating vibrant public space. It is key for all kinds of diversity and metropolitan uses in a city. For example, SmartGrowth BC has calculated unit densities for cities in BC regarding all kinds of land use patterns. For example a city needs to have at least 5 units of housing per hectare for public schooling to be viable–on the periphery of Edmonton right now the school board has refused to build new schools as the density of students has become so low, and the neighborhoods so mono-demographic that they cannot make the schools viable. The essential rule is this, a neighborhood needs to have enough density to support a school over time – there needs to be enough children, enough seniors, young professionals, etc. so that there is always enough children to walk to the school to remain at a capacity full enough to operate. Many other services are no different. If Kamloops had an average density of 25 units per hectare (currently at 13, much lower in places like Dallas and Rayleigh) public transit would not be a burden to the tax payer, but it would actually pay for itself. Not much beyond that threshold and many households participate in what is referred to as “car-dumping”. The convenience of frequent and cheap 24hr transit is now more convenient than car ownership. Many have also argued that a larger percentage of the population taking transit and reducing the burden on our road system in fact pays for itself much sooner than 25 units per hectare. The other note on public transit is that it needs to be frequent to create a broader willingness to take transit. Buses will not become more frequent unless there is enough people to ride them. This is also a function of density.

Density is not so simple though. For successful density there needs to be a wide mix of uses as well: from nightclubs, to apartments, to offices, to retail, to pubs, to doctors offices, to grocery stores, light industry, schools, churches, etc. A pedestrian’s journey is not convenient unless the things required are in fact close at hand. A good example of this is found in Dallas, Texas. In Dallas there are many 100 story office building’s downtown. There are never any pedestrians on the street at any hour of the day. In the picture provided by Google Street view in the heart of downtown Dallas (877 Main Street, Approx.) there are two persons on this street. One homeless and the other a city employee fixing a traffic light. This mono-use, no matter how dense, creates a flight response in people, as once the task needed to accomplish in that neighborhood is complete, they drive out. Dallas, a city with a metro population of 6.3 million, also has a barely functioning transit system that is left primarily to the vagrants and ner-do-wells. In fact it could be argued that diversity is important beyond sheer convenience in dense places. The diversity of the building types, businesses, people, streetscapes and public interaction contributes to the above mentioned term-“Human Scale”. A place filled with diversity provides inherent entertainment and stimulation in a pedestrian journey. These points of interest, whether it be a shop window display, a bizarre character or inspiring architecture, are only really experience when walking, they are just passed by at 60km/h in a car. These points of interest make it worthwhile and rewarding to be a pedestrian. They make the lifestyle of the city one of engagement and excitement.

Great examples of mixed-use, medium density places exist and they are largely extremely lively and exciting places. Italy is a country with thousands of such villages and cities, and the saying of the Italians goes, “10 Italians in the street take up the same space with their activities as 100 Americans.” This jibe simply translated insinuates that after work the Italian streets are filled with musicians, couples, singles, children, vendors, performers, pub-goers and thousands of other spontaneous activities. It is the social interaction of all these lifestyles in the public realm that create such a vibrant place to live.

An easy argument against density using my language is that large buildings and many people in a small area is not “scaled” to the human. To this I can pose many quotes. For example, “I am a person and I stand upright, vertical. When I walk through the forest the trees around me stand vertical.” It is important again to entertain diversity in the landscape. Skyscrapers can be both inspiring and terrifying. So can “land-scrapers”. The important element is diversity, is there interesting details, created for the human at 2m tall to excite me? Is there “holes-in-the-wall” for me to discover on my urban exploration?

Therefore it is important that the buildings in a city enrich the public realm. There are a number of key terms to describe what and how a building can achieve this. A great document published by the London School of Design, called ‘By Design’ identifies some key features:

Character: A place with its own identity

Continuity and Enclosure: A place where private space and public space is clearly defined

Quality of the Public Realm: A place with attractive and successful outdoor areas

Ease of Movement: A place that’s easy to get to and move through

Legibility: A place that has a clear image and is easy to interact with

Adaptability: A place that can change easily

Diversity: A place with variety and choice.

(This document can be found and further explained at http://www.designcouncil.org.uk/Documents/Documents/Publications/CABE/by-design.pdf)

The building in question now, at the SE corner of Battle and 3rd Avenue, how does it measure against these variables?

If this building were a performer, how would you describe its Character? Does this building have an identity of its own? Not particularly, this building could be found anywhere in any city in North America and the typology would be familiar. This is a multi-story building which inherently has more density than a single story, and this part is good. Where it really fails is in what surrounds it. In a city with good diversity of buildings, a few distasteful ones could contribute to the overall excitement of the area (as the NYC Sperone Westwater Gallery shows). That sort of diversity contributes to the character of a neighbourhood. This building does little in that respect, it does not contribute to the identity of the area, nor will the architecture ever be known as a landmark in Kamloops.

Regarding Continuity and Enclosure. It can be said that people with many missing teeth are less attractive than those with good teeth all in their mouths. The same is true of streets. A street with uninterrupted buildings enclosing the street or a square creates a comfortable and safe feeling “outdoor room”. Many do not realize why Victoria Street rents drop off travelling east after 5th avenue. That is where the enclosure completely ends. In fact in the 300 Block of Victoria Street there is a missing tooth beside the Kamloops Inn, and unsurprisingly it quickly attracts many people who do not wish to have all their activities known (people you would not feel comfortable having your young daughter playing with). It is not the quality of the people that I wish to draw attention to, but the context of the surroundings and how that can skew a persons conduct(More on this in future posts). As this building stands alone in space with nothing more than surface parking surrounding it, it fails to create a “place” which needs to be accomplished by enclosure. There needs to be borders for a space to be a place.

This whole post and the previous one has dealt with many issues surrounding the impoverishment of the Public Realm at the Battle and 3rd location. I will mention again in this respect however, there is no reason why a person would ever choose to be in the vicinity of this building unless they were parking their car, in transit or using the services inside that building. The same cannot be said of good public realm, like 200-400 block Victoria Street, like Riverside Park, like the village square at SunPeaks, Leister Square in London or Times Square in New York. These places have character, they are enclosed and have a diversity of uses. It is the character of such places as Times Square that we know them world-wide, without having actually been there, whereas Bryant Park only a couple blocks away is completely unknown to someone who hasn’t visited.

Ease of Movement: Interestingly, 3rd and Battle space suffers little to no problems regarding ease of movement, except for perhaps that one has few reasons to ever move through this space on foot. In addition, how does one enter the building itself? It is not immediately apparent… in fact there appears to be a moat of sorts separating the sidewalk from the building itself, as if a pedestrian being able to touch the building we would deface it. If defacement was a problem perhaps the “defacer” was trying to add some character and interest where there was previously none (similar to concrete retaining walls being graffiti-ed). It is the belief of the author that if a building requires a sign to direct the person to the entrance, the architect has completely failed at its job.

Legibility. Perhaps at this point you, the reader, are starting to see how all these elements of design and architecture are in fact related to each-other. Regarding Ease of Movement, the largest impediment to movement is the fact that you cannot immediately figure out where you need to go. Legibility in the macro-sense however appeals to how a building functions to make a city understandable. If I am a stranger asking for directions, are there landmarks you can use to help direct me? Or as a citizen, does the built environment reflect how I like to live, does it represent things in my past, and does it remind me of my dreams? Will the continuity and familiar landmarks help support me over time as I look for security in the neighbourhoods I once called home, or continue to? It is probably few of us who have not taken tea with an elder and heard the disdain the way the changes in the city have made it “unrecognizable”. It is hard to find security in a neighbourhood of constant demolition and construction, and it is demoralizing on a finer scale as it seems to tell us that we are not capable of building anything that is worth preserving.

This brings us to another connected idea, Adaptability. Are the buildings we are building capable of re-use. Like the Tate Modern in London, or the Battersea Power Plant, can our power plants be made into art galleries and high-end condos? Can our churches become gymnasiums and pools? Can our pools become hospitals or bike manufacturers? Can our houses become effective offices or clinics? Or are they not worth remodeling because the use they were designed for was too specialized that they cannot be used in any another way? Or perhaps because our culture of demoralization through constant demolition disincentives us from actually building something of a high-enough quality to last in the first place. At one time if you wanted to flaunt your ridiculous wealth, you would build a bridge or a large civic building with your name on it that would last for decades, neigh centuries. Today you abandon that for cerebral temporary experience, like a Ferrari.

And finally the thrust of the whole argument. Diversity.

Is this building the worst it comes? No. Is it the best we can do? Certainly No.

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