Will pouring $$$ into cities solve the problem?
When I reflected on their request, I recognized that they had missed the point. They
failed to realize that the world had changed and fundamental change of course that goes
beyond fixing infrastructure needs to take place.
Current Trends, Future Currents
Let’s reflect on current trends and examine upcoming ones and their effect on the built
A Slow Death
Canada’s urban make-up is rapidly changing. Small-town Canada is fading away.
A Slow Death – Stat.
Since the 1990s, Canada’s urban population grew by more than 3 million. Future
immigrants are likely to have their first home in large or mid-sized cities. We will need
to house more people in cities.
Our Economy is in flux despite our stellar ability to produce and market natural resources.
We are losing jobs.
Chinese – Stat
We are continuing to loss manufacturing jobs and science and technology are close
behind. We need innovation to embark on.
The New Family
Our demographic make-up keeps changing. The traditional family with one stay-at-home
parent is history.
The New Family – Stat.
We have more singles and single-parent families. We need different kinds of residences
to house them.
Canada is graying very rapidly. My generation, made-up of people whose forehead goes
to their back, are contemplating their retirement.
Old People – Stat
It is likely that those retirees many of whom are Boomers, will consider other types of
accommodation than their suburban home.
We are still consuming natural resources while constructing our built environment at an
Natural Resources – Stat
The built environment uses some 40% of all extracted natural resources and 30% of all
generated energy. In the coming years, we will have to develop more alternative
products and recycle others.
Our thirst for fossil fuels does not seem to stop. We are dwindling our resources to
Energy Consumption – Statement
By some estimates, we will run out of fossil fuel in this century. We must develop
alternative energy sources urgently.
Sprawl is still going strong. The lure of a detached home is greater than ever, all this at
the expense of…
Urban Sprawl – Stat
Social inequity, isolation, resource consumption and incursion into forested and
agricultural land. We must develop an alternative urban vocabulary.
Our commuting habits have not changed much in the past half century. We are a car-
dependant society around which we have constructed our lives.
Cars – Stat
On a typical day, 75% of all adults drive a private car. We spend 5 years driving and 100
hours stuck in traffic. We must change our habits and develop and encourage alternative
ways of commuting.
We have a sinking suspicion that humans have something to do with the frequency of
natural disasters like Katrina.
Hurricanes – Stat
Over the past 35 years, their numbers have nearly doubled.
Lifestyles – TV
And finally our lifestyles. We tend to spend more time with communication/electronic
appliances that with each other.
Lifestyles – TV – Stat
Television viewing time per week for adults is 21.8h – which erodes our social fabric.
We need to create more opportunities to interact and connect with each other.
How should we house ourselves?
Given those trends and currents, we must ask how we should house ourselves in the 21st
century. What urban form and planning system should we adopt? Shall we change
For most Canadians, the choice is quite clear: 65% of them choose to reside in suburbia.
Is this the right choice to house ourselves in the 21st century? Should we pursue it? I do
not think so.
I believe that we ought to retool our minds when it comes to how we should house
ourselves. We should change the DNA composition of our settlement urban planning and
This house, that most Canadians admittedly wish to own, does not represent nor respond
to any of our social, economic and environmental challenges. A person who invests in
building dormers over a garage…
Ignoring the Need …
For way too long we have satisfied our own needs at the expense of future generations, a
course of action that must be changed. It is also the classic definition of sustainability.
Sustainability became a catch-all phrase to all our attempts to create “a new world order”.
What is the make-up of sustainability? I would like to suggest 4 key principles that have
been listed in my book Sustainable Residential Developments.
First, four areas of influence contribute to the creation of sustainable existence.
- Social concerns
- Our unique culture
- and our environment.
Ideally, each of these systems must be self-sustaining. Example: a building must
generate its own energy (environment). A country produces and consumes its own
products and renewable resources are consumed at a renewable rate.
When possible, these independent entities will support each other. Example: encouraging
people to walk rather than drive will pollute less, make people healthier, reduce pressure
on healthcare budgets, which will leave more $ in government coffers for more necessary
things like affordable housing.
Another principle has to do with the fact that whatever we construct cannot be discarded.
Building components, for example, cannot end-up in landfills. A building must be
designed for reuse, and its components, once obsolete, for recycling.
Least Negative Impact
When we build, our action cannot leave a negative impact. We should not attempt to
alter the lay of the land, and when we revitalize a rundown part of town, we should not
The final outcome would be a sort of juggling act between those principles.
So, how should we house ourselves?
To support sustainable existence and cope with our many challenges, we must live in
Can today’s cities…
The city as an urban form that can address many of the concerns that were pointed out
above immediately comes to mind. But can cities offer an alternative to suburbia? Do
they have the drawing power?
Not unless we retool them.
In my view, not in their present form. Lets revisit our urban evolution from the turn of
the century and see where we went wrong.
The cramped conditions of cities, primarily those in the UK, were the breeding ground
for reform ideas.
Garden City Movement
Howard gave us the Garden City concept, that saw homes surrounded by green spaces.
His vision was powerful and it was interpreted and implemented by Parker and Unvine in
the design of the Town of Welwyn.
The lure of having one’s own private domain away from the crowded city was strong to
resist and it attracted first the wealthy.
In 1929, Stein and Wright brought a version of the concept to North America. Their
contribution was in creating automobile-oriented communities with cul-de-sac and
Why pay rent?
The economic facet was added when people recognized that they no longer needed to be
renters – they could own.
Ford and Levitt
These two men helped suburbia thrive. Ford developed an affordable motor vehicle and
made it available to all and Levitt a fast way to build homes away from the crowded city.
This combination made the proximity between home and work non longer essential.
Suburbs flourished and adopted their own cultural attitudes and markings, which
embedded themselves in every fabric of their residents lives.
The next step was to bring commerce to Suburbia and lend them independent existence.
The concept was amazingly powerful and it got replicated successfully across the
continent and created what Kunsaler called The Geography of Nowhere.
Looking back, we can say with certainty that evolution and the attractiveness of cities did
not keep up with that of suburbia.
In the face of the many challenges that society is facing, one can be doubtful about the
future. It is a time to take a stand, a position about the future.
The World Without Us
Some may see the empty half of the glass, along with a very bleak future for society. I do
not see it that way.
I believe that humanity is now going through a fixing stage – fixing the planet. If the 20th
century was a centennial of destruction, the 21st will be a time of building and retooling.
What I keep seeing are opportunities for all of us to build a better place and primarily to
The question is what’s next for us, and for our cities? What will the shape and key trends
affecting our lives be?
The Metabolists were theorists who in the 1960s saw us residing in huge megastructures
and moving around in Jetsons-like vehicles. This is not likely to happen. There would be,
however, changes in line with our quest for sustainable existence. Some of these
changes would be voluntary, others will be imposed by decree or regulations.
Predicting the future happened by examining trends that had already begun.
As a result of the massive retirement of the boomers and inability of first-time
homebuyers to afford a single detached home, we will increase our density. We are
closing ranks with Europe: first homes will be apartments. You can see the relationship
between economy, society and the environment.
As we gradually increase density and leave behind the 4 to 7 units per acre, mixed uses
will make sense. We will see more stores, and businesses under or included in our
buildings. Once again, not imposition but the outcome of economic reality – economy of
Made to Measure
Our way of building is changing. We gradually see a building broken down to its
subcomponents. We no longer will see the sealing of complete packages, but a made-to-
measure approach. A single person will not be forced to buy an 80 sq. m. apartment with
3 bathrooms, all connected to the internet. We will buy what we need and can afford –
homes would be manufactured in factories. Once again, sustainability and reduced
consumption by logic and necessity.
As society and governments will not be able to accommodate all seniors in old age homes,
we will see expansion in the number of multigenerational families. We will create social
sustainability out of necessity, leading to the development of new types of dwellings.
As Canada is graying, we will retool our homes and urban landscape to accommodate
seniors. A whole new type of industry will emerge to create products for the elderly:
ovens with automatic shut-offs, faucets, etc. These new line of products will be energy-
efficient as well.
Off the Grid
Buildings will generate their own power, and recycled their waste water. Technologies
now exist that enable structure to function of the grid. Every prefab structure that leaves
a Japanese factory has photovoltaic power. Solar heaters are common in a number of
countries for heating water and as energy rises – they will make their appearance here.
Once again sustainability out of economic necessity and also most likely new regulations.
Energy costs will lead to a change in the way we heat and cool our home. It does not
make sense, not organizational nor economical to have thousands of homes, each with its
own generating power station. Similar to Scandinavian countries we will gradually move
into highly efficient district heating.
If we are to look for a sign of success in our environmental quest – the green or blue box
is the one. Canadians have demonstrated willingness to do their share. We are now
living in a time of change – predictions show that some 85% of our solid waste can be
recycled. We are likely to part ways with the wood stud in favour of steel. There will
also be many finishing materials, like carpets, made. Economy of scale began to kick in
in favour of sustainability.
From the many transformations that buildings are undergoing, Green Roofs seem to make
a “lot of noise”. We will see more of them on public buildings.
Our food production and consumption is likely to change. Flying bananas in from Latin
America and garlic from China will make little sense. We will see the emergence of
Agro-structures where using solar power or daylight we will grow our own food on the
edges of cities.
The choking hold of traffic gridlocks, high cost of fuel and breakthroughs in the car and
rail industries are starting to bear fruit. We are rapidly greening our commuting using
smaller vehicles, developing new networks and moving amenities into the neighbourhood
to which we can ride our bikes.
City = Exercise Machine
High rates of obesity primarily among children and pressure on dwindling healthcare
budgets will force us to change our mind-set about cities. We will use both cities and
homes as exercise machines. Along with retirement of the boomer, looking young and
healthy will lead to the retooling of our urban environment to encourage the building of
foot and bike paths.
I still believe that the cyber revolution is in its infancy. We have not exercised its full
potential. We have not, yet, tied it to sustainability. Disseminating information, for
example, for the purpose of mass education is likely to gain momentum along with new
means and systems.
Soil in urban areas will be premium. We will turn it into greening our communities
Similar to what Vancouver has done with their “Eco-Density” program, we will see lanes,
pathways, and open fields turn green to help fight emissions. It will also help with
creating a generation of active people who participate in their environments and urban
Some of the aspects that I listed above will be made voluntarily – because we care about
the environment. But most will take place because they will be wealth generators.
Developing new technologies will inject innovation into our industries, expand our export
and will turn cities into incubators of new ideas. The economic wheel is likely to kick in.
Research and Development
The challenge always rests with moving ideas from theory to reality. They require the
kind of flexibility that makes understanding of the “real world” work a necessity.
Implementing flexibility will mean to “think outside the box –rationally”. I would like to
share with you two projects on which I recently worked…
The first is in planning. I was recently invited by a town in Alberta to prepare a master
plan based on sustainable principles. It is a town of 16,000 people which is growing
rapidly. Many of the principles are also applicable to large centres.
The town of Stony Plain is located in the shadow of Edmonton. The first order of things
was to suggest regional collaboration. Today’s cities cannot function as isolated islands.
Infrastructure and transport must be shared.
Building Density – I
The growth pattern was awkward and dictated by developers. Developers created a
growth pattern which was not organic, extended travel time, and did not wrap itself
around the city centre.
Building Density – II
We suggested that the town centre be expanded and the neighbourhood built around it.
From each home one will be able to walk or ride a bike to the centre. Various degrees of
density will accommodate ranges of buyers.
Parks and Trails – I
The Parks and Trail system was developed, yet not organized.
Parks and Trails – II
It can become part of a system that contributed to people’s health and moved them
around. It can connect the edges of towns and help avoid use of vehicles.
Parks and Trails – III
We turned them into systems that let citizens ride their bike or walk from homes to parks
to trails to downtown. Successes happen when one creates the means that instil good
Roads – I
The traffic system was also uncoordinated. It made it easy to travel by cars, but did not
Roads – II
We gave priority to cyclists and pedestrians over motorists. You can simply not speed.
Land Use – I
There was little commerce in neighbourhoods that required people to drive anywhere.
There was no organic growth.
Land Use – II
We brought commerce to neighbourhoods. Expanded the businesses park in which more
local people will be employed. Introduced a entertainment and hospitality centre at the
entrance of town and increased the density of neighbourhoods.
We developed a model community with higher density housing facing a park and larger
ones at the rear, all connected via bike paths to the rest of town. We developed
To create a civic centre, we created a civic square in which businesses and residents will
live side by side. We developed guidelines.
The Next Home