What is Urban Design? (by Ray Spaxman)

post-office-development-image-nov-2016-vancouver(‘Below is text from an e-mail entitled “What is Urban Design,” by Ray Spaxman to urban planning colleagues, with pertinent comments on urban design today. He is highly respected as the City of Vancouver’s Director of Planning from 1973 to 1989, and today runs Spaxman Consulting Group Limited. He is renowned for his balanced approach to development, for listening to all sides, and he has left his mark on the Vancouver we know and love today.)

Dear Colleagues,ray spaxman

I know the enormous consequences of the US election are on most of our minds, but life has to go on and our own local issues are still unfolding and needing our attention, so here is another thought to share. I could also have titled it “The Old Post Office”.

I am so relieved that the new managers at City Hall are attuned to the many planning and urban design principles that we have discussed here over the last four years of these Urbanarm communications. It means that we can now relax in the knowledge that city planning is again in good hands. Their task of balancing all the forces at play and coming through with neighbourly, well designed development after informed public discussion is a challenging one. One that we all must try to help them with.

Our current community goals include the need to increase the supply of affordable housing. That means finding every opportunity to obtain funding from all levels of government and also to find every opportunity to achieve higher density forms of housing without compromising people’s desire for the basic components of good liveability. i.e. natural light, fresh healthy air, some sunshine, adequate space and privacy, access to open space and peace and quiet for those important hours of sleep we need for our wellbeing. Fortunately, there is a wealth of design guidelines available to provide developers, architects, urban designers, engineers and planners with the information needed to create high levels of liveability.

If we don’t provide acceptable liveability we will create an unliveable and deteriorating city.

We have reached a time when liveability is being compromised by the desire for ever increasing densities. It seems odd for us who have been in this business for some time to recall when, internationally, a density of 3 FSR was considered to be a maximum for residential development. The geometrics of space between buildings to provide daylight access, reasonable privacy and so on, led to that 3 FSR maximum. It is, after all, a fairly straight forward geometric exercise as anyone can find out if you pile bricks into a confined space.

Excellent design on a good-shaped site fronting a wide street with a lane allows you to move above 3 FSR. The dense tower developments in Downtown south amount to about 4.5 FSR. More recently, densities on the remaining sites are climbing higher than that.

That brings me to the Post Office development. Broadly, it is proposing to place a residential development of about 5 FSR on top of a commercial development of about 7 FSR. Here is a picture of it, as you may have seen already.


Artist’s concept of proposed Post Office development

The application doesn’t describe what it will be like to live in that residential component and yet it should. How does it perform against the guidelines I described earlier? The information supporting the application seems to concentrate on what the whole development will look like from adjoining streets. That is, of course important, and will lead to other debates, but not as important as being specific in describing what the living environment will be like within the development, especially for the future residents. That will be one of the major considerations for council when the application comes for their approval.

We should also be concerned about how Urban Design is practised. There are two primary elements of Urban Design that we must all pay attention to. The first is to ensure that what is designed takes account of, and beneficially exploits, the nature of the physical environment that the project is going to occupy. Everything from the unique geology and geography of the site, right through to changing sunshine and local weather patterns help to inform the designers about the best design for the buildings to be erected there. The second concern is to ensure that the land uses and activities to be provided on the site actually achieve optimum performance for the future occupants and users as well as being good neighbours to adjacent public and private places and activities. This is where the local public authority is so important Their responsibility is to ensure those features are accommodated in the design. While the overall aesthetics may be discussed, I believe that as long as the two basic components of good urban design are achieved the aesthetics should be driven by the architect.

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