Designing Sustainable Communities

21 03 2010

Exploring the School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture website for UBC, I discovered a range of faculty and student work incorporating sustainable landscapes and development.  A few noteworthy projects that I explored include: seasonal optimization of multi-use trails and green spaces; food-oriented development; and an investigation into the moments of intersection between food, community and culture in the city.

I believe that the sustainability of communities is strongly rooted in the culture and natural characteristics.  If “place” is a statement about attitude to geography, history and resources, then the particular regional characteristics of a built environment are as much a reflection of local environmental conditions as a reflection of cultural context. Applicable to developed and developing countries is the use of locally available technology.  It is central to regionally specific building, material applications, and building methods. Associating technology with ideas of region and place may also contribute to the preservation of local characteristics and identity. Technology and design will be specific to regional economies and building traditions, digital design, and fabrication technologies which can be understood in each unique region.  I find it fascinating the incredible range of design ideas that are generated across different eco-regions, cultures, and socio-economic boundaries. 

 “. . .each path moves along a single season of blooming trees to the south creating dynamic travel patterns in the green space at spanish banks” (Seasonal Optimization by Mark Ross).

 As a short continuation of my blog on the Olympics, I thought I would supplement the entry with a couple of pictures that I took from the Sustainable Living pavilion in Yaletown at the Olympic Games in Vancouver, 2010.  An example of green promotional advertising in action →

Sustainable transportation can be sexy.  A sweet red cruiser bike finds its place in a community bicycle share program.  Bicycle culture is affluent in many European cities, why not Vancouver and Victoria?


Smart Design

15 03 2010

I would like to touch on William McDonough’s Centennial Sermon, which spoke directly to my interests in green architecture—a career prospect that I am (in the process) of pursuing.  McDonough is an internationally renowned designer and one of the primary proponents and shapers of what he and his partners call ‘The Next Industrial Revolution.’ McDonough emphasizes three defining characteristics that we can learn from natural design: everything that we have to work with is already here (material and waste cycling); solar energy is the only addition to this complex cycle; and the characteristic that sustains this complex and efficient system is biodiversity. What an exciting and challenging proposition! To design products and infrastructure for humans, that abides by nature’s standards and cycles.  This sermon addresses how unhappy, stressed and unhealthy people have become working and living in man-made and nature-destructive landscapes.  McDonough addresses three major types of products that we produce. The first type refers to “consumables” such as everyday foodstuffs, and items that we routinely throw away.  This prospect sounds so simple, but the question I have to ask . . . how is this going to happen?

“Consumables should not be placed in landfills,

but put on the ground so that they restore the life,

health, and fertility of the soil. This means that shampoos

should be in bottles made of beets that are

biodegradable in your compost pile”.

McDonough also addresses products of service, such as appliances, vehicles, computers, etc.

“Products of service must continue

beyond their initial product life, be owned

by their manufacturers, and be designed for disassembly,

re-manufacture, and continuous re-use.”

And finally the “stuff” that nobody want to talk about, or simply can’t see at the time of purchase, such as nuclear waste and negative externalities placed on the environment:

“We are making products or subcomponents of

products that no one should buy, or, in many

cases, do not realize they are buying.”

 Now I am left with another question to mull over: how do I live as an active member in society, in my work, school, and social activities with less stuff?  Do I really need a computer? I think that I do in my given situation; however, would I be willing to pay more to purchase a biodegradable laptop, with recycled parts, and no toxic components? No laptops on the market exist, but they should, as addressed by McDonough in his sermon.  Smart industrial design, product design, and building design = design that fits within nature’s expectations, not our own.  I’ve been pondering ethical consumerism lately, leading me to believe that we are beginning to see a trend emerging, most prevalently in the cocoa and coffee trades.  Is it ethical to purchase goods, especially cheap plastic goods, made by factory workers in China? Ethical consumerism is one step in the cradle to cradle perspective of product life cycle; smart design and ethical and efficient break-down and reuse of the product, complete the circle.   How much happier might we be if we could reconnect with nature, and learn to live more simply?  If we were forced to live in a small room with everything that we bought, and waste was never allowed to leave the room—I think we would all readdress what we really need.

The conceptual design for the revitalization of the historic River Rouge complex (Michigan, USA).  This plan celebrates the integration of industry and nature.

The Bison Courtyard in Banff, Alberta.  This LEED gold development was designed by William McDonough + Partners, Design Architects. It is an example of ecologically responsible design and development utilizing folding rooflines to echo the profiles of the surrounding glacial peaks.  The reason I have included this development in particular is because I worked at the Bison Bistro, a beautiful restaurant specializing in “rocky mountain slow food”. I was surprised to learn that McDonough designed this complex. 


McDonough, W. 1993. Design, Ecology, Ethics and the Making of Things. A Centennial Sermon. New York: The Cathedral of St. John the Divine. 9 pp. Available on-line at

Mayell, H. (2004). As Consumerism Spreads, Earth Suffers, Study Says. National Geographic News. Retrieved March 2010 from:

Thinking Ahead . . .

1 03 2010

               I was born on Vancouver Island, and grew up just outside of Victoria in the town of Sidney.  I have lived in Canmore and Banff, Alberta for the last three years, as well a season in the Okanagan.  I absolutely love the mountains, and as we reach the half-way point in the BSc program I can feel my feet getting itchy for a move.  I usually scare away from challenges that directly involve creating change in the community because I fear the frustration that naturally accompanies persuading people to change their habits or support a cause.  This said, the more I learn about various tools for change, community engagement, and planning, the more that I feel encouraged to play a greater role in my community.  I thrive in smaller communities, and I long to move back to Canmore, or another small town with similar traits.  As our team begins planning the grass-roots for a seed and food exchange, I become excited at the prospect of repeating a similar story in a place that I will call home, wherever it might be in the new year.

            I came across a poster for a permaculture seminar being held here in Victoria, which lead me to their website, and various links to Permaculture design courses, and regional sections for this movement.   Permaculture is an approach to designing human settlements and agricultural systems that mimic the relationships found in natural ecological systems. “Permaculture is a design system based on ethics and principles which can be used to establish, design, manage and improve all efforts made by individuals, households and communities towards a sustainable future” (  I am intrigued by several of the principles of this movement because they are deeply rooted in design. Bio-mimicry, which involves designing ecologically harmonised landscapes, gardens, agriculture, infrastructure, etc., is at the heart of the design process.  Coming from an interior design background, my future interests gear towards “green design”, whether it is I pursue landscape architecture, architecture or industrial design.  I am going to browse for more information about some of the projects these groups are undertaking, especially at the Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute in Colorado, USA, which specialises in high altitude agriculture practices.  Permaculture promotes the reskilling process, which as I understand, is also a prominent theme of the Transition Town model.

The image above is an example of urban permaculture, at an City Eco Lab conference in France, 2008.

            The Permaculture Kootney section (Kootenay Permaculture Institute (BC & Canada) has a link for a seed exchange!  I feel encouraged as we embark upon establishing a food and seed swap program here in Colwood.  The Kootenay program has swaps taking place at community centre, churches, and local cafes.  In addition to the seed swap, they also have workshops on seed selection, saving the gene pool, food security, and the list goes on.  I hope that we can include the framework for supplementary workshops and/or informational packages in our community project for Colwood.

Open Space Team Building

27 02 2010

            Our class utilised the open space exercise to form a diverse range of interest groups and teams for our wikis.  I want to comment on the success of this exercise because I was very intrigued and surprised how constructive and organised we became as a class once the standard structure and rules of the classroom were dropped.  One drawback that I have felt in the BSc program is its rigid structure.  I do understand the learning benefits one will obtain from working with tight deadlines in multiple classes, with multiple teams, and with multiple schedules.  However, I do enjoy the opportunity to direct my energy towards initiatives that I am interested in, whether it be getting involved in the community, or taking the time to do some research about a topic that catches my eye.  I feel a bit constrained thus far, because we just don’t have any extra time to invest into personal interests, and if I did find the time, it would mean taking that time away from other necessities such as family, friends, and recreation. 

            So, back to open space . . . I was encouraged to see so many people in our class come forward with some awesome ideas.  There are many great ideas out there, but unless people are prompted to own their ideas or given a place to explore them, sometimes they don’t speak up.  I think the success also stemmed from the freedom everyone felt to move from one group to another until they found their fit.  Commitment is scary (we all know this from relationships!), so the freedom to move about and join in a range of discussions allowed for people to come forward and throw in their two cents without feeling that their idea would have to become a life commitment.  The open space concept felt like a puzzle coming together, by the end of the day everybody found their fit, but in the beginning we had no idea how the puzzle would evolve, or what the final picture would be.  When people are encouraged to pour their energy into something that they are passionate about, it is amazing how much work can get done in such a short time!  The open space concept allowed for self-organisation, a bit of chaos, creativity, and the development of passionate ideas.  I think that the greatest challenge that we encountered as a group was losing touch of our responsibility and reasoning for coming together: helping Colwood become a carbon neutral city

            Approximately ten of us, all interested in local food promotion and community, came together in a hallway gathering.  Our discussion revolved around local food festivals, seed exchanges, recipe exchanges, and local producers.  By the end of the morning session, and after much brainstorming and exciting ideas, this larger group evolved into two smaller groups: one group who were interested in promoting seasonal food-based festivals, and the group that I became involved in, which will be looking to start a seed and food exchange within the City of Colwood.  Our goal: help make the City of Colwood a carbon neutral community.  Our idea: creating a more efficient and social based circulation of local food, seeds, and recipes within the community.  This initiative will establish its understanding of place and scale by utilising maps of the community.  Community green maps can be used to show established transportation lines (including bike and walking paths), and the location and products of local food producers (farmers, fruit trees, backyard gardens).  Our next step is to plan strategies for connecting the people who grow and produce local food and products with each other, and with other people in the community.  There is a lot of waste involved in the spoiling of surplus food caches, and we hope the encouragement of trade can help diminish this waste, whilst also encouraging community engagement.  Seeds, including heirloom and native varieties, can be circulated amongst community members and other communities to ensure that quality plant varieties are maintained for future generations.  I’m excited about our challenge, and I am certain that this project will evolve yet as we go about the process of producing a wiki.

Protesters Please Step Aside for Just a Moment. . .

17 02 2010

             I love the Olympics.  I feel that it is two weeks of great feel-good entertainment, inspiring stories, and motivation.  I was involved in the world of competitive figure skating for the majority of my youth; hence, I have a good idea of the crap (politics + money) that comes along with these events.  Nonetheless, from my perspective the games generate more good than bad.  The official 2010 website has a link for “sustainability” which explores several ways that VANOC has built sustainability into the games, as well addition to information on how people can do their part to help the games be as green as possible.  Even David Suzuki admitted that although they can always do more (of course) the VANOC sustainability committee did a good job in creating the most environmentally friendly Olympic Games in history.  Some of their initiatives include sustainable infrastructure, partnerships with Indigenous Peoples, broadening accessibility, sustainable purchasing, and integrating green standards into their operations and venues.  I won’t even begin to argue that the carbon footprint of the Olympic Games must be expansive; however, any event that brings together a large and diverse group of individuals (+media) is a great opportunity to display and demonstrate what sustainability is all about.         

                To support my opinion in the realm of sustainability and the Olympics is a story I heard on the news tonight.  Apparently, the amount of Vancouver residents using public transit to go about their regular lives during the games has broken records in the city.   A woman who worked for CTV was filmed driving her car to work (West Vancouver to downtown) and they timed her commute for the purpose of the story.  It took her less time than usual to commute, because the streets were “bare” in comparison to the regular pre-game traffic.  Residents are utilising public transit systems, in addition to walking and riding their bikes to get to work, run errands, and get to Olympic venues. 

                So it is possible!  Olympic crowds, traffic diversion, and the fear of (even worse) traffic jams, in addition to a more accessible and rapid public transit system has been enough to encourage a huge number of people to leave their cars at home.  It may not last, but if anything, a lot of Vancouver residents have proven to themselves that it is very possible that they can go about their regular lives using alternative ways of transportation.  Public transit also encourages people to connect with society.  Why is it that people never want anyone to sit next to them on the bus or subway?  I always notice how people put their bags down on the seat next to them, only removing it if the bus or subway is full and newcomers are looking for seats.  Perhaps basking in the Olympic spirit, people will develop a greater fondness for public transit: not only because it saves money and emissions, but because we feel a greater connection to our fellow community members.  We all share the same land, and essentially we are all trying to move in the same direction.  Single occupancy drivers may sit in traffic for hours each day─ stressed out─ all the while idling away their own money and compromising the health of the environment and human health.  Perhaps the Olympics-fuelled transportation blitz will create a bit of a ripple by helping residents realise that public transit, biking, and walking is not that bad!

Fear, Urgency, and Willingness to Change

12 02 2010

                The utilisation of fear for the purpose of motivation may be a double edged sword.  Some people respond to fear with action; whereas some, me included, pass off the probability of a catastrophe in favour of a “head in the clouds” way of thinking.  Listening to a list of possible ecological, civil, and economic catastrophes does not motivate me.  Talk is cheap, and many people get a high off of the drama so closely integrated with tragic happenings in society.  When we step back from our overly plugged-in, important, and urgent lifestyles, it can be quite humorous.   I was flicking through TV stations the other night because I don’t normally watch TV and I was feeling a bit out of the loop with regards to the local news scene.  I feel that news stations grab people with their music─ they must─ it was incredible how dramatic music can make any story seem urgent and important.  “Tune in at five!   Breaking story- beginning tomorrow the Sea to Sky highway will be closed to regular vehicle traffic- what you need to know to if you are heading up to Whistler. . . we will have the crucial details so that you can plan your trip”.  Really? In text this seems so silly, but the overly dramatic music and helicopter footage transformed this topic into an important story: as if this was an issue negatively impacting the majority of Vancouver residents’ lives. 

                Climate change will most likely negatively impact most of our lives; however, this is not just a tragic story that you can listen to or watch on the news and then be done with; this is a story that requires us to act.  Gregor Robertson, the mayor of Vancouver, is a very charismatic leader and active in promoting and initiating long-term goals for the city, with the ultimate goal of making Vancouver the greenest city in the world.  These goals are coupled with very specific targets which are measurable and reachable.  Action needs to begin at the grassroots, the local level, in order to build resilience from the ground up.  Several of the 2020 targets include:

  • The addition of at least 20,000 jobs in green industries.
  • Reduce the net GHG emission by 33% from the 2007 levels.
  • All new construction is LEED certified or carbon neutral.
  • The majority of transportation will consist of public transit, walking and cycling.
  • Reduction of solid waste per-capita of 40%.
  • The bottom line: a carbon footprint reduction by 33% An ecological footprint reduction of 33%.

                Science is only a tool to predict the possible outcomes of climate change, but we really don’t know what is going to happen in the next 5 years, 20 years, or 100 years.  But taking into account the changes we have seen already, and the possibility of major catastrophe, it seems only logical to be proactive.  If we continue on as we are, there is a possibility that the human-accelerated positive feedback loop will stabilise beyond a point of return with an average global temperature increase of 5⁰C.  Returning to Pascal’s Wagner, the argument stands: do we want to risk burning in hell, when we have three other options which will produce neutral or great results?  Fear might not motivate action in all people, but positive results such as an increase in one’s happiness, standard of living, and accessibility are all motivators for change.  Instead of the doom and gloom urgency, we might be able to create a “get on board, we are changing for the better” type of urgency.  Nobody wants to be left behind!

Creating Change in the Community

6 02 2010

Upon listening to our guest speakers today, the mayor of Colowood David Saunders and councilor Judith Cullington, I was intrigued to check out the website for the city of Colwood.  I was pleasantly surprised (surprised) to discover the amount of links, such as “Westshore Harvest” on the website promoting local food producers, local restaurants, and recipes for cooking with farm produce.  The website has promotes lots of tips for saving money by “going green,” energy saving tips, a recycling guide, community events information, and the list goes on.  They have a posting for council meetings right on the home page, encouraging residents to get more involved and voice their concerns and ideas at the monthly meetings.  As a non-resident of Colwood, the mental picture I have for the area surely does not match David Saunders’.  It was really inspiring to hear someone speak so passionately about their work. Saunders, who was born and raised in Colwood, having “no intention to ever leave”, may not be the image of the typical Colwood resident, but his love and respect for the place that he calls home is a noble trait to have.  Ultimately, if everybody had the same level of respect for our land, our neighbors, and our place on this earth-don’t you think we would forgo more of our “conveniences” if it meant saving one more piece of the environment for our children to enjoy?  This brings a bit of a hypocritical thought to mind: how can we make being “green” convenient, exciting and beneficial so that people jump on the wagon?  The city has identified their current assets such as local producers, festivals, facilities, community events and clubs, historical sites, parks and trails . . . but these assets are not being advertised to the extent that people notice and think about them more so than the A&W sign on the main strip reading: two momma burgers for $4, on their morning commute.  When I began to think about Colwood’s assets such as the Royal Roads property, its beautiful waterfront, Fort Rodd Hill, the First Nations History, local producers, and artisans, I began to see Colwood as more than just the commercial strip that I drive down most days. 

When it comes to change- we need to know where to grow, and take a holistic approach (in the words of Robert Bateman) because ultimately we are heading in a direction of chance . . . no matter how clear the “vision” is.  Resilience and balance are very important, because ultimately we don’t know how the future is going to play out.  As humans, we have the gift of choice, and in places like Canada, we have the blessing of (too) many choices because of the type of society that we live in. Appropriately, our following lecture explored the theme of persuasion and tools for changing people’s attitudes, behavior, and beliefs.  Perhaps the “sustainable lifestyle” will catch on if people feel the need to “keep up with the norms.”  Find a creative way to showcase green living by providing incentives, showcasing unique qualities about green products or actions, and maybe people will feel more of a need to play a role on the road towards a carbon neutral society.  The Tools of Change website offers some insightful ideas, case studies and planning guides for creating positive change and maximizing social capital within communities.  There is a great section on overcoming barriers such as cost, cynicism over environmental claims, and the very real problem of consumers unwilling to put much effort into locating and buying greener products and participating in community activities.  The website provides some case studies to show some of these barriers can be overcome, which I will spend more time investigating as the week goes on . . . more to come!