DON’T SAY THE F-WORD!

By Edward Winter

“Oh no – I said the F-word! – I’m sorry!  It won’t happen again,” I told our client in our first design meeting. Just to clarify, the word was “facility,” and up until this point it was a seemingly harmless word – but not in the eyes of our new client, CONNECT Communities.

We had just begun to design their newest transitional residence for acquired brain injury and stroke patients, their first in Ontario. What we would learn within the next month of conceptual design, and over the next two years during construction, was that there is a great deal of difference between a facility and a residence. And that most importantly, it is this difference that will have the greatest impact for a patient recovering from acquired brain injury or stroke. This important distinction is the primary focus for the CONNECT team, and the nexus of their Life Redesign Model™.

To provide some background: There are ongoing conversations surrounding the health care model in Ontario (and across Canada), supporting the research of new methods of treatment and testing of alternative care strategies. Hamilton Health Sciences (HHS) is continually evolving and improving on treatments for patients with acquired brain injuries and stroke, leading them to develop a partnership with CONNECT Communities. This partnership has allowed for CONNECT Communities, an established care provider in British Columbia, to offer their Life Redesign Model™ as transitional care for patients who no longer require hospitalization, but need further support before returning to an independent life in their own home. dpai was brought on to support CONNECT Communities’ vision and design their new transitional residence in Stoney Creek, Ontario, at the edge of a burgeoning community and bordering on Hamilton Conservation Authority lands.

As we began the process of understanding our new client’s needs and wants, we toured their residence in Lake Country (Kelowna), BC. What we saw was a building that very sternly wanted to be residential in nature and feel, but needed to be somewhat more robust and generous in order to house its forty-two residents.  The community resided in groups of seven, accommodated in six wings. The result was the ultimate “blended” family: each resident at a different stage of their recovery, inspiring and helping each other on their journey back to an independent life.

CONNECT’s Life Redesign Model™ is the lens through which all services and supports are provided by their team of coaches and therapists – and this was explained to be most effective if residents have the freedom and security provided by being “out of the hospital, and at home.”  More that just giving new meaning to the phrase “at home,” the Life Redesign Model™ ensures each person’s accountability, uses individual goals with respect to life situations, and employs a “doing-with” coaching approach to take advantage of neuroplasticity (which is doctor-speak for the human brain being an amazing thing that can find new paths to deliver instructions to make things happen).  This incredible and hugely successful approach to treatment inspired dpai as Architects to re-think the very concept of residence, and to challenge the accepted, traditional design and construction norms in order to arrive at a successful design.

Don’t Remove the Barriers – Breaking the Rules to Get Better Treatment Results

Architects get a mixed bag of requests from clients— requests that are sometimes outlandish and extravagant. But in the case of CONNECT Communities, we were asked to break the rules. More specifically, the Building Code. Our client insisted that it was essential to the goals of the project to eliminate the barrier-free and traditional institutional elements of the design to achieve a truly residential space. So with that charge given, we began in-depth code research and collaborated with the local building department to procure an agreement that clarified certain requirements that satisfied our client’s vision. For example, the otherwise utilitarian exit stairs were designed to help residents practice navigating stairwells and begin to regain confidence and independence. This concept led to the introduction of natural light with large windows and the warmth of a wood handrail, as opposed to the norm of applying a more economical treatment.

The concept of natural light as a healing element is not new, but the goal for the living spaces went further, with a desire to have a meaningful connection to the surrounding residential community for CONNECT’s residents. The possibility of an encouraging word from a passerby can be of great benefit to someone in need.

Designing for Inclusion and Seclusion

At CONNECT Communities, each resident lives in one of six self-sufficient, seven-bedroom apartments in a unique family-style structure, with other residents at varying stages of recovery. Together they encourage each other to persevere in their treatments.

Like any family, individuals need their own space now and then, so there was a conscious goal to create spaces not only for communal living, but also smaller spaces that allow for personal reflection (or to just be alone for a moment). The kitchen and living rooms provide communal space, with added warmth from a two-sided fireplace connecting the two rooms. The kitchen was built for function, with generous storage and counter space and a harvest table for meals and conversations. Down the hall, a computer nook was added for quick emails and leisure. A den provides a retreat for quiet reading or a private conversation with family or staff, and the central Commons provides a recreation room and lounge with a TV and billiards. A separate library and lobby with large picture window overlooking the conservation lands is also a popular spot for CONNECT’s residents.

The Synergy of Nature and Community

The Stoney Creek property was nearly passed over when the location was selected, as the opportunities for rapid growth and development in the area had not yet been captured by online mapping tools. But as is the case in many cities undergoing a renaissance, one must walk the land to truly understand its place and setting. Once the leadership team saw the property and the growth happening within the surrounding community, the decision was made.

The CONNECT property was a remnant block of parcels in a large suburban survey that likely would have become additional single-family homes, if not for CONNECT Communities. Our client selected the 1.2 ha property to build their residence with hopes of becoming part of the community in a meaningful and tangible way.

Though suburban dwellings now surround the property on two sides, nature abounds to the east where the residence overlooks the scenic Eramosa Karst Conservation Area. Just steps past the intentionally transparent box-wire fence lie walking trails through a Carolinian woodlot, and a Provincially designated area of Natural and Scientific Interest– karst land formations. We learned that this ecological feature is created by dissolving limestone rock, and our client’s neighbouring property features sixteen different types of karst geologies.

This truly special land was an important consideration in the design which allowed us to consider a visible connection to the community – a goal that was accomplished by pulling the building components apart to create narrow corridors with large windows, which provided lighting and views of nature directly through the building.

Landscape elements also played a large part of the successful site plan design: native plants, a bioswale, trees and crushed stone pathways are all elements used to bring the residents closer in connection with the natural environment outside the building. The adjacency to – and actual sitting upon sub-terranean channels – meant careful consideration to surface water drainage across the site and into the natural landscape to the east. A bioswale with plant material designed to capture and retain water as it flows over the land and into sink holes, as well as dry streams and caves in the conservation area, create a physical reminder of the integral relationship we have to the land we build on.

The CONNECT residence is approximately 38,000 sq.ft., and although it is significantly larger than the surrounding family homes, there was a desire to fit within the community and seamlessly integrate into the streetscape. The existing rhythm of building mass and spacing along the street was extended by flipping the building along it’s connecting spine – placing the residential scale pieces on the street, and the larger building block and parking lot along the backside of the property away from view. The result is a streetscape that is not unlike that which has been there for decades.  Not just a modicum of success for the building – or rather residence’s design, is that it feels at home in its community – this was an integral goal of CONNECT Communities to be active members in their new-found community.

WOOD IS GOOD

Sarah Fox

In Japan, there is a wood temple built by Buddhist monks which has been standing since 607AD. That’s a 1413-year-old building still standing at five stories tall. Wood is an ancient material and looking as far back as we can into Canadian civilization, wood was the material of choice. Indigenous builders observed and understood the material’s properties so well that they would create bentwood structures crossing the strands creating the strongest configuration for the least amount of waste. The material would come from the earth and go back to the earth. Once Colonizers discovered Canada, they exploited the land through fur trading and logging. Not too long after, industrialization took off and steel and concrete structures took over. Now we are experiencing the next revolution, the digital age, and with advances in computer-aided tooling, timber is making a comeback.

Where did timber go?

In the early ages of industrialization, factories along the rust belt were made from mass timber. There are many examples in Toronto of these timber beam and brick buildings with nail laminated timber floors. Chicago was also full of mass timber architecture and was subsequently the reason the city burned to the ground in 1871. This infamous fire resulted in regulation for fire spread prevention and formed the national building code as we know today. Mass timber buildings ceased to be designed – it was expensive to meet code and the organic nature of wood made it difficult to find large enough blemish-free spans. But advances in digital tooling have now made structural wood much easier to fabricate. European and Scandinavian countries have invested heavily in wood technology schools and more recently Cross Laminated Timber (CLT) can be seen emerging in North America.

What is CLT?

CLT is cross-laminated dimensional lumber made into large panels – almost like giant sheets of plywood. The cross lamination creates strength in both directions and is much lighter than typical steel and concrete structures, allowing foundations to be cheaper. Currently, Canadian CLT uses glue for lamination, but a company in Germany is producing one hundred percent wood product fastened by just dowels [1]. This company even goes so far as to ensure trees are logged during a waning or new moon to harvest the hardest wood [2]. The natural strength of wood is fascinating; it does not use its own mass- to be stacked like blocks of cheese- rather the fibers are like-bunched like rope so its true strength engages when in tension. Mass timber is also uniquely efficient in the way it is constructed:

  • Since parts are prefabricated in a shop and transported to site, they are cost, time and material efficient.
  • Openings for thresholds and services are all pre-milled, requiring far fewer trade workers to work on-site.

Residents near the Brock Commons 18-storey CLT tower in Vancouver were pleasantly surprised by how quiet its construction was. This change in construction style has been a challenge for the building industry but is an inevitable change to be embraced.

If that’s not enough to motivate you to support mass timber, here’s the most important factor:

With the current climate crisis we need to reduce our carbon footprint more than ever. Local growing and manufacturing greatly reduces embodied energy and requires no fossil fuels. Forests in Northern Ontario with world-leading sustainable forest management[1] have the potential to become big commodities for our economy, like they once were in the early years of colonial Canada. This time, instead of clear-cutting forests, the land can be sustainably harvested to preserve biodiversity. Railway infrastructure from Northern Ontario exists from the logging-turned-mining industry. I optimistically anticipate that mass timber manufacturers will set up alongside the railway near sustainable forests and sawmills, reducing transportation pollution. Supporting local products means money generated stays here, and can return in the form of research and land stewardship.

Not only is the carbon footprint of local wood very low – it’s negative.

Any carbon created by production is neutralized, and like the impact of planting trees in a city, timber continues to absorb and trap CO2 throughout its lifetime. The embodied value is more than just its cost; timber’s value extends to cultural heritage, community wellness and land stewardship. No one material is the best choice for every application- concrete and steel are still needed. But if you’re looking to invest in well-being, then wood is pretty good.


[1] https://www.thoma.at/wood100/?lang=en
[2] https://www.thoma.at/moon-wood/?lang=en
[3] https://www.ontario.ca/page/choose-ontario-wood#environment

KNOWLEDGE, DESIGNED

Arthi Suthaharan

We live in a world where information is easily accessible for many. Search engines like Google will tell you everything you need to know, with hundreds of sources and reviews. It’s become a common reflex and response to anything you want to know or learn. Just “google” it!

Google is a basic tool in our day-to-day lives, but where did it come from?

Back to Land

In the sixties, in the midst of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war, there was a rise of a counterculture that favoured individual empowerment and self-sustenance. With this came the “back to the land” movement, where people moved to communes with the goal of slowing down and simplifying life. At the heart of this movement was Stewart Brand’s publication of the Whole Earth Catalogue

The Whole Earth Catalogue

In 1967, a NASA geostationary weather and communication satellite captured the first colour photograph of the whole earth. People’s perspective of the earth changed and for the first time, people could see the earth not as the world we live in but as the planet we live on. The earth was no longer our entire world; it was a thing of its own, both finite and delicate. It was a powerful symbol: regardless of who we were and where we were, we all lived on the same planet and with that, shared a common future and destiny. Brand used this picture of the whole earth as an icon for his publications, an image he used to help shape people’s views and way of thinking to see the earth as a finite entity that needed to be protected.  

The contents of the Whole Earth Catalogue were catered to people who were involved with the “back to the land” movement. It was a paper database of the skills, tools and information they needed to survive and succeed, all within the pages of a few catalogues. It was meant to empower individuals who were tired of being controlled by the government and big corporations and wanted to shape their environment and future.

To access this knowledge, you needed the physical catalogue. There was no internet, libraries were restricted by their size and television content was limited. The catalogue was a new concept, a place where anything you needed to know, find and learn about a single topic or idea was in one place. It was regularly updated and changed as the creators received reviews and feedback, just like the search engines we know today.

The Digital Age

Unlike the catalogues, which we can see in physical space filled with a finite quantity of knowledge, Google exists on the infinite digital plane of the Internet. We cannot see or even begin to understand all the information this entity can hold. It has no physical form; it is a space we cannot physically see nor touch. It is designed using computer code, using algorithms and sequences, to pull the information we are searching for from that infinite digital space. Today, the way we get our news, communicate with one another and share knowledge is via the digital plane. It is no surprise that the way we collect data and search for information happens the same way.

Information Overload

With unlimited access to information comes an overload. The abundance of information has created difficulty in understanding issues and making decisions around them, largely due to the uprising of “fake news”. Twenty-first-century libraries are evolving from primarily housing books on shelves to taking on the self-proclaimed role of “fake news debunkers”. Some modern libraries are also developing programs they call design thinking to promote creative processes for problem-solving, helping their clientele to develop the skills needed to process information in this “overloaded” climate.

Unlike the days of the Whole Earth Catalogue, libraries have gone from transactional to relational interactions with users. Libraries are no longer places where users simply come to consume information, they have also become places where the public comes to create their own content.

Described by Steve Jobs as the “paperback Google”, the Whole Earth Catalogue gave rise to the way we access digital information today. Understanding how the knowledge you are receiving has been designed and disseminated is arguably as important as the knowledge itself.

This is why libraries are so critical to our communities. They are bastions of democracy, making sure that the development of critical thinking and creation are available to all.

A WOONERF SOLUTION

How a Woonerf Could Anchor Redevelopment of the James-John South District
Paul Shaker

Good, proactive urban planning reimagines city spaces that may be overlooked but hold great potential. This is the case in the area just south of downtown Hamilton.

The James-John Street South district (SouthTown) is a diverse commercial area in Hamilton, south of the downtown Central Business District. The area contains a variety of land uses, such as St. Joseph’s Hospital and the Hamilton GO Centre as well as nodes including the restaurants and pubs on Augusta and the retail Terraces on James South. Functionally, the district extends east to the other major corridor, John Street South and includes the connecting streets such as Augusta, Young, and Charlton.

While other commercial districts around the city including Locke Street South, James Street North, and Ottawa Street North, have gone through impressive revitalization, SouthTown has remained relatively stable in its vibrancy, experiencing small cycles of decline and renewal over the past decade. There are distinct nodes of vibrancy, but the district lacks continuity and connectivity between these nodes that would help the area achieve greater prosperity.

In this context, Civicplan and dpai teamed up a few years ago to develop a concept plan for the district. Central to the plan was the creation of a focal point for the area: the Augusta Street Woonerf.

Woonerf: A Living Street

A woonerf is a concept first developed in the 1970s in Holland. The concept is to transform a street by prioritizing pedestrian and cycling over cars. It allows for street space to be flexible, used in multiple ways, for cars, parking, cycling and pedestrians. The Dutch employed the planning model in residential areas, but it is becoming more common, particularly in North America, to see it employed in commercial areas. It is also known as a “living street” and is aligned in North America with the idea of complete streets.

Common elements of a woonerf are the elimination of sidewalk curbs, and the blending of pedestrian and vehicle space. Additionally, the woonerf is designed using a different material or pattern than traditional streets to differentiate it from a traditional street, for example paving stones instead of asphalt. The benefits of a woonerf are primarily traffic calming, pedestrian safety, and bringing life to a street. It encourages commercial spaces to connect with the street through the use of patios and outdoor spaces.

The Augusta Woonerf

In the SouthTown district, the Augusta Street Woonerf would transform the underdeveloped street into a pedestrian-friendly civic space connecting the two major north-south arteries (James and John) together. Augusta Street has an excellent cluster of restaurants and pubs, giving it a base to grow street vibrancy.  However, street design and the prevalence of street front parking lots are limiting further growth. Some of the opportunities for the Augusta Street woonerf include:

1. Redesign Augusta making the street a pedestrian-friendly civic space better connected to the James Street and John Street South commercial nodes.

2. Encourage scaled infill design consistent with existing building massing at the street.

3. Introduce more landscaping and tree planting to provide some green/open space for the district.

4. Target high potential sites for initial catalyst development.  Focus on uses that are attracted to the district’s demographics, character, assets and vibrancy (e.g. post-secondary).

The SouthTown Concept Plan

This was just one element of the SouthTown concept plan, which had the goal to not only articulate a vision for the future of the area but to help guide public investment in order to kickstart development. Other key elements of the plan include:

About the author

Paul Shaker is a Principal and co-founder of Civicplan. He is a member of the Canadian Institute of Planners and a Registered Professional Planner in Ontario.

MICRO-HOMES: A SOLUTION

Wendy Yuan

micro-home plans by pinuphouses.com

Homeownership has long been the “American Dream”. Achieving this dream often requires people to put their entire savings into real estate. With housing prices skyrocketing and the threat of global warming, micro-homes or tiny houses have become a suitable alternative for some.

Micro-homes refer to any residential structure under 400 square feet (37 square meters). They can range from cob houses and shipping containers to buses and even boats.

I was first introduced to micro-homes in an Architectural Technology course, where students were required to design Net-Zero Energy tiny houses for single families. The main benefits of micro-homes that appeal to me, include:

Affordability

Because of their sizes, tiny homes cost much less than the traditional options. It is less likely for people to be handcuffed to long-term mortgage loans. For example, this Japanese Tiny House on Wheels cost $30,000 USD in construction. Aside from the small purchase price, micro-homes also demand a relatively low cost of upkeep and insurance fees.

Customizability

Customizing a micro-home is more manageable than renovating a standard single-family house. Many have built their homes from found materials, others have tailored their space to their needs through DIY projects. However, what fascinates me the most is the ingenious solution to the limited space: shapeshifting. With pulls on handles, the walls slide across this 344 square feet (32 square meters) Transformer Apartment in Hong Kong, to create more “room”.

Sustainability

Tiny houses are environmentally conscious. Often constructed out of recycled materials and converted from “undesirable” spaces, they have a significantly smaller carbon footprint. Some owners prefer an “off-the-grid” lifestyle, which means they must source their own water, electric and plumbing services. Introducing water recycling system, solar-integrated roofs and compost toilets!

micro-home plans by pinuphouses.com

Micro Homes in Canada?

Although interest in micro-homes is high in Canada, municipalities are slow in accepting them. Some set a minimum square footage requirement; some even specify the colour and type of building materials. No city yet provides adequate zoning description or building by-laws to encompass tiny houses.

Progress is slow but present. Some cities, such as Vancouver and Edmonton, are softening restrictions for secondary suites. There have been plans to build communities of micro-homes in towns such as Okotoks, Alberta. The City of Hamilton has recently shown it’s progressive side by approving a zoning by-law that permits the construction of laneway houses on inner-city lots containing a detached single-family home. In this case, the size of the units are limited to 50 SM in area and 3M in height, adding much needed smaller units to the mix. This allows residents to age in place, or simply add some more affordable units to the retail stock.

Micro homes can offer refuge to the homeless, improve social wellness and contribute to the fight against climate change. Most importantly, they offer some simplicity to life. We can live for ourselves, instead of living for our houses.

#CLIMATESTRIKE

In March 2019, the City of Hamilton officially declared a climate emergency (we wrote about it here). The declaration was necessary, but it’s not enough.

We are running out of time. As architects, we are uniquely positioned to change the way we design cities and buildings. It is the obligation of our profession to exert influence over our clients, consultants, and the authorities having jurisdiction to introduce new design and building practices into the market. Net-zero buildings are easily within our reach; it’s not rocket science. It comes down to better detailing, more insulation, careful design and renewable energy. The longer-term financial viability of a net-zero building is radically better than the kinds of buildings we are accustomed to building.

In response to the Global Climate Strike, the Canadian Architects Declare pledge was created, urging architects and designers to raise awareness of the impact of the built environment on climate change and take immediate action through their projects.

About 150 architects signed the pledge, committing to:

  • Raising awareness
  • Taking immediate (and measurable) action
  • Designing for holistic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions
  • Eliminating waste and harm
  • Adopting regenerative design principles and practices
  • Advocating for the rapid systemic changes required

As architects and designers, we can make a difference. According to Architecture 2030, the urban built environment is responsible for 75% of annual global GHG emissions: buildings alone account for 39%. 

We should never underestimate our impact.
Together, we shape the world.
  
#ArchitectsDeclare #StandwithGreta #DesignforFuture

GRIT AND KINDNESS DESERVE BETTER

Ralph Benmergui

When people ask me what it’s like living in Hamilton (and believe me, every time I return to Toronto, they ask), I usually say that it’s great. Hamilton, I tell them, is a human-scale city. “But why would you leave Toronto?” they ask. “Because it’s full,” I say.

When we were considering the move (or I should say, when I was considering the move, along with my reticent family), I asked a friend who previously lived in Hamilton and Guelph which she preferred.

“Guelph if you want to fit in, Hamilton if you want to make a difference,” she said.

Case closed, we moved to the Hammer.

This is a decision I have not regretted. Here, people and the city itself, seem a good mix of grit and kindness. The working-class ethos, the waterfalls and the casual conversations just about anyone will have with you. This is a pre-war city.

But I’m not starry-eyed on Hamilton.

The car has supremacy here.  Speeding is expected. Bike lanes are nominal and dangerous in almost all parts of the city. On Hamilton’s main drag, a red light is considered an affront, as the goal is to get the hell from one end of town to the other, tout suite. This is sometimes good for drivers, but for anyone thinking of starting a small business, opening a café or even living on these corridors, good luck. I see block after block of wasted opportunities.

I’m not a city planner or a traffic flow specialist, but I am a citizen who sees avenues of loneliness and disconnection. The unfettered five-lane roadways, particularly Main Street, downtown and east end, keep us isolated.  They make daredevils of those who want to ride bikes and strangle the creative energy out of small business people who could be welcoming us into their shops.

Whenever I mention turning these arteries into two-ways with parking and protected bike lanes, locals roll their eyes and say (like those once told that one day the Berlin Wall would fall) that this will never fly in Hamilton.

What does a former Torontonian like me know about such matters anyway? Tribal war paint aside, I am a citizen with a lived experience that tells me that this city should have two thriving grand boulevards with treed pedestrian and cycling paths running through the middle of the streets. LRT, cafes, local grocers and specialty stores all the way from Dundurn to Gage Park.

So, I ask, do we need to get somewhere or be somewhere?

If we dare to move, I’m thinking that all that grit and kindness that we love so much here in Hamilton can find places to pollinate, and we might not be quite so big-city lonely.

About Ralph

Ralph Benmergui is a Canadian television and radio broadcaster, strategic communications professional and spiritual counselor. Follow Ralph on social at @RalphBenmergui

HOW DO YOU SHAPE THE WORLD?

It was almost six months ago that we launched Shape the World blog. In that time, we’ve explored topics such as progressive urban design, social housing, public art and virtual reality, just to name a few. We also hosted four podcast episodes and an urbanXchange event.

The blog was created to promote the impact and importance of design. Although most of us aren’t urban designers, architects or city planners, we all have a major impact on the world around us. Every decision we make shapes the world in some way.

Now we want to know how YOU shape the world. We will be participating in Supercrawl 2019, in Hamilton, ON on Saturday, Sept. 14 from 2-4 pm. Stop by and let us know!

Can’t make it out? Let us know below, how YOU are shaping the world:

THE GILETS JAUNES: A REACTION TO PROGRESSIVE URBAN DESIGN?

Nicholas Kevlahan

Gilets Jaunes meeting in Grenoble. (Credit: Coline Buch)

I spent the past year working in Grenoble, a city about the size of Hamilton (metro population: 452 000) in southeast France near the Alps.  As someone interested in urban design, I was particularly looking forward to seeing how Grenoble’s new Mayor, Éric Piolle, was implementing his bold plans to make Grenoble more environmentally sustainable, attractive and inclusive. 

These changes have included implementing a default speed limit of 30 km/h, shifting road space from cars to pedestrians, cyclists and public transit, and an effort to “green” the city by planting more trees and improving public parks.

He is also building a network of long-distance separated bike paths between downtown and the suburbs (“Chronovélo”: 44 km on four routes to be completed by 2020).  On the social inclusivity front, they will increase the proportion of geared-to-income social housing from 21% to 25% of all housing stock by 2025.

Park-like LRT lines in central Grenoble.

At the same time, however, France was being shaken by the weekly Saturday afternoon demonstrations and riots of the “Gilets Jaunes” (yellow vests). Although the Gilets Jaunes were protesting many different issues (including rising inequality and the reforms of the new centrist President Emmanuel Macron), at its heart the movement was a protest by those living in rural and exurban areas against those living in France’s cities. 

They were protesting not just against the relative success and wealth of the cities, but against their values.  And, in particular, the “green” environmentally sustainable values being promoted by people like Grenoble’s Green Party mayor. 

La Fête des Tuiles: a celebration of community and environmental groups on the Grenoble LRT lines last June.

It turned out that Grenoble was unaffected by the extreme violence and disruption that hit cities like Paris, Bordeaux and Toulouse.  The Gilet Jaune movement was relatively peaceful and rapidly decreased in size after the initial November and December “Actes”.

But the Grenoble Gilet Jaune protests did share one common feature with these others: they were almost exclusively driven by people who came in from the surrounding regions and neighbouring departments, not by the residents of the city itself.  They were coming to protest against their fellow urban-dwelling citizens, as much as against the government. 

Why did the protesters feel the need to drive for an hour or more to protest in Grenoble (or in Paris or Bordeaux or Toulouse) rather than protesting in their local towns?

One factor is that mid-size and larger French cities really are, in many ways, very successful attractive places to live.  And in many cases, they are becoming much wealthier than the surrounding rural areas.

Public transport is excellent, infrastructure is very well maintained and they are lively and liveable.  Outside of Paris, they are also relatively affordable: it is cheaper to live in Grenoble than in Hamilton, even though Grenoble is a very economically successful high tech hub that attracts a lot of international residents.  Even though Paris is becoming increasingly unaffordable for buyers, it maintains some socioeconomic diversity because it is required (like all French cities) to ensure that at least 20% of all accommodation is geared to income. 

The attractiveness and investment in cities has paid off, but it has also accentuated the contrast with rural and exurban areas which have seen steep declines in population and resulting cuts in services. 

For many rural residents, the cities are another country filled with residents they perceive as “elites” who look down on them and their values. Gilet Jaune protesters often spoke of city residents watching their protests with a look of disdainful amusement.  They felt that they were in foreign territory! 

This protest by rural residents (not all of them poor) against the cities is an entirely new phenomenon.  It is important to note that these protests were apolitical: spanning the spectrum from extreme left to extreme right with many politically unengaged citizens in the middle.  Although various parties on the left and right tried to capture them, the Gilets Jaunes remained outside traditional politics. 

They are protesting not so much inequality or elitism per se, as the urban/rural divide.  This divide in wealth and values has developed in many countries (especially the USA), but you don’t see rural Americans travelling en masse to protest in New York, Chicago or LA!

The aftermath of a Gilet Jaune riot Saturday 25 November 2018 on the Champs Élysées in Paris. (Credit: L. Nicollet)

One little noticed feature of the Gilet Jaune movement, especially outside France, is that it is in some ways a protest movement of motorists against policies that they feel disadvantage driving. 

The protests were triggered by two reforms: a small rise in the gas tax (to reduce carbon emissions) and a reduction in the speed limit on rural highways from 90 km/h to 80 km/h (to reduce injuries and fatalities). 

Neither of these changes would seem to be that significant (in fact the second should cancel the cost of the first), but they triggered a wave of outrage in the countryside.  They were seen as the unfeeling decisions of an urban elite who didn’t care that rural residents depend on their cars.

As we’ve seen in Hamilton’s two-way conversion debate, even in cities many motorists’ self-identity is closely tied to their cars.  An attack on easy and cheap driving is an attack on me! 

One of the unofficial leaders of the movement, Éric Drouet, is a long-distance truck driver and car tuning enthusiast who posts numerous videos and commentaries on Facebook while driving around the country.  Outside the big cities, the signature Gilet Jaune actions were to camp out on roundabouts, damage photo radars and block (or make “free”) autoroute toll booths.  (At one point about 75% of all photo radars were put out of action, which resulted in a big jump in motorist deaths that the Gilets Jaunes and motorist groups blamed on … the speed limit reductions.) 

The Bulgarian sociologist Ivaylo Ditchev has even claimed that the Gilet Jaune protests are essentially a protest by motorists against the efforts of urbanites to reduce the place of cars in cities (and in society as a whole). 

The “war on cars” does not just make their life more difficult and expensive, it strikes at the core of their identity.

He points out that driving is a largely solitary, private, activity and that a motorists’ movement will therefore necessarily be individualist and lack a clear focus or political structure.  It is a reactionary movement of individuals with a range of personal concerns and priorities, not a political movement in the traditional sense. Almost all the organizing was done at a grassroots level via social media postings (primarily Facebook), rather than actual meetings or through the formation of a political party.

This is clear from the central political demand of the Gilets Jaunes (decided via Facebook polls): the Référendum d’Initiative Citoyenne (RIC). This is essentially government by referendum, with the aim of bypassing political parties and members of parliament entirely and letting the people make all decisions directly and individually. 

For those interested in urban design, the most important lesson from the Gilet Jaune movement is perhaps that decisions about city structure and mobility are not just about engineering, protecting the environment or optimizing how we get around. Our feelings about where we live, how we live and how we get around are central to our sense of self and self-worth.  They define us.

When the Mayor of Paris or Grenoble states that their goal is to make their city more liveable by reclaiming space that has been given over to the automobile, many people (especially rural or exurban residents) see this as a personal attack on them and their way of life. 

When these urban design decisions are actually successful (despite over-wrought predictions of disaster every time a bike lane is installed), it actually increases tensions since cities become ever more attractive places to live and work.  Those who objected to the changes forget that the city has become wealthier and more attractive in large part because of the changes they opposed.

Here in Canada, the yellow vest movement is a very different beast.  But it does feed off some of the same anti-elite and anti-urban feelings of the Gilets Jaunes.  Somewhat shockingly, the yellow vest protesters at City Hall have even used vehicles as weapons, driving a school bus at counter-protesters.

This doesn’t mean that we should stop making our cities more liveable, economically successful places (and Canadian cities like Hamilton suffered decades of under-investment and decline before their recent tentative revival).  And it doesn’t mean that we should stop reclaiming urban space lost to motor vehicles for human beings.  But we should perhaps be more sensitive to the fact that many people see these changes as threatening attacks on their core values and sense of self. 

RETHINKING SOCIAL HOUSING

Ala Abuhasan

Cities around the globe have been planning and building social housing projects for decades. Focused on maximizing the number of units, the quality of dwellings is usually overlooked. Generally, certain typologies have driven the way we design social housing. For instance, a top-down planning philosophy—or a military planning philosophy—is evident in many projects. This method of approaching social housing usually leads to the design of endless rows of depersonalized dwelling units. No attention is given to the quality of life nor to the community aspect of such spaces.  

An Illustration of Military Planning Philosophy

Most of these schemes are built in rural areas—far from cities and job opportunities—making them socially isolated, dehumanizing and unsustainable. Therefore, changing our approach to the design of social housing will ultimately create more sustainable communities.  

An excellent example of successful social housing is Goldsmith Street, in Norwich, England. The street is a high-density social housing scheme by Mikhail Riches. The project re-imagines social housing as an opportunity to create a highly efficient, economical, community-driven fabric within the city. The Passivhaus design of dwelling units drastically reduces fuel bills for tenants. Communal gardens and planted alleys allow for safe areas for children to play and for residents to engage in social activities. The design enhances the wellbeing of occupants and establishes a strong community.

Other examples of successful social housing include Savonnerie Heymans and Le Lorrain by MDW Architecture. The designs focus on creating a variety of spaces to accommodate different family needs. In addition, each complex houses a children’s playground and areas for events and social gatherings.  

As architects, we work to sustain our communities. We are obliged to design good spaces that promote healthy living.  In successful housing projects, residents build emotional ownership of the place, they connect to it, they love it, they maintain it.