Urban Development Germany: An Architectural Wasteland in Berlin

Berlin is something of an artistic Mecca in Europe attracting millions and generations of artists from around the world making it one of the most vibrant cities and a culture capital. All is not quiet on the architectural front however. There are thousands of dissenting voices with regards to the direction that the city’s urban planning has taken in the past decade. The German newspaper der Spiegel has described it as an “architectural wasteland”. So what ails Berlin’s urban planning department?

Money for one is a problem. The onrush on real estate investments and developments seems to have created what der Spiegel describes as “aesthetic opportunism” which drives thousands of real estate investors to put numerous cheap construction projects in the city. Berlin adopted an open arms policy towards investors at the turn of the millennium without proper vision for the architectural future of the city and the result was the rudderless building boom that has been witnessed in the last decade.  Buildings are coming up which are “as charming as the cash register”.  Several government buildings and building areas were auctioned to investors to put up architectural facades without regard to what Berliners actually want for their city. This pure commercial motive is what has created Berlin’s “architectural wasteland”.

Did Berlin Miss Opportunities to Shape its Urban Architecture

The fall of the Berlin Wall two decades ago at first created new opportunities but the city’s new urban planners embraced an anti-modern “critical reconstruction” which was a throwback to the city’s past architectural heritage.  So Berlin missed the first opportunity to truly define its architectural future after the reunification.  While Berlin’s general architectural landscape has been stuck in a stillbirth since the early 90s, the city has experienced some architectural wonders over the past two decades, such as the Berlin Jewish Museum, the German Historical Museum, and the DZ Bank Building. Other notable architectural exceptions to Berlin’s dearth of innovation in the architectural sphere include Norman Forster’s Reichstag face-lift.

DZ Bank Building

DZ Bank Building

Building 21st Century Berlin: Collective approaches

Many developers are busy building new luxury houses for the city’s wealthy elite, a trend which has been described as the “Russification” of Berlin. The social housing schemes have come to a halt and the city is busy building for the high earners. But Berlin is also changing old building habits and embracing more collective approaches to urban development which include citizen participation in urban planning and development. An example of this collective approach to the 21st century urban development can be seen in the Holzmarkt project which is based near the Spree River and offers hope that Berlin may adopt bolder and more innovative architectural designs in harmony with the aspirations of city residents.


Cluster Development in India for Urban Regeneration and the Heritage Conservation

One of the factors that many old cities have to grapple with is meeting residential housing needs with limited spaces and a backdrop of high value heritage buildings and residential areas where communities have established livelihoods for generations. Cluster development provides a means to maximize land use and preserve the city’s heritage value by grouping the residential developments in one location while reserving  a large amount of land for public spaces and pedestrian use.  The practice is growing popularity in some Indian cities such as Mumbai and Pune where it has been adopted in urban development.

What Indian Cities Can Achieve with Clustered Urban Development

Indian cities have never been the most orderly and as more Indians move to the cities, the resulting overcrowding is expected to exert greater strain on the city’s resources such as land and the existing structures and core urban areas of heritage value. Clustered development will allow for greater regeneration of old city areas and lead to greater improvements of the city’s infrastructure and social amenities.  The second advantage of clustered development is that it permits for better planning and development of well spaced and well lit residential buildings away from the poorly lit narrow streets of the old areas  of the city. Many of the city redevelopment initiatives have been abused by greedy investors and clustered development eliminates this by prioritizing and structuring redevelopment programs which eliminates the loopholes and the abuse.

One of the biggest city redevelopment initiatives of the older core urban areas that will utilize clustered development is the redevelopment of Mumbai’s Bhindi Bazaar, Byculla.  The redevelopment program is expected to impact as many as 20,000 lives and will see some 3200 housing units being restored. There are other core areas in the city of Mumbai which have been marked out for redevelopment.  These areas have very rich historical and  cultural heritage and are  a melting pot of several cultures and traditions from different parts of India. Cluster development is needed in such areas to cater for the very minute needs of the populace.

Cities need to employ an amalgamation of plots for cluster development  so as to prevent new constructions from sprouting from every corner of the cities and cannibalizing the few public spaces reserved for pedestrian use, amenities, roads and lots of sunlight inside the buildings  and fresh air.  City development plans in India must increasingly put the social needs of the population into consideration, particularly in regeneration projects and this can be adequately accomplished by employing cluster development plans.

New Social Housing Models Needed for the Global Poor

The wealth divides are deepening and the base of the pyramid is feeling the greatest strain. In cities across the developing world, evictions of the poor are becoming more commonplace and the local authorities are unable to find solutions that address long term housing problems at the bottom of the pyramid. The evictions are becoming increasingly brutal as the nouvea riche in the developing countries are increasingly viewing the poor as a nuisance and an “embarrassment” to their well laid out lives. In Africa and many Asian cities, the situation is set to get bleaker as more people migrate to the cities leading to overcrowding and the stretching of resources.  These cities will double in size in the next 20 years and no contingency plans have been made to expand services and increase access to affordable housing. In poorer countries, the situation is exacerbated by poor land laws and regulations, corruption, and a nonexistent or poor synergy between the private and public sectors.

Current market trends not favourable for social housing

The response to this housing crisis has been wanting. In the developing countries, many under-resourced NGOs have been making social investments to bridge the gap but it is a pitiable drop in the ocean. Even in the developed markets, lack of affordable housing has pushed many to homelessness.  Austerity measures in most Western countries have seen many governments and local authorities cut down on budgets for public housing projects.  Local authorities are off-loading public housing schemes to the private markets so as to expand revenue base.  Many government initiatives that were traditionally aimed at social housing providers are now attracting the big real estate developers further diminishing the potential of the social housing market.

Meeting the Challenge for Social Housing

Meeting the challenge for social housing requires a very multi-pronged approach. There is a need for synergy amongst the disparate players-real estate developers, social landlords, financiers  and policy makers so as to meet the housing challenge for the poor. Some of the players have deployed a hybrid approach towards this problem. For example, some social landlords are diversifying into private rented sector and reinvesting the profits back to the social housing market to ensure sustainability. This mixed business model can be profitable and sustainable but the social landlords must have good knowledge of the private market.  Many large commercial real estate developers are also diversifying into the social housing market.

Funding for Social Housing

Social housing initiatives have traditionally relied on grants to invest in their communities but there’s a need for a paradigm shift and new business models. Can social housing  companies pursue new investment and funding channels and still remain profitable? The social landlords must improve their capacity and learn to compete in a tough financial climate.  Greater partnership is needed with local authorities, and other partners in the industry to develop longer term investments in the communities.  The onus is on social housing providers to increase efficiency and emphasize the importance of their work to gain greater support from key partners.

Skepticism About Housing Recovery: Are We Out of the Woods?

For the last couple of years the Obama administration has been assuring us that economic recovery is imminent, and up until now, most of us have been scoffing at these assertions thanks to continued foreclosures and ongoing unemployment rates. But according to pundits everywhere, the recent bump in the housing market might just be the beginning of the end where the Great Recession is concerned. Of course, popular media outlets haven’t exactly been the paragons of valid information on this front over the last few years, a state of affairs that we probably owe to the 24/7 news cycle and the fact that filler often takes the form of rampant speculation in the absence of actual news to report. But setting that entirely aside, anyone who has been poking around on MLS sites like Zillow and Trulia is probably aware that foreclosures have all but vanished, short sales are drying up, and housing prices are actually starting to increase. The only real question is whether this is going to become a trend or if it’s merely a short-lived anomaly in the ongoing recessi Continue reading

How to Clean Up San Francisco’s Dirty Streets

My previous blog post discussed Travel and Leisure’s recent list of America’s Dirtiest Cities.  As I stated at the beginning of that post, I have found San Francisco to be quite dirty with trash and litter in comparison with my previous hometown of Toronto.  While a lot of San Francisco is quite clean, there are definitely large sections that are downright filthy.  While I don’t want to complain about the city’s litter problems, I do want to offer a couple of ideas that I believe could greatly decrease the trash on San Francisco’s streets.  Below is a list of these ideas.  Some of them are more concrete, easy to execute ideas whereas other ones may require more thinking:

  • The public trash cans throughout San Francisco are far too open.  Homeless people can easily sift through the trash in these garbage cans and often end up throwing up a lot of the trash on the ground.  Additionally, if the trash can is full, the wind can easily blow the trash out of the can and into the street and side walk around the can.  The trash cans should be changed to a trash can that must be opened to deposit trash (similar to trash cans you would find at food courts).  In Toronto, for instance, many of the public trash cans would require you to step on a lever to open the top and deposit the trash.  Even when opened, it is difficult to reach into the trash, which would stop the problem of homeless people sifting through the trash and throwing the garbage on the streets.
  • Increase the fines on littering to something very high ($1000?).  This may sound extreme, but it will certainly make just about everyone to think twice about littering.
  • Incent those who pick up garbage on the street.  People get a small amount of change whenever they deposit an empty can or bottle.  Perhaps we could the same with garbage.  For instance, for each full bag of trash someone picks up and deposits to the San Francisco Garbage Collection Services, they would get $5.  While this would cost the city extra money, it could be offset by less need for street cleaners if it turned out to be a successful program.  The only potential issue is that people could abuse the system by simply taking trash from a garbage can to fill up a bag.
  • Give out fines for anyone who leaves out unsecured garbage or recycling to be picked up by garbage collection.  This garbage or recycling needs to either be in a closed bin or tied down so it will not blow away.

Toronto Transit Commissions Takes Stance on Whether to Privatize Toronto Public Transit

For anyone who lives in Toronto and takes the subway fairly regularly, you may have noticed the posters discussing the potential negative outcomes of privatizing Toronto public transit and using Vancouver, Melbourne and London and examples of why not to privatize public transit in Toronto.   You can read the full story in the Toronto Sun article entitled ‘Keep TTC public‘ about the 1/2 million dollar campaign by the TTC to make people aware of why the TTC shouldn’t be privatized.

Well now, it’s time for my rant…

Having moved to Toronto nearly four years ago, I can truly say that the TTC is the worst public transit system I have dealt with.  The ticket prices are astronomical (the price of a monthly pass is double that of Boston’s for example), the staff is extremely overpaid, rude and generally quite lazy, and the coverage for a city of Toronto’s size is abysmal.  On top of this, the subway stations are generally dirty and all of the subways and streetcars are old and regularly broken.  The fact that there has been so many problems trying to get the light rail projects off the ground highlight the TTC’s inefficiencies.

What I find most insulting is the fact that they bring up Melbourne’s public transit system as an example of why privatization does not work.  Most people in Toronto have not likely lived in Melbourne nor have they visited it.  Having lived in Melbourne back in 2006, I can set the record straight that Melbourne’s public transit system is a huge step up from Toronto’s.  The coverage of the transit system is incredible (whereas Toronto has 3 subway lines, Melbourne has more than a dozen).  The prices are reasonable and the trains, trams and buses are both efficient and clean.

So what can I conclude from all this?  Well if Melbourne really is an example of what happens when you privatize a public transit system, then I believe Toronto’s TTC should be privatized as soon as possible.  So thank you Toronto Transit Commission for helping me realize what the right thing truly is to do, but at least we’re not in Memphis Homes,

The Fate of Ontario Place

Most adult Toronto residents view Ontario Place with a true sense of nostalgia.    Over the course of several decades, the inner city theme park delighted visitors with it’s water park, IMAX movies and beautiful lake side views.  However, over the last 5 to 10 years, Ontario Place has begun to lost some of it’s lustre.  Despite decent attendance on the weekends, Ontario Place can often be quite empty throughout the week.   Recently, according to this Toronto Star article, the Provincial Crown corporation has started to look at overhauling the entire Ontario Place complex.  The extremely unfortunate thing is that this may mean that all the buildings currently on the Ontario Place property may be torn down.

The Provincial Crown corporation is looking for ideas to redevelop the site and are hoping to make a decision by 2011.   I have heard rumours of such developments as a high end condo complex and a hotel to accommodate all the convention goers at Exhibition Place.  However, it seems quite alarming (and disheartening) that the idea of simply improving the amusement park hasn’t been considered.  There are many buildings on the site already that are considered an icon of Toronto and to destroy all these buildings seem like a somewhat ludicrous thing to do.    Thus, it seems to make more sense that if they want to make better use of the space, they simply need to improve what they already have.

Ontario Place is an extremely popular spot for families and provides Toronto with a central amusement park for everyone to enjoy.  It is also a cheaper alternative to the overpriced Canada’s Wonderland outside of Toronto.   And it seems that there is a growing community who want to make sure that site of Ontario Place continues to be a place for everyone to enjoy.  I have already found (and joined) a Facebook group entitled ‘Save Ontario Place‘ and I urge those who don’t want to lose this important piece of Toronto to join.  And while I am intrigued to hear all the different proposals, I truly believe the best one is one that improves what is already there and not one that takes away a true piece of Toronto history.

Photo Courtesy of Flickr User Canuck with a Camera

Victoria, B.C.:The Anti-Tourist City

Residents of any place have often been notorious for being a bit anti-tourist.  Anyone who has ever lived anywhere for a certain number of years has at one time or another scoffed at tourists taking pictures of the most random sights.  Yet, as much as we hate to admit it, tourists are a big part of a successful city.  Infrastructure, attractions and museums need to be present to support these people. As well, cities may end up with certain characteristics that outsiders may often identify it with.  For better or for worse, Los Angeles is a city of movie stars, London is very proper and full of castles, and Rio de Janeiro is an all day/all night party. Do these characteristics tell the whole story or even a bit of a story?  Not likely but they do often help lure the tourist dollars into the city.

Victoria, British Columbia is a strange case.  Located on Vancouver Island in Western Canada, Victoria has been tagged as a little piece of Britain in Canada.  And I can tell you from being there that the locals hate it.  And even from an outsider’s perspective, I can see why.  It is continuously used as a representation of the city when in fact many of the ‘Britishness’ of the city is for the tourists only.

What’s more is that Victoria has been closing various attractions to the delight of the locals.  Several attractions have closed in the last decade, most prominently, the Crystal Garden, an indoor garden featuring a large number of birds.  More recently, the Royal London Wax Museum has opted to move away from Victoria due to the inability to secure a long term lease on their current address.  And how do the locals feel about all of this?  They are strangely happy about it.  While the wax museum may not be high on class, it does offer a destination for the entire family.  The next attraction under siege in the Undersea Gardens, Victoria’s own aquarium.  Although undersized, it once again provides a welcome attraction for touring families.

Victoria is a beautiful destination with a large number of fantastic sights.  Yet, a city needs to support a variety of tourist needs.  Sometimes, locals of tourist destinations need to understand that tourism and tourists help the city give it another dimension.  So go out there and hug a tourist.  And remember, your city is the world’s to share.   So support whatever wrong notion others may have about your city.

G-20′s Impacts on a City


Well, as the G-20 summit descends upon my current home of Toronto and protests and chaos begin, I wondered  if there are any long term effects on a host city for the G-20.  Typically, an enormous amount of money is spent on such an event and the current price tag for the G-20 summit and the G-8 summit combined (the 2010 G-8 summit is taking place 3 or so hours north of Toronto) is a whopping $1 billion.  One would think that with such an enormous price tag, there would be some kind of long term impacts.I took a look at the Wikipedia entry for the Pittsburgh 2009 summit.  Interestingly, the city was chosen due to it’s economic recovery from it’s depressing post-manufacturing days.  And while the Direct Energy Business greened the city

’s electrical usage during the two days of the summit, there was no information pertaining to the long term effects on the city.
However, one has to believe that such a massive event must have an effect on the future efficiency and effectiveness of the city’s police department for if it can handle something  as chaotic as the protests for the G-20, surely the police force must be better equipped for any possible future protests.  So as Toronto becomes a zoo of protesters over the next couple of days, I hope that the economic and social costs of such an event are outweighed by the future benefits.

Housing + Transportation Index

The Chicago based Center for Neighbourhood Technology is changing the way we look at housing affordability in American cities.  Traditionally, one would base the affordability of housing in a neighbourhood on the percent a family spends on their housing.  A neighbourhood in which the average family spends 30% or less was deemed affordable.    However, the Center for Neighbourhood Technology is redefining how we look at affordability.   The new measure of affordability takes both housing and transportation into consideration.   With the new measurement of affordability, a neighbourhood in which the average family spends 45% or less on housing and transportation is considered affordable.  While one might expect that roughly the same number of American neighbourhoods would be considered affordable under both scales of affordability, the rather alarming part is these numbers are not even close.

Under the old measurement, 69% of U.S. communities are considered affordable.  However, shockingly, by factoring in both housing and transportation, that number shrinks to 40%.  Does anyone else find this down right scary?  Less than half of American neighbourhoods are considered affordable.

One might automatically blame the high transportation costs for such a decrease in affordability.  But it seems to be more complex than that.  For instance, traditionally, the farther one travels from the center of the city, the cheaper the housing costs.  Yet, moving away from the center of a city means that the transportation costs increase, perhaps more rapidly than the housing prices decrease causing an imbalance.

However, this blog post suggests that there is good news to all of this:

The good news is that many federal policymakers understand the impact of transportation on land use, housing, environment and affordability.  First, a new partnership between USDOT, EPA and the Dept. of Housing and Urban Development to coordinate and invest in sustainable development is included in President Obama’s 2011 budget.   Second, Senator Dodd (D-CT) and Representative Cohen (D-TN) have both introduced livability bills that would establish offices of sustainability in HUD and DOT that would provide competitive grants for transit-oriented development projects throughout the country.  Third, the next federal transportation bill could provide even more funding and incentives to increase transportation choices and greater proximity between housing, transit and jobs.

To learn more about the Housing and Transportation Affordability Index, you can check out their site: Housing and Transportation Affordability Index.