End Treeless Asphalt Deserts Downtown
Central City 2035 Key Element
Last year, as part of its Comprehensive Plan update process, Portland City Council passed CC 2035, an updated plan for the central city. The Key Elements of this plan give interested residents strong footing to address the surface parking lots in downtown’s West End as the fourth key element is: 4. Redevelopment. Encourage new development on surface parking lots and vacant lots..
Surface parking lot owners have negatively impacted the health and well-being of downtown residents for far too long. Besides the noise and air pollution that they bring to their neighbors these treeless asphalt deserts are more than 10 degrees hotter than surrounding areas. When it’s 105 degrees and smoky, walking by them for block after block is nearly unbearable–especially for the many downtown residents who use canes and walkers. Take a look at what I’m talking about–bearing in mind that this is DOWNTOWN Portland. . .
You might believe that with current real estate values, they will all be developed soon. But throughout the central city building boom in Portland, this hasn’t happened. In fact, Portland Art Museum’s lot depicted in Images 6 and 7 has been a surface parking lot for 88 years!
In August of 2017, commercial real estate consultant, Brian Owendoff explained to a Portland State University Real Estate class his opinion on why there will be little movement:
1. Land Price too high: very tough to make an apartment or office tower economically viable @ $600 SF for land cost.
2. The Inclusionary Zoning requirement reduces net operating income by 10%, more or less, making apartment development not economically viable.
3. Construction costs are very high due in large part to labor shortages.
All three result in project returns below what is acceptable for institutional investment or third party construction debt.
Except for the fact that some of the owners of the lots (the Goodmans, the Schnitzers and Portland Art Museum) also have the capacity to develop them, Owendoff’s market-based explanation may help explain why we’ve seen no redevelopment of the treeless asphalt deserts during the building boom.. But we can change “the market”!!! I have long suggested as a solution to this problem: the City of Portland should TAX LAND AT A HIGHER RATE THAN BUILDINGS. By taxing land at or near its development potential, owners of land that is used at less than maximum productivity–e.g.,surface parking lots–would be paying a disproportionate amount in taxes in order to keep it that way. See Land Value Tax for Downtown Portland.
Meanwhile, we could require that surface parking lots, while they remain, take a page from Ecotrust parking lot. Owners must install trees and bioswales that manage ALL stormwater onsite. They could even become fun places to hold events.
Let’s demand more from downtown Portland’s surface parking lot owners. Tell City Council that it’s not fair to downtown residents and visitors that owners of surface parking lots help destroy our air and water quality–not to mention temperature and aesthetic quality–with such impunity. You can help end treeless asphalt deserts by developing a vision for what you’d like to see on one of them. Then get your vision out via mainstream and social media. Call the owner and present it to them too. Grab a space on City Council’s agenda and present your vision. And watch for my vision for the Portland Art Museum lot soon!
Published July 9, 2019. Adapted from CC2035 Testimony of Mary Vogel/PlanGreen Sept. 7, 2017
March 8, 2018
Sustainable Stormwater Management: A Landscape-Driven Approach to Planning and Design
by Thomas Liptan, with writer David Santan, Jr
strikes an optimistic note about the future of our cities in an era of climate change:
Indeed, the cities of the future will be garden cities. Not for aesthetics, though beauty will follow as a by-product, but for the energy savings, water management, shelter from extreme heat and precipitation, noise buffers, and perhaps most importantly the habitat and urban wildlife these plants will support. Our cities will come alive with people, plants, and creatures thriving in interdependent coexistences” (p252)
Primary author, Tom Liptan, is hoping to change the nature of urban design itself. As a sustainable cities advocate, such change is a vision that I share.
Liptan adds yet another term to the sustainable stormwater management lexicon: landscape stormwater management. No American city has implemented more of these LSM approaches than Portland, Oregon (where they both live—as does this reviewer). Portland has roughly 7,000 green stormwater facilities in place—including a few in its downtown! They not only manage stormwater, they “conserve water and energy, reduce urban heat island effect and thermal gain in waterways, recharge groundwater supplies, create habitat and support biodiversity, buffer noise, and provide a healthier, more adaptive, more resilient infrastructure”(p18). I will add that they make a walk or bike ride more pleasant and interesting and they are cheaper and more effective than pipes as well!
I first met primary author, landscape architect, Tom Liptan, in the early 90’s when he gave a presentation for a local builders group on green roofs in Europe. He issued a call for us to start applying green roof technology in Portland. Ultimately, Liptan became the Ecoroof Technical Manager in the Sustainable Stormwater Division of the City’s Bureau of Environmental Services (BES). Today we participate together in Portland’s Green Roof Info Thinktank (GRIT). He and I were early advocates for restoring Portland area streams—a movement that gave impetus to the practices in this book.
This book is not just about Portland and its 7,000 LSM facilities. It’s about a design philosophy that puts the water in the landscape rather than storm drains and pipes. And it uses examples of LSM design from all over the world. Although it has lots of information you’d find in a manual: site assessment, site design, construction, inspection, cost considerations, operations and maintenance—it’s style and unusual organization makes it far more interesting than most manuals or handbooks.
As a professional who has long-criticized gizmo green, I appreciate Liptan’s statement that “a good designer relies on principles of design rather than products.” He won my heart when he exhorts us to “look first to native materials and natural systems” and employ “Design with native plants first and foremost.” It’s not immediately apparent to me that many designers in Portland actually do that—so Liptan and I have a lot more exhorting to do. I’m hoping this book and my review will help.
Sustainable Stormwater Management is organized into two major sections: Landscape Stormwater Design: Water Management from a Landscape Architectural Perspective and Landscape Stormwater Management: Vegetative Approaches to Water Management. The four chapters of the first section cover guiding principles, economics, policy and politics and something of an exhortation to the landscape architecture profession that Liptan sees as the potential leaders of this movement.
It is true that landscape architects have a jealously-guarded stranglehold over specifying plants in commercial facilities in Oregon. As a streams and natural areas restoration volunteer and native plant/ecology focused tour leader, I throw up my hands about this stranglehold every time I examine a rain garden or stormwater planter facility in Portland and see mostly over-used, alien ornamental species—some of which are invasive elsewhere. And I’ve spent much time reporting deliberately planted INVASIVE species in the past.
I now advocate that only those trained (formally or informally) in ecological restoration be allowed to design Portland’s stormwater facilities. (Just like most architects get little training in urban design, most landscape architects get little training in plants before they get their credentials—though the latter seems to be a more tightly kept secret.) Liptan admits this later in the book: Addressing the engineering, architecture and landscape architecture disciplines: “Water, soil and plants as stormwater management elements are new territory and we all have a lot to learn”(p249). “Good designers are not born but educated. . .Better education for designers and city review staff can reduce the waste of money and space.” (p250) Portland would do well to reward and learn from those of us who agree with Liptan.
The far longer second section, Landscape Stormwater Management: Vegetative Approaches to Water Management, has most of the data, tables, rules of thumb and cautions that you might find in a manual. But, with its pleas for further research, rallying cries for creative approaches, page-after-page of captioned photos and its call to design with nature using native materials, this book goes beyond a manual.
Chapter 5—Water-Accepting Landscapes—is the chapter that covers Rain Gardens and Stormwater Planters, Green Streets, and Rainwater Harvesting amongst other topics. Liptan barely uses the term bioswale conceding that it is like a long rain garden. Rather he distinguishes between rain gardens with their sloped sides and planters with their vertical structural sides. Besides that there are three types of either system: 1) infiltration landscapes, 2) partial infiltration landscapes, and 3) flow-through landscapes.
Although Liptan devotes only a half page of text under the heading “Green Street” he does have ten pages with captioned photos of green streets. The reader can find more green street commentary in his discussions of Nashville’s Deaderick Street, Seattle’s SEA Street, Ballard (Seattle) Roadside Rain Garden Project, Portland’s Tabor to the River, Halsey Green Street and Headwaters at Tryon Creek projects. In fact much of the latter half of Chapter 5 on Site Design is devoted to making green streets work better—covering such areas as site assessment, sizing, directing flows, plantings and soils, construction, plumbing, cost considerations and operations and maintenance (O&M). (Although I understand “The intent is to focus on the outcome of the approach rather than a specific type of implementation. . .,” I found this organization a bit confusing.)
I’ve long been impressed by Tom Liptan’s minimalist approach: “The ideal LSM design should never need irrigation, pruning, or fertilization.” He cautions that O&M plans must state explicitly how plantings should be managed, otherwise most landscape contractors will default to their standard approach: “Spray it, soak it, mow it, blow it away.” Ninety percent of street planters in Portland are not irrigated—resulting in huge O&M savings. (However, as a Green Street Steward in downtown Portland, last summer I was begging nearby retailers to water the downtown planters I steward so that they wouldn’t lose any more plants.)
Most of Chapter 6—Vegetative (Living) Cover of Impervious Surfaces—is devoted to what Portland
calls ecoroofs, with Liptan using the more generalized term “vegetative roofs” to appeal to a wider audience. However he moves through vegetative walls, vegetative planters, trees, and vines before returning to research on vegetative roofs and then to their design.
He is again minimalist: Simpler vegetative roof designs found in Europe are “as good or better than most North American designs.” I would be disappointed if I didn’t see the Red Cinder Ecoroof design that Liptan developed in Portland. It’s comprised of a moisture mat, soil, and sedums planted in red cinder mulch. It’s low cost, low-maintenance, self-sustaining with no irrigation and adaptable to any roof or membrane system AND it protects the roof membrane, manages stormwater and creates habitat. “The sedums with the red cinder retard colonization by other plants for many years,” maintains Liptan. Some additional recommendations he makes for vegetative roofs: 1) some kind of mineral mulch if not red cinder—for both moisture retention and shading the soil; 2) integrate solar panels on your roof so the plants can benefit from the shade; 3) manage solar reflections on vegetation where possible—one solution is to cover dead plants with a thin layer of rock to protect the soil and perhaps allow some plants to return.
Chapter 7 asks the reader to think about how much impervious surface we really need then moves on to discussing porous pavement, depaving and stream daylighting. Liptan sees a bright future for buried creeks to reappear in our cities proclaiming that “A daylighted stream can be the nexus for the dramatic green transformation of an entire neighborhood.” Both the daylighting and depaving movements have been led for many years by unpaid volunteers who have formed non-profits and enlisted more volunteers to get the work done. I’m glad to see Liptan exhorting design professionals to do more in this arena.
Liptan’s is a captivating vision for change in the way we design/re-design our cities. I hope more designers and advocates too will take to heart a fragment from the book that is going up on my bathroom mirror: “…the door to creativity stands open. Enter unencumbered by the boxes of conformity, and be amazed.”
Mary Vogel is a CNU accredited planner and founder of PlanGreen, a Woman Business Enterprise in Portland, OR that has paddled upstream for years to bring ecosystem services to excellent urban design. After achieving on-the-ground restorations and some important policy accomplishments in several of Portland’s and the region’s long-range plans pro bono, she would like to get paid work—perhaps outside of Oregon where she can best use her skills.
On November 9, the day after what for me was a cataclysmic election, and on most Wednesdays and Thursdays until the end of 2016, I found a haven in Portland City Council meetings. Not only did I take solace in offering testimony myself, but cheering on the testimony of citizens as young as GRADE SCHOOL age. Most of us–certainly the young– wanted Portland to not only continue, but increase its progressive agenda. The last Council accomplished much in those final two months, but there is still plenty left to do. Inspired by former mayoral candidate, Sarah Iannarone, I offer my own TO-DO list for Mayor Ted Wheeler and the new City Council.
In 2017, let’s help the City of Portland continue its leadership on climate change by addressing fossil fuels–both by reducing demand and by limiting their usage, transport and storage in Portland. We also need to divest the city’s money in them¹.
Reducing Demand for Fossil Fuels
- Make every neighborhood more walkable. This includes
- Adopt strong Residential Infill/Missing Middle policy to create the population levels to support the services in each neighborhood that folks want to walk to.
- Adopt Parking Management Policy improvements that help to manage demand–the type sought by Portlanders for Parking Reform and PBOT’s own Citywide Parking Strategy and its proposed Residential Parking Permit Program.
- Strengthen the Central City 2035 Plan re: trees and streetscape adding to the plan wider sidewalks and street trees to make downtown streets more than car sewers for commuters. (BTW, while I appreciate the need to give more focus to East Portland, as Iannarone suggests, the West End of downtown still has a predominantly low-income population, many of whom are people of different ethnic origins and races. And many use walkers or wheelchairs.)
- Insist on a revision of the Portland Art Museum Rothko Pavillion plan seeking to close off Madison Street plaza. Instead, focus on strengthening downtown walkability and resilience–e.g. negotiate a “Madison Walkway” between SW 11th and 12th to break up this superblock. Oppose any other property owner proposing to make downtown less walkable rather than more walkable!
- Since the greenest building is one that is already there, work with the Unreinforced Masonry Building owners in the West End—including the Art Museum—to do seismic upgrades so that fewer buildings need to be replaced after a seismic event. (PAM is not technically a URM, rather brick veneer; however, it was built in the 1930s and has not been seismically upgraded to today’s standards.)
- Phase out the use of studded tires that are the #1 cause of road damage and hence asphalt resurfacing—a very intensive use of fossil fuels. [I know that this is a State issue, but Portland must add this to its Legislative Agenda–see Preserving Oregon’s Roads.
Limiting Fossil Fuel Transport and Storage
Sierra Club and 350 PDX (I’m an active member of both) have played a leadership role here–along with my friends at Center for a Sustainable Economy. I testified at the last Council’s hearings on the no new Fossil Fuel Facilities policy and stand ready to help defend it–and to help Portland get enabling legislation to REQUIRE seismic upgrades on existing fossil fuel storage facilities.
The Housing Crisis
- In the absence of other immediately available options, partner with the member organizations of the Village Coalition to find additional spots where the homeless can self-organize into “tiny house villages”. This way we’ll waste less human energy—releasing it to help in the climate change effort.
- Ban no cause evictions and pursue other tenants’ rights policies in Mayor Wheeler’s Tenants Bill of Rights published during the campaign.
- Support the Community Land Trust concept that seeks to take housing off the private commodity speculative market and put it into public trust. This model gives participants security, equity and legacy in their housing. Over 50 years ago, the founders of the CLT concept saw this as a new model for land tenure in America–not just a band-aid to the system to help the low-income. I’d like to see the City of Portland help its own CLT, Proud Ground, revive the idea that there is a new model of housing for all incomes–one that has a tremendous body of law and practice already established.
Portland needs to nurture the budding activism of the school children and Millennials who gave testimony on a variety of climate-related issues over the past year by re-doubling on its progressive policy. As Tavis Smiley admonishes on PBS “Keep the Faith!”
¹I hope that our efforts will inspire those in other cities–especially Millennials–to work locally to get their own cities do likewise–making those cities more sustainable and resilient too. As much as I value Millennials’ migration to our city, I know we need them more in places where the fight may seem harder.
Mary Vogel is founder and principal of PlanGreen and a downtown neighborhood land use and transportation advocate.
April 14, 2016
Bernie Sanders is a housing affordability hero to a group of people in Burlington, VT. As Mayor of Burlington, Bernie was able to get the city to seed the founding of the Burlington Community Land Trust (BCLT) with a $220,000 grant. Sanders was at first skeptical about the limited equity concept the BCLT promoted. But he came to see the Community Land Trust (CLT) as both a means of achieving permanent affordability as well as a new model of land tenure for America. Now he admits that helping to found the BCLT was “the best thing I ever did as Mayor.”
Burlington Community Land Trust has since expanded into three counties around Burlington (Chittenden, Grand Isle and Franklin) and changed its name after its merger with an affordable rental non-profit in 2006 . It’s now the Champlain Housing Trust. With over $309 million in assets, CHT is the largest CLT in the nation. Its 2015 Annual Report shows that it owned 389 buildings (2227 units) of affordable rental housing, 33 commercial/industrial buildings and the land under 570 single family shared-equity homes. And it’s adding more units every year. This year, they are in process of developing another 160 permanently affordable units in a larger 700 unit development on the Burlington waterfront. In all, they control an impressive 7.6% of the Burlington area’s total housing stock.
How it works:
Community Land Trusts are nonprofit organizations, with a board composed of representatives of the public, members of professions with technical expertise, and the tenants of the CLT. The CLT obtains land through a number of means (purchase, donations, foreclosures, etc.) and removes it from the private, commodity speculative market. If there are not already buildings on the land, the CLT may build and either lease or sell the buildings with restrictive covenants. The CLT retains ownership of the land and sets a formula for shared equity as the properties appreciate. This formula is applied when the home on the property is sold.
As explained by Daniel Fireside writing in Dollars & Sense: When a normal home is offered for sale on the usual terms, it does virtually nothing to make the overall housing market more affordable. A land trust home, by contrast, creates a permanently affordable property because the land it sits on is removed from the speculative market. Most of the appreciation is retained by the housing trust (and by extension, the community), rather than the individual. In this way the trust model creates a bridge between purely public and purely private property.
This limited equity model still allows a reasonable return. In Burlington, the 233 homeowners who have resold a CHT home have realized, on average, a 31% annualized IRR [internal rate of return]! The model also allows the CLT to intercede in the case of a foreclosure. A study by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy showed that, as of 2010, homeowners within a land trust were 10 times less likely to default on their homes than their private-market counterparts.
A New Model of Land Tenure
The original impetus behind the CLT movement was to create a new institution to keep housing permanently affordable. The first people I ever met living in a CLT in the 1980s were NOT low-income, rather middle-income professionals who saw the CLT as a better way to live while also making a statement that we need a new model of land tenure. I believe the CLT is the best tool for transforming our housing system. By taking the land under housing off the private, commodity, speculative market, it helps to change the concept of housing from a commodity to be bought and sold for a profit. Instead it encourages us to see it as a social good that everyone needs and deserves. Involvement in the CLT also gives both renters and homeowners a say in how properties are managed. And it gives them a sense of community with all members of the CLT.
CLTs can work in both hot and cold markets. John Davis, former Chair of the Board of the Institute for Community Economics¹ and now a CLT consultant, says in an interview he did for Democracy Collaborative with Steve Dubb in 2011:
Most housing and community development programs in the United States have been designed as if there is no business cycle. What community land trusts are particularly good at is preventing the loss of homes, homeowners, and public investment at both the top and the bottom of the business cycle. We run counter to the threats and dangers that a fluctuating economy imposes on low- and moderate-income people.
Proud Ground – The Portland Region’s Community Land Trust
Proud Ground (a merger of Portland Community Land Trust and Clackamas Community Land Trust). It currently focuses on helping a limited subset of moderate-income people get into homeownership. (See Oregonian OpEd: One Way to Turn Moderate Income Portlanders into Homeowners by PG’s Diane Linn and Roger Henshaw). It has partnered with Bank of America to do an important study, Solving the Affordable Homeownership Gap that gives data about an out-of control housing market that is has largely been taken over by an investor class. To me, this study helps to demonstrate how unsustainable the current housing system is and why we need more systemic solutions than simply getting a few more people into such an anxiety-inducing system. Nonetheless, Proud Ground has many ways to get involved in making housing more permanently affordable on its website.
Achieving Housing Affordability for the Long-Term
To achieve real housing affordability for all in the Portland region, we will need to move beyond promoting the Community Land Trust model solely for the moderate-income and solely for homeownership. We will need to take a cue from Champlain Housing Trust and push Proud Ground to serve both rental and owner properties and to gain far more foothold in the Portland area market. It may be a long-term process, but we can take heart from the progress that Champlain Housing Trust has made in Burlington since 1984–nearly 8% of all housing. Various levels of local, regional and state government and private foundations, institutions and individuals owning property will need to partner with Community Land Trusts to change our housing model.
Ultimately, changing our housing model won’t just happen in Burlington or in Portland. Although I do believe strongly that we all need to work for change from the bottom up, it will help greatly to have a supportive federal government to promote and achieve this concept nationwide.
Put a Bern on Housing Affordability²
There is already a National Community Land Trust Network (now Grounded Solutions Network) that has been bringing leaders from CLTs across the nation together to discuss issues and best practices in CLTs for many years. They also push for policy change. Intersections 2016 claims to be “the only national conference dedicated to permanently affordable housing and the creation and preservation of just, equitable and inclusive communities across the country and around the globe.” The conference is expected to draw more than 350 professionals to Park City, Utah, September 26-29, 2016.
Grounded Solutions Network is likely our best chance to help us understand and then achieve change that needs to happen at the federal level. Meanwhile, let Bernie know you want him to repeat “the best thing I ever did as Mayor” on a larger scale–for ALL OF US. Let’s work to put a Bern on housing affordability.
¹Founded in 1979, the Institute for Community Economics (ICE) pioneered the modern community land trust (CLT) model, Today ICE is a federally certified Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) offering loans and more to create community land trusts. I worked for ICE in the 1990s.
²Most Portlanders will likely appreciate the take-off in my title on Portlandia’s “Put a bird on it.” A national audience may not.
Many thanks to Chris Donnelly of Champlain Housing Trust for spending nearly an hour on the phone with me answering my questions.
Another article worth reading: How Bernie Sanders Made Burlington Affordable by Jake Blumbart in Slate Jan. 19, 2016.
October 20, 2015
For those of us on the Greater Portland Inc. Sept. 27-30 Best Management Practices tour choosing the Regent Park Revitalization, doubtless, the most animated and enthusiastic speaker we encountered on the trip was Mitchell Kosny. Kosny is Associate Director of the Ryerson University School of Urban and Regional Planning and a former Chair of the Board of Directors at Toronto Community Housing Corporation during the ‘roll-out’ of Regent Park revitalization. Unfortunately, Dr. Kosny may not have realized two things: 1) We had spent the earlier part of the day sitting in meetings and were ready for a tour; 2) We were from the Pacific Northwest and therefore comfortable with rain. I knew Regent Park to be just a few blocks down the street from Ryerson. So, after nearly an hour sitting in Dr. Kosny’s PowerPoint lecture when he expressed doubt about doing a tour in the rain, , , I set off on my own tour.
Regent Park is being redeveloped in five phases with three of those phases currently underway. A key tenet of the revitalization is including both rent-geared-to-income and market rate units together in the same community. I could guess which was the market rate building because I was there at rush hour when a number of young people were coming home from work and others were leaving to walk their dogs.
When the Regent Park revitalization is completed over the next 10 to 15 years, 12,500 people will live in 5,115 units across 69 acres of the largest publicly funded community in Canada. The plan includes the replacement of the 2,083 existing social housing units in Regent Park with new, energy efficient, modern units and the introduction of approximately 3,000 market units for sale.
I was happy to see that Regent Park actually has a park! It’s a large park that is separate from the athletic fields that are currently under construction. There’s a separate dog park too! A community garden at one edge of the park is the front yard of many people who live in high rise housing.
The architecture of the new buildings is a departure from the red brick of social housing projects. Although there are some townhouses too, I was a bit surprised by the focus on high-rise housing, considering the bad rep that got with Cabrini Green and Pruitt Igo iin the US. However, Toronto seems to have a long history of housing its poor in high rise housing,. Another question I have about high rises has to do with resiliency. Considering the era of increasing natural disasters we are in, most high rises will fare very poorly without power for even a week or two. With Toronto’s mandatory Green Roof Bylaw and its Green Standards policy, its new high rises may be in better shape than most to weather power outages.
The revitalization also reconnects Regent Park to Toronto’s grid of streets and avenues, and includes the creation of new commercial spaces and community facilities including a bank, grocery store, aquatic center, new community center, restaurant and an arts & cultural center.
Regent Park Aquatic Center serves people from other neighborhoods as well. I spoke to a man from Leslieville neighborhood who was waiting in the park for his daughter who was using the swimming pool.
The Arts and Culture Centre known officially as Daniels Spectrum is seen as a center point of the neighborhood. (Daniels Corporation is the development company that partnered with Toronto Community Housing to build all five phases so they got naming rights to this key facility!) This 60,000 square foot facility is home to seven arts and innovation non-profit organizations. As we have seen in the U.S., the arts can offer an exciting career path to children from all income classes so I see this center as vital to the revitalization efforts. I saw lots of people coming and going during my brief observation.
Phase 3 is progressing with the development of the athletic fields and the addition of pedestrian-friendly streets connecting to other neighborhoods. Planners believed that because of its enclave-like street design, residents were cut off from the city, even though they lived a short streetcar ride from some of its most affluent neighbourhoods and greatest cultural attractions. More social and market housing is also part of phase 3– with completion estimated to be 2018 .
It bears repeating that a key tenet of the revitalization is including both subsidized and market rate units – together in the same community. Townhouse as well as high rise; rental as well as ownership opportunities are available. This sign advertises suites from the $300.000s but I also saw from the $200,000s.
Another key tenet is access to employment. Regent Park residents can get one-on-one help with job searching, local employment opportunities, career planning, education and training, and more. The Regent Park Employment Plan has an ambitious agenda.
Never one to avoid a challenge, I also spent some time exploring the older parts of Regent Park that have not yet been demolished. I’m not sure during which phase this seemingly vacant building will come down–and with the rain, there was no one around to ask. Any tenants who have to move because of construction get one year’s notice before demolition and five months’ notice before they have to move.
While Toronto’s version of the U.S. Hope VI program is impressive, like its counterpart in Portland, New Columbia, it has not solved all its problems. There had been three fatal shootings in the neighborhood in 2010 that left even Regent Park’s supporters in doubt. TCHC maintains that by incorporating crime prevention best practices into the design of the buildings and public areas and by linking tenants to jobs and training opportunities, it is improving community safety.
In his talk, Dr. Kosny spoke about the green that is not seen. One of those unseen aspects seems to be what Margaret Wente in The Globe and Mail calls “the most successful “normalization” project ever launched in Regent Park”:
. . . an all-encompassing program called Pathways to Education, which mentors and coaches secondary-school kids through graduation and beyond, and guarantees them a bursary if they graduate. (A big advantage, in my view, is that Regent Park has no secondary school, so the kids have no choice but to venture outside the ’hood.) Pathways connects them with the world and shows them how to navigate it.
Toronto-based journalist, Doug Saunders, in his book, The Arrival City, points to three things that are crucial for integrating immigrants into the middle class: education, transportation and access to jobs. Time will tell if Regent Park is doing all three well. At the end of 2015, it appears to be headed in the right direction.
Oct. 17, 2015
Our discussion of “The Next Urban Crisis” at University of Toronto, Rotman School of Management was another highlight of my Greater Portland Inc. trip to Toronto Sept. 27-30, 2015. There we spoke with professor, author and CityLab co-founder Richard Florida as well as Real Estate Developer, & Architect in City blogger Brandon Donnelly. During this discussion Spacing Magazine editor Matthew Blackett also shared some of the interesting insights I reported on in my Part 1 blog.
Richard Florida expressed his frustration with the Mayor Rob Ford era which declared that the war on the car was over and that the problem was those young, pointy-headed university folks. “In Toronto, everyone still thinks they have the right to drive,” he lamented. “If there’s an urban crisis, it’s the suburbs,” he said.
Florida reminded us that: “Building urbanism is a lot more expensive than building sprawl” and “The new frontier is the old frontier in the center of the city.” He left us with three points to deal with the next urban crisis: 1) Build more housing,and make it more affordable; .2) Build more transit; 3) Provide a livable minimum wage–reduce the huge bifurcation we see now.
Brandon Donnelly discussed with us some of the crisis in keeping housing affordable during Toronto’s fast-paced growth. There’s a pressure on prices re: low rise, but high-rise has stayed stable, he said. He described an Avenues and Mid-rise Building study. “ We see it as a market to build more units for families who are priced out of single family homes,” he said.
He distinguished Towers 1.0 and Towers 2.0. Towers 1.0, many built in the suburbs, did not take as middle class housing and became largely the affordable housing of today. Towers 2.0 is basically all ownership vs. all tenants in 1.0, he said. He finds it an encouraging sign that anchor office tenants and retailers are moving into the city as well.
On our way out, we had an unexpected opportunity to hear Robert Reich, who was doing a guest lecture at the Rotman School around his book, Saving Capitalism : For the Many, Not the Few.
I was especially impressed by how many of our group stopped to listen to his talk. “My aim is to shatter the myths that keep us from taking the action we must take, and to provide a roadmap of what we must do – to rebuild our economic system and restore our democracy.” Reich was saying.
There is a “huge misunderstanding” that underlies a false political dichotomy between the so-called “free market” and government intervention. “There is no choice to be made between the free market and government. Government determines the rules of the market. The real question is what those rules are going to be and who is influencing those rules and whether the market is going to be working for the vast majority as a result, or whether it’s going to be rigged in favour of a small minority.” Reich’s book was for sale at a table outside the open-sided auditorium where he was speaking.
At Rotman we had the opportunity to hear some of the most forward-thinking leaders of the day who are dealing with questions around the environment, housing, urbanism, equity, millenials, the creative class, public involvement and the economy.
It was a great segue to our reception and “Sharing Best Practices between Portland and Toronto” session at Ryerson University Architecture School. All of the students I met at the reception were from the Ryerson School of Urban and Regional Planning rather than Architecture. Those students were looking for answers to rising housing costs, displacement, equity, brownfields, resiliency planning in an era of climate change, etc. I stayed after the session to talk with them. Several promised to look at my blogs on mycoremediation and suggested that one of their professors might be especially interested. So far, no one has followed up but I’m still hoping to hear from them.
Chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat, is a longtime Toronto resident, a member of the Congress for the New Urbanism (like myself), and a pedestrian advocate. She had been a principal in the Toronto planning consultancy Dialog prior to taking the job as Toronto’s top planner. She is also an inveterate user of Twitter @–discreetly putting out these tweets while she was on a panel with Portland Chief Planner, Joe Zehnder:
Portland is seeking to create *greenways* throughout neighbourhoods to address stormwater issues. Think “greened” street medians. Portland has met Kyoto carbon emission reductions, even while growing. “Your midrise is hi-rise for us.” Portland Chief Planner explains that 4 story bldings are causing consternation in his city. Wow. If only.
“I talk about Portland all of the time,” she told us. We’re growing but our air quality is getting better – as a result of our green roof policy mitigating the heat island effect. I cringed a bit to think that while Toronto passed the world’s first mandatory green roof program in 2010, Portland discontinued its Ecoroof Incentive in 2012.
In response to moderator Ann Marie’s question about green infrastructure and resiliency in the face of climate change, Keesmaat lamented that she has only three people working on green streets, a superstar team, but only three.
She did add that Toronto is a city of ravines and that there is an ongoing Ravine Strategy currently being developed. She will be holding her final Chief Planner Roundtable of 2015 (Dec. 15) on the topic of Toronto’s ravine network. I did not get the chance to ask her about the re-naturalization of the Don River, but I plan to do that at the next opportunity–maybe via Twitter!
October 15, 2015
The Toronto Best Management Practices (BMP) visit sponsored by Greater Portland, Inc.(GPI) from Sept. 27-30, 2015 was a chance to visit with some of the players who are making Canada’s largest city #2 in Fast Company’s global ranking of smart cities, and #1 in North America and “the most civil and civilized city in the world” according to National Geographic.
I had a little different trip than my 51 other colleagues because I came a little earlier and left a little later than most of them did. I also stayed in a different venue, so I had different views out my back window and front door.
Our first stop on the BMP trip was at Evergreen Brick Works, a “community environmental centre that inspires and equips visitors to live, work and play more sustainably.” It is also home to Evergreen, a national organization whose mission is “inspiring action to green cities.” Approximately 180 employees help Evergreen to promote that mission in four areas of focus: greenspace, children, food and CityWorks (urban planning). If you took Dharma Rain Zen Center ( a group redeveloping a brownfield in far northeast Portland) and combined it with Groundwork Portland, Willamette Riverkeeper, Audubon Society of Portland and Zenger Farm, then topped it off with a national organization like the Sierra Club, you might have something close in Portland.
Although very close to Toronto’s core, you feel as if you are a world away there. Evergreen staff have organized the planting of tens of thousands of native trees and plants by community volunteers. They have also worked with partners to restore a large wetland on their site and a trail through the Don Valley watershed and its ravines.
Evergreen CEO Geoff Cape, along with Planning Director Jennifer Keesmaat and several other speakers stressed that ravines help to define Toronto. “The ravines are to Toronto what canals are to Venice and hills are to San Francisco. They are the heart of the city’s emotional geography, and understanding Toronto requires an understanding of the ravines.” – Robert Fulford, Accidental City
On June 7, 2013, more than 60 mm of rain fell across the Toronto region, resulting in widespread water damage, flooding and road closures. According to an EBW blog post:
“The most significant flooding took place in the Don Valley, right where Evergreen calls home—shutting down the Don Valley Parkway and putting parts of the Brick Works under more than two feet of water! This is not the first time we’ve had to close the site due to excessive amounts of rain but it is certainly the largest flood we have had since moving into the Brick Works in September 2010.”
I found only one reference on the Evergreen site about the re-naturalization of the mouth of the Don River. It is described as a project of Waterfront Toronto in the History of the Lower Don Project. I am watching the CityWorks portion of Evergreen’s site for the day when they advocate taking out the Don River Parkway that so greatly confines the river (except when it doesn’t) and getting the Don River out of its concrete channel altogether.
Our next stop was to the Spacing Magazine retail store where publisher Matthew Blackett told us that he is working with Evergreen and the City of Toronto to create city planning podcasts aimed at a millennial audience. “Growing Conversations is our strategy to reach youth, newcomers, renters and those we’re not presently engaging in the official “consultations” the city planning department holds,” he said. His store sells many books about urbanism as well as locally designed products relating to urbanism –and, of course, the magazine.
Blackett, also on our agenda in the afternoon, claims that ‘most of Toronto’s growth is happening downtown–the fastest growing in NA- and that youth18-34 are a driving force behind the downtown condo boom. He said the government will give you 10% down payment interest free and forgiveable as long as you stay in the condo. The top three Issues he sees for this age group: affordable housing; equity; and the environment.
My hope is that this new generation will insist on speedier implementation of environmental restoration plans–e.g., for the mouth of the Don River–and greater awareness with regard to how all aspects of the City’s future are tied to working with nature in an era of climate change.
October 10, 2015
In 2007 when I wrote Greening Waterfront Development: Toronto, I was highly impressed with official plans for greening Toronto’s waterfront. Our two day tour with Greater Portland Inc, had Waterfront Revitalization on the agenda, but we didn’t get to the area that I wanted to see–the re-naturalizing of the mouth of the Don River.
So after our debriefing on Sept. 30, I rented a bike at HI Toronto and headed towards the Waterfront Trail then east towards the Don River. I wanted to document the progress Toronto had made in their plans to transform the mouth of this highly channelized river that I had written about in my 2007 article. I soon ran out of separated bike trail and plush new development and came to a channel with a short bridge over it. With a bit of incredulity in my voice, I asked “Is THIS the mouth of the Don River?” of the fellow who turned out to be the drawbridge operator.
He assured me that it was. Then I asked “What about the re-naturalization they were going to be doing?” He told me that volunteers had been doing some planting in the park down the way so I headed into the industrial area along Villers Street making a first stop at a small public pier to capture the drawbridge opening. I was crestfallen to see the mouth of the river was still in its concrete channel and brown from sediment. Active dredging was still taking place. In fact, the drawbridge was opening for a barge carrying dredge material upriver in what is called the Keating Channel.
I did find some native species and a sign corroborating what the drawbridge operator had told me. But the scale of the ecological restoration that needs to be done there came nowhere close to the scale of the earth moving and skyscraper building that is taking place nearby. In fact, it seemed to be the proverbial drop in the bucket.
I found it disappointing that any city with 180 towering cranes in its core area alone was not making equally fast progress with the ecological restoration of one of its major rivers. It leads me to ask what kind of public benefit is the City extracting from each of these developments?
Recommendations to re-naturalize the mouth of the Don River have been in existence since 1991. According to a Wikipedia article on the Don: In 2007, the Toronto Waterfront Development Corporation (now WaterfrontToronto) held a design competition that looked at four different configurations for the mouth of the Don. The winning bid was made by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates. The environmental assessment is expected to be complete in 2008 and construction is scheduled to begin in 2010. That Environmental Assessment was only passed by the province January 26, 2015–a 7 year lag! This was not because of the economic “recession.” We were told that did not phase Toronto.
When I reviewed the plans by Michael Van Valkenburg Associates, I was reminded that Instead of creating naturalized banks along the straight course of the existing channel connecting the Don River with the lake, as was originally suggested in the project brief, MVVA’s design keeps the Keating Channel as an urban artifact and neighborhood amenity and creates a new mouth for the river that flows logically from the upstream source, bypassing the abrupt right turn created by the channel. A large new meandering riverfront park becomes the centerpiece of a new mixed-use neighborhood.
October 12, 2015
An interesting explanation for the delay of the re-naturalization of the Don River that I was expecting to see can be found in Planning Nature and the City: Toronto’s Lower Don River and Port Lands by Gene Desfor and Jennifer Bonnell:
. . . in the fall of 2011 Mayor Rob Ford, his brother Councillor Doug Ford, their right-wing allies, and competing development agencies, attempted to hijack current waterfront planning processes and radically alter plans for the Port Lands. Those sympathetic to Mayor Ford’s vision see these lands primarily as a way to ease budget woes by selling prime waterfront property to international developers. As the Toronto Star editorialized, “The Fords’ ludicrous vision for the future – complete with a megamall, monorail and giant Ferris wheel – was so abysmal that a tide of Torontonians rose up in protest. Most city councillors broke with the mayor’s program and quashed the takeover [of Waterfront Toronto].”31 At the time of writing [no date provided], a political solution is being sought in which Waterfront Toronto, the City, and various special purpose government organizations are working to design a compromise between Ford’s “ludicrous vision” and the plan based on the MVVA proposal.
According to Waterfront Toronto website, construction of the Lower Don Lands Plan and the Port Lands Plan is yet to come. There is no mention of the above controversy on their site.
A Waterfront Toronto newsroom article announced that on July 14, 2015 it, along with federal, provincial and city government partners, came up with $5M to take the next steps on the proposal to naturalize the Don River:
The due diligence work being primarily undertaken by Waterfront Toronto will provide governments with additional assurance on the estimated $975 million cost of this project, which includes rerouting the Don River to the middle of the Port Lands between the Ship Channel and the Keating Channel, remediating the area’s contaminated soil, creating new parks, wetlands and resilient urban infrastructure that will remove the flooding risk, unlock a vast area for revitalization and development – including the creation of a new community called Villiers Island – and create billions of dollars of economic development opportunities.
The first phase of this due diligence work is scheduled to be completed by November of this year , and “will enable government funding of the project by providing confirmation of the cost of the project, strategies to mitigate the risks associated with the project, and an implementation strategy.”
The project would be ready to start by 2017 and take approximately seven years to complete. An independent study by PwC done for Waterfront Toronto in 2014 estimates that “the project will generate $3.6 billion in value to the Canadian economy, 7,672 person years of employment and $346 million in tax revenues to all levels of government.”
So, to answer the question my title asks, “Where is Toronto’s Green Waterfront in 2015?”–LOOK FOR IT IN 2024! That estimate, of course, will depend upon continued economic progress–progress that seems a bit uncertain right now.
August 6, 2015
When Jordan Weiss set out to use mushrooms to help clean up the soils and filter the water at the former landfill/brownfield site purchased by the Dharma Rain Zen Center (DRZC), he did so based upon the mycoremediation research of others such as Paul Stamets and his team at Fungi Perfecti. He didn’t set up the effort as a research project. He didn’t have funders to answer to as he volunteered his time and even many of the materials. He taught workshops that brought in the volunteer labor from the Zen Center, the Oregon Mycological Society and neighbors and friends.
Now, to take the project to the next level as a mycoremediation model for the Portland area, Jordan and others involved with the project, like myself, would like funding. Funders always want data–not just university lab data or even other people’s field data, but data from the project they are asked to fund. I’m working with Jordan to figure out what baseline data is out there re: water quality and soils and what more data we need to collect to prove that mushrooms are removing toxins on this site and can do so throughout the Portland area.
The Phase I Environmental Site Assessment for the DRZC site is of little help with regard to pollutants in water or stormwater. Essentially, its conclusion was: No analytical testing of shallow groundwater has been reported to ODEQ. In the Phase II ESA, eight soil samples were tested in the area where the food garden is now. High levels of PAHs were found in this soil, causing DRZC to build boxes and import clean soil for vegetable gardening. The area where the raingarden is does not seem to have been tested.
The best place to do future myco-remediation installations may be in the food garden area at the edges of the boxes since that soil had already been tested prior to any mycoremediation efforts, . After the mushrooms get established, DRZC and its partners could continue to test the underlying soils for levels of PAHs. The hypothesis is that the mushrooms and their mycelia will reduce or eliminate the PAHs.
PAHs (such as acenaphthylene’s, anthracene, benzo(g,h,i)perylene, fluorine, phenanthrene and pyrene) are listed by the EPA as possible carcinogens and maximum allowable standards are set for them.
We will want to do stormwater testing too. The Portland Bureau of Environmental Services (BES) Stormwater Management Facility Monitoring Reports for both 2008 and 2010 tell us what water quality data BES monitors for in its stormwater facilities. From the chart in the Appendix of the 2008 report, we see that they monitor for oil, grease, E. coli, metals, total phosphorous and orthophosphate phosphorous, ammonia-nitrogen and nitrate nitrogen in water.
Here’s what they test in the sediments:
That HCID/TPH is a way to screen for PAHs and other petroleum products in the soil. We do know that BES also does separate soil sampling. Some of the latest soil sampling data¹ shows that E-coli and heavy oil levels were higher than the background soil sample sites located nearby–but outside of the stormwater facilities. Metal and PAH levels found in stormwater facilities were generally similar to those found in background sample soils. While these results show that soils in green street stormwater facilities (bioswales, raingardens) are likely taking up E-coli and heavy oil from runoff that would otherwise go down a storm drain, we hope to show that with the use of mushrooms, soil results could be cleaner than the background samples in all categories tested: E-coli, heavy oil, metals and PAHs.
Since the only water sampling that revealed toxins at DRZC was the seep in the northeast corner of the site², our approach for monitoring the raingarden could start with the first rains of Fall 2015. We would largely be monitoring for pollutants from the parking area west of the raingarden. Parking lots are well-known for contaminating stormwater with PAHs when it rains.
The Portland area is fortunate to have a second mycoremediation project underway in our region. In July 2015, I set up a meeting with Clean Water Services Jared Kinnear and Pacific University toxicology professor Deke Gunderson to learn from their project to test mushrooms for cleaning street sweepings. They hope to get the street sweepings–what appears to be the compost I buy in bags at Ace Hardware– to the point that it is judged safe for farmers’ fields. They set up their project in conjunction with Fungi Perfecti which provided both the protocols and the mycelium inoculated wood chips for the research.
The project has evolved from what was originally conceived. Because of time and labor constraints and the preliminary results, the project was modified from the original one that would have tested five species of fungi to just testing Stropharia rugoso annulata (King stropharia) and Pleurotus ostreatus (Oyster mushroom). Then it was narrowed down again when the researchers found that the oyster mycelium stayed on the wood chips rather than spreading throughout the mixture of wood chips and street sweepings.
So they are now testing the ability of King stropharia mycelium to eliminate polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) or at least reduce them to a level that they are safe to spread on farm fields. The levels of PAHs are tested on a chromatograph at Pacific University. Since once the inoculated wood chips were added to the street sweepings, the levels of PAHs were so low that they were difficult to fully measure, the team decided to spike the experimental samples with PAHs in order to measure the effectiveness of the mushrooms.
The EPA has recognized 7 PAHs as priority chemicals due to their persistence in the environment.³ The most common way to be exposed is by breathing contaminated air but exposure can also come from eating contaminated food. While we were there we met one of Dr. Gunderson’s students ,Hailey Jongeward, who has since shared with me her PowerPoint report on the project.
“Of the 7 priority chemicals we found traces of all 7 in the starting material, increasing the importance of this project” she wrote. Those chemicals are: acenaphthylene’s, anthracene, benzo(g,h,i)perylene, fluorine, phenanthrene and pyrene.
Hailey also shared the photos of the subject material to the right. Boxes get different ratios of wood chips to spores so that may account for the difference in the two boxes. Both show that the mycelium is spreading, but the lower one more than the upper one. Hailey also told me she is working in partnership with fellow Pacific University students Jake Prevou and Natalie Kimura.
I believe that the monitoring of the Dharma Rain Zen Center project needs to take on some similar elements as the Clean Water Services project and monitor soils for reduction of PAHs. It would also be useful to test the water flowing into and back out of the raingarden, but that may prove more difficult because it was not designed for doing such testing. Our best bet may be one identified in the Phase II ESA: “a location south of the seep had water discharge from piping, which was traced to a stormwater surface drainage feature.”
It is exciting to be part of the initiation of a technology–or rather a protocol for utilizing an ecosystem service from the seen and unseen mysteries of the natural world. As we enter an era of climate change, such services will become more and more critical for adapting to changes, mitigating the impacts and healing our past wounds to the earth. I want my business, PlanGreen, to be at the forefront of utilizing the services that nature provides for free.
Please see my previous four posts on mycoremediation on http://plangreen.net/blog/. You may want to FOLLOW this site for the latest news. And do post your comments and questions below.
UPDATE, Sept. 21, 2015
Dharma Rain Zen Center started an Indiiegogo campaign http://igg.me/at/PlantingZen/x on Sept. 21, 2015 that allows you to contribute to their restoration and community building work. Your dollars will be matched dollar for dollar. I hope you will help if you can!
¹Bureau of Environmental Services • City of Portland 2010 Stormwater Management Facility Monitoring Report
²Levels of arsenic slightly higher than allowed for drinking water standards was found in the northeast corner seep.
³See fact sheet on PAHs from the EPA Office of Solid Waste at http://www.epa.gov/osw/hazard/wastemin/minimize/factshts/pahs.pdf