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Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Rethink London: Concrete towers an international style

Cherryhill: a mix of apartment towers, an indoor mall and a commercial complex.

Recently I saw the following Twitter tweet: "A new arrival from Australia points out how much Cherryhill looks like Chernobyl." I was shocked. Cherryhill is a successful residential development in London while Chernobyl is the name of the Soviet era nuclear power plant closed in 1986 after fire followed by an explosion damaged the plant, killed two workers and blew a massive cloud of radioactive debris high into the atmosphere.

Contrary to popular mythology, Pripyat and Chernobyl are completely different cities. (I first learned this while taking pictures for the local paper of children from the region who were visiting London.) Chernobyl is NOT the city built some two to three kilometers from the plant in the late '60s and early '70s to house plant workers. That place is Pripyat. Pripyat is the city that was emptied completely of residents immediately after the nuclear disaster. The place has sat abandoned for 26 years.

While there is a town of Chernobyl, it is about 14km from the nuclear power plant. It had no commercial links to the Soviet power station. The actual town of Chernobyl attracts very little attention. It is just one more little, regional town left almost deserted after the nuclear disaster contaminated the entire region.

Today, a few hundred inhabitants still live in Chernobyl. They post signs in front of their homes saying: "Owner of this house lives here." Finding pictures of the little town, with a recorded history going back to 1193, is almost impossible. I'd post a picture if I could. This link may show an abandoned Chernobyl home. Or go to the bottom of this post. I've posted a link to a few seconds of video shot driving through Chernobyl on the way to Pripyat.

Straight street, overgrown from lack of use, in Pripyat.
The roads in Pripyat grow narrower and narrower every year as grass and weeds encroach on the long straight expanses of pavement. Abandoned for decades, the apartments of the Soviet planned community are now missing windows and doors. Pripyat is often compared to cities in the American rustbelt: Detroit, Buffalo, Cleveland . . . Talk about the residential area carelessly known as Chernobyl and you are talking about post-nuclear-disaster Pripyat.

When I objected to the comparison of Chernobyl to Cherryhill, the writer tweeted that he found "the physical resemblance was uncanny." I finally understood. The fellow was talking about the architectural style of the Pripyat buildings. He was confusing the name of the power station with the name of the community.

Photo of Pripyat swimming pool structure by Timm Suess
The writer voiced surprise that buildings almost on opposite sides of the world would resemble each other. "Uncanny," the writer wrote.

I agree with the writer, except for the uncanny bit. The apartment towers in Pripyat do share a look with the apartment towers in London, Ontario — as well as with towers in Paris, New York, Vancouver, Calgary, Tokyo, Nairobi and thousands of other cities and towns around the globe.

The resemblance isn't uncanny, it's expected. The large, concrete slab towers, built all over the world, all exhibit some adherence to the international modernist style.

What is the international modernist style. This is what Emily Tyrer of Wesleyan University wrote:

The International Modernist Style developed out of a search for a building style unique to and expressive of the modern world. Modernist architects’ work expressed the technology, materials and functions that were new to the twentieth century. The resulting architecture was thought to be inevitable: based on function, technology and the spirit of the times. 

It adhered to the American architect, Louis Sullivan’s dictum, “Form follows function.” The style is characterized by architecture stripped of extraneous ornament, historical references and traditional symbolism. It demanded amnesia relative to history. 

The Modernist style was considered a mark of high morality; historical types and styles were “a lie,” in Le Corbusier’s words, and ornament was a “crime,” according to Adolf Loos. Instead of incorporating ornament or using historical typologies, they attempted to give aesthetic value to functionalism. The naked function and bones of its structure would be the final form. 

Mies van der Rohe’s famous phrase, “Less is more” represented the minimal ideal of Modernist architects and their buildings. They aimed for purity: sheerness, flatness, and smoothness. They aimed for a new style that could be relevant universally, based on inevitable, scientific facts of construction and human behavior.

If you got here because of an interest in ReThink London, you should follow the following link and read: tower renewal project: plasticity revisited by Graeme Stewart. Stewart writes:

The modernist concrete slab or tower in the park type apartment building, “is perhaps the most successful typology of the modern movement”. . . . this opinion reflects the remarkably global scope of the implementation of the ubiquitous modern tower. From Soviet mass housing, European post-war reconstruction, North American urban renewal, the utopias of Brasilia and Chandigarh, and Hong Kong’s super-blocks, this modernist machine for living is truly a global type, and has largely filled its mandate of providing well serviced and equitable housing for tens of millions of people.

One last thought: the 140 character limit imposed by Twitter, can limit thoughtful discussion.

Looking for a Chernobyl (Pripyat) look-a-like, look to the American rust belt.
Known as the Brewster-Douglass Project in Detroit, the straight roads, overgrown vegetation and abandoned apartment towers really do resemble the look of neighbourhoods in the former Chernobyl Territory of the old Soviet Union.

Why the projects in so many American cities failed while developments like Cherryhill in London, Ontario, succeeded is the really important question urban planners must answer. (If you are going to try finding the answer, google Sam Katz as a start. Sam Katz is a big reason for the success of Cherryhill and I may post more on Sam Katz soon.)

If you'd like to see a very short video shot in the Town of Chernobyl, check out the following:

Sunday, December 16, 2012

In 2008, every three hours a child or teen killed by gunfire

I haven't followed the Connecticut school shooting story. Too difficult. Too sad. And all too common. Yes common. The shooting of 20 children is almost a daily occurrence in the States. Reportedly, in 2008 it took only two and a half days on average for gunfire to kill 20 children and teens.

That's right: Every two and a half days there were 20 more children and teens murdered by guns. A total of 2947 died from gunfire in 2008 and another 2793 in 2009.

In 2008, 88 preschoolers were killed with guns and in 2009 another 85 died. These numbers are nearly double the number of law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty in that time.

According to the Children's Defense Fund:

  • Recent data from 23 industrialized nations shows 87 percent of the children under 15 killed by guns in these nations lived in the United States. 
  • The gun homicide rate in the United States for teens and young adults ages 15 to 24 was 42.7 times higher than the combined rate for the other nations.
  • Of the 116,385 children and teens killed by a gun since 1979, when gun data by age were first collected, 44,038 were Black — even so, more White than Black children and teens have died from gun violence. 

What can be done? Banning weapons more suitable for war zones than American homes would be a start. Getting handguns out of circulation might be another. But a dialogue must be opened and answers must be found. 

Of course, it would help if the media would stop, do some research, and report the story, the arguments for and against gun ownership, with accuracy. Sadly accuracy is one of the first victims in a story like this. 

At first, it was reported that the school principal had buzzed Adam Lanza in (past school security) because she recognized him as the son of a colleague, Nancy Lanza, the shooter's mother, who worked at the school.

Later, we learned the gunman forced his way into the school by shooting through glass, breaching school's security system. The principal was shot, along with the school psychologist, trying to tackle the gunman and protect their students, according to later reports. And there was no connection between Adam Lanza’s mother and the school.

And what did the gunman use to kill the children. First reports said a rifle. Corrections then appeared, such as this one from The New York times claiming "the guns used in the school shooting were both handguns." Today the BBC is reporting, "The gunman shot all the victims at the school with a semiautomatic rifle . . . "

That facts surrounding this event should change, be corrected and then be corrected again, is not surprising. What is surprising is that the media have not learned this and learned to be more careful in their reporting. The media shows no restraint. In the end beating the competition is the biggest driving force behind the reporting of events such as this. Speed trumps all.

Consider the error-filled, fast-off-the-mark response of syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer:

"Think about the details of the crime, he (Adam Lanza) began by shooting his mother . . . and then destroying everything precious to her, her colleagues and her children, and then killing himself."

If I could advise my American friends how to approach this tragedy, I say approach this carefully, thoughtfully, try to find answers that are not steeped in ideology. Refuse to be rushed. Do not follow the path blazed by your media.

If you do step back, using reason and not emotion, you might (underlined) discover the truth surrounding gun control laws. You might, as a nation, shed light on a pressing global issue. You might discover how to prevent the senseless deaths of your young people who are dying a the rate of about one every three hours from gunfire.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Alcohol based hand sanitizer: Good or bad?

I took a friend to the doctor today. On entering the medical office my friend immediately sanitized his hands. He rubbed both hands together for a few seconds with a squirt of an alcohol based hand sanitizer found on the counter at the reception area. I didn't follow his lead. I could see no need. My hands were, I believed, clean. A half hour before, my hands had been deep in hot, soapy dishwater.

My friend gently chastised me for not using the supplied sanitizer. He told me a story about being at a facility hard hit by the Norwalk virus and how he escaped coming down with the gastrointestinal illness by wiping his hands and arms frequently with hand sanitizer gel.

Maybe it was a good idea there and then but here and now? I wasn't convinced. He assured me that health departments promote the use of these gels and that one had to follow the guidance of the health officials. I still wasn't convinced.

The queasiness in my gut was not from a gastrointestinal illness but out of concern that sanitizer gels may be rather inefficient killers of bacteria. I was worried the wide spread use of these gels might be contributing to the development of another strain of super bugs. The result being increasing rather than decreasing the incidence of illness.

Turning to Google, I quickly learned the Norwalk virus exhibits strong resistance to alcohol-based hand sanitizer (ABHS). A full minute of contact time with 70% ethanol is required to inactive a norovirus. If an 85% ethanol gel is used, stronger than that commonly available, the contact time need only be 30 seconds.

In some studies, twenty seconds spent washing the hands with soap and water has been found to be superior to ABHS. The use of an ABHS alone may increase the risk of infection during an outbreak.

While most soaps and sanitizers are considered antibacterial, Norwalk infection is caused by a virus. With soap and water, the infectious agent is rinsed off; With an ABHS, the microbes remain on the hands and are possibly spread over a greater area of skin.

On the positive side, my friend was correct. Many health professionals do advocate the use of ABHS gels — not as a replacement for soap and water but as a supplement when soap and water are not handy.

There are three important considerations when using an ABHS:
  • Is the concentration of alcohol greater than 60%? If it isn't, go wash your hands.
  • Are you applying enough?
  • Are you using it long enough?

So, how much gel should you use and for how long? According to The New York Times, one should vigorously rub all sides of one's hands with enough gel or foam to get them wet, and rub them together until they are dry. If one's hands are dry within 10 or 15 seconds, you haven't used enough.

One last thought, some hand gels/foams contain triclosan — and to be completely honest, so do some hand soaps. Many believe triclosan is contributing to the problem of antibiotic-resistance bacteria. If you'd like to read about superbugs, use this link to a CBC article.

Other sources: Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs

ReThink London must address urban myths

In early September my wife and I spent the better part of a week in Montreal, Quebec. Wonderful city. It is one of my favourites. I spent a lot of  time walking about the Côte des Neiges neighbourhood where my wife and I were staying with friends.

I have been following the oh-so-long London Free Press series examining London and I have been involved with ReThink London, a year-long review of the city's official master plan. The goal of ReThink is a new urban plan good for the next 20 years.

London is not Montreal. That said, there is a lot that London can learn from La Métropole. Let's begin.

Myth: Cars or people. One must make a choice.

Côte des Neiges is filled with people and cars. The area is alive.

All too often one reads stuff on how to make better people places. Add trees and flower beds while subtracting car traffic — is a good start, or so we often are told. Bunkum!

I've seen this done in Paris, France, too.
I was raised in a walkable neighbourhood. No car was needed but that did not mean there were no cars. It was the early '50s and every passing year brought more and more traffic. I lived near King's highway 39, a truck route through Windsor, Ontario, but even a busy highway did not hinder walking.

The Côte des Neiges neighbourhood continues that tradition. It is very walkable but filled with cars: cars on the roads, cars parked on both sides of surrounding side streets, and cars beside homes and even under them.

But, unlike the neighbourhood of my youth, Côte des Neiges has retained its rich mix of businesses. One reason might be the high residential density — approximately 20,000 residents per sq. km. There are lots of customers within walking distance and there is adequate parking for those who choose to drive.

What can London learn?

We must increase the density of our city. London has a published density of about 871 per sq. km. This number is probably low because a great amount of London is still undeveloped. Compared to Côte des Neiges we are very thinly populated.

Myth: London cares about increasing urban density

What's missing? Answer: Apartments above these box stores on Wonderland Rd.
London talks the talk but fails to deliver. When it comes to use of land, London is a pig. We come no where near maximizing our use of land. Increasing residential density is very important. It enables public transportation to become competitive and it makes the development of walkable commercial areas possible.

Not London: Note apartments above stores.
The planning committee rejected staff recommendations when they extended the "community enterprise corridor" on Wonderland Rd. The committee also loosened the grid patterns for residential development.

The Free Press reports that city planner John Fleming warned members the innovative nature of the original plan could be killed.
“You either have a plan or you don’t have a plan,” Fleming said.

What can London learn?

London has to spend some time looking at what other communities are doing to bring residents into commercial areas. The people making the decisions have to look to both older communities like Montreal and newer developments. Moving too fast may well saddle London with poor, low density developments that will be a blight to the community for years.

Myth: London has too many railroad level crossings

London does have a lot of streets intersected by railroad tracks. This is true. Still, everywhere there is a level crossing there is at least a crossing. The Montreal folk I talked to said they had too many cul-de-sacs, the result of street closures where a railroad cut through the neighbourhood.

Not the best example, an underpass is nearby, but the cul-de-sac results from tracks.
Depending on where you live in Montreal and how far you must walk or drive to get across a set of railroad tracks, you may think Londoners are lucky to have so many level crossings.

I worked for more thirty years as a news photographer for the local paper. I was inconvenienced by slow moving freight trains now and then but generally level crossings were not a huge problem. In fact, I saw them as a benefit.

Which is better: A street blocked by a passing train occasionally or a street blocked 24 hours a day by a fence-lined railroad track?

What can London learn?

There are some level crossings that should be eliminated. Let's focus on the problem spots, while taking pride in the fact that London has fewer cul-de-sacs thanks to our abundant use of level crossings. All level crossings should be controlled by gates with flashing warning lights.

Myth: Industrial areas in residential areas should be eliminated

Residential, commercial, industrial and religious uses mix on this Montreal St.
If the industry is loud, dirty, or smelly, it doesn't belong in the middle of a residential neighbourhood. But we should not be too quick to prevent industry and commercial areas from bordering on, or even mixing with, residential areas.

It was done with success in the past and is being done again in some large urban centres in the United States. London has an old, mixed use area in east London. Think of the abandoned McCormick's plant. McCormick Boulevard, behind the plant, has a number of manufacturing operations.

If the city has its way, the beautiful, historic terra cotta biscuit factory will be demolished and the land behind it redeveloped for housing. What a shame.

Why not allow the small industrial area to remain? If someone wants to walk to work, they can. Isn't that one of the goals of new urbanism?

The Montreal street shown is but a short walk from Côte des Neiges. It has residential units, commercial businesses and some industry.

It even has a rich mix of buildings devoted to religious activities. A resident assured me there is no move being made at this time to "clean up the area."

What can London learn?

Mixed use works in other communities. Maybe we can do it better in London. When I was a boy there numerous manufacturing plants in my neighbourhood. These businesses made an effort to blend in with the neighbourhood. I recall one plant that had a flower garden out front filled with colourful snap dragons. I used to see workers walking to work, a lunch bucket swinging at their side.

Myth: A simple grid pattern yields the greatest resident density

This just isn't true. It is easy to get from A to B when streets are arranged in a simple grid, but CMHC has devised a better approach when high density is the goal: The fused grid.

To learn more about the fused grid approach please read my blog: ReThink London: The answer is "fused grid".

What can London learn?

Having spoken with the city planning staff, I know that some planning officials in London are well aware of the fused grid. Yet, I went to a ReThink London meeting where city planning staff left mention of the fused grid out of an answer given a woman interested in knowing what urban street pattern was best at maximizing density.

London planners have to boldly step up and share their rich, urban planning knowledge with interested Londoners. ReThink London must be willing not only to be challenged but to do the challenging at times. London planners must not be timid when it comes to leading.

Myth: Cookie cutter homes unique to suburbia, especially '50s suburbs


A row of homes in North London.
Cookie cutter homes have been around literally forever. They are not unique to suburbia. The Côte des Neiges neighbourhood has a lot of houses of a similar design — mostly duplexes. But it is still an interesting area for a stroll.

Why is it interesting? The homes have nice touches. One home has a gorgeous wooden door in a beautiful stone enclosure. Another home has an interesting decorative treatment above a featured window.

Truth is that many of the duplexes in this Montreal neighbourhood seem to be little more than tract housing for the masses. Yet the years have been kind to the neighbourhood. Upkeep is important and many of these homes have been maintained with money, and more importantly, with respect.

What can London learn?

Insulting descriptions of neighbourhoods can often be the sign of a weak argument. When you hear the argument that a suburban neighbourhood is merely a collection of cookie cutter homes, feel free to ask: "And your point is?"

Add your own myths to my list.

There is a ReThink London meeting tonight and I want to get this posted. I encourage you to think about what you believe about cities, what you have been told, and to ask yourself, "Is this true?"

Think about the stories you may have read in The London Free Press about heritage buildings being demolished because they were impossible to save. The paper is often quite willing to simply report the words of those destroying the old structures; The paper rarely gives the other side of the argument.

Let me give an example from Montreal.

I understand this old home Victorian home was threatened with demolition. It was saved after the local community protested its planned destruction.

The home sits behind a Petro-Canada station. It appears to sit sideways on its lot — the front yard has been taken, or sold or something. Still the home has presence. It may be hidden but it cannot be missed. It may be white but it adds colour to the neighbourhood.

What can London learn?

Older neighbourhoods should be respected. And heritage buildings should be retained. If you want to create a people place, respect the history of the area.

I look forward to seeing many of you at the ReThink London meeting tonight.

Monday, December 10, 2012

File art has no place in news story

The London Free Press online teaser warned of freezing rain. The picture indicated, that for some Londoners, freezing was already here. Clearly, a Free Press photographer or reporter had shot a picture of an icy mirror.

As a former Free Press photographer, I spent a lot of time driving about the area on treacherous winter roads taking pictures for the paper. Freezing rain and ice slicked roads were my biggest fear.

According to Texas A&M, "Freezing rain is difficult to forecast because just one or two degrees in temperature difference can mean either rain or snow or freezing rain. Freezing rain is very dangerous because it tends to coat roads with ice first. If the surface it hits is 32 degrees or lower, it will quickly freeze on contact, and the resulting ice storms can shut down an entire city very quickly."

Warning readers of dangers in life, such as the possibility of freezing rain coating the area, is what online newspapers should do. The stuff can instantly render a road too slippery for walking let alone driving. No one should drive on the stuff.

When I used to be sent out to grab a picture showing London in the middle of a freezing ice storm, I used to wish there was another way to get an image — a way that did not involve me driving on wet, icy roads. Well, today there is!

Thanks to photography having gone digital, a reader living in an affected area can take a picture showing the ice with their cell phone and transmit it to the newsroom. I can recall the newsroom phoning readers in areas hit by something like an ice storms and gathering information for a story from the safety of the York Street building. Photographers didn't get off so lightly.

News photos are not simply shims for a page, although that is the way they were, and are, all too often used. Nor are news photos simply illustrations to enliven the visual appeal of a story. That is why editors usually insisted on fresh art for a story. The Free Press was a N-E-W-S-paper.

Many of the editors I had the good fortune to work with over the years would not have risked frightening readers with an image misrepresenting the news. The image of an ice encrusted driver's outside mirror would have had to show a moment from the day.

Look carefully at the image. There is no credit given. When I clicked on the image and went to the linked story, I noticed no credit appeared beneath the image running with the story. Odd.

I thought whoever took this picture was very, dare I say, lucky. You see, I spent the day driving about London doing Christmas shopping. I watched the temperature gauge on my dash very carefully. Sometimes it registered three full degrees Fahrenheit above freezing. At no point did I come across freezing rain.

At night I had to drive from southwest London to northwest London and by that time the temperature was rising. With the temperature well above freezing, the warning of freezing rain was lifted.

Still, hours after the warning was no longer in force, the local paper was still carrying the story on their website. Why had the picture and story not been taken down? Worse, the story had evolved. Freezing rain was now falling well to the east of London leaving highways dangerously slick. The was no mention of this.

A little sleuthing revealed that the image of an icy mirror also ran Sunday in the Sarnia Observer with an ice storm story.

There are indications the image is a file photo from the Sun Media archives. Maybe I am wrong about the source of the image, but I wait to be corrected.

Newspaper sales are down. No wonder. Newspapers are playing fast and loose with the news. Running an uncredited file picture with a news story is not journalism.

Sun Media and Quebecor need to hire more staff. They need more reporters and photographers, and editors too. Sadly, that won't happen until hell freezes over.

Addendum: This is not the only instance of the paper under Sun Media and Quebecor using questionable file art. Recently, a serious story on Canada's top court handling the appeal of a lower court 'bawdy house' ruling was accompanied with a silly piece of file filler.

And the very worst example of faux photojournalism that I have come across was the use of hired models to illustrate a story on going topless at the beach. The Ottawa Sun faked a number of images and then moved them to the Canadian Press. CP in turn moved them to the Associated Press.

Years later one of the images popped up in The New York Times as visual proof that women with breasts bare are commonly found on beaches near the Canadian capital.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Mr. Burns explains the fiscal cliff

Mr. Burns, the billionaire Scrooge in The Simpsons', makes a public service announcement explaining the fiscal cliff.

I believe the Rethugs are in control of the car. Is that house speaker John Boehner at the wheel?