Unique Homes - Influential Apartments and Townhouses, Melbourne

Some of Melbourne's unique apartments and townhouses have shaped the way in which we think about housing, and the Robin Boyd Foundation's open day on Sunday 22 May 2016, provided access to a handful of interesting residences. Photography was not permitted inside the private residences, so to share a glimpse into the design of a few of the places I entered, I have included some exterior images of some of the highlights.

In observing the diverse residential projects I felt that landscaping, particularly the way the design of buildings and each home, facilitated a physical and visual connection between indoor and outdoor, as well as natural light and ventilation, contributed significantly to my sense of the quality of each building. Residences with beautiful landscaping or outlook were inspiring and instilled a stronger sense of each building's community to me. I felt that buildings which integrated car parking at ground level, missed significant opportunities to provide residents with a physical and visual connection to landscaping, and create highly usable, interesting, activated and multifunctional space, at the ground plane. Although I understand the many practicalities and demands in providing car parking, it made me wonder, how car parking could be integrated better to optimise the ground plane in small sites where provision is required. 

Glenunga Flats, 1940 - Frederick Romberg

The Glenunga Flats is a striking modernist building, with flat roof and rubble rock chimney seen from the street. The building originally housing four apartments across two-storeys and a communal courtyard. Although the interior has been reconfigured, with the two ground floor apartments now amalgamated, the building has been oriented to provide a special relationship with the courtyard, with angular box windows along the western facade optimising natural light. 

Clendon, 1939-1940 - Sir Roy Grounds

Featuring 8 identical apartments, the original building was designed to be compact and adaptable, featuring retractable beds, desks and ironing boards, allowing for the small spaces to be used for multiple purposes. The studio apartments, with wide balconies, are arranged in a U-shape, framing a north facing communal courtyard. 

Moonbria, 1941 - Sir Roy Grounds

The modest studio apartments in Moonbria are accessed from the street from a dramatic spiral stair. The U-shaped arrangement surrounds the central north-facing communal courtyard, with long balconies providing circulation space and semi-private outdoor space for inhabitants.

Wynnstay Apartments, 2001 - McBride Charles Ryan
10 townhouses were developed as part of a co-operative project, along the length of the block, with a side driveway featuring gum trees and providing access to ground level garages. 

Bedford Street Townhouses, 2015 - DKO

Five townhouses are integrated across five levels on this narrow site, with spaces stacked vertically. Each townhouse features a rooftop terrace with views over the neighbourhood, to the city and distant hills. The project achieves a 6 star energy rating. 

Ideas on High Density Happiness from MPavilion

On 20 January 2016, I had the opportunity to attend the third and final discussion in a series on 'High Density Happiness.' The discussion was part of MPavilion, a four-month architecture and design event in Melbourne, Australia. Since its inception in 2014, a notable architect has been commissioned to design a pavilion for the Queen Victoria Gardens, which serves as a meeting place for a free program of talks, workshops and performances. 

People listening to the panel discussion underneath and beside the MPavilion 2015, designed by  AL_A , studio of Amanda Levete.

People listening to the panel discussion underneath and beside the MPavilion 2015, designed by AL_A, studio of Amanda Levete.

The interesting discussion, High Density Happiness: Urban Placemaking, focused on what makes a neighbourhood or city an appealing and attractive place to live, and how Melbourne can retain its status as the world's most liveable city. The panel included Laura Phillips, editor of Open Journal, Jeff Provan, founder and design director of Neometro, Simon Knott, of BKK Architects and Rachel Elliot-Jones of Assemble. The panelists, as well as a few audience members, raised some interesting ideas and questions which resonated, so I thought I would share, prior to the audio recording being made available on the MPavilion website. You can listen to the audio recording of the first panel discussion as part of this series, High Density Happiness: Building Communities.

High Density Happiness: Urban Placemaking

Placemaking imperatives

  • Residential developments must address and contribute to the public realm, however it is important that we mediate levels of privacy, designing housing as a private retreat from the city, to allow people to engage and dis-engage with public life.

  • Promoting a diversity of housing types allows for a greater assortment of people to enjoy a building and neighbourhood.

  • Developers, planners and architects need to ask: Would I be prepared to live in this development? Would I let my family member live here?

  • Considerations need to be broader than size and focus on the bigger picture feelings of quality and design. We need to raise living standards as many resident concerns are not size, but quality related.

  • The more a development gives back to the community, the more it gets back. Developments can exhibit generosity through small moves.

  • Apartments should be an oasis - welcoming their inhabitants and making them feel glad to be home

  • Discussions about apartment building design should be less focused on height and more about street level interaction. The street facade and treatment of streetscape is often an afterthought, left to the last minute. But how the ground floor activity and design fits with what building residents and the local community want or need is incredibly important. 

  • Developments should respond and contribute to local context. You can't just plonk a design anywhere. It is vital that the needs of the current and future demographic is considered.

A new development model

  • We need to change the approach to development which covers the site and maximises yield. There are some great examples of models that give back to the community, such as the Commons.

  • The majority of multi-storey developments in Victoria are not designed by architects. We have witnessed non-designers having the power over design elements which they are not trained or equipped to deal with. Such an approach has been more concerned with market issues rather than the longevity of living spaces. 

  • We need to better consider the implications of gentrification and displacement. Sometimes the diverse, artistic community which has made an area appealing is pushed out when they become 'trendy'. 

  • We need to consider the finished construction as the start of the development process, not the end, as this is where we see its actual contribution to the residents, street, neighbourhood and city. 

  • We have opportunities to incentivise new approaches to development, such as collective and affordable housing.

  • Car parking policy needs to be revitalised to reflect changing needs and attitudes. Reduced car parking is cost-effective to developers, reduces housing cost and contributes greater housing choice in market. There is opportunity for better bike storage and maintenance facilities in apartments. 

  • It is important to shift the role of government from an 'umpire' to leading good development outcomes. To aid this political donations from developers should be banned so that the State Government isn't subject to difficult pressures. To protect our assets (public transportation, public spaces, etc), we need good legislation and policy. Independent design review processes is beneficial as no sites are the same. Architects, landscape architects and designers should involved in large scale development and public participation must be encouraged to allow for community discussion and debate. 

MPavilion offers a great opportunity to engage the public in discussions on urban planning policy.

MPavilion offers a great opportunity to engage the public in discussions on urban planning policy.

Inside the Most Sustainable Fire Station in the USA: Fire Station 20

Fire Station 20. Photo by Lara Swimmer , courtesy of Schacht Aslani Architects.

Fire Station 20. Photo by Lara Swimmer, courtesy of Schacht Aslani Architects.

“Seattle is known worldwide for its environmental leadership. City policy mandates LEED Gold for new construction, and we’ve gone well beyond that with this new fire station” -Mayor Edward Murray.

Durability, efficiency and functionality were core to the design of a new building for Fire Station 20. With modest, yet striking architecture, the building is unassumingly the most sustainable fire station in the United States. Located on a new site nestled into the steep slope of Queen Anne hill, the building has a strong civic presence, interspersed between predominantly industrial buildings on 15th Avenue W, making it an ideal location to showcase sustainable design.

Sustainable fire stations in Seattle

In 2003, citizens voted in support of the City of Seattle’s Fire Facilities and Emergency Response Levyto generate $167 million to upgrade, renovate or replace 32 neighborhood stations to seismic and modern firefighting standards. A key component of the City’s project was a commitment to achieving the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environment Design (LEED) certification. LEED is an independent sustainable design rating system in which participating projects earn points for green features, meeting one of four certification levels (ranging from certified, silver, gold, with platinum as the highest level). The City’s station improvement initiative initially targeted a minimum of LEED Silver, though this target was subsequently raised to LEED Gold.

In 2010, Schacht Aslani Architects were appointed to design Fire Station 20. The project team brought extensive expertise, having designed the LEED Gold certified Fire Station 30 in Mount Baker. Aspiring to higher environmental performance, the City challenged the team to meet LEED Platinum certification and the guidelines of the Architecture 2030 Challenge (2015), encouraging reduction of carbon emissions and fossil fuel consumption. Fire Station 20 achieved LEED Platinum certification in June 2015, earning 98 points out of 110 to make it the highest LEED scoring fire station in the USA.

Fire Station 20 creates a civic presence, featuring a new sidewalk to enhance local connections, landscaping and public art. Photo by Lara Swimmer, courtesy of Schacht Aslani Architects.

Fire Station 20 creates a civic presence, featuring a new sidewalk to enhance local connections, landscaping and public art. Photo by Lara Swimmer, courtesy of Schacht Aslani Architects.

Site and building features

Prior to the new development, Fire Station 20, located in residential Queen Anne, was assessed by the City as too small, ageing and inadequate for contemporary emergency response requirements. Following investigation, 4 lots were secured at the intersection of Interbay and West Queen Anne, allowing expansion and the ability to accommodate a drive-thru design, though presenting several challenges due to a former landfill in the area and the site’s significant slope. The development improved local amenity by creating a new sidewalk connection along W Armour Street to provide safe pedestrian access between the hill climb to the residential buildings of Queen Anne and the Rapid Ride bus stops located in front of the station.  

The layout of the station is divided into distinctive sides referred to as the “dirty” and “clean” house. The “dirty” house encompasses the Apparatus Bay which has capacity for 2 engines, workshop space, marine and oxygen storage areas. This side of the building has a walk in shower and a special washing machine known as an extractor, both modern features of fire stations, ensuring any contamination cannot spread. A storage space with radiant heating keeps uniforms dry when not in use, an important aspect of maintaining uniforms as they go through extreme wear and tear.

The main entrance is located on the “clean” side and leads to the lobby and station office. During duty, fire fighters can be affected by extreme temperatures and exposed to stress. The building’s climate controlled spaces are essential for supporting recovery and comfort after an emergency. The kitchen, TV room and bunk rooms have been designed to support rest and recovery, by enabling light levels to be controlled and noise minimized. The physical training room, with views over the neighborhood, helps the crew maintain fitness for service. Whilst the layout enables use of the stairs between the first and second floor, the building is designed to be accessible and integrates an elevator, for visitors to the station for public open houses and school tours.

The kitchen and dining space. Photo by Lara Swimmer, courtesy of Schacht Aslani Architects.

The kitchen and dining space. Photo by Lara Swimmer, courtesy of Schacht Aslani Architects.

The physical training room. Photo by Lara Swimmer, courtesy of Schacht Aslani Architects.

The physical training room. Photo by Lara Swimmer, courtesy of Schacht Aslani Architects.

Design features

Initial energy models for Fire Station 20 indicate a 70% saving compared to a typical building. Fire stations generally require systems 24 hours a day, placing additional demands on energy and makingsustainability standards challenging to meet. This significant saving is attributed to making the right moves with design up front by orientating the building to maximize natural light and selecting highly efficient mechanical systems.

During the day, minimal artificial lighting is required due to orientation and expansive windows. Efficient LED lights are incorporated throughout the building and used when required. Solar panels are discreetly integrated into the roof, generating approximately 30% of required energy. 14 geothermal wells beneath the ground take advantage of the earth’s stable temperatures. Water is circulated through pipes extending into the ground to extract or discharge heat to efficiently warm and cool the building. The constant opening and closing of the Apparatus Bay doors creates an inconsistent temperature that is inefficient to control. To combat this, the building is the first fire station in Seattle to incorporate a radiant heating system, helping to stabilize the temperature. A heat recovery system captures and reuses 75% of the exhaust heat that would otherwise be lost from the building. A generator provides backup power to the fire station in the event of an emergency. There are two charging stations for electric vehicles. Throughout, low flow plumbing fixtures are used, resulting in a 43% reduction in water use.

The building features efficient LED lights and expansive windows to optimize natural light during the day. Photo by Lara Swimmer, courtesy of Schacht Aslani Architects.

The building features efficient LED lights and expansive windows to optimize natural light during the day. Photo by Lara Swimmer, courtesy of Schacht Aslani Architects.

The apparatus bay. Photo by Lara Swimmer, courtesy of Schacht Aslani Architects.

The apparatus bay. Photo by Lara Swimmer, courtesy of Schacht Aslani Architects.

Materials were considered for their durability, environmental and health impacts. 90% of materials from the demolition of existing buildings on the site were able to be salvaged for recycling. Approximately 30% of the new building was constructed from recycled materials. Some materials were selected for their environmental credentials. Examples of this include use of materials with low levels of volatile organic compounds to improve indoor air quality and the integration of environmentally friendly zinc in the siding as it has a 60 year plus life-span and is able to be 100% recycled.

Schacht Aslani Architects collaborated with landscape architects Nakano Associates to soften the industrial character of the street. The landscaping creates a visual connection with nature that complements the steep slope of the site and civic features of the building. Two green roofs create additional space for landscaping and help to reduce and filter stormwater. Managing stormwater at the site was important given the proximity to the Lake Washington Ship Canal and potential impact on marine life. Water that falls on the roof is directed to a bio-retention planter where it is filtered by a series of plants, soil and gravel. 

Artwork marking the entrance and drought tolerant plants integrated into the landscaping. Photo by Lara Swimmer, courtesy of Schacht Aslani Architects.

Artwork marking the entrance and drought tolerant plants integrated into the landscaping. Photo by Lara Swimmer, courtesy of Schacht Aslani Architects.

The crew were interested in integrating a vegetable garden due to the popularity of the one at the old station. The thriving vegetable garden provides a variety of produce enjoyed by the firefighters, offering additional benefits of healthy eating and social interaction through gardening and cooking.

A series of terraced garden beds soften the appearance of the retaining wall which helps to relate to the residential buildings in Queen Anne. Lattice-style fencing along the alley is intended to provide a green screen once climbing plants mature. Native and drought tolerant plants are used throughout the landscape as they need very little water once established.

Wind and Water, a striking artwork by Rob Ley marks the entrance to Fire Station 20. Ley described that the smoke-like forms of stainless steel tubing references the role of wind and water as a fire suppressor. The piece was commissioned as part of the City of Seattle public art program and creates visual interest for people passing by.

Information sharing

To engage with and inform the community about the building, a large flip-dot sign on 15th Avenue W displays real-time environmental performance information. The sign uses minimal energy and is complemented by interactive signage about energy, water and carbon savings as well as solar generation.

Signage displaying information about the performance of Fire Station 20 to people passing by on 15th Ave W. Photo by Lara Swimmer, courtesy of Schacht Aslani Architects.

Signage displaying information about the performance of Fire Station 20 to people passing by on 15th Ave W. Photo by Lara Swimmer, courtesy of Schacht Aslani Architects.

The City’s fire station initiative and sustainability goals provided opportunity for architects involved in the different buildings to share information about the efficiency, costs and challenges of different mechanical systems and learn from each other. Projects benefited from the experience of earlier developments, reflecting an economy of scale which promoted efficiency and innovation. The earlier involvement of Schacht Aslani Architects in the design of Station 30 involved conversations with crews, neighbors and a range of built environment professionals which helped to build a wealth of knowledge which influenced the design of Fire Station 20. The firm describes that the learnings from the sustainable design of Fire Station 20 have been shared with architects working on other station projects.

Fire Station 20 has an Energy Management and Control System which monitors and regulates the building to sure it is operating efficiently. This helps generate information which continues the legacy of sharing knowledge of design outcomes to benefit future city projects. The building is considered the pinnacle of the City’s fire station redevelopment and sustainability initiative and is anticipated to save money over the long term as a result of its low energy and water consumption. Fire Station 20 serves as an excellent model for sustainability, reflecting the innovative design by Schacht Aslani Architects and the City’s commitment to improving the environmental performance of its buildings.

Thank you to Cyndi Wilder and David Jackson from the City of Seattle and Eric Aman from Schacht Aslani Architects for the opportunity to see inside Fire Station 20 and their assistance with information about the design of the building.

This article is published on The Urbanist, a site dedicated to examining urban policy to improve cities and quality of life. 

Inside The Green Headquarters of Brooks: Stone 34

“We have to show there is profit potential in projects like these…”  Lisa Picard, Executive Vice President and Regional Manager, Skanska USA, Seattle.

Stone 34

Stone 34

The design and location of Stone 34, the new global headquarters of Brooks, was envisaged as an urban “trailhead” to Seattle’s popular Burke-Gilman Trail. Learning that Brooks was looking to relocate from Bothell, construction group Skanksa USA approached the company’s CEO and pitched the idea. The vision offered the opportunity for Brooks to connect with customers using the trail and resonated with the company’s environmental values. Brooks signed a lease based on this idea, unconventionally for a building that did not yet exist, but would become a trailblazer as the second building to participate in the City of Seattle’s Deep Green Pilot Program.

Enticing sustainable development 

The City of Seattle introduced the Pilot (now Living Building Pilot Program) to alleviate barriers to developments participating in the Living Building Challenge (LBC), a rigorous green building certification program designed by the International Living Future Institute. The Pilot provides flexibility for projects attempting to meet some or all of the LBC requirements, by allowing departures from aspects of the Seattle Land Use Code which are barriers to meeting the sustainability standards. It aims to encourage projects to participate in the LBC by offering incentives such as additional building height or floor area. A preferred site for Brooks had been found near the trail, however, a height restriction of 45 feet did not enable enough floor space. During a tour of Stone 34, Skanska USA conveyed the prospect of being allowed extra height was an added incentive for participating in the Pilot. As part of the Pilot, Stone 34 had to reduce water and energy consumption by 75% compared to a standard building and capture and reuse at least 50% of storm water on site.

Design features

By incorporating features to reduce water and energy use, encourage environmentally conscious behavior and measure environmental performance, the building acts as a billboard for Brooks by highlighting the company’s sustainability values. The project included cleaning up the contaminated site at the intersection of Stone Way North and 34th Street and salvaging wood from the demolition for reuse in a feature staircase. The building includes hydronic chilled beams which provide more efficient heating and cooling by circulating water to manage temperature. The heat recovery and exchange chiller system produces chilled water and captures wasted energy to heat water. A phase change thermal energy storage tank freezes and thaws “flat ice” bricks at 55 degrees Fahrenheit. The building was designed by LMN Architects to optimize passive cooling and heating, however, windows are not operable due to noise and odor impacts of the adjacent transfer station. Natural lighting is maximized by large windows and complemented by LED lights with daylight and motion sensors. Rainwater is treated, stored and re-used for irrigating landscapes. The city’s water supply is used for all drinking purposes, with low flow water fixtures to minimize use. The terraces and rooftop deck offer landscaped spaces for workers to enjoy, with views over Lake Union.

Streetscape improvements by Stone 34

Landscaping features

Reflecting the vision for the trailhead, design elements help connect the five-story commercial building with its local setting. Ground floor retail spaces with glass windows enable a visual connection between the building and the street. A tiered plaza, designed by Swift Company, frames the edge of the building, offering a public gathering space with seating, drinking fountains, bicycle racks, and landscaping with some trees. These features are designed for runners, walkers and cyclists passing by to use for stretching or their warm up routines. The garage includes electric vehicles charging stations and bicycle storage. Despite the area being serviced by several bus lines and the bicycle trail, Stone 34 has 216 underground car parking spaces. While this seems to be at odds with the sustainable vision, according to Skanska USA, this was important to remain commercially competitive.

Behavioral change

The majority of energy and water savings are due to the building design, however the behavior of workers is a significant component. The design process involved research of the anticipated behavior of workers to understand the likely energy and water demands. Skanska USA and Brooks developed strategies for reducing consumption through behavioral change, programming and equipment purchasing. Brooks upgraded desktop computers with more energy efficient laptops. Office lights and computers are programmed to turn off at the end of the day. People manually switch on lights or log in to computers if they are still working. Showers encourage people to cycle to work, but timeout after a few minutes. A grand stairwell framed with energy-efficient glass is located at the entrance to encourage people to walk instead of use the elevator, fitting for a company promoting active lifestyles. A dashboard in the lobby displays water and energy consumption data to raise awareness and encourage workers to reduce their environmental footprint. The lobby also features a kinetic sculpture by Seattle artist Casey Curran in which brass flowers are programmed to subtly change position and bloom when the building consumes little energy and wilt when use is high. Both displays are visible to members of the public who enter the foyer, making the performance of Stone 34 and Brooks incredibly transparent.

Glassy architecture highlighting the stairway atrium

Exchanging green design for additional space  

Although designed to exceed the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED Platinum certification (the highest status), not everyone was supportive of the project. The building was subject to seven design reviews, a process which Skanska USA describes improved the project as a result of community and professional discussions. However, several reports during the application process refer to some members of the community and the sustainability sector who were not receptive to the project receiving additional height for sustainability features. The commentary reflected concerns that the additional 20 feet, ultimately granted to the project, would compromise neighborhood character and block views of Lake Union. There were criticisms that the incentive should be offered only to projects meeting all, or more of the LBC standards. While valid considerations, the project demonstrated that the City’s Pilot and incentive approach could be successful in encouraging developments to strive for exceptional environmental performance. It is likely that until sustainable buildings become the norm, rather than the exception, incentives and waivers will need to be offered by cities.

Looking toward N 34th St on Stone Way

Living up to green and market expectations  

The City of Seattle imposes a financial penalty if the building’s operations do not meet environmental targets once occupied. As a result, the project had to extend beyond sustainable design and influence the behavior of the 300 or so people who would work inside the building. A unique legal agreement had to be established as to who would be responsible for paying penalties in the event the environmental performance targets were not met. Both Skanska USA and Brooks agreed to share responsibility. This interestingly reflects the investment by both companies in ensuring the building operates successfully. In July 2014, the Living Building Pilot was amended to increase the maximum penalty for projects that fail to comply with the standards from 5% to 10% of the construction costs; a substantial cost. Whilst the penalty is a powerful tool for the City to encourage the developer and tenant to deliver a building which meets environmental expectations, it also has potential to create an additional financial risk which may decrease willingness for developments to participate in the Pilot. As environmental compliance with the Pilot is assessed once buildings are occupied for a full year, Stone 34 is still in its performance period. Last year, Skanska USA sold Stone 34 and it is suggested the sale provided a significant return, demonstrating to other developers, the profit potential of green buildings.

A step in the right direction

Although Stone 34 received criticism for exceeding the original height limits and not meeting more of the LBC standards, it is significant as one of two projects to have enrolled and been built as part of the Pilot initiative. This perhaps highlights the challenges faced by private developments and their willingness in delivering green buildings. Several of the features in Stone 34 are valuable for increasing knowledge about new technologies. As one example of this, Skanska USA’s current 400 Fairview project is incorporating the hydronic system after Stone 34 demonstrated the benefits. Although some elements are less progressive, such as the number of car parking spaces, the commitment to extending environmental performance to occupant’s behavior highlights the potential for significant environmental improvements in every building, regardless of quality or age. In 2014, Stone 34 was awarded Office Development of the Year by the Washington Chapter of the Commercial Real Estate Development Association (NAIOP). This accolade assists to send a message of the benefits of improving the environmental performance of buildings to other developers. The experience of Stone 34 perhaps indicates the importance of developing flexible green design standards and programs to encourage more developers to take these ideas on board, now that their potential profitability has been demonstrated.

This article is published on The Urbanist, a site dedicated to examining urban policy to improve cities and quality of life. 

Inside Seattle’s Greenest Commercial Building: The Bullitt Center

"We shouldn't fuel the future with the polluting methods of the past... We have the technology to power our future in ways that don't threaten our health or poison our planet. Let's choose to use it" ― Denis Hayes, President and CEO, Bullitt Foundation 

Courtesy of the  Bullitt Center .

Courtesy of the Bullitt Center.

The design inspiration for the Bullitt Center, one of the world’s greenest commercial buildings, stems from elements of Seattle’s natural environment. With a vision for creating an innovative living building, the design team explored the ecological processes of the Douglas Fir forest, which historically covered the Capitol Hill site. The architectural design imitates aspects of the Douglas Fir tree and forms part of the local urban ecology, optimizing energy, and water from its local setting.

Vision for a living building 

Bullitt Center Exterior by Drawntocities.com

Water cycle

The Bullitt Center which opened in 2013, was designed to meet the ambitious goals of the Living Building Challenge (version 2.0), a sustainable building certification process. Developments participating in the Living Building Challenge (LBC) are required to meet sustainability standards defined according to seven categories, which for version 2.0 included site, water, energy, health and happiness, materials, equity and beauty. These standards are updated to continue excelling sustainable architecture. LBC projects are assessed on actual, rather than anticipated performance and are evaluated only once they have been operating at full occupancy for at least 12 consecutive months. The Bullitt Center, designed by Miller Hull Partnership, is intended to have a lifecycle of 250 years, incorporating many adaptable features so the building can change over time. The six-story building is designed as a living laboratory and center for experimentation to share information, with public tours available 3 times a week.

Bullitt Center Wetland by Drawntocities.com

The building is designed to mirror how the Douglas Fir forest would historically capture, absorb and slowly release water that fell upon the site. Rainwater is harvested from the roof, filtered, passed through ultraviolet light and activated charcoal, and treated with a small amount of chlorine. Once the Center receives approval from environmental and health authorities, all of the building’s water will be provided from this rainwater system instead of the municipal water supply. Greywater, from sinks and showers, is captured, filtered and pumped to a constructed wetland on the third floor. The water passes through plants and gravel in the wetland five times so nutrients are absorbed and harmful materials removed. The water then enters a bio-swale located on the west side of the building where it is filtered again by plants and 20 feet of gravel before entering ground water.

The Center features the only six-story composting toilet system in the world. The odor-free system only uses two tablespoons of water and biodegradable soap, significantly reducing water consumption. Human waste enters the large composting system in the basement and is decomposed through an aerobic process. Liquid is separated into leachate storage tanks and taken monthly to the King County Liquid Waste facility in Carnation where it is used in a bird sanctuary. The biosolids will be taken to GroCo in Kent to be mixed with sawdust and made into fertilizer.


Energy of nature

The designers considered how the site historically processed sunlight, when it was a Douglas Fir forest and created the roof as a canopy integrating 575 solar panels.

The Center is designed to use minimal energy so the roof provides sufficient solar power, as a standard office building would require a larger roof area to generate enough energy. The building optimizes natural light through expansive windows, and interior conditions are also moderated through operable and triple-glazed windows with automated exterior shades, hydronic heating, geothermal heating and passive heat recovery systems. Computers are used to monitor and adjust the building’s systems for maintaining comfortable levels of light and inside temperatures.

People power

The Miller Hull Partnership recognized that in delivering an efficient building, their design would need to influence people’s behavior and rely on ‘people power’. At the building’s entrance, a staircase greets workers and visitors, rather than elevators, as found in many standard office buildings. Constructed with beautiful timber and surrounded by windows offering views of Seattle to Puget Sound, the Bullitt Center fondly describes it as the ‘irresistible staircase' for its inviting design. It goes without saying that the staircase offers health benefits by encouraging people to be active at work. To ensure the building is accessible, an energy efficient elevator is integrated, however it is discretely located. 

Bullitt Center Staircase by Drawntocities.com

The building’s location was selected because of accessibility by walking, cycling and transit. Instead of providing on site car parking, the building has storage for 29 bicycles with a repair station, plus showers and change rooms on every level. Each building tenant engages in a green lease, which specifies a budget for energy and water consumption, making workers more aware of their behavior.

City as an ecosystem and innovator

Compared to standard buildings, the Bullitt Center considered design aspects beyond its site encompassing the broader ecosystem of the city. An adjacent traffic median was rejuvenated as a public park, responding to local needs for more green gathering spaces and creates safer connections for pedestrians and cyclists. The location also enables excess energy from the solar panels to be sold back into the grid.

Open space at Bullitt Center

Local materials were sourced in the construction to minimize the environmental impacts of transportation. The building’s frame is constructed of timber, sourced within 1000km from a responsibly managed forest as certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. All of the steel and concrete was sourced within 500km.

The Bullitt Center also helped generate local innovation. Instead of sourcing high-performing windows from Germany, the team liaised with the company to allow a local company to get an exclusive license to manufacture them. They also worked with a local company that produced water sealants for building exteriors to create a formulation that didn’t contain phthalates, one of fourteen harmful materials, which must be avoided to meet the LBC requirements. Through these endeavors, others working in the construction industry in the region are now able to access these innovations.

The building’s sustainable design also pushed the boundaries of government regulations and required collaboration with many agencies. The Center worked with the City of Seattle to create the Living Building Pilot Program to overcome barriers in the Land Use Code to developing green buildings. The team worked with Seattle’s Departments of Transportation and Parks and Recreation to close 15th Street to traffic to extend and redevelop McGilvra Place Park adjacent to building. It is continuing to work with Seattle-King County Public Health and the Washington State Department of Public Health regarding the use of treated water on site. Despite the architectural and engineering innovations of the building, the planning and design process took around 5 years, demonstrating the challenges in sourcing materials to meet the LBC standards as well as meeting regulations.

The development of the Bullitt Center highlights the importance of sustainable buildings serving as living laboratories to test ideas, and to assist other developers to improve upon technologies and design. It also illustrates the need for city governments to think beyond their building codes and facilitate innovation in green building design perhaps through waivers or credits, rather than impediments. Drawing on the building’s metaphor, the Bullitt Center has planted the seed for a forest of innovative sustainable buildings to be developed in Seattle and beyond.

This article is published on The Urbanist, a site dedicated to examining urban policy to improve cities and quality of life. 

Secret Garden

"If buildings had feelings, they would all be jealous of this one" ― Russell Investment Center

Today I visited a secret garden in Seattle. 17 levels above the city, this inviting space has incredible views of the Olympic Mountains, Puget Sound, surrounding buildings and the streets below. This beautiful place provides an open space for tenants working in the private office building to relax. 

Russell Investments Rooftop by Drawntocities.com
Russell Investments Rooftop by Drawntocities.com
Russell Investments Rooftop by Drawntocities.com
Russell Investments by Drawntocities.com

City activation and place making videos

Yesterday, a friend and former co-worker who works in regional development and tourism sent me a message saying that she was looking for some interesting and inspiring videos about city activation, place making and collaborative processes in urban development. Her city has a spectacular setting on Australia's Great Barrier Reef and a magically perfect tropical climate which make it a major destination for tourists and a fabulous place which locals never want to leave. Increasingly, people are identifying the many opportunities to reinvigorate spaces within the central business district to complement the natural setting with other city experiences. 

It is incredibly exciting that the city is exploring opportunities to enhance the urban landscape, and in the process are looking around the world for ideas to generate some passion in their leaders. I have selected a few videos which I hope offer both interesting and motivating ideas for aspiring to create great spaces and inclusive and engaging processes in cities. If you have a little spare time each of these is worth a look. I would love to hear of any other great suggestions you have to share - just enter any  in the comments below. I hope to add some more suggestions when I have a little more time. 

Spare 15 - 20 minutes

How Public Spaces Make Cities Work
In this inspiring talk, Amanda Burden discusses the importance of public spaces in creating an enjoyable city life. She shares her experience of developing the High Line in New York as a great example of public space anchoring an area undergoing transformation, and she provides insight into some great ideas for strategic and integrated urban development which ensure people are connected with the places they live.  

Before I Die I Want To
Candy Chang has sprinkled countless cities around the world with little experiments, often on the sides of abandoned buildings, to engage people in their neighborhoods about life, memories and dreams. She shows the power of public spaces when people have a voice and share experiences with each other. 

The Walkable City
Jeff Speck explains how Portland, Oregon made a series of choices which shifted the city's priorities to make it more sustainable, walkable and bikeable - and in the process boosted economic development outcomes. This is a great example of a leaders setting an agenda to improve the city for all.   

Brilliant Designs to Fit More People in Every City
The vision for the future city, according to Kent Larson is a place for people, capitalizing on compact urban centers and shared use of spaces and vehicles. Technological innovation will play a role in creating micro cars, robotic walls for apartments to adapt spaces, apps to enable communities to 'personalise' the type of housing they demand and sensors to save energy consumption. A little out there, but inspiring for thinking beyond the status quo! 

Retrofitting Suburbia
Ellen Dunham-Jones offers opportunities for how cities can regenerate car-based suburban development as people-oriented spaces. 

My Architectural Philosophy? Bring the Community into the Process
This insightful talk by Alejandro Aravena discusses the importance of engaging with the community to find the right questions to ask and the right problems to solve in a complex example from Chile. 

Spare 60 minutes

The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces
William H. Whyte discusses his observations of people's needs for public spaces in cities and what makes a utilized and vibrant space. A fantastic film to watch for anyone responsible for overseeing a public space or city activation design project. 

Oasis in the city

 There is a delight in the hardy life of the open

There are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness, that can reveal its mystery, its melancholy and its charm"
―Theodore Roosevelt―

Oasis, painting of Green Lake, Seattle by  Sarah Oberklaid

Oasis, painting of Green Lake, Seattle by Sarah Oberklaid

On a chilly evening, Seattle's sky is fleetingly illuminated by the warm glow of the setting sun. A perfect reflection  is created in the still waters at Green Lake, beneath the surrounding trees. The scene is a reminder of the importance of nature in cities and its profound impact on people. 

Humans are believed to have an inherent need for contact with nature and living things, which is described by the theory of biophilia. While historically, the natural environment has been viewed as the antithesis of the city, there is growing understanding of its emotional, psychological and physical impacts. 

Open spaces - both small and large, natural and landscaped - are critical assets of our cities. Their natural systems filter our air, reduce pollutants from storm water, support biodiversity and perform many other important environmental functions. Being immersed in nature allows us to escape the daily grind, reflect and re-engage our senses. 

An oasis in the city. 

Weekend Wondering

“The trust of a city street is formed over time from many, many little public sidewalk contacts”
Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, 1961

Sketch of Whistler by Drawntocities.com

Whistler is home to almost 10,000 residents, however, with a capacity to provide overnight accommodation to an additional 35,000 people, it regularly morphs into a village of strangers, hosting over 2 million visitors each year. On a recent visit to Whistler, I was intrigued by the strong sense of trust I observed amongst probable strangers. I found two indicators of trust, neither particularly unique of other alpine resorts, to be interesting and different to my city experience: people move at high speeds down the slopes trusting those surrounding them and people leave expensive gear unlocked outside trusting it will not be stolen. I began to think about how elements of good urban design and the sharing of space in Whistler play a role in fostering an unspoken confidence in human nature. The three qualities which Jane Jacobs asserted in her seminal The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961 were needed in a “city street equipped to handle strangers, and to make a safety asset, in itself, out of the presence of strangers” are successfully orchestrated in Whistler. Such streets exhibit a “clear demarcation between what is public space and what is private space”; have “eyes upon the street” as a result of buildings being oriented to the street without blank walls; and support continuous sidewalk activity, “both to add to the number of effective eyes on the street and to induce people in buildings along the street to watch the sidewalks in sufficient numbers” (Jacobs 1961).

Whistler by Drawntocities.com

Whilster's public spaces - its streets and squares - are defined by the private spaces of surrounding buildings. Buildings along the main pedestrian thoroughfares are of a moderate height of 3 to 4 levels. This human scale architecture allows sunlight to filter into the streets and squares and enables views of the surrounding mountain peaks and tree tops. The main pedestrian through link, Village Stroll, is wide, with narrower streets spoking off at the intersection of the squares, helping to lead people through the village. Higher architectural forms appear to be located on these less important pedestrian connections. 

Whistler Village by Drawntocities.com

The streets and squares are often demarcated from private space, by a subtle division with a ledge which also provides a small space for landscaping and doubles for informal public seating. Shop fronts are set back slightly from the pedestrian thoroughfare and are generally elevated above the street level by a few steps. This unfortunately impacts accessibility via wheelchairs or prams, however signifies a separation between the public realm of the street and the private realm. Nature is illuminated with large trees decorated with lighting at each of the public squares at night. While this creates an inviting atmosphere, it also provides a subtle form of lighting of public space to support safety at night. 

Whistler Streetscape by Drawntocities.com

Whistler's streets and plazas are lined with active street frontages which encourage interaction between people enjoying public and private spaces. Shops at the base of buildings have extensive windows which address the street and provide visual transparency. Many bars, restaurants and cafes are at street level and have patios, with outdoor seating and bright umbrellas, which extend into the street. Windows and balconies located on upper floors enable passive surveillance of these public spaces. These design elements contribute to a large number of eyes on the street. 

Whistler by Drawntocities.com

Private motorized vehicles have a limited place within Whistler Village, cars are excluded from pedestrian only streets and designated parking areas are located on the periphery of the village. By restricting the ability to drive within the village, more people are encouraged to walk.  When people move by foot, the likelihood of eye-contact or interaction is increased. The ephemeral face-to-face acknowledgements, awareness of surrounding people and lowered speed of movement changes the mood of a place. There is a higher level of passive surveillance, sense of personal safety, friendliness and calmness. Whistler’s public squares are centered at points of multiple street crossings, creating a greater likelihood of public usage and chance encounters. People are attracted to spaces where there are other people - and the removal of cars actively encourages people to get out and walk, fully enjoy the entirety of the street space for their leisure, whilst supporting a quieter and safer environment to relax. 

Whistler by Drawntocities.com

A continuity of shop fronts, bars and restaurants provides a point of visual and social interest for pedestrians. On rainy or snowy days, pedestrians are protected beneath the awnings of the shopfronts - although it should be noted that many of these protected walkways sadly preclude access via a wheelchair or pram due to several steps. Wide pedestrian only streets ensure people feel comfortable and uninterrupted in their movements. 

Whistler by Drawntocities.com

People have a sense of being amongst others - people watching gives a sense of being surrounded by a community - interactions occur between the windows and balconies of the private apartments above the street, the chairs and tables of the cafes, restaurants and bars, the ledges upon which people sit along the street edge, and the street itself.  The elements which originally struck me about sense of trust in Whistler are perhaps universal to many ski resorts, but it did intrigue me how people experience and behave in different types of spaces. 

Whistler by Drawntocities.com

In a typical city street, if you were to leave expensive private property unattended and unlocked, by the time you returned, it would probably be gone or vandalized. Yet atop the mountains and in the villages, countless people leave ski and snowboard gear outside while they go inside for a break. There is no guarantee that their property will be safe, yet the vast majority leave their gear outside without hesitation. For some curious reason, people trust thousands of strangers passing along to respect their property.  It could be that the design and use of spaces plays a role in this perception of safety and security. At Whilster, the places where people appear to feel comfortable leaving their gear, is generally on racks located in accessible and convenient destinations which have an extensive presence of people. They are designed to facilitate visibility - a restaurant or bar might have outdoor tables where people sit to easily keep an eye on their gear and windows enable visual connection from inside to the outside, making people passing by aware that they are being watched. 

Whistler by Drawntocities.com

While an average city street is designed with signage, signals, and road markings to communicate how people should move, either by foot or wheels, on the slopes there are only a few signs and rules. For the most part, the onus is on each skier or snowboarder to be aware of environmental conditions and surrounding activity. Most importantly they are alerted by signage to be mindful of people in front of them and to give way to others at trail intersections. Although different runs are categorized according to their difficulty, it is possible to find people of a mix of ages, abilities and experiences navigating down a section of the mountain at once. Space is shared in a way which empowers users with the responsibility to look out for one another. This is a space which is not extensively ordered - it is not governed like a street with designated areas for different types of movement, speed limits or devices to avoid people colliding with each other. And yet, those navigating down the slopes do so trusting those around them. 

Whistler urban design by Drawntocities.com

It is intriguing that at a ski resort we trust each other in different ways to in city streets. Atop the slopes, perhaps it is because everyone knows they are responsible for their own safety that we share space without excessive signage or separations common to city streets. Perhaps it is simply that people are on holiday, they are more relaxed and trusting of people being safety conscious and respectful of their property. Regardless, the urban design of Whistler encourages interaction between people enjoying the public and private realm through simple elements which sets a good example for other towns and cities.

Weekend Wondering

“The life of our city is rich in poetic and marvelous subjects.
We are enveloped and steeped as though in an atmosphere of the marvelous; but we do not notice it.” 

Charles Baudelaire

View over Evora by Drawntocities.com

The quality of life in cities is increasingly ranked against a series of measures. The criteria for what makes one city more livable than another is debated. Can the quality of city life really be reduced down to a series of metrics? Livability assessments often measure the more tangible elements of cities, generally focusing on political stability, healthcare, education, infrastructure, environment, culture, housing, safety and business conditions (1).

Many of these rankings are designed, not to understand quality of life for the locals living there, but to help companies to understand living conditions in different places so that they can adequately compensate and entice expatriates for working abroad.

I was recently one of those expats, sent to a little town called Évora in Portugal with my husband for his work. As I started my journey, adjusting to a new place, in my mind were lots of questions about what would be the elements which impacted my quality of life and would my quality of life be different to Melbourne or Seattle.

There were the words of many theorists circling in my head. Jane Jacob's writings on the vitality of local communities would sometimes pop up. I would consider Richard Florida's hypothesis that a city's level of tolerance for different people as the critical factor for attracting the most talented and innovative workers which help to propel the economy. A single sentence in Edward Glaeser's opening chapter in Triumph of Cities would capture my thoughts: "A mayor who can better educate a city's children so that they can find opportunity on the other side of the globe is succeeding, even if his city is getting smaller."

A few weeks into my journey, a new book was released. I am sure I was one of the first people in Portugal to buy Happy City by Charles Montgomery. Charles starts his quest for understanding the relationships between cities and happiness with a story of pedaling behind Enrique Peñalosa, former mayor of Bogotá, to learn about his vision to define the success of his city not by economics but by his citizen's happiness. I had met Enrique's brother, Gil Peñalosa, a few years before when I worked for the City of Melbourne and had listened to him enthusiastically speak of the simple things that matter in making a city livable. Most importantly to Gil, was the need for cities to be designed for inclusiveness to ensure everyone could participate in city life. It was hard to debate with the Peñalosa brothers on what makes a livable and happy city.

"We need to walk, just as birds need to fly. We need to be around other people. We need beauty. We need contact with nature. And most of all, we need not to be excluded. We need to feel some sort of equality" ― Enrique Peñalosa in Happy City by Charles Montgomery. 

These words reminded me of an article I'd read a few years before by Canadian city planner Brent Toderian, discussing several interesting points on the merits of livability rankings. He mentions many elements he believes don't get appropriate attention in the criteria and how the results make many question their city life - how resilient is their city? is it friendly? are there enough random acts of kindness? He writes about a book he came across called The World's Fairest City which proposed a different set of criteria against which to measure a city's livability. A few of my favorite: how often do you meet someone you don't know in your city?; how do people greet each other?; can you find your way without a map?; can you be what you really are? 

Undoubtedly these questions are incredibly important in how an expat will settle into a new place and their daily quality of life. Excited and anxious about my temporary life in Évora, these very questions reflected my greatest fears in arriving in my new country and city. Would I meet any friends during the long days my husband was at work? Would I be able to speak enough Portuguese to get by? How often would I be lost? What if I didn't fit in? 

Praca do Giraldo Evora by Drawntocities.com

What defined my quality of life in Évora, a walled UNESCO World Heritage city, were not the elements which I had found assessed by the mainstream livability surveys. Although I was in a city which centered around its university, I knew little about the standard of education. I was relatively unaffected and rather oblivious to the political situation. My husband's company had figured out our accommodation. I was fairly disconnected from everything to do with housing in Évora - I had no idea how much rent was and if it was affordable for locals. The livability measures seemed much less relevant to an expat experience in some ways - and more critical to a local. Not to discredit these measures - undeniably these factors would be more important depending on your experience - if you required medical assistance, or if you had a school aged child, or if you were in a unstable place.

It was a series of moments, a chance encounter and the kindness of one stranger that had the biggest impact on my quality of life in this new place. 

On the first long day in Évora I would explore the city, trying to get my bearings, observing interactions on the street, in parks and in the square to try to fit in a little. The first mission was to get to the tourist office to get a map - with my phone, I took a photo of my street name in case I couldn't remember it or pronounce it properly if I got lost. It was a slow day trying to test my Portuguese - sometimes it worked and other times didn't. My introduction to this new place was fairly solitary. Thanks to my Portuguese friend Ana in Seattle - who I had met by chance and who had been so kind to teach me about the language and culture - I could sustain enough conversation to checkout my items at the supermarket, or to ask for directions or order a coffee and a pastel de nata. My days were spent finding an interesting scene to sketch and watch people in their daily rituals. 

Coming from a Seattle summer (which is more like spring weather) I would be dressed in light clothes while the locals were rugged up - I soon found out that in this small city, I stood out a little. They could tell I wasn't from Portugal before I even tried to speak. In such a tourist city, foreigners were often considered a bit of a nuisance, visiting for a few days, eating and drinking and then heading off. I would learn that Spanish tourists were the most demanding and although all tourists were the subject of mockery, few Australians visited so I would be more welcome than most others.  

Evora by Drawntocities.com

Thanks to Ana and our many meetings over a cafezinho (little cup of coffee) in Seattle, I had enough Portuguese words to one day, walk into the tourist office in Praça do Giraldo and enquire if they knew anyone who could teach me more Portuguese. I knew that understanding more would be the door to being a part of the city's life. Without better language skills, so much would pass me by. After some awkward discussion I was directed a few doors down to a tutoring school - upon the closed door was a tattered sign - under "Curso de línguas" it said "Português p/Estrangeiro". I took the number and after a few days of working up the confidence, I called, introduced myself and enquired in my very best Portuguese about language classes. To this day I am not super sure what I said, speaking on the phone was much harder. The lady made me aware she couldn't speak in English but with a nice mix of French when I misinterpreted the Portuguese, she managed to tell me that despite the sign, the school didn't offer Portuguese classes for foreigners, but she would find me a teacher and get back to me. After week or so they had found a teacher who was prepared to meet with me for a two hour class twice a week. As I became increasingly lonely in my conversation-less adventures around Évora, I couldn't wait for the first class.  

In the first few moments of meeting Patrícia she reassured me that even though she was young, she was hardworking and I would get the best value out of having her as my Portuguese teacher even though she had focused on teaching Portuguese people to speak English, Spanish and French. At the end of the class Patrícia told me she had to make a trip to her university and she invited me to walk with her. As we walked she showed me some of her favorite places and introduced me to her friends we bumped into (one shared it was her dream to one day move to Townsville!) She had only known me two hours but went out of her way to make me feel at home in Évora and show me a side of her home I would otherwise have not encountered as a visitor.

View of Evora by Drawntocities.com

As we walked past the tallest point in the city, she pointed out the other towns on the distant horizon. Évoramonte, she explained was one of the little peaks - a town across the plain which in the old days would communicate with Évora, with flag signals or even fire if necessary. 

She showed me these beautiful parts of her university and told me about its history. She said, although sometimes when she is at university her mind might drift, she would look at the beautiful tiles on the wall and think how lucky she was. 

University in Evora by Drawntocities.com

Patrícia's tour went for as long as my first class. It astounded me that this young intelligent person who was busy studying her Masters and working, would be so generous to welcome a complete stranger to a new city. She surprised me with how much she knew about my hometown Melbourne - "Aren't the best restaurants on Lygon Street?" then would fess up that she was addicted to watching Masterchef Australia - I thought it was hilarious it would be shown on Portuguese TV.  

Evora scene by Drawntocities.com

Aside from the 2 classes per week, she would meet up with me to show me a great cafe or take me on a drive to a great view point over the city. Sometimes she would be studying in the library and would invite me to meet her there - this library became my haven on rainy days in Évora when I had run out of things to do - it was a place I wouldn't have really known about as a visitor. She would ask me about my plan for the weeks and discourage my visits to Lisbon to instead visit the surrounding villages with her advice on the best places to explore.   

With such kindness, Patrícia invited us over for a family dinner. Their family made me feel connected to this new place, it was my mini-Melbourne, surrounded by Roman walls! It was amazing how quickly Patrícia became a great friend. Her kindness and generosity had such a profound impact on my experience in Évora - I had a wonderful friend to talk to and spend time with who was always patient enough to help me with my Portuguese and encourage me to keep exploring. The simple acts of kindness of one stranger was all that was needed for me to feel welcome, settled, comfortable and safe. And while the traditional livability measures provide a good basis for understanding quality of life, it is sometimes the little intangible moments between humans which resonate the most. 


1. The Economics Intelligence Unit Global Liveability Ranking evaluates stability, healthcare, culture and environment, education and infrastructure. Mercer's Quality of Living Survey measures political and social environment, the economy, environment, socio-cultural environment, medical and health considerations, schools and education, public services and transport, recreation, consumer goods, housing and natural environment. Monocle Magazine also publishes a Quality of Life Survey which factors in safety and crime, international connectivity, climate and sunshine, quality of architecture, public transportation, tolerance, environmental issues and access to nature, urban design, business conditions, proactive policy and medical care. 

Weekend Wondering

Seattle Bus by Drawntocities.com

During the week I read this perspective by Brisbane based urban planner Greg Vann on Metro Vancouver’s upcoming Transit and Transportation Referendum. Vann's sentiments resonated with me as they reflected some of my concerns preceding the two referendums held in 2014 regarding the funding of Seattle’s King County Metro Transit services. There are differences with the circumstances concerning Vancouver’s present referendum and Seattle’s 2014 referendums (firstly by King County in April and by the City of Seattle in November). 

In Vancouver’s case, the referendum is focused on funding future transit projects, a component of which would be through a 0.5% increase to the city's retail tax (Hutchinson 2014). For Seattle however, the referendum was focused on preventing impending cuts to routes and the number of service hours due to a $75 million shortfall in budget due to a decline in the county’s retail spending following the recession (Lindblom 2014). 

The current quality and extent of public transportation infrastructure and services is another key difference between the cities. Vann describes Vancouver’s system as “a model held up by other cities around the world about how to get the balance of transport systems right, and how to match that up with land use involving density and high quality neighborhoods” (Vann 2015). Seattle is less recognized for its public transit system. The city’s system has been focused around buses, a mode more vulnerable to unreliability due to traffic conditions compared to rail. 

South Lake Union Streetcar by Drawntocities.com

Although Seattle’s public transit system may be less established and extensive as Vancouver’s, the city has more recently begun to invest and develop light rail and street car routes to complement its bus network. The South Lake Union Streetcar (shown above) was completed in 2007 and the Central Link light rail, connecting downtown to Sea-Tac airport, was completed in 2009. The need to continue to dramatically invest and improve the current system was also recognized by Seattle-area voters in 2008, who supported Proposition 1, a measure to generate $17.9 billion for the expansion of light rail, train and bus services in the coming decades. Voters supported funding proposals to create more express-bus routes, additional trains for the Sounder commuter line to Everett, and extend light rail to Lynnwood, north Federal Way and the Overlake Center, through increasing sales tax by a half-cent for the next few decades (Lindblom 2008). 

In the first referendum in Seattle in 2014, residents of King County (the county encompassing the City of Seattle and surrounding areas) were asked to vote on a proposition in April to fund the budget shortfall through a 10 year measure which included a 0.1% sales tax increase and an increase to the “car tab” (vehicle registration fee) (Lindblom 2014). This revenue would amount to $130 million in 2015 with 60% allocated to transit projects and 40% for city and county roads (Lindblom 2014; Dawid 2014). If not met, the budget shortfall would result in the elimination of 72 bus routes and a reduction in service hours by 550,000 hours (or approximately one sixth of Metro Transit’s operating hours), despite an increase in patronage to “near-record levels of 400,000 per weekday” (Dawid 2014; Lindblom 2014). The motion was unsuccessful, with 55% of voters rejecting the proposition (Dawid 2014).

Like Vann, I was amazed that a community could vote against the funding measures and accept such extensive cuts to bus routes and service hours. In Vancouver’s case, Vann says: 

“I’m amazed that a community that has such a great track record of leading transport and planning thinking and practice could seriously be considering curtailing its transit funding and winding back its levels of service. And yet the upcoming referendum is about just that. If it doesn’t get up, funding won’t be available for a range of much needed additions to the system to cope with a million new residents in the region over the next few decades; and it is likely that existing services will be cut back.” 

The result to the April referendum in Seattle made me extremely concerned about the extent of services which were at risk of being cut or reduced. It struck me that in a day and age when most cities are recognizing the need for enhancements to public transportation, Seattle was going backwards. I understand the importance of transit operators regularly reviewing routes and operational issues, and that sometimes this means that an underutilized service might be redirected or cancelled. One of the primary concerns Vann discusses is the role that Vancouver plays in providing an example to other cities. I felt that while the 2008 vote had set an example for extensive investment in the region’s public transportation, the impeding cuts undermined this commitment. It was fantastic that Seattle was developing infrastructure for the future, however, I strongly felt that this shouldn’t be done at the expense of current service. 

Opponents to the proposition had legitimate concerns. Several commentators suggested that the “no” voters were not necessarily rejecting the funding of metro services, rather the means for seeking this money (Lindblom 2014). Many opponents acknowledged the need for equitable public transportation and the importance of avoiding cuts. However, they often indicated that they would prefer King County Metro Transit to improve its economic efficiency given it is one of the highest-cost bus agencies in the USA (Lindblom 2014). They questioned the fairness in giving this agency more money given their high operational costs. Others opposed the car-tab fees (Lindblom 2014). 

I shared Vann’s perspective of Vancouver that Seattle’s “referendum is not just about how you get around. Transport is an equity issue”. I was rather dismayed that the voters in Seattle could vote against the proposal, but perhaps this didn’t fairly acknowledge the fact that the community is regularly asked directly to decide the fate of their transit system. In Australia, citizens do not vote on public transit service, funding or development issues. It is predominantly our elected politicians within our state and federal parliaments who determine funding and future infrastructure investment. I understand that this is similar to the Canadian system and Vancouver’s referendum is a unique case (Moving in a Livable Region 2015).

I had a preconception that in the Australian system, politicians are able to weigh up different arguments and make a decision which considers community benefits and equity. In the case of Melbourne, in recent years, a proposal to develop a new metro line was introduced by the state government (Victoria) in 2008 by the Labor Party after years of research concerning cost-benefit and alignment. Labor lost the following election in 2010 and the incoming Coalition altered the proposal, despite the metro at its original route, being labelled by Infrastructure Australia (the federal government infrastructure advisory body) as being “ready to proceed” and an important priority infrastructure project (Carey and Dowling 2014; Australian Financial Review 2012). In early 2014, the Coalition realigned the metro to servicing Fishermans Bend, a predominantly industrial area close to the central business district, which they identified as a major urban renewal project and had commenced planning to transform into a residential and business community (Carey and Dowling 2014). 

The Coalition transit agenda also focused on the construction of the East West Link road tunnel. Toward the end of 2014, the Victorian Government under the Coalition leadership signed contracts to commence construction of the East West Link road tunnel. The tunnel was originally proposed in the Investing in Transport East West Link Needs Assessment prepared by Sir Rod Eddington commissioned by the former state government under the Labor leadership (Carey and Dowling 2014). Despite this, when Labor was re-elected at the end of 2014, the Premier ordered all work on the East West Link to be suspended (ABC 2014). 

As a result of this system, transit projects are constantly a political football (an Australian Rules football of course) and the Melbourne community has uncertainty as to what is being planned for our future. By the end of 2014, the Victorian Government under Labor took the Fishermans Bend metro route off the cards and the original Melbourne Metro is back on (Lucas 2014). It seems there are ongoing legal discussions regarding whether the East West Link tunnel is to proceed. 

Although I may not have liked the outcome in the Seattle referendum in April, I respected the importance of directly giving citizens the right to vote on transit proposals and the funding of these. This approach gives the community greater responsibility, control and certainty compared to the power politicians have in the Australian system. It also increases the accountability of the public transit service providers and politicians to get both their approach, priorities and facts right. 

Despite the April proposition, only one-third of the proposed King County Metro cuts were made as sales tax revenues improved (Lindblom 2014b). In November 2014, a redesigned proposal to increase bus services, was put to City of Seattle voters and was successful (Lindblom, 2014b). 

Vancouver’s referendum, being held 16 March to 29 May 2015, will give voters the choice to consider a proposal to increase the sales tax 0.5% in Metro Vancouver for 10 years to raise the one-third of the $7.5 billion required for the transport plan (Hutchinson 2015). As Vann writes, the world will be watching Vancouver in this process. It is reassuring to know that it will be Vancouver’s citizens who determine how they would like to continue shaping their world class system.


ABC. 2014. East West Link: Daniel Andrews Suspends All Work on Road Project. 12 December. 

Australian Financial Review. 2012. Infrastructure Australia’s 2012 Priority List. 13 July.  

Carey, Adan and Dowling, Jason. 2014. Shifting Melbourne Metro Rail Tunnel West a 'Catastrophe': Doyle. The Age. 19 February. 

Hutchinson, Brian. 2015. Brian Hutchinson: The Transit War Over Vancouver’s Unprecedented Tax-Raise Referendum has Started to Heat Up. National Post. 21 January.

Dawid, Irvin. 2014. Seattle Voters to Be Put to Transit Test in November. Planetizen. 20 July.  

Lindblom, Mike, 2008. Sound Transit Calls Prop. 1 a Gift "to our Grandchildren”. Seattle Times. 5 November. 

Lindblom, Mike. 2014a. Voters Rejecting New Money for Transit; Bus Cuts Coming. Seattle Times. 22 April.

Lindblom, Mike. 2014b. Metro Bus Service to Get Boost with Passage of Prop. 1. Seattle Times. 4 November. 

Lucas, Clay. 2014. Andrews Talks Up Possible Federal Infrastructure Funding, Repeats Pledge to Release East West Link Documents. The Age. 7 December. 

Moving in a livable region. 2015. Metro Vancouver’s Transit and Transportation Referendum.   

Vann, Greg. 2015. Vancouver's Transit Referendum: The World is Watching! Reviewanew. 2 February.

Weekend wondering

Capturing the fog that rolled in across Seattle on Friday night and made the city look even more stunning.
Reading Joe Pinsker's thoughts on a question I ask often: Why Can't Public Transit Be Free? 
Enjoying Seattle's energy as the Seahawks play the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl on Sunday.
Learning about how the Mobile Good Food Network truck travels across Toronto to provide healthy and affordable food in areas that lack fresh food options. 

Weekend wondering

Some things Drawn to Cities is thinking about over the weekend.

Charleson Park, Vancouver. 

Charleson Park, Vancouver. 

Reminiscing about stumbling upon Charleson Park on the way to Granville Island & loving the autumn beauty.
Reading The Metropolitan Revolution by Bruce Katz & Jennifer Bradley to learn about innovative cities.  
Listening to Triple J radio's Hottest 100 on Australia Day / Survival Day.
Admiring the finalists for the Australian of the Year & inspired by their endeavors.
Following @guardiancities to find out about different places and stories by Guardian Cities.

The Girl with the Red Umbrella in Seattle

Girl with the red umbrella in Seattle drawntocities.com

She had never seen a city in such harmony before. Seattle was jubilant. The Seahawks had won against the Greenbay Packers. The 2014 champions were to be playing in the Super Bowl again. 

A few days after the game, the girl with the red umbrella was drawn to Pike Place Market and she saw the 12th man. Everywhere! Although she was not from Seattle, she knew it was because of the spirit of the 12th man that the Seahawks kept playing so well. At a game, the cheer of the 12th man was always louder than a jet plane and felt electrifying.  

She had heard a story about when the Seahawks won the Super Bowl last year, thousands came out in the city, celebrating, jumping, dancing, hugging and feeling so happy that there was hardly any trouble anywhere. A few days later, 700,000 fans flocked to the cold Seattle streets for the parade to CenturyLink Field. Number 3, Russell Wilson held the Lombardi Trophy up to the crowd. 

"Our plan is to win another one for you next year".

The Seahawks will play their best against the New England Patriots on February 1, hoping to be the first back-to-back champions in 10 years. They know the 12th man, where ever in the world, will be cheering loud.  

The girl with the red umbrella wondered if she would be able to find a Seahawks umbrella before the big game.

The gift of the ever growing garden

Melbourne Garden by drawntocities.com

When I was a child, my mum would see through our window, our old neighbour Nat cut one of his stunning roses and present it to his wife Nita. Although no one has cared for his garden since he passed away years ago and Nita moved away (other than mum over the fence), many of his flowers still bloom. Tonight my mum salvaged some of his flowers before Nat and Nita's house is demolished this week and his garden is lost. We have been so lucky to experience Nat's pride for his garden and his legacy. Mum will do her best to regrow these rose and lassiandra cuttings so this beauty lives on in our little part of Melbourne. 

The girl with the red umbrella in Seattle

The girl with the red umbrella strolled through Pioneer Square on a rainy Seattle day, admiring the buildings in the quiet before the city came out to watch the Seahawks play.

The girl with the red umbrella strolled through Pioneer Square on a rainy Seattle day, admiring the buildings in the quiet before the city came out to watch the Seahawks play.

The first time she came to Seattle she was drawn to Pioneer Square, one of the oldest parts of the city, right next to downtown. As she walked around, she felt a sense of isolation - even though it was a cold winters day, it was incredibly quiet for lunch time. She had expected to see workers wandering around during their lunch breaks. Instead, as she approached Occidental Place, she saw homeless men, huddled on the street corner asking for money. 

As she wandered past the fancy art galleries she felt the sense of being followed. She glanced behind her - a few men close behind - no women in sight. She quickly thought she'd wander back to downtown, afraid that the men were catching up. Just as she did, one of the men shouted behind her, "Hey girl!" She kept walking, now faster. She turned behind, worried she was about to be bothered. 

"Hey lady, I just wanted to say, you mustn't be from around here. You are dressed so nice. Just wanted to tell you that. And that I hope you have a nice day." 

She let out a breath of relief. Thanked the man for his complement. Her perception began to change. 

A year later she visited Pioneer Square with a friend from out of town, who she knew would appreciate the beautiful buildings. She would show her the viaduct which was one-day going to come down and open the area to the waterfront. She would show her the old totem poles. She would point out how crowded Occidental Place gets on game day. She was so excited to show her friend around. 

On a sunny summers day they wandered, crossing from downtown into Pioneer Square. Within moments her friend stood still. She turned around and said to the girl with the red umbrella, "I don't like this place. I feel really scared. There's men staring at us as we walk this way. Can we please go back?"

As the girl with the red umbrella tried to reassure her, they were approached. 

"How are you ladies today? You two look so pretty, I don't think you're from around here. I hope you have a great day enjoying the sunshine".