What my time at Habitat III taught me (UN conference on Housing and Sustainable Development)

When you think of the UN, you have certain perceptions. Mostly I think of the prestige that accompanies it, the nobility of attempting to unite the hundreds of diverse countries – in economy, stature, values, environment, conflict, comfort, etc. – around the common agenda of advancing our one planet for greater good. For we truly are all connected; the import/export of each country affects the other, and no clearer is our commonality than when you are flying between countries and touching down on the opposite side of the globe in landscape you swear you just left.

Anyway, my point (aside from that we are all connected on this fragile earth) is the honour and immense undertaking the United Nations commits itself to. So it was a real privilege that the organization I work for, Community Foundations of Canada, gave me the opportunity to accompany my COO to Habitat III, The United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, which only takes place once every 20 years, making my attendance all the more rare and special (thank you, CFC!).

One of the beautiful things about Habitat III is that attendance is free – helping to level the playing field for more countries to attend. (Each attendee must still pay their airfares, accommodation, food, vaccines, visas, etc., but). I had no idea what to expect, but imagined very formal proceedings, the highest degree of attire and most diplomatic of engagements. This was very likely accurate for the formal proceedings, where Ministers and Heads of Delegations came together to present their country’s statement and ratify the New Urban Agenda (which obviously I wasn’t privy to), but it turned out the special sessions and side events were accessible to all and far more casual in nature. People still dressed nicely (but not everyone – I saw a few ripped jeans), yet nobody was suited up.

I compliment the organizers of Habitat III for securing a very safe event, with thorough security procedures and, after the first day, short queues to enter. The site itself – La Casa de la Cultura Ecuatoriana – was aesthetically very pleasing, and following the first day of getting over the altitude adjustment (2,800 metres above sea level Quito is situated), I found the venue very comfortable, despite the three levels of stairs that felt like small mountains on that first day.

My takeaway from my first (and who knows, hopefully not my last …) UN conference was that it is not the forum for diving deep on an issue, for despite having world-class experts presenting, each only receives a relatively short period to speak, and let’s face it, who can drill down in eight minutes – substantially? But it was a great opportunity to get up to speed on a range of issues, and be in the right place and space to fortuitously run into like-minded people from a range of countries, who quite potentially had the stature to effect policy change in their country or at least begin the dialogue. And even within your own country, it was a wonderful opportunity for new dialogues and relationships to form. I think many members of the Canadian Delegation (which Community Foundations of Canada was officially a part of) left with new connections as we did, and possibly altered ways of thinking.

Below are some of the highlights for me; and I’ll start with mentioning that 170 countries unanimously adopted the New Urban Agenda (which is not a treaty, but a set of guidelines for governments to implement).

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How to Rebuild a City: Lessons From Hurricane Katrina

I was in New Orleans a few years ago now, enjoying myself in a city that never sleeps, that has rhythm and music to the core, and spicy, southern-fried seafood, well, to the bone. I took a water tour of the bayou in a pontoon to check out alligators and hang low with the swampland shrub.

Another of my highlights was a bike tour through the Lower Ninth, which bore the brunt of Hurricane Katrina – a neighbourhood that was never built to withstand broken levees unleashing with fury. For the Lower Ninth has that perfect storm of being situated lower than river level, its many buildings far below code, and most of its inhabitants too poor to do anything about that or live anywhere else. It certainly wasn’t a neighbourhood all doom and gloom though; no, it was also known for its community, its gaiety, its music!

While there, I met champions of the Mardi Gras, ensconced in a backyard cultural museum.

And in the wake of that devastation to hundreds of homes – whose walls were no resistance to water that swelled two storeys high in same cases – the Calvary entered… in the form of “stararchitects” such as Brad Pitt … who championed a green rebuild, using low-impact, sustainable and earth friendly products that would better withstand water influx in future, while giving a lift to inhabitants and showcasing that the Lower Ninth was crushed no more. I think part of this might also have been an attempt to help self-esteem and neighbourhood pride recover in the area. You can look up his “Make it right” project.

Of course, some people preferred the charm and familiarity of their old homes, and there was certainly mixed reaction to colonization by eco-development …
By the way, if this all interests you, you can read more about it in my blog post, Like a Hurricane (Named Katrina).

Meanwhile, this post is “part 2”, and is going to look at the resiliency of the Lower Ninth and New Orleans at-large. It’s inspired by a book I bought while down there, “How to Rebuild a City: A Field Guide From a Work in Progress”.







And… I’ve got to say this is a blog post I coincidently started the day before the wildfires that tore through Fort McMurray and surrounds in Alberta.

So whatever your interest; whether you are civic-minded and keen to understand ways in which communities have historically reset themselves following disaster, or pragmatic and wanting to be prepared in the event of a natural disaster destroying your city, read on to my “Cole’s Notes” of just how to rebuild a city …

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The Nine Lives of Buildings … (c’mon, they deserve more than one)

I tend to take buildings as they are. If they’re particularly shabby, I might notice they could use some TLC, perhaps a paint job, new windows, an expanded deck. I guess I mostly view buildings through a renovation lens. But typically I don’t stop to consider where the building is at in its cycle of life.

Cue Jill Stoner, the new Director of the Azrieli School of Architecture and Urbanism at Carleton University, who spoke to a packed auditorium for the Forum Lecture that kicked off Ottawa Architecture Week 2015.

Stoner told the story of the Nine Lives of Buildings. Buildings, as seen through her eyes, are natural resources to be adapted to future lives. “Once buildings are built, consider them rich in resources – like a forest,” Stoner explained. “Think inclusively… of density, social connectivity.”

Yet we live in a society where it’s not always second nature to adapt something that already exists. Instead, people – consumers – want to be masters of building destiny; the first to own, design, build their house, putting their unique stamp on materials and style.

And architects themselves? That’s a whole other story.

“We need to grow out of the “Starchitecture” culture,” Stoner admonished. “Architects must play a major role in more minor projects. The measure of success must become more forgiving. Otherwise we’re going to fill the planet up with buildings, and that’s not what we want to do.”

So what are the “nine lives” of buildings within the constructed landscapes that form our cities? How can we navigate this seamless fabric of the decadent and the dilapidated, the haves and the have-nots?

The Nine Lives of Buildings:

1. New construction 

(I know; given the above comments, it seems unlikely that this would be the first step, but so be it, it was).

2. Abandonment

When buildings live on in “a time absent of human agency”. Consider abandonment a prequel to lives that will follow, advised Stoner.

3. Demolition

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Is there any beauty in brutalism?


Department of National Defence

Those of us who work or pass through downtown Ottawa are familiar with the Department of National Defence building, the unsightly (in my opinion) concrete mass that sits atop of MacKenzie-King Bridge, “guarding” entrance to the Rideau Centre. But have you ever noticed that when the sun strikes it on a particular angle, the waffle-like shape of its exterior casts creative shadows on the ground? Do you know it was intentionally designed to perch up on its concrete posts two storeys above ground level so pedestrians could have the street to themselves?

Such was the thinking of Ottawa’s famous planner, Jacques Gréber, in the 1960s when he conceptualized the Ottawa that we know today. Gréber was an advocate for separating people from cars – which is the right idea in my mind… except that he allowed cars to take precedence. (Side note: The glorious Wellington Street boulevard that parades alongside the river in front of Parliament was given over to cars, while pedestrians were relegated two blocks over to wander the narrow corridor of Sparks Street…).
Sarah Gelbard, urban theorist

Sarah Gelbard, urban theorist

Such are the interesting tidbits you will learn with Sarah Gelbard on her newly created Ottawa (de)tours walk. Sarah, an architecture and urban theorist now studying her Master’s degree in Urban Planning in Montreal, will be returning to Ottawa throughout the summer to try and convince sceptical people like me that the concrete mass that defines the “brutalism”  architectural style actually has its beauty.

I took the first of her tours last night, and held very little conviction that she could move me from my belief that brutalism is as oppressive as it sounds. But I was wrong.

The premise is that brutalism, while fortified on the outside, is actually very welcoming and sociable on the inside. (Hear it in Sarah’s words in this Spacing Ottawa article that explores how “Brutalism architecture is like the blind date who has a great personality“).

Our tour began at the National Arts Centre (NAC) and indeed, once you brave the steps from street level on Elgin up into its mysterious, outdoor concrete corridors, you are greeted with surprise gardens, wide public platforms, and unexpected social spaces. Geometric designs penetrate everything from the concrete paving, to the details in the roof, with astounding symmetry.

IMG_4754   IMG_4759

The problem is that brutalism architecture is so unwelcoming on the outside that many people likely don’t even know they can take those few steps.

There is a reason for that; the Cold War era of brutalism’s rise being no coincidence. Further, brutalism’s core components include intrigue, drama, contrast, surprise. The aforementioned NAC building, for example, has been repeatedly criticized for “turning its back” on the Elgin Street boulevard out front. Yet, it was designed to be viewed from the canal, and to “reward” the people who were drawn into its interiors.

Through Sarah’s eyes, it is possible to view concrete in a new way, and actually start to believe there is creativity and perhaps – yes – even beauty in brutalism.

Although, it remains by no means my favourite architectural style.


I don’t want to give away too much at this point, as I really encourage you to take Sarah’s tour, which will offer many more stops through downtown Ottawa, with Sarah highlighting the architects, dates, and thinking that dominated key evolutionary points in Ottawa’s brutalism movement.

I also encourage you to step into the “unknown” with Ottawa (de)tours. They offer walks worth taking.

Zibi: Modern marketing meets developers’ purse strings

I went to check out “Zibi” on the weekend, or rather the site Zibi will dominate in future (once it clears all multi-stakeholder approvals). Zibi (pronounced “Zeebee” and representing “river” in the indigenous Algonquin language) is the 37-acre land redevelopment project of Windmill Development Group and Dream Unlimited Corp. The developers are in the process of transforming the abandoned islands of the former Domtar site – situated at the  picturesque and presently inaccessible Chaudière Falls – into a mixed-use mélanger of townhouses, low- and high-rise condos, office space, commercial buildings, and outdoor squares, framed by the frothy Falls, ever-changing Outaouais River, and imperial Parliament Hill. Before

Gatineau is the starting point because, unlike Ottawa, the land on that side of the river is not being contested by Aboriginal groups. Occupancy will start in 2017 with two six-storey condos, 66 and 75 units apiece. (This Ottawa Citizen article forecasts 1,200 condo units housing 3,500 residents to be build in the next 12 to 15 years). I was heartened to read an estimated 11 heritage buildings to be restored, and 22% of the total site to be green space, much of it along the river.
I’m supportive of this initiative because I see it effectively acting as a second downtown hub, one that will extend the livelihood of Ottawa and Gatineau’s downtown cores, while bridging both cities; an “in-between” utopia upon the water (if done right). With the added bonus of people being able to choose whether they wish to live in Ontario or Quebec. In other words, to cross over or stay put (the latter not necessitating the headache of having to adopt new tax, public health or education systems).
But what also stood out to me as I visited the grand sales opening on Saturday was the wonders of modern marketing and technology meets property developers’ purse strings…

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Home re-development: demystifying the planning process

“a myriad of municipal planning rules helps to ensure that individual interests are balanced against the wider goals and needs of the community. In other words, a check-in with City Hall may be needed before starting that weekend construction project to make sure your plans and dreams are plausible.”

Ever been curious about city planning rules?

> Knowing what the heck is an Official Plan and whether you have to abide by it (yes!)
> Understanding what’s possible vs. what’s permissible.
> Discovering the types of development applications (land use vs. lot creation vs. lot development, even for homeowners …)
> Navigating building permits, zoning by-laws
> Appealing a development application decision if unhappy with a ruling

Having attended a few of the City of Ottawa’s Planning Primer Workshops – hosted by staff to educate the interested public; informed citizens being inherently more useful than ignorant ones – I volunteered to write an article for Spacing Ottawa to demystify the home redevelopment process.

At the end of the day, your house may be your castle, but don’t forget the City’s perspective …

Recap: Ottawa Architecture Week 2014

For me, t’was the summer of city design and architecture. I thought about buildings, a lot. What makes a building beautiful, a city sustainable, a community robust? In joining the Ottawa Architecture Week (OAW) 2014 organizing committee, I met wonderful people; creative, committed artists willing to push the envelope (or whatever it is that such people push); and talented designers and architects, young and old(er).

It was a wormhole into a world that has long interested me, and I was pumped to be a part of it. My marketing/communications role, in partnership with urbanist scholar and installation maven Sarah Gelbard, was to help amplify OAW’s reach and expand the event beyond the realm of architects into the public.

For everyone shares in architecture, whether consciously or not. It shapes our lives and our connectivity to each other. And while Ottawa is oft-lamented for lacking vision and being too conservative in its approach, we nonetheless have some breathtaking buildings and cityscapes.

Check out my Storify recap for a window into this world.

National Gallery Spider

Thanks to everyone who made OAW 2014 such a success!