Cornelia Oberlander 1921-2021: Landscape Architect Icon & My Friend

There are some people that you never expect to pass, people that you know and see as the fabric of place and your existence in it. That is fundamentally what and who  Cornelia Oberlander is to me.

At her funeral she was called the Dean of Canadian Landscape Architecture, and more intimately known as the “Queen of Green”. To me she was much more than that, she was a constant in my life for over four decades, a teacher, an advisor, a mentor, and a great friend. She never backed away from what she believed in, and she was a believer in continually reminding municipalities, governments, city councils, architects and students of her fundamental principles. She championed ecology.

Cornelia’s daughter, Judy Oberlander, was the first of the Oberlander family I met when I was Director of Development for the Old Strathcona Foundation in Strathcona, Edmonton. It’s no surprise that Judy also was the founding Director of the City Program at Simon Fraser University and has a quick intelligence as well as  innate knowledge and expertise in the field of heritage conservation. When I came to Vancouver to pursue a master’s degree in city planning, Judy took me to her home to meet her mom, Cornelia Oberlander.  Cornelia was sitting  on the living room floor doing physiotherapy exercises after a  painful fall skiing on the slopes, and  was of course, working at the same time.

That more or less describes all the Oberlanders, who are hardworking, practical, and welcoming. When daughter Judy spoke about her international design work at the University of British Columbia’s (UBC)  School of Architecture, Professor Abraham Rogatnick introduced her as a member of the Canadian ‘Fonda” family. The Fondas which included Henry and children Peter and Jane were famous American twentieth century actors. The Oberlander Family are our Canadian improved equivalent, with  Cornelia and husband Peter, and their three children, Tim, a physician scientist, Wendy, an internationally accomplished artist and filmmaker and Judy, who today works across Canada in her well recognized consulting practice.

I had come to the UBC School of Community and Regional Planning for graduate work, and was in Dr. Peter Oberlander’s policy class. It was a class that had a limited number of students, met at a round table in his office at the UBC Centre for Human Settlements, and had a proper break half way through where Peter served us tea from a silver tea service and let us talk generally about planning. Dr. Oberlander, or as we affectionately called him, “Dr. O” was a trained architect from McGill and the first Canadian to achieve a Master’s in Regional Planning and a Doctorate at Harvard University. Ken Cameron has written a book about Dr. Oberlander’s many remarkable achievements and firsts. He was the person that set up the first professional planning school in Canada, at UBC, worked tirelessly for United Nations causes, and was instrumental in the Habitat Conference held at Jericho Beach in 1976.

He was also the man that met Cornelia Oberlander at Harvard, where she was one of the first women admitted in the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Because of their Jewish faith Cornelia and Peter had both been uprooted from Europe by World War Two and had experienced great difficulties to come to North America and to be free.

But Cornelia was never phased by being the sole woman in many of her graduate classes, and when asked what it was like to take classes and then work in a field that was all men, simply replied “I never thought about it”.

Her mother upon arriving in America had bought a small farm in New Hampshire, and they sold fruits and vegetables from the farm with Cornelia and her sister. Prior to escaping Nazi Germany, her mother Beate Hahn who was a horticulturalist  had written children’s books and drawn little pictures of Cornelia watering the plants in the books. There is a story of Michael Levenson from City Farmer excitedly bringing Cornelia a book written in German that he thought should be translated and available for Canadian gardening children. Cornelia was so pleased to see the book, which of course was one of the volumes written by her mother, with the illustrations of Cornelia in it.

To be a student of Peter Oberlander’s meant that I was invited to the Oberlander gatherings to discuss planning and urban issues. It was there that I got to know the Oberlanders well, through their kindness and generosity to students and new graduates. When I defended my master’s thesis it was Peter and Cornelia Oberlander that took me for lunch at the Faculty Club to celebrate.

That mentorship over time turned into a friendship, and Cornelia was always available to be a guide on the side on planning, policy , and of course plants.

Cornelia had an organic approach to landscape design that makes even her early design work seem as modern as if she had just produced it, much the way that architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s houses seem completely fresh today. She had exposure to the Bauhaus School of thought  at Harvard and Walter Gropius had been teaching at Harvard’s School of Architecture since 1938. Mr. Gropius was a family friend of the Oberlanders, and visited them at their house in Vancouver.

Cornelia was always interested in the natural landscape, how it looked, how it behaved, how wind went through it, what plants were naturally there, and  how they reacted to the elements. She was an advocate of “Invisible Mending” using nature and plants that were indigenous to the area to plan her designs in a way that people would assume that the planted landscape was always there. And she was genius at it.

You can imagine how startling Cornelia’s approach was in the 1950’s and 1960’s which were the  scrubbed, trimmed and ‘weedbar’ days of gardening when nature was to be manicured at all costs. Postwar big green lawns represented status and roots. There was no place for undomesticated nature in landscape design.

For every project Cornelia would make a model or a maquette of the landscape to scale, and then think through the design principles that governed the site.  Even after the projects were built, you would still see Cornelia going back to revisit them, and ensure the landscapes worked. I like to  go to one of my favourite landscapes in Vancouver, Cornelia’s stone beach and outdoor museum at the Arthur Erickson designed Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. I often found Cornelia wearing boots standing  in the middle of the pond. She would tell me she was taking photos of the leaves in the water, but I knew she was really double checking the infiltration system.

The pond at the Museum of Anthropology was designed so  you could imagine  Haida paddlers just about to come around the bend in a canoe.  Cornelia worried when the Museum decided to install an agitation system in the pond to keep mosquitoes down. As she pointed out that was noisy, not too natural and maybe the picnickers did not need to be so close to the water when they had their lunch during mosquito season.

When the pond was drained to do repair work to the foundations of the museum, (which is still ongoing), Cornelia realized that she would probably not live to  see the landscape  again as she had designed it.

Susan Herrington’s book “Making the Modern Landscape” outlines the over six decade career that includes work Cornelia built in Berlin, New York City, Philadelphia, Seattle, and across Canada. Cornelia worked with practically every well known architect, and her legacy in Vancouver includes the fine rooftop garden of the downtown Vancouver public library, the landscaping and allee (double row of street trees) for Robson Square and the Law Courts.

Besides huge and monumental works like the landscape of the National Gallery in Ottawa or the VanDusen Visitors Centre in Vancouver,  Cornelia also designed for  communities. She designed gardens for co-ops, and was one of the first landscape architects to make informal play areas for children based upon age and skills, now standard practice. She also developed national guidelines for playgrounds.

Cornelia was a stickler for accuracy and she did not like that some of the work done by  noted architect Arthur Erickson was now being reinterpreted in a way that was not true. She and  Arthur worked together for three decades.

Cornelia was ahead of her time in most everything. She had a deep understanding and knowledge of plants, and has been advocating green roofs for decades to anyone that would listen. She asked me to edit work she had completed on the importance of access to parks and green views for high density dwellers. She always involved students and young professionals, and learned as much from them as they would have from her.

We once counted up how many honorary doctorates she has received.  I believe it was eight or nine. She has received nearly every major international accolade for design, and has an international landscape architecture prize named after her.

I have so many stories and learnings from Cornelia that I will share over time. Here is a preface for a project that Cornelia had written about in the last years of her life.

It reads:

“Longing for the Garden of Paradise is built into our genes. Throughout history we have been influenced by the gardens of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome and Asia which continue to inspire our contemporary gardens around the world”.

It is that wonder about nature and our quest for wholeness in nature that is at the foundation of all of Cornelia’s work.  What a privilege to know this outstanding woman and her remarkable family.

I will miss Cornelia Oberlander greatly. But we are blessed with her incredible legacy of design, spirit and mentoring that is carried on by her family and the people she touched.

We wish her family and friends peace and comfort at this difficult time.

Thank you for sharing Cornelia with us all.

Photos by Sandy James; Photo at top of Cornelia Oberlander with Deanna Manzer

Lessons from the Three Waves of the 1918 Spanish Flu

When the Covid Crisis is over and we are in the After Times there are going to be some major changes in the societal landscape.  Changes also happened at the end of the Spanish Flu  one hundred years ago when it was realized that while mortalities were high with the poor population, infectious diseases need to be tackled on a community level. This led to public health strategies, disease surveillance, and the concept of universal health care.

I have written about the Spanish Flu of 1918  and how New York City had lower mortality rates than other cities by embarking upon a public health model. They  organized public health infrastructure, ensured the distancing of the healthy from the infected, held public health campaigns and undertook disease surveillance.

In New York City and in Vancouver there were three waves of the Spanish Flu. In New York City the flu started in September 1918 with the last wave in February 1919. In Vancouver the flu arrived probably by train with soldiers with the Siberian Expedition Forces in October 1918 and the last wave of flu came in March 1919. It was difficult to detect the flu  as the virus could not be isolated, and the bacillus causing infection did not show up in cultures. It was also not the flu itself that killed victims, it was secondary pneumonia resulting from the infection.

In New York and in Vancouver it was the young who were impacted by the flu, and being employed increased your likelihood to exposure and death.

While there was an overall Medical Health Officer for British Columbia there was also one for the City of Vancouver. In 1918 these two physicians were at odds.

The Medical Health Officer of Vancouver was Dr. Frederick Underhill who was loathe to close industry or business, and did not want to close schools. Dr. Underhill thought that children were more at risk roaming on the streets than being in school. As sickness started in October 1918 parents started to pull their children out of school, and Dr. Underhill was forced to close the schools after ten percent of the students did not show up. Unfortunately for the second and third waves of the flu in January and March 1919 schools, industries and offices remained open, and Vancouver had about 900 deaths in a population of 100,000, a mortality rate  four times that of most cities.

Other towns in British Columbia which had closed down because of the Spanish Flu also wanted Vancouver to close industries and offices. But Vancouver politicians debated the best approach, even questioning whether isolation from the sick and face masks were even  needed.Continue reading “Lessons from the Three Waves of the 1918 Spanish Flu”

Climate Risk Assessments & Climate Refugees Coming Soon

Here’s another way that real estate prices will be getting more expensive: places that are not as impacted by climate change will see values increase as more “climate refugees” move there. And the price of insurance for homes will also be increasing as heat maps of climate risk in municipalities become normalized.

Think of hazard heat maps as the  “Walk Score” for property values in the 21st century.

Emma Paling of CBC  writes that climate risk assessments will be the next tool added to real estate inventories, and that future home buyers will see value in purchasing property with ocean views, but not  close to water with future sea rise, storm surges, and flooding potential.

Propublica’s data in this article by L. Waldron and A. Lustgarten  suggests that climate “damage” will mean that the southern third of the United States will become so hot it will disrupt the economy “erasing more than 8% of its economic output and likely turning migration from a choice to an imperative.”

A company in San Francisco, ClimateCheck does risk assessments based upon address for the United States. The tool has  been added to Redfin’s real estate listings on the web. Properties are ranked from 0 to 100. The closer to a 100 score the more  most risk. The tool is being adapted for Canadian use.

Since the disastrous flood in Calgary in 2013 costing five billion dollars of damage, flood risk information has been provided by realtors.  Price point and location of where buyers want to purchase homes has not yet been impacted.

But as more climate change events impede low lying or properties that do not have good drainage, it is expected that climate change insurance will be tailored to topographical location and take into account associated risks in proximity to water, hardscapes, and other hazards.

The Province of British Columbia has already conducted a province wide assessment on potential risk factors and evaluated the probability of fifteen “climate risk” events along with economic, environmental and human consequences.

Produced in 2019 it was the first in Canada to look at a provincial climate risk assessment.

After the weather this summer it is no surprise that the greatest risks in this province are identified as “severe wildfire season, seasonal water shortage, heat wave, ocean acidification, glacier loss, and long-term water shortage”. 

Other risks identified were storm surges and “severe” river flooding with  provincial economic and environmental ramifications.

The report and the executive summary of the report are available here.

Last year I wrote about projection models showing that millions of people in the United States would be moving to northwest and northeast cities, with populations in places like Minnesota, Michigan and Vermont  growing by ten percent.  These areas will be seen as more temperate and inviting.

Cities like Detroit, Rochester, Buffalo and Milwaukee will be sought after for relocating climate refugees for the “excess capacity in infrastructure, water supplies and highways”.

In the first year of the pandemic Pacific northwest median sales prices  in Bellingham Washington rose 16.5 percent, and the number of homes sold has increased 26 percent.

It’s not too late to commence a co-ordinated approach to climate change with all levels of government, as Duke of Data and Simon Fraser University City Program Director told CBC’s Ms. Paling.

“Canadians need to start demanding “political courage” from all levels of elected leadership to mitigate the impact of climate change on housing and infrastructure and more policies like taxes on foreign buyers and empty homes. We just can’t afford to surrender.”

The YouTube video below talks about the new climate refugees who are moving to areas with less extreme weather, abundant water,  better infrastructure and transportation options.

Four Decades Ago: Frank & Myra, At Strathcona’s 660 Jackson Avenue

This is one of my favourite articles ever, and it about this wonderful couple, Frank and Myra.

They used to live at “The Jackson” building located at 660 Jackson Avenue. The couple lived in the top northwest apartment of the building in the 1980’s paying $500 a month for a one bedroom. Their one bedroom had access to a rooftop , of course with no proper decking or railing. These photos, with the views of surrounding construction and the city were taken exactly four decades ago.

Strathcona Roof Garden: Photo by Mark Murphy. Frank Murphy and Myra Thomson on the roof of ‘The Jackson’. 1981.

In the photo above Myra is on the roof with Frank. She  is pregnant with her daughter who is now 40 years old and is now pregnant herself. You can also see the Lord Strathcona Elementary School at 592 East Pender and the Chinese Public School at 499 East Pender in the background.

As Myra describes it The Jackson “had a great downtown and mountain view. The stairs to the rooftop were right outside our door. An eccentric and wonderful American expat by the name of Jim Medill had renovated the whole building. Frank was the first tenant in the newly renovated version.

Jim Medill also had beehives on the roof – at the other end from our garden.” (Editor’s note: Mr. Medill, with 20 hives, grew 400 pounds of honey per hive on this roof. The building was close to the BC Sugar packing which would have provided the sustenance.)

 “I grabbed wooden boxes from the alleys and back doors of the Chinatown shops and filled them with soil to plant veggies. The garden had cauliflower, corn, broccoli, lettuce and who knows what else. Also a nice hibiscus at one point.

There is a picture (somewhere) of our baby Meghan standing in a playpen that was on the roof.
We loved Chinatown – the BBQ duck, the dim sum, the bustle of the markets. The Strathcona Hotel at one point had a restaurant with a fabulous chicken and peanut dish. My favourite place was Maxims. The beef curry pastry and the egg tarts!

We were such regulars that we were given a discount. Another favourite thing was the Chinatown grannies who would always stop and admire the baby and make sure that I had her covered up enough from the cold.

We also loved Benny’s which was just around the corner. Benny contributed a platter of appies for a business opening party that we had at Camerawork. Lovely man.
‘The Jackson’ is still there and looking great.”

Myra signs her notes with a quote from the song One Fine Day written by by David Byrne and Brian Eno in 2008:

“Then a peace of mind fell over me —
In these troubled times, I still can see
We can use the stars, to guide the way
It is not that far, the one fine day.”

A Perfect Storm of Tall Buildings, Law Suits & Insurance Claims

There is a lot of interest in building taller residential  buildings, all governed by strata associations.  Bigger and taller comes with its own set of problems.  That is documented with Vancouver House which has a pipe failure flood water on  several of its floors  and with the Shangri-La where the potential for windows to pop out onto the ground below means a pricey repair. The two strata committees in the Shangri-La are going to court  for a one hundred day trial in October to recover costs from insurers, as well as the developers, construction companies and contractors.

Supertall tower 432 Park Avenue in New York City  is so high at 426 meters that it had to get approval from the Federal Aviation Agency to construct. That height was achieved through a loophole: the developers  installed many “mechanical floors”, which are not counted into a building’s allowable floor space high up in the tower but gain an additional 25 percent in height. Sadly those same mechanical rooms have been   responsible for several broken water feeds and a water line failure which rendered half of the building’s elevators useless.

There are weather dynamics of taller buildings that purchasers may not be aware of: towers flex in the wind, and they can cause elevator cables to bang, trapping occupants inside. Like a hull of a sailing ship, the walls can groan as the building sways, and air whistles around door openings and elevator shafts. Counterweights were installed at 432 Park Avenue  to dampen that sway.

You can imagine the structure’s noise and internal wind can be disconcerting to residents. This is another reason that taller buildings are designed with bends and twists, so someone high up in the tower cannot look down and see the building sway.

The owner of a unit in a tall building has a dilemma: they want to preserve their capital and be able to sell their unit, but they also want to be able to get problems fixed and have it all covered by insurance. And it is a huge capital investment: The 432 Park Avenue tower which sold out at 3.1 billion American dollars has a 96 floor penthouse that sold for 88 million dollars. That’s US dollars.

Last week the BBC reported that the strata owners of 432 Park Avenue are now suing the developers over 1, 500 defects and deficiencies in the building.  The BBC describes the 250 million dollar lawsuit being filed for problems that “included an electrical explosion in June that left residents without power and “horrible” inexplicable noises and vibrations.”

Sadly many of these issues are described as life safety and have resulted in owners being stranded when elevators went out in the building.

The video below shows how the massive damper on the top of  432 Park Avenue  which works  to reduce building flex and sway during a significant wind event. The video was produced as part of a technical tour during the New York Conference of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat in 2015.

Little House, No Context

In the conversations about ensuring buildings have context and also acknowledge the importance of natural light and views for adjacent housing, I have been thinking about this image of a much written about house in Tokyo that was designed by Takuro Yamamoto Architects.

It is a lovely little jewel box from the inside, but also has little context or kindness to surrounding existing development. But in denser cities should this still matter, or is it about whoever builds the last development getting the right to block views and light?

ArchDaily posts this article about this 2015 house   curated by Fernanda Castro describing it as “a lucid example of having large external space in small urban residence with limited site area of Tokyo. Through the process of designing this house, we tried to prove that having rich private external space was important for making crucial difference in the quality of life inside the house, as well as obtaining various possibilities of external activity.”

But take a look-the house creates that “rich private external space” by basically placing a blank wall to its neighbours in the adjacent three storey multi-unit dwelling.

The views from the new house’s rooms not facing the blank walls seem more contextual.

But wait! It’s not about the context, it’s about the interiors.

As Arch Daily writes “As you have already seen, Little House with a Big Terrace creates comfortable internal spaces by connecting them to the unlimited extension of external space. The most effective way to achieve real spaciousness of urban houses in high density residential area is to incorporate unlimited external spaces into design.

Does that need to mean blank walls despite cultural differences? You decide.

You can take a look at more images of the house and its situation in the YouTube video below.

Is it Time for a Reboot of the Strata Act?

There has been information circulating about tall towers and the challenges of nightmarish costs when building systems fail. Such challenges will be expensive for  insurance companies, and may lead to substantial increases and requirements for strata insurance, impacting all stratas.

There are already existing problems for stratas in British Columbia: it takes a vote of 75 percent of owners to approve maintenance that may be required in a building. And that, given the sad collapse of a strata building in Florida, needs to be updated now.

Journalist Daphne Bramham shared an article  written by Zena Olijnyk in Canadian Lawyer Magazine points out that amendments need to be made in the BC Strata Property Act to ensure that buildings requiring life safety repair can be immediately upgraded without requiring an onerous approval rate of three-quarters of  owners (many who may be absent or offshore).

And in British Columbia, while mandatory reports on building condition are necessary every three years in stratas,they  can be deferred longer  if 75 percent of owners agree to wait.

The tragic implosion  of the Surfside Florida  Champlain Towers points out the errors of deferred maintenance, and not having enough contingency funding. That condo association had only seven percent of the funds in their reserve fund to do the structural work necessary for the building. Strata owners had not seen the necessity of repairing the structure.

As Ms. Olijnyk writes, “While the inspecting engineers did not find signs of imminent structural failure, the necessary work was urgent. However, many residents balked at the US $9.1 million bill, refusing to approve the required work. It took three years of bitter infighting before an agreement was finally reached, and by then, the estimated cost jumped to US $15 million. Work had just begun when the building collapsed on June 24.”

While all strata properties in the province must have property and liability insurance as described in the Strata Property Act,  that insurance has become increasingly expensive. The B.C. government stepped in last year to ameliorate the skyrocketing insurance rates as discussed in this article by Lori Culbert and Dan Fumano.

Look for the impact of climate change, sea rise,  tower building technology and condition of the building  to impact what and when  strata insurance will cover losses. And as all those mature strata buildings constructed  in the 1980’s to 1990’s have their regular maintenance check-ups, expect strata regulation and insurance coverage to change, reflecting prudence and risk calculation.

Changes in the BC Strata Property Act are needed to ensure necessary maintenance is never deferred, and that strata building contingency funds are large enough not to financially impede strata owners who may just be getting by.

No Free Parking: Curbside Tax in Vancouver At Council This Week

The City of Vancouver has given everyone three months to think about it and now the the Climate Emergency Parking Plan is back. You can take a look at the report going to Council on Tuesday October 5th here.

There is a lot of misinformation circulating about this proposal, but there are also some interesting stats in the report :25 percent of Vancouver homes do not have a vehicle, and of those, half of those homes are making less than 50,000 dollars a year.

The intent of the report is to implement a parking program that has an overnight parking permit required in all residential areas throughout the city to cover roughly twenty percent of the proposed costs of the Climate Emergency Action Plan (CEAP) championed by the City. With everyone who parks on a residential street paying a 45 dollar charge, the City hopes to have a revenue of 44 million to 72 million dollars during the first four year period. Program costs are estimated to be 1.7 million dollars to set up, and the program will cost one million dollars annually to administer.

While it is noble to say that the funding will go directly to the CEAP, funds collected go directly into the City’s general revenue funds, and then are distributed as Council allocates them. That means that a future council has the discretion to use these funds for other purposes.

If you have a lower income you will be able to apply for a reduction and pay just five dollars a year for your permit.  Starting with purchases of 2023 vehicles, if you buy a gasoline vehicle and park on the street, expect to pay more. The Council report proposes to add a “pollution charge of up to $1,000 to be added to the residential permit fee if you have purchased “gas-powered luxury sports cars, large SUV’s, and full-size pickup trucks.”  Smaller SUVs and “most gas-powered sporty sedans” 2023 or newer will be subject to a $500 annual pollution charge.

Of course  the whole idea of implementing a pollution charge is a bit late in the game. As of 2035 the federal government has said there will be no more sales of gasoline fuelled vehicles in the country, and motor companies are undertaking huge shifts to supply electric vehicles. They be more available and they will be cheaper.

This is really a curb tax: if you have access to off-street parking at your house or own a garage, and purchase a gasoline powered vehicle that is 2023 or beyond, you are exempt. Some would suggest that those people able to park vehicles on their own property off the street would also be more likely to purchase new gasoline powered vehicles in the future.

If the curbside parking tax is going to be implemented, call it that. If there was to be a more equitable approach that would involve all vehicle owners, a surcharge that is placed on vehicle licencing annually might achieve better parity, and also snag those large SUVs on private property.

Joanne Lee-Young  in the Vancouver Sun quoted Andy Yan who found through data analysis that 18 percent of workers in Vancouver are night shift workers when there is no transit schedule or alternatives between midnight and 6 a.m. and must rely on a vehicle.

As Mr. Yan said “There will be some profound challenges in terms of these policies because of the diversity of the neighbourhoods.”

You can take a look at the YouTube video below that shows some positions on the proposed parking program from various proponents, including two members of Vancouver City Council.

Vancouver as Canada’s Jaywalking Capital, 1918

I had the honour of speaking with CBC Radio’s Margaret Gallagher during the “On The Coast” radio program about how Jaywalking developed in Canada, and the sad “premiere” Vancouver had, as the first city where “jaywalking” was identified in 1918.

Here’s the interview conducted in May, 2021.

Thank you Margaret, for being such a gracious host.

How Did Driver Speed/Efficiency Become More Important than Pedestrian Safety?

I have been writing about Vancouver’s ominous placing as the first city in Canada to use the term “jaywalker”. It was the Montreal Gazette in 1918 that describes “jaywalker” as the “peculiar expression” that has “arisen” in Vancouver, describing unintelligent people not crossing at intersections, the same way heavy metal vehicles do.

This was of course an expression that was devised and advertised by motor vehicle companies to keep soft tissue beings (pedestrians) off the roads, reinforcing the right of vehicles to quickness and efficiency, which was deemed the modern approach to technological advancement. Pedestrians, cyclists and other sidewalk users were mandated to stay out of the way.

Peter Norton has written about how this term became common in the United States. It is a way to make two classes of people, those that drive and have rights to the road, and those who are not driving but still are responsible for not being hit by moving vehicles.

Early pedestrian or cyclist crashes written in local papers refer to people “running out” in the road or “colliding” with a vehicle. Vehicles had long blind spots in front of them, could not brake well, and there was no conformity at all to travel, signal, or behaviour on the road. Silent policemen bollards were installed at sidewalk intersections to keep vehicles from not mounting sidewalks. In 1918 “jaywalking” lines were approved to be painted at major intersections to get pedestrians to cross within markings at intersections.  Traffic policemen stood in the middle of the street with “stop and go” activated paddles in 1923. The first “pillar ” traffic electric traffic light was installed in 1937.

But even then, pedestrians were made to feel personally responsible for making streets safer for vehicle travel,  as this article from the September 3 1937 Vancouver Sun states:

“Pedestrians can stop more quickly than autos. Motorists are bound by law to exercise caution on the city’s streets but the wise pedestrian recognizes only one law-the law of caution. The fact that a motorist was to blame doesn’t lessen the pain of the victim in the hospital bed. A pedestrian may be sacrificing his rights sometimes in allowing a motorist to go by without slackening speed, but the price is small compared to the saving”.

This efficiency and speed  argument in favour of the automobile driver can also be seen in this advertisement in the Vancouver Sun in 1937, for “Super Shell gas” that quotes futurist Norman Bel Geddes, “an authority” on future trends.

” Over half the space in the city of 1960 will be used for parks and playgrounds. Pedestrians will move safely on elevated sidewalks above the traffic level. Streets will be made wider by removing sidewalks…parking and truck unloading will be done inside the building”.


And here’s the kicker:

“traffic going ten blocks or more will use high-speed express streets. No stop lights…no intersections…no stop and go!”

Why is that important? Because “stop and go “  “driving wastes fuel, and “one stop “can use up as much gasoline as five blocks of steady running. And wherever you live, you average 30 stops a day!”

We take for granted what this over eighty year old admonishment has meant for pedestrians: cross at the intersections, even though they are unsafe with four directions of travel,  and don’t cross midblock with only two directions of travel which is not good for vehicles who don’t want to “stop”.

Fifty years later research in the 1990’s  conducted by the US Transportation Research Board showed that  26 percent of all pedestrian accidents occurred by the “midblock dash” at informal “midblock crossings”.  But 25 percent of accidents happen at  so called “safer” marked crosswalked  intersections, and 50 percent by random vehicles mounting curbs and  other random crash sites. What we have been “told” about crossing at intersections has been for the vehicle drivers’ convenience, not the pedestrians.

Today, how much has changed?

Seoul Hosts 2021 Walk21 Conference And it’s Absolutely Free Online!

Featured image for “Meet You May 26-28 for Annual Walk21 Conference in Seoul Korea!  Online & Absolutely Free”

That’s a pre-pandemic photo of Fabrizio Prati with NACTO (the National Association of City Transpo Officials) and Dr. Sunhoon Oh with AURI (Architectural Urban Research Institute)  in Seoul Korea. Sunghoon managed to nab an onstreet table at one of the famous fish market eateries for an epic seafood dinner. And yes, it was fresh and very very good.

I was invited to Korea as a plenary speaker for a well-run think tank on enhancing pedestrian safety and environments. We all really looked forward to coming back to Seoul for the Walk 21 Conference which is being held next week.

Seoul itself has done some remarkable public space work, including the Cheongyyecheon Stream daylighting, pedestrian priority streets and the repurposing of an old highway overpass into a publicly accessible arboretum.

The pandemic put a big kibosh on attending the conference. But with great ingenuity, the Seoul Walk21 sponsored by the Seoul Metropolitan Government is offering this three day conference online absolutely free.

Very happily the conference agenda also dovetails nicely in the Pacific Time Zone, starting Wednesday May 26 during the day, with sessions on Thursday May 27 and Friday May 28 commencing at 5:00 p.m.

The presentations for this conference are juried, and represent the latest in projects, design and thought around the globe. You can take a look at the varied speakers list here.

This is part of an international conference series that has literally been around the world in the last two decades, and was in Vancouver ten years ago.

I had the honour of being the Conference Chair when the conference was in Vancouver, and the Walk Metro Vancouver Society is a legacy of that conference.

Dr. Sunhoon Oh is one of the Seoul Walk21 Conference Committee members and this promises to be a great conference for learning and discussion.

You can register by clicking on this link. See you next week in Seoul!