Monday, October 22, 2018

Opinion: Some advice for the winners (and losers) in Vancouver's election October 22, 2018

     Whew! While some campaign signs are still up, the election is finally over.
I spent election night at CTV’s Vancouver studio with outgoing NPA councillor George Affleck, former Surrey mayor Dianne Watts, pollster Mario Canseco and Gordon Price.
      One of the most exciting and nerve-racking election night decisions is when a candidate should be declared “elected.”
It was easy for CTV’s Decision Desk to “kill Corrigan” and declare Mike Hurley Burnaby’s new mayor. But many were surprised how early CTV declared Kennedy Stewart’s victory, including those over at Global TV.
      While there were some anxious moments for the CTV team as the evening wore on and Ken Sim closed the gap, ultimately the “Decision Desk” was astutely correct.
      Ten years ago, I was an NPA council candidate. While my 44,353 votes would have put me in ninth place this year, I was 1,524 votes short of a council seat when I ran.
      This year, 61 of the 71 candidates running for council also lost. While some were fringe candidates, many others were highly credible, and are no doubt still hurting over the results.
Don’t despair.
      As Brita Owen once told me, her husband Philip Owen ran unsuccessfully many times before eventually winning a park board seat. He went on to become one of Vancouver’s most beloved and respected mayors.
      This year, name recognition was a major factor in who got elected. But so was the ballot design. Just ask Vision’s long-serving councillor Heather Deal who was listed last on the ballot because of the new randomized order and did not get re-elected. More about this in a future column.
      Now I would like to offer some advice to the winners.
      Kennedy Stewart, while I was critical of aspects of your campaign, congratulations on your victory. You say you are willing to work across party lines, and I hope you will continually demonstrate this. A good start will be to appoint Green and NPA councillors to the Metro Vancouver Board and Council committees.
      You might also want to borrow an idea from Philip Owen and host a monthly TV show during which residents can phone in to voice concerns and support for your actions.
      Adriane Carr, congratulations on again topping the polls. I endorsed you and the Green Party’s Housing Plan since while no one can “fix” housing affordability, many of your ideas could contribute to a more affordable Vancouver. I look forward to seeing how you, Pete Fry and Michael Wiebe implement your ideas.
       Jean Swanson, we have known each other since the mid-’70s when as a CMHC architect and Social Housing program manager, I participated in the development of new Downtown Eastside projects including the first renovated SROs. You were a force to be reckoned with then.
In 2008, as a volunteer with the Building Community Society, I was shocked to discover the shelter component of welfare had not been increased for 14 years. I proposed that you and I jointly write a Vancouver Sun op-ed urging the provincial government to increase the amount.
      Sadly, you and your colleagues rejected the idea fearing this would only put more money in landlord’s pockets. You were wrong, but now that you’re on council, I hope you will become more understanding of real estate economics.
      Also, please abandon your call for a four-year rent freeze. It is beyond the city’s mandate and completely inappropriate unless you’re going to freeze property taxes, maintenance and operating expenses as well.
      Christine Boyle, everyone speaks highly of you, including my wife and daughter. However, I was disturbed by your party’s call for the downzoning of the Little Mountain property to rental only. While this property has been mismanaged by the province, city and developer, any downzoning at this stage would be a reckless act for a municipal government.
      Finally, to all the NPA councillors, congratulations. More than two thirds of the items to be brought before you will relate to planning and development. While Melissa DeGenova and Colleen Hardwick understand planning, I’m afraid you must now learn the difference between FSR, UPA and Site Coverage.
      Early next year, the Urban Development Institute will again offer its Development 101 course for new politicians. I hope you and other council colleagues will attend since none of us wants to see housing affordability as the number one issue in the 2022 election.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

ELECTION DAY! Before you vote, you might want to read the ice cream story.

As I reflect on every voting day, I am reminded of a short story I received during the final days of the 2008 municipal election when I ran for Vancouver City Council. (My daughters proudly tell their friends I was the NPA's first loser!).

      The most eye-opening civics lesson I ever had was while teaching third grade this year. The U.S. presidential election was heating up and some of the children showed an interest.
      I decided we would have an election for a class president. We would choose our nominees. They would make a campaign speech and the class would vote.
      To simplify the process, candidates were nominated by other class members. We discussed what kinds of characteristics these students should have. We got many nominations and from those, Jamie and Olivia were picked to run for the top spot.
      The class had done a great job in their selections. Both candidates were good kids.
I thought Jamie might have an advantage because he got lots of parental support.
I had never seen Olivia’s mother.
      The day arrived when they were to make their speeches Jamie went first. He had specific ideas about how to make our class a better place. He ended by promising to do his very best. Everyone applauded. He sat down and Olivia came to the podium.
     Her speech was concise. She said, “If you will vote for me, I will give you ice cream.”
She sat down.
      The class went wild. “Yes! Yes! We want ice cream.”  
She surely would say more. She did not have to. A discussion followed.
      How did she plan to pay for the ice cream? She wasn’t sure. Would her parents buy it or would the class pay for it. She didn’t know.
      The class really didn’t care. All they were thinking about was ice cream.
Jamie was forgotten. Olivia won by a land slide.
      All candidates running for office offer ice cream. Fifty per cent of the people react like nine-year-olds. They want ice cream. The other fifty per cent know they’re going to have to feed the cow and clean up the mess.

Friday, October 19, 2018

So who should I vote for to make Vancouver housing affordable?

Last week, I wrote a column in the Vancouver Courier on who to vote for in the forthcoming election. If you didn't see it, you can find it here:

Having subsequently attended the CBC housing debate hosted by Stephen Quinn, and listened to many of the candidates, for those of you who have not yet voted I would like to share the following thoughts.

1) Don't vote for someone just because you like their promise of a 4-year rent freeze, because it will never happen. The city doesn't have the authority to impose this, and even an NDP led government has too much common sense to ever allow it.

2) Don't vote for someone because he or she promises to build more housing units than anyone else. For one thing, none of the mayoral or council candidates (with one exception) are carpenters or builders. They won't build anything. While the city does build units on city-owned lands, ( good examples are the rental apartments built with provincial government money on 12 city-owned sites that took almost 10 years to complete, or the 600 modular housing units (that I first proposed during the 2008 election campaign) completed over the past year with funding from CMHC and others), most new homes will have to be built by non-profits or the private sector. 

I was once in charge of the non-profit program in the CMHC Vancouver office in the 1970s. I understand the programs. The non-profits can only build with someone else's money, even on free land. The number of units to be constructed over the next 10 years will not depend on what some mayoral candidate promises. It will depend in large part on how much money is available from senior governments, (The city is not likely to provide funds if it's offering land), or private lenders. In the past, the private lenders have been very cautious about lending to non-profits. Who wants to foreclose on all these well-meaning people if the project gets into financial difficulty?

As for the tens of thousands of affordable homes to be built by private developers, if the rent controls and zoning requirements being promised by some of the candidates are to be kept, (for example, any condo project requiring rezoning must target 50% inclusionary affordable units, or any renovated rental unit must first be offered to the displaced tenant at the same rental rate,), many developers will move to Burnaby or Surrey or elsewhere. They won't be able to finance projects in Vancouver, especially if the new Council agrees with my friend Tom Davidoff and seeks more and more Community Amenity Contributions from every rezoning, which some candidates have also promised.

3) Do vote for candidates who are promising larger scale city-wide planning. This is a realistic and necessary promise and will happen....finally.

4) Don't vote for a candidate who repeatedly promises to end the practice of selling off city land and instead says she'll offer 20 or 30 year leases. The reality is that today the city of Vancouver rarely sells land, except in special instances. It generally leases land, except where a site might be consolidated with a privately owned adjacent site. The city will occasionally sell of 'street-ends' but who's worried about this? As for her proposal of 20 or 30 year leases, this demonstrates acute ignorance of real estate financing. The minimum lease term has to be 50 or 60 years.

5) Finally, don't vote for someone who promises to 'fix' housing affordability. As a chief economist for a major financial institution said to me over lunch today, sadly, we can't fix housing affordability in Vancouver. We can address it by improving public transit to other municipalities. We can increase housing choices by allowing duplexes and townhouses and small apartments in single-family zones, or higher densities elsewhere. But given the historic land values in this city, the cost of construction, increasing interest rates and rather flat incomes, sadly the housing affordability that many are hoping for is not going to happen.

Why is that? Even if land is free, given construction costs, soft costs including consulting and municipal fees, insurance, taxes and financing, no non-profit or private developer can build new one bedroom units renting for $375 a month or even $735 a month. It is difficult to economically build a new home that would rent for $1,000 a month.

So what do we do for those who can't afford to pay more? Governments can offer increased rent subsidies to those in greatest need. The province already does this. But is it willing to offer more? Is the city prepared to offer rent subsidies? It might want to. But I question whether it will be able to afford to given what I predict will be a significant decline in the Community Amenity Contribution payments to be received from developers.

There are a lot of good, sensible, people running in this election. But a lot of others have no real understanding of real estate economics and are making promises that can't be kept. Like Gregor Robertson's promise to end homelessness, they can best be described as aspirational.

I'm hoping we will end up with a council with some balance, that will offer different points of view representative of the general population. We'll know soon.

I'll be on CTV election night offering some perspective on the election results around the region from a housing planner's perspective. Now get out and vote.

Monday, October 15, 2018

CBC The National 'Putin's paradise': How Russia is revamping Moscow to be one of Europe's most vibrant cities

While CBC television rarely attends my SFU Lectures, it did attend my talk at the Strelka Institute in Moscow. Chris Brown, who heads up CBC's Moscow Bureau and I did a subsequent interview as part of a 8-minute documentary on how Moscow is beautifying the city. You can find a summary of the event here   and the National segment here

In Moscow, Soviet-era drab and tacky are out.
Classy building facades, urban greenery, bike-sharing and pedestrian-only streets are in. And Canadian architect Michael Geller says it's stunning to see how fast the transformation has happened.
"They [visitors] expect it to be grey, dirty and full of graffiti, but it's none of that," Geller says admiringly, as he sips a craft beer at a patio in Kuznetsky Most, a coffee shop- and eatery-filled neighbourhood just a few blocks from the Kremlin.
While many western observers would consider Russia's authoritarian political system repressive, when it comes to public spaces the people in the capital are experiencing a new kind of freedom.
It's a sort of urbanism in overdrive.
"I am impressed in the last two years," Geller says of the new, polished feel of the downtown. "There is no doubt a lot of money has been spent. It's fabulous."
Ulitsa Il’inka in Moscow’s Kitay Gorod area is part of the city's massive urban renewal project. Almost 300 kilometres of downtown streets have been revitalized in the past three years. (Pascal Dumont/CBC)
A frequent guest lecturer and judge for Russian architectural competitions, Strelka — one of Moscow's top urban design firms — has invited Geller to the city seven times in recent years to share Canada's best practices with young Russian designers.
Strelka has led many of the most prominent redevelopments in Moscow, including building facelifts, street redesigns and the creation of new green spaces.
In fact, Geller says he's increasingly bringing home as many good ideas to improve Canadian cities as he's leaving behind for the Russians.
Canadian architect and developer Michael Geller, in Moscow’s Kuznetsky Most neighbourhood. He says some of Moscow's design ideas hold lessons for improving Canadian cities. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)
"We talk about pedestrians being important, but we don't have streets like this [in Vancouver]," says Geller, of the recently tiled promenades that are now ubiquitous around the city's downtown.
"They encourage people to walk. They discourage automobiles."

Multibillion-dollar facelift

The number of urban renovation projects undertaken in Russia's capital since 2015 is dizzying.
More than 300 streets have been completely rebuilt under a program called Maya Ulitsa, or "My Street":
  • Thousands of unlicensed vending stalls were swept away, eliminating serious eyesores.
  • Major streets, such as Moscow's Garden Ring Road, were narrowed and sidewalks widened with more than half a million new paving stones.
  • Thousands of kilometres of piping and electrical wires were buried underground.
  • The facades of 12,000 buildings were given a facelift.
That's on top of the addition of hundreds of new parks, cultural landmarks and other monuments.
While some of the projects were directly related to the World Cup of soccer this past summer, the overall scope of the effort is far larger.
Estimates from Russian media sources (RBC) put the price tag at a stratospheric $1.6 billion US spent since 2015. The total outlay is expected to reach $3.5 billion by 2020.
World Cup fans celebrate in one of Moscow’s many new pedestrian zones during the tournament in July. (Pascal Dumont/CBC)

Political goals

Almost all of that spending has focused on the area around Moscow's core.
To put that in perspective, the Moscow Times reported that the capital now accounts for a third of all municipal spending in Russia, with the remainder of the budget having to be shared between 40 other cities.
It's unheard of for any European or North American city to spend so much in such a short period of time on urban renewal.
Michal Murawski, of University College of London School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies, seen on the bridge at Zaryadye Park in Moscow. He says the Putin government's huge expenditure on Moscow is a calculated political investment. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)
"It's a distinct policy now of the Russian state leadership and the Moscow leadership to ... harness the potential of urban improvement and architecture to create a sense of wellbeing," says Michal Murawski, a British scholar with the University College of London's School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies.
Murawski has spent the past year in Moscow analyzing the social and political implications of the city's facelift.
"Urbanism is a stated priority of Putin's fourth term in power," he says.
Murawski adds that there's a long history of autocratic regimes beautifying cities as a way to glorify leaders. And by trying to make Moscow an urban showpiece, the Kremlin has made a political calculation.
Moscow’s Zaryadye Park, with its spectacular view of the Kremlin, has been nicknamed by critics as 'Putin’s Paradise.' (Pascal Dumont/CBC)
"It's designed to create support for the regime," he says.
In 2011, the Kremlin was shaken by street demonstrations that drew over 100,000 people, protesting declining living standards. Murawski says keeping people in the capital happy by creating better urban spaces is part of the strategy to insulate Putin if times get tough again.
Putin made reference to the improvements as he praised Moscow's recently re-elected mayor Sergei Sobyanin, in a speech in September.
"The atmosphere of the city has changed," said the President.
"Moscow,  with its rapid rhythm of life has become ... hospitable and cozy."

Zaryadye Park

The crown jewel in Moscow's urbanist redevelopment is Zaryadye Park, an oasis of nature and culture just a stone's throw from the Kremlin.
"It's extraordinary that the decision-makers were convinced that instead of squeezing profit of out of this piece of land — surely the most expensive piece of real estate in Moscow, if not Europe — that it should be a park," says Murawski.
Zaryadye contains an enormous amphitheatre, a media centre and grounds that feature examples of Russian geography, from the Arctic to the desert.
Its most stunning architectural feature is a platform extending out into the Moscow river that offers spectacular views of some of the city's best-known landmarks, including St. Basil's Cathedral and the buildings of the Kremlin.
No official price tag has ever been attached to Zaryadye, but Russian media outlets have published estimates ranging from $250 million US to $500 million.
"It's what a new stadium costs," Murawski says.
Zaryadye Park is one of the focal points of the modernization of Moscow's public infrastructure. (Pascal Dumont/CBC)
And he says Putin has tied himself personally to the project.
"I think on the project website the wording was, 'with this single gesture of Putin, the golden land was given back to the city and its inhabitants.' So it's this grandiose gesture of gifting which ties this park inherently to politics."
Indeed, around Moscow some refer to Zaryadye as "Putin's Paradise."
The park has only been open for a year and many of the renovation projects in the city's core were completed just in time for this summer's World Cup, so many Russians are only now beginning to appreciate the scope of the changes.
At a recent street festival thrown in celebration of Moscow's 871st birthday, the pride many people felt in their capital's new look was evident.
"The city has changed dramatically for the better," says senior Vladimir Zubkov, as he lounged with his wife Lyudmila on a lawn chair in a temporary garden on the usually busy Tverskaya Street, which was closed and transformed into a park for the day.
Vladimir and Ludmilla Zubkov relax during a recent festival that saw Moscow's busiest street transformed into an urban garden of greenery. (Pascal Dumont/CBC)
"The mayor [Sergei] Sobyanin has done a lot to lessen the traffic in Moscow. He made new roads. He cleaned up Moscow. Moscow has been transformed."
"Moscow is the best city in the world," Lyudmila adds.
"The most important thing is that our historic streets have been restored," says Anton Kirilov, another Moscow resident.
"Look how amazing they are. People here feel themselves and worthy and valuable and happy to be living in this country."
Recently, Murawski the anthropologist hosted an academic conference in Moscow — nicknamed "Zaryadyology" — that dug deeper into the themes behind Zaryadye and Moscow's urban renewal.
British anthropologist Michal Murawski says Moscow’s new urban improvements were designed with 'the selfie' in mind. (Pascal Dumont/CBC)
He says a key question for many academics is whether greater urban freedom and a sense of wellbeing will inevitably lead to a demand for greater political freedoms.
"It's too early to judge that. It's much too early to see if Zarayde and Maya Ulitsa creates a kind of democracy and freedom through architecture," Murawski says.
"The only thing we have to go on is that people take more selfies [at the park] than they used to. And that people voted in increased numbers for Putin."
Michael Geller, the Canadian architect, says whatever political motivations have driven Moscow's urban renewal, they are secondary to how much more livable they have made the city.
"In the end, I think it's more important not to judge how something may have happened," he says.
"We have projects across Canada and the inspiration was questionable, but they became very livable places."

Friday, October 12, 2018

Opinion: Too many Vancouver candidates are promising more than they can deliver Vancouver Courier October 10, 2018

   "So, who should I vote for in the upcoming municipal election?”
     Hardly a day goes by lately when I’m not asked this question. Unlike previous elections when the choice was between two or three political slates, this year there are 10 parties and 158 candidates running for 27 positions for mayor, council, school and park board.
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      To assist voters, the city has prepared a comprehensive list of the candidates, their priorities, platforms, biographies, social media, contacts, and documents including statements of disclosure. (You can also find the Courier’s online candidate guide at
      The disclosure statements are revealing. Other than NPA mayoral candidate Ken Sim, few candidates own shares in any corporations or any real estate, except in some cases a principal residence.
      Does this matter? I think it does, since those elected will oversee a corporation with 2018 operating expenditures of $1.4 billion and capital expenditures of $426.4 million.
      As I write this column, I am reminded of the column I wrote before the 2014 election.
It included the story about a Grade 3 class election in which eight-year-old Jamie offered specific ideas about how to make his class a better place, while Olivia promised to give everybody free ice cream. While she had no idea how she would pay for it, she won by a landslide.
      During the 2014 election campaign we were promised a Broadway subway to UBC, the most open city hall in Canada, free swimming lessons, a $30-a-month transit pass, a tax on vacant foreign-owned properties, 4,000-plus units of rental housing and 1,000-plus childcare spaces.
Not surprisingly, few of these promises were fully realized.
      This year, most election promises relate to improving housing affordability. If elected, COPE councillors will ask the provincial government to immediately set a zero per cent rent increase for the next four years. This is akin to offering free ice cream to every renter. If such a policy was implemented, it would be disastrous for the city’s rental stock. No COPE candidates will be getting my vote.
      Mayoral candidate Kennedy Stewart is promising 25,000 new purpose-built rental apartments over the next decade and a tripling of the Vacant Home Tax from one per cent to three per cent. While I respect Stewart’s political acumen, I question whether his first promise is realistic given new rent controls; his second promise would be a major mistake.
      Shauna Sylvester’s housing plan focuses on new co-op housing, which currently accounts for just two per cent of Vancouver’s housing stock. She wants to make Vancouver the “North American capital of co-ops and co-housing.” As CMHC’s program manager-social housing in the early 1970s, I approved many of Vancouver’s housing co-ops.
      Sylvester’s goal will require a significant increase in senior government funding or new attitudes on the part of financial institutions if it is to be realized.
      Rather than focus on stimulating thousands of new-build apartments or co-ops, the NPA proposes to allow two secondary suites in detached homes. Given how long it takes to approve and build new housing, this could well provide an effective short-term remedy.
      OneCity is proposing to downzone the Little Mountain site from its approved mix of condominium and rental housing to rental only. While I have consistently opposed this project, I shudder at the thought of this, and so should any fair-minded voter.
      So, who do I recommend?
      My recommendation for mayor is between Sylvester and Sim.
      Sylvester is personable and intelligent with considerable board and public policy experience. She would likely best manage what is expected to be a fractious council.
Sim offers no public sector experience. But by all accounts, he’s decent, caring and could bring some much-needed fiscal acumen to City Hall.
      My council recommendations include Vision’s Heather Deal and the Greens’ Adriane Carr, given the need for some institutional memory, joined by Pete Fry (Green Party), Colleen Hardwick (NPA) and independents Rob McDowell and Adrian Crook.
      At park board, I hope Stuart Mackinnon will be re-elected along with other Green candidates and the NPA’s John Coupar.
      My school trustee recommendations include the Greens’ Janet Fraser and NPA’s Chris Richardson.
      Space does not permit a more complete list. Therefore, I urge you to read the candidate profiles, attend remaining campaign events and make your own choices.Then cross your fingers. It’s going to be a fascinating election night and the next four years.

Opinion: What Vancouver can learn from Baku, Azerbaijan Vancouver Courier September 24, 2018

     The internet has certainly transformed our lives.
      I have been very conscious of this the past few days as I was asked to respond to a Vancouver journalist’s question about the impact of the new duplex zoning on land values, while touring the extraordinary, transformative architecture of Baku, Azerbaijan.
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      I came to this city for three reasons. As a 10-year-old stamp collector in Toronto, I was fascinated by the stamps of Azerbaijan. The country name seemed so exotic. Five decades later, at Expo 2010 in Shanghai, I wandered into the Azerbaijani pavilion where I saw futuristic images of Baku. At the time, I could not tell if they were drawings of what was to come or what had been built. I learned these were not drawings — these were photographs of actual buildings constructed with the country’s oil wealth.
While many Vancouverites get in a lather how over new duplexes might destroy the character of single-family neighbourhoods, the city of Baku, Azerbaijan continues to evolve architecturally, as evidenced by Flame Towers. Photo iStock
Two years later, I saw an illustration of Baku with what looked like three giant slugs superimposed on the city skyline. I had to check Wikipedia to see if this too was the result of someone’s imagination or if these were real buildings. They were real buildings.

Not only are the buildings extraordinary to view in the day time, at night they are lit up with constantly changing colours and images. At times, they appear like giant flames on the horizon.
These buildings, one of which is the same height as Vancouver’s Shangri-La Hotel, seemed so out of context to me, I wondered what the locals thought of them. Were they considered a blight on the landscape? Were they disrespectful to the city’s medieval Islamic history. I discovered that, on the contrary, everyone was proud of the development.
      I was told that thousands of years ago, Zoroastrianism, a religion based around worshipping fire, was popular. These towers played homage to this past.
      Over the centuries, the city has been constantly transformed from an Islamic, medieval-walled city to a centre of lavish buildings built by wealthy oil barons, followed by an era of dull, Soviet architecture, and today’s extraordinary contemporary designs.
      As I wandered around the city, I could not help but compare it with what is happening in Vancouver. In Baku, they have such extraordinary juxtapositions, while in Vancouver, many worry how new duplexes might destroy the character of single-family neighbourhoods.
      While I too question whether the recent council decision needed to be rushed through, I welcome the housing choices this change will bring, knowing many Courier readers would like to own or rent a 1,600-square-foot duplex in their neighbourhood, rather than be forced to move away.
      It is worth noting that Portland, Ore. recently voted in a similar zoning measure. Edmonton has gone one step further and is allowing what some call “pork-chop” lots, which allow a property owner to subdivide the rear portion of their property, while maintaining a narrow strip along the street to meet legal requirements.
      Now that Vancouver is allowing duplexes, I hope that “semi-detached” homes (where property sits on its own legal lot without any requirement for a strata-arrangement) and fee-simple row houses (which can also be individually owned) will not be far off in our future.
     But getting back to Baku. One of the things that struck me about this city, which is of a similar size to Metro Vancouver, was the number of museums. There are literally dozens of them, including museums for bread, history, modern art, ethnology, literature (there’s even one for miniature books), customs, medicine, agriculture, religion and, most recently, a carpet museum designed to look like a roll of carpet.
      I couldn’t help but compare this with Vancouver with its very limited number of museums.
In this regard, there is a group of architects and planners who are hoping that Vancouver might one day have an “Urbanarium,” or museum of the city.
      It would tell the story of how the city came to be and feature displays on various urban topics. It might also include a large model into which every new building would be inserted.
      As we watch our city transform, let’s hope that one day an Urbanarium will allow residents and visitors to Vancouver learn more about our past and future.


Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Back Home in Astana

    It was very nice to return to Astana. While it seemed quite exotic the first time I visited last May, this time it seemed like I was returning home after Tbilisi and Baku. I stayed at the Marriott, which is well located, somewhat removed from the Radisson where I stayed the first time. The Innovation Week events were held in the hotel’s conference facility.
The view from my room. This is not the Kazakhstan most people expect if their only previous contact was Borat!
Given the choice between local vodka and Finnish vodka, I had to drink the local!

There were two days of talks, and the speakers include architects from Moscow, Spain, Jean Nouvel’s firm in Paris, and Portugal. Oh yes, and a Canadian. There were also speakers talking about Big Data, and innovative projects in Latvia including the Ghetto Games.

My favourite session featured Russian architect Sergei Tchuban who recently won a major European award, and one of Astana's best known architects. While the English translation of Tchuban’s talk was a bit difficult to follow (at times I thought I had a better understanding of what was being said in Russian, than the translator) his architecture was delightful. His thesis is that cities need to have a balance between 'look at me' buildings and good quality 'background' buildings. He designs both.
     I gave two talks. One explored innovative approaches to master planning and housing based on what’s been happening in Vancouver, like the talk I gave in Moscow. The other looked at how Astana might increase its attractiveness as a cultural city.

One of the students presents the results from their Charrette

The audience was predominantly young architects and student architects, some of whom also participated in design charrettes that were taking place while the talks were happening. They later presented their work to the full audience.

It wasn't all work and no play. A delightful evening with Антон Надточий of and Dos

The closing night, an elegant reception was held at which design awards were presented for local architectural projects. I was given a bottle of Rada designer vodka, a nice change from the bottles of BC red which I usually receive in Vancouver.

  After the event I toured around the city. A highlight was a visit to the round ball at the EXPO2017 site. The former Kazakhstan pavilion, it now houses 8 levels of displays on alternative energy. It is most impressive, especially since the country’s financial health is very much tied to oil! Indeed, a young man who served as a guide told me his is a university studying the oil industry, even though he’s surrounded by other energy sources including wind, solar, water, and space.

A new bridge over the river helps connects neighbourhoods and contribute to Astana's walkability

  It was a delight to be back in Astana. I very much enjoyed the experience, and appreciated the attention from the local organizers. My only regret was not spending more time with Indira Max, one of the key organizers, with whom I spent a lot of time on my first trip. Maybe next time. Thanks to all for a most fascinating four days in Astana.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

The leafy city of Almaty

I first learned about Almaty last May when I participated as a juror in a competition to select a consultant team to prepare a new master plan for Astana. Prior to Astana being made the capital 21 years ago, Almaty was the country's capital, and as described in guidebooks, a beautiful cosmopolitan city with tree-lined streets and a mountain backdrop.
Many people urged me to see it, so when I was invited by the organizers of the Astana Plan competition and others to participate in Innovation Week in Astana and Almaty, I decided to speak in both cities, which are about a 1 and half hour flight apart.

I only stayed one night at a dated Hyatt Regency Hotel but got a taste of the city, and the local food, wine and vodka. Arriving in my room after dark, I was intrigued by an illuminated circular building I could see out my window. It turned out to be a circus, dating back to the days of Russian occupation.

The conference was held next to the hotel in a gathering space called SmArtPoint. At first, I was concerned that I wouldn't be able to understand much of the printed materials since my Google Translate app didn’t work well in Kazak. But then I quickly realized all of the materials were in Russian, the principal language in Almaty and Astana. However, I need not have worried when a charming man in blue jeans came up to introduce himself. "I am your translator", he said. When I joked that he should feel free to improve on what I say in his translation, he responded that on the contrary, I was the needle. He was just the thread. (I'm sure it's even more poetic in Russian!)
Hopefully the next time I am in Kazakstan I will be able to return to Almaty for a more extended visit. And if the developer who approached me after my talk to see if I would be interested in helping them with a 40 hectare site follows up, I may well be back!