The City of the Future

 

I’ve always thought of Seattle as a symbol of modernity.  Growing up in Vancouver, I viewed the Space Needle as an example of American prosperity and progress.  It reached toward outer space while the monorail sleeked along the ground toward the future.  I now live in Toronto, but visit Seattle when I can, to keep in touch with the future. 

  

The world almost missed getting these two lasting symbols from the 1962 World’s Fair.  The Fair was originally going to be called The Festival of the West, as hard as it is to mix cowboys and technology—Broncos and Boeing.  More futuristic heads prevailed and the fair became known as the Century 21 Exposition with the motto “Living in the Space Age.”  The Fair turned a profit and left a legacy of civic amenities and revitalization. 

 

Edward E. Carlson, one of the great civic boosters of any time and any city, extracted a victory within a victory.  He famously drew the Space Needle on a napkin, obtained funding for the project, started it a little late, but finished on time.  The Space Needle retired it’s debt in 18 months.  It now has a new pod for more weddings and parties.

 

My book Safer Cities of the Future is a study of better urban experiences through better design.  I began the book with a picture of the Space Needle and the Seattle skyline.  I recounted the story of Mr Carlson and the world’s fair as an example that we get things right occasionally.

 

It’s a lifetime later and Mr. Carlson and Seattle should be remembered for success and foresight.  But now we have new challenges — terrorism, a sluggish economy, severe weather events and little faith in space, the future, or in anything.  This is where Seattle can lead the world again.

 

Seattle’s All Hazards Mitigation plan is one of the best I’ve studied. It offers a very realistic view of the risk of floods, earthquakes, and terrorism. The plan notes, for example, that 32.75% of Seattle’s housing stock was built before 1939, an astonishingly high percentage considering that the seismic building code dates from 1992. If there were a serious earthquake, the damage could be enormous and could come at a very high cost. Seattle’s plan notes that property damage claims against the city have totalled as much as $12 million since 2006. In the event of a serious storm or earthquake the cost would be exponentially higher.

 

Seattle’s plan also includes a detailed summary of activities to mitigate the impact of earthquakes. These include upgrades to buildings to correct structural deficiencies, disaster recovery needs for all IT systems, and replacement of older underground cables. And the plan notes that city departments, the police, and public utilities have all received briefings and training in order to prepare them for seismic events.

 

These are all steps in the right direction. But Seattle’s plan could be improved by including specific instructions for residents on what to do or where to go in the event of earthquakes, floods, or other disasters; what to take with them; and even how to ensure the safety of their pets.

 

Don’t get me wrong: no plan is perfect, and there are some very good plans out there that Seattle could borrow from. Auckland, New Zealand, for instance is the only plan I’ve seen that precisely quantifies the economic cost of a volcanic eruption. Kansas City has a unique plan for rescuing citizens’ pets. And Boston’s plan for dealing with climate change is an excellent example for all other coastal cities.
Most plans leave much to be desired.  But Seattle’s is a template for progress.  

Stirred, not Shaken

 

Every now and then the topic of earthquakes comes up in Vancouver.  The most recent event was the 4.8 quake on 29 December, 2015.  I have worked on the topic of earthquakes for federal authorities for some years and continue to follow the issue.

Vancouver’s emergency planning documents put the risk of an earthquake in perspective.  They note that 60% of Vancouver’s building stock was built before seismic building codes.   There’s been no damaging earthquake in modern times and so all these buildings are vulnerable. 

Interestingly, my father was partly responsible for construction of one of the first earthquake resistant buildings in Vancouver — 200 Granville Square.  I remember first hearing about earthquakes when I lived in Burnaby in the late 1960s.  I was a young teenager and my father was General Manager of “Project 200”, an early attempt to revamp the waterfront.  Nobody played nicely, not even consortium members Woodwords, Canadian Pacific, Grosvenor Lang, or Sears.  City planners didn’t react quickly or lead the discussion, and neither the federal nor provincial government seemed interested.  Project 200 is another story—a missed opportunity.  But the earthquake resistant building is highly relevant today.

 

There was a lot made about Granville Square.  It was among the first density transfers of its kind in North America with my father having to help obtain a mortgage for the air above the CP railway tracks.  Usually mortgages are for land and buildings, but this building was built on stilts above the CP railway tracks. 

While this deal was being done and the building designed, my father would regale us at the dinner table about his day at work.  One day it was the promotional copy that told of the “giant pedestrian mall” that would abut Granville Square.  “And where will you find the giant pedestrians?” I asked.  Another night my father toyed with some promotional copy that would tell the story of Granville Square being the only building left standing after a major earthquake.  He thought it would be fun to tell potential tenants that they’d be able to work in peace, quiet, and safety, if only they could climb over the rubble of all the other buildings in the city.

 

In those days, earthquake-proofing a building meant constructing sockets, lined with neoprene on which concrete pillars stood, which in turn held up the building.  My father said he had no idea what neoprene ended up like after he’d put a building weighing many hundreds of tonnes on top of it.  He certainly had no idea how to perform maintenance on the assembly after construction.

 

Now, Vancouver’s plan goes well beyond building materials. Memoranda of Understanding with other Canadian cities are now part of the plan in order to ensure rapid deployment of resources after a disaster.  Similarly, the Vancouverites are recommended to reduce dependency on electricity and natural gas grids and develop back-up power sources. Even if buildings are still standing after an earthquake, supply lines and energy infrastructure might be severely damaged or destroyed.

 

Even the best-designed earthquake-proof building might need to be evacuated in case of fire or other emergency. This is why Vancouver’s plan requires buildings’ structural drawings and fire plans to be copied and stored centrally in order to speed-up assessment of complex and high occupancy dwellings.

There’s more to be done in Vancouver and neighbouring cities.  Some have designated disaster routes (DDRs) and others don’t.  Some link to useful provincial government preparedness documents, and others don’t. We’ve never sure how many individual citizens are well prepared and would rather not find out after an earthquake.   

Today in History: July 16th

1992: Statistics Canada says inflation dropped to an annual rate of 1.1% in June, which is the lowest in 30 years, since John Diefenbaker was Prime Minister in 1962.

For more on politics: Buy ‘Political Conventions’

1990: More than 1,000 people are killed when a 7.7-magnitude earthquake strikes Luzon Island in the Philippines. Heroic rescue efforts saved many, but some victims who did not die as buildings collapsed were found dead later from dehydration because they were not pulled out in time.

For more on crisis management: Buy ‘An Ounce of Prevention’

1969: Apollo 11, the spaceflight which first landed humans on the Moon, takes off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, crewed by commander Neil Armstrong, Edwin Aldrin, and Michael Collins.

See also Canada in Space

Today in History: July 12th

1995:  A heat advisory is issued in Chicago, warning of a record-breaking heat wave. By the time the heat breaks a week later, nearly 1,000 people are killed. Record high use of air conditioning caused some power failures. People opened so many hydrants to cool themselves off that water pressure was lost. The heat warped train rails, causing delays for commuters.

For more on crisis management: Buy ‘An Ounce of Prevention’

1990: Just two days after Mikhail Gorbachev is re-elected head of the Soviet Communist Party, Boris Yeltsin, president of the Republic of Russia, announces his resignation from the Party. Yeltsin’s action was a serious blow to Gorbachev’s efforts to keep the struggling Soviet Union together.

1960: Louis Robichaud is sworn in as Premier of New Brunswick, replacing Hugh John Flemming.

For more on politics: Buy ‘Political Conventions’

Today in History: July 11th

2005: Deh Cho First Nations agree to a deal with the Canadian government to get participation in the environmental assessment and regulatory review of the $5.7 billion Mackenzie Valley Pipeline gas project.

For more on negotiations: Buy ‘Tough Love at the Table: Power, Culture and diversity in Negotiations, Mediation & Conflict Resolution’

1991: Carla Hills, American trade representative, says the North American free-trade deal NAFTA will not endanger auto pact or harm Canadian culture.

For more on politics: Buy ‘Political Conventions’

1955: Seven American teenagers die on Mount Temple, near the Valley of the Ten Peaks near Lake Louise, Alberta. It is Canada’s worst single mountaineering accident.

For more on crisis management: An Ounce of Prevention

Today in History: July 10th

1971: Death of Samuel Bronfman, prominent Canadian businessman.

Tough Love at the Table – Pipe Cleaner

1958: Prime Minister John Diefenbaker and President Dwight Eisenhower sign an agreement to have Canada and the United States set up a Joint Committee to guide North American defences in the event of enemy attack.

For more on politics: Buy ‘Political Conventions’.

1887: A dam breaks in Switzerland, killing 70 people in their homes. The water pressure on the dam slowly eroded the concrete. Rescue boats launched to assist people caught up in the sudden flood were ineffective, as some of those on the boats drowned when they capsized in the roiling waters. For more on Crisis Management: Buy ‘An Ounce of Prevention’.

Today in History: July 9th

2010: Prime Minister Stephen Harper appoints legal scholar David Johnston the next governor general.

1991: In St. Lazare, Manitoba, 400 residents flee their homes when a train carrying highly corrosive acetic anhydride derails. The emergency evacuation ends after six days. For more on Crisis Management:Click Here

1960: President Dwight Eisenhower and and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev trade verbal threats over the future of Cuba. The relationship between the United States and Cuba deteriorated rapidly after this exchange. The Castro regime accelerated its program of expropriating American-owned property. In response, the Eisenhower administration severed diplomatic relations with Cuba.

Today in History: July 6th

1998: Two Canadians are among the 167 crew members killed as a gas leak leads to an explosion and fire on the Occidental Petroleum drill rig in the North Sea off the coast of Scotland. For more on Crisis Management: Click Here

1946: On this day in 1946, George Walker Bush, is born in New Haven, Connecticut. When he was two years old, Bush’s parents moved to Texas. George W. Bush was elected president in 1999, and served until 2008. Learn more: Click Here

1944: In Hartford, Connecticut, a fire breaks out under the big top of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, killing 167 people and injuring 682. An investigation revealed that the tent had been treated with flammable paraffin thinned with gasoline to make it waterproof. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus eventually agreed to pay $5 million in compensation. For more on Crisis Management: Click Here

Today in History: July 5th

1998: Japan launches a probe to Mars, joining the U.S. and Russia as a space exploring nation.

1971: President Richard Nixon formally certifies the 26th Amendment, which lowers the voting age in the U.S. from 21 to 18 years. To learn more: Click Here

1970: An Air Canada DC-8 going from Montreal to Los Angeles makes a heavy landing at Malton Airport in Toronto, bounces and loses one engine. As the pilot tries to take off and land again, another engine falls off and the airplane crashes, killing all 109 people on board.

Today in History: July 2nd

1990: A stampede of religious pilgrims in Mecca leaves more than 1,400 people dead. To followers of Islam, traveling to Mecca is one of the five pillars of the religion, and must be one at lease once in a follower’s lifetime. They were crushed or suffocated in a long tunnel.

1964:  President Lyndon Johnson signs into law the historic Civic Rights Act in a nationally televised ceremony at the White House. The Act prohibited racial discrimination in employment and education and outlawed racial segregation in public places such as schools, buses, parks and swimming pools.

1926:  Arthur Meighen, who became Prime Minister on June 29, 1926, is defeated by one vote on a non-confidence motion, so he calls a federal election for September 14, 1926.