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Urban Design in a New Economy

Canada’s housing guru projects a vision of cities of the future

By Hugh Kruzel Created: January 29, 2009 Last Updated: February 1, 2009
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Grow Homes in the Bois Franc development near Montreal, Quebec. Avi Friedman’s Grow Home and Next Home designs have been adopted across North America and Europe. (Avi Friedman)

Grow Homes in the Bois Franc development near Montreal, Quebec. Avi Friedman’s Grow Home and Next Home designs have been adopted across North America and Europe. (Avi Friedman)

At a time when doom and gloom seem to be the order of the day, it is refreshing to hear a new perspective. "After down there is up," was Dr. Avi Friedman’s opening message in a lecture he gave recently in Langford, British Columbia.  

In presenting "Cities of the 21st Century: Succeeding in Changing Times," Friedman directed his listeners to think of this current time as a chance to retool, cleanse, and rethink. He spoke of fostering culture, nurturing education, and encouraging investment.

A professor at the McGill School of Architecture and director of the Affordable Homes Program, Friedman is not off the map in his observations about the future of Canada and how our cities could work.

He should know. He has been designing how we live and writing about our urban patterns and potential for some time. Specifically, he sees a shift to higher density living, walkable communities, and necessary investment in light rail transit.  

Suburbia will face the biggest re-invention because of intolerance for the time/energy cost of commuting, he said. It is already a fact that in Paris, Helsinki, Brussels and Montreal, people are rediscovering the bicycle.

Pedal power is a part of the re-engineering in eco-minded cities. The inclusion of green roofs, xeriscaping, and what Friedman calls "natural capital" seems to almost define the modern city.  

Grow Homes in the Bois Franc development near Montreal, Quebec. The Grow Home is a narrow rowhouse whose design allows both the perimeter and interior to be expanded and changed to fit the space needs and budget of its owner. (Avi Friedman)

Grow Homes in the Bois Franc development near Montreal, Quebec. The Grow Home is a narrow rowhouse whose design allows both the perimeter and interior to be expanded and changed to fit the space needs and budget of its owner. (Avi Friedman)

We need to "think creatively in changing times,” he said, and clearly this theme is part of his challenge to get us to envision what our cities will look like in 20 years. He sees the city as an "exercise machine" with liveable downtown cores.  In Friedman’s utopia there are no overweight children.

Successful communities are "nice looking and friendly," and, like urbanist Jane Jacobs, Friedman thinks we should know and talk with our neighbours, have local bakeries, and street sculpture.

Acclaimed by Wallpaper magazine as "one of the top 10 style setters who will most influence the way we live in the next quarter century," Friedman is an advocate of the "life cycle house," a home with greater flexibility and creativity to accommodate changing lifestyles and priorities.

He is the author of numerous books on housing, has won many awards, and is known nationally and internationally for his housing innovations, in particular for the “Grow Home” and” Next Home” designs. The Grow Home won Friedman the United Nations World Habitat Award in 1999.

As a guide to how to build smarter, Friedman said we should look at work already done in places like Bradford, UK and Porvoo, Finland—places that offer new models on how a place should accommodate modern families, individuals, and couples. Every new project and refurbishment should be built to new human and energy standards.  

Closer to home in Boisfranc, Quebec, is a community where playgrounds abound, bike paths are well planned and well lit, and City Hall is accessible and centrally located. In British Columbia, Langford's mayor Stewart Young talks of proactive partnership with private industry to achieve community enhancement.

Governments should be more open, said Professor Friedman. Elected officials must listen to citizens and foster participatory involvement. Being well governed includes saying no to some things while encouraging other opportunities. Short-sighted decision making needs to be rejected.

Surprisingly, Friedman rejected one sacred cow of the boomer generation when he said "Forget organic… eat local."  In B.C., the birthplace of the 100 Mile Diet, this is not exactly earth shattering, but at the same time Victoria, the provincial capital, has no central, permanent, covered, Farmers' Market.  

Working the standing-room-only crowd like a revivalist tent meeting, Friedman held his audience with his words and had them actively listening. They nodded when he acknowledged the challenges of the current economic conditions, but spoke also of the future and our priorities as a society.

"What happens when your back is against the wall?" he asked repeatedly. "You get inventive!" 

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