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Urban Planning

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A Tour Through Benny Farm

Benny Farm was first developed in the years immediately following the Second World War. Returning veterans needed homes for their families and the country needed housing to deal with the impending baby boom. In the Late 1940s the Canadian government built a number of apartment buildings on the site of what was then a former farm on the western edge of Montreal. The project was, and remains one of the largest government housing projects ever undertaken in the country. The property and the apartments were maintained for a number of years under the auspices of the Department of Veterans Affairs, and then by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, (CMHC).

In the 1950s and 1960s thanks to most residents being of the same age, community life at Benny Farm thrived due the prevalence of many young families (hello baby boom!) Historical accounts suggest that during the 1950s there were over a thousand children on the property. However in the 1980s the age homogenization began to work against Benny Farm as the mean age of residents rose to 70 years. Most of the buildings had not been well maintained, and the post-war three story walk ups with no elevators or air-conditioning were increasingly difficult for elderly residents.

In the early 1990s the the CMHC announced plans to redevelop the property with more accessible units for the aging population and reopen the door to new tenants in more modern units. In order to finance the redevelopment the agency planned to have the private sector develop the rest of the property. The scale of the private development; 1200 units in a number of 6 story buildings, the destruction of the existing post war buildings, and a fundamental change to the social role of the site caused an outcry from members of the community. What ensued next was a 20 year battle over the future of the Benny Farm site.

Arnold Bennett, and Jason Hughes helped spearhead the battle to keep Benny Farm affordable, arguing for public and affordable housing rather then private development.  For a long time it seemed that the site would end up going to private developers who would build standard condo style units that would price many area residents out of the market. While there are many people and events that were responsible for making Benny Farm what it is today, the eureka moment came when the team realized that nothing was stopping the the Habitations communautaires NDG, (HCNDG) a community-run non-profit corporation, from bidding on the parts of the site that were open to the private sector. The idea was to create a non-profit, community-run organization that would offer and manage the units at a below market rate. The proposal went over very well with the community and over 80 people had signed statements of interest by the time the HCNDG submitted a bid to the Canada Lands Corporation for three sites, with a total of 74 units. The ‘Affordable Home Ownership Initiative’ was awarded the sites after beating a number of private developers who submitted more traditional site concepts.

Claude Cormier Landscape Architects was selected to develop the master plan for the Benny Farm Housing project and created a network of promenades that ties the paths, and semi private courtyards of the project into the surrounding neighbourhood streets. An orchard of 170 ornamental crab apple trees is also distributed throughout as a nod to the sites agricultural past.

The new Benny Farm site includes a diverse mix of housing types, over 200 rental properties, a public health clinic, recreation centre, community garden, daycare, and other neighbourhood services. The property was also developed with sustainability in mind and features; Geothermal heat exchange, hybrid glycol/electric solar power, air- and water-based heat recovery. There were plans for grey-water and storm-water reuse, wetland treatment and sub-grade water-table recharge, but news reports indicate that the water reuse was never installed and I was unable to spot evidence of a  wetland on my site visit.  A non-profit, community-run utility owns and manages the energy infrastructure as well as continued  re-investment in sustainable construction for this infrastructure. The utility was set up with a legal structure similar to that of a cooperative housing development. Green Energy Benny Farm (GEBF) is owned and controlled by a voluntary, user-driven board, and the project has won at least one award; The Bronze Prize at Global Holcim Awards.

Of course most of this was laid out in the planning stage so what about now? As the pictures show, Benny Farm isn’t just a concept anymore, it is once again a living and working community. It appears that being at the cutting edge of sustainability in a non-profit housing complex has its risks. Hour.ca published an article in 2007 that reported problems with leaking geothermal pipes, that combined with other leaks have lead to a serious mould problem in one of the Co-ops, and some solar panels have leaked glycol, while some of the radiant floor heating systems didn’t balance, resulting in some residents freezing while others boiled. Some blamed a low-bid contract process while others suggested that there was not enough co-ordination between the parties involved in merging the green technologies. Most news reports on the project and issues stop after 2007 so presumably the kinks have been worked out.

While the process was long and contentious Benny Farm is considered a success for sustainable, affordable housing, and community renewal. I took a walk through Benny Farm in the fall and was very impressed with the site design and landscaping in particular, while a lot of modern buildings can look very similar and repetitive each area felt different enough from the others to make each seem distinctive while still maintaining a connection with the project as a while. There is also clear evidence that the kids are back with all the toys that were scattered about. So was Benny Farm a success? I’ll let the photo’s speak for themselves and you can make up your own mind.

For a great photo-spread of the property before its renovation, take a look at The Benny Farm Condemned Housing Projects @ Citynoise. Also check out our related gallery, Cave Art (ok not really) of  Benny Farm. Reference links and other great places to visit for information about Benny Farm. Story Telling At Concordia Benny Farm Calgary Housing Action Initiative, Alternative Housing Models: Benny Farm. Canada Lands Company: Community Success Stories: Benny Farm

Your Placemat or Mine?

For the person who can’t stop planning the neighborhood and looking at houses even while they are eating, finally there is a set of placemats that keep the fun going even during dinner time. They come in two sets of four and you can build your own UK city block by lining them up in a row or argue with your friends over who gets the downtown loft and who gets the suburban terrace. The Placemats are made by UK firm people will always need plates.

Masdar Springs From The Desert

“The environmental ambitions of the Masdar Initiative – zero carbon and waste free – are a world first. They have provided us with a challenging design brief that promises to question conventional urban wisdom at a fundamental level. Masdar promises to set new benchmarks for the sustainable city of the future.” Norman Foster of  Foster + Partners

I remember seeing a post about Masdar in the past, back during the height of the Dubai construction orgies when it seemed like every week there was a new project coming out that was fantastic this, super-sized that!  Given that I had a bit of an anti Dubai stance, (take a look back at the Dubai tag and you will see how little attention I paid to it) I have to admit that I wrote Masdar off as just another mega project of a dubious nature. Well it seems that I am now playing catch up on this project as it is in fact being built and it is a significant chapter in the development of new sustainable cities.  My attention was re-piqued after a colleague of mine sent me a link to a New York Times article in the Critic’s Notebook about the opening of the first phase of Masdar. They also have an awesome photo slide show given that they were able to fly a photographer over there.

The New York Times takes issue with the fact that the city is at this point essentially a gated community and identity is not helped by its construction techniques.  Visitors to the city drive through the desert until they reach the blank wall of the city.  While the city wall has a function and basis in sustainable design; enabling the raised city to capture desert breezes and regulate transportation functions to its lower level.  It reinforces the perception that this is a city for elites, and not a city for every one.  Of course given that the city just opened and its first residents are only now moving in the government (who happens to be the landlord) still has time to make sure that the city houses a cross section of society.


Upon arrival to the city a visitor must leave their car at a parking garage just inside the city’s edge. All transportation functions within the city are covered by a fleet of driver less cars that navigate through a series of tunnels at ground level, below the main pedestrian level of the city 23 feet above.  Once the transportation system comes online a fleet of hundreds of personal transportation pods that have been likened to the transportation pods in 2001: A Space Oddessy will transport people and goods around the city by following the destination commands inputted by users through a simple LCD screen interface.  It’s a method of separating circulation functions that Le Corbuiser first envisioned and would have loved to employ in many of his residential projects.

The design aesthetic for the city is a combination of modernism and traditional aribic architecture.  Laboratories and office spaces are predominantly hosted in large concrete buildings that have been clad in panels of ethylene-tetrafluoroethylene. Residential buildings tend towards the traditional and appear similar to the Terra Cotta construction techniques found across the Middle East.

By way of design the city aims to tackle one of the biggest issues in the modern day Middle East; obesity. Elevators from the lower levels are tucked out of sight behind stairwells, and on the main level the only way to get around is by foot.  It’s a design response to the growing problem of obesity in the Middle East as anyone can afford to travel by car to escape the heat does so.  The city also uses traditional wind towers to funnel winds down to street level, and orients the streets at an angle to the suns trajectory in order to maximize shade. On top of all of these features the city is also aiming to be one of the first truly solar cities.

Some of the public spaces will also feature reactive architecture: international architectural firm LAVA (Laboratory for Visionary Architecture) won an international design competition for its proposal to utilize a series of giant umbrellas base on the sunflower principle that open during the day to provide shade, store heat, and then close during the night opening the public squares to the sky and releasing their stored heat.

It is impossible to see the city as anything other than visionary in the way it approaches new city building.  While the Times is correct to raise questions about its utopian purity and its creation in isolation from the real city that lives next door, the Times also ignores the fact that brand new from scratch cities is a reality for the next century.  Experts agree that in order to handle the world’s growing population at least 20 new cities will need to be constructed, predominantly in the Asia, Africa and the Middle East in order to handle the world’s growing a urban population.  In Korea New Songdo is being used as a test case for a fully wired its city, and in the middle east Masdar is most definitely a test case for a carbon neutral city that responds to the constraints of its environment.  It is entirely likely that future cities combine the lessons learned from both in their construction.

From Foster + Partner’s Website:

The Masdar Institute

The Masdar Institute (MI) is the first part of the wider Masdar City Master-plan to be realized and creates a focus for the entire programme, as well as setting the context for subsequent development. Initially, five MSc programmes will be established and as well as undertaking research with MIT, Masdar faculty members will be able to work within the Masdar Research Network. The MI campus embodies the principles and goals of the Masdar City Master-plan to create a prototypical and sustainable city, one in which residents and commuters can enjoy the highest quality of life with the lowest environmental footprint. All developments within the city are to be carbon neutral and zero waste.

The buildings are oriented to provide optimum shade and reduce cooling loads. Shaded colonnades at podium level exploit the benefits of exposed thermal mass and transitional thermal spaces are integrated to mediate between internal and external zones. Facades are designed to respond to their orientation and photovoltaic installations on every roof are combined with carefully positioned photovoltaic panels to shade streets and buildings. Green linear parks adjacent to the buildings capture cooling night-time winds, with wind gates employed to control hot winds. The ventilation strategy for the streets and night time cooling is further enhanced by wind towers and courtyards.

Pedestrian circulation is primarily at podium deck level, where a shaded route throughout the campus is provided. The buildings within MI are made up primarily of laboratories and residential accommodation, supported by a gymnasium, canteen, café, library and landscaped areas that contribute to the campus environment and forge a new destination within the city. The laboratories – and the interactive laboratory space – are at the heart of the development and offer the optimum flexible, column free space possible within the strict loading and vibration criteria. The residential element further integrates the principles of the master-plan and provides one, two and three bedroom apartments in low-rise, high-density blocks. These complete the master-plan street-scape and urban form, while acting as a social counterpoint to the intense laboratory environment. Source