grow rotorua 4 composite

Six-time winner of New Zealand’s most beautiful city, Rotorua has set out a plan for sustainable economic growth.

Not just growth, sustainable growth. Over the past six decades, we’ve seen the consequences of growth for growth’s sake, without concern for economic and social sustainability. The history and ongoing cost of not creating “places worth caring about” is vividly described by James Howard Kunstler in his seminal book The Geography of Nowhere.

Rotorua, by contrast, is keen to attract healthy business investors and talent by not only relying on its abundant natural assets, but also by instilling high aspirations for quality of place. Their current annual report features Farrow’s glulam wood project near Toronto, stating that this design “exemplifies the values which we aspire to.”

grow rotorua 2a copy

Designers have been talking about humanizing design for generations. So why is our built environment so dismal today? How has mediocrity remained the norm?

In order to raise expectations for design and to ultimately promote a culture that demands quality design, it is vital to cite examples in use.

There can be no change without awareness, and no awareness unless the public understands what they are looking at. Higher standards for what can be achieved at the same cost can be more widely understood through the following approaches:

  1. DEMONSTRATE examples that are a physical embodiment of higher aspirations
  2. ANALYZE elements that add up to health-causing, uplifting, built-to-last design
  3. COMPARE demand for quality design to concerns for healthier food and green standards
  4. EXPERIENCE places and the feelings they evoke through facilitated walks and tours
  5. ENGAGE clients and the public in a dialogue regarding these issues
  6. QUESTION marketing hype by asking, how does this place really make you feel?
  7. CONTRAST elements of health-causing and dis-ease causing design
  8. STATE a higher purpose and legacy for design than to simply contain programs and/or replace infrastructure

CVH analysis with title

In recent years, marketing hype has evolved to the point of describing the most awful, soulless spaces as “community place-making.” Fortunately, there are increasing numbers of advocates for healthy places (many of whom who do not have formal design training) who question this blather while raising expectations for what design can be and do.

Geography of Nowhere

-Sharon VanderKaay

_St Marys ART_ copy

We have explained how the Cause Health movement is focused on health assets rather than health deficits. The creation of thoughtfully developed and integrated artwork is a tangible celebration of this salutogenic point of view.

Our approach to incorporating art at Sechelt Hospital on the Sunshine Coast in British Columbia demonstrates both a healthy process and a healthy result. This art brings to life the rich history, culture, legends and spirit of the First Nations shishalh people. We conceived of three major installations by local artists that would radiate messages of healing, protection and collaboration.

These works consist of a lobby sunburst mural, exterior entrance totem poles, and memorable elevator lobby symbols. Together they bring meaning, special identity and recognition that highly emotional life events happen here.

This holistic approach earned an international award for use of art in the patient environment at the 10th Annual Design and Health World Congress.

Drawing on the talents of Coast Salish shishalh people who first settled here thousands of years ago, the theme of healing was essential not only in relation to the hospital but also with regard to the First Nations’ painful history on this particular land. Generations of disease and misguided government policies, including hardship specifically related to hospital’s site, had taken a devastating toll. However, the Salish shishalh have moved forward to rebuild and heal painful memories. At a recent public ceremony to celebrate the unveiling of these completed artworks to the community, carver Tony Paul said that the totems convey messages of welcoming and healing, “Not just healing our health, but also healing our people.”

The poles at the entrance tell stories that connect the physical and spiritual worlds. A 50′ x 20′ sculptural sunburst mural was created by artist Shain Jackson who explains, ‘The Canoe People represent community; when others paddle with you in a canoe it is acknowledged that you are headed to the same place and devoted to the same goal.”

Young artists from the community were involved from start to finish in order to learn the entire process: from working with administrators and architects, to presenting and quoting on the work, to fabrication and installation.

Sechelt Hospital (originally St. Mary’s Hospital) has been listed as the 10th most environmentally friendly hospital in the world; the only one selected from Canada. This LEED Gold certified project also recently won a SAB Canadian Green Building Award. It was designed with the goal of becoming North America’s first carbon-neutral hospital.

– Sharon VanderKaay

project: St. Mary’s Hospital, Farrow in association with Perkins + Will Architects

mural photography: Latreille & Delage




In the middle of downtown Detroit–far from the nearest body of water–there is a hugely popular beach. It brings office workers, children, tourists and students together in an optimistic, informal setting that encourages social interaction. The sand invites creative play and evokes a mini-vacation, if only for an hour’s escape.

We are starting to see city “sandboxes” for all ages nestled in sight of tall buildings around the globe. Pictured below are beach-like settings in Detroit (photos 1 & 2, Campus Martius) Brooklyn (photos 3 & 4, at Brooklyn Bridge Park) and Toronto (photo #4. Pop-up Cardboard Beach, 5. Sugar Beach, 6. HtO Beach and 8. Pop-up for the Luminato  Festival).

urban beach_1B

These swimless beaches provide places to get away from the hard edges of the city. Unlike the traditional rigid park bench arrangement, seating can be combined to suit groups or offer solitude. Either way, city sandboxes feed the psyche.

The first time I became aware of the swimless urban beach and sandbox was the Paris Plages installations that began in 2008, one of which is pictured below. Read this description of why it works by Project for Public Spaces.


“Paris Plages 2013 DSC 0822w” by Peter Haas /. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

UPDATE: Playground CS pop-up beach opens for 6 weeks near Centraal Station in Amsterdam today!

Amster Beach

Amsterdam beach_comp1

At the Ryerson Student Learning Centre, “The Beach” is a cheerful indoor place to study, talk and meet in small groups. During Toronto’s long winters it works as a metaphor, even without sand or water.

beach_Ryerson SLC (5280)

– Sharon VanderKaay


It’s obvious that Dan Gilbert is getting excellent advice as he invests in public space interventions that are defining the New Detroit in major ways.

His contributions to the downtown core demonstrate three important qualities which offer lessons for other cities:

1. They add to Detroit’s unique culture, character and identity (v. generic, placeless design)

2. They are upbeat and dignified (not glitzy and cheesy)

3. They reflect a spirit of stewardship (leveraging the city’s human assets and potential)

This striking new 18-story mural by Shepard Fairey is a fine example. Created as part of his work with Library Street Collective its enduring theme of peace and justice animate an otherwise boring view of ordinary architecture and a parking garage:

Big Art_Detroit_2015_6424_crop

When skillfully placed, there is huge potential for Big Art to enliven dull urban spaces. But in order to be an enduring asset, the art must have strong, defining qualities that will make it locally meaningful and internationally significant.

By contrast, this “me-too” artwork (only a few blocks away) is one of literally 100 similar murals by the artist and is located 700 miles from the nearest ocean:

Detroit 2015 whale mural_1

-Sharon VanderKaay

This photo essay is about the role of public seating in places that nurture human relationships and actively contribute to a healthy state of mind.

A decade or so ago it was common to see hostile – and even pathogenic – parks and public spaces. I remember sitting in NYC’s Bryant Park (for a few minutes in the ’80’s) when it was scary. Decaying conditions and anti-social behavior became normal when there was no direct involvement by each community in ongoing improvements.

In recent years, new standards for civic engagement and quality have been set by such places as Bryant Park, Campus Martius in Detroit and Sugar Beach in Toronto.

Rather than simply aim to “do no harm” in line with the 30+ year old “broken windows theory”, many of today’s new and revitalized parks are salutogenic .

-Sharon VanderKaay

Recently I led a Jane’s Walk which looked at a wide range of settings in terms of how they make us feel and why.

My message was that our daily visual diet affects our state of mind. We can make better choices as individuals and as a society if we become better critics.

During my walk I mentioned that “building beloved places is a sustainability issue.” Up to 40% of solid waste in landfills comes from construction debris. If we aim to build places that are love-worthy, they will not be destined for demolition. Our recent SAB Magazine article explores this idea in more detail.

Everyone has a different “Love List.” I’ve noted in the slides above some of my reasons for choosing these particular places.

What places do you love in your city?

– Sharon VanderKaay




Credit Valley CVH clown

How healthy is this place? How does it make you feel? In what ways does the design affect social interaction?

cvh conversation

As we move through our daily lives, what elements in our habitat come together to feed our psyches—or starve our spirits?

Social media encourages people to instantly communicate their feelings about a place. We can now be part of an ongoing, multi-directional, open conversation, rather than being confined to formal design theories and official architectural criticism.

As we participate in these conversations, we build awareness for how design affects our state of mind. Social media also shows us global examples of what’s possible, thus exposing gaps in our own built environment.

For instance, recent visitors to Credit Valley Hospital (designed by Farrow) took photos and commented on the design’s impact:

CVH tweets

One of these tweets was posted by Robert Wakulat, a partner with Wakulat Dhirani LLP at the Centre for Social Innovation, who reports he has always had some sense of how places affect his state of mind, having lived in Europe and Japan to contrast with Toronto. He says, “Twitter provided an outlet to express those feelings…If anything Twitter has accelerated that awareness…After seeing what I liked or made sense in foreign contexts, it became more frustrating to see the ways in which Toronto was lacking.”

He further reflects, “I do think social media (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram) creates more instances of being wistful for the progressive ideas or heritage-honouring choices that other cities make. It also allows a conversation to take place between Torontonians following each other on what we like/dislike.”

Robert also believes that “following people on Twitter who contribute to publications such as Spacing Magazine (e.g. Shawn Micallef) keeps him in touch with the positives and negatives of what exists in our city.”

Indeed these exchanges also serve to highlight spaces that lack human qualities, such as:

how healthy_1

Some designers have expressed concern that greater public participation will ultimately lead to “crowdsourcing design to the lowest level of taste.” However, we believe greater powers of observation and wider engagement in design issues are prerequisites for social, economic, psychological and physical health, as explained in our recent SAB magazine article. 

-Sharon VanderKaay

1_Union Square SF_social steps

1. They give us fresh perspective on the city. (Union Square, San Francisco)

2_High Line svk

2. They bring diverse people together. (The High Line, New York City)

Vancouver steps_LR

3. They are a great place to eat lunch. (Vancouver Art Gallery)

4_Pioneer Square Portland_social steps

4. You can be both alone and part of a group. (Pioneer Square, Portland, OR)

Metropolitan Museum of Art_main entrance

5. Your friends can more easily find you. (Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC)

7_Ryerson Student Centre_social steps 1

6. They motivate you to study. (Ryerson Student Centre, Toronto)

4 seasons centre_TO

7. They mix formal with informal. (Four Seasons Centre, Toronto) (photo source)

5_Robson Square_Vancouver

8. Some combine ramps + stairs (“stramps”). (Robson Square, Vancouver)

9_Philosophers Walk_crop5

9. They are a perfect venue for your brass band. (Philosopher’s Walk, Toronto)

_pillow fight 2015_social steps

TO City Hall_Spider Man

10. You might see a pillow fight or Spider Man on a very early Spring day. (City Hall, Toronto)

-Sharon VanderKaay



developer  questions

Public reaction to big new development schemes tends to focus on taste (likes and dislikes) or issues such as whether the style fits with that of nearby buildings. When a new “artist’s concept” appears in the media, what questions spring to mind?

Our questions might include: Is it a bold optimistic statement about the future…or a giant oppressive sculpture that will loom over us? Will it feed our souls, or make us feel less human?

What if we always asked an even bigger question: How healthy is this proposed scheme?

Such a fundamental question raises the issue of how the development will affect our state of mind and whether it will nurture human connections.

In terms of creating a long term ecological asset, it’s not enough to simply aim for technical sustainability. We must now assess the potential impact on sustaining and nurturing us as humans.

This means seeing big development schemes as they affect our total health—ranging from creating a cultural and social asset, to stimulating our brains and revitalizing our spirit.

It’s time to get beyond superficial criteria in evaluating developer and architect-proposed schemes. If what we build is not beloved today, it is at risk of being landfill tomorrow.

– Sharon Vanderkaay


Factory Dreams +HL_with caption

Today’s Packard plant naysayers echo the words of New York’s High Line critics back in 1999. Since that time 15 years ago the 1.45 mile-long High Line has been transformed from a disused liability to an enormous asset that inspires reclamation projects globally.

On the surface, the Packard and the High Line may have little in common beyond their status as industrial relics, but the process for creating such a massive success is comparable. Decades from now, the epic story of both efforts will begin with dire predictions by vehement critics, no financial resources and very few leaders willing to step forward to make things happen.


How do dangerous hell holes become prosperous hot spots? How does a vague vision take wing to exceed the founder’s wildest dreams?

Attention all Packard plant cynics, skeptics and dreamers!

Here are five leap-of-faith lessons to be gleaned from the High Line project:

1. You don’t have to be rich to attract major capital.

When the Packard’s new owner Fernando Palazuelo recently told a group, “Sorry, I’m not a millionaire” some hopes were deflated and a few people may have heard only impending doom. But High Line founders Joshua David and Robert Hammond were also not wealthy. Both were resourceful residents of ordinary means who stepped up to attract extraordinary talent and financial support.

They did this by bringing fresh energy and passion to the task while realizing that this was a pivotal moment in history. Joshua David and Robert Hammond knew that if they didn’t find ways to rally people around this cause, nothing would happen. So they stepped forward to get things rolling.

Likewise, we are now witnessing a historic moment for Detroit’s citizens and supporters. Will we find ways to make this site an economic powerhouse and magnet for inventors? Fernando Palazuelo stepped up when no other viable buyer for site came forward. Now we must do what we can to support him, while always keeping our eyes open.

2. “Impossible” projects require many “owners.”

So if Mr. Palazuelo is not a magnanimous benefactor, how should we see his role?

The High Line founders provided a human face and an emotional story—versus an anonymous, unilateral announcement by a remote corporation—that attracted a torrent of support and talent. They found ways to benefit from a wide range of quality consultants, authorities and donors. In particular, they worked with first class designers, including graphic designers, urban planners and architects. Their big idea was to not only preserve the rail line, but to create something new and exciting.

The Packard plant must embody holistic change from Detroit’s old culture of dependency. It must fuel the belief that people can get big things done when they contribute to a common purpose, rather than waiting for a benefactor. Palazuelo is currently the legal owner, but many other citizens must step up and feel a sense of ownership and investment in the Packard’s long-term success.

3. People want to be part of something bigger than themselves.

The High Line offered supporters a chance to make a lasting contribution to a big exciting project and legacy. It brought people together in an entrepreneurial environment to feed the natural human longing to part of something with an enduring higher purpose.

The Packard plant is seen internationally as the most visible symbol of Detroit’s extreme frustrations and suffering. The idea that this site could become a new global symbol for the city’s deeper, inventive spirit presents a cause worth fighting for.

Strong commitment to a cause and legacy will be required to navigate financial, regulatory and political obstacles. Whenever big ideas are proposed there will be naysayers. It is useful to keep in mind that there were prominent Parisians who once opposed the Eiffel Tower.  

4. Avoid false dilemmas, such as a choice between “unproductive space” and revenue

Whole neighborhoods benefit when places succeed in developing their true assets. In the early days of the High Line, some naysayers assumed that an either/or choice must be made between preserving the rail line and tearing it down to build revenue generating properties.

Instead of choosing between demolition and revenue, the High Line has accomplished both. More than $2 billion in developments can be linked to the first two sections of the High Line. The elevated park and promenade has become a major iconic tourist attraction for the city, with three million annual visitors (10 times what the founders originally envisioned) a quarter of whom come from outside the United States.

Genuine assets generate interest and investment. The Packard and the High Line offer meaningful stories that connect us with the long march of history. These connections with the past and layers of human intervention are irreplaceable assets that cannot be faked.

5. Overnight success may take a decade or more.

The High Line took ten years to plan and realize. It continues to evolve as an additional segment is added.

Fernando Palazuelo has stated that the Packard plant may take over a decade to develop.

Instant, fully-formed developments rarely endear themselves to the public. The reality of big complex projects is that, while they benefit from a master plan and vision, multi-year phasing allows for new ideas and adjustments to emerge. Phasing also provides opportunities to build enthusiasm, attract diverse participation and to learn from early experiments.

– Sharon VanderKaay






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  • About The Nature of Innovation

    We see our collaboration with clients and colleagues as providing a living lab for enriching the creative process. Farrow’s built work has been internationally recognized for leadership in human-centric design. This is where we come to discuss our ideas as they hatch and our experiences as they happen.
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