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






To promote walking, streets need to be interesting as well as physically accessible. This collection of examples illustrate different approaches to adding art and artistry to everyday walking experiences.

Margie_Paul Janes Walk 2014

Margie Zeidler and Paul Bedford lead one of Toronto’s 139 Jane’s Walks last weekend. Revitalized buildings such as 401 Richmond are irreplaceable public health assets.  


Rarely is heritage preservation talked about as a mental health issue. Yet during the Jane’s Walk I convened last Sunday, “How Healthy is This Place: A Visual Critique,” participants felt that visual connections to the past, and layers of natural evolution (v. sudden mass re-development) affected their state of mind. They also saw the positive health benefits of “weathered” natural imperfection, spontaneity and real human emotion.

In other words, they cared about a “visual diet” that includes variety consisting of  both new and revitalized places that connect with street life and nature.

By contrast, we can feel disoriented, alienated and even depressed in settings that are anonymous and lacking emotional attachment.


A visual diet of empty calories causes dis-ease

Heritage preservation makes us feel part of something bigger than ourselves. Links to meaningful stories are an antidote to urban alienation. And as one of my walk participants pointed out, there is a growing body of research indicating that our brains benefit from the stimulation of authenticity, variety, nature, vitality and a sense of legacy.

JanesWalk 2014 How Healthy is this place

Thumbs up to these Jane’s Walk participants who provided all the insightful content for my experimental format, based on two basic questions:

What do you see? How does that make you feel?  

– Sharon VanderKaay

Janes Walk Postcard

One of the big ideas promoted by Jane’s Walk is that anyone can lead a walk. More and more citizens–who may or may not be licensed designers–are now engaged in talking about qualities that contribute to healthy urban habitats. This increase in awareness is changing what people expect from their visual environment.

I hope that the walk I’m organizing for May 4 will encourage participants to get in the habit of asking, “How healthy is this place?” To help us sharpen our critical eyes, I created the (very informal) diagnostic scorecard above. Please join me as we analyse these ingredients and how they affect our state of mind and ultimately our state of health.

-Sharon VanderKaay

Janes Walk buttonsThis weekend I attended a planning session organized by the folks at Jane’s Walk Toronto, where I picked up these buttons.

WalkShop: Health and the City took place at the bustling Centre for Social Innovation Annex (below).

JW planning session 2014

After participating in several Jane’s Walks over the years (one of which is posted here) I decided to create a walk for the upcoming May 2-4 event.

My proposed “walking conversation” will be around the question, “How healthy is this place?” We will gather at the corner of Bloor St West and University, then proceed west toward Bathurst St. Together we’ll analyze therapeutic visual elements such as vitality, variety, nature, legacy and cultural connections. I hope to raise awareness for visual health through questions and bits of research regarding brain health in the city.

Here is a 15-second video that highlights my question.

My Jane’s Walk idea stems from having created this video: “Salutogenic Places,” as well as years of leading facilitated Critical Eye (visual literacy) sessions.

These walks began in Toronto in 2007 as a tribute to the memory of urban activist Jane Jacobs. Now a global movement, they have spread to 85 cities in 19 countries. Several aspects of Jane’s Walk keep her spirit of neighbourhood awareness and advocacy alive:

  • an informal, hands on, social way to explore and analyze elements that make places livable
  • builds on shared, first-hand knowledge rather than experts and theory
  • largely self-organized and globally contagious requiring a minimum amount of promotion

And lest we forget, World Labyrinth Day is May 3 with a corresponding Jane’s Walk.

– Sharon VanderKaay

Rarely does a design project begin with a well understood “higher purpose” statement that addresses how it intends to feed our psyche.

The purpose of both art and architecture as depicted in Alain de Botton’s recent book Art as Therapy should be “to help us lead better lives–to access better versions of ourselves.”

Art as Therapy

The needs of our psyche in de Botton and Armstrong’s view include (paraphrased):

– to remember what matters

– to see the hopeful side of life

– to gain perspective

– to amplify our best qualities

– to understand what we are most proud of

– to discover missing bits of ourselves as individuals

– to see how the imperfect can be attractive

– to see the things that affect us (but are not noticed)

The authors say we need better critics who will help us practice Enlightened Capitalism. That is, society needs more people who help us make choices that are in line with the true needs of our psyches.

de Botton previously wrote The Architecture of Happiness, which I summarized in the post “Design for Empathy.”

– Sharon VanderKaay

What if our health became the basis for judging every public space, every building, every workplace and every home?

What if we always asked: How healthy is this place?

There’s no such thing as a neutral space. What we build either causes health or erodes our capacity to thrive.

For specific examples of how design causes health or causes dis-ease, we created this video:

Salutogenic Places: Designed to Thrive”  Five vital signs that add up to design that causes health

– Sharon VanderKaay

Detroit Art (92)

Detroit is much more than a Motor City with mechanical problems.

One of the bad habits that lingers from the industrial age is a tendency to view organic situations as mechanical problems.

The City of Detroit’s financial condition cannot be dramatically improved by using a mechanical approach to problem solving. Mechanical approaches work for fixing broken machines or solving simple problems, but Detroit is neither a machine nor simple.

Detroit is an organic, living being composed of human relationships, skills and capabilities. Many of the city’s resources and assets are currently under-appreciated. An important step in Detroit’s revival is for more people to identify, see the value of, and mobilize her strengths (tangible and intangible).

Just a few of these strengths include the extraordinary community relationships and knowledge that have been developed in order to cope with cutbacks in city services, a culture of making things, a history of innovation and the unpretentious character of Detroiters who have a low tolerance for phonies.

Focus on strengths, not needs

Most people see Detroit in terms of needs. When you think only about needs, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. So it’s time to make a conscious effort to see beyond needs and pay more attention to strengths. This approach isn’t just about being positive or negative; it’s about making the most of natural assets (human and physical) that can be further developed.

Difficulties to be “outgrown,” not “fixed”

Mechanical approaches to problem-solving begin by identifying, then fixing problems and deficiencies. But since Detroit is not a problem to be fixed, it must outgrow the extreme conditions which held it back in the past. For example, the mutually destructive relationship that people in the suburbs have had with people in the city of Detroit is most likely to change through the mega-shift to cities now happening everywhere.

Many young people no longer want to work in anonymous, dismal “office parks” and live in isolated suburban neighborhoods. Older people want to “age in place,” which means being able to walk to see friends and get groceries. When sons and daughters move to the city of Detroit, a suburban parent is more likely to support funds for public safety and other services.

This process of change can be described as organically outgrowing a bad situation, rather than mechanically solving a problem. To speed up this natural growth process, it is crucial to shine a light on assets, which is what we tried to do in a fun way by creating our song “What I See in the D”

Our song is about what’s strong that will help Detroit outgrow what’s wrong. And it’s about really good reasons to move to the D.

– Sharon VanderKaay

Detroit Art (6)

Overlooking a city that has received unwelcome international attention lately, the “Man in the City” sculpture project consists of 30 identical orange metal figures located on rooftops throughout Detroit.

As many observers have pointed out, the city of Detroit may be bankrupt but the people are full of talent and can-do spirit. John Sauve, a Detroit native, has exhibited his strikingly simple figures in several locations, including on New York City’s Governors Island. These 43” sculptures change the skyline, cause people to look up, and reward the urban explorer with each discovery.

The artist has also created the Sauvé Art Foundation, which brings a children’s educational dimension to the project. According to Sauve, it “…activates the skyline, and encourages people to look around. In this process of looking and finding, one re-assesses one’s own position in the world and becomes aware of one’s scale…(as well as reflecting on) alienation, ambition, anonymity and fame.”

The figures seem to be watching over a city that is in the process of finding new ways to work through old problems. In my imagination, these orange men see better things on the horizon.

Here is a set of photos I took around the city of Detroit last week.

– Sharon VanderKaay

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