Well it was finally announce last week – the location of the new and much-anticipated hospital in the Comox Valley. The site selected from amongst 21 possibilities is located on an undeveloped stretch of Ryan Road somewhere between the new Costco, Home Depot and Car Dealerships and the Entrance to the Comox Air Force Base.
The timing of the announcement coincided with the completion of an international design competition that had competitors re-designing the places where they live such that they comply with the standards set out by the Living City Challenge. I was a member of a team that participated in this competition and over a period of two months we grew to see our place in the Comox Valley in a whole new light. The design standards are based on the Living Building Challenge, an advanced green building program of the International Living Building Institute. They are organized around seven “petals” that cover a broad spectrum of ideas and concepts that come together to challenge designers to “imagine a visionary path to a restorative future.” Each petal contains one or more “imperatives” and there are twenty imperatives in total. Every project must meet the requirement of every imperative. It is through the filter of the Living City Challenge that I provide this critique of the chosen Hospital site.
01 Limits to Growth – Based on the premiss that we have already gobbled up far more land than we need, new projects such as the Hospital are only permitted on greyfield and brownfield sites, and NOT on land adjacent to sensitive ecological habitats, prime farmland, and flood plains. The chosen Hospital location is a greenfield site, never previously having been developed and it is located immediately adjacent to one of the most productive pieces of farmland in the Comox Valley so it does not meet imperative 01. It should also be pointed out that the selected site is a very important part of the hydrology of the Comox Valley, critical to the re-charge of our underground aquifers.
03 Habitat Exchange – not specifically a critique of the selected site, it should be mentioned that this imperative requires that for every development, either half of the site shall remain undeveloped under covenant, OR, undeveloped land must be acquired of equal size and donated to a local land trust and remain undeveloped in perpetuity.
04 Car Free Living – every new project should contribute towards the creation of a walkable, pedestrian oriented community. The selected site is virtually in the middle of nowhere in terms of pedestrian access and is located fronting an 80 km per hour arterial. While this may be appropriate for the occasional high-speed ambulance, no one can walk to the proposed site which means that everyone, including patients, medical staff and administration must all come by car to get to the hospital. Transit is possible alternative but sustainable transit only comes with much higher development densities and the Comox Valley is decades, if not centuries away from achieving this, and projects located like this one are taking us away from transit sustainability, not closer. As I understand it, the site is 15 acres in area and well over half of this is required for parking. I will address this under another imperative.
05 Net Zero Water – I will use this imperative to discuss the infrastructure required for the project. It is highly unlikely that the City of Courtenay has installed water and sewer infrastructure out into the middle of nowhere so it is assumed that the existing services are going to require extending, at significant cost, to reach the new site. A more appropriate site would have been where services already existed, and even where services were older and were due for replacement and the project could “kill two birds with one stone.” I will point out that a Living City Building would not require this infrastructure as they are required to be self-sufficient in terms of water use, either through the collection and harvesting of rainwater, or by using a closed loop system. In addition, a Living City Building must treat and make use of its own waste without combustion or use of chemicals.
06 Ecological Water Flow – I mentioned earlier that the chosen site was important to the local hydrology. A requirement of the Living City Challenge is that 100% of the rain that falls om the site must be managed on site to feed the projects demands while at the same time not changing the pre-development water balance. Water moves around above and below ground, and across property lines, so the aquifers and surrounding farmland cannot be impacted by development of the selected site.
07 Net Zero Energy – A Living City must provide all of its own energy. Currently the power generated by the Comox Lake hydro facility provides only about 20% of our local power supply. We have shown in our competition work that the more a City sprawls, the greater its energy requirement gets. Conversely, the more compact a community gets, its energy requirement drops and more economic opportunity for exploiting waste to energy results. This site is certainly taking us away from a compact community adding to our energy consumption. Opportunity will be lost as the waste energy from the new heating and water systems will be too far from other facilities that would be able to use it.
16 Human Scale & Humane Places – All projects must be designed to create human-scaled rather than automobile-scaled places. A 15 acre site is far larger than the size of the new Hospital so it must be assumed that a large portion of the land will be used for surface parking for the large numbers of users of the facility. The massive parking areas that we seem to be getting more and more of like the Driftwood Mall, Wal-mart, Canadian Tire, Superstore, Home Depot and now Costco are extremely detrimental to our culture, our sense of place, our humanity. They are not what we love about the Comox Valley and they are not necessary to our daily rituals and routines – before we head off to the places that we do love! Hospitals are possible without oceans of asphalt, where they are fit into the existing fabric of a community.
20 Inspiration & Education – A Living City project celebrates its performance and all that is good about it, sharing it with the public and motivating others to follow suit and make change.
What will we learn from a new Hospital on this site? Will we learn that it is OK to bulldozer raw land on the periphery of our towns? It is OK to sprawl well beyond our local infrastructure because the engineers can do it and our resources our allocated for this purpose? That we should not worry about the price of fuel rising in the future and that we will always be able to jump in our car and drive to work, or visit a sick friend? That cheap land always trumps walkability and transportation? Five of the seven petals of the Living City Challenge have a direct connection with the selection of a project site. I think that they demonstrate that there is lot more that needs to be considered when making such important decisions in our communities. I hope that these ideas resonate with your way of thinking, or that they move you at least a little closer to a more complete way of seeing the world. In a follow-up blog post I hope to make some suggestions for some alternative sites for the new Hospital. I might even know by then which other sites were considered.