Leisure is the New Infrastructure

By Bruce Firestone | Uncategorized

Jan 22

CivicArts.com founder Eric Kuhne first told me that on a blustery morning in London when we sat down for breakfast at one of his favorite hangouts. Eric, an expatriate American, is one of the world’s great architects, urban designers and minds; he is responsible for mind bending projects like the Titanic Quarter in Belfast and Burj Khalifa sundial in Dubai.


So when Eric talks, I listen although, I have to admit, it’s sometimes like listening to Marshal McLuhan lecture–you know he is saying something important even if you have no idea what he’s getting at.

Getting it

Shown below are a series of pictures of a rehabbed former petrol station in the County of Renfrew. It’s a creative re-use of what otherwise would be a teardown. The spot is well known in the area for its coffee and sandwiches and they have cleverly reused the gas station canopy to offer shelter to their customers who want to picnic during fair-weather months. But still there is a lot of asphalt left idle and unused.


The Bell Sensplex about an hour to the south is a $27 million P3 (Public-Private-Partnership) project between the NHL’s Ottawa Senators and the City of Ottawa—it’s become one of Ottawa’s highest attended attractions. As a result, it generates over $650,000 per annum in sponsorship and signage revenues (compared to a municipal arena average of less than $10,000 per year) as well as a significant sum in ice rental revenues. It requires fewer subsidies than any other municipal facility of its size and type and operates at much lower cost than municipally-owned and managed buildings. It is widely praised as one of the most successful arena projects in the world.

Peak ice times are always in demand—the secret to this arena’s success lies in their programming. Shoulder hours are rented to recreation leagues, girls’ hockey programs, tournaments and other self-created ladders. In other words, the Bell Sensplex is kept busy because it creates its own clients through programming.

So what could be done with the leftover asphalted area of Sandy’s Deli? Well, for example, they could add one or two beach volleyball courts and create their own leagues to fill the time. One would have to think that twin volleyball courts in use would also create more demand for coffee and sandwiches too.

Eric (originally from San Antonio and shown here in the photo) relocated to London, England a couple of decades ago. His firm has done projects such as the new Titanic Museum in Belfast, Darling Park in Sydney, Port Lands in Toronto, Mohammed Bin Rashid Gardens in Dubai and many others.


Eric’s firm is a design research firm which means it works like this:


Scarcity and a desire to wisely use scarce resources power invention and innovation. Using the North Grenville theatre as a chamber for the local council is an example of adaptation and innovation.

Kuhne says most design and architecture firms spend nearly all their time imitating the work of others or adapting it. His model called from its earliest days for more emphasis on invention and innovation based on market research so they could push world best practices to a whole other level.


What it all boils down to is that for a small additional investment (C2 – C1) in innovative design and development, you can get an amazing increase in value (V2 – V1) and secularly push World Best Practices (WBP) values to a higher level through market research and invention.

The key is to create differentiated value. By adding beach volleyball courts to Sandy’s Deli and then developing the programming that keeps them in use, Sandy’s Deli differentiates itself from its competitors, becomes a valued destination, creates a new point of interest for the County of Renfrew, improves fitness levels in the community, creates or sustains existing jobs by improving the profitability of the business, makes more intense use of the property, and generates a complex economic ripple effect.

Eric coined the phrase, “Leisure is the new infrastructure.” He is like Canada’s Marshall McLuhan. You have to listen to every word he says and parse each one.

What he means by that statement is that when cities, towns, villages and counties in the past wanted to spur economic development, they invested in infrastructure —things like roads, water mains, sewers, bridges and later telecom, cellular towers and Wi-Fi. They also invested in subsidizing foreign businesses as well as local ones.

Today, Eric observes, communities are better off investing in leisure, art, design, entertainment, events, museums, learning and meeting spaces. He notes that every visitor to Renfrew County, for example, will spend $100 per person per day. In a place like Miami, it’s $249. Trying to get that type of knock-on spending via a one-time investment in a sewer pipe is difficult. Most projects Eric works on, even the most prosaic office building, will include some type of ‘leisure’ space and activity.

As long as zoning bylaws don’t prohibit entrepreneurs from adding leisure aspects and other mixed uses to their properties, the cost to the township of this economic development activity is essentially zero.

Prof Bruce

postscript: I might slightly alter (heresy!) Eric’s quote, “Leisure and learning are the new infrastructure.” I suspect learning has as big a multiplier as leisure uses.

postscript 2: Was Eric ever right. Look what has happened with New York’s High Line or Paris Plages. Living within a 5-minute walk of the High Line is considered quite the thing in NYC. And every August, the city of Paris (the office of the mayor actually supervises and manages this) converts some its roadways next to the Seine into artificial beaches.

“The scheme has proven a major success; the number of visitors has grown each year and topped four million in 2007.” Source: https://www.pps.org/places/paris-plages

How about dem apples?

I think the city of Ottawa should convert its failed Sparks street mall into something like this with the following functional program:

Sandy beaches
Beer and wine bars
Food trucks
Other vendors
Artist kiosks
Playland (boccie, volleyball, pickleball, shuffleboard, horseshoe pits, outdoor chess and other games including board games, plus a few Little Free Libraries, https://littlefreelibrary.org/, scattered here and there)

A quiet area/zone

And how about a water feature for kids (and adults) to cool off like this?

And I’d make sure it was also part of a new National Boardwalk that I proposed a few years ago, https://brucemfirestone.com/brucies-big-idea/.

postscript 3: I was very sad to read this–

By now, many will have learned that Eric Kuhne died suddenly on 25 July (2016).

An architect by trade, Eric was a true visionary — a “Leonardo” of future city design. He wrestled with the philosophical, poetical and societal potentials of how people increasingly will live. To Eric, humanity’s greatest work of art was the City, and the architectural studio he founded and ran for more than three decades radiated that ethos. That was clear from its modest, perfect name: Civic Arts. Eric was an American who found his ideal home in London, crafting his design studio to perfection in Clerkenwell. Visiting Eric there was like stepping into a dream factory, decorated with impressive model ships, vintage planes hanging from the ceiling, a curious trove of bizarre and beautiful objects to tickle the mind, and a bewitching library of more than 14,000 books — unusually intriguing volumes, chosen to unstick one’s imagination.

Eric’s colleagues have published an obituary. To many who didn’t know him but were swept up in his scintillating Facebook stream, he must have seemed like a fountain of eclectic and surreal musings. To EG 
regulars, Eric was an effervescent, exuberant, omnivorous and ubiquitous presence. He drank up every drop of EG
and, year after year, contributed behind the scenes with unflappable creativity and boundless enthusiasm. To those who knew Eric well, what is so shattering is that he had recently found greater happiness — both professionally, and personally. Projects were tumbling in that began to meet his lofty aspirations; and personally, he and Pamela were deeply in love and only beginning to embark on their adventure together. All of us who worked and played with Eric thought we would share so many more tomorrows than yesterdays. He was only 64.

If you can, please take a moment to watch this video of a talk Eric gave at EG in 2013 for a hint of his specialness. And if you would like to be  connected with any future remembrances, please contact me directly.

EG mailings will resume in a week with interesting news from Garrett Brown.

Michael Hawley

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About the Author

Bruce is an entrepreneur/real estate broker/developer/coach/urban guru/keynote speaker/Sens founder/novelist/columnist/peerless husband/dad.