The Paradigm Shift

Participants in MTP (Mount Pleasant) Walking Tour — 6 may 2012

[Photo: Stephen Bohus, BLA]

Vancouver, and North America, are experiencing a shift in planning paradigm from automobile-driven suburban development to human-scale neighbourhoods. One century after the shift to Modernism we are once more in a moment of change. What we all knew as status quo is being replaced by something new. Old places are being renewed through incremental redevelopment. However, other places are experiencing change that is highly disruptive.

Ultimately, the stability of the social system relies on managing the change process to achieve consensus results. Incremental redevelopment presents the opportunity to build a more intense level of social functioning in our neighbourhoods, streets and public open spaces. Dependence on the automobile can be reduced by designing at the neighbourhoods scale. The whole city can be rebuilt incrementally and made more supportive of walking, cycling, and transit. Home ownership can remain at the centre of family life, personal wealth and well-being. Our neighbourhoods can become places where we move through the life cycle from cradle to grave.

Some key differences between old & new neighourhood paradigms.

Boom Times

The modern (or suburban) movement was fuelled by the decimation of Japan, Eastern & Western Europe; the consolidation of international capital; and the baby boom.

In urbanism we saw play out the final phases of change from a horse and buggy town and country to the automobile landscape. The twentieth century finally delivered the separation of the place of labour from the home. We built two cities at the same time: the Central Business District (CBD) for work, and the sleepy suburb for family life.


The CBD was the flip side of suburban sprawl. Take out the hi-rise corporate centre, with all of its attendant problems, and the suburbs themselves dry up. However, today towers appear as a threat on the horizon. These forms are leaking out from the CBDs following the old sprawl paradigm in search of new locations.

The icons of the Modern Movement now threaten the very fabric of our society by undermining the course of home ownership and the social structure of our towns and neighbourhoods.

New Times

New neighbourhoods are resulting from residential intensification re-shaping the streetcar and automobile suburbs of the 20th century into the places of tomorrow. Even the CBD is being re-tooled by residential intensification with condo towers.

The new paradigm neighbourhood shifts the focus back to social functioning by building the tower on its side and reshaping the resulting quality of the public realm. However, the regional economy must keep pace by transitioning to new forms of production.

New Knowledge Set

Urban planning is being called on to correct the problems of the past through incremental redevelopment of places that we already call home. A new knowledge set is guiding the regulatory bureaucracies entrusted with looking after the orderly redevelopment of our towns and regions.

City departments are coming together around the new methodology for place making. The re-tooling of the approvals process requires concerted pressure and oversight from the neighbourhoods themselves in order to give voice for the non-market values in our society.

The New Normal

The histrionics will disappear as the new paradigm is adopted and neighbourhoods build out as balanced places supporting social functioning.


4 thoughts on “The Paradigm Shift”

    1. Not sure exactly what you mean, Lee. I see the towers getting out of the downtown as “density sprawl”. I see densifying the arterials with buildings that are taller than one-third of the width of the fronting street as overbuilding, or ‘too much density’. I see failing to implement BRT (trolley rapid transit), streetcars and subways, as missing the opportunity to ‘tame the arterials’ setting the stage to convert them into ‘neighbourhood spines’. All of these issues are currently on the table, and failing to act on them raises that label of ‘density sprawl’. What do you mean by that? Is it density that does not support human-scale redevelopment in our neighbourhoods?

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