photo: google image commons
Time magazine called it “Hong-couver” in the 1990s. Between Expo 1986 and the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics planning in Vancouver took a turn for the worse building a tower-and-podium typology many hoped would make the city ‘world class’. However, as tower developers drive into the neighborhoods in search of cheap land a different Vancouver is being loudly proclaimed.
Neighbors just don’t want towers. They want to keep the view of the sky and the mountains free for all properties outside the central business district (CBD). For them the downtown core is a different kettle of fish. It built commercial towers starting in the 1970s supplying work space, infrastructure, entertainment and shopping. Then, in the 1990s hi-rise condos started going up one after the other without a meaningful planning discussion or public consultation. Once sunny and walkable districts have been turned into shadow canyons. Yet, one can argue that in the 900-acre downtown peninsula the gigantism is balanced by the 1000-acre Stanley Park on one side, the Burrard inlet to the north, and the English Bay beaches to the south. Thus, the tower dwellers are never more than a 10 minute walk to the water’s edge, the park, or downtown. In that setting the 500 acres given to the Canadian Pacific Railway have served as the CBD ever since the first train arrived in 1886. Here the tolerance for towers may well continue.
However, in the rest of the city ‘the tower on its side’ is by far the preferred option for building socially functioning neighborhoods, ecological sustainability, and defending our democracy by ensuring that the middle class can afford to own their home. The choice to live in an apartment should be based on free will rather than the affordability of housing.
Most Vancouverites agree that there are two issues before us. On the one hand the overheated real estate market. On the other the need for better planning at the neighborhood scale. These are different values at work. One is the regulated market economy with its cyclical (and sometimes episodic) aberrations. The other is the city showing a lack of capacity for delivering neighborhoods that will nurture our way of life rather than Hong Kong’s.
The city bureaucracy has become enamoured with a system of regulation referred to as ‘spot-zoning’ whereby the authority of duly drafted Neighbourhood Plans can be overruled for any single site provided there is a majority of Council votes supporting the proposal. Of course, the spectre of corruption—of the quid-pro-quo buying of Council votes—is all over this system. Proponents speaking about spot-zoning present it as a means to plan for a scale of change that might well shock those who like the ‘character’ of their neighborhoods, voters who if they support change at all do so only when the growth will locate outside their neighborhoods.
Of course, the discussion goes on without any explanation of exactly what is meant by ‘character’. Thus, on the one hand, there is no rigorous understanding or quantification of what residents want to defend—this mysterious ‘character of their neighbourhood’—while on the other, there is no open discussion at neighbourhood planning sessions or transparency at City Hall around proposals tendered by developers. When schemes are finally vetted with the public they are fully realized with models, architectural drawings, and long hours of discussion at City Hall with no one else listening. The impression soon forms that the tower-and-podium has turned the city bureaucracy into a one trick pony. The only interests being defended are the developer’s. The neighbourhood’s interest is just not represented. Or else what is this hairy mammoth that politicians see approaching demanding such a dramatic change in scale? For the voters it looks like a person carrying a fat envelope stuffed with money:
“Ramming through an expensive transit option that is funded by massive development that would wipe out whole communities with their affordable rental units and close down local area planning processes for which we have received international acclaim. Vancouver’s ideal of planning is not served well by pandering to megaprojects without respecting existing communities. Neither is democracy” Darlene Marzari told The Vancouver Sun last year. Marzari is a former city Council member (1972 – 1980); a member of the legislative assembly (provincial government: 1986 to 1996); and a former Minister of Municipal Affairs. About the nature of the plans, she says “Fifty years ago I fought a highway through Strathcona and advocated for neighbourhood involvement in land use decisions. The wheel has turned full circle. The issues are the same today.” On zoning policy Marzari further explained, “It should be of great concern that Vancouver would jeopardize its stewardship and legal responsibility for zoning. Promising TransLink a role in the zoning process and decision making of how our city grows takes us towards the slippery slope of provincial jurisdiction overriding the Vancouver Charter.”
In the City of North Vancouver, Burnaby, Nanaimo and in the Vancouver neighborhoods where I have had contact over the past three years—places like Mount Pleasant, Norquay, Marpole, Grandview, the so-called Downtown Eastside, the West End and Arbutus Ridge—massive redevelopment is not being accepted:
- They reject the downtown ‘character’—if this is what spot-rezoning means—or the tower-and-podium building out in their neighborhood.
- They support ending the over-reliance on the automobile with a shift to transit. Specifically 0-GHG trolley or LRT, but not Skytrain. They prefer to keep the view of the sky and the mountains open and free to all properties.
- They recognize that the platting of their neighborhoods will support a much higher density of use than SFR (single family residential, or a house on a single lot). But they prefer that a new iteration in the local urbanism be in keeping with the past. They are more comfortable with continuity than with the ‘Brave New World of Modernism’ and its heroic [sic] break with the past. They would like to see growth and re-development used as the engine of change shaping new opportunities for higher levels of social functioning and mixing.
- They support changes that will achieve a gradual but radical reduction in the carbon footprint (energy efficiency in homes via passive solar design and better insulation; evolving the morphology of their neighbourhood to be more walkable; shifting from private auto to reliable and frequent transit for the commute to work; changing the car fleet from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources).
- They are concerned about homelessness and will consider alternatives that are more cost effective than dealing with mental illness at the hospital emergency ward and in our corrections system.
- They want to maintain the balance between population, open space, work and shopping. They are receptive to the opportunity of creating community cores and spines as new places for social mixing.
- However, they want to see the facts. Among all these other values of community and values of place they recognize that neighborhoods, cities and regions must develop within a matrix of fiscal responsibility.
I don’t agree that we are running out of land. Rather, some folks are running out of ideas. We are running out of space to keep building the same old suburban paradigm mixing single family subdivisions, super freeways, regional shopping centers, skytrain and towers. I agree that if this is what is meant by ‘character’, then we’re just about out of cheap land to build it. However, there is plenty of room left in Vancouver to grow our urbanism to the next level. For example, just about the entire arterial network of streets needs to be rebuilt to provide higher social and environmental functioning. But how are we going to achieve that responsibly? We propose evolving the municipally-focused paradigm to a regional perspective. If we apply the same tools to shape neighborhoods in Vancouver to the rest of the Fraser Valley, then link all these places together with zero green house gas transportation, we will accommodate all the demand that comes our way and then some.
In the final analysis we have played out one form of development and we need to embrace another. The process can bring either shock or a smooth transition. Folks will decide. To achieve the latter we need to educate ourselves more fully in what works in other places, and come to realize that the arc of urban form spans centuries. The notion that we need to shock people into accepting a new reality one spot-zoning at a time is a fiction perpetrated by a small group trying to usurp power. Provided that we keep the benefits of development evenly distributed over as large a segment of the population as possible, in other words insist that we build incrementally, democracy will find a way.
Discussions going on right now at the neighborhood level are sketching an approach that has the hallmarks of a profitable, environmentally rich and socially diverse outcome.
Many of us feel that it represents a new opportunity in our neighborhoods and our nation. We look forward to rebalancing our culture by framing the automobile in a more rational relationship to the men, women and children on the street. Not only can this change the look and feel of our communities in the places that need it most, but a shift will curb the environmental threat mounting all around us. We sense a flowering in our culture growing from moving away from the suburban paradigm to focus on living in community at sustainable numbers in balance with nature.
This is not a pipe dream. We have concrete and verifiable data showing how to achieve such a shift in our neighborhoods, city, and region. However, our approach does not support moving the tower-and-podium out of the CBD (central business district) and into the neighborhoods. We denounce an inappropriate typology being rammed down people’s throats without due process.
If it is your first contact with these principles, then give yourself an opportunity to become more familiar with it. Chose among a set of video talks by leading practitioners in human-scale urbanism.