North Shore False Creek—The view of the mountains blocked
Vancouverism—the tower-and-podium architecture that began building post-Expo ’86—boils down to just two essential parts: Towers-and-Skytrain. The towers block the sky and the view of the mountains and stop the sun from reaching the city street and sidewalks. This in a place where skies are either overcast, or raining 60% of the time. Nobody wants that. The Skytrain blights the neighborhoods it crosses preserving an unencumbered ground plane for automobiles. People would rather see the public realm supporting both social functioning and traffic—not just one or the other. The Vancouverism doesn’t give much consideration to the human experience of place, or what should be understood to be ‘good’ urbanism. Vancouverism’s gigantic land parcel assemblies defy human scale. There is no there there. No legible hierarchy of street, block, district and neighborhood. The whole is not greater than the sum of the parts simply because the parts are just too big. The gigantism of the tower-and-podium typology is too large to be apprehended by our human senses. The images of the Vancouverism are all made from high up and far away using our glorious mountains as backdrop. Up close the mountains are hidden from view. Unit is piled upon unit, piled high one upon the other, creating a seamless and seemingly endless monotony of place.
THE FIRST IN A SERIES OF ARTICLES ON ‘GOOD’ URBANISM IN NORTH AMERICA
Anonymity and isolation reign supreme. Three decades into bemoaning building Vancouverism in Vancouver we have a single, concrete and verifiable cipher. Today we have proof: One startling result crushes all others. This is the ‘bunker busting bomb’ that may wellend the business-first NPA-Vision hegemony on local council: Vancouverism has triggered red-hot housing prices into our region. “May you live in exciting times,” says an old Chinese curse. The meteoric rise in the cost of housing over the past 30 years now threatens the survival of our middle class and the very fabric of the Canadian way of life.
Sale Price Comparison of Three Properties between 1986 and 2016
The cost of a 1920’s un-renovated 800-square foot bungalow on a 4,000 s.f. lot in Vancouver has risen 1,167% over the past 30 years when adjusted for inflation.
Whatever governments were in office during this time are responsible for either (a) letting it happen; or (b) doing nothing to stop it. A third possibility is also in the cards: (c) fanning the flames to see municipal purses bulge. The three decades that brought us Vancouverism were filled by the din of cheer-leading from self-promoting public servants. This era in our region—when the cost of owning a home was pushed beyond the reach of the middle class—has put the knife to the throat of our democracy. If the bloodletting is allowed to continue, then Canada will join the ranks of the so-called ‘third world’.
Early in the 1990s a senior planning staffer put it to me this way: “We are not going to do the ‘New Urbanism’ in Vancouver”. Their reasons had nothing to do with ‘good’ urbanism, or invoking the local vernacular and regional values to further the traditions of place. They simply meant to service an exclusive flow of off-shore capital. City Halls all over the region switched to a profit model of operations. Soon the bottom line became fiat at council chambers both in Vancouver, and across the region. More than a decade earlier the vice president at Stevenson Construction, a locally owned construction company specializing in building high-rise in the central business district, had warned me that—for years already—all the money invested in Downtown Vancouver was “off-shore”. By which he meant Hong Kong. In the early 1990s Time magazine ran an article on Vancouver’s high rise boom titled “Hongcouver”. By transplanting an ‘architectural solution’ lifted straight from Hong Kong, Vancouverism was transmuting social values from a place where our democratic and human rights do not exist. Then, as the 1990s drew to a close, and Hong Kong was swallowed up by Communist China. Capital in search of safe haven started pouring out in unprecedented quantities and Vnacouverism picked up speed. Disproportionate amounts of flight capital landed on our shores looking for ‘large Hong Kong-like’ investments. Distorting our real estate market and threatening our social balance, the mega projects began building en masse in “Hongcouver” because they were able to be managed top-down from “off-shore”.
Underperforming in both environmental and social functioning, the towers-and-skytrain have achieved spectacular results in only just one area: maximizing profits for a very specialized group of investors, their bankers and real estate agents. Campaign contributions from tower developers flowed like honey to secure the re-election of politicians who were unquestionably ‘pro’ development. At all levels of government elected officials sold Canada’s middle class to the highest bidder in the pursuit of a mean and short-sighted personal aim: re-election.
Not surprisingly, local governments aligned with the interests of off-shore capital and large, multinational corporations, shoving towers down the throats of neighborhood residents. Invoking the false mandate of eco-density, and claiming without proof that tower densities were necessary to ease global warming and climate change, the public sector has championed towers for 30 years. To keep us distracted they also championed bike lanes. As if riding bicycles in a mountainous, rainy region was a realistic option for anyone except those over 15 and under 30 years of age. Who can afford to arrive at work pouring sweat on the inside and drenched from rain on the outside? Certainly not Mayor and Council. Meanwhile, a low interest rate monetary policy has decimated savings income for the middle class; while the fiscal policy of ‘reducing government spending’ put an end to the practice of using government investment to shape growth. A Leviathan has been loosened that keeps building the train-in-the-sky, freeing up ground space so that we can add more lanes to our streets and drive more cars.
In addition to triggering a devastating price inflation in the housing sector, the same provincial and local governments promoting the Vancoiuverism turned a blind eye to the human alienation in tower buildings, tower neighborhoods and the inner city. Then, as the towers began to leach out of the central business district into the rest of the of the city and the region, local neighbourhood groups rising to oppose the invasion of the off-shore capital were dealt with one at a time. Professional local government staff whose duty is to look after local interests, inverted the mission of their public service. Hand-in-hand with rising career aspirations of young bureaucrats eager to please, the ‘old guard’ were either let go or resigned in disgust.
Local government’s publicly funded propaganda machine was also turned against citizens as the process tipped in favor of an overseas elite with predictable results.
Social mixing is not visible in the tower projects failing to deliver affordable housing, livable streets and walkable neighborhoods. Home ownership—the hallmark of the Canadian middle class—has been commodified into holding chips in off-shore portfolios. These landlords put no eyes on the street, or shoe leather on the sidewalks as they collect rents from Canadian families no longer able to afford to own their own home sweet home.
Vancouverism is a bum deal. It has created conditions in the market place that senior government must now intervene to correct. Left in the hands of local politicians too eager to wed a too narrowly defined self-interest, the Canadian way of life has been put on the option block for sale to the highest off-shore bidder—regardless of the record on human rights, environmental stewardship and social justice in these far off places.
It is time to call the halt. We must pivot away from Vancouverism to consider new policy and new leadership. We must correct the ‘free’ markets before a corruption growing like a cancer on our society involves our entire environmental, economic and political systems, threatening our very freedom and right to self-determination.