COVID Place making
October 8, 2020

English Bay: Another Transformative Moment

This is a big deal:

Kevin Griffin at The Sun reports on the Parks Board approval of a $2.56 million contract to develop a master plan for the parks and streets from Stanley Park to Burrard Bridge for the next thirty years. Kenneth Chan at The Daily Hive describes the area and issues:

The design firms chosen are impressive: PFS Studio is of Vancouver – known for many years as Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg – partnered with Snøhetta, based in Oslo, well known for their architecture (like Ryerson University’s Student Learning Centre).  But unlike that Danish starchitect Bjorke Ingels, they’re also known for a better integration of building with public space.

This promises the production of a masterplan of international caliber, which given the location and opportunity, is to be expected.  Indeed, the challenge (for the Park Board in particular) is to imagine a rethinking of this city/waterfront interface beyond its aesthetic and recreational opportunities for the neighbourhood.  This is city-building, writ big and historic.

It will also be the third major transformation for this stretch of English Bay – first the summer grounds of the coastal peoples; then, from the 1890s on, houses and apartments (left) all along the beachfront, cutting off everything except the sands of English Bay.  For over most of the 20th century, the City purchased and demolished these buildings, even the Crystal Pool, until the by the 1990s there was unbroken green, sand and active-transportation asphalt from Stanley Park to False Creek.

But it was all on the other side of Beach Avenue, a busy arterial that served as the bypass for traffic around the West End – the legacy of the original West End survey in the service of motordom.  For some this will be seen as unchangable.  As the reaction to the Park Board changes this summer on Park Drive revealed, even a modest reallocation of road space diminishing ‘easy’ access for vehicles and the parking to serve them is upsetting to those who associate motordom design with their needs, special and otherwise.

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Having heard that the Urban Design Certificate Program as part of the Simon Fraser University City Program was being suspended, two of Vancouver’s pre-eminent urban designers, Scot Hein* and Frank Ducote*, have some thoughts – and a warning.


Form, scale, character, shadowing and view.

The City has a way of making sure these basic aspects of what we call urban design are priorities when it approves development.    We’ve been integrating a formal process – it’s called Urban Design Review – since the 1970s.  The results are all around us.

After half a century, we can make a judgment – a contested one to be sure, but defensible.  The way the city has regulated and incentivized good quality urban design has resulted by and large in ‘density done well’ – an urban environment with livability, neighborliness and amenity.  And we’ve done it by proactively engaging the market.   (Twitter storm to the right.)

That was the Vancouver that became known internationally between Expo and the Olympics – 1986 to 2010.  That’s a whole generation – and things have of course changed.

Regrettably, there’s an emerging sense of disdain for urban design.  And a debate: Did all that Vancouverism result in inequity and unaffordability?  A fair debate to have, but it also seems accompanied by a sense that a focus on urban design is of another time, decoration when we could afford it, and now connected to gentrification, privilege, exclusion, even colonization.

Time for a danger alert: discarding or treating with indifference the processes, people and lessons that produced the Vancouver of our time is a bad, bad move.  To de-fund the department, or decolonize it, or stop teaching the next generation of designers how to do it, is dumb.  Or at least would make us dumber.

And poorer.

And less able to move in acceptable ways towards more affordablilty.

Urban design is one of our best tools to “discipline” speculative escalation.  The design review is the first lens, an effective obstacle to unfettered speculation, serving a greater good.

The question should be not whether we discard the process but whether we still regulate design for more or less the same outcomes, and should we change those.

A highly discretionary regulatory system, as with the City of Vancouver, can and should be re-codified to get the results we need today.  Re-zoning is not required.

Instead, by maintaining an emphasis on good design, we can work with prevailing zoning and re-codify discretionary obligations.  We can increase market leverage to deliver more affordable housing options – with little to no land assembly or underground parking.  And we can deliver those outcomes with community and neighbourhood acceptance through a continuing commitment, indeed a requirement, for good design appropriate to our priorities.

That means we have to have those who can deliver – urban designers with good training and education – integrated into the heart of the development and approval process.

The Urban Design Certificate Program at SFU was a made-in-Vancouver way of providing not only that education but also a forum to share and debate ideas.  This highly respected program has informed hundreds of practitioners, community leaders, municipal staff and advocates towards more enlightened discourse at a time when city building has become complex, confusing and politically fraught.

It would be a tragedy to end this program, especially at a time when we need to functionally address affordability and climate crises.

While there are opportunities to grasp, we’d feel more assured if SFU expressed an appreciation and commitment to the importance of urban design in advancing cities that work for everyone.


*Scot Hein is an adjunct professor of urban design for UBC (as well as a campus urban designer), former senior urban designer and development planner for the City of Vancouver, and a founding board member of The Urbanarium.

*Frank Ducote contributed  to SFU’s UD Certificate Program. He was formerly the COV’s Senior Urban Designer responsible for many large scale initiatives, and the establishment on the city’s prestigious Urban Design Studio.

Price Tags editor Gordon Price was previously a Director for the SFU City Program.

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Kathleen Corey and Brian Gould of ‘small places’ – among the best videographers of the street we’ve ever posted (here’s a sample from last year) – have some new work, appropriate to our current times.  Here’s Kathleen’s capture of the physical changes in response to COVID-19 made on Robson Street. . The Rapid Response project in this case widened sidewalks, creating more space for people, through painted concrete barriers, modular accessible ramps, expanded parklets, and bus boarding islands. . Read more »

Translation: Will the increase in people working at home mean we’ll drive less?

Answer: Apparently not.

Here’s a summary from the terrifically named Center for Advanced Hindsight:

While there may be less commuting, there will be more local trips for shopping and, no doubt, Zoom breaks.

There’s another big implication that’s not mentioned: possibly less congestion during the traditional drive times, but heavier traffic throughout the day.  More accidents too, I’d bet.  And more conflict in how we allocate or reapportion road space.  (In other words, bike lane wars.)

The real-time experiment as a consequence of the pandemic in how we manage our transportation network shouldn’t be wasted.  Minimally we should be measuring and reporting on the day-to-day changes that are occurring out there (as discussed here in “How do we start limiting congestion NOW?“)  and then trying out different options so we don’t lose the gains we’ve made even as we respond to the ‘climate emergency’.

(Of course, ‘climate emergency’ is not a concern of the Park Board apparently, which showed how easy it is to succumb to the desire to go back to ‘just the way it was.’   Even though we never can and never should.)



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Heads up, transit nerds (or anyone curious about the literal insides of our transit system): local Vancouver blogger Mike (born and raised!) DownieLivespent the day in Vancouver with Translink, checking out their bus simulator, an electric trolley bus, SeaBus, the West Coast Express and the SkyTrain.”

Love his enthusiasm when he’s driving a trolley. ( And totally not surprised to see trolley advocate and driver Derek Cheung in the background.)

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There are two kinds of towns in the Okanagan (and most of BC).

It depends on the provincial roads that connect them.  Some, as in Osoyoos, have a highway that divides the centre-right through its heart.

Very often the highway, like Crowsnest, is literally Main Street – a ‘stroad’ that has looked essentially the same for more than half a century: broad, muscular, low-slung and unambiguous.  Mid-century motordom, which even today, despite attempts to make them more friendly for people not in cars (which is the way most of them got there), are still car dominant.

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The Park Board has justified the removal of the bike lane in Stanley Park because “The data tells us we can return the park to its conventional traffic patterns.”  Now the question is whether the Beach Avenue bikeway will be removed for the same reason: winter is coming, so we’ll go back to the conventional pattern.

What our leaders do will tell us what kind of city we aspire to be.  Imagine the slogan: “Vancouver, the Conventional City.”  

Ian Austen who writes the Canada Letter for New York Times sees another kind of opportunity:


By late spring, it was becoming nearly impossible to buy a bike anywhere in the world. That was a reflection both of the unexpected surge in demand and a supply chain that was disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. Most bikes, aside from high-end, customized offerings, are churned out by a small number of companies based in Taiwan that have extensive operations in China. My colleague Raymond Zhong recently profiled the biggest of those companies, the aptly named Giant, and its chairwoman, Bonnie Tu. (Article here.)

In Ottawa, Canada’s bicycle boom has exhibited itself in an unusual way. The morning and afternoon bicycle rush hour didn’t return. But when I’m out doing errands by bike, it’s now often a struggle to find a parking space outside stores. And on weekends, when I’m on rides measured in hours, it’s increasingly common to see people on very inexpensive bicycles, who are not wearing fancy cycling clothes, cycling well outside the city.

Many cities have responded. Cars have been temporarily barred from some lanes or entire roads in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Montreal and elsewhere. In addition to closing streets, Halifax has moved to slow motor traffic on some streets and limit vehicles to residents.

The question now is, will this enthusiasm for cycling survive winter and the post-pandemic period?

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Items in the Inbox from Daily Scot:

Have you seen the Keefer Yard in Chinatown?   My favourite outdoor Covid bar in the city.

Price Tags: Now that pop-up patios have been approved year-round in cities like North Van and Vancouver, we can expect a lot of innovation to keep us protected, happy and safe through the winter, not to mention a host of decorative responses in the spring.  Here’s an example from Coal Harbour:


Scot: What if we use the pandemic to convert some of the enclosed parking garages on Granville Island to beer gardens with plenty of space to social distance?

The structures would have a unique industrial chicness, drawing people from all over (which Granville Island needs, particularly in the winter).  And there is an immediate anchor available with Granville Island Brewing next door.  Other Vancouver breweries could take turns catering the spaces; food trucks could be part of the scene; nibbles could be provided by the Islands many food vendors.

Check out how other cities have created urban beer gardens:

Frankford Hall, Philadelphia

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