Design & Development
July 7, 2009

The Great Debate: Seattle vs Vancouver

So which city – Seattle or Vancouver – has the best built environment? It was the subject of The Great Debate – this year’s  annual VIA Architecture Lecture on urban design, hosted by the SFU City Program.  (Because the firm that sponsors the lecture is celebrating its 20th anniversary, and because it has offices in both Seattle and Vancouver, it seemed like a good way to acknowledge the occasion.)

We recruited Peter Steinbrueck, an ex-councillor in Seattle and an architect, to face off against this ex-councillor.  But with a twist.  We each had to argue the merits of the other’s city.

You can see the debate in Vancouver here:

And the debate in Seattle here:

Knute Berger, the Crosscut columnist, did a great job in summarizing the debate.  (I confess I was nervous about Berger’s coverage; he often takes a very jaudiced eye to Vancouverism.  But here he’s neutral.)  He also followed up a few day’s later with some more tidbits.

The now-online Seattle PI did a short piece – but the best part is the comments: dozens of ’em, passionately argued.  Here’s some coverage in the Province, and Global TV followed up a week later.   The Sightline Daily reported in here. And there was also a pre-debate debate on the CBC.

Who won?  As Peter Steinbrueck said, it was really about the merits of two great cities.  But the Vancouver audience thought Peter won, and Seattle voted for my argument – both by a margin.

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June 17, 2009

Last Thursday: best breakfast I’ve had all year.  Reason: the Vancouver Farmers Market society was giving their annual briefing at Heritage Hall.   

It was worth showing up just for the new potatoes.  But also, of course, to hear more about their plans – and they have some big ones.

Farmers market are exploding in popularity all across North America.   In fact, they’re often too popular, rapidly outgrowing the temporary spaces (like the Trout Lake Community Centre parking lot) they’ve been occupying and pushing the boundaries of bylaws that never anticipated the revival of what were once essential facilities (Vancouver had three permanent locations at one time).

So now a coalition of interests are coming together to fund-raise for a new city market building.  Here’s a conceptual rendering by architect Jay Cassels:

They’re even including space for food processing – something more necessary than ever as farmers lose local and affordable places to sell their produce and as the agri-food industry consolidates its operations in ever larger and more remote  facilities.  (Did you see the announcement that Starbucks is dropping its local suppliers of pastries so that it can truck in frozen muffins from Ontario?  So sustainable of you, Starbucks.)

They don’t yet have a site for the proposed market building, but are looking for locations near SkyTrain.  One city staffer thought the EasyPark lot across Terminal from the Main Street/Science World station might be ideal, perhaps something that could be bonused as part of a redevelopment project.

Best of luck to them – and keep those new potatoes coming.

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Every year the SFU City Program presents a speaker in urban design, sponsored by VIA Architecture.  This year, something different.  Given that it’s the firm’s 20th anniversary (some will remember it as Baker, McGarva, Hart) and that they have offices in both Vancouver and Seattle, we came up with an idea to ‘celebrate’ both cities:

The idea, you see, is that two proponents of their respective cities will reverse roles, and argue for the merits of the other’s city.

That means I, as the Vancouverite, have to bump off the arguments of Peter Steinbrueck, an articulate architect and previous city councillor in Seattle, to make the case that his city is actually superior to Vancouver.


It seemed like such a clever idea, until I actually had to think about what I’d say.  So Price Tags readers, how about it: what examples would you put forward to make the case that Seattle in so many ways is a much better town than this village on the edge of the rain forest?

And while you’re at it, you might want to reserve a space for the event on Tuesday, June 16 at 7 pm – SFU Harbour Centre.  Email or call 778-782.5100.

In addition to questions taken from the floor immediately following the debate, attendees will have an opportunity to submit questions in advance through VIA’s website at (click on ‘The Firm’—’VIA Blog’).

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Here’s a study that asks businesses along Bloor Street how they’d feel about losing parking for a bike lane.

The results are not what you’d likely guess:

 … Bloor Annex [in Toronto] is a very busy commercial corridor ….  The survey data shows that most business owners do not believe that the majority of their customers drive to their business. In fact, only 4% of businesses believe that more than 50% of their customers drive to their business, and almost three-quarters of businesses believe that less than 25% of customers drive to their business. Therefore, according to most merchants (71%), any change to the parking situation in the Bloor Annex would affect at most 25% of their customer base.

“On the question of installing a bike lane and removing half the on almost 75% of businesses thought their business would improve or stay the same, while slightly more than 25% thought the change would bring in fewer customers.

“On the question of widening the sidewalk and removing parking, the results were almost the same, with only 25% of merchants believing the change would hurt business. The data shows that more merchants think that bike lanes and wider sidewalks would increase business than decrease it.”

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New York City has closed off five blocks of  Times Square to vehicles.  You can check it out for yourself on this webcam:

It may be a little hard to make out, but there are lawn chairs in the upper left corner, in what were once four lanes of traffic.

You can read the backstory here.  News story on the closure with great pics here.

The Times architecture critic weighs in with a first impression here.

On the other coast, San Francisco is following New York’s lead in reclaiming asphalt for people, as described on Cooltown Studios site.  (Thanks to Scot Bathgate.)

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Fascinating online column (well, I think so) in the New York Times today on Math in the City by Steve Strogatz.  A few samples:

Zipf’s Law: if you tabulate the biggest cities in a given country and rank them according to their populations, the largest city is always about twice as big as the second largest, and three times as big as the third largest, and so on….

The number of gas stations grows only in proportion to the 0.77 power of population. The crucial thing is that 0.77 is less than 1. This implies that the bigger a city is, the fewer gas stations it has per person. Put simply, bigger cities enjoy economies of scale. In this sense, bigger is greener….

The same law is true for living things. That is, if you mentally replace cities by organisms and city size by body weight, the mathematical pattern remains the same…

It appears that Aristotle’s metaphor of a city as a living thing is more than merely poetic. There may be deep laws of collective organization at work here, the same laws for aggregates of people and cells.

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Off to the BC Land Summit in Whistler for a few days.  The subject of our panel (with Deborah Curran and Whistler Mayor Ken Melamed) is “Highway to Where? Transportation Choices & Land Use Consequences” – always a favourite.

I’m focusing on the World of Motordom – the way we’ve been building our urban regions for most of the last century – and the post-Motordom world into which we’re heading. 

More evidence: this weekend, New York City will be closing five blocks of Broadway to motor vehicles through Times Square, and another in Herald Square.

  More here.

It’s all part of the strategy of “Sustainable Streets” inspired by the work and analysis of Copenhagen urban designer Jan Gehl and promoted by NYC’s Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Kahn, with inspired leadership from the Mayor, Michael Bloomberg.

How sincere are they?  Well, they’ve just published a new street design manual that will help accelerate the direction they already taken on some major avenues in the city. 

Reports the NY Times (along with a clever illustration):

The manual, to be released on Wednesday, culminates nearly two years of work involving more than a dozen agencies led by the Department of Transportation.

By offering “a single framework and playbook,” as Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg says in the introduction, the manual promises to simplify the design process and reduce the costs for city agencies, urban planners, developers and community groups.

Urban planners say that the document is long overdue, and that it promises to be as much a map to the future as it is a handbook for the present: getting people to think about streets as not just thoroughfares for cars, but as public spaces incorporating safety, aesthetics, environmental and community concerns.

Who would have thought a few years ago that New York City would be leading us into the post-Motordom world?  Vancouver will have to work hard to catch up.

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Here’s a site, recommended byMichael Geller, that lives up to its name:

It’s “a blog on crowdsourcing places for creatives,” so it self-describes, though I’m not entirely sure what that means.  Lots of good urban stuff, with more than just an American perspective.

Good stuff on New York, too.  I was interested to see that in the above post ,   NYC has seven of the top ten most walkable neighbourhoods in the U.S.

Although I didn’t get a chance to cover it the current issue of Price Tags (the one on Times Square), the City of New York has a ‘plaza program’ that awards eight projects in any of NYC’s five boroughs by funding the redesign and redevelopment of the street into a plaza.

Cooltown posted the results of the competition here:

Fulton Street & Marcy Avenue before and after (proposed).

And here’s piece of asphalt in Brooklyn already transformed:

Toronto Star columnist Christopher Hume reports on the Pearl Street project above in a piece on Janette Sadik-Khan, the New York traffic commissioner who recently visited Toronto.  The secret of her success?

The answer, says Sadik-Khan, is the pilot project.

“People are more willing to change if they know it’s not permanent,” she explains.

“The public needs to see things right away,” she says. “We have the vision in New York and we are able to implement that vision.”

Consider the case of Pearl Street Triangle, which occupies what was previously an asphalted road. The space of the park was painted green, with a “curb” outlined in white. Add a few heavy-duty planters, some tables, chairs and umbrellas and, voila, instant plaza.

It doesn’t take long for people to colonize these new spaces, and to grow attached to them.

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It’s good.  Very, very good.  As a convention centre, it might even be great, operationally.  As architecture, though, it isn’t. 

It’s certainly not iconic – the presumed test for design these days – and it won’t compete with the sails on the existing structure.  But then, why should it?  The  new Vancouver Convention Centre is essentially a huge box skilfully integrated into the city – and that’s what makes it so good.

From Coal Harbour it reads as a set of angled planes and prows, like a marina of cruisers bobbing in the wake of a passing freighter.  And if that’s too cute, settle for the effect of the landscaping.  The gentle rise of Coal Harbour Green is carried up to Burrard Street, without a single blank wall in sight.

And that’s extraordinary if you compare this mass to other similarly-sized facilities.  When you’re building a million square feet of display space, ballrooms and meeting places, blank walls are hard to avoid.   Unlike most convention centres, too, this one has to work at three or four different levels, stacked on top of each other.  And it pulls it off.

Of course, there’s the view.

This will give convention planners some tough competition: their programming will have to be sufficiently enticing to keep the delegates in their blank-walled rooms.  But the centre goes further when it reflects the city back:

And allows the city in:

The stacking effect also creates dynamism within the vast interior spaces:

And the wood-lined foyers add warmth and texture:

On the outside, the green roof makes a sincere commitment to sustainability, in size alone:

The angled walkways suggest the lay-out of Seattle’s Olympic Sculpture Park (compare here).  In fact, a lot more art would be in order, both inside and out. 

There’s no doubt the extension of the seawall will be a great success – but will the plaza between the two main elements of the complex work as well?

It looks as though it’s designed for to accommodate crowds, but it doesn’t have the sense of enclosure that a great public space needs.   Still, another place to hang out, so long as they serve good coffee.

Naturally I have to say something about the way the centre has accommodated cycling, and there’s no doubt it has made an effort:

In fact, maybe too much so.  The very wide cycling lane runs between two pedestrian sidewalks which feel slightly squeezed as a result, and will probably result in people walking down the bike lane. 

But I have no doubt the lane will be well used, particularly when the final link of the downtown loop connects Coal Harbour with False Creek and provides a direct connection to Stanley Park.  And any criticism I might have I set aside when I saw this:

As near as I can tell, it’s a bike lay-by, just as cars would have when dropping off passengers.  It connects the cyclists with Burrard Street, and offers them handy parking at the posts in the centre.  I’ve never seen anything like it – and suggests that the designers took cycling seriously.

Is the centre  worth just under a billion dollars?  Unless this place bombs in the current economic climate, I doubt that will be a serious question in the future.  The spin-off effects should be substantial, and from the point of view of urbanism, it maintains Vancouver’s reputation as a place which produces, if not great architecture, then very good urban design.

And in my book, that counts a lot.

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More geometry at Concord Pacific:

People are moving into Coopers Landing, just east of the Cambie Bridge, west of what’s left of the Plaza of Nations.  As usual, the urban design is more interesting than the buildings.  A mid-block path angles through the block:

…connecting a new road near Pacific Boulevard to where people (or, more importantly, their dogs) really want to be – Coopers Park:

The children’s play spaces are immediately accessible along the public paths:

I’ve often wondered how successful these spaces are.  They’re certainly a testament to the idea of creating family-friendly neighbourhoods, but do they really work?  Typically, the kids can be found in the larger parks, not so much in these smaller playgrounds.   The equipment, however, is becoming ever more springy, the surfaces ever more spongy:

I suspect the kids would be happier in a pile of dirt.

On the other side of Coopers, the Plaza of Nations continues to disappear.  Some of the old pavillion buildings have given way to a surface parking lot for the casino:

A temporary use, I presume.   At least the owners seem to have finally recognized the need for a wide, marked and respected bikeway through their site.  It’s taken years.

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