There’s a provcative critique of Vancouver’s downtown architecture by Robert A.M. Stern in the Sun today. (Here for subscribers.)

“I think there are too many glass towers in Vancouver,” says Stern.
“That’s one reason they all look alike, there’s nothing to write on, so to speak. So you get funny little hats on these buildings, and sometimes you get strange balconies. There are more triangular balconies in Vancouver than anyplace else I’ve ever been. I wonder if they’re storing arrowheads on these balconies.”

I have to agree with him on this. Every generation produces its version of the Vancouver Special (highrise edition), and this one has built a lot of ’em. (115 on the downtown peninsula since 1986, excluding the West End).

“They try to look different, but somehow they all look exactly alike. So I think there’s a kind of boring uniformity. None of them are really bad, they’re not ugly, but [there are] too many identical things.”

We achieve, as I’ve said before, a very high level of mediocrity. Our urban planning is, fortunately, superior to our architecture. In that respect, I don’t agree with Stern:

… [Georgia] is so pedestrian unfriendly and uninviting,” he says.
“It could have been done, should have been done in a very different way. Could have had the high buildings, but should have had more street texture below.
“And no retail. Those people don’t eat,” he chuckles, “they make reservations.”

This suggests Stern has been doing too much drive-by analysis, without understanding the specific reasons why, in this case, we kept the view corridors open at the ground plane on the north side of Georgia (to see the park and mountains), and created ‘green courts’ on the south side. Georgia has its own guidelines, so that unlike most other downtown streets (which have that mix of low- and highrise forms) it retains its special character as a ceremonial boulevard.
Stern is certainly not the only one to feel that Vancouver, while admirable in many respects, lacks signature buildings, or that our planning processes constrain if not prevent great architecture outside the mold the planners have prescribed.
PT reader Timothy Thomas asks:

With all our progressive public policy, why don’t we have more progressive public architecture? … it does seem that we should have more imaginative buildings than we do. Are we underachievers in building fascinating new architecture? Do we discourage aesthetic innovation, preferring architectural comfort food?

Do we?

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Alan Ehrenhalt, the Executive Editor of Governing Magazine made a special visit to Vancouver this spring to witness the city’s condo boom firsthand.  This widely-respected monthly targets state and local government officials in the U.S., and has a readership of 275,000. 
You can read the cover story here.  And if nothing else, check out the photo essay: A Downtown Dilemma.
 

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A new Price Tags has just been published.  PT 88 compares two downtown intersections in emerging neighbourhoods – Downtown South and Triangle West – and looks for the common elements that transform a street corner into a crossroads.
Here’s one of the corners: Davie and Richards, with an overhead view of Emery Barnes Park (by Paul Lafontaine.)

You can download the issue from my web site – www.pricetags.ca – or do so directly by clicking here.
I welcome your responses – and responses to the responses.  Just click on Comments at the end of this post.
If you’d like to receive notification of the latest Price Tags by e-mail, send a request to pricetags@shaw.ca

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California has done it again.

The Governor and Legislature, though from opposing political parties, have agreed to a plan that aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2020. Not quite Kyoto, but nonetheless precedent-setting for the largest emitter in the U.S. and the world’s eighth-largest economy.

Even business leaders agree that the plan may actually aid the California economy. Venture-capitalist John Doerr on National Public Radio: “Entrepreneurs see significant opportunities to both do good and do well by innovating, by competing for new green technologies. All they want is for someone to set the rules, and they’ll go out and compete like crazy.”

The state will set up a cap-and-trade system. Companies that reduce emissions faster can sell their rights to others. And the caps will get tighter over time.

So once again, California leads the way – as it did when it first tackled air pollution back in 1947. (You can find that history here on the Cailfornia Air Resources Board website, along with a video that shows how bad the smog was in the ‘gas attack’ of 1943.)

In an article in the current Atlantic magazine, “Some Convenient Truths,” Gregg Easterbrook makes a critical point: “Action to prevent runaway global warming may prove cheap, practical, effective, and totally consistent with economic growth.” In fact, there’s hardly been an air-quality problem – smog, acid rain, ozone depletion – that hasn’t been solved faster and cheaper than anyone expected … once we decided to tackle it. The problem with climate change is, we haven’t decided to seriously deal with it.

Premier Campbell has as one of his Five Great Goals a commitment to “Lead the world in sustainable environmental management, with the best air and water quality, and the best fisheries management, bar none.”

But where’s the commitment to deal with greenhouse gases? The evidence accumulates that climate change will dramatically affect the province (arguably it already has, as manifested by the outbreak of mountain pine beetle). Yet the province commits itself to capital projects that will only take us in the opposite direction, whether through coal gasification or the Gateway Project. The latter, in particular, assumes our transportation system in the eastern part of the region will be wholy dominated by cars and trucks, and the land use will reflect that dependence. It is, as BEST’s Richard Campbell observed, “yesterday’s solutions at tomorrow’s prices.”

While California acts, we as a province and nation delay. The failure to set realistic goals to reduce greenhouse gases, to establish the rules, to set up the trading mechanisms, means we will be less competitive and more vulnerable.

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In a comment to “Car-less in Vancouver,” Seattle reader Patrick McGrath asks:

Are societal ills like those mentioned in the Sun articles (here and here) part of your calculus when you teach about increased density, nonmotorized transport, etc? If so, how do you address the intersection of your work with those issues?

A tough question, and one I’ve struggled with over the years, both as a writer and politician. Given the recent headlines and letters in the local papers, the subject of street disorder is one a lot of Vancouverites are struggling with today. In Alan Durning’s comments referenced in the previous post, he notes that the city’s mayor Sam Sullivan “sees the scourge of petty crime, drug dealing, and aggressive panhandling as a first-order threat to Vancouver’s urban renaissance.”
So let me add some perspective.

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Barrie is the driving force behind the Sculpture Biennale detailed in Price Tags 86 – http://pricetags.ca/pricetags/pricetags86.pdf (Click and take the tour.)
He’s just back from Northern Europe, with an interesting observation on Vancouver:

Just returned from Scandinavia, Baltics and Russia.  Very impressed and surprised at how beautiful Stockholm, Helsinki, St Petersburg, Tallinn, Riga, etc are.  Amazing parks, waterways, walking and bike paths.
What I discovered most is much what you have said in Price Tags 87.  Vancouver has nowhere for people to gather and ‘party’ or ‘protest’.  WE have no inner-city squares where people walk through or can congregate … probabaly afraid they will become gathering places for the unwashed, etc. Hence our parks are primarily along the water’s edge, on the edge of the city.  No room for congregating … only passing by!

I wonder if the design to design-out public-squares like you find in every European and South American Capital was intentional !
It would be nice in the newer areas of the city that are being developed to create public parks/squares and to build amenities and living accommodation around them so that people have to criss-cross through them to get from a to b and in better weather actually congregate … ike Place des Vosges in Paris, the park in Riga between the Embassy district and old town, or the large plazas in reconstructed Vilnius.

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August 17, 2006

Great vacation time in Montreal and Vermont. 
For a perspective on public spaces in Montreal, check out the latest Price Tags – Issue 87 – which you can download on my web site (www.pricetags.ca) or click directly from here:
http://pricetags.ca/pricetags/pricetags87.pdf
Usually I have to wait for the next issue of PT to provide feedback.  Now I can do it on this blog.
As you’ll see, I wrote some positive comments about Parc Emilie-Gamelin (also known as Place Berri) based on the activity I saw there. 


Here’s another perspective from PT reader Dan Freeman:

I’m afraid I’m going to have to disagree with your laudatory description of Place Berri in downtown Montreal (Jan Gehl’s book “New City Spaces” makes the same mistake, in my opinion)

While it has some strengths, it is a problematic public space. Based on my experience/observation of this square (most recently in July) it has far too much unprogrammed open space. There are no activities, cafes or vendors here that could draw people to this space in the heart of the city. There is also very limited comfortable and practical seating. Not enough is in the shade, and there isn’t much that would encourage conversations between people – just the usual benches and ledges around some of the edges.
As a result, most of the space is largely empty (except for the odd skateboarders in the blank plaza), and its edges are usually populated by the city’s homeless population who set up camp in the shade and sleep/lounge throughout the day. While they are certainly as entitled to using public space as all other citizens (and in fact the homeless likely depend on it more than most), their overwhelming presence discourages many others who live/work/study downtown from hanging out there. We need to create public spaces which are inclusive and provide places for multiple communities to feel comfortable on a daily basis.
I won’t deny that Place Berri is a fantastic place for public events/concerts/gatherings/protests. It most definitely is. And Vancouver desperately needs such a space. My (exceptionally controversial) suggestion: rebuild much of Robson Square to create a public plaza across the street from the VAG. Don’t tell the architects though, they LOVE this Erickson work, ignoring its failings as a piece of the urban infrastructure.
But I digress. The problem with Place Berri is that it fails ‘the rest of the time’. Public spaces should be designed and programmed for major events, but need to work first and foremost as great every day places.
Thanks once again for the amazing photos and ideas you share through PriceTags. It’s truly an exceptionally generous contribution to the city’s urban dialogue.

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