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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September 7, 2006

Okay, TransLink, get on the phone immediately to Google – (650) 253-0000 – and ask to be the next partner for Google Transit.
What’s that? Go here.
TriMet, the Portland Oregon transit agency, has become the first (and so far only) agency to integrate Google Maps with their schedules. So you can now get instructions on how to get from A to B, map included, anywhere they go. So cool.

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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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