Design & Development
October 2, 2020

Urban Design (Still) Matters

 

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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