Design & Development
November 7, 2019

Urbanarium: A dialogue on Vancouver’s public spaces – Nov 21

How do we improve the delivery of extraordinary public spaces in Vancouver? In what way can we approach the study of public life? How do we ensure inclusive placemaking?

With the City of Vancouver’s recent release of the Gehl Report on Public Space and Public in Downtown Vancouver and the upcoming Downtown Public Space Strategy (as part of Places for People Downtown) due in early 2020, the Urbanarium has invited a panel of urban planners and equity specialists to explore issues and opportunities around Vancouver’s public life including considerations for initiatives such as VIVA Vancouver and the soon to be launched Vancouver Plan.

Jay Pitter, author and placemaker whose practice mitigates growing divides in urban centres.

John Bela, Gehl Studio

Kelty McKinnon, Director / Principal, PFS Studio, Adjunct Professor, UBC

Derek Lee, Moderator

Thursday, November 21

6:30 to 8:30 pm

Robson Square

Register here

Read more »

Michael Alexander sends highlights from the recent Urbanarium discussion, provocatively titled “The Single-Family Zone Is Dead. What Next?”


Planner/developer Michael Mortensen gave every audience member a T4 tax receipt with their “income” shown – in proportion to income levels in Metro B.C.

He had the audience stand and, as he read off each income from low to high, those people sat down. At $200,000, the remaining few left standing represented the fewer than eight percent of Vancouverites who could qualify for a single-family home purchase, if they spent 40% of their gross household income on shelter.

If your gross income is $85,000 a year, you can afford a home costing $647,619. A typical Vancouver single family house costs $1.3 million. Double your income, and you’re still priced out.

Coquitlam Mayor Richard Stewart, member and past Chair of Metro Vancouver’s Regional Planning Committee, worrisomely noted that while the metro region has an urban containment boundary, “many new councillors haven’t bought in” to the concept. He said that councillors in neighbouring Port Moody recently disapproved a 400-unit townhouse project next to a transit station. 

(Port Moody isn’t alone. The District of West Vancouver voted down, 5-2, affordable housing and a senior daycare centre on city-owned land, and essentially gave the planning decision back to the land’s neighbours.)

Read more »

From The Urbanarium

Two years ago, Urbanarium hosted Gil Kelley’s first public lecture as Vancouver’s new Chief Planner.

Building on that conversation, Urbanarium in partnership with the City of Vancouver, is convening an unprecedented dialogue between the top planners of four major West Coast cities.

Join us at the Vancouver Playhouse on September 20th for this exciting conversation on challenges, big moves, and new directions facing our cities and communities.

5.30pm Doors Open/Check-in
5.30 – 6.30pm Networking and No Host Bar
6.30 – 8.00pm Talk and Q+A
8.00 – 9.00pm Reception

Organized by:

Get Tickets

Read more »

Michael Alexander wrote down observations from our new city planner, Gil Kelley, at his Urbanarium intro talk:

  • Where do we want to go?
  • Strong, detailed incremental planning.
  • Area plans— what were best practices?
  • Planning has shrunk. We need to be leaders, not just regulators.
  • There has been a collective layering of bylaw accumulation. Consolidate and clarify.
  • There’s a generational divide over density, lifestyle, cars.
  • Don’t rehash CityPlan, but figure out how to knit together what we have.
  • CAC’s are great. We need to do best allocation, and insure public understanding.
  • A renewable city strategy, to come.
  • We’re getting better architecture after a period of sameness. More inventive.
  • Focus on the ground plane and the space between buildings.
  • The City needs better cooperation with Translink and Metro Vancouver. Regional compacts.
  • How are we addressing our housing needs? The ‘missing middle.’
  • We need to expand our downtown core planning.
  • Waterfront hub! The embarrassment of Granville Street ending into a parkade.
  • More diverse and regional job base.
  • Importance of the Broadway Corridor and transit to UBC.
  • The opportunity of the Jericho Lands.
  • Impact of the Millennium Line extension and development.
  • Main Street: keeping its moderate scale
  • Seismic retrofit for a renewable city
  • Regulatory review and budgeting
  • Public engagement: what works? Tours.
  • Feedback loops for planning and engagement

A long list, not in any particular order. He did emphasize the waterfront, and I was struck by his comments on regional cooperation.
He noted that he worked in Portland, which has very tight regional planning and decision making, and the San Francisco Bay Area, which is fragmented (105 municipalities; 26 transit agencies, multiple water, power, waste collection and disposal).

Read more »


In late 2015, the Surgeon General of the United States issued a national call to action asking every person to walk 150 minutes a week, or roughly 20 minutes a day. We know the reasons why-walking every day decreases your likelihood of getting over 41 diseases, and every walk boosts your immune system for 24 hours. And you can get fit.

And here is the thing-our walkable cities, towns, places and spaces need help to make walking comfortable, convenient, interesting and fun. That is the reason that Walk Metro Vancouver  was formed following the Walk21 Vancouver 2011  conference.

The  free webinar  sponsored by the Centre for Disease Control is on the America Walks site on May 12. It features the stories of two people that received micro grants to make their places more walkable, as well as the story of one of the towns deemed the most walkable in the USA.  This could provide inspiration on what you can do in your neighbourhood to increase and enhance visual interest, comfort and walkability.


Read more »

Does Vancouver need a city-wide plan?

That was the topic of an an Oxford-style debate hosted by hosted by the Urbanarium society in partnership with UBC’s School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture at Robson Square on April 13.  UBC prof Patrick Condon and Councillor Andrienne Carr were arguing the pro side; Councillor Geoff Meggs and I, Gord Price, took the con argument.  While the majority of the audience voted for the pro side, Geoff and I were able to convince more people to shift their opinion – and hence won the debate.

The only coverage I’ve found was in The Tyee – “To Plan or Not to Plan? That’s Vancouver’s Question” by Christopher Cheung.  So for the record, here are my notes, some of which I actually followed.



What is meant by ‘plan’? If you mean a strategic plan, with broad goals and objectives, okay, we already have them in abundance.  In this case we don’t need a planner, we need an editor.

But if a plan is to provide certainty– so you can tell exactly what can be built on a site, with defined uses, density, heights, setbacks, etc. – you mean a Zoning and Development bylaw.  Which we already have.

Then the question is: do we undertake a city-wide planning process to, at one time, determine all those factors for every neighbourhood in the city to accommodate growth and change for the next 15 to 30 years?  That is an unrealistic, and even pointless, exercise.


If a city-wide plan is meant to override local objections in the name of a greater city-wide good and to represent the people not in the room (those who will be born or move here in the future), it would unite neighbourhoods against it – because it implies the people currently in the community are not the best ones to determine the future of their neighbourhood.


It will also take years to achieve the level of consultation that a neighbourhood plan undergoes.  See Grandview.  And the cost would be staggering.  If no significant new development is meant to be approved during that time, the consequences on the economy would be severe.

If the ultimate plan is meant to avoid spot rezonings, that would require a city-wide upzoning that would unleash development everywhere, unless some neighbourhoods would be frozen at existing levels.  And how would that be fair?  Planning would become an all-or-nothing exercise: all neighbourhoods get rezoned, or none.


The political capital to be spent is high, and the return on the investment likely to be low.

City Hall never goes into a neighbourhood and says ‘we’re here to change the character of your community.’  The outcome, then, is more likely to be an iteration of the status quo.  Which leaves the original intent of the plan unaddressed.

Even if the plan undertook to accommodate the needs of those not present – not born, not moved here, those who wouldn’t participate in the process – they would want consultation when development appears, and effectively another plan appropriate to their time and circumstances.  The plan would have a very limited shelf life.


If the desire is to have a plan that unites strategic plans with detailed zoning and development, we can take what we already have and put in the format of an OCP.  But that’s not planning, that’s editing.

We have evolved a form of community-based planning appropriate to our time and circumstances, capable of accommodating change incrementally.   It may not be city-wide, it may not even by some definitions be a plan.

But it’s ours and it works.

Read more »

by Michael Mortensen, MA MCIP, RPP – a Vancouver Developer & Planner Abroad |

From afar in London UK I’ve watched with great interest the evolution of Vancouver’s nascent Urbanarium, both online and in it’s physical venue at the Museum of Vancouver. It’s been the longtime vision of many people including, most notably, former City of Vancouver Director of Planning Ray Spaxman.
I am planning to move back this year to work on the unfolding story of Vancouver and its Region, so it’s great to see the level of interest in the Urbanarium take off as it has with the latest series of debates. My only regret is that I can’t be there quite yet!

. London’s Urbanarium at the NLA

What I can share from here is a bit about London’s Urbanarium, which is curated by an organization called New London Architecture at “The Building Centre” at 26 Store Street, London WC1E 7BT. It is well worth the visit if you are ever over this side of the Atlantic.


Some stats on the NLA’s scale model:

  • 1:2000 scale model, meticulously 3D printed in a series of panels
  • 12.5 metres-long and covers 85 square kilometres (19 of London’s 32 Boroughs)
  • contains 170,000 buildings
  • 34km of the Thames River
  • stretches from King’s Cross in the north to Peckham in the south and the Royal Docks in the east to Old Oak Common in the west.

The model and related displays are very informative. A computer projector beams information onto the model, covering a variety of themes. All around is exhibition space with a regularly changing series of displays.

. The New London Architecture Program

From this base, New London Architecture runs a full time program of lectures, workshops and exhibitions on the evolution of Greater London. The NLA also hosts a variety of urban interest groups, and the space is often rented out by design and development firms for various meetings which must help them cover costs.

. NLA 100 New Ideas for Housing Competition

As an example of a recent event that may be of interest to Vancouverites, the NLA hosted “1oo New Ideas for Housing” focusing on the supply and affordability of housing in the UK’s massively under-supplied primate city. Each of the 100 ideas is captured in the linked document. Many are incremental and iterative – additions to existing  buildings for example. Others would bring new scale and intensity to the City.
Supply is a big problem in the UK – and as I have mentioned before, little Vancouver builds more units every year than London does.


Best regards from London.

The first post from Michael, who will be guest editor this week.

Read more »

Ian Robertson and James Bligh both attended the second of the Urbanarium debates – “Be it resolved that we should build fewer towers” – and combined forces to write this analysis:

Towers win – but do we?


It was a very close race the whole time, with the vote splitting 51 to 49 percent in favour of building fewer towers and ending at 52 to 48 percent in favour of building more towers. (With a number of ‘extra’ votes at the end.  Some people didn’t seem to do their Oxfordian duty and vote twice. For shame on all your houses!)
The affirmative side accepted that towers will be built, and even should be built, but that there are other things that should be built also – the ‘Missing Middle’ referred to in Brent Toderian’s debate in the Urbanarium Density debate.
The negative side based their argument on the economics of towers, and that with ‘silly’ land prices, towers are the only viable option. Further, since some midrise is built with vinyl siding, so all will be – so it’s best avoided altogether. Surprisingly absent from the debate was the correlation of building typology to land speculation, or of any mention of the poor/refugees/disabled.
An interesting point was raised by an audience member, who asked whether or not some of the collateral damage involved with building towers (gentrification, shadows, social exclusivity, etc.) could be solved by design. If our towers are “gated communities that prevent social diversity”, can we alter the way they work to make them more inclusive?
Poor Doors and Mixed Communities
Is there a way to avoid the ‘Poor Door’ which is increasingly inherent to condo towers (Main and 2nd being one, with segregated facilities and entrances)?  The argument that they aren’t gated communities falls flat when 20 percent of the tower’s residents cannot access the amenities and community features of the tower. As has been argued by some on this blog, there is not a clean and easy way for renters to pay amenity fees; therefore they would be free riders on a building’s amenities. Is it possible to address this split, to figure out how to allow the rental side to ‘pay’ for the amenity (given that they do pay rent), or get over the fact that they don’t, and enjoy the ‘good’ of having a mixed community override the ‘fairness’ of only having those who pay accessing facilities.
The ‘Poor Door’ is but one example. Ignoring code constraints for a moment, what if some walls of each condo were glazed in such a way as to give you the opportunity to interact with your neighbour(s), if you so chose? What if each floor of market condo required at least one unit of rental, live-work, low-income and/or public housing? Would this breed social solidarity?
Green Space

What if each floor needed direct access to common and/or green space? Are there new forms of tower that might save us? This question can be levied against low-rise as well (as there are certainly anti-social short buildings too).


However, typically low-rise designs have been more likely to experiment with their formulae, and, especially in North America, highrises have not. (Ken Yeang’s towers, some from Norman Foster, the green tower by Stefano Boeri (Habitat, left above), and Ole Scheeren’s recent Singapore ‘landscraper’ (Interlace, above) are all good examples of different thinking).


The ‘pro-tower’ side further based its argument in the current ‘normal’ by which a developer buys/assembles land, has to rezone, pays CACs, builds a tower, and sells it to whomever can/wants to buy. The stated benefit of this is that the ‘extra’ paid for high-level units allows the creation of much cheaper units below, unlike midrise where all units are almost the same cost vertically (so neither premium nor cheap). This presumes that the developer chooses to price some units ‘affordably’, but as there is no requirement specifically to do so (except for the percentage of ‘affordable’ housing they are sometimes required to build) there is no guarantee that this will manifest. Is legislation then the answer?
If these savings don’t manifest, much of the pro-tower’s argument goes out the window.

Read more »
May Brown, Marguerite Ford and Darlene Marzari were all councillors on the TEAM councils of the 1970s – maybe the best we’ve ever had.  So when they decide to write a letter to The Sun, pay attention: .
New city planner needs new city plan There seems to be a growing concern about city council’s quest to hire a new planner. As former city councillors we would add our voices to a gathering consensus that a new city plan might help us manage and set targets for growth, regulate where it occurs as well as retain affordable housing.
The recent spate of spot zonings that now dot the city, fuelled by money from zoning “uplifts” and the resultant tower mentality have undermined trust in the land use process, threatened neighbourhoods and favoured large developments over smaller more livable projects.
The last city plan was developed in 1994. It has been a template for what has come to be lauded as “Vancouverism” even though it never included a citywide land use map (a feature common to all official community plans produced by the other 20 member communities of the Vancouver Metro planning area).
This deficiency can and should be redressed now with an updated and more explicit city plan. The Green Plan for Vancouver is admirable, but it cannot replace the city’s major contract with its citizens: an explicit zoning bylaw, including a zoning map that would be the embodiment of our collective future hopes for our city rather than a record of all our spot zone exceptions. A new plan, developed inclusively and operated transparently, is achievable. We hope that the new city planner will be hired with this in mind.


This puts in four paragraphs the substance of the Urbanarium debate (of which I will be part) scheduled for April 13 on whether there should be a plan for the City of Vancouver, rather like the Official Community Plans (OCPs) in other municipalities
So to generate some pre-comment, here’s a question I have:  In order to accommodate the regional growth target for the City of Vancouver of about 160,000 people in 35 years (and the population growth won’t stop then), should the city be generally upzoned so that decades of growth can be accommodated without having to do spot rezoning (thereby diminishing, if not eliminating, the need for Community Amenity Contributions)?
In theory, everyone would know what they were going to get in the future, especially the increase housing stock, even if the look, scale and population increase of their neighbourhood wasn’t what they’d want today.
Remember, if this plan, unlike the 1994-5 CityPlan, was really like an OCP, it would not just be policy intentions (“retain affordable housing”); it would “regulate (where) growth occurs.” There’s a lot of power in that word ‘regulate:’ land and property values (and hence taxes), development opportunities and building permits, infrastructure and amenity capital plans, and much more all follow – all decided directly or indirectly in one document, passed at one time.
But to get back to the question: Is upzoning, broadly applied and enforced across the city, necessary to achieve what the three writers want?
There’s something chewy for you. Read more »