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).
Have to post this for obvious reasons (spoiler alert: Meggs and Price won).
Vancouver allows a lot of wiggle room in its zoning requirements to be able to negotiate trade-offs with developers. That can spawn public amenities, but sometimes public backlash as well. Time to stop this “spot zoning” and nail down a city-wide plan?
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.
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.
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.
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 canshare 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.
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?
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. Assuming these savings are valid, however, this pro-tower argument is persuasive long as this ‘normal’ is the only model available. If models from elsewhere are followed, the condo cost is either not tied to the land cost, or less so – if one uses a bit more imagination and uncouples these things (whether through co-op, land trust, building on city/crown land, the way Whistler built its own housing, right)) then this justification goes away. The model of Vienna (city-as-developer) is a good one here. It will also be interesting to see what comes from the 20 sites the city has made available to the Federal Government’s $$$ to build affordable housing.
Alterlaa, 1976 , the largest Viennese social housing development, with over 3,000 dwellings
Overall, while there might be many good aspects to a well-designed tower, there can also be many negative effects, which are potentially harder to remedy in a tower (green space, social space, health issues occurring on high floors, shadows, solar PV or thermal retrofit, and mechanical systems).
Even with all of the substantial convincing done otherwise, it remains hard not to agree with the ‘Build Fewer Towers’ side. Regardless, the current binary condition does few people much service (save developers, and those collecting CAC’s), and a diversity of housing forms would better accommodate a diverse population with diverse needs.
Based on our ‘normal’ current conditions and trajectory, more towers remain a fait accompli. We ought to be more creative and make that fate a choice, and not the only port in a storm. More towers, sure, but more creativity and choice also.
Oh, and the ‘missing middle’
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.
The notion of density described at last night’s debate was one in which it was simultaneously described as panacea and pariah, the evil promised-land of those young who can’t afford anything else, and those downsizing who don’t want to.
Density was described as something to do ‘over there’ because it’s just as good to live separate but equal lives, preserving single-family land in amber while those undeserving squeeze into boxy ghettos clinging to the sky.
It was described as the nightmare of political weakness – that it is impossible to impose it on to too many people lest they unleash their fangs in unison. It’s an unwanted friend for fashionable political parties. In this case it’s better to tiptoe into the suburban hereafter, and not ask for too much, not be too uppity. Unlike voting rights, or civil rights, housing is a right in which to be happy when a little group can have a lot, and a lot can have a little.
In nature, there are no monocultures; there are ecosystems. Anything appearing different in a monoculture might seem at superficial glance to be a weed, when it’s actually providing the needed genetic diversity to keep the whole population healthy. Vancouver has a plantation’s worth of single-family houses, and a corresponding number of plantation massa’s who increasingly know how to say NO.
Who will be the brave soul who realizes the inevitability of infrastructural evolution, and starts becoming open to saying YES to MORE?
A lot of PT readers were in the audience. Add your comments below, and we’ll pull out those deserving extra attention as separate posts.
Some of you may remember the architectural survey we all voted on many months ago (Urbanarm, June 22, 2014). One of Ole’s buildings was featured in that – and worried many of us. Yet, because it seems we will have to contemplate a number of alternative ways of accommodating ever-rising densities, we must engage with Ole’s arguments. His narrative is a wonderfully intellectual exercise that you will all “enjoy”.
It is a discussion that our community must have.
There is a proposed Scheeren building for 1500 West Georgia – the so-called ‘Jenga’ tower:
And here’s a Price Tags post of Ray Spaxman’s reaction to the building back in June: “Vitruvius on West Georgia” – with lots of comments, suggesting both that this tower will be part of the debate in February, accompanied by lots more reaction, only this time with a vote on the larger proposition.
One of the trickiest things to watch out for if you are in charge of approving development in a city, is precedent.
It seems fair, don’t you agree, that if you approve a form of development for one person you would want to let another person in similar circumstances have the same right to that form of development? One of the reasons we have zoning bylaws and development guidelines is to let everyone know what the community believes is a fair way to guide change in the city. A Zoning Bylaw that is clear and fairly implemented helps to provide reliability and confidence about what might happen in your neighbourhood. It also helps to provide certainty and confidence to those who serve our communities by developing the buildings that accommodate growth and change. (I wanted to describe developers as I see them.)
So every time you approve something that is a change from what has previously been approvable through existing regulations you might be setting a precedent. You will want to be careful to ensure that it is not a form of development that you would want to proliferate around the city.
An historic example of this that is worth reminding ourselves about is billboards. During the 60’s and 70’s as billboards began to appear, they became a sort of precedent and eventually grew in such numbers that they became a blight on the city. So much so that the community sought improved control over them. Our first major sign bylaw was produced in the 70’s and, with numerous upgrades has served us pretty well.
I note that City Council is planning a major overhaul of the bylaw and one hopes they will take urban design into account as well as the dollars that might accrue to various parties. Part of the sign bylaw controls the type of signs that are permitted on tall buildings. This is because the community said it did not want the downtown and other high rise areas to become a sea of flashing advertising signs competing to be bigger, brighter and more sparkling than their neighbours.
You may recall my Feb 8th piece about the proposed Telus sign: “A suspended, back-projected billboard hanging 200 feet up on the west facade of the new Telus building. It will provide us all with lovely coloured light displays of art, community programming and Telus marketing.” Just what we need to provide us with improved liveability and citizen “engagement”’
I sincerely hope that this will not become another precedent-setting proposal from Telus. They succeeded in their first one (or two) of getting approval from City Hall to build out over the Seymour and Richard Street right of ways. The building is emerging as an interesting and competent piece of architecture. Notice how much larger in scale and visually imposing it is than anything else Downtown. You can see how Telus may be proud of its new head office. It has a feeling of grandeur and expansiveness about it (especially across the flanking streets!) that invokes the idea that it is probably the most important building downtown. Its principal occupants must be very important to the community to affect this level of grandeur.
We want some buildings to stand out where they warrant special forms of development and perhaps a special zoning. We want to acknowledge and celebrate some buildings for their significance in our community. Public buildings like City Hall, our Civic Art Gallery, our Museum, our main Concert Hall and so on. ( Dare I say our urbanarium?) Today, as you move around the city, wonder about how we are expressing our most important buildings and places. City’s that have a rich “sense of place” are those which have been able to order the form of the city to express the things they are proudest of, the things they admire most. This is another area where urban design can reinforce our connection to community.