Design & Development
March 4, 2021

Urbanarium Studio: Innovation for Public Washrooms – Mar 10

What do public washroom facilities look like in just, green and thoughtful cities?

Access to public washrooms is a basic need. Yet, they haven’t received the attention they deserve in our communities. 

We hope to go beyond standard public washroom structures, and consider innovative designs that are beautiful, functional, safe and accessible. We will consider whether these facilities can serve broader community and cultural needs, and respond to wider societal concerns by incorporating green systems, new technology and non-defensive design features.

Register soon because space is limited.

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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

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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.)

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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

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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).

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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.


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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.

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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.

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