Architecture
November 13, 2013

How Vancouver could be Forded over

Forget the crack.  And the thuggery. And the drunken stupors.

The Mayor of Toronto, according to one poll, still has a 44 percent approval rating.  Some think he could get re-elected.

How can that be?  Is it his personal charm?  All those return telephone calls to citizens with complaints.

Or is it, as some commentators affirm, the anger of the suburban base for what they perceive as the contempt of the “downtown elites” and a wasteful City Hall – and for whom Rod Ford is their avenging angel?  Is Toronto politics really just a consequence of the amalgamation of the mega-city by a conservative provincial government which perfectly understood that an ideologically divided region would rebound to their benefit.  They probably never expected a Rob Ford (Mel Lastman was more their style), but Ford’s personal antics are secondary to the value of a suburban-dominated Toronto.

Could something similar happen in Vancouver?

In particular, is the transit referendum a chance for the suburbs to express their frustration and contempt for the City of Vancouver – its greenies, its bike lanes, its grab of regional resources – while they get stuck in traffic in order to find more affordable housing from which they are priced out in the city?

Isn’t that what the ‘White Rock Friend’ was expressing in “What the ‘Yes’ side is up against …“?

If the provincial government can’t amalgamate us, they can least use the suburban voter base to limit the taxes that are seen to disproportionately benefit of the core by requiring region-wide votes.  And yes, of course transit benefits the region as a whole, of course the city and suburbs are co-dependent.  But isn’t that true in Toronto as well?  While we may not get a Ford running the City, we’ll get the consequences of the divide.

There’s another way in which Vancouver could get Forded: in the transformation of our image.  The world sees us as, well, nice.  We’re a stable and fortunate and beautiful place on the planet, not very exciting, but admirable, diverse and desirable.  The Vancouver region, in particular, is seen as a place that ‘mostly got it right.’ The City has, in urban circles, been credited with “Vancouverism” – the way we have accommodated to a constrained environment, how we’ve learned to live with limits and without freeways, with aspirations to be the greenest city in the world.  Just as Toronto was seen as ‘New York run by the Swiss.”

Then came Rob Ford and “I smoked crack in a drunken stupor.”   Toronto will never be seen the same.

Perhaps Vancouver will go through a similar, if not as extreme, re-evaluation.  That green halo in our case could get not just tarnished but burned to a crisp.

We’re on the verge of the biggest expansion of carbon-transfer infrastructure in our history.  Let’s say we expand those coal terminals on Burrard Inlet and, especially, on the Fraser River – taking the thermal coal from Wyoming that the Pacific Northwest states have rejected.  Let’s say we approve those pipelines. Or we transfer bitumen by rail.  And build one, two, three or more LNG plants on our coast, amping up the number of tankers by the dozens that flow through our dangerous waters.

Then, here in the region, we defeat transit expansion.  We open up the Agricultural Land Reserve. We build a ten-lane bridge to sprawl onto our wetlands and lowlands.  Even the First Nations pave over part of a continental flyway for a car-dependent shopping mall.  Realtors take out options on farmlands and then erect tilt-up warehouses, as the port expands its operations on the farmland it purchases.  And to top it off: no more of those damn bike lanes.

What of our image then – and our sense of our self as the world discovers that we’re not who they thought we were?

That we’ve become the environmental equivalent of Rob Ford.

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Well, that didn’t take long.

Just over a month ago – in a post titled How Motordom Works: Promoting the Next Big Project – I predicted that the next stage of Motordom (the commitment to car-dependent urban planning and transportation) would be the construction of another multi-billion-dollar bridge over the Fraser at No. 8 Road, connecting to Boundary Road.

However, when the Premier announced the go-ahead of the Massey Bridge, she ruled out such an alternative structure.  My comment: Motordom doesn’t give up easily.

Less than a fortnight later, from the Georgia Straight:

Delta’s real-estate market could be set to boom

With a new bridge, Delta could be the next prime real-estate location, says an industry analyst. …

Delta realtor Dean Bauck’s credentials include a diploma in urban land economics. Because of his interest in urban planning, he’s a little disappointed about the decision to build only one bridge.

Bauck explained that this measure will just pour more traffic toward Vancouver’s Oak Street Bridge.

He said he would have preferred dispersing the stream. This would involve twinning the Alex Fraser Bridge and building two new bridges connecting Richmond to Vancouver. One of these would go to Boundary Road, a thoroughfare shared by Vancouver and Burnaby; the other would connect to Main Street in Vancouver.

According to Bauck, shorter commute times translate to savings in gas, time, and opportunity costs. As a result, potential buyers will be prepared to pay more for houses in Delta.

At least they’re upfront about it.  Clearly, it’s fair to say that the regional vision is under threat.

Since the 1950s there have been four elements to every plan collectively agreed on by the local leaders of Metro Vancouver and its predecessors:

  • A compact region
  • ‘Complete’ communities (or town centres)
  • More transportation choices (particularly rapid transit)
  • The green zone (largely the ALR, or Agricultural Land Reserve)

Sustainability, both environmental and economic, has subsequently been added.

Each of these foundations could well crumble in the next few years.

  • The ALR is under review.
  • The transit referendum is likely to put transit expansion at risk.
  • With the announcement of the Massey Bridge, there is a further commitment to massive road infrastructure, resulting in more vehicle-dependence of the fast-growing parts of the region – with more to come (see above) – and the extension of post-war-style sprawl (see Tsawwassen Mills).
  • Sustainability is being replaced with a ‘carbon-transmission’ economic strategy – oil, coal, bitumen and LNG – accompanied by a de-facto  abandonment of goals for greenhouse-gas reductions.

If it all happens, the regional plan is irrelevant and the vision is as good as dead.

This is potentially as dramatic a turning point for Metro Vancouver as any in its history – greater, indeed, than the freeway fight.  And if the worst unfolds, this generation would be responsible for losing the greatest legacy of the previous generation of local leaders: one hopeful place on the planet where foresight and planning had seemed to make a difference.

The fight to save that vision, however, is just beginning.

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Tom Durning passed on this piece in The Guardian: High-rise living is the only way to protect the green belt – part of the debate in the U.K. on how to provide housing while avoiding development in their geen zone.

This jumped out:

Here in the UK, apartments or flats – especially in high-rise developments – have never been a tenure of aspiration. They are either synonymous with poverty, as many council or housing association properties remain in the high-rise brutalist housing estates of the late 1960s and 1970s, or they are a luxury that remains out of reach to anyone who can be meaningfully labelled as middle class. Apartments near the top of the Shard, with breathtaking views across London, are selling for £50m. Less than a mile away in south London, former council flats in tower developments are selling for little more than £100,000.

Not true in Vancouver, where highrise rental or condo is a housing option for a broad middle-class, whether West End renters or Yaletown professionals – and that’s just on the downtown peninsula.  In Metrotown, Ambleside, Lonsdale, Kerrisdale, Oakridge or Minoru, there have been highrise options throughout the region for the last half century.

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Because Vancouver ran out of land earlier than most urban regions, we had to find a way to provide dense housing that appealed to a broader section of the population than just the public-housing projects that characterized urban renewal in the 1950s, or the luxury accommodation that was typical only of eastern cities, generally from the 1920s.  So we did: small-floorplate concrete blocks, ranging from twelve to 25 storeys, set into the existing grid, usually within walking distance of a nearby shopping village served with transit.

And that’s what missing in most low-rise European cities – and what  ‘Vancouverism’ is really all about.

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According to Doug Saunders at The Globe, it’s this:

The dwelling that’s most Canadian, in its sheer numbers and popularity, is the slab farm – the block of high-rise rental apartment buildings, generally constructed between 1955 and 1979, located closer to the countryside than the city hall, in the suburbs or fringes of major cities.

I’m not sure he’s saying there are more of us in slab towers than single-family homes, but Saunders makes the case that this is a Canadian archetype :

We’re a nation of peri-urban apartment dwellers. Figures* show that Ottawa has more apartment buildings than Dallas, and most are midtown; Edmonton has more than Boston. Toronto’s outskirts are the North American leaders in elevator suburbia: Between Hamilton and Ajax, Ont., there are more than 2,000 of these cement towers, housing more than a million people; one in five residents of Canada’s largest urban area lives in one.

And therein lies a problem:

These slabs were built in the thousands in a postwar vision of blue-collar, car-owning nuclear families escaping the city and living a lower-middle-class high-rise life – and they’re the product of Canada’s unusually enlightened suburban planning, in which governments demanded that lower-income rental units be part of the mix. But, instead, these apartment clusters have become the initial destinations for millions of new immigrants.

… these places are ill-suited to the newcomer’s life: It’s physically impossible, and usually illegal, to open shops, factories and restaurants within them, and escape means a long bus ride.

German architect Thomas Sieverts has dubbed these apartments on the outskirts “cities without cities,” because they have the human concentrations of urban cores without any of the public-transportation links, retail and educational clusters, entrepreneurial opportunities or middle-class housing opportunities that make for successful urban life.

But there’s hope:

Graeme Stewart, a Toronto-based architect who has built his career around the recognition and renewal of these towers … has spent the past several years leading a Canadian initiative, Tower Renewal, which is backed by the United Way and devoted to transforming the postwar slab farms into thriving urban-style neighbourhoods. They have developed a simple set of public transportation, zoning, planning and cultural policies that can turn these cement islands into thriving neighbourhoods (as some have already done).

This spring, Toronto may vote on a proposed new zoning category – residential apartment commercial – that would allow slab farms to become higher-concentration mixes of commerce and housing as a way to bring new life to the empty cement patches between them. The initiative, Mr. Stewart says, is “moving at a glacier pace,” in large part because the condo boom has tied up all the planning resources.

Vancouver did build a few ‘slab farms,’ particularly in Burnaby. [Here’s a profile of Lougheed (below) in Spacing.] But mostly we integrated small privately-built point towers into our existing grid, associated with streetcar villages.  (Here‘s the Kerrisdale example.)
Now that we’re constructing thousands of units in municipal and regional town centres, notably along our rapid-transit lines, we can, if we do it right, avoid the problems that have to be addressed elsewhere in the country and truly build cities in the suburbs.
Meanwhile, in Vancouver City itself, it’s time we took another look at the ‘urban village’ model.  If neighbourhoods are successful at fighting off all but the most token forms of densification, arguing that in theory there’s already sufficient zoned land but confident it can never be consolidated and redeveloped, leaving only the arterials as an alternative, then don’t we have to accept that we truly become a city for the rich while expecting the suburbs to handle the growth?
Otherwise … what else?
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My thanks to Creative Mornings for the opportunity to speak on my favourite subject, with some new thoughts on how limits – even catastrophes – can produce the ‘creative moment’ for those who can seize the opportunity, and how it shaped the region we live in today.

2013/08 Gordon Price

July’s CreativeMornings’s global theme was ‘URBANISM’ and Vancouver was pleased to welcome former politician, urbanist, writer, and educator Gordon Price to talk about the intersection of creativity and urbanism, the impact each has on the other at this sold out event, and how limitations bolster creativity in the urban space.

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[I’m often credited with being an ‘urban planner’ – but I’m not.  An ‘urbanist’ perhaps – but you don’t need a degree and credentials for that moniker.]

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Colin Marshall hosts and produces the podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture, a twice-weekly long-form conversation with cultural creators, internationalists, and observers of the urban scene.  A few months ago he was up in Vancouver – and here are some of the interviews he did.

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Notebook on Cities and Culture S3E29: That’s Livin’ with Gordon Price

Wednesday, June 5, 2013 Wednesday, June 5, 2013 Colin Marshall sits above Hastings Street in Vancouver, British Columbia with Gordon Price, Director of the City Program at Simon Fraser University, former Councillor for the City of Vancouver, and creator of the electronic magazine Price Tags. They discuss his personal definition of “Vancouverism”; his city as a mid-20th-century version of 19th-century city-building; the balance […]

Download the interview from Notebook on Cities and Culture’s feed or on iTunes.

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Notebook on Cities and Culture S3E28: Aesthetic Moments with JJ Lee Tuesday, May 28, 2013 Colin Marshall sits down in Vancouver’s Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden with JJ Lee, menswear writer, broadcaster, and author of The Measure of a Man: The Story of a Father, a Son, and a Suit. They discuss where to buy pocket squares in Vancouver (and whether to just have your kids make some); what […]
Download the interview from Notebook on Cities and Culture’s feed or on iTunes.  .

Notebook on Cities and Culture S3E27: No Mo’ Po-Mo with Paul Delany Thursday, May 23, 2013 Colin Marshall sits down in Yaletown, Vancouver, British Columbia with Paul Delany, professor of English at Simon Fraser University, editor of the reader Vancouver: Representing the Postmodern City, and author of the article “Vancouver: Graveyard of Ambition?” They discuss whether it makes sense to talk about a “postmodern” city in 2013; the influence of Douglas Coupland, William Gibson, […]
Download the interview from Notebook on Cities and Culture’s feed or on iTunes.   Read more »

A harsh critique of Vancouverism in Burgh Diaspora:

Is it density or migration? Venture capitalist Brad Feld weighs in: “The cities that have the most movement in and out of them are the most vibrant.”
The densest city in the world won’t be as vibrant as the city with the most talent churn. Yet planners and urbanists tout the former over the latter. We’ve reached the point of density for the sake of density. It is an end instead of a means to an end.
The art of the density boondoggle:
The following is the conversation held at every regional summit on Long Island:
Advocate: Let’s keep our young people from leaving! There’s a…brain drain!
Public: How do we stop it?
Developer: Build denser housing! Let’s make it…affordable! Walkable! Let’s make it…mixed-use sustainable smart growth…with a downtown, pedestrian-friendly feel.
Municipality: Development approved! …
There is a name for the Cult of Density. It now has its very own -ism. All hail Vancouverism:
Vancouverism is, at the root, a movement to go from low density, to higher density, to make Canadian and North American cities about people once again.

More here – including the too-frequent assumption that Vancouver allows densification for the young and affluent at the expense of the old and poor.  To argue that requires omitting the substantial housing investment made to ensure mixed communities.
Is it ever enough?  Nope.  But that’s not the same as:

Vancouverism is boutique urbanism, catering to a specific demographic at the exclusion of all others. People are either displaced or fall into the cracks. Bike lanes and food trucks trump the needs of seniors.

Embedded in the argument is also the assumption that not allowing densification would protect the vulnerable.   It’s all so much more complicated, dammit.

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