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Thread: 'new' urbanism in a big-city context: vancouver

  1. #1

    'new' urbanism in a big-city context: vancouver

    to be honest, i'm sick of the attention given to trite suburban developments that are held up as models of new urbanism. here's an example of new urbanist (or maybe that should be just plain "urbanist") principles applied to a big-city downtown context: downtown vancouver.

    first, some background. in the 1980s, the city of vancouver established an urban design review panel that had to power to veto any development. comprised of urban planners rather than politicians, it insisted on slender residential highrises that would allow a maximum amount of light to hit the street. those highrises must sit on podiums, some comprised of retail and offices, others made up of apartments and townhouses with a variety of entrances onto the street.

    these strict new guidelines coincided with a huge and ongoing property boom, fueled in large part by the influx of hundreds of thousands of middle-class and wealthy hong kong chinese to vancouver in the 1980s and 90s (more than 100,000 hong kongers settled in vancouver, along with many similarly wealthy taiwanese). in 1986, the world's fair was held on a former railyard next to false creek, an inlet on the south side of the peninsula on which downtown vancouver sits. after the expo, the land was bought by a hong kong developer who proceeded to turn it into one of the most successful urban developments in north america. far from completion, it is already home to some 20,000 people and is well-integrated into the existing downtown neighbourhood of yaletown.

    since the residential boom began, the population of vancouver's downtown peninsula has tripled to nearly 100,000. the number of supermarkets has increased correspondingly, with five new supermarkets opening downtown in the late 90s (two high-end, two mid-range as well as a branch of the large asian supermarket T&T).

    lest you think this kind of highly urban living appeals only to the young, wealthy or childless, consider this: so many new families have moved downtown over the past 10 years that, for the first time in decades, a new elementary school has been built. the city requires 20% of all units to be priced below the market rate, which has resulted in a fairly balanced socioeconomic mix downtown. in the west end, an old downtown neighbourhood that saw a residential boom in the 50s and 60s, most of nicest prewar apartment buildings are social housing.

    in yaletown, a new public park was recently opened, paid for entirely by developers. thanks to a booming real estate market, the city has been able to pressure developers into building cultural amenities and neighbourhood institutions (like schools and community centres) in exchange for increased density.







    the glassy tower on the far right includes a cinema and offices that will be leased to the vancouver international film festival.



    on false creek, adjacent to the seawall is the large david lam park.



    another new waterfront park, which was still under construction when i took this photo (i shot it through a chain-link fence), has opened at the end of richards street.



    pacific boulevard runs through the heart of the yaletown area, predating its redevelopment. last i heard, there are plans to run a streetcar along the median (part of a route that will loop around the peninsula) and tame the traffic.





    pacific soon intersects davie, yaletown's main street. it runs up into the west end, where it forms the heart of vancouver's gay village, and then spills down a hill to english bay.







    at davie and pacific is an old roundhouse which has been converted into a community centre and exhibition space.















    where davie street meets the seawall and two residential streets, there's a small traffic circle.







    new development makes for an appealing backdrop to the old industrial streets of yaletown.





    the vancouver public library, designed by moshe safdie and completed in 1995, shares the vancouver vernacular and is located on the edge of yaletown.



    you can just make out the library from chinatown, a mile and a half away:



    the old expo grounds were master planned, but most of the new residential development in downtown vancouver takes the form of infill. here are a few examples from various locations.

    in chinatown, this late-90s building consists entirely of social housing.



    new condos as seen from granville street.



    the impact of all the highrises is subtle but striking: see how the ones under construction in the upper left-hand corner give this scene a bit more bulk. at street level, though, their impact is minimal, thanks to their podiums and tiny footprints.



    some podium examples from the fringes of yaletown:





    this is an office building at the corner of granville and broadway, about a 20 minute walk south of downtown across the granville street bridge. it isn't a residential project but i thought it was a nice example of the kind of streetscape-oriented modernism that is so prevalent in vancouver.





    --


    many of the condo projects in vancouver are far, far from perfect. they generally suffer from cheap materials and i really wish the podiums were more than two or three stories. still, i think it's a good example of large-scale urban infill that is unabashedly urban and modern yet also pedestrian-oriented and street-oriented.

  2. #2
    Excellent! I love this city. Infill, I just can't get enough of it.

  3. #3

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    Lovely photos, Chris! But, the buildings don't look like 18th century London!I

    Plus, I may actually SEE my neighbors (or smell them. Vancouver is full of FOREIGNERS who cook funny foods!) I can't have a BACKYARD (which, from my observations in suburban California, are often as not weed-filled and ignored WHo wants to do yard work after commuting 1.5 hours each way all week to your job that enables the American Dream (tm)) ) or room for a swiimming pool (which is used five times per season).

    LOL

  4. #4
          ablarc's avatar
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    Love those slender skyscrapers: a Vancouver specialty. This city really looks good.

    Most American cities could learn a lot here. Just think, Boston's Seaport District could have turned out like this instead of the gaggle of waddling lard asses that holding down the height there has produced.

  5. #5
    Beautiful!

  6. #6
    there was a period back in the very late 90s when it seemed like the seaport district really would turn into another vancouver. alas, that hasn't happened.

    toronto has had an even larger condo boom than vancouver and this is where you can really see the effect of the urban design panel: while toronto's new infill is much more varied architecturally, it is also of inconsistent quality, with plenty of duds. the fate of cityplace is particularly educational. even though it was built by the same developers as concord pacific place (the expo lands redevelopment), with similar architecture, it has been panned as sterile and lifeless. it isn't well integrated into the rest of the city, the street furniture is mediocre and it is populated almost exclusively by wealthy professionals.

  7. #7
    Quote Originally posted by christopher dewolf
    there was a period back in the very late 90s when it seemed like the seaport district really would turn into another vancouver. alas, that hasn't happened.

    toronto has had an even larger condo boom than vancouver and this is where you can really see the effect of the urban design panel: while toronto's new infill is much more varied architecturally, it is also of inconsistent quality, with plenty of duds. the fate of cityplace is particularly educational. even though it was built by the same developers as concord pacific place (the expo lands redevelopment), with similar architecture, it has been panned as sterile and lifeless. it isn't well integrated into the rest of the city, the street furniture is mediocre and it is populated almost exclusively by wealthy professionals.
    I fully agree. Toronto is in a planning mess right now, and I was just thinking to myself how much better the city could be if it had a planning body similar to Vancouver's urban design review panel. Comparing Cityplace to Concord Pacific Place is a prime example.

    Off-topic:
    I believe we have also met once, a long time ago in Toronto. We were both in High School at the time.

  8. #8
    I believe we have also met once, a long time ago in Toronto. We were both in High School at the time.
    who, me? that can't be, since i've never lived in toronto.

  9. #9
    Cyburbian MitchBaby's avatar
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    Great photos - since I live here, I'm biased when I say that its a great city to be in, to walk around in, and to be involved in some of the planning. The downtown is a great example of how urbanism can be applied at a large scale redevelopment - thanks for the photos...

  10. #10
    Cyburbian Future Planner's avatar
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    Excellent. We need more places like this!

  11. #11
    maudit anglais
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    Yes, nobody has been really happy with the way the first phases of Cityplace in Toronto have turned out. They (the developers) are actually heading back to the drawing board so to speak - and the City has recently released some draft urban design guidelines for the district. It will take some time for this development to truly become a part of the city.

    WRT to the comment that Cityplace is only catering to the young and affluent - this is a valid criticism. But the stock response is "it's what the market wants". The City owns some land in the area, which will be used for affordable housing.

    I still don't get the comment that "Toronto is a planning mess".

  12. #12
    Cyburbian Wannaplan?'s avatar
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    Okay, so we're all fawning over images of a beautiful CBD. Yippee.

    Tell us a little bit more about other areas in the city, like the neighborhoods that surround the CBD.

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    Quote Originally posted by Wanigas?


    Okay, so we're all fawning over images of a beautiful CBD. Yippee.

    Tell us a little bit more about other areas in the city, like the neighborhoods that surround the CBD.
    Like, for instance, how 25,000 people may have moved into downtown, but 200,000 people have moved into new sprawlburgs in Maple Plain (sp)? Or, has metropolitan Vancouver clamped down dramatically on suburban growth.

    It's easy to lose track that even in Vancouver this is probably still a minority preference. (Not that I am criticizing the projects AT ALL. Wanigas does bring up a point, though.

  14. #14
    Cyburbian boilerplater's avatar
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    Nice.
    Every time I see pics of Vancouver, I'm amazed at how clean it is. Granted, most of those buildings are very new and have yet to acquire a coating of grime. The streets are very litter-free. How do they do it? Environmentally conscious Vancouverites? Active enforcement? Litter Patrols?

  15. #15
    Cyburbian Cardinal's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by boilerplater
    Nice.
    Every time I see pics of Vancouver, I'm amazed at how clean it is. Granted, most of those buildings are very new and have yet to acquire a coating of grime. The streets are very litter-free. How do they do it? Environmentally conscious Vancouverites? Active enforcement? Litter Patrols?
    They are Canadian. They do not litter. It is a part of the culture, and some even think that it is a genetic thing on the maple leaf chromosome.
    Anyone want to adopt a dog?

  16. #16
    Cyburbian MitchBaby's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by BKM
    Like, for instance, how 25,000 people may have moved into downtown, but 200,000 people have moved into new sprawlburgs in Maple Plain (sp)? Or, has metropolitan Vancouver clamped down dramatically on suburban growth.

    It's easy to lose track that even in Vancouver this is probably still a minority preference. (Not that I am criticizing the projects AT ALL. Wanigas does bring up a point, though.
    You are right - other places in the Greater Vancouver Regional District are far more sprawlish than vancouver itself. The City of Surrey, for example, is primarily made up of 1 acre lots that area haphazardly thrown about the landscape roughly placed on a large grid system - sprawl central - and NIMBY central... But the numbers in downtown vancouver make it one of the highest density populations in North America, it rivals even New York.

  17. #17
    of course there is sprawl in vancouver. it strikes me as sort of pointless to mention it, since there isn't any city in north america without sprawl.

    but between 1996 and 2001, the city of vancouver grew by 6.2%, about half the rate of the fatest growing suburb and roughly the same as more established suburbs. so you tell me: is 6.2% growth stemming entirely from infill good or bad?

  18. #18

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    Quote Originally posted by christopher dewolf
    of course there is sprawl in vancouver. it strikes me as sort of pointless to mention it, since there isn't any city in north america without sprawl.

    but between 1996 and 2001, the city of vancouver grew by 6.2%, about half the rate of the fatest growing suburb and roughly the same as more established suburbs. so you tell me: is 6.2% growth stemming entirely from infill good or bad?

    True. And, I'm certainly not diminishing the accomplishment of Vancouver in fostering a more urbane development pattern than even popular North American cities like San Francisco (which does not extract nearly the public amenities as Vancouver appears to-while NIMBYism so restricts housing development that the market prices are far higher.)

    I'm more bemoaning the "market" preferences for such one acre lots, a market preference that is dominant even in an urbane place like Vancouver.

  19. #19
    I still don't get the comment that "Toronto is a planning mess"
    Really? I could quote city politicans, neighbourhood associations, urbanities, columnists, even the former chief planner which has wrote in to City Council several times about tampering with the new Official Plan.

    I don't think anyone is really happy with the current evolution of the city.

    Quote Originally posted by christopher dewolf
    who, me? that can't be, since i've never lived in toronto.
    My mistake.
    Last edited by Tranplanner; 23 Feb 2005 at 8:11 AM.

  20. #20
    Cyburbian cmd uw's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by OfficialPlanner
    Really? I could quote city politicans, neighbourhood associations, urbanities, columnists, even the former chief planner which has wrote in to City Council several times about tampering with the new Official Plan.

    I don't think anyone is really happy with the current evolution of the city.
    /\ Isn't every city in some sort of 'planning mess'? Every city has its planning blunders, particularly those in North America. I wouldn't single out Toronto as that statement can be applied everywhere.

  21. #21
    maudit anglais
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    Quote Originally posted by OfficialPlanner
    Really? I could quote city politicans, neighbourhood associations, urbanities, columnists, even the former chief planner which has wrote in to City Council several times about tampering with the new Official Plan.

    I don't think anyone is really happy with the current evolution of the city.
    I guess it really depends on how you define "mess". I tend to equate that word with uncontrolled development, lack of regulation/oversight, etc. You are right in that there are many problems in Toronto and that a lot of people are unhappy with the planning process as it current exists (e.g.development approval by OMB instead of Council). I would hesitate to call it a "mess" though. The city is going through some challenging times but I would say it is more of a goverance/fiscal mess than a planning mess. Growth is occurring largely where it should - you can debate the architectural merits of individual projects until you're blue in the face, but currently the municipal government does not have the power to dictate aesthetics. Not surprisingly, the quality of "public" buildings being constructed far outweighs the quality of most private developments right now.

  22. #22
    Quote Originally posted by Tranplanner
    I guess it really depends on how you define "mess". I tend to equate that word with uncontrolled development, lack of regulation/oversight, etc. You are right in that there are many problems in Toronto and that a lot of people are unhappy with the planning process as it current exists (e.g.development approval by OMB instead of Council). I would hesitate to call it a "mess" though. The city is going through some challenging times but I would say it is more of a goverance/fiscal mess than a planning mess. Growth is occurring largely where it should - you can debate the architectural merits of individual projects until you're blue in the face, but currently the municipal government does not have the power to dictate aesthetics. Not surprisingly, the quality of "public" buildings being constructed far outweighs the quality of most private developments right now.
    Don't get me wrong. Toronto is a very beautiful city. It's just I'm very dissatisfied - along with many others in the city right now - about the majority of the new developments in the city and the lack of a real plan to improve the traffic mess or the overcrowding on the TTC resulting from these new developments.

    For example, having minimum parking requirements instead of letting the market decide (and deter) parking in the downtown area, or allowing high-density suburban developments in areas not served by transit, but them limiting developments to a 3 to 5x FAR directly above a underused subway line.

    I say it lacks a real plan because they're are endless plans on the book, but none of them is backed with real $$$. I don't care how good the plan is, if there is no money then it's redundant.

    Ideally, development fees should help go towards funding Toronto's infastructure needs, but instead we see council dumping half a million here and there from development fees on Dumbass Square instead of towards the TTC and the road network. These are vital to the healty of the city - Dundas Square is not.

    If you don't agree with any of my points, then I guess we'll just have to agree on disagreeing. Toronto wants to add a million new residents without building any major new roads and hopes the money for subways and light rail will just drop from the sky; It's not pratical. I'm sure you read the reports that due to the traffic mess, it's costing Toronto billions of dollars a year in gridlock. Bussiness are starting to flee for the suburbs due to this gridlock along with the unspoken promise of constant tax hikes.

  23. #23
    maudit anglais
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    Quote Originally posted by OfficialPlanner
    Don't get me wrong. Toronto is a very beautiful city. It's just I'm very dissatisfied - along with many others in the city right now - about the majority of the new developments in the city and the lack of a real plan to improve the traffic mess or the overcrowding on the TTC resulting from these new developments.

    For example, having minimum parking requirements instead of letting the market decide (and deter) parking in the downtown area, or allowing high-density suburban developments in areas not served by transit, but them limiting developments to a 3 to 5x FAR directly above a underused subway line.

    I say it lacks a real plan because they're are endless plans on the book, but none of them is backed with real $$$. I don't care how good the plan is, if there is no money then it's redundant.

    Ideally, development fees should help go towards funding Toronto's infastructure needs, but instead we see council dumping half a million here and there from development fees on Dumbass Square instead of towards the TTC and the road network. These are vital to the healty of the city - Dundas Square is not.

    If you don't agree with any of my points, then I guess we'll just have to agree on disagreeing. Toronto wants to add a million new residents without building any major new roads and hopes the money for subways and light rail will just drop from the sky; It's not pratical. I'm sure you read the reports that due to the traffic mess, it's costing Toronto billions of dollars a year in gridlock. Bussiness are starting to flee for the suburbs due to this gridlock along with the unspoken promise of constant tax hikes.
    Not disagreeing, but from the above I think it's fair to say that Toronto is in an "implementation" mess, not a "planning" mess. Do you know how frustrating it is as a planner here to be working on all these great projects and yet know in the back of your head that they will eventually be compromised due to lack of $$$, resources, or political will?

    I think we made a big mistake by not revamping the Zoning By-Laws at the same time the new Official Plan was created. But to do so was far far beyond the resources of City staff at the time.

  24. #24
    Not disagreeing, but from the above I think it's fair to say that Toronto is in an "implementation" mess, not a "planning" mess.
    That's a very fair statement.

    Do you know how frustrating it is as a planner here to be working on all these great projects and yet know in the back of your head that they will eventually be compromised due to lack of $$$, resources, or political will?
    It's this reason alone which turned me off from having a planning career in the public sector. I can't even begin to imagine what it's like to work on a project for months then have it thrown in the trash do to politics or some other BS. It happens far too often in Toronto.

    I think we made a big mistake by not revamping the Zoning By-Laws at the same time the new Official Plan was created. But to do so was far far beyond the resources of City staff at the time.
    That's probably why the OMB gets away with doing Toronto's planning now. I guess it's not so bad as they remove the politics and judge strictly on merit. ie Fort York Neighborhood and Minto.

  25. #25
    Quote Originally posted by christopher dewolf

    another new waterfront park, which was still under construction when i took this photo (i shot it through a chain-link fence), has opened at the end of richards street.
    great pix! FYI: the park mentioned here (George Wainborn Park) is featured in this month's Landscape Architecture magazine, which I just received today, the same day I first read this thread. Unfortunately, it is not available online, but please support the industry and buy a copy at your local newsstand.

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