August 1, 2006
by Canadian Architect
Text + Chart Julie Bogdanowicz
Within the past 15 years, the City of Vancouver has planned for a residential downtown, reversing sprawl. As it turned out, the building that most satisfied the city’s intentions was a tall, thin tower on a podium. Individually, these buildings may be nice to look at and nice to inhabit with their appropriate setbacks and townhouses, but they are all far too similar. Yes, the type works, but it works too well and Vancouver’s planning goals oppress another kind of urban life, one that goes beyond mere livability. Vancouver’s paradox: too much nice is a bit nasty.
Vancouver can in some ways be read as a planning model. The catalogue of conditions and ideologies below begin to reveal how the city has been conceived in bullet points, a kind of point-form urbanism. While the model has been successful on its own terms and is being exported internationally, Vancouver’s good taste is not resulting in a healthy, diverse city.
Function: Breaking the rules of expected North American urbanism.
1. Young city with high residential density.
2. No freeways.
3. Racially integrated.
4. Planning decisions insulated from interference by city councillors.
5. Social bonus zoning: density for amenity.
Secret for Success: City’s comprehensive integrated strategy.
1. Pushing for housing intensity.
2. Insisting on housing diversity.
3. Structuring for coherent identifiable neighbourhoods.
4. Fostering suitably domestic urban design and architecture.
Organizing Principles: City aligns these variables to achieve a successful model.
1. Limit commuter access into downtown by allowing congestion.
2. Extend downtown grid right to and beyond shoreline; integrate new neighbourhoods.
3. Develop a complete pedestrian-scaled mixed-use neighbourhood unit.
4. Provide a rich mix of market and non-market housing for mixed incomes.
5. Foster an economic ecology where home, work, and services are in close proximity.
6. Treat public realm to express community identity and social life.
7. Create open and green space to provide linkages and amenities.
Land Use Regulation: Zoning is the most significant variable in the city’s development.
1. Protecting the city form from being overtaken by market forces.
2. As a means to an end, zoning regulations can prevent innovation.
Influences: Hong Kong Residential, New Urbanism.
1. Tall and thin tower was imported from Hong Kong.
2. The four-storey eyes-on-the-street podium in the downtown core has been reinterpreted in response to New Urbanist tendencies to define street walls with front porches.
3. The nicely scaled podium, at street level, should make the tall, thin tower almost disappear from one’s perception.
Economic Return: Making money for condominium developers.
1. A leading developer estimates that condos now generate five times more revenue than new offices.
2. The “density for amenity” approach ensures that developments are well endowed–they are much more desirable as a commodity when they include parks, schools and shops–amenities destined for the public good but which translate into profit for developers.
Reactionary: Addressing contemporary trends facing North American cities.
1. The flattening of downtown office growth.
2. The continued expansion of the suburbs; mitigating fear of the inner city.
3. The success of the “Edge City” phenomenon (e.g. Burnaby, Richmond, Surrey).
1. With the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997, Vancouver became a very significant destination for foreign investment and immigration in North America.
Architectural Value: Deficient.
1. Architectural quality, innovation, and standards of building finishes are in the hands of the Planning department.
2. May not be avant-garde design, but works as an urbanistic ideology.
3. The downtown planning team has discretionary power, which allows them to intervene on design issues.
4. Vancouver may have mediocre public architecture because it has such an overwhelming natural setting.
Obsession: The view.
1. Downtown Vancouver is on a peninsula surrounded by ocean and mountains.
2. Slim towers are more expensive to build than bulky towers. However, purchasers who are attracted to the view pay for the extra cost in construction.
Central Business District: On the verge of extinction and being replaced by housing.
1. Office towers are rarely proposed in downtown Vancouver and make up only 10 percent of new downtown towers approved in the past five years.
2. Vancouver has placed a moratorium on converting office buildings into residential use.
3. More commuters will take rapid transit from the downtown to the suburbs for work each morning than those who commute into the traditional city centre.
4. The city is considering Richmond as one of the new business centres, rendering downtown a residential suburb/bedroom community.
5. Vancouver has an energetic small-business sector signalling a movement towards a new creative economy.
6. “Live-work” means that the spaces can be used for housing or small business, but they are unsuitable for large corporate tenants.
Urban Type I: Anti-urban or a new kind of domestic urbanism.
1. Vancouver’s downtown fosters a more domestic public realm and building design to mitigate the harsh effects of high-density residential living.
2. “Rather than defining Vancouver as anti-urban, the type of urbanism can be described as pandering to a superficial consumption of nature.” (Berelowitz)
3. “From its inception, Vancouver has been a state of mind rather than a powerful economic or urban entity.” (Berelowitz)
Urban Type II: The new urban-suburban paradigm.
1. To bring out the competitive advantages of the urban lifestyle over the suburban lifestyle and to make the residential city a reality, the city created an attractive surrogate for the single-family housing model situated in the single-family suburb.
2. To facilitate a life experience that is more exciting and convenient yet equally safe and secure as that offered in the suburbs, the city has overcome noise, danger, overviewing, invasion of privacy and the exclusion of children.
Particularities: Of time and place.
1. The downtown peninsula is geographically constrained by water and by Stanley Park, resulting in higher densities.
2. To fulfill the density allowance, the West End in the ’50s and ’60s set a precedent: small floor plates were stacked vertically because property size was limited by public lanes running throughout small downtown blocks.
3. The West End and False Creek South have had long-standing traditions of high-density living fostered by immigrant cultures accustomed to high-rise density.
4. Local demographics enabled an urban lifestyle where Vancouver hosts a large number of dual-income professional households; couples who married later and had children later; wealthy immigrants from older cities who shun the single-family lifestyle; and wealthy empty nesters.
Julie Bogdanowicz has just completed her Master of Architecture degree at the University of British Columbia. Her insights on the city derive from Vancouverism in Vancouver, a documentary film she recently produced with Robin Anderson.
Beasley, Larry. “Living First in Downtown Vancouver.” American Planning Association’s Zoning News, April 2000.
Berelowitz, Lance. Dream City: Vancouver and the Global Imagination. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2005.
Boddy, Trevor. “Downtown Construction, 90% Condos.” City Building for the Daily Special, 08 Febr
Boddy, Trevor. “New Urbanism: The Vancouver Model.” Places 16.2 (2004).
Boddy, Trevor. “Vancouverism vs. Lower Manhattanism: Shaping the High Density City.” ArchNewsNow.com. 20 September 2005 <http://www.archnewsnow.com>
Broken Down Into Basic Mix 'N' Match Components, the Typical Podium-And-Tower Configuration Represents a Do-It-Yourself Kit of Parts, a Foolproof Recipe for Vancouver Urbanism.