“Vancouverism is characterized by tall, but widely separated, slender towers interspersed with low-rise buildings, public spaces, small parks and pedestrian-friendly streetscapes and facades to minimize the impact of high density population.”
– The New York Times, December 28, 2005
Depending on who you talk to, Vancouverism is either the greatest thing that planners have brought to this city or the worst thing. Make no mistakes, Vancouverism is not without its faults, but the fact that representatives and planners from cities all over the world come to Vancouver to study its urban core means that we must have got something right. Frances Bula did a great article on this very topic in the December issue of Vancouver Magazine. If you have a few minutes I suggest you give a read. Even if you don’t, read it.
The naysayers will point to the bland architecture (see Concord Pacific) as a negative to Vancouverism. Who can blame them, Concord got carried away with the glass tower and on grey days (which are many, especially this time of year) the lack of varied architecture is even more prevalent. Another critique is that the city has bulldozed most of its history for the sake of increased density and shiny new glass towers. These very towers have become somewhat emblematic. Further, critics believe it has led to the resortification (to some degree) of the downtown core, however it should be noted that city planners have recognized this and have allowed for increased density in the Central Business District and a freeze on residential construction in the CBD as well. Basically, look for more office space to come on board shortly.
What Vancouverism does right is that it develops transit-oriented neighbourhoods and a central business district that is surrounded by dense residential districts such as, Yaletown and Coal Harbour. The result is some 100,000 people already living within the the regions main business districts (Downtown and Broadway corridor). Another 50-75,000 are expected to move in sometime in the next 20 years. Further, city planners have also made developers to pitch in for schools, day cares, and parks for the neighbourhoods they build in. This is a factor overlooked by many, for example the Shangri-La project had a condition that the developer renovate the adjacent Coastal Church.
Another major principle of Vancouverism is the necessity to create a vibrant streets. The tower on a retail podium base has become a signature of Vancouverism. The street life in Vancouver has improved immensely over the years and it is only going to get better as the downtown core gets built out. Mixed-use is its mantra. Where other urban centres have deteriorated in the past, ours has thrived and constantly increasing its density and attracting the middle class back to the city.
The planning community holds Vancouver up on a pedestal, after all it is one of the youngest cities in North America and it has one of the highest densities on the continent (3rd after New York and San Francisco). How can it be that we somehow managed to escape the suburban sprawl that has killed most American cities (see Houston). It started back when the city fought to not allow a major highway through the city. Then came the West End, which to this day is still one the densest neighbourhoods in North America. Larry Beasley usually is heralded as the man that made Vancouver what it is today. However, the seeds were planted a long time ago, he just took it to the next level. He is now the lead planner in Abu Dhabi.
The city is blessed with awesome geography and this has allowed us to develop into the Pacific metropolis we are today. And with the population expected to grow to 3 million in Metro Vancouver in the next 20 years, cities all across the lower mainland will have to have adopt certain elements of Vancouverism into their urban planning. The last thing you want is a bunch of towers in the park and large slabs of land dedicated to strip malls and industrial offices. Cities such as Surrey have recognized this and have developed a comprehensive plan. However, from what I’ve seen thus far is not enough, as they have towers with no retail at the base and thus they do not lend themselves to be street friendly. This results in a desolate city centre overrun by vagrants and miscreants, which currently describes Whalley. Surrey will be the next downtown, what kind is up to the planners.