Tuesday, January 12, 2010

EcoDensity: Vancouver, B.C.

Vancouver’s compact, dense urban core (my photo)

I recently returned from a visit to Vancouver, British Columbia, the city where I was born and raised. Of course, the news in Vancouver these days is dominated by the upcoming 2010 Winter Olympic Games (which Vancouver, along with the nearby Whistler resort community, will host this February). If you’re not yet familiar with Canada’s third largest city, you soon will be courtesy of NBC and the interminable hours of broadcast coverage it has planned for the games.

The prospect of the Olympics has resulted in numerous new facilities; however, the architecture is largely unremarkable. There is nothing to match Beijing’s “Bird’s Nest” for Vancouver, nothing that aspires to the stature of a global landmark. In my opinion, this is just as well. The postcard impressions that tourists and the countless viewers worldwide will come away with will instead showcase Vancouver’s unparalleled natural setting and its urban density: downtown’s gleaming towers of glass set against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains and tranquil harbor waters. It is the whole rather than iconic individual parts that will provide the most memorable images.

Beijing’s National Stadium – Herzog & de Meuron, Architects (photo by Ciaro Cortes IV, Reuters)

The new Vancouver Convention Center West Building (to serve as the international media and broadcast center during the games) and the Richmond Oval (speed skating venue) represent the two largest building projects associated with the 2010 Olympics.

The green roof of the Vancouver Convention Center – DA/MCM + LMN Architects (photo from the Vancouver Convention Center website)

Many Vancouverites bemoan the reserve of the new 2010 Olympic architecture. On the other hand, the lack of novel monuments for novelty’s sake is entirely consistent with the Canadian penchant for buildings that defer to the landscape, adapt to the urban morphology, and emphasize measured refinement over bold form-making.

Richmond Oval – Cannon Design, Architect

Vancouver architect Bing Thom(1) has likened the city to an insecure teenager who constantly is seeking affirmation of her worth and beauty. Vancouver fits the description: it is still immature, the youngest major city in North America.(2) Hosting the 2010 Winter Olympics is only its second appearance on the international stage during my lifetime, the first being Expo ’86. The greatest legacy of the world’s fair is that it served as a coming out party for Vancouver. Since then the city has consistently topped or ranked high on the list of the best places to live in the world, a matter of considerable civic pride. Such approbation is not unwarranted: Vancouver receives superior grades for stability, healthcare, culture, environment, and education. City boosters are confident that the investments in physical infrastructure spurred by the Olympics will further position the city as a future paragon of sustainability.

Yaletown, Vancouver’s Pearl District doppelganger (my photo)

EcoDensity and Vancouver 2020
Central to this vision are two city initiatives: the EcoDensity project and Vancouver 2020. The EcoDensity project is a charter that commits the City of Vancouver to address change in the interest of environmental sustainability, affordability, and livability. Vancouver 2020 is an action plan to make Vancouver the world’s greenest city by 2020.

EcoDensity endeavors to increase density and boost environmental city-building. As the City of Vancouver’s EcoDensity project summary states, “higher-density urban development decreases automobile reliance and development pressure on the urban periphery, while increasing the potential for energy efficiency, and providing the critical mass necessary to support complete, diverse, and walkable neighborhoods.” With the approval of the charter by the Vancouver city council, EcoDensity is now official policy. The first fruit of this plan has been the approval of “laneway housing” and mandates that all large-scale projects meet the highest standards for sustainability.(3)

Laneway housing by LaneFab Design-Build Ltd.

With Vancouver 2020, the city will compete with London, Sydney, Copenhagen, New York, Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, Chicago, Toronto, Berlin, Paris, Stockholm, and others who have made similar proclamations for the right to claim the title of the world’s cleanest and greenest metropolis. Becoming the greenest city is more than an environmental imperative: it’s also an economic strategy. The greenest city will offer a competitive advantage in attracting highly mobile investment dollars, businesses, entrepreneurs, and skilled workers.

The Vancouver 2020 target goals include:

  • Securing Vancouver’s international reputation as a mecca of green enterprise – 2020 Target: Create 20,000 new green jobs
  • Eliminating Vancouver’s dependence on fossil fuels – 2020 Target: Reduce greenhouse gas emissions 33 per cent from 2007 levels
  • Leading the world in green building design and construction – 2020 Targets: All new construction carbon neutral; improve efficiency of existing buildings by 20 per cent
  • Establishing walking, cycling, and public transit as the preferred transportation options – 2020 Target: Make the majority of trips (over 50 per cent) on foot, bicycle, and public transit
  • Creating zero waste – 2020 Target: Reduce solid waste per capita going to landfill or incinerator by 40 per cent
  • Providing incomparable access to green spaces, including the world’s most spectacular urban forest – 2020 Targets: Every person lives within a five-minute walk of a park, beach, greenway, or other natural space; plant 150,000 additional trees in the city
  • Achieving a one-planet ecological footprint – 2020 Target: Reduce per capita ecological footprint by 33 per cent
  • Enjoying the best drinking water of any major city in the world – 2020 Target: Always meet or beat the strongest of B.C., Canada, and World Health Organization drinking water standards; reduce per capita water consumption by 33 per cent
  • Breathing the cleanest air of any major city in the world – 2020 Target: Always meet or beat World Health Organization air quality guidelines, which are stronger than Canadian guidelines
  • Becoming a global leader in urban food systems – 2020 Targets: Reduce the carbon footprint of our food by 33 per cent
Vancouver is well on its way toward meeting these goals. The densification of its compact downtown peninsula is a useful blueprint for the creation of vibrant, demographically diverse civic centers that minimize reliance upon the use of cars while preserving access to green spaces and views. The density is an outcome of the city council’s 1991 adoption of the “Living First” policy, which pushed for downtown housing, the building of coherent neighborhoods, and the implementation of selected New Urbanism strategies to make the high densities work. Vancouver’s resultant podium and point tower typology (nicknamed “PoTo” by locals) has proven spectacularly successful: the number of residents living downtown now approaches 100,000, making the peninsula one of the most densely populated neighborhoods on the North American continent.(4)

Vancouver's tallest building: the 61-story Shangri-La Hotel - James Cheng, Architect (my photo)

An alternative neighborhood typology has taken shape on the southeast shore of False Creek, which overlooks downtown. The form of the 2010 Olympic Village does not follow the PoTo pattern; instead, the LEED Gold certified development comprises mid-rise blocks (6-11 stories, whereas the towers downtown are 30+ story high-rises). After the Olympics, the village will become home to 16,000 people. It will include 250 affordable housing units in its first phase, a 45,000 s.f. community center, three childcare centers, an elementary school, public plaza, and opportunities for urban agriculture.

The 2010 Olympic Village (photo courtesy City of Vancouver)

The use of more sustainable travel modes in Vancouver is significant. Vancouver boasts an integrated and growing mass transit network, including the automated Skytrain system, BRT and conventional buses, commuter rail, SeaBus, and soon the first line of what is hoped to be an extensive streetcar system. Recently, one lane on the Burrard Street Bridge (one of the primary conduits to and from the downtown peninsula) was converted to exclusive use by cyclists. Try to imagine one lane of the Ferry Street Bridge in Eugene being similarly reserved solely for bicycle use!(5)

Skytrain, Vancouver’s rapid-transit system (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Parks and green space are considered a birthright by Vancouverites. Including Stanley Park, all downtown residents are but a short walk away from thousands of acres of forested or open park space, welcome relief from the urban hustle and bustle. In addition, most of the downtown peninsula is ringed by a continuous pedestrian/bicycle/roller blading seawall pathway that alternately fronts the working harbor, sandy beaches, and crowded marinas.

All is not well in Paradise
Vancouver is an urban laboratory, an experiment at the scale of a city. At first glance, aspects of this experiment appear to have been successful, particularly in the downtown core. However, the residential density it fostered is not a panacea for urban ills. It’s becoming clear that downtown Vancouver has become a victim of its own success as high-end residential development is crowding out commercial office space and jobs. Canadian architecture critic Trevor Boddy observes that downtown Vancouver is heading toward a fate as a dormitory suburb. Transit ridership projections have more people leaving the core than coming in each morning, while new employment continues to locate along the suburban fringes ill-served by transit. Bing Thom has likewise lamented downtown Vancouver becoming “nothing more than a big tourist destination,” Canada’s version of Honolulu or Miami. To counter this trend, the city has tinkered with its zoning bylaws by legislating a moratorium on further residential and hotel projects in some corners of downtown. The goal is to preserve the potential for commercial office tower development within the urban core rather than driving it to the suburbs.

The city also warrants criticism on the social equity front. Downtown Vancouver should be as complete a community as possible, socially inclusive and sustainable. At the moment, this is not the case despite the city’s token efforts to ensure a mixture of housing for low and moderate-income earners as well as the very wealthy. The amenities extracted from developers via the city’s social bonus zoning policies have not been sufficient to offset the loss of federal subsidies that once facilitated the development of needed below-market rate housing. It’s Vancouver’s shame that Canada’s poorest neighborhood – the drug-ridden Downtown Eastside – exists cheek-by-jowl with some of its richest, an unfortunate consequence of well-intended urban planning (concentrating social housing and service agencies), market forces, and efforts to contain the “problem.”

The high-poverty Downtown Eastside is thus Vancouver’s next urban revitalization frontier. A major redevelopment project just completed there is the Woodward’s project, named after the landmark department store that stood on the site for nearly a century. The project contains one million square feet of building area, including over 500 market and 200 non-market residential units as well as office, retail, community non-profit space, and Simon Fraser University's School for the Contemporary Arts. Extra height on the 397-foot tower was traded to the developer in return for 31,000 square feet of non-profit space. The developers, the City of Vancouver, and the architects (Henriquez Partners Architects) enlisted Downtown Eastside resident activists and stakeholders to participate as members of the Woodward’s Community Advisory Committee. The mutual goal was to revitalize the neighborhood, not to gentrify it. The project’s success, while not assured, is evident by its acceptance in the community and the enthusiasm for the process by which it was realized. That its architecture is of a high quality is an added bonus.

The Woodward’s Redevelopment – Henriquez Partners, Architects (my photo)

Lessons for Eugene
While I always enjoy visiting Vancouver, I’m more than happy to call Eugene my home today. As Eugene continues to mature, it would do well to heed Vancouver’s urban planning lessons, as well as those of Portland and the other cities most often looked to as exemplars of compact urbanism. Fundamentally, this means planning for density strategically, rather than following a makeshift pattern that is determined by happenstance.

On balance, I remain convinced that a vibrant city must have at its center a densely developed downtown that is home to both businesses and a demographically-diverse resident population. Ideally, our downtown would possess sufficient gravitational pull to keep Eugene’s disparate and far-flung neighborhoods within its orbit; this it currently lacks. Ecodensity – density done well – would complement and enhance neighborhood character, minimize environmental impact and energy use, be adaptable over time, and contribute to safe, walkable streets. More effort, not less, should be applied by the City of Eugene to ensure that its historical core reasserts its primacy as the civic, economic, cultural, and governmental center for the metro area.

(1) I worked for Bing Thom Architects from 1983-85 after receiving my B.Arch from the University of Oregon. I subsequently worked for the firm again following completion of my graduate studies at UCLA in 1987 and prior to my 1988 return to Eugene. Bing Thom is one of Canada’s most prominent architects. In 1995, the Governor General of Canada, on behalf of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, bestowed the Order of Canada upon Bing for his contributions to Canadian architecture.

(2) Vancouver was founded in 1886. By comparison, Eugene was established by Eugene Skinner in 1862. Portland was incorporated in 1851.

(3) The Canadian term “laneway” is synonymous with the American usage of the word “alley.” The approval of laneway housing permits the construction of stand-alone accessory dwelling units on back alley driveways within single-family residential zones. With about 70,000 eligible properties, the potential increase in Vancouver’s affordable housing stock is huge.

(4) The total population of the City of Vancouver (within its city limits) is about 600,000 so one in six residents lives in the downtown core. The population of the entire metropolitan area is about 2.3 million, slightly more than Portland’s metro count.

(5) Of course, the Defazio pedestrian/bike bridge, just a stone’s throw away, renders moot the prospect of ever converting traffic lanes on the Ferry Street Bridge to bicycle use only.


Vancouver Design said...

just come to your blog by random....good to know you are from Vancouver. I am in Vancouver now...great post.

Anonymous said...

You misspelt landmarks in the American fashion (it's the Convention Centre here) but otherwise a brilliant post.