Saturday, February 16, 2013

Density Done Well

Downtown Vancouver at sunset (photo by MagnusL3D via Wikimedia Commons)

One of the many blogs about architecture and urban design I follow is Price Tags, written by Gordon Price. Price is a former Vancouver, British Columbia city councilor who now leads the City Program at Simon Fraser University. Invariably, Price’s ruminations on urbanism are excellent, representing some of the best current thinking I’ve found anywhere on the Web about the design of the public realm and the physical needs of urban society. The majority of his posts are Vancouver-centric but they include lessons applicable to cities everywhere.(1) 
A recent Price Tags entry featured a talk by Brent Toderian, Vancouver’s former head of city planning and now president of his own urban design consulting firm TODERIAN UrbanWORKs. In his lecture, presented at Seattle’s 2013 Downtown Economic Forum, Toderian waxed lyrically about Vancouver’s land use and transportation planning triumphs, particularly those responsible for famously shaping the residential tower-dominated landscape of the downtown core. 
Toderian’s thesis is that density done well is good for the environment. He lauded the work of his predecessors in Vancouver’s planning department and city leadership for their foresight in aligning land use and transportation considerations. They applied a systems approach to their planning processes, agreeing the best transportation plan would be a great land use plan (as opposed to crafting plans separately). This approach yielded critical insights, including the power of nearness, the importance of a quality walking experience, and that other cities’ attempts to balance modes of transportation seldom worked.(2) 
Vancouver planners adopted a “living first” mantra during the 1980s and 1990s, having determined a diversity of housing options was missing from downtown. They corrected this by leveraging the marketplace to build a great city, extracting lavish subsidies from developers for public improvements and shared amenities such as downtown schools and parks. They emphasized the design of the public realm, particularly with an eye toward urban vitality, safety, and the needs of children. With time, the planners dispelled the myth that downtown is unfriendly to families. 
Today, there are almost as many who call Vancouver’s 560 hectare (roughly 2 square miles) downtown peninsula their home as reside within the entirety of Eugene’s urban growth boundary (an area totaling more than 40 square miles). Despite the huge population influx over the past few decades, the number of automobile trips to and from downtown Vancouver has actually dropped as more and more people live there and rely upon walking, cycling, or the metro area’s excellent public transit system. 
Gordon Price and Brent Toderian are unabashed apologists for the Vancouver urban planning model, evangelizing at talks around the globe about the benefits of density done well. The two believe these benefits are clearer than ever before as a convergence of issues—the rising cost of energy, climate change, shifting demographics, public health, and the loss of civic identity—prompt many cities to reevaluate business as usual. 
On the other hand, there are those who are less sanguine about promoting density as a panacea for our urban ills. They point to the loss of affordability that is the routine corollary to increased density and gentrification. Why pack more people into a city’s downtown core if the consequences are overcrowding and overpriced real estate? Others foresee the irrelevance of mass transit as telecommuting increasingly becomes the norm rather than the exception. Why invest in expensive transportation infrastructure when it’s increasingly possible to telecommute and reduce a community’s carbon footprint by moving work to the worker? 
What do you think? Watch Todarian’s presentation and come to your own conclusions. 
Vancouver's characteristic residential point tower typology (my photo)
Because I was born and raised in Vancouver, I have a keen interest in developments there. A lot has changed since I left Canada to settle in Eugene back in 1988. Opportunely, the 2013 AIA Northwest & Pacific Region Conference will take place in Vancouver this October, a joint production with the Architectural Institute of British Columbia. The conference theme—Sea Change: Architecture on the Crest—calls attention to the dynamic, critical times in which we live. Undoubtedly, the host city will greatly influence responses to this theme. Attend the conference and judge for yourself whether the lessons of “Vancouverism” are applicable to communities everywhere.  

(1)  I haven’t added Price Tags to my Blog List in the sidebar precisely because it is Vancouver-focused, whereas I’ve aimed SW Oregon Architect toward—surprise, surprise—subjects of general interest to those of us who live here in the southern Willamette Valley of Oregon.

(2)  Vancouver assigns precedence to pedestrians, bicycles, and mass transit over the automobile; “balancing” their respective needs has only perpetuated the primacy of the car over other modes of transportation.

1 comment:

Bobby said...

Very nice photo of Vancouver, really shows the activation of the street for night at sunset.