Are Our Urban Planners Thinking Small Enough?

Though the Vancouver skyline is rapidly evolving, it’s not actually starchitect projects or record-setting skyscrapers that make a city great: the change that creates an engaged, active community and improves the quality of life happens on the ground level—on street corners, in our parks, around public spaces. 

Ask an architect or urban planner about the changing look and feel of Vancouver, and they’ll usually talk about buildings. The sensational Vancouver House, climbing to the sky next to the Granville Street Bridge—an aggressive aluminum-tinted flower that starts on a slim stem and blooms outward on the upper floors. The parade of ever-more-adventurous towers on Georgia and Alberni Streets, as developers flocking to (mostly) international architects try to outdo each other in boldness after three decades of filling downtown with uniform glassy condo buildings. Among them, Westbank’s Kengo Kuma tower, Bosa’s Buro Ole Scheeren Jenga-like building, and local architect James Cheng’s proposed monastic-looking obelisk for Brilliant Circle Group which will sit where Georgia meets Pender.

Bjarke Ingel’s Vancouver House design may be striking from a distance, but its true impact will be felt on the ground level, where retail and restaurants will frame a pedestrian square beneath the Granville Street Bridge. (Photo courtesy of Westbank.)

But ask regular Vancouverites the same question, and the view changes abruptly. No more imaginary craning of the neck to look up. No assessment of the skyline or silhouettes or massing or materials palette. Ask on Twitter what they love, and it’s the small details at ground level. The new children’s playground next to Science World, says one. Benches along the Comox bike route in the West End, from another. The growing number of linear parks through the city: the new Arbutus Greenway, the routes along the Kitsilano beaches. They verge on the poetic. “The landscaping, pedestrian realm and cycling infrastructure around the new Emily Carr is very high quality. Seems like someone scattered wildflower seeds around the adjacent empty lots as well, and they’re all in bloom. Great idea,” tweeted software engineer Tavis McCallum, who cycles through the area regularly, about the best new things in Vancouver. And there are also the small changes they hate. “The white monolithic vault-esque style of houses going up in Dunbar/Oakridge/Kerrisdale,” is urban-planning student Laurel Eyton’s top visual annoyance.

So when anyone talks about design in the city, it’s clear that it lives in different places for quite different sets of inhabitants. There are the increasingly noticeable towers that get Vancouver mentioned in the architecture magazines and attract the tourist photos. But there’s the almost subliminal design in the city, the kind many people barely notice, except for a mist of pleasure or comfort that comes over them as they experience it. That divergence in assessing the city’s texture is not surprising for those who have analyzed it. Researchers who study the way regular people use cities know that what matters most to them is the environment that they can see and enjoy right around them. And the design of that environment produces powerful social impacts. “The feeling of psychological ownership in public spaces is very important,” says Colin Ellard, a University of Waterloo neuroscientist who specializes in studying the psychology of people’s interactions with cities. “And we need those when we have to live with thousands and millions of others. How do we solve those problems of failure of social capital in cities, of loneliness? It’s public spaces and green spaces. They’ve been potent to the way people feel.”

Though bike lanes have long been a hot debate topic for NIMBYs, the fact is that designing a city with cyclists and pedestrians in mind improves quality of life for everyone, supporting public health (mental and physical) and reducing congestion.

It’s not that urban citizens reflexively hate towers, says Ellard. “Generally, we like iconic landmark buildings.” But that’s not actually what most people look at as they navigate the city. “As an urban pedestrian, what you see is in the bottom two to two and a half metres. What matters there is complexity and variety. And even a small parkette with a bench and a tree can be really effective in changing your mood.”

Of course, some notice and assess both Vancouvers: the one in the sky and the one on the ground. Late on this sunny afternoon, at a time when the construction crews have gone home and all is quiet again, boomer couple Bill and Kathy Moore sit at a sidewalk tables outside Tartine Bread and Pies with their out-of-town visitors, facing one of Vancouver’s biggest construction sites. Vancouver House, the city’s most distinctive building in the making, looms over them on Beach Avenue.

There are the increasingly noticeable towers that get Vancouver mentioned in the architecture magazines and attract the tourist photos. But there’s the almost subliminal design in the city, the kind many people barely notice, except for a mist of pleasure or comfort that comes over them as they experience it.

Their visiting friend, Wisconsinite John Reid, has taken pictures of Vancouver House from several angles on his holiday, intrigued by the way the building appears to be a conventional square from some angles and an engineering-defying curve from others. His pal Bill, an engineer who moved to Vancouver about half a dozen years ago to work on major infrastructure projects, jokes that he hopes the building’s engineers have done their work properly and nothing will come falling down.

They agree with what some of the city’s pre-eminent visual analysts say about the tower’s striking presence and what that means for Vancouver. “It lessens to some degree the glass-city perspective,” says Barrie Mowatt, the man who brings public art to the city through the Vancouver International Sculpture Biennale. (He’s brought art to unusual public spaces, like the Trans Am Totem near Science World, the A-maze-ing Laughter statues in English Bay, the painted silos on Granville Island, and, coming soon, a three-dimensional piece that looks like a large red anvil to the underused Leg in Boot Square.) “It changes from whatever angle you’re looking at it,” says Mowatt.

Olympic Village Plaza is a prime example of development that actually affects day-to-day life: a bustling public square with people crossing paths en route to the seawall or Tap and Barrel, or kicking back with their food-truck lunch in the sun. (Photo: Ariana Gilrie.)

Lance Berelowitz, an urban planner and author of Dream City, the 2005 book that plumbed Vancouver’s built-form identity, calls it “a game-changer, with its complexity and the way it’s so self-consciously boastful.” It will noticeably alter the skyline, to the dismay of some Vancouver residents who resent the intrusion of towers into mountain views or the developer’s reputation for selling heavily to offshore buyers.

But the Moores and Reid are just as interest-ed in what will be on the street someday around the tower. Will there be any shops? What kind? What is going to go into that space right across the street? Will there be a gas station to take the place of the one that used to be here, its historic presence marked by an ancient small neon sign?

How do we solve those problems of failure of social capital in cities, of loneliness? It’s public spaces and green spaces. They’ve been potent to the way people feel.

The long-term plan from Ian Gillespie—the Westbank Corp. founder and CEO who obses-sively curates everything that accompanies his developments—is to create a hip retail hubthat will rival Granville Island across the water, complete with a chandelier designed by artist Rodney Graham that will hang from the under-side of the bridge. That’s what is likely to charm and pull in pedestrians, not the tower above.

There’s much more in the works or on the horizon, at both the skyline and ground level, continuing this city’s transformation from what it was only four decades ago: a dumpy Pacific Northwest village attached to an industrial harbour; a larger, slightly warmer version of Port Hardy or Prince Rupert, with hectares of sprawling, unremarkable middle-class housing surrounding a tattered inner city. A place that wasn’t so far removed from the Ethel Wilson Vancouver of the 1940s: rain-soaked streets filled with sagging small shops and working-class bungalows. The city’s design, if it could be said to have one then, was its orderly grid of streets and its deference to its backdrop of mountains. There was no distinctive architecture that advertised, as has happened elsewhere, that one was unmistakably in Montreal or Baltimore or San Francisco.

At Smithe and Richards, an elevated walkway will add levels to a new park, an architectural twist that goes beyond traditional park design. “It feels like we’re open to having more fun,” says architect Marianne Amodio. (Image courtesy of the City of Vancouver.)

Now, close to the end of the second decade of the 21st century, that’s no longer true. There are unmistakable identifying marks on the city’s body. The ubiquitous glass towers and podiums of downtown Vancouver. Bike lanes and walkways along various waters’ edges—Burrard Inlet, False Creek, the Fraser River—that are rigorously bucolic, where commerce (or any place to even buy a bottle of water) has been ghosted. The view obsession: condo towers that are built to maximize them; the ongoing public complaints about too many towers in front of mountains. The hundreds of simple-rectangle Vancouver Specials—a builder hack that created the affordable housing of the 1960s.

Green is now part of the city’s defined identity. Trees on the tops of buildings, a nod to former forests and to the city’s aspiration to be the greenest ever. Greenery everywhere, really, incorporated into balconies, inner courtyards, street boulevards, creating a level of lush vegetation that noted urbanist Richard Florida once said made him think differently about what is possible in even the densest urban environment.

And then there are the city’s increasingly idiosyncratic public spaces. Small parklets, streets shut down to form open-air hangout spots—the Jim Deva Plaza on Bute, the new plaza planned for 14th and Main, Robson Square’s expansion—and car-free festivals.

But there is more change to come as Vancouver continues to morph.

Laneways are one part of the transformation. Those streets that European cities don’t have, the backyard roads that provide a second navigation plane in the city. “For me, the most exciting trend is the discovery of the alleys,” says Bill Pechet, an architect, artist and urban planner who participated in the Venice architecture biennale in 2006. “Vancouver doesn’t have to move horizontally, but we can thicken instead.”

More than 3,000 laneway houses (and some laneway apartment buildings) now exist in Vancouver’s back alleys, creating much-needed housing options that are “thickening” our city rather than forcing a sprawl. (Lanefab Design/Build photo: Colin Perry)

More than 3,000 small homes have now been built facing Vancouver’s alleys, bringing more life to these hidden pathways. Besides the laneway houses dotting Vancouver’s traditional single-family-house zones, the already dense West End is seeing new small laneway apartment buildings emerge, two and three storeys with a handful of units apiece, facing alleys that are as wide as city streets, adding landscaping and lighting and even new names like Rosemary Brown Lane and Eihu Lane, memorializing the area’s activists of previous decades. And an initiative by the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association has resulted in two alleys—one behind Hastings, one behind Granville—being repurposed as outdoor party spaces, with vivid paintings on the asphalt and building walls, and pop-up dance events scheduled for them. (These alley experiences even have their own hashtag: #moreawesomenow.)

The idea of the laneway is going to expand, if the ambitious and almost utopian plans for Northeast False Creek are realized. That undeveloped swath of land between Chinatown and the water, the escarpment and Main Street—the last big undeveloped piece of downtown—is supposed to be transformed into the kind of central-city neighbourhood that Vancouver hasn’t seen before. Restaurants, bars and entertainment along the waterfront, for the first time, at the foot of the new Georgia Street that will be engineered to come down to the shoreline. In the section west of a large new park, Concord Pacific plans to build a cluster of buildings that have laneways running through them, with small independent shops. Another new Vancouver conjured out of nothing.

Once the viaducts are removed, landscape architecture firm James Corner Field Operations will be swooping in to reshape the False Creek waterfront with 13.75 acres of new parks and open space as well as an events district. (Image courtesy of the City of Vancouver.)

And it will come with a park, part of the growing network of green or leisure spaces that are becoming part of the city’s identity. The park in Northeast False Creek, while not fully planned yet, is supposed to have a High Line–style cycling route that will allow people to make the climb from the flats easily. Another park about to emerge at Smithe and Richards will also have an elevated walkway, while still another, with a skate park, is being planned for underneath the Cambie Bridge. “Overall, it feels a bit like we are opening up to having more fun and to encouraging quirky ways of community gathering,” says architect Marianne Amodio of MA+HG Architects, considered one of the city’s most creative new designers and part of the team behind the revamp of the Hollywood Theatre on West Broadway.

For those who love the physical artfulness of buildings, there are many new threads being woven into the fabric of the city, from the overall sculptural look of these new soaring towers to new little design trends, those easily visible things that both Vancouverites and visitors notice—sometimes with pleasure, sometimes with irritation.

Among the irritants: curving balconies have been pasted on to many new towers, as architects riff on the look that Chicago’s Jeanne Gang popularized. Colour continues to be slapped onto towers here and there in an effort to avoid the “bland, boring condo tower” criticism. And while there are some eye-pleasing new single-family houses, duplexes and laneways going up, the garishly opulent palace has been making a regular appearance in moneyed neighbourhoods.

But Lance Berelowitz, who has been watching the city’s slow evolution for 30 years, is taken aback by the slowness in improving Vancouver’s public spaces. “It’s still pretty underwhelming,” he says. “There are no sidewalk cafés, no urban squares.” The large square in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery, which Berelowitz’s company was involved with, has been revamped to remove the fountain and allow for more public gathering. But the budget for other design elements and furniture was reduced, leaving it looking somewhat bereft.

In spite of that, Berelowitz welcomes the new Vancouver that’s slowly emerging. “It’s vastly improved from the dump I moved to in 1985. It’s more sophisticated, more moneyed. And the one thing that has been constant”—something no one has tried to override—“is the natural setting.”