Opinion: It’s Time To Update How We Plan Our City

The innovation economy has changed the way we live and work—our land-use strategies need to catch up.

We are truly on the cusp of some transformative times for urban planning around the world, particularly in Vancouver. With the decrease in what we know as traditional industrial jobs and the rise of new industries and the creative class, Vancouver has an unprecedented opportunity to be a pioneer in how we recreate and redesign our cities to accommodate the evolving needs of the new workforce.New technologies are transforming the way we do everything, especially the way we live. And yet, people still cling to the old definitions of industry—dirty, noisy steel plants, automobile factories, welding shops. Those jobs are still important, for sure. But they are moving out to the suburbs where land is cheaper, closer to where their workforce lives.The future of sustainable urban cities lies in the new and evolving creative businesses, businesses that are redefining the meaning of industry, how and where we live and what our cities look and feel like. But as Vancouver city councillor Andrea Reimer recently noted, the city’s infrastructure, services and bylaws were created to serve a bygone economy that relied on resources and industrial processing. “It doesn’t make sense anymore,” she says. Vancouver’s origins as a resource town shaped the city’s infrastructure for decades, but times, and our needs, have changed. (Photo: City of Vancouver Archives.)And yet no one is sure how to build innovative, mixed-use communities that combine industry, retail and residential. Reimer, for her part, agrees the separation between business and residential districts no longer makes sense. Nor does maintaining industrial areas that shut down at 5 p.m. But she admits adapting city planning to support an “innovation economy” is challenging, in part because the nature of work is changing so fast. Cities everywhere, not just Vancouver, are grappling with these changes and trying to come up with policies that will protect job space while avoiding residential silos. It’s a tricky balancing act and Vancouver is struggling to figure it out.Take the recent redevelopment and zoning announcement for the False Creek Flats. After 20 years of careful consideration, the City of Vancouver has decided to create and protect an industrial zone in the heart of the city using what’s left of available land. Smart. However, there are extremely limited provisions for new housing in the area. What this means is that all the jobs they are protecting in that area will be filled by people who travel in from the suburbs in a reverse commute. It makes no sense. Ask anyone on the train into New York from New Jersey.

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If they included provisions for more housing in the area and allowed for buildings that could include a mix of uses—industrial, retail and residential—employees coming into the area (estimates are up 20,000) could live where they work. That would include employees at the new St. Paul’s Hospital, Emily Carr University, The Centre for Digital Media, MEC and the many medical, biotech and start-ups moving into the area. Those people could help create a new vibrant and dynamic neighborhood, next to one of the city’s busiest transit stations. Seems obvious, right? We need residential density in industrial areas, especially in a city suffering from a lack of affordability.Take a look at what’s happening in Mount Pleasant for an idea of how our future could unfold. On the site where Hudson Plating used to manufacture powder coating and plating for metal products at 5th Avenue and Ontario, there will soon rise a new building. The site will go from employing 40 heavy industry workers to over 350 tech workers. Hudson Plating has now moved to Delta where they have a less expensive workspace and more space in general. It’s a similar story down the street where a company that was a wholesale distributor of sewing products and a longtime presence in the area departed for the suburbs, soon to be replaced by Saje, a health and wellness company. Saje will move into a renovated, revamped industrial heritage building, taking the site from 20 employees to about 250. The city’s plan for the False Creek Flats will see it attract up to 20,000 workers in Vancouver’s “innovation” economy, but allows for very little new housing. (Photo: Paul Joseph.)In short, Mount Pleasant is seeing a revolutionary change in the kind of industry that is moving in, as well as a growing workforce that wants to live close by and support other local businesses. Thus, the evolution of a cool, attractive neighborhood with its plethora of restaurants, craft breweries and offices. But Mount Pleasant needs more housing in the same way the Flats will. Not introducing housing in these industrial areas is a missed opportunity to help alleviate the lack of affordable housing in this city.What we really need is what Harvard Business Review calls innovation districts: “geographic areas where leading-edge, anchor institutions and companies cluster and connect with start-ups, business incubators and accelerators. Compact, transit-accessible and technically wired, innovation districts foster open collaboration, grow talent and offer mixed-use housing, office and retail.”

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As noted by the Brookings Institute, innovation districts provide a strong foundation for the creation and expansion of companies and jobs. They offer “dense enclaves that merge the innovation and employment potential of research-oriented anchor institutions, high-growth firms, and tech and creative start-ups in well-designed, amenity-rich residential and commercial environments.” Does that sounds like what The Flats could be?There are vibrant, mixed-use innovation districts in Oklahoma City, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Detroit, San Diego and many more. Globally, Barcelona, Berlin, London, Medellin, Montreal, Seoul and Stockholm have evolving districts. There are innovation districts developing in Boston, Brooklyn, Chicago, Portland, Providence, San Francisco and Seattle where underutilized areas, particularly older industrial areas, are being re-imagined and remade. Success of Vancouver’s innovation economy depends on planning that reflects how the changing world of work is changing the way we use our city. (Illustration: Cristian Fowlie.)It’s time for Vancouver to re-imagine its last underutilized, industrial area and turn the Flats, and other areas, into a beautiful mash-up of entrepreneurs and educational institutions, start ups, schools, and medical and tech innovators—all connected by transit, wired for digital technology and powered by caffeine. Vancouver is perfect for this experiment in the new geography of innovation. What are we waiting for?According to Reimer, the city has convened an innovation economy roundtable to study how it can better support modern workers through land-use planning. That’s a good first step. In a city like Vancouver, that has for so long struggled with affordable residential and industrial supply, adding density to a neighborhood like Mount Pleasant or False Creek Flats is the only way forward in becoming a sustainable community, in becoming an innovation district.Brent Sawchyn is a real estate entrepreneur at PC Urban Properties Inc. in Vancouver. His company re-imagines and repurposes urban properties to help establish sustainable communities. www.pcurban.ca

Have your say! Send editorial submissions to VanMag Senior Editor Jessica Barrett at  Jessica.Barrett@Vanmag.com