A Year Later, Why Go Downtown?
Hern and Berelowitz continue their back and forth on post-Olympics Vancouver. Today: bike lanes, towers, and more.
[Editor's note: This is the second of a three-part conversation between Lance Berelowitz and Matt Hern about the future of Vancouver. Berelowitz is an urban planner, critic and author of Dream City: Vancouver and the Global Imagination. Hern is a rabble-rouser and author of Common Ground in a Liquid City: Essays in Defense of an Urban Future. While they live on opposite sides of town, Berelowitz and Hern share a deep affection for their city and regularly meet halfway to compare notes and drink.]
So returning to our theme of over-regulated urban space and nurturing a vibrant city, I want to talk for a moment about bike lanes. If you troll the letters or editorial sections of the Sun or Province, you quickly run into the argument that the new bike lanes along Dunsmuir and Hornby are a terrible idea because so few people in this city ride their bikes, and thus because most people drive we should be accommodating that.
Now obviously that's a bullshit argument in so many ways. Part of the reason so few people ride currently is that there is such a weak bike infrastructure here, and a hundred years of cynical urban planning has privileged car culture over all else. We should be thinking a better city and then building it, instead of defaulting to facile choice arguments. I want a politicized city where we can actively shape our future, not capitulate and let the market make decisions for us.
You know I am no cheerleader for this current city council to be sure, but they are exhibiting a little courage here, thankfully. A better city has to get people out of their freaking cars. And that's hardly a radical proposition. And not just for ecological reasons, but for the cultural repercussions. It is now urban orthodoxy that our future has to have vastly fewer cars, a lot more bikes and a way better public transit system. That's all good, and frankly we should be moving a hell of a lot faster on these fronts.
But I don't think any of that is enough. Really the key to urban transport issues -- especially in this city -- is density. We have to be getting people closer together. You said it perfectly once: "the whole city needs to be squeezed." Vancouver needs to be vastly more urban, not less. We need housing density (and I'm not talking faceless glass towers), commercial density, cultural density. This city needs to stop emulating a small town and embrace the urban. The result will be a much funkier city to be sure, but a much more ecological one as well. That said, density has to be done thoughtfully and politically. Just throwing up some condo towers in the Downtown Eastside is an ugly route to take, but that doesn't undermine the exigency of density.
As you know, I am a huge food gardener at home and have chickens and the whole deal. We keep bees at the Purple Thistle (alternative school Hern helped found) and have started a big ole community garden -- I have my share of hippie in me. But good lord, I have run out of patience with the tired old calls for more greenspace. We have far enough greenspace in this empty little city -- there is so much boulevard acreage, thousands of vast lawns, huge swaths of lonely parks, endless unused space. We need to squish this city, quit being so greedy in our endless gobbling of land and use the space we have more creatively. If we are really serious about reducing our ecological footprint, then living densely is the key. If we purport to love nature let's stop sprawling over so much of it, and that doesn't just mean the suburbs.
You have written about Vancouver's centrifugal character and that's a perfect visual. People tend to spin off to the edges here: wander along the seawall, head for the hills, get out on the ocean, drive off up the valley, go snowboarding -- which has a hollowing effect on the cultural life of the city. There's not enough going on here so people are attracted to that scenery, and because everyone's out hiking every weekend, there's not enough going on. People need reasons to get out of their houses, give up their bongs and endless video watching, their social networking and career obsessions, and get out of their cars. A vibrant city needs people participating in public life, contributing to the commonwealth, running into each other, having a good time and enlivening our communities. We have a responsibility to city life and a huge part of that is cutting down on how far we have to travel everyday.
There is no doubt in my mind (and many others, see David Owen's really spot-on recent book The Green Metropolis, for example) that increased density is the key metric for urban sustainability and reducing our carbon footprint. Propinquity -- that is, pushing people and the things they need to live, closer together – beats currently trendy "green design" hands down when it comes to real, measurable environmental impacts. But even more than that, it is higher urban densities, and the frisson that this creates between uses, people and events, that is the single biggest contribution towards a more vital, dynamic, creative urban life. Look at all the great cities of the world: Paris, New York, London, Hong Kong, Istanbul, you name it. They are flat out more fun and exciting and full of unpredictable possibilities. And a whole lot denser than Vancouver.
It is this lack of unpredictability that perhaps most drives me to distraction about Vancouver. Too many rules, too much proscription, rather than treating people like real adults and trusting ourselves to try different things, even make mistakes. We agree on this. The best cities are layers of divergent trajectories that feed off each other.
As far as densification goes, we've done a pretty good job densifying the downtown peninsula (regardless of what you think of the ubiquitous glass towers on podiums building form). This has been a real success. And we are starting to see intensification in Vancouver's suburbs such as Arbutus Walk in Kitsilano, Collingwood Village, and the development around Kingsway and Knight. But these are still relatively few and far between, and what we need is wholesale densification across the board, but done in ways that largely maintain the look and feel of the neighbourhoods that Vancouverites legitimately enjoy. There are many more incremental housing forms that could achieve this, which our regulations do not yet permit. The ecodensity initiative that the previous city council championed, and which the current council pretends to ignore but has also supported, such as through the laneway housing initiative, is a good start. For the first time, local politicians have explicitly linked densification to mitigating environmental impacts.
But it is not enough, and when you widen the lens further to include the surrounding municipalities, the picture grows even fuzzier. As a region, we have a long way to go and in fact, last time I checked the stats, the City of Vancouver is growing slower than other municipalities, which is worrisome if we consider ourselves a role model for the region and think of the even more serious consequences of exporting our population growth to the periphery, where sprawl threatens the Agricultural Land Reserve and we build into ever more marginal environments.
Which brings me back to bicycle lanes. Of course they are a good idea. But they will only really work as a viable alternative (i.e. get people out of cars in meaningful numbers) if we also offer the supporting elements of a much more integrated public transit system -- that addresses local, city-wide and regional transit needs -- as well as much higher densities and more mixed uses in closer proximity to each other, so that cycling becomes practical and comparable in convenience. Housing lots more people closer to where they work, shop, create and play is a huge step in this.
And yes, the last thing we need is yet more greenspace. But Vancouver does need more multi-use, urban public spaces, which in other cultures are called squares, places, piazzas, plazas, etc. Actually, I think the area around Commercial Drive is one of the few parts of the city that seems to have a really dynamic public life. It is perhaps the funkiest street in town. Why is this, I wonder? Maybe it's time I consider moving, although here's the rub: I confess to really enjoying being able to take a five-minute walk from my front door to the Kitsilano beachfront. It's a powerful draw on a sunny morning. But not particularly urban, I grant you. Maybe Vancouver will only really urbanize when the smog gets so thick that we can't see the mountainous backdrop or go jogging beside the sea…
Back to you,
I'm with you for lots of this, but I want to take issue with one particular point that illustrates a larger, central thread. I am not onboard when you call downtown a "real success." The recent renovation of the downtown peninsula is a genuine success in some ways sure (and especially if one were sitting in an office reading stats and staring at maps) but what you once called the new "forest of glassy towers" is butt-ugly, mostly vapid architecturally and totally unaffordable. The new (decade-and-a-half) densification of downtown has created a widening dialectic of unaffordability as the plague of condos spreads further afield and threatens huge swaths of the city, undermining existing thriving neighbourhoods like the West End, which to my mind has an energy, building diversity, decently-affordable rental stock and terrific density that is entirely missing in the new downtown. And for lots of obvious reasons the new forest of podium towers just won't age anything like as well as the WE has.
Increased density is absolutely essential, but if it is a density that privileges developers and profiteering above community vitality and affordability, then we're barking up the wrong tree. There are cities we know and love with awesome densities without a single tower: the hearts and most vital parts of Istanbul, Paris, the Lower East Side of Manhattan etc. are composed overwhelmingly of four to eight story walkups. Podium towers are most useful for capital accumulation.
What we need is a thoughtful, aggressive densification that adds to existing neighbourhoods instead of swamping them, creates affordability instead of undermining it, adds to the architectural diversity and flavour of the city instead of blandifying it, and builds a city of neighbours, not investors and speculators. I want a city full of people who love this place and want to inhabit it. Our current rendition of density is incubating a city full of people who love this city because it is adding to their net worth.
Talk soon. Peace. M.
That's a rather sweeping generalization of downtown. "Butt-ugly, mostly vapid architecturally and totally unaffordable"? Really? Tell that to the many hundreds (perhaps thousands) of families who have moved into apartments and co-op housing in Yaletown, Downtown South, Northeast False Creek and even Coal Harbour, because many of them come from places that are far more comfortable with high density, high rise living, like say Kiev or Sarajevo or Shanghai. Tell it to the most heterogeneous community in Vancouver who have colonized the West End (which you rightly admire). And tell it to those unfortunate indigents who still make the Downtown Eastside their home, however transitory it might be. That's all part of the downtown mix.
The problem with generalizations is that they tend to simplify what is a rather diverse reality. Yes, downtown densification has raised housing costs for some, but it has also created several thousand subsidized housing units, and increased the proportion of Vancouver residents living downtown from about 10 per cent to over 15 per cent, including some 7,000 children. And City policy requires that large developments typically allocate 20 per cent of their housing for non-market units, and 25 per cent of the total for family-oriented housing. These are good things.
Your dismissal of all things new in downtown also tends, by implication at least, to glorify your own 'hood as the only politically correct place. And let's be careful when referencing cities such as Paris as having no towers. Try tell that to the many million inhabitants of its surrounding high-rise banlieus, which by the way are every bit as bland and sterile as some of ours!
The real issue is how to get the private sector to invest in land development when land prices are so high that lower scale densification tends not to pencil out for them. Nor do the City's land use zoning regulations even permit this form of thoughtful densification in many areas. It comes back to too many restrictive regulations, and not enough freedom for market forces to find multiple, more organic ways to densify all over the city. Unless of course you don't believe the market has any place in the business of housing? Which I hope is not your position, although I will readily agree that government absolutely has a critical role to play in the provision of housing for the most needy end of the social spectrum, and Canada should be truly ashamed that it's the only G8 country without a national housing program.
Tomorrow, the discussion wraps up with sharp disagreement over whether it's time to treat the Lower Mainland as one big city.
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