Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist


Dateline: 3:12 pm September 17, 2008 Filed under:

Gordon Price stopped me in the middle of a street in Vancouver, and said, “Now look around and count the number of pedestrians you see. Fourteen. Now how many cars? One.” Sure enough, here I was in Vancouver’s West End, a neighborhood as dense and urban as Manhattan (75 people per acre), and it was pedestrian dominated.

That was just the first lesson in a six-hour walking tour by Gordon Price, a fellow urbanist and former city council member in Vancouver, British Columbia. The tour included inspecting infill housing sites, analyzing building height and massing, tree canopies, awnings, sidewalk and street widths, parking and transit utilization, and sitting on a terrace with a beer simply watching the city.

View my photos at Picasaweb here.

From the start, Vancouver felt different. True, Canada is a foreign country, and there are the obvious differences like currency and mailboxes. The musician at the Irish Pub I visited played “Early Mornin’ Rain, by Gordon Lightfoot, a Canadian. But Vancouver is just across the border, and has many similarities to Seattle and Portland. But the differences were the glassy high rises, the attention to the pedestrian environment and the general orderliness of the city struck me. Seattle, while beautiful and wonderful, is Vancouver’s messy cousin to the south.

I was there a very short time, and really only saw the core of the city and a view of the distant mountains. Like many other great North American urban places, the city core is old and was laid out along transit lines and built to a transit-supportive density. That remains, and in the West End no residence is more than a quarter mile from a commercial street with retail, services and transit. In other words, the city is, as Mr. Price put it, “dense enough” to support walkable urbanism. The difference is what has happened in the interim. Whereas other cities, have emptied out, Vancouver has remained vibrant by maintaining or increasing density, encouraging a very healthy pedestrian environment and not ramming a freeway through the heart of town.

The most striking thing is the attention paid to the quality of the urban environment. Some things are quite simple. Parking is either on-street or underground, not in surface parking lots. Streets are lined with trees. No blank walls – in fact, buildings are required to have numerous entrances from the sidewalk and even high-rises have rowhomes facing sidewalks. Commercial corridors are lines with shops, have few gaps and fewer parking lots, are relatively uniform in height, no more than two stories, and stores are required to have awnings so Vancouverites don’t need an umbrella. How civil!

Halfway through our tour we left the West End and entered the Coal Harbour neighborhood, one of two “new” neighborhoods built recently near the urban core on reclaimed industrial land. As part of the agreement with the city, the master developer had to build numerous public improvements, including a seawall and public realm with bike and walkways, as well as a community center and playground. In return, the developer is allowed significant density to offset the cost of the public amenities, which is interesting because in many ways those very amenities help sell and lease units.

The city requires developers to create 2.75 acres of usable open/green space per 1,000 residents, and it sure seems that Vancouverites appreciate their open space. True, it was a nice day, but everywhere we went, people were out and about, walking, biking, sitting on benches or at terraces.

Mr. Price feels the city lacks a little grit and serendipity, but everywhere we went, he was running in to people he knew on the sidewalk. We met one such gentleman on the sidewalk outside Urban Fare, a full service grocer in Coal Harbour. (Mr. Price stated that it takes 4,000 households to support a grocer like this.) The gentleman indicated that he loved the store and lived several blocks away. When asked if he ever drove to Urban Fare, he said he’d be embarrassed to drive, a small victory for a pedestrian-friendly city.

Indeed, everywhere I went the pedestrian environment was stellar. In the morning, I wandered to Yaletown, the other new central city neighborhood. Like Coal Harbour, it too has a community center. But Yaletown is more impressive. They preserved the original roundhouse from the 1880s (it houses the community center), and adjacent that is a lovely park with an elementary school and daycare. The housing development was all high rises on podiums, and all of it knit together with a very pedestrian-friendly environment.

Sure, my first impression of the city was from the bus high up on the Granville Bridge, with what seemed like hundreds of thin, glassy blue towers with lush green mountains in the background. But down on the sidewalk, I just didn’t “feel” like I was amongst all those high rises. As I said, developers are allowed to build tall point towers, but they must be narrow to minimize shadowing, and must be set back when possible, especially from commercial streets. The towers must be on podium structures that are built to a human scale.

Sure enough, I passed tower after tower that had a two or three story podium with multiple commercial or residential entrances, trees, wide sidewalks, bike racks, and benches. Many developments are set back enough to allow for trees and a public sidewalk, as well as a semi-public area for benches or outdoor seating at a cafe, or private space like a small patio in front of a residence. Either way, it was all very intimate without feeling as though you were invading anyone’s privacy.

I am so impressed with Yaletown for its community center and school, especially compared to all the urban cores that have significant recent residential development without either a community center or school. I have read that the school was full from day one and has a long waiting list. Not surprising. The community center is wonderful as well, carved out of the original roundhouse. In fact, the steam engine (No. 374) that pulled the very first freight train in to the Yaletown yards in the 1880s has been restored and sits on the end of the roundhouse itself.

Of course, the natural setting is wonderful and not to be ignored. Besides the mountain backdrop, there is water everywhere. The core city is surrounded by water, so that I had to take a water taxi to charming little Granville Island. While I sat in the Public Market there with a cup of coffee admiring the day, a fellow in a little rubber raft with a tiny outboard motor pulled up to the dock. In the boat were two little excited dogs. As he approached the pier, both jumped out, but only one made it, the other hitting the side and splashing in to the water. The owner laughed and reached in to pull little Fido out. I got the feeling this happened a lot. They all disappeared in to the market to return five minutes later with coffee and treats to putter away in their boat. I can’t decide who has the better life, the dogs or the owner!

Well, it was a great visit. What Vancouver lacks in architectural variety (most new towers are glassy blue), it makes up for in walkable urbanism. Vancouver is quite possibly the finest example of good planning led by educated decision makers of any city that I have ever seen. I’d live there. Well, let me go back for a week of drizzly January weather and I’ll get back to you.

No Comments

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.