Updated: Sep 17, 2020
Written by Joyce M. Drohan, Architect & Urbanist, CanU Board Member
The following blog is the summary of a CanU 2018 presentation by Joyce Drohan while leading the City Design Studio at the City of Vancouver.
Can Vancouver remain one of the most liveable cities in the world?
Vancouver is at a watershed moment. The transformation of the downtown peninsula, which forged the city’s reputation for “liveable urbanism”, is largely complete. The next challenge is developing areas beyond the downtown core. Can the city successfully weave many more residents into these existing neighbourhoods? How will they move around and how will they flourish in a city that has become both unaffordable and, to a large extent, inaccessible for many? The new city plan will determine whether Vancouver remains one of the most liveable cities in the world.
Design is key to giving citizens the tools to make informed choices
Without serious design thinking, the City Plan will remain a set of good ideas, policies and processes not likely to be realized. Why? Because for citizens to embrace a plan that affects their lives so directly, they need to see the implications of what is proposed. They need to understand how the three-dimensional city and the spaces within it will look and feel. Good design connects ideas, policies and processes and produces a framework that allows citizens – and the city -- to visualize the future and make informed choices.
The City Design Studio looked at the critical issues facing Vancouver and produced an approach that enables the city to ask the right questions, set the required goals and measure its progress in achieving them.
Our approach looks at development through three lenses: mobility, liveability and resilience. Each refers to a broad set of issues which when taken together determine whether a city works for its residents. Mobility encompasses roads and public transit but equally important, networks for walking and cycling. Liveability includes housing affordability but also density mix, availability of social housing and crucial to all of these, access to daily needs such as food, services and amenities, all elements of a complete community. Resilience, the most complex lens, refers not just to the city’s ability to respond to catastrophic events like earthquakes or windstorms but also to protecting and enhancing natural systems including water, air, plants and animals; as well, this lens considers remedies to the many stressors of urban living by giving residents access to green space or by fostering community cohesion.
Our approach was well received at the 2019 CanU10 Summit, an annual conference hosted by the Council for Canadian Urbanism, where it was presented and commented on by experts in urban design from across the country. They were particularly interested in the tool we developed with colleagues in Sustainability, Resilience, Engineering and other City divisions to measure a neighbourhood’s resilience. We are testing that tool in partnership with The Centre for Integration of Sustainable Research at the University of British Columbia by doing a post-occupancy evaluation of Vancouver’s flagship sustainable community – Southeast False Creek, home to the 2010 Olympic Village. Our goal is that our approach will be the new standard for design applied at a city-wide scale over the course of the work on the City Plan.
In the sections that follow we discuss the importance of each lens; provide examples of challenges, either existing or emerging, under each category; and suggest how our approach will help Vancouver continue its practice of exemplary city-building. _1
Broadway Subway will transform how we move around the city
Providing residents with a convenient, economical means for getting to jobs, services, amenities and attending to their daily needs becomes increasingly critical as cities expand – so critical that many cities are recognizing mobility as a human right. Vancouver has long recognized that part of the solution lies in balancing movement modes. The city has steadily shifted the focus from automobiles to public transit and networks for pedestrians and cyclists. Less car-centric forms of mobility promote more livable urban environments. They connect citizens more effectively with friends, families and community. They also reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change.
We use the MOVE lens to consider Vancouver’s next big step in public transportation: the Broadway Corridor. It is the busiest bus rapid transit (BRT) system in North America with a ridership of about 110,000 daily and it has reached capacity. Passengers must often let several buses go by before they can board during rush hour. The new Broadway Subway, dubbed the Brain Train because it will link some of the most significant research and innovation centres in the Lower Mainland, will help commuters. But it also has the potential to transform the areas it passes through by connecting divided communities, encouraging new forms of housing and generating jobs out of the downtown core – provided we develop urban strategies that enable these important outcomes.
Design of the new Corridor, its buildings, walking environments, cycling paths, public spaces and roads will be critical to its success. As with Downtown South, Vancouver's model of livability, a comprehensive approach that draws on examples of the best streets and public spaces from around the world, will be essential. For instance, how can the new Broadway station areas be designed to make taking transit a highly attractive option for getting around?
The Broadway Subway will be a catalyst for Vancouver’s current shift of commercial and jobs concentrations beyond the downtown core. As the second largest employment area in the city, the Civic-Health Precinct is a key area of change along the Broadway spine. With a reimagined City Hall campus and a new master plan for Vancouver General Hospital, the opportunity here is to bring these two large civic communities together as a hub of rich public life. This can be done by enhancing the places, spaces and buildings in a unified Precinct plan. The goal is not only to repair east-west connections (streets, sidewalks and cycling paths) but, equally important, to bring neighbourhoods together north and south of Broadway. This interconnectedness must be embedded in the design of the neighbourhood fabric around new transit stations. The thousands of new residents who are expected to live here must be able to access the many benefits of the Corridor – from transit to amenities to goods and services to entertainment. This idea of a complete community will also be a key objective of the next lens, LIVE.
Delivering on the promise of affordable housing
The city’s reputation as a stable, highly livable place is under threat because of the growing lack of affordable housing. High-end homes for the affluent have steadily displaced homes for lower-income and young buyers. The city needs a better balance, with a focus on delivering the ‘missing middle’ mid-rises, townhomes, laneway housing and infill projects.
The City has made this a priority, introducing a range of programs and incentives. They include:
· Affordable Housing Delivery – including social housing in City or private developments, the latter benefitting from various incentive programs including waiving of some development charges
· Secured market rental – through the Rental 100 Program a host of incentives from density bonuses to expedited approvals have increased delivery of rental to an average of 1100 units per year over the last 4 years from 350 per year in previous periods.
· Social Purpose Real Estate Program: that assists non-profit organizations -including co-ops, religious groups and others to deliver on their housing initiatives
· Temporary Modular Housing: responding to the urgent need of housing the homeless, this highly effective program will have delivered 600 units over the last year and a half, a model that could be replicated in other cities.
Two-thirds of the 72,000 units planned for the next 10 years will be affordable housing. Where should it be situated in order to give new residents the support they need to flourish? The priority is to ensure we created complete communities, where residents can easily access all their daily needs, including goods and services, schools and day care, civic and cultural amenities, as well as transit, open space and community facilities.
We used the City’s GIS database to map where these elements of a complete community were currently concentrated and how housing densities were currently distributed. This provides a valuable tool for beginning the discussion of where these elements might be reinforced and where lower densities might be intensified to take advantage of existing elements. The end result would be a more liveable city.
Neighbourhood design must elegantly coalesce the many elements of a complete community into a holistic urban character that is memorable, coherent and delightful. The look and feel of a neighbourhood becomes a part of who we are and gives the area a unique identity within the larger city. Creating an appealing public realm that citizens want to use is key to good neighbourhood design. Meeting neighbours, engaging in community events or just walking through an area contributes to community cohesion and well-being.
It is important the City Plan allows residents to move around the city with ease and live in complete communities. However, the THRIVE lens that follows is vital to our very survival. It calls for city-wide systems that strengthen our relationship to nature and natural systems.
Resilience as a way of life
Resilient cities consider not only significant risks and disruptions such as earthquakes or storms but also the attributes that foster community cohesion and adaptability. These latter traits alleviate many of the stressors or urban living and support citizens through catastrophic events. Access to nature, an innate human need especially in urban settings, is key to providing the enhanced livability that helps communities flourish. We used the third lens, THRIVE, to focus on two resilience initiatives: one that restores and protects the city’s natural systems and integrates them into the city fabric; the other, an international competition that is part of the C40 Cities program for carbon neutral development and urban innovation.
Living systems: We mapped the City’s natural systems and its current strategies to see if there were synergies that could inform future development. Synergies between areas of high permeability (in light orange), green infrastructure – especially storm water management -- and new open space connections being proposed in the Park Board’s new VanPlay master plan could result in a city-wide network for recreation as well as essential city services.
The added benefits of this systemic approach include enhanced habitat connectivity - critical to biodiversity, increased permeability to recharge soil with water and nutrients, and an emerging public realm network that significantly increases access to nature for all citizens. More trees and green areas mitigate the heat island effect and flooding.
We do not automatically think of design when speaking of resilience. However, good design can carefully weave green infrastructure - systems for conducting and managing rain water - into new open spaces where they enhance the experience of walking through a park or along a greenway. Design can also enrich the major infrastructure needed to address climate change. For example, a dyke needed for protection from sea level rise can host amenities ranging from bleachers to plazas to cafes, much as the Big-U has done in Manhattan. Design is at the heart of the C40 Competition being staged by the City over the next year.
C40 Reinventing Cities: City Council recently voted unanimously to recognize climate change as a crisis. A recently-approved City initiative can be the first step toward addressing this. Attendees at the 2015 Paris Climate Conference acknowledged that carbon neutrality is critical to the future of the planet. The Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, committed her city to a competition program, C40 Reinventing Cities, that calls for development teams to deliver zero carbon projects, while also providing innovative approaches to city building. In 2017, she extended the invitation globally and 19 cities including Vancouver, signed on to participate.
In Vancouver, city policy was already in place for the 10-acre Innovation Hub, part of the under-used industrial areas in the eastern False Creek basin known as The Flats. Vancouver’s C40 entry focusses on 1.5 acres of the Hub. It is anticipated that one of the four, short-listed international teams will reinvigorate Vancouver’s legacy for sustainable urbanism, delivering a unique development that brings together bold ideas that integrate new facilities for the arts, light industry, high tech enterprises, housing and commercial space. It is expected that the winning scheme will be a catalyst for the rest of the 500+acre Flats area and serve as inspiration for innovative urban approaches across the city.
Ensuring that we reach our goals
The City Design Studio has worked closely with colleagues in Sustainability, Resilience, Engineering and many other City divisions to research the many programs available for assessing sustainable and resilient design. These include programs like LEED for Neighbourhood Design as well as the many City programs from Greenest City Action Plan to Healthy City to a host of social and cultural assessment tools. We tied these programs together to create a comprehensive tool that looks broadly, but with rigor, at the spectrum of indicators for resilient neighbourhood design.
We are testing the tool in partnership with The Centre for Integrated Research in Sustainability at UBC by doing a post-occupancy evaluation of Vancouver’s flagship sustainable community – Southeast False Creek, home to the 2010 Olympic Village. This neighbourhood was an exemplary sustainable design when it was conceived in the early 2000’s. It will be instructive to learn which of the aspirational goals for the development were met and where gaps emerge in this new era of resilient urbanism. Our partnership will refine and improve the tool as part of the pilot. Our goal is that the tool and our approach becomes the new standard for design applied at a city-wide scale over the course of the work on the City Plan.
WHY A NEW APPROACH IS NEEDED
Using these three lenses will deliver a new standard of livability
Vancouver has a golden opportunity with the City Plan to make the kind of bold moves that first established it as a global model for liveable urbanism. To do this, it should use the impetus of those major initiatives that are about to begin – Broadway Corridor, multiple housing projects across tenures and incomes, major area plans like City Hall Campus, False Creek Flats, False Creek South and the C40 Competition. Each of these holds out the promise of transforming how we get around, how we inhabit our neighbourhoods and how we respond to the challenges of climate change in a way that builds stronger communities. However, getting there requires a new approach, one that builds on but goes well beyond the idea of liveability that drove earlier successes. Our proposed approach provides a framework for achieving this using the MOVE_LIVE_THRIVE lenses.