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Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

Vancouverism and the neighbourhoods

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Vancouverism behind some Vancouver Specials, Kingsway at Nanaimo

Vancouverism behind some Vancouver Specials, Kingsway at Nanaimo

In the Vancouver Sun this Saturday is an article from Michael Kluckner explaining how old urban development was really the equivalent of “green-city design”, with walkable neighbourhoods linked by train or streetcars.  Says Kluckner:

As Metro Vancouver struggles with affordability and environmental issues, are there lessons from the past that might help it adapt to the 21st century

There’s no magic to creating new versions of the Commercial Drives and Main Streets that are so popular today. The city was laid out with transit lines running north-south about eight blocks apart and businesses established themselves near the stops. Few people were farther than a halfdozen blocks from a set of shops, important in a society where few could afford a car. What looks green today was simply reality then, not only in Vancouver with its streetcars, but in “country” towns like Ladner, Langley and Abbotsford.

The narrow, 33-foot lots of Vancouver’s old neighbourhoods – Grandview, Mount Pleasant and Kitsilano – have adapted well to the kind of green city envisioned for the 21st century. Tall houses, some with suites, provide a range of housing options for tenants and owners. People can garden, walk to shops and restaurants and cycle if they wish. Population density is high enough to support frequent transit.

But Kluckner is also critical of Vancouverism:

 Looking at the big picture, Vancouver and its neighbours need more villages like Kerrisdale to absorb new people and make the lower-density suburban areas more walkable with more housing options. Not Metrotowns or Surrey Centres, but something a bit leafy with a wider range of options, mixing fee-simple ownership with strata. As for the old villages like The Drive and Kitsilano, they’re working just fine and don’t need to be “fixed up” with more density.

Hmm.  There’s a problem here.  Grandview and Kits, sure, are just fine, but the same could be said for Main Street, Fraser, Renfrew, Dunbar, and countless other Vancouver neighbourhoods, which makes one wonder: where, then, can densification proceed?  Pete McMartin had a pretty snappy critique of this NIMBYism, and Stephen Quinn penned a nice satyrical piece

Just look at Oakridge. It’s a perfectly good shopping centre. You know, a good food court with the noodles and such, though I don’t care much for those. But some people do and that’s just fine. There’s lots of free parking. It’s even got a carpeted area – you know, a kind of pit for the young ones to play in. But now the Zellers is gone, and they want to build a bunch of high-rise towers in the parking lot. And why? Because it’s near a transit line? Why can’t Oakridge just stay the same?

Same goes for the East End. You know, around Commercial Drive. Perfectly good neighbourhood right now. Still a few Italians left. There’s a Safeway right there with parking spaces big enough to fit a sedan. So what are they doing? They’re talking about some kind of “pedestrian plaza” and some more great big apartment buildings. Why? Because there are a couple of rapid transit lines there? Because it’s some kind of “transit hub” they say. I don’t get it. Why can’t they just leave it alone? It’s perfectly good the way it is.

Quinn nails the issue; as Kluckner states, the neighbourhoods are just fine as they are, why should they change?  But of course, the neighbourhoods are just part of a greater whole, the city – and the burbs around.  And, of course, most people with a job in the city would prefer to live in the city; no one likes a long commute.

Vancouver’s response has been a piecemeal increase of housing stock with towers dispersed through neighbourhoods, as well as building up the downtown, west end and  yaletown core.  This has been dubbed “vancouverism” and is now famous, a concept praised in, among others, the Guardian, and followed from Melbourne to Toronto.  In essence, it is defined as

 a mixed-use commercial development of medium height located at the base of a high-rise residential tower, which is recessed from the lower levels and from the streets below.

That’s all fine and good for the downtown peninsula; but in the inner belt, this usually results in an isolated tower or two surrounded by low – as opposed to medium – density, and the contrast is painful.  But this is also why Vancouver has so little city feel; there is nothing that corresponds to, say, Montreal’s Plateau or Hochelaga districts, with blocks after blocks of three-story row houses.  Those Montreal neighbourhoods have roughly three times the density of our inner belt neighbourhoods, such as Little Mountain or Grandview (click here for a detailed map of neighbourhood densities).

Plateau Mont-Royal, Montreal

Plateau Mont-Royal, Montreal

And much as laneway houses are a good way to increase density in heritage neighbourhoods, that’s not enough to accommodate the demand.  If affordable housing is to be created, density must increase; and doing so would also reduce our per capita environmental footprint.

But if vancouverism, aka isolated towers among houses, is not the answer for the inner belt, then what is?

As a former Montrealer, I’m biaised.  But I like three-story walk-ups.  There are a number of examples on the east side, pictured below.  They’re nothing like Montreal’s – but they perform the same function, have roughly the same footprint, and a number are quite gorgeous, in a uniquely Vancouver style.  If that’s vancouverism 2.0, I could live with that.

a cute set of rowhouses, north Grandview area

A cute set of rowhouses, north Grandview area

A small rowhouse complex in Strathcona...lookit, it has solar power!

A small rowhouse complex in Strathcona…lookit, it has solar power!

Grandview area...cute, no?

Grandview area…cute, no?

in North Grandview

in North Grandview

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Written by enviropaul

August 5, 2013 at 8:34 am

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