All things environmental

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

Vancouver’s River District, Lyon’s La Confluence

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Vancouver’s future River District

A few weeks ago I went on a walk along the Fraser, where the River District project is emerging from the ground.  It will be a nice complex. At a demo suite, I asked about environmental performance, and was happy to see that the real estate brochures profile some features such as district heating and water conservation.

Among the amenities are charging stations for electric cars, low VOC emissions building materials, songbird habitat restoration, rain gardens and other storm water management systems, among other things.  Waste generation was minimized from this former 50-ha brownfield site.

The power used by the complex should be quite low, compared to similar designs.  Buildings will use district heating, with some of the heat provided by a hot water pipeline from the Burnaby incinerator a few kilometers upstream. Heat recovery ventilation systems will be used to keep the air fresh, and heating and cooling will be provided by hybrid heat pumps.  High efficiency fixtures such as LED lights are used throughout. High-performance glazing and other high-tech features in the building envelope will minimize heat loss.  And there will be shops, schools and daycare.

All this is wonderful, and a positive step for real estate projects in the area.  So why did I feel a bit disappointed?

River District on the map. The main lines are car routes – but they remind me of where public transit could be along the Fraser.

Even though it is one of the larger development projects, and on a gorgeous site by the water, it feels like it is poorly linked with the rest of the city – physically, and socially.  For instance, little attention seems to have been paid to public transit, which is frustrating, since there is a rail bed, scarcely used, that could connect the complex to the Marine Drive and New Westminster skytrain stations.

Nor have I seen any mention made of preventative measures against potential flooding.  The main issue here is not rain gardens, but rather the Fraser itself.  A few lessons from developments such as HafenCity in Hamburg could have been integrated; but it seemed that the main district heating distribution centre is a sitting duck, located partially below ground.

Nor did I see any mention of subsidized or supportive housing.  For a project of that magnitude in Europe, one would expect between 30 to 40% of the housing to be non-market.

Think I’m being a utopian dreamer?  Why, then, do such projects exist in Europe? I’ve already posted about some remarkably innovative German developments (Kronsberg in Hanover, or Jenfelder Au, Mitte Altona, or Alsterberg in Hamburg), but I’d like to showcase a development called La Confluence, in Lyon, France, for comparison.

La Confluence, Place Nautique

Like River District, it is on a water’s edge former brownfield, though it is about three times bigger; and it is also adjacent to the historic downtown of Lyon.  But unlike it, the site features buildings remarkable for their avant-garde architecture as well as their energy performance; the Hikari complex, for instance, is not merely better that the standard; it will be energy positive, that is, generating more energy than it uses.  And the district energy grid is designed to be a smart grid that can redistribute excess energy, such as using waste heat from the cooling systems of office towers as a heat source for residential buildings.  And of course, rather than combining just schools and shops with the residential complex, workplaces are incorporated into the design from the start.  And yes, about 30% of the residential project has to be non-market, following strict government requirements for subsidized housing.  The complex is of course rather expensive, with prices per square meter higher than neighbouring downtown (both offices and residential), but the people who’ll be working there on lower salaries will still be able to live there.

So France, Germany, to say nothing of Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden, etc, can somehow manage to turn their old industrial sites into showcase instances of environmental development.  Why can’t we?

The energy-positive Hiraki complex

A reflection came to me as I was looking at this material.  Most North American tourists will go to Europe to visit the old historic districts, to wander the narrow cobblestone streets that saw centuries of human stories from a simpler time before cars and internet.  But it strikes me that European cities have become time machines.  Not only can one step in the past, but one can also visit the future.  Urban planners and developers, while cleaning up old industrial districts, are solving problems we haven’t yet realized we have.  In a city like Lyon, a walk takes you from the roman-era centre to an energy-positive, smart grid integrated neighbourhood.  Watch out for the whiplash – and try not to turn green with envy.

More info on River District here, here, here, or here.

More info on La Confluence here, here, or here.


Written by enviropaul

March 24, 2019 at 4:01 pm

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