Saturday, February 19, 2011

Vancouver: A cautionary tale for San Francisco

Planners in SF---and the Chronicle's John King---have long been envious of Vancouver's embrace of the fashionable dense development dogma, since that city is a lot further down the path of highrise development in its downtown than San Francisco. Vancouver resident Matt Hern provides a progress report that confirms my long-time skepticism

Hern is still a True Believer, but he's beginning to have some doubts:

I am not onboard when you call downtown[Vancouver] 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.

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At 2:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

and of course - in downtown Vancouver you see a bike on every balcony. A true sign of failure.

At 3:27 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

But Hern says elsewhere in the piece I link that the bike paths aren't really working very well, that not enough people are using them. He thinks Vancouver should take a tougher line in bullying people out of their cars:

"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."

On the one hand, Hern deplores what all the highrises have done to downtown Vancouver---they are ugly, they are unaffordable, they are spreading and undermining existing neighborhoods,
they "privilege" developers over diversity and vitality, etc.

He thinks the residential highrises have been bad for Vancouver, but, like a true fanatic, he still insists on forcing people out of their cars and to "not let the market make decisions for us"---that is, not let people make these decisions for themselves!

One failure in planning---all those "butt-ugly" towers---must be followed by another top-down attempt to make people conform to a different planning fad, the anti-car bike fad!


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