Vancouver’s Seventh Gift to the World: “Living First”

For the past seven days, the Metroblogging sites around the globe have been unveiling seven gifts their cities can share with the world – one gift a day for seven days. Metroblogging Vancouver’s Seventh Gift is “Living First” and the Vancouver model of urban planning.

This last gift is something that you might not necessarily see at first glance, though you’ve probably already noticed it. Visitors from other places in the world can feel the difference, even if they don’t necessarily know why it is.

In most cities, development starts in the centre and then creeps further and further outward as the price of property downtown rises and eventually this leads to sprawling suburbs and urban decay in the downtown core. There is often little incentive for people to redevelop these areas because it is cheaper and in some cases more desirable to build new communities further away.

But over time, we’ve come to find that there are problems with this approach. The further away people live from each other, the further they have to travel to get to work, the more likely they will be dependent on cars for transportation and the more expensive it is to provide services, like ambulances, transit and utilities for everyone. Areas downtown that appear run down or abandoned tend to invite crime, and their residents often get ignored when political decisions are made.

What is different about Vancouver, then? For starters, Vancouver is hemmed in on all sides; the Pacific Ocean to the north and west, the United States to the south and the Agricultural Land Reserve to the east. Once those limits are reached, there’s nowhere else to build but up. Not only that, in the 1950s, the mass exodus of people to the suburbs began, leaving areas downtown sparsely populated, run down and causing increasing transportation problems in and out of the city.

In 1967 a lobby group funded by business and landowners advanced their proposal for an east-west freeway through the middle of Chinatown and Strathcona, a north-south freeway along Main Street and a tunnel underneath Burrard Inlet. They believed that better access for cars was the solution to problems downtown. The proposal was met with an unprecedented amount of opposition from downtown residents, who organized into protest groups around the issue. They believed that building two highways through the middle of the city would divide neighbourhoods in half like it had in other cities, and actually impede the movement of people around Vancouver. Protestors were also concerned about the destruction of heritage buildings and the homogenization of neighbourhoods in the city.

The freeway plans were eventually scrapped in 1972, after the Non Partisan Association was defeated in the civic elections. The new city council set to work to solve social problems with city planning. Among other things, they changed the way that building permits are issued, allowing professionals and members of the public to review proposals before they were approved. They also began the creation of a new “Living First” strategy of development in downtown Vancouver that has eventually come to be characterized by:

  • Dense, mixed use development: homes, leisure, entertainment and work within walking distance of each other
  • An emphasis on alternate transportation: walking, cycling, transit, etc.
  • Preservation of heritage buildings
  • A commitment to sustainable development, urban agriculture and green buildings
  • Urban parks, trees, public and private green space
  • A mix of market and non-market, high income and low income, family and non-family housing in single neighbourhoods
  • Public art and street beautification
  • Community centres and daycares
  • Public access to the waterfront
  • Underground parking and street congestion

Evidence of this approach is almost everywhere downtown, whether in Granville Island, where abandoned industrial buildings are now art schools, theatres and boutiques, Chinatown, where restoration of heritage facades and buildings continues, Yaletown’s trendy condos, restaurants and bricks or Coal Harbour’s modern skyscrapers.

This shrewd planning has done what would have been completely unimaginable fifty years ago. It has taken old, run-down parts of the city and turned them into places where people want to live and raise their kids, where owning a car is unnecessary and the heritage flavour of areas such as Yaletown is preserved. At least 40,000 people have moved downtown from the suburbs within the past 10 years, many of them families, and that represents less sprawl and less traffic on our roads.

In protesting highways and sprawl, Vancouverites chose this route for ourselves. While we didn’t create these ideas, few cities around the world have embraced them to the extent that we have, and our successes act as a model for the rest of the world to follow.

Photo courtesy of flickr user DragonWoman.

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