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DVA Forum: Amenity Equation Notes – Design Matters

May 08, 2012
DVA Forum: Amenity Equation Notes – Design Matters

By Graham McGarva, Founding Principal
VIA Architecture

Amenity started life as a qualitative indicator. In the Downtown Vancouver Association Forum Series our intention has been to foster mutual understanding of the personal values that shape our expectations of amenity in the city’s core.

There are two tracks that have woven in and out of this dialogue. One is urban growth, the accommodation and direction of growth, the “ask” of public benefit that is at the heart of granting of permission to develop new buildings.  The second is that of those already living and working within existing built infrastructure, and concerned about the conditions necessary for a healthy quality of life.

We have heard the importance of the amenity of being “just around the corner”, which is walkable and transit access to services that support daily life.  It is about dog walking as well as about commuting to and from work.  Increasingly it is about child-care, school, our social and arts cultures, and avoiding the hassle of using a car in the inner city.  Street benches are thereby essential building blocks for downtown amenity.

However the amenity equation has also been interpreted as a quantitative equation – specifically the equation that sits in the middle of the new development pro-forma.  So lots of comments zoom in on the “community amenity contribution”, both in dollar amounts and process.  In that equation the stubborn villain is the variable of land cost, and whether, when, and how, land price can be reduced.

The trouble is that we need to succeed on both sides of the equation, qualitative and quantitative, knowing that both balances will be judged wanting from one perspective or another.

I have often said “The goal of City Building is that the Café Canopy be in the right place”.  In order for that to happen:

  • There must be a peaceful civil society within which people’s take pleasure in a public realm
  • There must be an adequate population with access to this facility
  • There must be a level of comfort to mingle with people you do not know
  • The design must reinforce the attraction of being there

The amenity of the public realm is a pre-condition for a healthy city.  A healthy City is the only kind of City that we can afford.  It is the multitude of tiny pulses, the ‘cafe canopies’ for which we leave our cocoons and stretch our legs, that make the ‘big thing’ work.

The health analogy is deliberate and apt.  We need a City that operates as a resilient organism,  not a monolithic fossil; flexibility and resilience to continually rebalance affordability and amenity.  We need a culture of nimbleness, whose actions consider the long term trajectory of impacts.  This nimbleness is not natural to bureaucracies, whose tendency is to hold close to the established course regardless of political swings.  The answer is neither day to day knee jerk expediency nor not-in-my-term-of-office avoidance of key decisions. The answer lies in timely collection and assessment of evidence, and  consequent adjustment of the parameters.  It is not pantomime, but closer to rocket science, this continual pulling of strings.  It is annoying how reality keeps on changing, but it is even more annoying to sail full speed into an iceberg.

The 3rd and Final DVA Affordability / Amenity Forum is on Tuesday May 29th from 7:45AM to 9:00AM at BCIT Downtown Campus, Seymour Street.

The Panel is: Graham McGarva, VIA Architecture;  David McLellan, Vancouver Deputy City Manager; Al Poetcker, UBC Properties Trust: Gary Pooni,  Brook Pooni