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Now in its second year, this forum brings our region’s planning, design, development, and civic leaders and advocates together to better understand what we can do to build a stronger future. Today, more than ever, we are faced with environmental and economic challenges that will define our generation, shape our future, and test our resilience. Join leaders from across the region as we tackle these challenges head-on and demonstrate solutions to building more livable, walkable, and healthier communities.

For registration information, or a more detailed time schedule, click here

Reception & Opening Lecture Presentation
UrbanLab: Sarah Dunn & Martin Felson, AIA
UrbanLab is an architecture and urban design firm in Chicago & recipient of the 2009 AIA College of Fellows Latrobe Prize. Projects include residential, new commercial, conversions of industrial buildings, restaurant interiors, and museum installations. Urban design projects include a study for the city of Chicago and a masterplan for the downtown redevelopment of Aurora, IL. UrbanLab is also a research laboratory examining the City and Chicago megalopolis. The project,, investigates Chicago’s status as a global city.



Morning plenary sessions include:

Ecodistricts: A Comprehensive Approach to the Development of a Truly Sustainable City

VIA will be kicking off this year’s AIA sponsored Design for Livability: Sustainable Cities conference with a shared 90 minute session on Vancouver’s Southeast False Creek (SEFC) and ZGF’s new Portland EcoDistrict project. Together, these two firms will be providing not only great insight into how a large scale project slike SEFC went from concept to implementation but also what the next generation of ‘EcoDistricts’ are shaping up. Presenting for VIA will be David Ramslie from the City of Vancouver and former associate of VIA, Jeff Olson. Having experience with both projects, Rob Bennet from the Portland + Oregon Sustainability Institute will be acting as moderator between the two teams, asking the ‘big picture’ questions on what’s involved with bringing an energy district online.

This co-presented session will explore strategies on how large projects like Portland’s EcoDistrict and SEFC can make major leaps of change, and will enable participants to gain greater understanding on three key topics:

  • The complexities associated with developing a sustainable energy district within a unique social, environmental, and economic context
  • The fundamental challenges and opportunities associated with an EcoDistrict’s long-term large scale collaborative design process
  • The strategies necessary for creating a development that embodies a public culture of sustainability


Creating and Activating Great Places
Karen True and Sarah Phillips (Third Place Commons) will lead a guided conversation and hands-on workshop that considers how to create, activate and sustain community-based great places that foster a sense of place, and create community ownership. Great places make living and working in a shared community enjoyable.

Afternoon breakout sessions include:

Session 1

  • Great Streets / Great Places
  • Integrating Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) in Neighborhoods
  • Ballard: Small Town in the City

Session 2

  • Creating Livable, Walkable Neighborhood Business Centers
  • Reimaging the City Fabric

Session 3

  • Transforming Traditional Single-Family Neighborhoods
  • 10 Easy Strategies to “Green Up” Your Zoning Code
  • Enticing Families to Live in Urban Centers

Closing plenary:

Cultural Overlay: Incentivizing Development Through Art
A discussion will be led to share creative ideas for the long-term promotion and preservation of cultural, arts, and entertainment activities and spaces in Seattle neighborhoods, and explain how these ideas can be transformed into policy recommendations that can be implemented through ordinance and budget authority. We’ll also explore how the City of Bellingham and the design team conceived of its Arts District as a place for people and how small changes made a big difference. The Bellingham Arts District is now a model of public leadership, community involvement and private investment.

Happy Hour
Join fellow conference participants, presenters, UW Faculty and students together with 50th anniversary UW Alum to continue conversations.

Smart Growth BC 2009 Conference

Featuring Paul Hawken and many other distinguished thought leaders

October 20-22, 2009
Vancouver Convention & Exhibition Centre

Registration now open!

For its sixth annual conference, Smart Growth BC joins forces for the first time with the Center for Urban Innovation’s Gaining Ground Sustainable Urban Development Leadership Summit to present a unique two-and-a-half day gathering addressing the transformational challenges that all North American cities, whether large or small, urban or rural, are facing in sustainability, economy and urban management.

Resilient Cities will explore strategies to make cities and towns more robust, and will enable participants to significantly advance their thinking on three key subjects:

  • Innovation in sustainability governance and best current practices for managing sustainable urban systems
  • Capturing opportunities in the green economy
  • Strategies for building widespread sustainability collaborations that engage the community level.


We are a sponsor this year and will be featuring the following panel discussion:

The evolution of Southeast False Creek illustrates changing definitions of sustainability: from the ideals of the early 1990s “Clouds of Change” report through waves of real-estate pro-forma and architectural fashion wars, to the social, cultural, economic and environmental criteria of multi-layered sustainability that coalesced around the same time as the Olympic bid in 2002 – (then the politics, and later the press, kicked in).

Trace the contested journey in a dynamic story-telling workshop with some of the diverse players who saw it through from vision to design to construction.

Graham McGarva (VIA Architecture)
Ian Smith (City of Vancouver)
Sean McEwan (Vancouver City Planning Commission, SEFC Stewardship Group)
Roger Bayley (Merrick Architecture)
Lance Berelowitz (Urban Forum Associates, moderator)

Gaining Ground Summit
Wednesday, October 21st, 2 – 4:30 pm

Click here for conference and registration information.

by JP Thornton, VIA’s Director of Practice and Director of Mixed-Use + Major Projects

Not building any/or Minimal
Some forms of development can suit no additional parking provision at all.

At the Hub, East Broadway Commercial station in Vancouver an arrangement was brokered in a community that was fixated on two problems. The first being a lack of parking and concern about increased parking demand to be caused by adding a second skytrain station. The second being the needed increasing commercial activity around the station to drive out the drug dealing operations that had overrun the area.

Two options were discussed a) commercial development without any parking or b) some parking but limited development; they chose development and committed to back off the parking issue. The no parking option was selected by the community.

The City was then convinced to allow a rezoning for 20,000sqft with zero parking (a relaxation of 30 odd stalls) which was the only way the economics would allow a project to be developed.

Interestingly, the City did however also allow an option of 39,000 sqft if the full parking was provided ie 58 stalls.

What we see today is the successful 20,000 sq ft that was built with no parking.

Some forms of development would never happen where it happens if the required amount of parking was to be provided. For example, when BC Places, 60,000 seat stadium was approved there were many City blocks empty around it.

In getting approval for Concord Pacific for its development masterplan, agreement was reached on allocating 2,000 stalls in the development to be designated as available for stadium events.

Concord also paid in the region of $8m that was to be put to car alternatives which went towards creating the earliest bikeways.

Building bigger and better than required
This final point may be surprising but what if we think about the future. If the points noted above do in fact reduce the amount of parking required (and there is no reason to believe that they wont) what do we do then with all of that expensive parking that we have previously provided? Particularly the “out of site, out of mind” underground parking which we are so fond of.

We need to think now about reuse. We already reuse other building forms. What if that parking could be converted to an alternative use once its parking days are over.

If we were to incorporate better, at or above grade parking into new and future development. Parking structures which are designed to provide for greater floor to ceiling heights, larger stall sizes, these then could be converted into work live units or retail, say at a later date.

Building above ground would allow for natural daylight and direct access, building the stalls wider would allow for the partitions to be erected.
Reduction in the stall count but increase in the quality is the only way that this can be achieved.

The next task is to look at the impact of pay parking on development sites outside the city centre. Particularly the redevelopment of strip malls. Major retailers are starting to understand that the acceptance of parking is a cost of doing commerce/producing amenity rather than a right. Eco density redevelopment takes surface stalls and either requires above grade ones at more than double the cost or underground parking at more than triple.

Obviously this cost can be reduced with the rationale that the more walk able the environment created, then the more the likelihood that commercial and social amenity is within walking distance and thereby the less cars (and the need for spaces) will be needed.

by JP Thornton, VIA’s Director of Practice and Director of Mixed-Use + Major Projects

There are generally 3 options to building parking.
Build it underground, Build it on the ground or build it above the ground

So what are the solutions?

Unbundling Parking
We need to look at parking as a commodity and not as a birth right. That means giving the ability to buy units with or without a parking space. This also means that the parking can be spread out, around a community if it is conceived as a whole.

Let’s for example take a Market Tower which has a high parking ratio but a small footprint. It could have some of its parking under an adjacent, larger footprint and lower parking ratio non market housing development.

This leads to an overall lower development cost for the market tower and hence units become more affordable as well as increasing funding to the non market portion. This is particularly relevant near water sites where building underground can be prohibitively expensive.

This is however not without problems as airspace parcels, easements, integrated design etc. have to be identified and resolved early on.

Reducing amount

When considering the reduction of the amount of parking it is important not to miss the distinction between car usage and car ownership whereby urban households don’t use cars much but still do own one and hence require somewhere to put them. The impression from some that Transit oriented developments will eliminate at a stroke the need for cars is wrong. Whilst obviously it will reduce reliance on the car it will not eliminate it. We should be careful about not reducing too much.

In Vancouver’s False Creek South in the mid 1970’s the ratio was reduced to 0.5 per unit. This was such a disaster that the City had to build 3 parkades. (one very cost effectively at Alder Crossing into the Parkside bank, one under the playing field at the school which was hideously expensive but also needed for the marina and one behind Leg in Boot square which later and successfully incorporated market rental housing built in it’s front yard set back.).

The ratio now ie late 1970s developments is 1 per unit which allows the opportunity for rental of second car spaces and for visitors.

Mixed use developments have the benefit of allowing an amount of overlapping between residential and commercial parking. This means creating a parking pool and taking elements such as visitor parking out of the residential count and putting them in that pool. Residential and commercial parking can work very well together as their demands tend to be complementary

It’s simple math, if you require 100 residential, 20 visitor and 200 commercial stalls, the traditional total is 320.

If you were to allow some complementary overlap, the total actual built will be less. That total could be reduced to 260 by providing a pool of say 20 spaces which all uses could access and subsequently reducing the requirements of all three by 20.

This form of parking strategy does however require careful management in order to not provide misuse such as Park and Ride. Measures such as providing for validated or cheap first hour and progressively more expensive subsequent hours would discourage this.

[the next 2 solutions will be coming tomorrow – stay tuned!]

by JP Thornton, VIA’s Director of Practice and Director of Mixed-Use + Major Projects

Cars, traffic, parking, gridlock all major concerns of the time and are increasing in intensity, profile and concern. Many people have put their minds to possible solutions.

The Congestion charge in London (and now also Stockholm) was introduced to limit the amount of traffic with in the centre of a City not designed for modern vehicular demands. Although the direction behind this is admirable it cannot be undertaken in isolation. Business drivers whom this was largely targeted simply consider it a cost of doing business; large companies can cover the costs of their workers travel by increasing fees. To be fully successful, huge investments into public transit are required otherwise inadequate transportation will limit office development, job creation, house building as well as the efficiency of the labour market in or around the congestion zone.

In some major Japanese Cities, before you are allowed to purchase a car, you have to prove that you do in fact actually have somewhere to park it.

These are both reactionary measures put in place to attempt to stem the growing congestion that threatens to grind Cities to a halt. But what can we do to be proactive in terms of development?

Higher densities imply more people, therefore more cars and hence parking. Or does it???

Actually increasing densities in major urban centres is the beginning of the solution along with suitable and complementary transit infrastructure. Taking the need away from the dependence on the car rather than making the actual driving more difficult is perhaps a more positive approach.

The right building in the wrong place is the wrong building. So we live in the City and we walk to work, great, but if every weekend we have to drive to the box stores or malls surrounded by acres of parking to do our shopping then these suburban buildings, no matter how environmentally correct, are the wrong buildings.

The City of Vancouver and Costco should be applauded for developing one of the first “downtown box stores” although I admit that I am yet to understand how customers manage to carry their 76 rolls of toilet paper and 50 pound bags of rice home.

Urban environments providing homes, shopping, transportation and recreational facilities on your doorstep where it is as quick to walk to the store as it is to walk to your car in the parkade is an excellent step in the right direction.

Parking drives development, Parking ratios and stall sizes. Almost every municipality has its own standards in both ratio and sizes. The calculations are complex and to be honest quite dull so the details are not going to be discussed here. Some very successful developments would not have happened if reductions in parking were not negotiated and in order to negotiate, alternatives to these standards need to be identified. The following points need to be understood first so that we can proactively look at the issue of parking provision and ways to mitigate impact.

  • It is a Constant state of balance – Developers need to build sufficient parking to satisfy potential purchasers and the City but do not wish to build more that is required due to the cost.
  • The City wishes to see adequate provision for parking but generally does not wish to see it.
  • Parking is expensive to build. Generally preferred to be “out of site” means building underground. Which in some cases can cost up to $25k per stall.

Coming up next week: 3 options to building parking

by Lydia Heard, VIA’s urban planner

We build more space for cars than we do for people. Every car has at least three parking spaces waiting for it, somewhere. Parking is never free; it drives up the costs of development that we pay in the price of everything from housing to movie tickets. (For this and more, read “The High Cost of Free Parking” by Donald Shoup.)

What takes up the largest amount of publicly owned real estate in your city? It’s most likely streets and roadways which are usually dominated by vehicles. In Seattle, 26% of our land use is taken up by public right-of-way for streets, including parking lanes. What if a quarter of our city was public green space, instead?

Think about all those metered parking spaces in our public rights of way. Who says they’re just for cars? Pay your rent at the meter and you can occupy the space for any safe legal purpose. Why not? It’s incredibly cheap. A stall in a surface lot might cost you $10.00 from the first minute you arrive; a space on the street in front is just $2.50 per hour. Now forget that this is a “parking space”; think of it as your rented plot of urban land. If you paid $5.00 rent for an 8’x22′ piece of real estate for two hours how would you occupy it?

The Park(ing) Day event was created by people who wanted to illustrate the need for more space for parks in cities, so they usually do something park-like and portable, as you have to pick up and move to another space every two hours. This street setup at the South Lake Union Block Party was more static, and very creative.

This lady didn’t wait for Park(ing) Day. She also took advantage of a Sunday, when parking is free all day long. She was a good hostess, creating a fine social space. What would you do with your rented plot?

by Angie Tomisser, VIA’s Interior Designer

Obesity is on the rise, we have all read the burning headlines. My question is why are low income areas hit harder than more affluent communities? Research shows that poorer neighborhoods are less walk-able and have far less access to healthy food sources. It wasn’t until recently that I discovered first hand, the uphill battle these low income communities face.

Like most young married couples trying to buy their first home, we found ourselves struggling to find affordable housing prices in the nicer neighborhoods of Seattle. As a result we were lead to a great property in South Seattle along the light rail line. Moving from North Seattle, where there is a PCC or café on every corner, to the south end was quite a shock. Not only does the South Seattle community face significant crime and violence, but the options for providing a decent meal for your family are scarce to say the least. The following images are of establishments located within walking distance of my home.


Many folks who reside in areas like mine, rarely have access to a vehicle and primarily get around by bus or on foot. Which is why when five o’clock rolls around and your kids are hungry, many find it cheap, fast and convenient to run to the McDonalds down the street. Riding the bus to work in the morning, we share the ride with many teens on their way to Franklin High School. Countless times I’ve watched as they consume their breakfast of Cheetos and soda, picked up at the Exxon station near the bus stop.

We had assumed that the local grocery store would provide healthier options like fresh fruit and vegetables. Unfortunately, just as it looks from the picture, the Safeway proves to be just as bad on the inside. I seldom stop at this store because in the past I have found it to have very poor selection and I have questioned the quality and freshness. In fact, we drive over three miles to a neighboring store to do our grocery shopping because the only thing I feel comfortable buying there is canned or frozen food.

One night last week, against our better judgment, we decided to stop for a few last minute dinner items. As I approached the produce department, my first impression was good. Pleasantly surprised, I lucked a zucchini squash off of the shelf, only to find a pocket of flies exit with its removal. After that, I myself seriously considered eating at McDonalds for dinner too.

If my neighborhood is any indicator of what other economically depressed areas are working with, then it is easy to see why our nation is looking at a serious health epidemic. With the light rail stirring things up in our area, we have all started to see a spark of hope for a once forgotten community. What does this mean for the fight against obesity? Of course establishments like McDonalds will always be lurking, but with Safeway committing to a three million dollar remodel scheduled for completion next April, we are hopeful that the choices will start to improve soon.

The light rail has also opened the door for convenient access to the Columbia City Farmers Market held every Wednesday evening between the months of April and October. The Thistle P-Patch, a year round community run garden is a “hands-on” option, located two blocks off of the Henderson Station light rail stop. Not only does the P-Patch provide a great food source, it also requires some physical activity which is always good for your waist line.

There is no magic trick that will transform your community into one full of vigor, and health, not even a trick called “light rail.” This magic only happens when a community speaks out and takes action, one that works with each other to organize community gardens, and demands easy access to farmers markets. One that voices their concerns about the quality of products provided at the local supermarket. And most importantly, a community that teaches their children that gas station food is not a good source of nutrition, and that taking the time to prepare dinner has a much greater value than a three dollar hamburger.

Image Credit: Thistle P-Patch

PARK(ing) Day

Sep 14, 2009

This coming Friday, September 18th is PARK(ing) Day.

It is a day when artists, activists, and citizens taken an ordinary metered parking space and turn it into a temporary public park for the day.

“The idea of the event is to hire a parking space but then turn it into a mini Park rather than using it to park your car. It aims to get people thinking about the use of urban space, the dominance of the car in our society and other travel options such as biking, walking and taking the bus.” (–Feet First website)

Although only temporary, PARK(ing) Day has inspired direct participation in the civic processes that permanently alter the urban landscape.

Last year, Seattle had 32 mini parks in parking spots around the city, with a plan to have around 50 this year. Click here to see Capitol Hill’s plan for their neighborhood, including an awards ceremony for the “first ever Park(ing) Day Seattle Prize.”

In Vancouver, the Vancouver Public Space Network (VPSN) has been reaching out to people to set up their own park or to join them at their park in front of Caffe Artigiano on Hornby.

If you feel tempted to create your own oasis in the midst of a bustling city, you can find more information here.

by Peg MacDonald, VIA Architect

Last week, the New York Times ran a piece that exposed some “green” buildings that were not living up to the promises made by their LEED plaques. The follow-up blog entry on Green Inc. reinforces the notion that LEED is not an indicator of overall energy efficiency in a given building.

The available Energy and Atmosphere credits make up just 24% of the total available credits (17 of 70). The lowest level of Certification starts at 26 points, so it is entirely possible to deliver a building with totally conventional heating and cooling systems and still achieve some level of LEED certification. The fundamentals of sustainable design require a balance of energy and environmental design components to really improve the performance of a building within its site; with LEED a moderate landscaping plan and an accessible bus stop may just be enough to move you into the realm of stardom and commercial promotion afforded by the certification.

What’s interesting about the articles is that the market is starting to realize that a LEED-certified building is not necessarily the greenest of the green. Building professionals have been clamoring for stronger, harder, more comprehensive standards since LEED 1.0, while waiting patiently for the marketplace to catch up. LEED 3.0, with its more stringent requirements and greater regional flexibility, is a far cry from its grandfather. (But still just a step…) Even now as LEED moves into the realm of urban planning and Neighborhood Development, it should be expected that this design tool will not be a true calculation of community sustainability – something that is not as easily quantified by energy usage and native plantings.

A truly green building must be more than the sum of its checklist. Some firms have been instrumental in pushing LEED and helping it become the brand that it is, building by building. Others understand it, support it, and quietly go about working in the larger context of sustainability, in places where the structures don’t necessarily fit into the credit framework. LEED is, and always has been, just a tool.

What an existing LEED plaque should signify is that the design team took some care and thought to address environmental issues (like reducing water consumption, or using local/regional materials) when putting that building together. Future LEED plaques may be a better indicator of overall energy efficiency, embodied energy, and longevity, if the plans for five-year monitoring and recertification go far enough.
The recertification process could bring another paradigm shift in the project delivery process. It’s rare to find a client who opts to require (and pay for) post-occupancy monitoring ; especially if they aren’t the end-user. The current LEED certification process is already very good at keeping design teams accountable through the construction and implementation process – when quick decisions to substitute one thing for another often have far greater consequences than anticipated.

Recertification could lead to more liability on the design team and the developer.
(Bad – if it’s out of proportion to the appropriate sphere of control.)

It could lead to more responsibility for the architect.
(Good! Let’s take this on! No more complaining about how the influence and greater role of the Architect is being incrementally stripped away because of liability concerns.)

It must lead to more responsibility on the user group, and a greater emphasis on follow-through education. People need to understand that all buildings have a character and a need to interact with their inhabitants in order to function properly. Simple or sophisticated, the building’s systems need to be watched and adjusted if goals of comfort or energy efficiency are going to be realized.

As we demand more from our green buildings, we must allow them to demand more from us.

Image Credits: Image 1

by Lydia Heard, VIA’s Urban Designer and Planner, and author of citywalker

What does a city’s skyline say about the aspirations, ambitions and desires of its founders and continuum of citizenry over time? How are these ambitions embodied in the planning that shapes a city until it achieves that significant, identifiable form? Do the forces that shape the skyline, that big picture the world sees from afar, also affect the inner life of the city, it’s heart and soul, the public realm of the street, of civic space, and the success or failure of access for those from all walks of life?

city skylines
Let’s look at some well known city skylines. Often they are ranked by the number of very tall buildings, the “High” city. Prime examples are Hong Kong and New York. These are centers of world trade and commerce, bustling with competition and the desire to be noticed; to be bigger, taller, more striking than the neighbor. These cities also have geographic constraints: Manhattan fills its island footprint, and Hong Kong is squeezed upward between mountain and water. Toronto is another High city, and a classic example of the form such a city takes when it has room to spread out. The CBD takes on a mountain form which gives way to a surrounding spread of low-rise development. Off to the side of the CBD is a tall, iconic identifying landmark. Looks like one of our cities closer to home, doesn’t it?

Paris and London
Then there are “Low” cities, often world capitals, such as Paris or London. These were built out to their mature form, one of densely filled blocks at a uniform height, before the age of the high-rise. Post-skyscraper they make decisions to stay low and preserve views of some central civic or iconic monument – the Eiffel Tower; St. Paul’s Cathedral. A civic pride of place is put first, before the individualist corporate competitive impulse, which is pushed to the edges, to La Defense or Canary Wharf – although London has been permitting more very tall buildings in the central city.

What form do our two cities take?
Seattle looks remarkably like Toronto, except with a backdrop of mountains. There are geographic constraints, but there was enough land for a spread of low-density development, which in Seattle consists of well-established bungalow neighborhoods with their own urban village centers. The mountain form of the CBD is a clue to what was most important in development of the city. Now battles are being fought around our very visible and beloved civic icon, as South Lake Union primes for development. Should new development stay low to preserve views of the Space Needle? Can some towers be allowed, and if so what shape, how many, and where? Seattle is a combination city, wrestling with some of the decisions the Low cities have made.

Vancouver has a rather unique skyline among major cities, a forest of glittering residential towers, similar in height and form, spaced for light and views, aided in its upward rise by the constraints of the central peninsula. Their icons are natural; the dramatic and immediate mountain backdrop, forested park, water and beaches. Aside from visions of a mystic island, Avalon, the Fortunate Isle, the Isle of Glass – it most nearly resembles a high-class resort city. This is also a clue to what was important in developing the city.

Seattle and Vancouver had similar beginnings: Location, climate, industrial potential with timber, a railroad and a port as aids to commercial development. Other than geographic constraints, what led them to such differences in urban form? A hint can be found in their early beginnings.

In Seattle, the first large land claim holders, in the interest of developing the city, sold land cheaply to anyone who wanted to build the right sort of business on it. One even donated a huge tract for a university. The Seattle founders’ desire (beyond a failed attempt to become the state capitol) was for the city to become a Manhattan of the west coast, a major center of commerce.

Vancouver founders had a different vision. Almost the first act of the city after incorporation was to preserve the 100 hectare military reserve at the West End which would later become known as Stanley Park. Forward thinking? In a way, perhaps. They were envisioning land speculation for wealthy residential development in that area. This residential speculation took a front seat before business development from the start, and established the desire value of the local natural environment.

What did these early choices mean for their respective cities?
Seattle took a more traditional Central City form, with a Central Business District connected by streetcars to surrounding neighborhoods. This pattern followed the march of progress to become one of commercial towers competing with their neighbors for attention through height or iconic design. While visually interesting, especially from a distance, this tends towards an oppressive street environment of dark canyons and lifeless evenings not conducive to livability because, well, no one was meant to live there. It also required vehicular access for the mass ingress and exodus of workers twice a day – an adjacent freeway or two, never mind the waterfront, and every other street a traffic arterial.

In Seattle these things were accepted for the sake of the commercial ambitions of the city. Because the surrounding village neighborhoods were so desirable, it is only in recent years that ideas of a more urban sort of livability have gained increasing acceptance and urgency. Shifting the direction and intent of planning policy is like turning a cargo ship: It takes a lot of effort to change the momentum.

Vancouver v Seattle2
Vancouver, starting with its initial residential aspirations, took a different tack. High-rise residential towers first started sprouting in the West End even before the Space Needle rose for Expo ’62 and generated momentum for the ensuing rise of Seattle’s CBD. In the ‘60s a planned highway into downtown Vancouver was fought and defeated by residents of the neighborhood it would have destroyed. This somewhat stunted their CBD growth, and commercial development has since spread into smaller tower developments around the metro area, spurred and aided by an excellent and growing higher-order transit system.

Vancouver’s own Expo in ’86 pushed another surge for building out the central city in the Vancouver residential tower and streetwall form, with even more emphasis on livability. This was aided in the ‘90s by an influx of new residents who were accustomed to tower living – because they came from a world-class “high” city: Hong Kong. Now the Olympics driven development south of the peninsula is taking a new form, but livability and sustainability are even more at the forefront, because the momentum has been there all along and is gaining steam.

Vancouver v Seattle3
It seems that in terms of livability, Seattle is struggling to change direction, and Vancouver has a distant lead.
But what about accessibility? That forest of towers, all somewhat similar, not really competing for attention, looks pretty egalitarian – or is it more like the resort city it resembles? In reality it is very expensive to live in the city, putting it out of reach for many. New developments are required to pay into a social housing fund, but the housing can be built elsewhere. In Seattle, citizens tax themselves to build housing for homeless or very low-income people, and a good portion of that is in the central city. Market housing is usually too costly for workforce housing, however, and voluntary bonusing incentives for developers have yet to achieve the desired result.

In both cities, affordable rents for residents and the small businesses that add so much to the life of a street are mostly found in older buildings. When these are redeveloped, new wealthier tenants move in, and the new businesses are likely to be chain stores that can afford higher rents. The street environment may be newly landscaped and attractive, walkable and bikeable, with people sitting at sidewalk patios drinking lattes. This livable but somewhat sterile environment comes at the expense of a sometimes gritty but intrinsic vitality, an edgy, volatile crucible for creativity. Both cities rely on market forces to govern these things to a large extent, especially regarding small business. But like skylines, city policies reflect what is most important to their citizens (including commercial interests), and what they are willing to accept.

Vancouver vs Seattle
Vancouver citizens stopped highways and gained transit. Seattle citizens started a public market from a price revolt, and later fought commercial interests to save that market and its eclectic mix of small business and residents. In either city, what will be the trigger for the next big change?

image credits: Hong Kong, NYC, Seattle, Toronto, Paris, London