by Ellen Johnston | It is an unusual coincidence that Vancouver, a city known for its rampant NIMBYism, also happens to be a developer’s dreamscape. Has there been any other city in North America so radically transformed by these often controversial, yet undeniably visionary capitalists in the last twenty-five years? I suppose it’s just a consequence of our city’s relative youth. Vancouver is much easier to mould than cities like New York or San Francisco, where downtowns have long been built out and established neighbourhoods are hesitant to change. But we’ve also been lucky, with mass immigration from places like Hong Kong, where density is the norm, as well as having had city planners who have encouraged smart urban growth.
We could have trod the path of Phoenix, another very young city, that is now (disturbingly) also one of the largest on the continent. To call Phoenix a city seems almost a misnomer since it is really just a massive sprawl where the population lives in unsustainable auto-centric exurbs flung out across the desert; a place where green lawns are more ubiquitous than in our own rain-drenched metropolis (this despite the fact that the sun is king there, and the water will soon run out). So yes, from an urbanist’s perspective, we have been lucky that the changes that have occurred in our own city have led us to become – for the most part – a more interesting, more cosmopolitan and, dare I say it, more urban place.
In recent years, the pattern of Vancouver’s development – specifically in neighbourhoods like Yaletown and Coal Harbour – has been called “Vancouverism”. Defined by tall glass towers on townhouse podiums (which provide a human-scale street front) and public spaces (rather than backyards for people to run and play in), it is a style of urban planning that has been extraordinarily successful in creating liveable inner city neighbourhoods. The irony, however, is that despite “Vancouverism” putting our city on the map as a model urban environment, a majority of our living space looks nothing like this. Try as we might to project an image of our city as one of glass, we are still, unfortunately, also one of ugliness. The Vancouver Special springs to mind. And what to do about them is the next question, since the neighbourhoods they are found in are now on the frontlines of densification. But is the rest of Vancouver really ready for Vancouverism?
I ask this question because I was rather distressed reading the recent comments by former mayor Sam Sullivan about his vision for the future of our city. It’s death to Jane Jacobs, apparently. According to him, towers are the answer, towers in every corner, from Kitsilano to Marpole to Dunbar. If our population were about eight times what is right now, I might have to agree with him. But it’s not, and it won’t be for a long long time, if ever. We need to densify outside the downtown core, certainly, but diversity in architectural styles and planning always makes for more interesting places, and to throw her and her legacy under the bus, or to use Sullivan’s words, “bury Jane Jacobs under concrete”, is a mistake. Jacobs was not anti-density. She simply believed that historical preservation coupled with slower growth infill was the best way to move forward.
Let me begin by stating that I am not a NIMBY. I actually like towers. I love the canyons of downtown Vancouver, the lights high in the night sky, and the fact that so there are so many people living there who use public parks and the seawall as their main sources of outdoor recreation. I believe that towers work extremely well within the fabric of downtown, and could also be applied to great effect at transit nodes all along the Canada, Millennium and Expo Lines. But is this the only model for densification in the city of Vancouver? No! This isn’t even Manhattan’s model, as the densest borough of the densest city in North America. While skyscrapers are the major feature of its skyline, many of its neighbourhoods, like Greenwich Village (which Jacobs herself fought to protect) exist on a much more human scale. And while some might argue that the preservation of smaller scale historic neighbourhoods has actually resulted in higher rents in Manhattan, it’s important to remember that Harlem and Washington Heights are not dominated by high rises either. What makes Manhattan such a fantastic urban environment is that it achieves high density, but density in varying forms, ones which provide many options for many different styles of living. This is something that Vancouver really has yet to embrace.
When it comes to the density debate, Vancouver’s biggest problem is that we are truly a city divided – divided between tall towers and single family homes. Only a few neighbourhoods (Kitsilano, Marpole, False Creek, South Granville and Strathcona, for example) can really be described as occupying a middle ground in terms of housing stock. Even Commercial Drive and Mount Pleasant, arguably the “hippest” parts of the city, are dominated by single family homes. That means that the majority of their moustache wearing, fixed gear riding, pot smoking denizens are bound to be living in those most depressing of Vancouver dwellings: basement suites. But why does it have to be this way?
Density can be achieved through a variety of means, to suit a variety of neighbourhoods. For example, Vancouver lacks, but sorely needs, more rowhouses. And no, I don’t mean rowhouses that are actually part of a condo complex. I mean fee-simple, owned by one person (not a developer) row houses. This type of construction populates many of the great neighbourhoods of the world, from the Plateau in Montreal, to Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia to Camden Town in London. Our city’s bylaws have largely made it impossible to build these types of dwellings, but they are exactly what we need, because they provide a compromise between density and individuality.
The people who live in fee-simple row houses either own them or are tenants to one person rather than to a corporation. They are not beholden to a condo board. They can grow small gardens as they like, paint their exteriors as they like, just as they would do in a single family home. And if those small gardens aren’t quite big enough, well, then they could take advantage of community gardens and other public green spaces which are an ancillary, inevitable benefit of density.
One of the favourite lines spewed out by NIMBYs against densification is that it will somehow make us less green, because our gardens won’t be quite so big. But the hypocrisy is palpable. Truly green places are the ones that leave a small footprint, ones that are walkable and dense. And, if we do indeed build more community gardens to replace individual ones lost in the densification of the city, well, then it will just force us to be more friendly since we might actually have to meet our neighbours tending the adjoining plots, whether they actually live next door or in the mid-rise apartment building down the street. I say mid-rise, because though apartment buildings will be a necessity no matter what in the densification of our city, they will not have to be high rises so long as the neighbourhoods that surround them can provide sufficient density on a street level to prevent it from being required in the sky. Residential towers can be beautiful things, but they are quite clearly not for everyone, and the sooner we learn that densification does not have to be an issue of house vs. tower, the better. The greatest neighbourhoods of the greatest cities in the world are ones with layers. They are not built in one day, with one type of housing, nor by one developer.
It’s time for the city of Vancouver’s black and white thinking on urban density to end. We need to reform our zoning laws so that we can allow for slower growth infill on regular residential streets. And that doesn’t just mean more laneway housing. It means that every time single family houses are torn down, we should be able to replace them instead with fee-simple rowhousing, duplexes, triplexes or apartment buildings. Without this slow but steady change, we will simply continue to be a city blinded on both sides, between those who want their neighbourhoods to stay exactly the same and the “big bad” developers who want to transform them into the next Yaletown. Let’s rethink Vancouverism, and how we can apply it to our smaller neighbourhoods, because if we don’t change now, they will soon be empty – affordable only to offshore buyers who will plant their money in those supposedly superior single family houses, but will never actually live in them. NIMBYs talk about densification as if it will be the end of the neighbourhood, bringing in “different” people with “different ideas”. But it’s actually a lack of change that will do this and is already doing this, because everyone who has grown up in Vancouver in the last 25 years knows that they will never be able to afford to live in the same areas they grew up in. Only densification will keep the character of our city’s neighbourhoods alive, and keep Vancouver from becoming a suburb of itself.
Ellen Johnston considers herself a wanderer, whether tramping through the rain-soaked streets of Vancouver and attempting to pry loose the layers of our urban fabric, couch-surfing across America, or getting lost in the souks of Marrakech. Since that is not a full time gig, she fills her days with the study of African dance and drumming, writing, piano, and running her own cookie company, Cookie Elf. She grew up in Vancouver, studied in Philly and London, and hopes to see even more of this great big world in the future.