Re-inventing Vancouver's Waterfronts – Creating Tomorrow's City by Design
Mr. Larry Beasley

In Vancouver, innovative new plans have been put in place for its inner city. The essential elements of these plans involve re-creating Vancouver's waterfronts - converting them from rail and industrial uses to intensive, diverse, amenable urban places that are fundamentally tied to Vancouver's quality of life.

Smart cities have come to a fundamental conclusion that they have to very explicitly re-invent themselves for people and so are becoming 'cities by design.' And they are using whatever advantages they have to achieve their new image. For Vancouver, its advantage was the availability for development of wonderfully located waterfront areas. Vancouver is working on its waterfronts, and extending from its waterfronts, toward its new agenda. However, works in one place may not work in another and Vancouver's case is meant as an inspiration, not as a model.

So, what is the development of its waterfronts all about? It's about extension of the traditional urban patterns, fabric, and character with new areas extending organically out from existing areas. Vancouver's waterfront development is about achieving complete, coherent neighbourhood units - with pedestrian scale, all the amenities and services at hand, and with a local shopping 'high street' at the centre to offer places where a neighbourhood can create its culture. It is about a genuine social mix. They include non-market with market housing (at least 20% of all units have to be developed for low-income people) and they build for seniors and children, requiring row houses for families (25% of all residential units have to be designed for families with small children).

Our waterfront planning is also about open space and the public realm being used to contribute to neighbourhood form and identity. In Vancouver, the sidewalk is the focus of public life. For open spaces, useless private plazas are avoided, but instead, buildings are used to shape and emphasize the respite of public park spaces and squares that are an integral part of every neighbourhood building cluster. Lastly, waterfront development is about sustainable development. With the demands for this from interest groups and consumers getting stronger every year, they include green buildings with usable green roofs, managing waste and water carefully, alternative energy sources and transportation choices, and even urban agriculture.

From an architectural perspective, tall, thin towers with very small floorplates get people up where they want to be to capture the wonderful views, while allowing them to see through a stand of buildings by requiring a spacious separation between the buildings. Coherent, dominant street walls are built at the traditional scale, with the taller building elements tucked behind, cutting their powerful impact and allowing them to float almost out of one's perception. This is how very high densities can be humanised. Active residential use is brought down to the sidewalk level as often as possible - fostering the shop house form in many instances, but just as often pushing for rowhouses to truly domesticate the street. Intensive, layered landscaping is provided wherever possible, both for public display and for enclosed courtyards where residents can escape the action of the street for the privacy, security, and quiet of their own small garden. Public views and view corridors and protected and private views are brokered. Development is managed for sun and shade, and to ensure weather protection. Finally, insinuating public art is a priority for integration into each new community.

These architectural solutions are part of a strong regulatory agenda that allows density to work. The high density generates enough value to carry quality materials, great on-site amenities, and a very nice contribution to the neighbourhood infrastructure, as well as great profits. At the same time, the supportive neighbourhood draws all kinds of people back from the suburbs, which they thought was their only choice. The result is the COMPETITIVE ADVANTAGE of the urban lifestyle.

Now even when successful, there are still the collateral problems that must be dealt with. Vancouver's waterfront developments have put tense pressures on nearby, low-income areas. All the development energy unbridled tends to destabilise vulnerable communities, leading to displacement and victimisation. At a different level, when you mix density with a diversity of land uses in close proximity, there can be some very rough interfaces and the environment can get pretty overbearing. And then, because the new waterfronts are so popular, residential use has been out-bidding all other uses, especially commercial. As a result, in recent months they have had to take decisive action to protect the key office areas from housing and to stop the conversion of office buildings to housing.

The regulatory framework and planning arrangements to manage this level of change and foster the architectural quality have required a re-invention of City Hall. They call the result the 'co-operative planning process' where citizens, developers, politicians, and city officials are brought together to work in concert on the new communities. There are several key aspects about Vancouver's system that are very helpful in coping with such huge planning areas as Vancouver's waterfront projects:

  • a highly discretionary regulatory framework that fosters experimentation and allows new and better ideas to come into play;
  • an apolitical development approval process;
  • a strong, proactive Planning Department;
  • a service-oriented bureaucracy to manage the actual development applications;
  • a deliberate planning process that builds consensus involves public consultation at every step along the way;
  • a process that brings public and private expertise around one table to plan and design;
  • an education program for City staff about the economics of development so that they can create a development quid pro quo that allows development but requires all the public goods to be offered up by the developer to support that development; and,
  • a whole new suite of standards for public amenities so they can deal equitably with many developers over an extended period of time. 
Based on Vancouver's assets and limitations, city planners have designed the kind of waterfronts that Vancouver's citizens want, giving them the kind of future city that they need - to both satisfy Vancouver's existing citizens and entice new citizens that will help them to build the robust, diversified economic and social base that is required. Vancouver's experience and its waterfront mega-projects has allowed it to realise that is the promise of a 'city by design.'

The above is a summary of a presentation from Mr. Larry Beasley, Ex- Co-Director of Planning of City of Vancouver, given to the Hong Kong Canadian Chamber of Commerce on May 24 2006.