Our first guest with a condo tower named after him! Larry Beasley was Co-Chair Planner at the City of Vancouver for 15 years and led Vancouver’s modern transformation into a world model for sustainable and liveable cities. Now Larry holds the “Distinguished Practice Professor of Planning” at the University of British Columbia, sits on various boards including Translink, and teaches and advises urbanism all over the world.
Larry joins Adam & Matt to discuss the carefully-planned origins of Vancouverism, its wild success, and why we must continue to develop creative solutions to our current problems moving forward, without opting for exclusionary policies. Few people understand our city the way Larry does – this episode is not to be missed!
Check out Larry’s book Ecodesign for Cities and Suburbs on Amazon
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Larry is an urban designer and planner, and his work has involved him with cities around the world. As a consultant, his practice took him to the Middle East, Nordic countries, Europe, Australia, China, the US, and Canada. Larry is also a professor at UBC in the School of Community and Regional Planning, and is the Distinguished Practice Professor of Planning. It is in this capacity that he helps junior planners and urban designers to be effective when they start out.
Larry is originally from the US and came to Vancouver in the late 1960s. He became a Canadian citizen in the 1970s, joined the City of Vancouver as a community planner in 1976, and went on to become a co-director of planning in the early 1990s. He left government in 2006.
On the role of urban planning in creating a dynamic city, like Vancouver:
Vancouver is different from most North American cities. Toronto, Halifax and many others are joining the vanguard that Vancouver was. This refers to government leadership in designing and planning was the way to move cities forward, and transform them from a difficult financial and economic place to a city of world importance. This is being done by other Canadian cities, and less so by American cities (though it tends to happen there by accident). In the 1990s, Vancouver joined forces with people, designers, and the local development to re-think the city and see what it takes to be relevant in the 21st century. They discovered it means being a quality place to live, and providing an experience of urban life that is fulfilling for people. It meant accommodating their needs to empower creativity and maximize what they do. Tactically, it’s bringing people together, mixing them up, and creating a lavish environment for them to live their lives.
After Expo ’86, Vancouver became known internationally and began to pursue these ideas. The downtown was redeveloped and re-designed. It’s now one of the most diverse downtowns in the world, with 120,000 people and about 175,000-200,000 jobs, and a city widely admired as being liveable, accommodating, interesting and contemporary. We are hospitable to multiculturalism and have leveraged this to make Vancouver a world city. The implications of that are expensive housing, etc., but this still brings benefits via being a world city rather than a nationally- or regionally-relevant city. Vancouver is an example of what Canada offers to the world.
On “Vancouverism” and our model, and if we’ve become a victim of our own success:
No. Larry’s book, Vancouverism, will be out in the fall, and it discusses the creative forces making us liveable, enticing, competitive, and embracing of all people, are actually what make cities of the future. Worldwide, people are struggling with this model and how you deal with issues that aren’t relevant when you are less of a world city. Does this mean we were wrong to have made our city the way it is? No, but it means we must now deal with the issues that have come up with the same creativity and open-mindedness that we used in the 1980s and 1990s to create the place we enjoy today.
For example, take the housing and commercial property affordability issue. Many cities don’t have this problem because of the lack of people they draw in. We don’t have to close our doors and punish those who come here, but instead we can make a secure, middle-income sector for housing, retail, etc. that can be there in perpetuity. We need to find new techniques for housing, like what Vancity, non-profits, and some developers are exploring. Recent taxes on foreign buyers and empty homes are negative measures—since we’re such a compelling place within the world, these won’t work because of the demand from people who want to come here. Vancouver has a special responsibility to those who have made their lives here for years and don’t earn a high income. Young entrepreneurs and governments are embracing and discussing this, which Larry is thrilled to see. We need to invent new answers.
On models Larry looked at outside of North America, and if there are current models we can look to:
It’s interesting with the culture, design and management of cities—we can now share information, experiments and ideas that we couldn’t in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Then, the leadership and design and business communities looked to the world for inspiration. There were no models, so we created our own. Now, we can tap into other models such as those from the Nordic countries. Communities like Stockholm are creating new sustainable, environmentally responsible neighbourhoods. They are enhancing the liveability of people at high densities. Helsinki is making large advances in the shared economy – in an intimate way that can enhance people’s economic status and liveability. Many of these things can be brought to the next generation of invention here in Vancouver, to deal with not just affordable housing but also being a greener city. In Australia, they are making fascinating advances in mid-scale housing—their citizens are saying high-rise isn’t ideal, so they are finding great ways to live at medium-density. The Netherlands has found ways for people to build multiple housing while still owning their own land. They take the profitability from a project and invest it in other housing to bring costs down and have a mix of housing. In Madrid, they have been in the vanguard of non-profit home ownership as a component of their housing economy.
Vancouver is better than others at integrating all of these things into a compelling, new vision—in the 1970s, our region had one of the most holistic regional plans, which we are now seeing the benefits of. It involved laws and policies, and ways in which we invested wealth and organized citizens to be a part of it. Vancouver’s “green agenda” has put us in the forefront of environmental sustainability and green urbanism. We need to take all of this, transform it to be the Canadian image suitable for our people, and make a new model.
On how to maintain the need for increased density with public spaces and parks, while maintaining our natural beauty:
The northeast False Creek plan that was recently approved illustrates how to deal with these kinds of questions. It designates a significant footprint of the site (at least 30%) for parks and open space. It delivers a huge new park for existing communities like Gastown and Chinatown. The non-negotiable standard for developments to deliver park space will help keep the balance for urbanism and open space. We have also found a way to develop at higher density so we don’t offer a diminished lifestyle. Worldwide, people think of densification as diminishing of lifestyle and taking away privacy, etc., but Vancouver has shown otherwise and is taking a smaller footprint. For over 25 years, we’ve dedicated the views from the city need to be protected and have had an amazing result where people feel spaciousness even at high densities. These things plus the imperative for public amenities and facilities have become a model for other cities.
The Northeast False Creek plan is a state-of-the-art solution to round out development. Larry led the concept of converting hundreds of acres from being railyards, and setting the image of Vancouver. This is the one area that was never developed. In this proposal, he was gratified to see the City embrace the idea of removing the viaducts, which took a lot of courage. The vision is compelling and will serve the city, not just the surrounding areas, very well. There are some small issues to work out, but Larry has never seen a plan without overall unresolved issues as you delve deeper into the design, zoning, and sub-area planning—it’s inevitable. The City has stayed true to the principle of design being first. Innovation and dealing with local and developer concerns in a positive design format is the way to go.
On other areas he’s excited about:
Southeast False Creek is coming together well. After the Olympics, Athlete’s Village did not distort the principles put forth when he was still at city hall. It’s very liveable. Larry wants to reach out beyond the core of Vancouver, to other Lower Mainland municipalities and compare how they’re realizing their own version of downtown Vancouver in their centres. You can cluster activity in town centres and save delicate existing communities, which contribute to the city as densification and diversification is increased.
Larry is on the TransLink board and looks forward to transit improvements. He feels we must continue to expand and elaborate our public transportation alternatives to cars. This involves a land-use plan to encourage walking and cycling, as well. For longer journeys, we must aspire to be like older European cities (such as London or Paris), where it is more economical and natural to take public transit. We must add shared movement technologies as well. Autonomous vehicles can have a positive or negative impact according to how they’re introduced—if it’s as an extension of buying a private car, we will see a huge proliferation of them and all the implications that come with that. However, if we tie them to shared vehicles, this can open up the possibility of closing areas from any vehicles and allowing more of a walking culture, like we see in other cities. Then, a sophisticated rapid transit system is more likely. It’s great there is a consciousness and discussion about this.
Larry is confident that the SkyTrain extension down the Broadway corridor will happen. Federal government money is in place, and the provincial government has committed to contribute, along with the municipal government. Across the board, the leadership is compelled to make this happen—they know the electorate will punish whoever stops it. The extension will be what it needs to be (underground, low impact, hitting areas in greatest need). It may be extended in some way out to UBC.
On criticism that the development community is too cozy with government:
When government gets “cozy” in a way that the trajectory of government policy, action and interest gets subsumed with development trajectory, it is not good. Government cannot be an agent of developers; this is when it becomes negative. The best benefits come from strong collaboration.
Unless government finds a way to collaborate with the development community, they cannot achieve what they need to for citizens. The essence of Larry’s collaboration experience at city hall was bringing public and private interests together and seeing them both benefit—in our economy, nobody will do things outside their own interest, and they seek benefit beyond the status quo. The ways to access the great wealth that comes from development is positive in these collaborations. Larry wants everyone to remember the third partner in all of this: the citizens. They need to be in these discussions and negotiations at all levels, and monitor the equity and fairness. Above all else, they need to be creators.
- Favorite neighbourhood: False Creek North/New Yaletown
- Favorite bar or restaurant: Umberto Giardino – best bar, best food and lovely staff
- Downtown penthouse or west-side mansion: Downtown penthouse (Larry has not lived in a single-family home since he was 15)
- Where he first brings someone from out-of-town: Provence on Marinaside Crescent
- H&H on Homer or The Beasley: The Beasley (Amacon asked if Larry wanted money for naming the building after him, but instead he requested they donate to UBC. This was done for five years.)
To find out more about Larry and his books: