What do you love most about Vancouver? Chances are that this week’s guest had something to do with it; in truth, he may have had everything to do with it! Internationally-celebrated Urban Planner and former Co-Director of Planning at the City of Vancouver, Larry Beasley, joins Adam and Matt to talk about his new book, Vancouverism, covering the critical years between Expo 86 and the Olympic Games in 2010. But Larry doesn’t only focus on the past. He has a host of exciting ideas – and even some solutions – for the future of a city he helped make great. No spoiler alerts here, but there is 1,000+ acres of prime real estate ripe for re-zoning that Larry believes won’t go overlooked for much longer. This is an episode for the people that love this great city… some might even call it a love letter, but we won’t. xoxo
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Larry Beasley is an internationally respected urban planner. He is formerly the Co-Director of Planning at the City of Vancouver, a member of The Order of Canada and the author of new best-selling book: Vancouverism.
Larry was instrumental in the transformation of Vancouver’s downtown core into a vibrant and livable region, the tenets of which are known as Vancouverism. He works around the world talking to people about how to apply Vancouverism principals to the creation of cities.
On when he started thinking that he wanted to write a book:
It took about 18 months to write the book. Larry left Vancouver in 2006 to start working around the world, in the middle east, up in the Nordic countries, Australia and elsewhere and he found that a lot of people knew about Vancouver and its amazing transformation, but little more than that. He realized that the history of Vancouver needed to be documented and he wanted a document that the younger generation of Vancouver could reference to get the story of the development of the city.
Larry wanted to offer an insider’s view on the development of the city from pre Expo 1986 right up to the Olympic Games in 2010. He has identified the actors and the ideas – this is the real story.
On how important the players are in this story in the development of Vancouverism:
It was almost an accident of history that this extraordinary group of people got together when they did. They had a whole generation of people in the design community, the development community and at City Hall that had seen the world, were critical of the past and politically active. This created a story of a whole city, a whole community that came together for a shared vision to create a new city. Larry wanted to celebrate all these people in his book.
On Vancouverism and where it comes from:
Vancouverism is a uniquely Canadian creation. People around the world need to understand the Canadian situation. For example, the nature of our collective perspective of the world, the role of government in Canada as compared the rest of the world, the sense of liberation that washed across Canada in the late 60s through to the turn of the century and the creativity that came out of that.
Canada is renowned for building livable, appealing cities. There is something about our culture, the rule of law, a sense of free market, and a sense of personal freedom. When you put all this together, it yields something very unique. The west coast specifically is very environmentally minded, which also contributes to the overall concept. There is a balance between government leadership, private industry, non-profit action and community advocacy in Canada that is admired by the rest of the world.
What is Vancouverism?
Vancouverism is just a convenient term to get your attention. Larry is not advocating that this is a new way to build cities. Every city has to decide how to invent itself. The term does bring together the uniqueness of this time and this place and these people into a movement where the sum was greater than the parts. The word has become popular and people around the world know it.
First and foremost, Vancouverism is a way of looking at cities to create a great experience of living in a city. Second, it is a way of building cities to be as inclusive as possible. Vancouver has big issues with affordability and racism which we can’t gloss over, but being inclusive is very important. Finally, it is also a way of building cities that is responsible to the natural environment. Vancouver has a rich natural environment that needs to be protected.
Vancouver used to be a setting in search of a city. Now it is a city that sits within its setting. In practice this means density, diversity, active transportation, social inclusion and a variety of other factors that make a city great. Vancouverism is a balance between personal fulfillment and community fulfillment – these are the best societies.
On if Vancouverism was intentional from the start or if it came together over time:
When the next generation comes along, they may look back at the City of Vancouver and ask if this was intentional or not. The truth is, there was a widespread consciousness of the people of Vancouver that a city could be better than the one we had. People looked around and asked, why don’t we have these things in our city that we feel are so important? Elected people realized they could tap into a widespread interest of citizens that would enable an adventure of discovery to happen in the development of Vancouver.
Certain mindsets were present – density is good if we can do it right, congestion was our friend because it might shift people to alternatives, government regulation is not bad as long as it is leading to positive results. Slowly, these things combined into a coherent action. There was some experimenting and then the successful experiments became the model. Eventually, this model became very very articulated where people could assess what they were seeing and judge if it was helping or not helping.
On how contingent the relatively young age of the City of Vancouver was to Vancouverism:
Vancouver is a new city compared to many cities in North America. There was no vested power structure like there may have been in a more established city. This allowed people to make progress on their merits and their contributions rather than their social status. Vancouver being a new city empowered people to try stuff – there was nothing that was so vested that you couldn’t fight against it like other older cities in the world.
In this environment, there were lots of people that decided they didn’t want an old city like the way it used to be done. They gravitated to alternatives. The first thing they did was to kill the freeway culture, a culture that was very present all over North America. It forced people working for the city to challenge and empower themselves to experiment and solve problems.
On the tower with a podium and the townhome and where these ideas came from:
There are two vectors to the story – practical and spiritual. In other parts of the world, the single family home was still important, but they had just pushed them together, like in Europe. When you did this, you started to see things happen – for example, the neighborhood was safer. The other reason was if you build towers with nothing at the base, people start to feel like there is nothing going on at ground level – boring and less safe. The thin tower idea came was born out of the DNA of the Westend in Vancouver. The Westend has great views and we started to see these tall, thin, elegant towers being developed. The base of the tower was initially problematic, but eventually things started to be added at the base. In commercial spaces, you can add retail to the base, but this is a bit tricky and expensive in residential spaces. The answer for residential towers was to add townhomes to the base. Initially, people fought against this idea arguing that people didn’t want to live on the ground floor and that the ground floor might be unsafe. In practice, there are lots of people that enjoy living in townhomes that do not want to be way up high (they were afraid of heights, they had a dog, they had kids). The townhomes also contributed to the safety of the neighbourhood and the initial fears regarding safety proved to be unfounded. Townhomes became very popular downtown almost immediately and home values increased very quickly.
You need to diversify the living options available to people wanting to live downtown. If you want a domestic feel, the townhome is for you. If you want landscape, the Westend if for you. If you don’t want a tower, Olympic village is for you. Downtown should serve as many people’s needs as possible to attract people to the city.
On the idea of inclusive design:
The consumer population anywhere is very diverse with lots of different needs. In the late years of the 20th century, Vancouver was building 3-4 types of housing. Lots of people were living in homes that were not ideal for them. People wanted different options. The city of Vancouver started allowing a rich offering of homes for people to attract them to the downtown area. The trend at this time was that people were disappearing to the suburbs and the city needed people to move back to the downtown core to revitalize it. They had to build out all types of housing for different types of people – whatever people wanted.
Currently, people are doing even newer things like share-housing. 3 or 4 families living in one house and sharing certain facilities and having other private facilities. The main principal when providing housing should be diverse options. Consumers will always have more ideas than you can provide, but as long as you get a lot of options out into the market, the market comes together.
On how city planners can stay on top of new ideas and what people want:
There is no state of grace of cities. They are constantly evolving and they are very complex. Middle income affordability at the turn of the century, was not an issue like it is today. Middle income families didn’t have a hard time getting into the housing market like they do now.
Middle income affordability is not a unique situation for Vancouver – this is a problem for all successful cities in the world. Cities are inventing new responses to middle income affordability like, non-profit home ownership or share housing. The challenge for the current iteration of Vancouverism is to add to the concept to tackle current issues and add new solutions and adapt.
On how to marry the new ideas and innovation with the conservatism of neighbourhoods that might not want this change:
If you try to solve the housing issues at the time you have an application for development without the sharing of ideas and compromise beforehand, you will have a low chance of success.
Under Vancouverism, we were constantly talking to citizens about the city everyone wanted to have. This was an ongoing conversation that was happening independent of development applications. This allowed for a lot of discussion and learning. New ideas were blossoming, and the city was moving away from unthoughtful development. Eventually, the city of Vancouver would see innovative propositions and the community would offer support because they were involved in the whole process. Also, in Larry’s generation, single family communities could be left alone as there was a lot of new space that needed to be developed. Large swaths of land that were available and obsolete to industrial and warehousing needs. These areas were prime for development.
At the end of Larry’s tenure, interesting things started to happen to add a few more units to communities to add density. Things like laneway housing, legalization of secondary suites, little infill developments. This added density to existing communities in a light, gentle way with community support. Change needs to happen in a way that is suitable to residents. Mutual learning in communities is incredibly productive and powerful.
Currently, there is a crisis of affordability in Vancouver. The false creek flats were recently re-zoned to allow industry, high tech and a few housing units, but not enough. By transit, this area is only 4 minutes from downtown and there will be 2-3 transit stations coming to this area soon. There could be a huge breakthrough if city hall were to take the bull by the horns and set a plan for this area. The development would be profitable for developers while also creating a vibrant community with the features and amenties that the city strives for. There are other locations that are close to the city and close to transit that we need to be focusing on. These areas need to be developed as well. People want to come to Vancouer and we need to keep pace and adapt to accommodate the population.
1. Favourite neighbourhood in Vancouver: False Creek North or Yaletown. It is one of the highest density communities and it also one of the most livable.
2. Favourite bar or restaurant: Giardino on Hornby Street
3. First place he brings someone from out of town: the roundhouse plaza if they are interested in Urbanism or Granville Island
4. Advice to his 18-year-old self: Buy a house now – doesn’t matter what it is like – just get into the market or better advice: find love, find the partner to share your life.
5. Something he’s bought for under $500 that’s had a positive impact on his life: A 17th century drawing by a well-known French artist that inspired Larry to be more careful and creative in what he does.
Larry’s book Vancouverism is available from UBC Press and other popular book stores.