Blog post

Vancouver Olympics a Living Laboratory for Urbanism!

Among the countless stories being written on the successes and challenges of these 2010 Olympic Winter Games, not surprisingly the most interesting stories to me are those that speak to the challenges of great urbanism. As a host city, Vancouver has become a massive urban laboratory, with so many opportunities to learn, and we’re soaking it all up.

As we are coming to the end of the final week, a few examples of big experiments and learnings come to mind.

Brent Toderian | February 25, 2010, 4pm PST
Share Tweet LinkedIn Email Comments

Among the countless stories being written on the successes and challenges of these 2010 Olympic Winter Games, not surprisingly the most interesting stories to me are those that speak to the challenges of great urbanism. As a host city, Vancouver has become a massive urban laboratory, with so many opportunities to learn, and we're soaking it all up.

As we are coming to the end of the final week, a few examples of big experiments and learnings come to mind.

A New Global Community-Building Model?

During the first week of the Games, we announced that our Olympic and Para-lympic Athletes Village has been recognized as only the second LEED-ND™ Platinum neighbourhood in the world – and given that the US Green Building Council awarded us the highest number of LEED ND points so far, 83 points, they proclaimed the community "the greenest in North America!" My past post gave many of the details of the planning and design of the Olympic Village. The debate has already started on whether this recognition means the community could be the "greenest in the world"- Given the incredibly impressive green communities in parts of the world that don't use the LEED system, many of which continue to raise the bar for us in areas where we're still behind, I think I'll leave that to the healthy debate of the global green community.

Green is obviously one big definition of success for the Athletes Village, but in a city that takes its livability very seriously (in a bit of great timing, the Economist announced this years rankings on the day of the opening ceremonies, again naming Vancouver the world's most livable city), the quality-of-life and livability in the Village is a key indicator of success as well. It will be some time before the Village is operating as a "normal" community for such observations, but so far the first residents – the athletes themselves – seem to be giving it high marks. The media has even picked up on the athletes tweeting, commenting about the Village;

"Ohno gushed: 'The Olympic Village here in (Vancouver) is beautiful. Awesome facilities and the hospitality is amazing. Vancity is an incredible place.' Another U.S. speed skater, Chad Hedrick, told his Twitter followers: 'The athlete village here in Vancouver is incredible! I have a two-bedroom condo overlooking the city and water. Good times!'"

Vancouver sees livability and sustainability as fundamentally linked, so we strove to build this new community to be models of both. Although the planning and construction challenges were huge, the global financing challenges even bigger, the resulting community has given a lot of people much to be proud of in the past few weeks. The Olympic Village has fundamentally changed "business-as-usual" for us in Vancouver, and we hope it will be a living laboratory for high-performance communities across the world. If only the public could see it better during the games! Alas though, the Olympics security has meant that only the athletes get that treat for the moment.

North America's Largest "Traffic Trial" Ever?

Cities like Copenhagen, and more recently New York, have embraced the value of traffic trials or pilots, in demonstrating effects of mode changes, dispelling myths, or just learning what really happens to traffic when you make a change, despite what the models say. Vancouver has used many such trials as well, including this summer's very successful closing of a lane of traffic over our Burrard Bridge (one of three bridges connecting the downtown peninsula to the rest of the city) to give it to cyclists.

But has there ever been as huge an urban traffic trial as this in North America? The transformation of an entire mobility system in a large city and complex downtown? We know that Vancouver is the largest and most urban setting thus far for the Winter Games, and that many Summer Games have been concentrated in one area, often on the outskirts of the built environment. The highly dispersed nature of our Games across municipalities and across highly urban settings, has made this trial rare if not unique. Massive pedestrianization of countless streets, a necessary 30% drop in car trips in a city that has already shifted significant percentages of trips to walking, cycling and transit in the past few decades, the running of a new streetcar pilot, the aspects go on and on.

All of this, we believe, gives us a special snapshot picture of a potential future for our city as we continue to move rapidly to more sustainable modes of travel. As we work toward an updated transportation plan for the downtown and broader city, the massive amounts of data, and the general change in perception and attitudes from this temporary transformation, may end up being the most powerful legacy from these Olympics. I strongly believe nothing will ever be the same in how we perceive traffic and movement in our city after this.

Here are a few of the mobility successes so far:

  • Halfway through the 2010 Winter Games, every day Vancouver is continuing to see record numbers of people walking, cycling and taking transit. We are consistently meeting or exceeding our 30% target reduction in car trips.
  • More than 20,000 pedestrians a day walked across the Burrard and Cambie Bridges to and from Downtown Vancouver.
  • With the good weather in the past few days, cyclist volumes across the Burrard and Cambie Bridges are at high summertime levels with an average of 5,000 cyclists riding to and from Downtown Vancouver every day. The City of Vancouver is providing safe and convenient bike parking spaces near Olympic and Para-lympic venues, LiveCity celebration sites and at the Olympic Village station of the Olympic Line streetcar. Free bike valet services are also available at these locations to encourage cycling.
  • The new Canada Line subway line reached a peak of over 250,000 riders on Thursday February 18, far exceeding the expected numbers of around 100,000 and the SeaBus had 50,000 boardings on the same day, well over twice the normal numbers. The system is handling these numbers well.
  • The Olympic Line - Vancouver's 2010 Streetcar pilot - reached a milestone a few days ago of 300,000 trips since starting on January 21, 2010, and is now averaging 20,000-25,000 boardings each day, making it busier than Seattle and Portland's streetcar networks, even though it has only two stations.

This media report sums things up nicely:

"It helps, too, that Vancouver's excellent transit system is zipping people so efficiently from place to place. The star of the games is the new $2.1-billion Canada Line, which stretches from the airport through the length of the downtown. With 20 trains running at two to three minute intervals, the Canada Line is carrying 200,000 to 250,000 passengers a day -- more than double its usual ridership. (The two older Skytrain lines, the Expo and Millenium, running every 108 seconds, are together carrying about 320,000 a day, an increase of some 33 per cent, while bus ridership has gone from 750,000 a day to 900,000). Local commuters say they're actually finding it easier and faster to get to work than usual."

This remarkable achievement is a triumph for the Olympic Transportation Plan, and it's to the huge credit of our very clever transportation planners at the City, working with VANOC (The Vancouver Organizing Committee who work with the International Olympic Committee, the various host cities, etc), who have done a fantastic job!

Urbanism At Its Best - A Transformed Public Realm

Perhaps the best example of great urbanism on display is the way the streets, squares and former parking lots have all been transformed into LiveCity sites, international houses, and constant street celebrations! Everywhere you look the crowds are massive, among street buskers and bands, impromptu street hockey games, in-street network installations (CTV who has Canada's rights to the Games have been broadcasting since the start from the middle of Robson Street in front of huge crowds), and even foreign invaders set to "defeat the world" (as Stephen Colbert has been proclaiming to the delight of massive crowds during his taping from the middle of Creekside Park, between Sochi House and Canada Hockey Place).

I've heard our streets compared with "17 new years eves in a row in New York", or "the most European-like use of our squares and streets we've ever seen – beyond European!". Canadians and international visitors have come together to create a fantastically friendly and passionate street scene that never seems to stop. Olympic officials are saying that perhaps only the Sydney Summer Olympics is comparable in terms of the energizing of the city's public, and public realm. It is absolutely thrilling to see and experience and may very well permanently transform our mind-set as a city and citizenry about our streets and public spaces – another huge legacy of these Games. Already it has re-ignited the discussions on pedestrianizing our Granville Street and many others, sparked discussions on a much bigger sidewalk patio culture , and on and on.

Here are some quotes pulled from the media on this phenomenon:

"SHINING CITY IN THE SUN: The glorious warm weather is a curse in some ways, but an even bigger blessing in others. The city itself is bathed in sparkling sunlight, creating spectacular TV images and a sublime street party. Vancouver is the largest and most culturally diverse city ever to hold a Winter Olympics. It's increasingly being hailed as the most beautiful, too."

"The streets here in Vancouver are teeming with people. Think of what 161st Street and River Avenue looks like before a Yankees playoff game, and you'll have an idea. But it's 24/7. And everywhere. The SkyTrain here is packed like the A train at rush hour all hours of the day."

"Team Vancouver" includes thousands of residents of this scenic city.
Rarely have I seen a host city so passionate and so ready to embrace the Games."

"Everywhere I wander in the city, people are in the streets. They're draped in Canadian flags, children have Canadian flag tattoos on their cheeks, people proudly wearing their "Canada" hoodies and their red mittens – the must-have item of 2010 (2.6 million pairs sold to date!) and spontaneous choruses of "O Canada" are breaking out whenever their national heroes win a medal."

"Most of the partiers don't seem to be foreign tourists, but rather locals who have flooded out of their homes and onto the streets, thousands of Vancouverites -- and suburbanites -- enthusiastically rediscovering their own downtown."

"The reason that downtown Vancouver has come to such vibrant life isn't because of the Olympics per se. It's because thousands of local residents have reclaimed their city centre as public social space."

"I walked out on to my friend's balcony in Yaletown Tuesday after Canada [defeated Norway] and yelled out, 'Go, Canada, go!'" said Brian MacNeil, "and the streets just erupted with cheers back. It's so much fun."

"We'll also point out the greatest event of the games might have occurred last Tuesday night when a ball-hockey game broke out on Granville (street) with about a thousand people watching. The video is actually up on Youtube where you can see the game, the fans and, if you look closely, a group of Canadian media types criticizing the line combinations and another fighting over who's going to do the sidebar on the winning goalie."

"It is, without putting too fine a point on it, freaking insane. It's also unprecedented in Olympic history and the evidence of this feel-good story smacks you in the face virtually every time you turn around."

When I have more time, I'll write more about the observations and effects on the urban realm, the way public art and "urban happenings" have been igniting the city, and other big learning – as it stands, I'm still taking it all in, day by day. I'll also find the time to download the thousands of pictures I've been taking and include some of the best in a next post. One item I'll likely write about are my own observations on the early controversy around VANOC's decision to put the fence around the Olympic cauldron, and why it particularly felt wrong in a city that takes its public realm design, and public access to public space, so seriously. The design improvements put in place around the cauldron since, though, have gone a long way in turning a negative into a positive.

Not everything has gone perfectly thus far with these Olympics, despite the incredible hard work of the countless organizers and volunteers. We've had challenges, and we've had tragedy. But I would like to thank and congratulate VANOC for their remarkable work, not because of the absence of problems, but because of how they've addressed them. I'd like to thank and congratulate the thousands of blue-coated volunteers who have been the biggest heroes of these Games. And I'd especially like to thank the people who made this the best celebration the City, the Country, and perhaps the Olympic movement has ever seen – if we end up being held up as one of the best Olympic experiences, it will be because of the public who made it so every minute.

From the host city's perspective though, and from my city-planner's perspective, we've already had remarkable successes and learning's in city-building. Like Expo 86, the City will never be the same again, because of this amazing laboratory of urbanism. To sum up, I'll steal some words from the Canadian "slam poet" Shane Koyczan who stole the show at the Opening Ceremonies – "we're an experiment going right for a change."

Share Tweet LinkedIn Email