Is Vancouver Still a City by Design?

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Vancouver has earned many titles and nick-names on its way to becoming an international model of urban livability. One used frequently is the title "city by design". The language of the title is deliberately specific, particularly the choice of the word "by". A city by design is one that has taken public or civic responsibility for its physical development. A city that has embraced the value of design, both in the broad strokes and in the details, in the achievement of its public goals, be they livability, sustainability, civic beauty or economic success. Few cities can truly say they've done that, at least in the North American context where cities are often shaped by market forces and the profit imperative (or in many cases, sheer development momentum).

A city BY design

Vancouver is a city that has established a physical vision for its growth (meaning vertical growth, given that we are a centre city within a region), and is largely managing to see that vision realized despite pressures and obstacles. Whether you like the resulting City or not (and to my eye and ear, most do like it), it's generally the City we've asked for, the one we had in mind. Its true there can always be foreseen or unforeseen consequences of our successes and failures. We've seen some consequences of success (for example, our dramatic affordability challenge driven by very strong demand), but I don't believe, like some have suggested, that they diminish the successes themselves.

The city by design has been achieved through consistent will, over successive Councils, generations of staff leadership, and private sector partnerships. It has also been achieved through numerous visions, plans, policies, practices, tools and procedures that flow from the goal. Whether its skyline sculpting policies, view cones and other height restrictions (a controversial one, to this day, but one that took incredible will to establish and maintain), public realm guidelines, civic realm master plans, discretionary zoning and a development permitting system that regulates architecture, interactive design review, bodies like the Urban Design Panel and the Development Permit Board, or our basic hiring practices (which focus on in-house talented architectural staff to negotiate designs with applicant architects on a peer-to-peer basis), its clear that the "public interest" plays a powerful role in shaping market forces or preferences.

In my presentations and chats across the City since arriving here in Vancouver, I've been asking questions about our ‘city by design" tradition, and have encouraged constructive candour when individuals share their thoughts. This informal process has included chats with dozens of Vancouver architects, designers, city planners and developers on their observations, individually and in groups, as well as an informal dialogue I've initiated with the Architectural Institute of British Columbia Board on the issue of architectural "risk taking" in the City.

Some have suggested to me that City Hall sometimes goes too far in shaping the City. That some rules, guidelines or approaches are too prescriptive, too specific, instead of being open minded to better ways to address design aspirations. I've listened with an open mind, and have myself observed some examples of "Cadillac" guidelines that might warrant either a re-think, or at least a "squinty-eyed view" when it comes to interpretation. We should always maintain an open-mindedness that doesn't let a rule stand in the way of a better city-building idea (although we might find ourselves disagreeing on whether an idea is in fact better).

I must say though, I've seen great examples of inventiveness and open-mindedness here at City Hall, where the rule book got set aside for a better idea. More examples than in other cities I've worked with across Canada, where I was often the one trying to get the better idea through. Some of our best projects have been the result.

Connected to this is an interesting city-wide debate out there on whether Vancouver architecture has started to look too similar. Why not more variety, more risk-taking, more "architectural adventure"? Are good ideas, or is exceptional design, somehow being stifled in this process? Some say yes, and we should take such a suggestion very seriously. Others though, have suggested that it isn't City Hall stifling architectural risk taking. Given the strength of the real estate market, developers may not be inclined to "break the mould" with a new project (or hire an architect who would want to), even if city staff encourage more architectural individuality in new building design. Many architects have been candid enough to tell me an important secret - they count on city staff or the urban design panel to push their developer-clients in directions they can't themselves get their clients to go.

Other possible reasons for the growing sameness may include the similarity of development type (its been mostly residential built over the last decade. Commercial buildings and civic buildings are usually the types more likely to break the mould, and we haven't seen many of them recently). The speed of city building may also be a factor (usually development over slower time-frames leads to more variety as architectural styles evolve). Many perspectives, and I've appreciated hearing them all.

Having conducted my own "forensic investigations" by watching and listening throughout City Hall, I believe that despite some real examples of dated guidelines and occasional anecdotes about rigid interpretations by individuals, the Planning Department is indeed, generally, open minded to architectural risk-taking within the context of the key design relationships we expect (ie active street edge, etc). Where the necessary relationships end and the architectural expression and choice begins, is subjective to be sure. And we always expect the approach, innovative and "risky" or otherwise, to be well resolved. But if it is, we've often encouraged designers to take risks around building individuality.

Perhaps, as some have suggested, we haven't pushed hard enough, or made the less-conventional process easy enough, particularly on some key sites within the city pattern that cry out for special buildings. These are suggestions I've taken seriously, and one need only come to one of my presentations around the city, or read the minutes of our more recent Development Permit Board meetings, to know that for key sites, I'm pushing for architectural experimentation more than ever have before. Word is spreading, and I'm starting to see the architectural community taking up the challenge.

It's true that not every site warrants a building that screams for attention, and there is a strong role in background buildings in helping to frame the punctuation points and give them greater strength. But Vancouver seems ready for more punctuation points to give the city greater architectural identity. These points are where the fertile ground for risk taking may particularly exist. It may not be enough to just be known for a great pattern.

All of these questions, I believe, can and should be further developed within the context of a city by design. Let's be clear – I'm a big fan of Vancouver's city by design tradition. I believe Vancouver should indeed remain such a city, while rethinking some of its overly prescriptive rules or guidelines. More cities in North America should embrace this city-shaping objective, and show the will to make it happen. A city by design is a very good thing to be.

But what about a city OF design?

Given some of the observations above though, I wonder if a city by design is enough. There may be an opportunity to marry our tradition of public city-shaping, with the best aspects of the growing international "city OF design" movement. Once again the specific language is important. What cities of design exemplify (best illustrated perhaps in Canada by Montreal), is a culture of broad (sometimes messy, but usually provocative) design promotion and dialogue at the community and grass roots level.

Young global design cities such as Montreal, New York, Antwerp, Stockholm, Glasgow, Lisbon etc (as described exceptionally well by the Centre for Canadian Architecture in their book "New Design Cities"), illustrate a different kind of municipal leadership, in programs and polices that are less about city shaping by City Hall, and more about fostering wide-spread (often young) design talent (of all types – architecture and urban design, industrial, fashion, interior etc). This is often done through competitions, awards, promotion and other tools. It's about a City embracing the architectural adventure and dialogue/debate, with the confidence that it will land eventually in every nook and cranny of the city as a result. It's about encouraging risk taking and experimentation in design, creating a true design culture, and challenging everyone to step up.

Could Vancouver be considered a City OF Design in that global context? I'm not sure, at least not yet. Vancouver isn't usually mentioned when such cities and cultures are discussed.

Rather than position this as an either-or debate about which approach is better, I'm truly excited about both. About layering a city of design, a broad culture of adventure and dialogue about design of all types, on top of the city by design we've so successfully produced. Is Vancouver ready for that? That's what I want to hear from the public, and from the design community. It's an interesting conversation.

It would take changing some thinking that stands in the way of one, while not throwing the baby with the bathwater when it comes to preserving the other. A challenge, to be sure, and a subjective discussion, absolutely. But I think, an exciting opportunity for us all.
Brent Toderian is an international consultant on advanced urbanism with TODERIAN UrbanWORKS, Vancouver’s former Director of City Planning, and the President of the Council for Canadian Urbanism. Follow him on Twitter @BrentToderian

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