Prince Charles, Vancouverism, and the search for Sustainable Urbanism

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This past Saturday, I had the honour of joining a group of invited urbanists and sustainability experts, in a special dialogue put on by The Prince's Foundation for the Built Environmentand Vancouver's Simon Fraser University. Among other things, the event was to launch a new partnership between these two innovative organizations around research and curriculum for sustainable urbanism. Titled "the Business Case for Sustainable Urbanism", the event featured a presentation from the Foundation's head, noted new urbanist Hank Dittmar, and local urbanists and innovators Gordon Harris (President and CEO, SFU Community Trust), Patrice Pratt (Chair, VanCity Board of Directors) and Peeter Wesik (Chairman, Parklane Homes and Wesgroup Properties) presenting on two of our local innovative and more sustainable communities, UniverCity,  and East Fraser lands.

Even with this great opportunity for dialogue on an interesting topic, undoubtedly what really drew this crowd of busy folks on a Saturday, was the fact that His Royal Highness Prince Charles would be joining the discussion as part of his busy agenda for the day here in Vancouver. The Prince's Foundation has been an influential voice in the global discussions on sustainability and architecture, and Prince Charles obviously remains its most influential representative, despite Hank's great work.  

After touring our new Olympic Athletes Village, HRH joined the discussion as the assembled group was hitting on the challenges we've been facing in the larger Metro Vancouver area in promoting transit and walkability over car-related infrastructure. Although the City of Vancouver itself has long prioritized mobility in the order of walking first, then cycling, then transit, then goods-and-services movement, and then the single-occupancy vehicle, in recent years the Regional and Provincial emphasis has tended to fund what local urbanist Gordon Price calls "motordom".  

We had also been discussing the power and growing international awareness of "Vancouverism" as an alternative model of more sustainable city-building, and how we could do better in using the attention to affect real change in cities across the globe. 

Many great comments and calls to action were made throughout the day, and without wanting to take away from that, I thought I'd pass along my own small contribution to the dialogue, something I've been thinking about for awhile. My comment was this:

Many of us in the room recognize the power of the Vancouver model, and spend much of our free time giving tours and presentations to delegations from around the globe, or burn too many fossil fuels to fly to other cities, all in the hopes of using the model and our successes to promote more sustainable urbanism in other cities. Invariably though, at some point in such discussions, I hear what might be the most frustrating and disappointing 8 words in the english language - "we could never do that in our city". Other cities are quick to cite legislative of political differences, or perhaps just suggest "there's something funny in the water" here in Vancouver, to explain why we can do something here, and they can't do it there. I usually don't let other cities off the hook that easy, explaining how it was indeed quite difficult to achieve things here as well, and that it's a matter of will, boldness, leadership and a willingness to think outside the box here that other cities can and do replicate but regardless, these 8 words hold great power, the power of excuse.  

My question to Hank was that given that we need more than just a handful of model cities, and must affect real change in every city, does he experience the same thing, and does he have any advice he can share? 

Hank gave a very good answer, noting among things the need for persuasiveness and repetition, and a "thick skin" as we continue to challenge such excuses - but I was most surprised when Prince Charles in his eventual remarks, picked up on the theme and ran with it.  

Starting his general comments with the suggestion that he'd "been thinking about the remarks made by your head planner", the Prince recalled how often he'd been told that the organic farming he undertakes on his own land holdings could never happen "in our County" by others, because of different soils, practices and so on. After sharing other such examples, he went on to say that he's encouraged that ideas that were seen as radical decades ago are starting to take root. The excuses are giving way, gradually. Our continued challenge, he said, is in trying to raise awareness of these issues. He added that 20 years ago, when he started promoting the benefit of communities featuring narrow streets designed for pedestrians rather than vehicles, the idea was considered "controversial" and surely couldn't be done in most places. 

Similarly, he recalled proposing the idea that social housing be built next to private homes to achieve socially balanced communities, only to have guests at dinner parties scoff at it.  

"People must be provided with an alternative vision," he said. "We need to promote the story of local identity and culture, and avoid promoting a mono-culture development."  

"We need to rediscover our intimate connection with nature, and think about nature's and community's capital and how we live with it, rather than just financial capital," he said. "This is particularly important at a time when the world is facing so many enormous challenges over climate change and environmental crises of one kind or another."  

After many more comments, he concluded by showing his enthusiasm for the new partnership between SFU and his Foundation - "I'm thrilled this collaboration will go ahead if I haven't ruined it all together with my remarks today," he concluded to friendly laughter. 

In all, it was a very interesting day, with a certain thrill in having the Prince engage somewhat directly with the group and the content of the discussion rather than simply reciting a form speech.   

I noted with interest that both the Prince and Hank stayed away from two aspects of Vancouver urbanism that have generated some debate within the Foundation and CNU our willingness to entertain well designed taller buildings if the ground plain and lower portions are handled well, and our tendency to embrace contemporary design over traditional or neo-traditional styles. The fact that the Foundation sees Vancouver as a partner and model, suggests we are moving away from such positioning around style and other dogma, to a focus on sustainable performance - a very good thing. 

My congratulations again to the local panel speakers for their great urban initiatives, and to SFU for their creativity and leadership in forming this powerful partnership with the foundation. 

As for the culture of excuse and those 8 powerful words, I'm reminded of the words of another influential global urbanist, Jaime Lerner. The former mayor of Curitiba Brazil loves to say that any city in the world can fundamentally change itself within two years. The key - choosing energy over excuse.

 

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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