A quick review of what sets Vancouver apart. Concocted instantly in the late 1870s as a land promotion scheme for the Canadian Pacific Railway, Vancouver is the continent’s youngest major city – younger than Seattle and Denver, even Phoenix and Calgary. Always a place of innovation in urban planning and housing design, Vancouver has seen its downtown population double in the past 15 years. The continent’s youngest major city with its highest residential density? – iron rule number one of North American urbanism broken.Broken rule two is just as important. Vancouver is the only major city in North America without a single freeway within its boundaries. Citizen activism in the late 1960s saved Gastown and Chinatown by stopping a roadway with the Orwellian name of the “East Downtown Penetrator,” followed by significant investment in elevated rail public transit.
Rule three is that Vancouver’s current planning decisions are almost entirely insulated from interference by city councilors and mayor. This does not mean unbridled power for planners (land use policy remains politically accountable), but it does allow for decisions in the long-term interest of the city to often prevail over the short-term needs of getting re-elected. Born of our geographic situation wedged between mountains and sea, Vancouver has had a historical legacy of relatively high-density living, taken to new heights by a political culture in which more people per block is thought to be a positive nearly as often as often as a negative.
Rule four has to do with one of the urban forces most difficult to discuss: race. While having immigrant and non-white population ratios comparable to New York, Toronto, and Los Angeles, Vancouver has escaped many of the striations and frictions that come with neighborhoods sorted by ethnicity. The shame of our city is not a racial ghetto, but a chemical one: indeed, the Downtown Eastside is one of Vancouver’s most multi-cultural, multi-racial neighborhoods, one linked by a culture and economy of drug dependency. The Downtown Eastside’s tragedy may well have been exaggerated by urban planning policies that have concentrated social housing and front-line poverty agencies in this district as densely as condo towers are concentrated only six or 10 blocks to the west.
Rule five has to do with the role that developers have in providing the social, cultural, and recreation infrastructure in new and renewed neighborhoods. For nearly 20 years, Vancouver has used a form of social bonus zoning, in which extra density in housing developments is granted in return for such public amenities as cultural facilities, parks, schools, and social housing. After resisting it at first, our development industry likes the current system, one where density is traded for a better public realm, because they find such investments increase the value of their projects.
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