Vancouver: The city that acts like a suburb

Vancouver Sun, October 8, 2012

The map of Vancouver city council’s plan for densification, which The Sun ran on its front page last week, looked like arteriosclerosis writ large — all those main thoroughfares thickening under the weight of stacked condos, row townhomes and “affordable” rental units, a citywide network of residential plaque three blocks deep. I’m sure more than a few residents’ hearts stopped at the sight of it.

If anything good could be said about the map, it was its geographic indiscriminancy: The burden of densification was, finally, to be shared by all, east as well as fabulously wealthy west. Comrades, to the bulldozers! Condos on Dunbar! Rental highrises on Southwest Marine Drive! The very fact that they were main arterials made them fair game. At least, that’s the theory, though somehow I have a feeling it won’t play out that way.

If it ever does. The plan’s unveiling was not greeted with a uniform chorus of cheers. The Sun story charitably characterized opinions on it as “mixed.”

Right. Within hours, city hall was backing away from one of the brainier — as in hare-brainier — ideas of its plan, its “thin streets” proposal, the one where residents, in the name of densification, get to live so closely together they’re afforded panoramic views of each others bathrooms.

Residents, the kind who vote, screamed bloody murder. Oops, council announced, thin streets are no longer a priority! No, I would think surviving the next election would be council’s priority.

Antipathy to densification shouldn’t come as a surprise: Residents fear their neighbourhoods will be eaten away at the edges. They like things as they are. And why shouldn’t they?

That they do is something urban planners and the city’s intelligentsia have either misread or, out of a sense of believing they know what is best for the city, have ignored.

In so doing, they’ve failed to appreciate the city’s deeply conservative nature. Vancouver is not, for the most part, a model of urbanity. Vancouver is the city that acts like a suburb.

For one thing, it has always valued greenery over dynamism, and space over density. It was the sole Canadian city to shun a freeway, while it now welcomes chickens, bees and wheat fields. It has a 1,000-acre park in its heart, and so mythologizes its green spaces it has the only elected park board in Canada. Its urban forest and citywide program of tree-planting is second to none (including a new initiative to plant fruit trees as a source of food), and it has three full-sized golf courses within its boundaries. Most tellingly, outside of the downtown peninsula and the shores of False Creek, its neighbourhoods are still overwhelmingly single-family residential in character.

Yet to the world, we boast about “Vancouverism” — as if the hip, seagreen towers of Yaletown were the city’s defining character. They aren’t. The city’s defining character are quiet streets lined with cherry trees and modest bungalows. Most of Vancouver is indistinguishable from Burnaby or Surrey.

Many residents, understandably, want to preserve this. Life is good for them. Jane Jacobs would approve.

But there has been this theoretical embrace by urban planners and successive city councils that densification is in itself a good thing.

But I am beginning to think that Vancouver residents have it right. Because what I am beginning to think is that it is not the City of Vancouver that has to densify; it is the suburbs around it, and that the City of Vancouver should be doing all in its power to cause that suburban densification to happen.

We should consider doing away with the old idea of an increasingly densifying inner city and begin thinking of Metro Vancouver as a steady state entity. Spread the growth around.

Cap Metro’s boundaries to contain sprawl. Make ingress into Vancouver more difficult, not easier. Keep the bridge and tunnel bottlenecks as they are. Force the suburbs to urbanize and infill.

Consider: All of our transit problems rest around the idea that too many people are trying to get into the inner city. So, all rapid and mass transit is focused toward Vancouver while, perforce, we beggar transit in the suburbs. It is a never-ending no-win game that keeps the suburbs car-dependent.

We have to begin to blur the difference between urban and suburban, not intensify it.

That may be what the residents of Vancouver are, intuitively, trying to tell their council


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