Over the next two weeks, we’ll see a lot of Vancouver, one of the most remarkable achievements in 20th Century urbanism. If you’re going to promote transit anywhere, especially in North America or Australasia, it’s an important city to know about.
As the Olympic Winter Games run, I’ll do a series of posts on Vancouver transit issues (interspersed with some Sydney news that will break over the weekend). I’ll rely on my own experience living and working there in 2005-6, my annual visits since then, and the insights of my former colleagues. But my single best source is probably my friend Gordon Price, a former city councilman and frequent speaker on urbanist issues around the world. His friendly blog Price Tags is my first bookmark for Vancouver’s news on sustainable transport and urban design. (Just today, for example, he posted a link to a spectacular aerial montage, a bit like Google Street View from an altitude of 500m or so. It’s a great way to explore the city.)
What’s special about Vancouver? It’s a new dense city, in North America.
Vancouver is the closest North America has come to building a substantial high-density city — not just employment but residential — pretty much from scratch, entirely since World War II. I noted in an earlier post that low-car North American cities are usually old cities, because they rely on a development pattern that just didn’t happen after the advent of the car. In 1945 Vancouver was nothing much: a hard-working port for natural resource exports, with just a few buildings even ten stories high.
But look at it now.
Such sudden eruptions of residential density are common enough in Asia, but North American cities rarely allow them on such a scale. There are many explanations for how Vancouver did it, but at its core Vancouver had a fortunate confluence of the three essentials:
- Natural constraints that limited sprawl even in the pro-sprawl late 20th century.
- Economic energy, especially in the boom years of the 1990s and early 2000s.
- Planning and civic leadership.
Depending on your point of view, you can treat any of these terms as dominant. Planners and civic leaders like to think it was their work that made the difference. Economists can point to the huge influx of investment made possible by the city’s unique positioning. Geographers can emphasize how easy it is to avoid sprawl when you have so little buildable land. I think they’re all right.
The natural constraints jump out at you on the map. Like many East Asian megacities, greater Vancouver has very little space. It’s hemmed in by waterways to the west, the US border to the south, and a massive wall of mountains immediately to the north. Greater Vancouver can only sprawl eastward, into the narrow Fraser Valley, but this valley is also British Columbia’s best agricultural land.
The conflict between sprawl and agriculture, of course, was the impetus of Oregon’s famous 1972 land use laws. But flat land around Portland is still fairly abundant compared to the tiny ledge where Vancouver lies. This may be part of why Portland never built to Vancouver densities, nor achieved Vancouver’s intensity of transit and low levels of car dependence.
(Significantly, too, Vancouver has no urban freeways, just a disconnected network linking some of its suburbs. Traffic in Vancouver is, in my experience, exactly as bad as it is in Los Angeles. Neither city ever achieves true “gridlock,” because at a certain level of congestion people just stop driving. In a dense city, there will always be exactly as much congestion as you make room for. If you want less congestion than that, you want congestion pricing. I expect Vancouver will get there soon.)
Natural constraints also drove economic energy because Vancouver’s site is so unique. As Canada’s only Pacific city, Vancouver is the natural focus of Canada’s interactions with Asia, as well as the only peer for the West Coast cities of the US. All that uniqueness can be intimidating. Although its crossroads location and soaring skyline suggest a big city, Greater Vancouver is only 2.1 million people. Visitors expecting a major city are sometimes surprised that the cultural institutions are not what you’d expect in Toronto or Sydney or Los Angeles, and have to be reminded that Vancouver isn’t a big city — just a very dense city in a unique and spectacular place.
There’s also the uniqueness of its climate. Along with parts of adjacent Vancouver Island, Vancouver forms what we might call the Canadian Riviera: the only part of Canada that spends most of winter above the freezing mark. Vancouver is thus the focal point for all the tropical longings of a frigid nation, a dynamic expressed not just in the absurdly abundant planting of the one palm tree hardy enough to grow there (the furry Chinese WIndmill Palm, Trachycarpus fortunei) but also in styles of beach-front architecture and design that recall Miami or LA.
But it’s not Miami or LA. Vancouver’s winter is like that of adjacent Seattle, but gloomer and wetter.
The one Vancouver winter that I’ve endured included not just 29 consecutive days of rain but also a heavy ceiling of gray cloud that lasted for months. This photo is of a nice winter day; most days the clouds were much lower.
Summer Olympics in Vancouver would have been a safer bet, because summer is three months of perfect sunny days and endless sensuous evenings. But Vancouver is lucky. For just the two weeks that the 2006 Winter Olympics were running in Torino, Vancouver’s skies were brilliantly clear and cold, and the same happened just last week. So I won’t be surprised if the world sees a similar miracle in the weeks to come.
But this is a transit blog …
A city as dense as Vancouver needs a lot of transit. There are at least four interesting transit-related stories that I hope I have time to explore over the next two weeks:
- Skytrain is North America’s most extensive network of driverless metro technology, and a powerful focal point for highrise development along most of its length. It’s also a huge viaduct, mostly open underneath, and not always pleasant to walk under. I worked on several projects to improve and redevelop blighted station areas; I’ll talk about some of these. There’s also an interesting debate about whether to build one more Skytrain corridor across the inner city, or try something else, like light rail.
- Granville Mall downtown is an important shopping and entertainment street that also tries to function as the main “transit mall” for the trolleybus network that covers most of the inner city. I worked on a plan for the mall in 2006 as well, at the same time as I was working on the more ambitious downtown transit plans of Minneapolis. The mall has been torn up for the last two years while the new Canada Line subway was built under it. It’s just re-opened, though the buses haven’t been put back there yet. As always with Granville Mall, there are lots of opinions about what should happen next.
- The micro–ferries on False Creek are an interesting example of extremely low-cost waterborne transit, probably the lowest unit costs imaginable in the developed world. They’re fun to ride, and the waterway they use is pretty calm for the most part. I’ve often wondered why this model didn’t catch on more widely in river cities.
- Finally, Vancouver is also an example of really good transit geography. If you were trying to design a city that would not just use transit but also use transit resources efficiently, you couldn’t do much better than the City of Vancouver. I’ll explore this issue a bit in another post.
I hope you enjoy whatever glimpses of Vancouver you see on television in the next two weeks, if you’re not lucky and hardy enough to be there in person. Like San Francisco and Seattle, its natural setting is so spectacular that even people who live there sometimes stop and stare as though seeing it for the first time. The uniqueness of the site is one aspect of Vancouver’s achievement that not all cities can replicate.
Many cities are in places that are different but equally special. Just around the Pacific, I think of Seattle, San Diego, Honolulu, Auckland, Brisbane, and Sydney as all equally blessed with unique and spectacular sites where people already want to be. If that specialness is recognized and valued in your culture, then Vancouver outcomes are possible. All you need is the leadership, the economic activity, and, above all, the relentless aggressive intention to make it happen. The result can be a great city, and a remarkably sustainable one.