The Vancouver Historic Quartiers presents a new planning paradigm grounded in the human experience of place. We believe that the resulting quality of urban spaces is the right measure for sustainable, or “good” urbanism. In the new paradigm, we design at the scale of the neighbourhood, or quartier, rather than the individual building site. We shape quartiers as places that have lasting social value, with urban rooms serving as hubs of social mixing, shops, services and transit.
The centre or heart of each quartier should be an urban room, a square or a public open space that defines the quartier, and figurates the place. People living within easy walking distance of the urban room will find transportation, goods and services, and social mixing at the centre.
Built form matters. The quartier can achieve a population of up to 20,000 people within an urban footprint of 120 acres, or 0.5 square kilometres. Using the 3.5 storey, zero-side-yard, fee-simple urban house, quartiers achieve the equivalent density of tower districts. Streets lined with urban houses are a viable alternative to the hyper-urbanism of the tower zones, and the sprawling underutilization of suburban lands.
Unlike the condo tower, or the apartment building, urban houses require no land assembly. The building type divides the cottage lot in two cutting land costs in half. Fee simple ownership does away strata fees, or special levies. Mortgage-helper suites put these urban houses within the reach of families, introducing affordable rentals as part of an incremental redevelopment process. The urban house can function as social housing, resulting in units that look just like all other houses on the block.
Because the urban house is small in scale, and redevelopment is incremental—proceeding one lot at a time—small firms as well as large developers can be part of rebuilding the quartier. Decisions that are made in overseas boardrooms, and in global financing centres for large projects, are made locally in incremental redevelopment plans.
The quartier delivers enough population to support local economic functioning; social mixing; and transportation. Yet, densities are not so great that people are piled one upon another, living in anonymous surroundings and shadowed streets. Or spread so thinly that each household requires an average of 11 daily automobile trips to get things done.
The new planning paradigm looks for positive results in the public realm. Transportation implementation is staged to revitalize arterial streets into urban spines, then correct conditions on local streets where high traffic volume creates dangerous, and polluted environments. When transit carries most commuter trips, local streets return to social function; front door yards become places for neighbourly exchanges; and social mixing happens spontaneously, while taking out the garbage, gardening, or washing the car. Cafés spill into the sidewalk, enhancing the transparency of the streetwall, and obtaining additional business space during peak periods.
The quartier returns governance to the grass roots with charrette-based planning that taps venerable urban traditions, responds to local decision-making, draws on local knowledge, adds transparency to the process, and builds a consensus vision of place. Spot rezoning is the rare exception when the quartier plan, and the form-based urban code, graphically represent final outcomes.
There are stark differences between the new planning paradigm and planning in Vancouver today. The new paradigm, grounded in the human experience of place, secures the legacy of historic places; supports the creation of social housing and affordable rental; delivers incremental residential intensification with human-scaled building types; restores social functioning to streets and neighbourhoods; and implements transportation and street revitalization. The new planning paradigm will return balance to the social, economic and environmental functions of the places we call home while avoiding the pressures and distortions brought by the mega-projects of the hyper-urbanism.
© Lewis N. Villegas, Vancouver, January 2012