Charrette



[Note: urban rooms are shown in green and earth-tone colours.]

1. The Charrette Plan: Incremental, human-scale, high-density residential intensification.

We believe that tripling the existing population in the Vancouver Historic Quartiers will deliver the stated intention of the charrette:

To demonstrate an urban redevelopment form capable of delivering a sustainable urbanism.

The method used to achieve residential intensification will provide the critical mass necessary to rebalance the ecology, economy, and social functioning in the historic neighbourhoods without triggering gentrification.

We can’t stress this enough. There is no point in engaging the cradle of this city, if the end result will displace the very population that has made it its home since before the arrival of the railway. The most resilient value of this place has been its long history of mixing a socially and culturally diverse population. We argue this is the place where we first encounter Vancouver’s defining characteristic—its multiculturalism.

2. Intensification Without Gentrification

We see the intensification shown in the charrette plan delivering the following results in the Vancouver Historic Quartiers:

  1. A fully functioning local economy with a full array of jobs, shops and services—something lacking there today.
  2. Transit implementation—LRT on Hastings, BRT on Main Street and a Streetcar mostly running on existing rail ROW—adding the trip capacity necessary to revert Water-Powell, Cordova, and Union-Venables Streets to neighbourhood levels of service. Street revitalization would take place at the same time as transit implementation.
  3. New social housing distributed throughout the city. Rather than concentrating all social housing in one zone, social housing should be distributed uniformly, and designed to look like all the other houses on the block.
  4. The Donut Principle: Planning residential intensification around urban rooms—spaces that support and encourage social mixing.
  5. The urban house tops our list of products that build great neighbourhoods or quartiers. We place great importance on the choice of building type for intensification. We equate condominium towers with gentrification. The promise of fee-simple ownership of high-density, human-scale urban houses is the logical choice for an area that was platted before 1900.

3. Good Urbanism and Global Sustainability

We believe that ‘good’ urbanism is not broadly understood. As generations growing up in suburbs, we fail to see how it is possible to impart human scale on a contemporary, bustling and growing metropolis. For too many ‘urbanism’ just means ‘Modern towers’.

The Vancouver Historic Quartiers are the place where we can discover something different. The charrette used the historic quartiers to demonstrate that it is possible—and preferable—to achieve urban densities with human-scale products.

The same Modernism that slated the historic neighbourhoods for whole-scale demolition has erased our memory of human-scaled urbanism. We have forgotten that Modern urbanism has always played against a more robust tradition. Entire generations deprived of a first hand experience of human-scaled urbanism have made it the stuff of their vacations in the Greek Isles, the Adriatic, and the Mediterranean Sea. Regrettably, up until now we have lacked the tools to use the lessons found in these venerable urban places to solve problems back home.

Thus, as we turn to envision a sustainable future, we are confronted by the challenge of putting Modern urbanism behind us in order to manage two entirely different environmental regions in Canada:

  1. The urban footprint—by building greater efficiencies in transportation, building construction, and energy consumption; and
  2. The pristine wilderness—by building ’good’ urbanism.

Charrette participants struggled with this notion. We admit that the connection between two regions that we may have made a habit of seeing as opposites may not be immediately obvious. Yet, we argue that a more efficient and contained urban footprint presents the best line of defence against the onslaught of human activity invading every crook and cranny of our region, nation, and planet. Our carbon footprint shrinks as we build the walkable city; the residential building that does not require mechanical lifting, heating and cooling; homes with a door on the street to invite sociability, and yards where things can grow. The link may not be obvious at first, yet it is real, and represents our best way forward.

4. The Charrette as Urban Design Process

We chose to host a charrette for several reasons. The first is that we believe that in order to get the urban design right we must come to know the aspirations of the local people, and acquire a walking experience of place.

With a group of students 40 strong we set out to discover the meaning of this place. We experienced the Vancouver Historic Quartiers as walkable urbanism. Yet, our measurements returned a different story. Many neighbourhood streets showed up as overrun by high volumes of traffic, making it impossible to live there much less walk. Separated by not more than a city block we found highly functioning urban places side-by-side with places where social functioning has all but broken down.

We believe that very few really understand the Vancouver Historic Quartiers. Assembling the chronology of its development we found the record of its destruction. The place was ravished by wave after wave of newly minted theories in Modern planning, each one more vacuous than the previous. We see the failed policies of Modern planning piling on over time, oblivious to process. While the decimation they wrought is most clearly present and palpable in the very cradle of our city—the area that for decades was known as “The East End”—today, the same approach continues to inform planning in every place and corner of our city.

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5. The Charrette Team

Forty Simon Fraser University graduate students in the PDP Program—and two staff—gave their best over six days between 20 and 29 May, 2011. What you see here is the result of their effort. Some described the charrette as an “experience”, others said, “I have never seen Vancouver this way before”.

We thank them for their resilience, their spirit, and talent that they brought to this work. We wish them well in their future careers as educators in schools throughout Canada. We don’t expect to find school children participating in full-blown urban design charrettes. Yet, we hope that the principles of sustainable urbanism will filter through into their lesson plans.

No matter the age, we are all experts in building the city because we live in it, and we use it everyday. We shape our cities, and in turn our cities shape us. Civic governance ultimately stands or falls on having a responsive and educated community.

I personally thank them for their unrelenting and honest effort. I stand firm in my belief that the neighbourhoods they scrutinized will be better for their work.

6. The Meaning of Place

Charrette participants expressed unanimous consent about the quality and value of the quartiers as urban places. No one was blind or insensitive to the sheer number and difficulty of the problems present, yet something about the place spoke to values of community and values of place that transcended the immediate reality.

A group of 40 graduate students of diverse backgrounds—some had never seen the old East Side—walked into a multi-dimensional, multivalent experience. We treated them as urban designers, turning them lose to do their bidding once we had imparted the best set of urban design tools possible on short notice. But we also listened to them very carefully, seeing them simultaneously as the ‘client group’. We relied on the charrette team to give us a real gut check as to whether or not the methodology we were proposing was right for this place.

The charrette provided the opportunity for the participants to form their own impressions about a site they discovered over two consecutive three-day weekends. The charrette began with a walking tour on a rainy Saturday morning, lead by the charrette staff, and finished nine days later on a sunny Sunday afternoon with a second walking tour lead by the charrette participants.

Two aspects of the Vancouver Historic Quartiers made the greatest impression: the walkability and the urban feel, or culture. In other words, the urbanism.

The depth of the charrette participants involvement with the urbanism of the Historic Quartiers shone through during the group presentations. Given a nine-day process, it was remarkable to see them completely immersed and fluent with the primary elements of sustainable or ‘good’ urbanism.

On the final day’s walking tour we were witness to the ease with which the vision of one group flowed into the ideas of the next. It was a proof of concept. A well structured urban environment—regardless of its obvious challenges—presented endless flexibility to those who cared to stop, and think about it.

Urban sites the world over may be more robustly, or more successfully. But there are few places blessed with such a natural setting. Arrayed on a gently sloping shore, home to a population of fluid diversity, platted to function as human-scale urbanism, and living that life for almost 150 years against seemingly unsurmountable odds, puts the Vancouver Historic Quartiers in a class by themselves.

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Cordoba and Carrall Streets: The First Downtown

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 7. Social Mixing

Among the themes most discussed at the charrette was how the people living in the Historic Quartiers reacted to our presence. Were they welcoming to strangers, or openly hostile? Like any urban neighbourhood there was plenty of both. The charrette heard one opinion that the solution was to turn the area into an  open drug district, while others resented the drug trade and all that it brought to their neighbourhood.

The key issue was gentrification. There was a broad consensus that building towers, including The Woodwards, was gentrifying the neighbourhood—giving it over to a new, hipper, richer class. There was much concern about the ultra-sheik trade that is setting up in trendy boutiques in the Historic District, and fear that it may take over. The charrette analysis is that towers are an alien imposition to Vancouver’s Historic Quartiers. Furthermore, towers are not necessary to achieve intensification. Our concern has been to propose enough change in the neighbourhood to boost the local economy, and provide local employment—i.e. new jobs.

Neighbourhood people seemed either bowled over, or unprepared to accept that the high volumes of traffic could be turned back. They were unsure about the possibity of Hastings Street returning as an urban spine, instead of the congested arterial with little support for social functioning, and the poor environmental performance that we see today. However, they welcomed our suggestions for creating urban rooms and public open spaces in strategic locations.

The charrette’s stance on the provision of social housing at levels necessary to end homelessness will come under fire. Yet, our ideas on breaking down the scale of social housing; flushing the area with fast and efficient public transit; and distributing the load of social housing more broadly throughout the city captured the attention of many.

The charrette’s proposal of the revitalization of Hastings Street, Main Street, Chinatown and Japantown were broadly liked. Yet, many expressed their reservation that these aspirations would ever be realized.

When conversations broke down to one-on-one, or one with a group of two or three, the exchange often focused on the positive qualities of the place, alongside brief discussions of the obvious risks and burdens that accompany living there.

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8. What Is A Charrette?

The urbanist charrette became the first method to challenge the Modern paradigm of neighbourhood planning. Striving to inject a new level of transparency and public involvement, the charrette has evolved a dual role: (a) to present the uniqueness of each site to the professionals tasked to draw a plan; (b) to instruct the local community on long forgotten fundamentals of urbanism. Primary Elements that make places more livable, and more supportive of social mixing.

The Vancouver Historic Quartiers Charrette took place over six days between May 20-29, 2011. Based out of SFU’s Harbour Centre Campus in downtown Vancouver, urban design expert, Lewis Villegas, and project coordinator, David Samis, led 40 SFU Summer Institute for Environmental Learning students in data collection, policy analysis, walking tours and fieldwork in the historic neighbourhoods. Daily lectures, guest speakers, and project work took place at Harbour Centre’s conference/workshop facilities.

9. Charrette Methodology

We are interested in providing a simple and complete explanation of how we build cities, and why one approach may produce more sustainable results than another. We believe this is a lesson that will resonate and empower the grass roots level of our communities. Only by combining the local knowledge of place, where residents are the experts, and the timeless principles of urbanism that require expertise to apply them to the locality, will we reached a balanced view of growth, sustainable urbanism and social functioning.

© Lewis N. Villegas, Vancouver, December 2011.