Livable streets, walkable neighbourhoods, affordable regions

Princess Street, Strathcona

If we are to draw a single conclusion from our the Vancouver Historic Quartiers working process, it would be that urbanism is a phenomenon of our own creation built across several scales of place and spanning centuries of time. Our findings are consistent with the work of others. The quality of the street environment—its “livability”—became our litmus test for measuring urban functioning at the local or district scale; we used the level of “walkability and social mixing” as the measure of urban functioning at the scale of the neighbourhood or quartier; and we used the “affordability of housing” as the measure for urban functioning at the scale of the region as a whole. By establishing different measures for urban functioning at different scales we were finally able to make sense of the urban whole. In the Vancouver’s Historic Quartiers we discovered the finest single piece of urbanism in our region. Continue reading

The Dollar-Cost of Housing the Homeless

Social Housing should be part of the regional system, incorporated into neighbourhood planning from the outset. Lewis N. Villegas, The Gastown Principles, March 2011.

Alexander Street in Gastown, pictured above, presents a microcosm of a workable housing strategy. In this photo we see co-op housing, social housing, affordable housing, and hi-end condominiums all on the same city block. There is a higher level of social mix taking place on the street than inside any given building. Continue reading

Six measures of ‘good’ urbanism

 

Our highest priority in designing the city must be to make places that will resonate with human sense experience, and support social functioning. Yet, that will require a shift away from the Modern planning paradigm to the longstanding urban tradition that shapes cities according to physical, social and ecological human needs.

In Vancouver, when we speak about ‘urban design’. For example, when a project goes to the Urban Design Panel for review. However, what we are dealing with is Modern urbanism, rather than the longstanding tradition of urban design. We have argued here that Modern urbanism is bereft in one all important area: it has failed to produce any places of lasting value.

Focusing on just one aspect of ‘good’ urbanism, we list here several characteristics in the built form that are fundamental in shaping the human experience of place. Continue reading

Economic Benefits of Incremental Intensification

 

The Charrette intensification plan adding 15,500 units, or 35,000 new residents to the Historic Quariters can be measured in terms of “new tax revenue”. The Charrette recommends a tiered neighbourhood mix of one-third non-market, one-third affordable, and one-third market. Thus, the tax revenues flowing to the city from residential intensification must be adjusted accordingly:

Market housing: 55,000 x 1/3 x 800/s.f. per unit = $14.5 million per year tax increment

Rate is reduced by half for affordable housing, or = $7.25 million per year tax increment

Non-market housing contributes no taxes.

Assume that 1/3 of the current population, or 5,000 are paying property tax = 5,000 x 800 = $4 million

Thus, the tax increment from residential intensification of the Historic Quartiers amounts to $17.75 million per yearn flowing to city coffers. Continue reading

The Charrette as Environmental Learning Space

The urbanist charrette was the first challenge issued to the Modern planning paradigm. Striving to inject transparency, urban design principles, and meaningful participation into the planning process, the role of the charrette has evolved from exposing professionals to the subject site, to Educating about Sustainable Development (ESD), or ‘good’ urbanism.

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The New Planning Paradigm

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.

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Urban Re-use and Incremental Redevelopment

The plan above shows the full extent of industrial build out in the Historic Quartiers fueled by the 1920’s vision of sea ports, new railways (CPR 1886; CN 1915), and the opening of the Panama Canal (1914):

[F]irst and foremost Vancouver is a great seaport and… practically the sole ocean port of half a continent, inhabited by a progressive and increasing population, has on its outskirts a river valley with great agricultural possibilities, with a hinterland rich in minerals, lumber and raw materials for manufacture, and adjoining at the moderate distance of five hundred miles the greatest granary of the world. (Bartholomew 1929 : p. 29) Continue reading

Simply the Best

We have lost sight of the social, economic, and environmental values embodied by the tradition engendered in the urbanism of the Vancouver Historic Quartiers. If we have forgotten how to look at the city, perhaps it is because we are driving by too fast, or because we are labouring under the false nihilism of the ‘Degree Zero’ doctrines of Modern urbanism. Everywhere we turn in the Historic Quartiers we discover another place, another space, another set of architectural elements honed to embody the values of community, and the values of place. Thickly encrusted by layers of benign neglect, here in our oldest and most venerable places, we can recover the longest, continuous tradition in urbanism, and secure a sustainable future.

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Gassy’s Town

Prior to the arrival of railway, Gastown was as a one-street commercial district serving the Hastings Mill population, and all who arrived over the False Creek bridge from New Westminster, or by boat to any of its rickety floats. With the first railway station located immediately to the west, and the surrounding land a timbered wilderness, Gastown was the first beneficiary of the forces unleashed by the transcontinental.
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The Figuration of Place & the Urban Room

Maple Tree Square

The Figuration of Place & the Urban Room

Inside the urban room we stand in a space in the city where we can see the buildings all around. It is a place where the linear tyranny of the street is finally broken, and where the distance separating the buildings can be set to resonate with the mechanisms of human sense perception. When the ratio of the building height, to the distance between the buildings can be described by small, whole-numbers, then a powerful and lasting impression is created in our memory that we term the urban room.

In the long streets of cities platted with regular orthogonal grids one place can look very much like another. In sharp contradistinction, the experience of the urban room is something altogether different.

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Modernity and Modern Urbanism

“The construction of the Distributor Street and the absence of skyscrapers will spread business evenly over the area and prevent undue traffic congestion.”

Harland Bartholomew. A Plan for the City of Vancouver, British Columbia. 1929.

In 1929 the Bartholomew Plan sounded a warning about skyscrapers that has gone generally unheeded in the modern world. While on the one hand, a general consensus was established after 1960 that tower districts would make up the business district of most cities; on the other, towers as the default option for neighbourhood intensification typically face strong opposition. More puzzling still is the view that towers, or skyscrapers, are the proper expression for sustainable urbanism. A position that carefully avoids answering certain irrefutable facts. Continue reading

The Hastings Mill Townsite

CPR Survey of Hastings Mill Site in 1886

Maj. J.S. Matthews, Early Vancouver Vol. 3 (Vancouver, City of Vancouver, 2011) p. 78.

The 1884 map of the Hastings Mill townsite, annotated in the 1930’s by Maj. Matthews, shows the buildings that housed and serviced the resident work force, and the curving Railway Avenue platted by the CPR mirroring the bend in the railway’s main trunk. The bend follows the contours of the land, tacking to the sea to stay on level ground. The north side of Railway Avenue replaced cottages and structures numbered 1-13 and 66-68. The railway tracks demolished most of the rest. The mill remained in operation into the late 1920’s..

The significance of the Hastings Mill Townsite is that it provided the focus for the new settlements forming around it. Continue reading