Monday, September 17, 2007
VANCOUVER -- Abu Dhabi has moved much closer to Vancouver than anyone could have imagined before this year.
It's not just that a raft of high-profile Vancouver planners and architects have been drafted to work at the United Arab Emirates city in recent weeks, including a startlingly high contingent from the city's planning department.
But Vancouver's former planning director, Larry Beasley, has come back bearing the message that Vancouver, for all its successes, has something to learn from this Middle East capital that plans to create a model city by 2030.
This city needs to commit to creating internationally prominent cultural institutions, for one, says Beasley, who gave his first public speech in Vancouver Sunday since he left as the city's planning director last year. He is now a special adviser to the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, as well as teaching full-time at the University of B.C.
Abu Dhabi's leaders took the audacious step of petitioning France to have a satellite museum of the Louvre there, Beasley points out. A Frank Gehry design is now in the works. While Abu Dhabi's wealth helps, Beasley acknowledged, it also takes vision and determination to do something like that.
Vancouver's main art gallery, on the other hand, is struggling to find enough money for a new building to replace its too-small space at the former Vancouver courthouse.
"We're not even on the map as far as cultural institutions for a great city," he said in an interview prior to his speech. The city has a great fabric of residential buildings, but it now needs symbolic and architecturally adventurous public buildings to define it.
As well, Vancouver needs to realize that it is not leading the way in the 21st-century push to create green cities, says Beasley. Although it has done well in the past, other cities, like Abu Dhabi, are throwing themselves into that project with much more energy.
"There's a dedication out there to the environment as an urban form-giving principle," says Beasley. "We're still struggling. I used to say Vancouver was at the forefront but I've discovered that this new focus on the environment is happening all over the world."
Abu Dhabi's city plan now includes a 100,000-person development that will be built to be carbon-neutral.
In spite of all this, Beasley points out that Abu Dhabi has chosen Vancouver as the model for its future city for all the other things it is doing right.
Beasley was recruited to be a special adviser a year ago, shortly after Abu Dhabi, one of seven emirates in the United Arab Emirates, allowed private land ownership for the first time and a flock of developers with wildly ambitious projects started showing up.
Beasley, working with Vancouver architect Peter Busby's firm and Joe Hruda's urban-planning group Civitas, has developed a concept plan for the city that will take it from its current population of 600,000 to 3.5 million by 2030. Along the way, the Vancouverites have persuaded the local authorities to abandon a freeway on the verge of being built through the city, created a city concept based on neighbourhoods with a mosque at the centre of each one, expanded on its existing core of stately buildings and tree-lined roads, and envisioned a comprehensive transit system that will primarily benefit the city's thousands of foreign workers.
Beasley said the team adapted Vancouver's established and successful city-planning ideas like focusing on neighbourhoods, de-emphasizing the car, and encouraging density in targeted areas.
"But we did not just import the Vancouver model," he said.
Abu Dhabi, sometimes called the richest country in the world, has vast oil reserves, far more than better-known Dubai, another emirate up the coast that has also hired some Vancouver architects and planners to create Vancouver-like developments.
Beasley said he kept reminding them of the advantage that gave them.
"You are the wealthiest people in the world," he said. "You do not have to despoil your environment."
Nor does it have to make do with second-rate help. The emirate has hired five Vancouver planners from the city recently, including the man heading the city's ambitious EcoDensity project, which has alarmed both staff and politicians here.
But, says Beasley, they won't be the last ones and it has nothing to do with him.
It's not surprising that young people would be attracted by both the salaries -- double and triple what they can make in Vancouver -- and the opportunity to do advanced planning work.
"The attitude in Abu Dhabi is that 'If they're from Vancouver, we want them.'"