Vancouver can teach us a lot
Our neighbours to the west are doing something right
Published July 28, 2011 by Geoff Ghitter & Noel Keough in Urban Living
Calgary can learn a thing or two about Vancouver city design.
From a restaurant deck overlooking English Bay, it’s hard to imagine a more livable city than Vancouver. In the words of Captain Vancouver in 1792, “To describe the beauty of this region... will be a very grateful task to the pen.”
Beyond the city’s spectacular natural endowments, those who eventually settled in Vancouver have a long history of getting the big moves right. In his book, City Making in Paradise: Nine Decisions that Saved Vancouver, former mayor and provincial premier Mike Harcourt details his account of those big moves.
In 1949, two years after a historic flood that devastated the Fraser Valley region, visionary “pioneer planners” gave birth to the Lower Mainland Regional Planning Board (LMRPB) — later succeeded by the Great Vancouver Regional District. The LMRPB envisioned a regional land use pattern, started the vital process of getting neighbouring cities, towns and rural municipalities talking to each other and embedded city planning in its ecological context.
After dismantling our first attempt at regional planning in our city, there is now a Calgary Regional Partnership. Its ability to shape development patterns will be vital for the success of our region.
A second critical moment for Vancouver was in the fall of 1968, when ordinary citizens of the working class neighbourhood of Strathcona joined a battle to save their community from an elevated freeway. At the time, this sort of “urban renewal” was conventional practise, but would have destroyed Chinatown and Gastown, which today is among downtown Vancouver’s gems. Against all odds, community action was successful. Academics, activist professionals (including a young Harcourt, who was then a lawyer) and planning and architecture students, together spawned a political movement that has shaped Vancouver for three decades.
A third big move was in 1973, when the B.C. provincial government tabled legislation to create the Agricultural Land Reserve. Less than one per cent of B.C.’s land is Class One Arable and in the Lower Fraser Valley, 20 per cent of agricultural land had been gobbled up by sprawl by 1973. Today, cities everywhere recognize the critical need to protect and nurture urban agriculture.
Some version of an urban growth boundary in our city could curb sprawl and respond to growing citizen and consumer calls for local food production in and around Calgary.
There is no better example of the promise of city living than Granville Island and the greater area of False Creek. The district is at the heart of 40 kilometres of what is essentially a car-free pedestrian and bike-oriented thoroughfare where you can find all of life’s necessities and amenities and where the otherwise ubiquitous and imposing urban accessory — the automobile — is absent or marginalized. Granville Island itself is the most convincing argument against the modern segregated planning model where homes, jobs, shops and services are rigorously partitioned so that movement between them literally defines car dependence.
Where else can you find heavy industry, arts production and retail, tourism, markets, shops, educational institutions, high-end condo living and affordable housing co-operatives co-existing in what Harcourt calls “a gem of urbanity in harmony with its local context.” Granville Island is proof that the new wisdom of mixed land use is not only possible, but desirable and arguably urgently needed in Calgary.
Just two weeks ago, Vancouver’s Mayor Gregor Robertson cut the ribbon on the newly refurbished and extended system of pedestrian and bike thoroughfares. Vancouver’s aggressive bike planning strategy makes room for cyclists on dedicated lanes throughout the downtown and on some of the major arteries into the city. Imagine a dedicated bicycle lane the length of Memorial Drive, Bow Trail or Ninth Avenue downtown and you get the idea.
We know Vancouver is not actually paradise. It has its own problems — unaffordable real estate, gang violence, homelessness and a certain left-coast smugness perhaps — not to mention the odd street riot. But Calgarians shouldn’t let that get in the way of learning a thing or two from Vancouver’s many successes.
The lessons for Calgary? The market has a role to play in making a city great, but only under the guidance of a collective vision. And Calgary has a great start. We’re back on the road to regional planning, with imagineCalgary and Plan It together providing a collective vision for the future. We’ve also begun to move on a bike strategy and a local and urban agriculture strategy.