Vancouver B.C. Metropolitan Core is famous among urbanists for what is now called the “Vancouver Style,” neighborhoods of point towers of 40 stories or more, with a planned tower separation to preserve public views and maximize privacy. The towers have small floor plates set on top of a street wall podium lined with three-story townhouses, or retail storefronts with offices above. There is landscaping on top of the podium and parking underground. Vancouverites have embraced density and walkability in the urban core, the envy of many of us from stateside.
However, once outside of Vancouver’s core, which at 44 square miles is similar in size and population to San Francisco proper, the Vancouver metro region used to look like “anywhere North America”: freeways and homogeneous communities of post-World War II bungalows and single story shopping centers surrounded by parking lots. However, the Vancouver Style has made it to the burbs, and in a big way.
After a ten-year absence, I recently visited Vancouver on a conference of Lambda Alpha International Land Economics Society. And what changes we found! I was taken by surprise as our plane circled above and saw clusters of high-rise buildings throughout the suburbs. Following the mounds of new towers traces SkyTrain’s regional rail routes and the locations of stations. First opened in 1986, SkyTrain primarily serves the suburbs and now has three major rail lines and fifty-three stations, with peak hour service at two to seven minute headways.
“TransLink” is Metro Vancouver’s regional transportation authority responsible for planning, financing and managing not only SkyTrain but all public transit, cycling and commuting options, as well as Intelligent Transportation System programs, and has a shared responsibility for the major road network.
SkyTrain stations are the nodes around which the 21st century suburbs are being redeveloped. And what a development pattern it is! The default height of the newest developments around SkyTrain stations is around 600 feet. No, not a typo. 600 feet. How has this happened?
It starts with regional planning. Formed in 1886 (yes, that’s no typo either: 131 years ago), “Metro Vancouver” is a federation of 23 jurisdictions that collaboratively plans for regional growth and plans and delivers regional-scale services, including drinking water, wastewater treatment and solid waste management. Metro Vancouver also regulates air quality, manages a regional parks system and provides affordable housing. Metro is governed by an appointed Board of Directors consisting of 38 electeds from the 23 jurisdictions.
The Regional Growth Strategy was updated and adopted by Metro and all 23 jurisdictions in 2012 and extends to 2040. It is a plan for a network of 26 urban nodes ranging in size and character and connected by SkyTrain and other rail connections. There are a planned nine “regional city centers” and 17 smaller regional-scaled activity hubs.
As far back as 1965, the town of Burnaby, a dozen miles east of downtown Vancouver, adopted and planned implementation of four future town centers at the sites of existing shopping centers. Key to British Columbia’s planning system is that the municipality adopts zoning and development controls that cannot be appealed, reflecting a level of trust we can only dream about. At a time when the SkyTrain was just a gleam in planners’ eyes, the plan guided the location of the future rail transit stops, inextricably linking land use and transportation. Today Burnaby has a population of 240,000, with two of the town centers, Brentwood and Lougheed, in the midst of their next phases of development.
Brentwood Town Centre is a 28-acre, $2.5 billion town center at the site of what had been a 500,000 sq. ft. viable shopping center. The shopping center is currently being replaced by 11 residential towers topping out at about 600 feet tall, containing 6,000 dwelling units (over 500 per tower) and 1.1 million square feet of retail, plus a good dose of public open space and public facilities.
At the intersection of the three SkyTrain lines, the first phase of Lougheed Town Centre is a 40-acre, $7 billion town center of 23 residential towers holding 10,000 people, 1.4 million square feet of retail, 1 million square feet of office, 1.4 million square feet retail, plus open space and public facilities. The first four 55-story residential towers are currently under construction and being marketed. Ultimate development will be 72 acres.
Beyond Burnaby, the City of Surrey, now 513,000 population, is the third-fastest growing city in Canada, with the Surrey Town Centre population planned to double from the current 34,000 by 2041. On the site of what was a failing shopping center, Simon Fraser University already rises over the now-refurbished shopping center, at the base of a mixed-use retail/university/office tower. A new city hall and municipal library are in operation, and the first residential tower of 52 stories is nearing completion. From those towers you can see other towers at the next SkyTrain station a couple of minutes train-ride away.
These are just some of the town centers we saw. Astounded, and accustomed to our often unsuccessful attempts to develop even modest TODs, I had to ask, “How do you do it?” The local planners and developers leading our tours said there were three interconnected answers:
- Densification of the station areas has been in the adopted public plans for decades. People knew this was coming. There isn’t any “You’re rushing this through.”
- Seventy-five percent of the tax increment generated by the redevelopment stays in the local area. Want a new library, new parks, a new school, whatever, here is the source of money to implement community wishes. Existing residents can clearly see “What’s in it for me?” They benefit from the increased density if they decide to stay in the community.
- People within the designated town centers are selling their modest fifty-year old houses for up to $3 million. And many of those residents are purchasing new luxury condos in the new towers. With money left over, I would hazard. Others just “take the money and run.” Billboards showing property boundaries announce “Land Assembly in Process.” People fight to get in the “take area.” It truly is “winning the lottery” whether you choose a new condo in the community or move elsewhere.
This all demonstrates to me that when rational people can clearly see their enlightened self-interest, whether they are staying in an improved neighborhood or cashing out, change can be attractive. And it also demonstrates the virtues of long range planning and certainty. It’s clear in Vancouver that planning is the way to manage change, not just a way to prevent change, as is so often the case here.
A fourth factor that no one mentioned at this conference, but has been pointed out on past planning trips to Canada, is that Canadians and Canadian culture have some characteristics that are fundamentally different from the U. S. “You had to go to war with England to establish your country” I have been told, “and we didn’t; we worked it out.” Working it out” seems to be a common Canadian characteristic.
This difference can also be seen in the founding documents of each country. The 1776 United States Declaration of Independence enshrines “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” as the legitimate objects of legislative powers conferred by statute. In contrast, the 1867 Constitution Act enacted by the Imperial Parliament, describing the principles on which Canada’s confederation took place, defines the principles under which the Canadian Parliament should legislate as “peace, order, and good government.”
Tell me the last time you were at the Planning Commission witnessing your neighbors discussing a development proposal, and any one of the words “peace” or “order” or “good government” came to mind. How about never?
Aerial photo showing Narrows bridge and Burnaby British Columbia Canada by Rob Hurson, from Flickr Creative Commons, (compressed for web use)
All other photos by Jim Chappell, author