Reflecting Vancouver

Urbanism and Life on the West Coast


Whither Vancouverism?

Vancouver False Creek
The natural setting of Vancouver is world-class, but fortune of geography is not what brought the city to global recognition. Cities become bywords for ideas and identities. They are clusters of the material and intangible, and acquire status on the basis of what those represent — or are thought to represent.

The core ideas of Vancouver, to which it owes its spot on the map, are conveniently bundled under the banner of Vancouverism. Its popular image is blue-green Yaletown, tucked between springtime mountains and False Creek, a kind of faceless urban mirage both delicate and impressive. The glassy view of downtown on a clear day is indeed breathtaking, but Vancouverism encompasses a broader set of design and governance concepts, of which Yaletown is but one manifestation. These include active densification, cooperative planning, inclusionary zoning, amenity contributions, view corridors, design reviews, and a general fettering of the automobile within city limits, among other policies. Each has its own origin, story, philosophy, reality, and collection of graduate theses (usually from SCARP).

Vancouverism is the city’s true international merit, and its most significant export after all that oil and lumber. In the end, people esteem Vancouver because of Vancouverism. But ask why, and one soon realizes that there are many answers. Vancouverism is a successful model of postindustrial redevelopment. Vancouverism is green. Vancouverism builds complete urban neighbourhoods. Vancouverism is an alternative to suburbia. Vancouverism is amenable to mass transit. Vancouverism respects the human scale. Above all, Vancouverism seems to work.
Vancouver David Lam Park
Except that in some crucial respects, Vancouverism does not seem to be working. The symptoms largely result from the unintended consequences of its own success. Indexed to local incomes, Vancouver ranks as one of the most unaffordable cities in the world. According to the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver, the benchmark price of an apartment in the metro area is $371,500, rising to $482,300 in Vancouver West where Vancouverism is the norm. Assuming a maximum amortization of 25 years and a minimum down payment of 5%, purchasing at the Vancouver West benchmark price requires over $30,000 of cash on hand and over $35,000 dollars a year for mortgage and related homeowner expenses alone. Assuming you have no preexisting debt, have saved dilligently, and that you are willing to spend an extreme 60% of your net income on housing, it is theoretically possible to purchase the average west side condo with an annual salary of $60,000. Scraping the bottom of the barrel, a $350,000 studio can be had with $45,000 per year of income. This latter figure hovers around the mean individual income in Vancouver proper, although the median income is $24,100 according to Statistics Canada. Two parent households earn a median income of $68,970, and single parent households earn a worrying $39,210. In other words, young single professionals can barely afford a studio in Vancouver, and well-off dual-income couples can probably swing a two-bedroom condo with some financial grit. Families are flatly unable to afford their own home unless both incomes are very high. Anyone below a professional salary can’t achieve the lowest point of entry. Vancouverism does not work for the majority of people who want the security of owning their home.

And what of the little people? At full-time minimum wage, nearly 50% of income is spent on the cheapest market rents in shared accommodation, to say nothing of living alone. Any way you cut it, there is trouble in Vancouverist paradise.
Vancouver Downtown Sunset
Vancouver has long been an expensive place to live, additionally marked by property value spikes throughout its history. The earliest experiments of Vancouverism sought to address the need for stable, affordable housing, such as False Creek South, conceived in the early 1970s as a mixed-use urban village. False Creek South originated the “one-third” policy in master-planned Vancouver developments: one-third market housing to own, one-third affordable housing (or in the case of False Creek South, cooperatives), and one-third subsidized social housing. Arrayed around Charleson Park in a maze of pathways and deliberately ensconced from automobiles, False Creek South presaged the idea of pedestrian-first, transit-friendly livability in Vancouver, codified in the 1975 Livable Region plan.

In the wave of construction that followed Expo ’86, a distinctly downtown version of Vancouverism emerged over North False Creek. Perhaps inspired by Hong Kong, where the bulk of investments originated, the top-down one-third policy was modified to a cooperative model of high-rise development, in which additional floors were permitted in exchange for either implementation of on-site affordable housing or contribution to community amenities. The City maintained a flexible, project-by-project approach, requesting contributions for adjacent amenities in some instances, for social housing in others, or amenity land outright. Particularly in later sections of Yaletown toward the Granville Bridge, the empty lots for long-anticipated social housing developments can still be seen, waiting for provincial or federal funding to break ground. The one-third policy was relaxed to 20% affordable units in the planning of North False Creek, until on-site mixed housing requirements were fully abandoned in the early 2000s.
Vancouver City Hall
Due to the express desire of the current Vision Vancouver government to tackle street homelessness, recent cooperative planning has aimed instead to fund social housing for tenants at high risk. This is a laudable goal that has succeeded to slow homelessness, if not reverse it. But with this emphasis on at-risk social housing, eschewing mixed-income development, Yaletown and its progeny have come to resemble economically segregated neighbourhoods of struggling near-homeless beside luxurious peacoats and designer dogs. Free from any requirement to provide mixed housing within the same parcel of land, and treating social and amenity contributions as a mere fee-to-play, developers have pursued high-end, internationally marketable condominiums at the expense of community diversity. In many cases, funded social housing does not even lie adjacent to the levied development. One may legitimately ask whether the cooperative model of development serves its imagined purpose, and whether Vancouverism still stands for a livable city in any economic sense. The Vancouver model has proven itself to be an effective vehicle for property investment — not entirely undesirable for municipal tax revenues — but an increasingly blunt policy for addressing social diversity in Vancouver.

The challenge for Vancouverism today is to successfully rival the suburban model for all kinds of households. It has succeeded to pull the young and some of the wealthy away from their automobiles, particularly in conjunction with transit-oriented development throughout the region. This is to be commended, and represents the great exception of Vancouver among most North American cities. But the steady departure of families and mid-career professionals is a red flag for a neglected problem: Vancouver has become too expensive for complete communities to stably exist. Vancouverism needs new ideas in this regard. Purpose-built rental housing offers nothing on this particular issue. Soft densification of single-family neighbourhoods, although unpopular, would be one politically courageous possibility. Fee-simple row housing is virtually nonexistent in Vancouver, and has been proposed as one way forward. Can the City take such difficult but necessary steps?

Read David Ley and Nicholas Lynch’s analysis of Vancouver’s missing middle here:
Reported by way of Richard Florida at the Atlantic Cities:

The loss of the middle class has also been discussed by Jillian Glover in her terrific blog This City Life:

Finally, you can read the final report of the Mayor’s 2012 Affordability Task Force here:
And the expected hyperbolic response from The Mainlander:


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Vancouver Pillow Shots: The Naam

Kitsilano Naam 4th

The films of Yasujiro Ozu are sometimes noted for their long, spacious takes of landscapes or domestic scenes, without discernible relationship to plot. These cinematic rests are referred to as pillow shots, and have been employed by later filmmakers such as Tarkovsky to impart a meditative or reflective quality to the visual narrative.

Vancouver is an eminently photogenic city, when weather permits, and a great wealth of pillow shots. In a sense, this is my greatest enjoyment of riding a bicycle here, more than any motivation of health, thrift, or ecological guilt. It really is so easy to stop on a bicycle and admire the view, finding an aesthetic intermediate before resuming the day.

For the first of many, I offer a modest picture of The Naam at sunset. Framed by an arterial condo and dingbat apartments, the facade resembles a former era, what Douglas Coupland referred to as Beads and Granola. Inside, it continues to fill a specific social and culinary niche without competition, almost timelessly.


Point Grey Road and Stephens Bike Connector

Point Grey Road and Stephens

As I mentioned regarding the closure of Point Grey Road, Vancouver engineers typically waste no time implementing changes passed by Council. Here the reapportionment of roadway for green space and bike traffic at the corner of Stephens and York, connecting to Point Grey Road, has already started. The reformed intersection is intended to bridge the Stephens bikeway, the forthcoming York commuter route, and a grand stretch of separated bike lane along the north side of Point Grey Road. Presumably the crossing will allow quick access to Burrard Bridge for eastbound bike commuters, as well as offer easy access to the seaside greenway for cyclists heading north from central Kitsilano. Reaching Jericho by bicycle should prove more popular than ever this summer thanks to this single intersection. It is not clear why some consider this project a means to limit accessibility of Point Grey Road for leisure. If anything, the parks will be much easier to reach for leisure, their intended purpose.

Point Grey Road bike lane

The bike lane along this pictured stretch of Point Grey Road is more exception than rule, running only two short blocks from Trafalgar west to MacDonald, where it merges with the recent traffic closure and empties into now-local roadway. To the east, continuation along the odd northerly detour of Point Grey Road at Trafalgar is straightforward enough, but the need for a clear connection through Kitsilano Beach becomes all the more apparent. Sadly, a political misstep by the City, which sought to hurry a plan through the Park Board without major public consultation, appears to have stymied improvements within the Park borders for the time being. This leaves a muddle of mixed-use paths, lacking an intuitive route from the Point Grey Road greenway to Ogden Avenue at the far eastern edge of the park space.

Kitsilano Beach Park bike routes

Yesterday I took precisely this path, weaving along the southern fence bordering Cornwall, down the colonnade of trees toward the beach, and behind the Boathouse until reaching Arbutus Street. I faced unnecessary conflicts with pedestrians and automobiles, even in the dour rain of February, where a few ingenious infrastructure fixes would yield none. The situation within Kitsilano Beach Park needs amendment, and will become increasingly chaotic as summer approaches. I am surprised that a routing along Arbutus has not garnered more attention, as it would seem to avoid the brunt of the disagreements about running more pavement through the eastern half of the park.

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Kitsilano Kitsch

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Despite the manicured appearance of Kitsilano, especially west of MacDonald, a flair for whimsy or kitsch still survives. Between garden gnomes, Tibetan prayer flags, and counterculture paraphernalia, a few striking examples can be found.

The remarkable leopard print door on 5th Avenue deserves comment. A cornflour blue bungalow, neatly painted with white trim and picket fence, is framed by cedars and flowering trees. Two comfortable green chairs grace the porch, inviting a moment of Okanagan pinot gris in Sunset magazine. In short, we are presented with the ideal Kitsilano stereotype, perhaps completed by a muddy Subaru or Volvo hatchback parked at the curb. In the centre of this perfect West Coast tableau, an exotic yellow explosion impresses itself upon our senses, discordant and also dazzling. The juxtaposition approaches pop art, and the residents are to be commended for their imagination. Kitsilano needs more exceptions of this kind.



Seaside Greenway: Point Grey Road and Alma

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It’s impressive how fast city engineers get to work in Vancouver once new infrastructure is approved. The ongoing transformation of Point Grey Road into a local access greenway is a recent example. Following closure of the intersection at MacDonald Street on Saturday, January 18th, all major concrete and painted medians were completed along Point Grey Road to Alma by the end of that weekend. Temporary Jersey barriers were also installed in anticipation of major curb realignments, such as at the north end of Trutch.

After a few walks and bike rides along the new seaside route, I find the changes very welcome. I once lived on 2nd Avenue near Blenheim, and took regular strolls to Jean Beatty Park in the afternoon or evening. Point Grey Road had no stop signs or signals until Alma, and motorists would often speed without stopping at designated crosswalks. I’ve now seen pedestrians of all ages and shapes amble along and across the road, without fear of being struck by an automobile on their way to the shoreline parks. The first weekend even brought a sense of shared wonderment among those who ventured to explore the repurposed public space. “Isn’t it amazing?” said one woman jogging by, timidly stepping onto the street. “You can walk right on the road!”

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I don’t recall ever riding on Point Grey Road by bicycle before the changes, for the same reason I would never ride down Cambie Street: it was simply too dangerous a place for pedaled wheels. 3rd Avenue has been a workable bike route, but is narrow and obstructed by multiple stop signs leading to confusion with local traffic. Riding eastward on 3rd was a further muddle, as riders reach the hill after MacDonald and tend to weave north toward 1st or York in effort to avoid the steep grade. The fearless (and reckless) instead divert to Cornwall.
2014-02-08 Alma and Point Grey Road
Only one point along the cycling route still gives me pause, just east from the intersection of Point Grey Road and Alma. A painted buffer separates the westbound bike lane from mixed eastbound traffic, now one-way. Cars often zip around the corner from the southbound straightaway along Alma into the eastbound lane, and I’ve been pressured as they approach rapidly from behind. Since parking has been retained along the south curbside, cars are unable to pass without driving into the westbound bike lane. Rather than wedge me between a moving vehicle and adjacent parked cars — and also endanger cyclists heading west on the painted bike lane — drivers tend to simply brake and tailgate. In this situation, one must divert toward the curb once past any parked cars to allow the approaching automobile to pass. Somehow this does not seem to be an issue further east from Alma, perhaps because of fewer cars, because they have more time to decelerate, or because they have more time to spot cyclists and keep a safe distance.

Given this is a narrow section of Point Grey Road, the options are understandably limited. Parking would have to be removed to accommodate a two-way bike lane, or to allow adequate eastbound passing room between cars and bicycles. The city pushed parking removal as far as politically possible, and this was likely the only available compromise. Given the width of the painted barrier, the installation of a separating curb and two-way bike lane appears possible, but I was told by a city staffer that this was rejected due to the number of driveways on the north side that would need to be accommodated.

See Gordon Price’s blog for a series of posts discussing the politics and realities of the Point Grey Road redesign and the overall Seaside Greenway changes.

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Seems the Bjarke Ingels Group has rather high aspirations for their approved Beach Avenue and Howe Street development. As a prelude to glories ahead, they have reclad West End Mini Storage in a minimalist design of copper-toned panels, complete with neon proclamation:


Hubris, or a sign of better things to come? One could argue that Vancouver needs more architectural Gesamtkunstwerk, signifying an integrated craftsmanship extending from structure to aesthetic detail. Our see-throughs are notably devoid of intention or idea. This placelessness has made downtown a rather uninspiring place, whatever the pleasant hue of the glass. Some artistic license is perhaps necessary to break the monotony.

The Teutonic cladding reminds of a repurposed Berlin warehouse. And part of me wonders if that kind of small-scale refurbishment is actually what Vancouver needs, if it seeks to emulate more creative cities. We need flexible buildings for experimental aims, buildings like those under the Granville Bridge tended to with a bit of imagination.

I wonder how soon the venerable hodgepodge will be torn down. I’ll miss the Buddha in front of the vine-covered body shop.

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Songs About Vancouver

Why are there no great songs about Vancouver? For a city so rhapsodically beautiful, why has it not inspired more lyrical passion?

The contrast with San Francisco, my favourite sister-city reference, could not be sharper. The City by the Bay offers such internationally loved classics as Tony Bennett’s “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” and hippie anthem “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)“. A pedigree of 70s psychedelic bands got their start in San Francisco of the 60s, such as Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead.

Vancouver has not a single homage to its name, much less a musical movement to feel nostalgic about. What few candidates I was able to find are embarrassingly open in their cynicism. Matthew Good’s “Vancouver National Anthem” warbles about needles and high rent, until refraining “we all live downtown, we all die downtown”. Young and Sexy’s fondly titled “The City You Live In Is Ugly” starts with the SkyTrain chime before describing how commuters “look so resigned to the daily grind”, in a lifeless city where “there’s no use for you here”. It doesn’t get much more depressing than that. What is it about Vancouver that has failed to inspire song, and on what few occasions, has instead inspired hostility?

Plenty of talent comes from Vancouver, but avoids making a point of it. For Michael Bubl√© and Diana Krall, origins in the Lower Mainland are a kind of footnote to international jazz fame. Sarah McLachlan still resides in West Vancouver, though few seem to even know she’s from here (or nearly so, having moved from Nova Scotia over 25 years ago).

Perhaps the closest we come to a local sound is the punk movement, which briefly flourished in the 1970s and somehow survives with a core following. So I present the reluctant, provisional winner in my search: The Smugglers’ comic pop-punk postcard “Vancouver, B.C.“. Seems I’m not the first to be disappointed.