City planning ace makes case for Urban Vancouver

Saturday, April 30th, 2005

Bob Ransford

CREDIT: Ian Lindsay, Vancouver Sun Examining part of the old sawmill water access on the East Fraser site are (left to right) Norm Shearing, vice-president of development for Fraser Lands with ParkLane; Gino Nonni, president of WesGroup Income Properties; and Andres Duany, Miami-based new urbanism guru.

CREDIT: Ian Lindsay, Vancouver Sun Andres Duany, Marina Khouri, Milt Bowling (vice chair of East Fraser Lands Committee), Gino Nonni, Norm Shearing (vice-president of development for Fraser Lands) and Steve Lloyd (vice chair of the East Fraser Lands Committee) all had input at the seven-day exercise into community building.

Creating better cities requires challenging, even troubling, trade-offs, not the least of which is the transformation of the natural environment by the built.

In Vancouver, where environmentalism is almost an evangelical religion, accepting these trade-offs is a challenge. Overcoming the challenge will allow us to move to the next level in our pursuit of a truly sustainable environment.

These were the observations of a rock star of city planning and the Godfather of the world-wide New Urbanism movement, architect and planner Andres Duany, who recently descended on Vancouver from Miami.

This key Duany observation formed the main theme behind a fascinating seven-day exercise in community-building that he led in a tent on an abandoned sawmill site on the banks of the Fraser in southeast Vancouver.

At the outset of the exercise, Duany lauded Vancouver as the best city of the second half of the 20th century, pointing to our obvious success in building one of the world’s best urban communities downtown.

But he also challenged Vancouverites to “simultaneously preserve Eden and create the New Jerusalem” by reconciling the contradiction between urbanism and the environment.

He argued that cities should be highly urban, containing a mix of commercial uses, a diversity of high density housing types and open space configured for a range of users. He argued against recreating nature in the city and suggested in restoring natural features, like riverfronts, attention needs to be paid to the quality of the experience that is created for humans.

“There is nothing more vulgar than nature restored badly.”

His thesis is that by concentrating people in urban areas, we allow nature to be preserved where it belongs–in the wilderness.

The future redevelopment of the East Fraserlands will be the test case in which this thesis is tested.

Duany and his 12-member design team worked hand-in-hand with neighbourhood residents, literally day and night in what is called a design charrette, to draft a master plan for the 126 acres.

They didn’t just spend an hour or two at public meetings. They exhausted each other in about 25 hours of focused meetings where concepts and ideas were intensively explored and passionately debated while real-time drawing took place at the back of the room.

Countless additional hours were spent in side discussions and design collaborations critiquing hastily but carefully drawn design proposals.

In the end, five master plan options were detailed for the future redevelopment of the last large tract of former industrial land in Vancouver.

Parklane Homes and the Wesgroup, owners and developers of the site, took a huge risk recruiting Duany and in sponsoring his exercise. They tried something that has never been tried before in British Columbia, let alone Vancouver, by bringing ordinary citizens from the surrounding neighbourhood to the table, along with city hall officials and giving them and Duany carte blanche to create a truly sustainable community.

The process could have been a disaster.

Duany could have simply given in to all of the demands of the neighbourhood–many founded on high ideals but untested and likely uneconomical.

He could have allowed the debate to degenerate to nit-picking on design details and questions about absolutes, like numerical measures of population density, open space, height and other on-the-ground development concerns. But he didn’t.

Instead, Duany attempted to keep the debate at a higher level and encouraged open-mindedness.

Much of the discussion was quite spirited with residents making clear that their ideas were rooted in a values system that, at times, seemed a little foreign to Duany.

“A lot has to go on in this city to accommodate growth,” Duany said, pointing to Vancouver‘s rate of growth at 6,000 people per year. “There is nothing dishonourable about growth. It is a measure of your success.”

He spoke passionately in favour of an urbanism that often trades green space for highly developed spaces like urban plazas and civic squares. He demonstrated how high density residential encourages a walkable community.

Duany argued diversity is the key to a good urban environment–whether it’s a diversity in housing types, a diversity in population or a diversity in open space configuration. He resisted notions like yielding the entire Fraser River foreshore to environmental preservation, arguing that people have as many rights as fish.

Duany’s design options embraced both environmental preservation and an urban fabric typical of a city.

Whether or not any of the design options for the East Fraserlands are ever implemented depends in large part on whether or not the citizens who participated in the charrette and the wider community understand Duany’s logical arguments.

Bob Ransford is a public affairs consultant with COUNTERPOINT Communications Inc. He is a former real estate developer and a Director of the Urban Development Institute- Pacific Region.

Email: [email protected]

© The Vancouver Sun 2005

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