Olympic experiment tested our city’s urbanism

Saturday, March 6th, 2010

The 17-day event represented ‘the largest traffic trial in North American history,’ notes Vancouver planner

Bob Ransford

Vancouver‘s Olympic experience was a huge experiment on a number of fronts, not the least of which involved putting the city’s urbanism under a microscope.

A whole bunch of new theories and big leaps were put to the test in how this city is designed and how people function within it.

The results proved that some long-held assumptions were little more than myths, and the experience also revealed some obvious — and not-so-obvious — ideas and innovations. Many of those ideas and innovations will help further shape and refine what has come to be known as “Vancouverism” — a brand of urbanism that combines livability and sustain-ability to produce an exceptionally high quality of life for our people and a unique urban experience for visitors to Vancouver.

The City of Vancouver’s director of planning, Brent Toderian, has already begun sifting through the findings produced by this massive living laboratory.

He singles out the Olympic Athletes’ Village as having “fundamentally changed business as usual when it comes to community-building in Vancouver.”

Only a few days into the Olympics, the U.S. Green Building Council bestowed its “Platinum LEED-ND” rating on the Olympic village development, proclaiming it the greenest community in North America by virtue of its highest rating under the green-neighbourhood rating system.

But Toderian says that the recognition of the village for its exceptional performance in sustainable planning and green design is only one indicator of its success. He points to the quality of life and livability in the village as a key indicator of success, as well.

The Olympic village’s settlement pattern and physical form, with medium-rise buildings, certainly creates a promising environment for a new kind of livability and a new model for development in Vancouver.

However, the economics of combining ultra-green with a whole range of social and community objectives all in one development have yet to be fully tested.

As I have said before, the Olympic village project will end up either being a great showcase for the full range of green technologies, new urban principles and community-building social objectives, or a model for a truly sustainable community, one that can be replicated without a huge public subsidy.

Toderian also points to the way in which Vancouverites temporarily changed the way they move about the city during the Olympics as “the largest traffic trial in North American history.”

He cited the “massive pedestrianization of countless streets” and a 30-per-cent drop in car trips into the downtown in a city already used to walking, cycling and transit for mobility, and the running of the Olympic Line streetcar pilot project as huge experiments that have shaped how Vancouverites will forever perceive traffic and movement in the city.

When asked whether the 20,000 to 25,000 daily boardings on Bombardier’s Olympic Line streetcar proved that Vancouver needs to turn the pilot into a permanent project, Toderian says any investment in the project “needs to be considered in the context of a regional transit system”, but pointed out that most good regional transit systems are comprised of multiple technologies.

Toderian says the Olympic-period closure of the Dunsmuir and Georgia viaducts certainly spurred on consideration of their permanent removal and what that might do for urban renewal in the area.

But it is the way Vancouver transformed its public spaces, especially its streets, that got Toderian most excited about the future potential for improving Vancouver’s urbanism.

“Perhaps the best example of great urbanism on display was the way the streets, squares and former parking lots were all transformed into LiveCity sites, international houses, and constant street celebrations,” Toderian explains.

He says the experiment in using streets like Robson, Granville and others as part-time spaces for public gatherings and activities — both planned and spontaneous — may permanently transform our mindset as a city and citizenry about those streets.

“We need to think about a whole system of public spaces in the downtown, including places like Robson Square, as completing our downtown,” Toderian says.

“Also, spaces that can only do one thing will be less successful than some spaces that are more nimble and flexible.”

Toderian sums up this huge Olympic experiment: “Like Expo 86, the city will never be the same again because of this amazing laboratory of urbanism.”

He stole a few words from the Canadian “slam poet” Shane Koyczan, who was featured at the Olympic opening ceremonies: “We’re an experiment going right for a change.”

Bob Ransford is a public affairs consultant with COUNTERPOINT Communications Inc. He is a former real estate developer who specializes in urban land-use issues. E-mail: [email protected]

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