Greater Vancouverism: Developing the City's Suburbs


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Grandview Heights | BCBusiness
Image by: Paul Joseph
Instant neighbourhoods like Surrey's Grandview Heights have attracted residential and retail development.

The Vancouverism planning model may have revitalized the city's urban core, but now Vancouver’s
 suburbs are striving for their own 
take on livability

Anyone who thinks urban sprawl is unique to modern cities would do well to consult a 1928 literary classic, in which one character laments, “Everybody crowds round so in this forest. There’s no space. I never saw a more spreading lot of animals in my life, and in all the wrong places.” The author is A.A. Milne; the speaker, Eeyore, a donkey. 

Eeyore would be right at home today in many cities across North America, including parts of Metro Vancouver. Vancouver’s downtown peninsula may be a planner’s fantasy of a livable urban environment with its towers, pedestrians, bike commuters and virtually litter-free streets, but beyond lies a vast expanse of suburbs with low-rise subdivisions and retail complexes, and a self-serving maze of road networks.

The planning model that has come to be known as Vancouverism may have been a masterstroke of urban planning that helped revitalize Vancouver’s urban core, but as suburbs look to their own future, it’s clear that the Vancouver model doesn’t provide a one-size-fits-all solution. One municipality, Surrey, is emerging as a leader in showing the way beyond Vancouverism. 

Vancouverism is widely recognized as a model of how to do density well, and create livable urban communities. The New York Times was one of the first to use the term in 2005, when it characterized the model as defined by “widely separated, slender towers interspersed with low-rise buildings, public spaces, small parks and pedestrian-friendly streetscapes and facades to minimize the impact of a high-density population.”

Vancouver architect Bing Thom, principal of Bing Thom Architects Inc., was subsequently quizzed regarding his thoughts about the model by a journalist visiting from Italy, who contrasted it with his experience of cities in Europe. As Thom recalls, the journalist told him, “‘In Europe when I walk down a street and I turn a corner, everything’s quite uniform and repetitive, but in Vancouver when I go down the street and turn a corner, I’m discovering new things all the time.’” Thom explains that individual experiences of Vancouver have led to many different understandings of what makes the city work, what makes it appealing – and ultimately, what the model known as Vancouverism is.

Larry Beasley, former co-director of planning and a key player in the processes that resulted in the cityscape described by the term Vancouverism, traces the genesis of the phenomenon to 1986, when city planners made a conscious decision to encourage residential development in the downtown core. By bringing people closer to the jobs available downtown, the city hoped to create a market that would sustain the area’s flagging retail sector. Residential development became the linchpin holding together all other components of the urban core, thrusting Vancouver into the vanguard of a new approach to urban design that put people first.

Strong policies were put in place to steer developers in the right direction. Staff established building design guidelines stating how far buildings should stand from the street to permit grass boulevards and wide sidewalks that encouraged mingling. Development fees and community-amenity contributions garnered funds from developers for service infrastructure and public amenities. Guidelines also encouraged public open spaces within new developments, while townhouses at the base of towers provided “eyes on the street” – an arrangement that aimed to bring people closer together and deter loitering and vandalism.


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