Greater Vancouverism: Developing the City’s Suburbs

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. ?

Grandview Heights | BCBusiness
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.


Image: Paul Joseph
Surrey’s Grandview Heights has seen a wealth of
retail developments spring up, making the
neighbourhood convenient and walkable for

Contemporary planning in Vancouver’s suburbs

For Beasley, “The magic of contemporary planning is the first five or six floors.” The consequences of getting the first five or six storeys wrong are a less livable environment at street level, and an urban population less keen to participate in the life of the city. The formula became so popular with buyers and developers that architects began to design projects in accordance with the city’s ideals without being asked.

The program was so successful that Thom, who now advises municipalities from Surrey to Fort Worth on urban planning issues, believes Vancouver may have overdone Vancouverism and created a downtown that’s more of a resort than a mixed-use community known for its neighbourhoods – which, for him, are the city’s hallmark. He explains Vancouverism as the shift toward cities with multiple neighbourhoods rather than a single core around which the rest of the city and region revolve. It began with Vancouver and its 23 neighbourhoods, and is now spreading through the rest of Metro Vancouver, with its 22 constituent municipalities and 17 designated municipal town centres. 

Thom believes that prioritizing residential development changed the economics and demographics of the downtown peninsula. The redevelopment of Woodward’s was sold on the tag line, “Be bold or move to suburbia,” but gentrification has left very little to be bold about, save pricing, sending residents and businesses without cash to the suburbs. “We’ve driven out all those marginal uses which are very important for the city, which is why Vancouver is very rapidly becoming a resort city or retirement city,” Thom says. “We’ve lost that core, except for the West End, because it allows people who are middle or lower-middle income or just salary people who can’t afford to buy a unit to still live in rental units close to the core without being shoved out to Surrey to commute two hours a day. They’re able to find a foothold in the city and find reasonable housing still.”

Vancouver might have shown other cities around the world how to create livable downtowns, but its success now requires surrounding municipalities to step up to the plate. “I sense that the torch is being passed to them,” says Trevor Boddy, an urban-planning critic who curated a 2008 exhibition on Vancouverism. “Surrey’s really taking a lot of leadership over from Vancouver on city-building issues. Vancouver’s kind of stuck in a miasma.” In an effort to further the discussion about how the suburbs might move beyond Vancouver’s model, Boddy oversaw Townshift, a competition to gather ideas for the future of Surrey. It sought ideas and visions for redefining Surrey’s five key neighbourhoods: Cloverdale, Fleetwood, Guildford, Newton and Semiahmoo.

Surrey finds its feet as an urban space

Image: Paul Joseph
Retail, residential and office space are easily
accessible via transit or car in Grandview Heights.

Mayor Dianne Watts bristles at the suggestion that Surrey is following a “Vancouverism” model: “This has got nothing to do with Vancouver,” she says of Surrey’s plans for its city centre, the oft-ridiculed neighbourhood formerly known as Whalley. “We’ve taken best practices from around the world and we are applying them within not only our city centre but our town centres as well. We’re not using a Vancouver model.” She stresses that Surrey has spanned the globe looking for models and tips, studying planning practices from as nearby as Oregon and as far afield as Sweden.

Nevertheless, it’s easy to see Surrey asking similar questions about its own city that Vancouver was asking about itself in the 1980s and 1990s. Its planners are intent on developing a livable city, but where Vancouver was reinventing itself, Surrey – like many growing suburbs – is just finding its feet as an urban space. 

“Twenty-some years ago, it was a suburban bedroom community of Vancouver,” Watts says of her municipality. “Today we’ve got a half-million people. We have to shift our thinking and our planning methods from suburban to urban. What that means is we’ve got to create a downtown core, we have to work with our town centres and make sure that they’re compact, they’re vibrant, they’ve got connectivity to the downtown core and with one another.”


Grandview Heights
Image: Paul Joseph
Input from the community and developers helped
shape the development of Surrey’s Grandview

Surrey’s Grandview Heights

She points to Grandview Heights, one of the newer neighbourhoods that is home to major developments including the Grandview Corners shopping complex and Morgan Crossing, which integrates residential, retail and office uses in a single project. Watts says community and developer input were solicited for the neighbourhood concept plan, which emphasizes walkability and access to transportation and amenities. LED lighting was mandated for streets, and amenities were tailored to local features. “There’s rivers that run through it, so OK, let’s have a walkway by the river,” Watts says, as though the idea is a no-brainer.

“What we’re trying to do is look at our city. What are our attributes and how can we create that city based on those attributes?” she explains. “How can we integrate something that we want to do, whether it’s walking trails or pathways or putting forward public art or making sure we’ve got iconic architecture?”

ParkLane Homes Ltd. COO Ben Taddei shares Watts’s perspective. ParkLane looked to iconic – and upscale – Vancouver neighbourhoods, including Kitsilano, Strathcona, Shaughnessy and Point Grey, when planning Bedford Landing, a 400-unit tradition-minded project on a former mill site on the Fort Langley riverfront. The developer has also worked to make its projects walkable and pedestrian-­oriented, trying to keep amenities such as shops, schools and parks within a five- or 10-minute walk of most homes. “There’s a social benefit to taking that approach,” Taddei says. “It really pulls people out of their cars and makes them walk down the street. They say hello to their neighbours, they get to know members of their communities.”

ParkLane isn’t trying to replicate Vancouver, however. Taddei says Vancouver has provided leadership in many areas but faces different issues from what he calls the “outer ring suburbs,” such as Langley and Surrey. The urban landscape in Vancouver is more developed, for example, than in many suburbs, where people want what the industry calls “ground-oriented housing,” rather than highrise towers. The economics of development are different and the values people attach to the single-family home are different, too. Stratification is fine for the city, but suburban residents want fee-simple housing, even in townhouses. Densification, one hallmark of Vancouver that planners have sought to make livable, will look different in the suburbs, even if similar planning objectives such as walkability apply. 

“We’ve learned from Vancouver’s past and we try to apply those principles as best we can in other locations in which we do business,” Taddei explains. “But one has to recognize that every municipality is different. The economics are different, the history is different and you need to be sensitive to the nuances of every community. Just to impose Vancouver’s standard is not necessarily the right approach.”

Taddei’s argument that each suburb will have its own take on the Vancouver ideal is a sign of the emergence of what might be called “Greater Vancouverism,” an evolution that addresses the dynamic of an entire metropolitan area. Residents remain key, however; where downtown Vancouver needed residents to complement commercial uses, in the suburbs, residents need a focal point in the form of shops, transit, recreation centres and other amenities. 

Morgan Crossing offers residents shopping; ParkLane’s Bedford Landing project touts several recreational amenities including access to the river and an award-winning heritage trail; and in Abbotsford, the planned U District area along King Road promises to make the university the hub of a student-oriented community.

It’s too early to judge whether Greater Vancouverism will pan out as successfully as the earlier iteration in Vancouver. “Quite frankly, the successes in these regional centres have been spotty,” Bing Thom opines.

While designated by Metro Vancouver planners, many regional centres remain hubs in a region bedevilled by low-density development. Metrotown is an exception, thanks to the presence of a regional shopping centre, blazing a trail Brentwood Town Centre hopes to follow, but those further out in Maple Ridge and Langley have yet to harness a major retail complex or other traffic draw that serves to anchor dense, urban neighbourhoods.

The regional shopping centre is the key ingredient for town centres to become the hubs planners desire, Thom believes. Central City complex in Surrey’s City Centre neighbourhood is a point of pride for its combination of a shopping centre, offices, university and a growing cluster of residential towers, even though Thom admits the parking lots that surround the centre on three sides are not ideal. The saving grace is the SkyTrain on its fourth side, a source of traffic, and the emerging civic developments that will include a new library, performing arts centre and city hall.

Such amenities provide the anchor that makes the area something other than a centre without a centre. The development of key civic amenities provides a genuine second downtown in a region where several downtowns and town centres jostle one another for priority and a sense of place. But by focusing communities with key amenities, municipalities focus people on what they have, and what makes the communities, well, communities.

Or, as Thom puts it: “It’s a message to the region that you’re serious about yourself.”