The Importance of Learning from Other Places

Can Vancouver show us the way forward?

Urbanist Article November 1, 2003

Living in a city as wonderful as San Francisco, it is easy to become self-satisfied. We are “the city that knows how.” Or are we? In our fast-paced world, it is hard to keep up with best practices worldwide. It is especially hard for city department personnel, whose duties pertain only to San Francisco, and who are typically not budgeted for conferences and work-study trips, to see progressive practices first hand.

We often hear of Vancouver, British Columbia, as the city that has driven housing prices down—way down—built magnificent parks, and created a skyline unequalled outside of Chicago. In the last half-dozen years, we have had as many noon events at SPUR on Vancouver—each by a different expert, each from a slightly different viewpoint, but all admitting an admiration with how Vancouver serves it citizens' needs while earning the reputation as a beautiful and well-run city.

At SPUR, we believe in making decisions based on having all available information, and when it comes to city planning, there is no substitute for seeing it on the ground. Twice before in recent years, when the city faced a major development decision, we hopped on a plane to see comparables—to Coors Field in Denver when the Giants proposed a new ballpark, and to Ontario Mills when the mayor and Mills Corporation wanted a shopping center–cum–football stadium. Trips like those are key information-gathering missions for informing important decisions.

In July, a group of 40 SPUR members, including two supervisors and two planning commissioners, were fortunate enough to spend several days in Vancouver guided by Gordon Price, a 15-year city councillor and now adjunct professor of city planning at the University of British Columbia and a speaker at last May's SPUR Citizen Planning Institute on Waterfront Parks. With Gordon, we not only saw the city together, but met with other city councillors, the director of long range planning, a key downtown developer, parks department leaders, and residents.

Vancouver is Vancouver and San Francisco is San Francisco. It is always easy to make too much of comparisons. But it is also easy to say “we could never do that here.” The fact that the two cities share much in common is a good starting point. But while San Francisco gets more expensive by the day, housing in Vancouver gets cheaper even as their economy thrives. This alone demands that we discover if they know something we don't.Spur logo

Vancouver and SF Compared

 San FranciscoVancouver
Land area in square miles46.743.6
Population776,733 (2000)545,671 (2001)
Percent increase in ‘90s7.30% (2000)15.60% (2001)
Jobs in city634,430 (2000)348,000 (2001)
Typical housing price*$536,260$236,868
Housing units added downtown, 1996-20014,54416,255
Residential towers now under construction518
Largest current developmentMission BayConcord Pacific Place
Land area313 acres204 acres
Eventual open space49 acres52 acres
Projected population10,00015,000


About the Authors: 

Jim Chappell is president of SPUR.

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