The Vancouver Style

What makes this city special?

Urbanist Article November 1, 2003

They're cousins of the coast: two cities that share remarkable similarities.

San Francisco and Vancouver are almost identical in area, surrounded by water on three sides, and sited next to the best harbors on the western Pacific. From the ocean, they're each entered through a natural and spectacular gate, symbolized by the suspension bridges that cross them and blessed by the parks--once military reserves--that sit astride them. They're streetcar cities, shaped by the transit systems their citizens simultaneously love and hate. They're cities of neighborhoods, to which their inhabitants sometimes give greater allegiance than the municipalities to which they pay their taxes. They're "built-out" cities with almost no undeveloped land remaining, which puts unrelenting pressure on their housing stock. And they confront similar social problems associated with the extremes of wealth and poverty.

They're dense cities, anomalies of the west, both surrounded by the same indistinguishable sprawl of the regions that dominate them, wherethe growth of jobs and housing has gravitated.

Vancouver and San Francisco, after experiencing the trauma of rapid change in the post-war period, were both warriors in the battle against Modernism. The word "progress"--in which they had both deeply believed--became separated from the optimistic spirit of renewal and turned into a cynical synonym for change without respect for any other value than the bottom line. The reaction was radical: citizen groups mounted savage fights against freeways, they fought to preserve their architectural heritage, they made neighborhoods the primary unit of planning.


In Vancouver, the planners and councils of the Fifties and Sixties who had rezoned decaying streetcar neighborhoods like the West End for high-rise development were booted out. From the early 1970s until the mid-1980s, no residential high-rises would be built.

Vancouver lost population in most neighborhoods in the Seventies, and economic recessions deferred the pressures of growth. But when the next inevitable boom arrived in the 1980s, so did the excruciating pressure. The price of housing skyrocketed, rents escalated, and housing shortages created political crises at City Hall.

Turning the Tide

It was at this point that the City of Vancouver took a different path than its cousin down the coast. Unlike San Francisco, Vancouver embraced density (though it was never stated that bluntly) and developed mechanisms so that the pursuit of private gain would bring with it public benefit, sufficient to justify the return of the tower.

As important as introducing new housing was a change in the process of approving development. In 1974, a newly hired Planning Director was mandated to revise the development-permit process from top to bottom. Ray Spaxman would introduce mechanisms to fulfill the political commitments of a Council majority that had promised more citizen accountability.

The solution lay partly in introducing more carefully crafted urban-design guidelines, as well as involving citizens in neighborhood and city plans. More cooperative interaction among City departments and with the development community itself was essential, since no process would work well unless all were accommodated. But something more was needed.

Vancouver found an answer that is very different from what groups like SPUR are advocating: where SPUR argues for codifying the rules, Vancouver decided to empower planners to use a discretionary zoning system to determine what would get built and what wouldn't.

In the beginning, what was required, and what was ultimately achieved, was a mechanism that allowed planners to negotiate on behalf of the public throughout the development-approval process. By making everything in the downtown core conditional with no as-of-right density, approvals became dependent on the quality of design and the response of the project by the public realm as judged by professionals through the development-permit process.

At the same time also, in a move very different from the route chosen by San Francisco, the development-approval process was depoliticized. While City Council still voted on all rezonings and was responsible for overall policy, final approval for major projects came from the Development Permit Board. It consisted of the city engineer and the director of social planning (now replaced by the deputy city manager) and the director of planning (no longer sitting as chair), and notably not a single politician. In fact, it was considered inappropriate for a politician to even be in the same room as the decision-makers.

If the hearing before the board went smoothly, it was because the project had been sufficiently well massaged to avoid any need for outright rejection. Most Development Permit Board meetings concerned themselves with matters that would address citizen concerns and make the design more "neighborly." That was Spaxman's term, and it summed up an approach that tried to avoid the personal aesthetic judgments of the adjudicators but still made urban design a priority.

Sitting with and assisting the board in its decision, but in a purely advisory role, was a group of citizens, industry representatives, and professionals who added their comments after the Board had been briefed by both the applicant's architect and an architect from the Planning Department. The latter would convey the opinion of the department and other advisory groups--in particular, the Urban Design Panel. The Urban Design Panel was a professional body appointed by City Council, and usually composed of 12 members: six from the Architectural Institute of British Columbia, two from the Association of Professional Engineers, two from the British Columbia Society of Landscape Architects, one representative from the Vancouver Planning Commission, and one representative from the development industry.

The Urban Design Panel was also purely advisory, but it met separately from the Development Permit Board. Key to its success, in Spaxman's opinion, was that the director of planning was not the chair of the panel and that only design professionals were members, nominated by their peers.

The developer's architect would make a presentation to the Urban Design panel, but no delegations from the public would be heard. This gave some assurance to the development community that the process would not be politicized against them.

Not only did such a structure add to the respect the industry gave the panel, it also required the members to move away from "architect-speak," the value-laden argot of impression and value ("the tower gives a feeling of dominance"), and more towards precision and specificity ("lower the massing so it doesn't overshadow the public space").

Architects increasingly had to speak in the language of urban design instead of just building design, and urban design's scale, proportion, rhythm, and relationship to other buildings and spaces had to be communicated. Maybe it was just the Canadian context, but the planners were looking for politeness in the discussion, and the developers learned how to give it.

Important to the survival of the development-permit and urban-design process was the assessment on the part of the development industry that the politicians would support it, and that the citizens would support the politicians. Of course, it was ultimately in the developers' own interest to cooperate. Unless design improved, unless people believed again in progress and the prospect of something better, development would be frustrated and delayed, perhaps even prohibited in a backlash of downzoning and restrictive preservation laws.

What the industry wanted in return was certainty, the understanding that their submissions would not be unduly delayed or negotiated to death with additional demands at the last moment. Significantly, once the director of planning or the Development Permit Board had given approval, the process was essentially complete. Conditions placed on approval still had to be met, building permits still had to be issued, but there was no appeal to, say, City Council, where the application would be up for renegotiation. Neither was there some extra-municipal body sitting somewhere, waiting for the real game to begin, with flanks of well-funded lawyers and activists with delaying tactics prepared to do battle.

Criticisms remain, even internally, with respect to the amount of time it takes to get a project through City Hall and the exercise of personal judgment and taste by the adjudicators. In response, for major applications, more emphasis has been put on identifying problems at the pre-application stage. (So-called "minor applications" take a more expeditious route through the approval process, ideally reducing the number of applications that need to proceed to the Development Permit Board.) Some particularly complicated applications apply first for a preliminary development permit on the basic concept before proceeding to final approval. The City has also instituted what are called "project facilitators"--staff members who are charged with guiding applications through the process as efficiently as possible but who don't have any control over the decisions to be made.

The checks and balances built into the system, and the absence of political intrusion, have restrained critics who may not like the conditional nature of the zoning but fear the alternatives could be even worse. There have been three independent evaluations of the Development Permit Board. None has led to significant change.

Citizens, too, have been by and large receptive. At least they have sufficient notification of new projects. They can see how the process works. They can participate. And Vancouverites generally have become increasingly proud of their city as others have praised the overall quality of urban design.

No question, the bar has been raised. The public is now more willing to accept a scale of development that would have been unthinkable a few decades previous. In an era of megaprojects, where development is now measured in hundreds of acres and thousands of units, the Urban Design Panel has seen its role expand beyond the critiquing of a single building. It even examines City-initiated infrastructure.

Over time, much of what was once discretionary has now been codified or incorporated into guidelines. The design and development industry itselfis more sophisticated, and knows that the key to expeditious approval is to meet the goals of neighborliness that still inform the policies at City Hall.

Vancouver's planning system also makes significant demands of developers. In a city with little available land to develop, particularly in large parcels, the city had a singular opportunity in the period after the "Expo '86" World's Fair to leverage benefits from the rezonings of large, vacant waterfront lands previously occupied by railroads and industry that were acquired or retained at low cost. These megaprojects are similar to San Francisco's Mission Bay, but Vancouver has several of them. With the conversion to high-density residential, the City was able to negotiate an array of public amenities and infrastructure without cost to the existing taxpayers--a key argument to make to those who would be unimpressed with the prospect of having to pay more taxes to accommodate more growth.

Once the precedent had been established with the megaprojects, it was only a matter of fairness to impose requirements for public benefits on smaller development sites in newly rezoned districts. The amenities--the parks, community centers, and child-care centers the new district required--would be paid for through the imposition of development levies collected by the city.

"That's the price of doing business in Vancouver," said Co-Director of Planning Larry Beasley in an interview in the Toronto Star. "And developers are still making bundles of money."

The developers more or less bought in. David Negrin, a senior vice-president of development at Concord Pacific, among B.C.'s largest development firms, said: "We've found that our developments are more successful because we worked closely with the City. Here, they're very strict. The City is concerned about built form. When we go before the Urban Design Panel, we have to show them the material we're using and everything else. We also pay for all the infrastructure--schools, daycares, roadways, stone walls, community centers, and public art. [In the megaprojects] it adds up to about $18 Canadian per square foot ($13.50 US). The success of Vancouver is that at the end of the day, we come to an agreement we can all live with. It's a long process, this collaboration between City and developer, but it does work?

San Francisco also collects fees from housing developers, totaling between $20-$30 US per square foot, but San Francisco chooses to devote almost all of it to affordable housing (through our "inclusionary" housing program) rather than spreading the development fees across many different public amenities (a small part of that also goes to schools). Vancouver has no "inclusionary housing" ordinance that requires developers to pay for affordable housing; "social housing" is paid for by the general tax base, which includes the developer fees mentioned above. Outside the megaprojects, the developer's fees are around $6.00 Canadian ($4.50 US) per square foot.

It soon became apparent that this combination of constraints and opportunities had generated a "Vancouver Style," stimulated by public demand and consultation, shaped by the Planning Department, supported by the architectural and development community, and refined most comprehensively on the blank-slate megaproject sites. What evolved was a neighborhood of "pin" or point towers, ranging from 15 to 40 stories, each separated by a minimum of 80 feet--usually more--in order to preserve public views and to maximize privacy. The towers have small "floorplates" (the area of the building's footprint)--about 7,000 gross square feet (including circulation spaces and enclosed balconies and storage1)--set on top of a streetwall podium. The podium has no blank walls: it's lined with three-story townhouses or retail storefronts with commercial offices above. There is landscaping on top, parking underground.

San Francisco is unable to achieve such small floorplate sizes because of two factors: first, in Vancouver, scissor stairs are allowed (two stairways in the same stair tower, one over the other but firewall-separated), while in San Francisco, two stairs serving each floor must be separated by a minimum of half the diagonal dimension of the tower. So not only are there two stair towers instead of one, there is also a long corridor separating them. Second, the slenderness diminishes the ability to have seismic-resisting systems, such as shear walls and moment frames required by our seismic codes.

The towers are set in a grid of streets that typically extend the existing urban fabric, supplemented with separated bikeways and sidewalk boulevards. Double rows of trees line the streets, with landscaping setbacks and separate entrances for the townhouses. There is a high emphasis on pedestrian safety and accessibility. It's also a child-friendly environment, with day-care and community centers. There are abundant parks and green spaces, along with public art and amenities. It's a mixed-use neighborhood with a mixed-income population.

Applying the Vancouver Model

In the three decades that the Vancouver Style has evolved, a few lessons have become evident.

First, the high-density community based on highrise towers provides a way of living for many who only a few years ago could never have imagined living downtown, and who, in doing so, keep the downtown alive. It has also taken pressure off existing neighborhoods, giving an option to newcomers who would otherwise compete for the existing housing stock with current residents.

Second, growth helps pay for growth. The amenity requirements, cost charges (used to fund specific capital works projects), and development levies that finance the public benefits also create private wealth. The waterfront walkways and roads, parks and marinas, school sites, child-care centers, community centers, even the public art in turn make the developer's product more attractive. Public benefits, in short, add private value, and that value helps pay for the public benefits.

Third, this is not just a city for the rich. A key public goal, incorporated into the South False Creek project in the early Seventies, was that affordable housing would be integrated into new neighborhoods. By the 1990s, 20 percent of all units on the megaproject sites were reserved for social housing (paid for by the City, not the developer), and 25 percent were to be designed for families with children. Reductions in senior-government programs for non-market housing have delayed plans, but sites are reserved for the time when funding becomes available.

Fourth, in a generation the downtown peninsula will likely add another 50,000 to 60,000 people, more than doubling its downtown population. That constitutes just two or three year's growth in this region. If the Greater Vancouver region is to meet the goals of its plan over time, then the densification achieved in the core will have to be duplicated in some appropriate form in other parts of the Vancouver area. Downtown has set the precedent.

In most places in North America, the memories of failed public housing projects, of excess and insensitive development, along with fears of congestion and loss of views, still resonate in the public mind and are heard most vocally at public hearings whenever an increase in density is proposed. Vancouver, because of its geographical constraints and absence of freeways, found it necessary to reinvent the processes that allowed development to occur at high density but that reinforced the community's values--and, with good design, could improve the quality of life.


Preconditions for Improvement

Can other places make the same choices Vancouver did? Possibly--but they must do so in their own way. Portland, for instance, has chosen a medium-rise model of development in the Pearl District that works remarkably well. San Francisco seems to still be in the process of figuring out what its 21st Century built form will look like--what the current generation's contribution to urbanism will be. Regardless of the particular form, however, there are some basics that must be in place before a planning process can deliver results that are both humane and profitable:

1. A community that makes clear its values and lays out clearly the public benefits to be achieved. That is the reason for a plan, not just planning. Citizens must have a chance to identify those values and goals they want to see achieved over time. If those values can be integrated into a comprehensive plan to which individual development proposals can respond, people may more readily accept growth and change.

2. Risk takers with vision. In other words, developers. Community groups may not always like them, but you can't do without them. Developers in turn must recognize that public benefits add private value, and be prepared to fund community needs that come with growth.

3. Risk takers with money. In other words, the bankers and investors--who along with lawyers are often the designers by default. You want ones who understand the longer term and the greater good, not just the mechanics of mortgage-backed securities and single-use zoning.

4. Skilled professionals. That means everyone from the planner who writes the codes, to the architect and engineer who design the project, to the realtor who markets the product, to the laborer who pours the concrete. The success of suburbia and the failure of public-housing projects led to the loss of a generation that could design, build and sell inner-city high-density accommodation. Those skills have to be found or relearned.

5. A market. One can only build what others will pay for. The evidence so far, however, shows that there is a vastly underestimated market of people who wish to live in revitalized urban centers, with a premium on amenities and security.

All of these factors came together in Vancouver in the last three decades, mediated by an approval process that restored public confidence. It may not all be appropriate or adaptable to other places. Nor is design alone sufficient in the making of a good and great city; other social, economic, and environmental factors play as important a role. But of all the cities that might share profitably from our experience, surely one is our cousin down the coast.



16,500 square feet is the number the planning department uses, but does not include actual space omitted from the F.A.R.

About the Authors: 

Gordon Price was a city councilor in Vancouver from 1986 to 2003. He was the keynote speaker of the SPURNeighborhood Parks Council Citizen Planning Institute in May 2003 on Waterfront Parks. He was the guide of the July 2003 SPUR fact-finding trip to Vancouver. He is now an adjunct professor in planning at the University of British Columbia and speaks and writes widely on urban planning issues.

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