Vancouver's Urban Conundrum: Let's Design Better Cities

Vancouver promotes itself as a modern if not postmodern city. Doug Coupland’s book, City of Glass, rightly captured the city’s look and aesthetic, which is dominated by high rises set against magnificent mountains and the ocean.

It’s an exciting place to live, profoundly multi-faceted and rich in diversity. It is a peaceful city with many contradictions, the downtown Eastside being the most visible example of the challenges faced by local governments struggling with the needs of the poor and underprivileged against a backdrop of incredible wealth and economic activity.

These contradictions are not unique to Vancouver. But there was always the hope that British Columbia and its largest city would find the measure of these problems and develop creative solutions to envision the city differently.

Over the last 16 years, I have been working on the development of a new campus for Emily Carr University of Art and Design. As a consequence, I have learned more than I ever could have imagined about the challenges of creatively engaging with the built environment in urban centres and with the ways in which cities like Vancouver are organized to both facilitate and impede the development of new areas of the city and the buildings we put into them.

The new campus is situated on what was the former site of the Finning Corp. Finning gifted 18 acres to four post-secondary institutions in the Vancouver area in 2001: University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University, British Columbia Institute of Technology and Emily Carr.

The gift was generous and was given with the understanding that the lands would be used for collaborative purposes by the four institutions. The initial vision was to build and then share facilities in a cross-disciplinary environment for the benefit of students coming from many different parts of the city.

An unrealized vision

This vision was never realized because the institutions never found the measure of each other’s strengths and never negotiated long enough to make something happen.

But Emily Carr decided to go ahead and build a new campus because of the four institutions, it owned no land and had leased its facilities over its 92-year history.

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Among all the challenges, three stand out: Raising $122.5 million to build the campus; developing the architectural plan for the facility and, finally, the City of Vancouver itself.

A summary of just some of the challenges: From permitting through to planning and engineering, differing interests, different personalities, sometimes ambiguous rules and regulations, conflict among people working at City Hall that led to many slowdowns, lack of clarity as to how to achieve the goals of the project, arbitrary interpretations of land use, conflict-laden discussions of transportation, parking and amenities.

Sometimes we were told something had to happen because “rules are rules.” Alternately we were told that time did not permit the depth of research required to make changes to existing site and district plans, some of which had been formulated years and decades earlier.

Inevitably, this lead to compromises, some good and some bad.

Perhaps the most challenging compromise was the grade upon which the building was erected. The costs of following the city plan were not only financial but also affected the design and look and feel of the building. Part of the interior of the building is now underground as a result of a decision that still today feels awkward and unnecessary.

The location of the campus means that it could link the western and eastern parts of the city through large open plazas and a permeable campus closely linked to the immediate communities in which it is situated.

My ideal scenario would see the area turn into a connector, allowing people to walk from the east side of the city to the downtown core through a series of connected walkways. None of this will be possible because at some point or other plans were developed that now, from all accounts, cannot and will not change.

The heart of the issue here is how cities respond to change. I don’t think that Vancouver is unique.

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Differing interests and contesting values especially around land use and housing are at the heart of debates among citizens, politicians and bureaucrats in all cities. The new campus was completed a few months ago and is magnificent, but all of the problems I have described still exist.

Design as a discipline

As someone who works in an art and design institution, I am amazed that some of the great value that design as a discipline brings to so many areas has not really infiltrated City Hall.

For example, how can new building sites be broken down into nodes and networks so that building mass is lighter and less imposing and landscaping is not just peripheral but integral and central?

Well, there are at least four different city departments that would have to get together and answer those types of questions. Aside from the challenges of scheduling, it is not possible to bring that many differing interests to the same table in an environment of engaged and productive discussion.

Design is a problem-solving discipline and one that, like engineering, seeks answers to difficult challenges. But if the context for problem-solving is unclear, then even the best designers will have difficulties in solving complex issues.

Cities have always struggled with the ups and downs of population growth, affordable housing and making space for industry and employers to actually set up their businesses.

From a historical point of view, and over the course of the 20th century in particular, there have always been tensions between urban needs and suburban growth, between areas that undergo gentrification and those that remain “undeveloped.”

In all this, no magic solutions have been found to rising costs and decreasing availability in the housing sector. And cities continue to develop their transportation systems without deeper questions being asked about sustainability or even capacity.

Some cities grow by design, but most grow incrementally and without a real understanding of the short and long-term implications of planning processes and outcomes and decisions that often ripple far beyond their initial assumptions.

It’s almost impossible to sustain a vision for a city without modelling, critiquing and examining the outcomes of decisions made by many different departments, which for most part operate in isolation from each other.

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As a consequence, cities have large bureaucracies with conflicting interests that often have nothing to do with good policy development or pragmatic planning. They are self-perpetuating machines. They set rules in one decade and hold onto the same rules in another, even when conditions on the ground have changed.

Imagine the difficulty for the thousands who work in city halls to engage in an ethnography of their cities and themselves; to research in an impartial manner how people live and what their aspirations are and to try and understand the flow and flux of their everyday lives in the context of policy development.

No one has the time for what appears to be an academic exercise and yet this knowledge should drive decision-making. What is described as consultation is more often than not an exercise in futility — not because anyone’s intentions are negative, but because real consultation takes more than a few hours on a Thursday evening.

The city as an onion

Cities are like onions without a core. The more you peel off, the more challenges there seem to be. And the beauty of this contradiction is that cities are resilient inventions, able to outlive poor government and poor governance, able to grow in response to the elasticity of the economy, full of culture and cultural activities, vibrant and in some cases genuinely open-minded.

The challenge is that cities and the people who live in them have different and sometimes unusual expectations. What’s more, cities are places that change by the day if not by the hour. Cities scramble to keep up, including Vancouver.

We need new models for the planning process. We need to think about cities as living organisms, and most of all we need to face the mistakes head on.

Vancouver may see itself as postmodern, but it has fallen far behind cities like Melbourne because in all the areas to tick off in discussing cities — road safety, traffic congestion, integrated transportation systems, varied approaches to the movement of people, (why isn’t there any light rail in Vancouver?), housing affordability, access to services, traffic management, cultural venues and streetscapes, and yes, the role of bikes — Vancouver is not in the game.

Its development and discussion of policy does not attract open debate and true dialogue. The control that City Hall exercises over development is more bureaucratic than progressive, and it seems to be pedalling backwards as the city accelerates.

Vancouver is indeed, at this moment in its history, a city of glass.

This article first appeared in The Conversation (Canadian version) and was reprinted in The Tyee

Beijing and the clash of history

(Note: A day after this blog entry was completed, Arthur Penn, one of the greatest filmmakers of the 20th century died. Big loss for those of us who love the cinema and its history.) 

China sits somewhere in between the pre-modern and the postmodern world, or perhaps it might be better to say the pre-modern and the postmodern share the same sidewalks, highways and restaurants. A recent visit to Beijing and Tianjin taught me a great deal about the challenges and opportunities within China today and what this means for Westerners trying to engage with Chinese culture and education.

Beijing is a city in constant motion, surrounded by six ring roads many of which intersect in the most bizarre fashion imaginable. The style of driving says a lot about the psychology of the country today. Cars simply move over when they need space irrespective of whether or not there is room to do so. The goal is to get from one point to another irrespective of the consequences. Cars even drive in the emergency lanes and there are cameras everywhere. Traffic jams are so constant that there is a saying in Beijing, that you can only do one or two things in any given day. This is not only because the distances are so great, but also because for the most part it is just impossible to get from one end of the city to the other in a reasonable time.

The city is full of fascinating juxtapositions. Expensive high-rises and hotels sit astride poor areas that have little or no sanitation and where people live in fear that their homes will be expropriated. The older areas of Beijing are constantly disappearing to be replaced by sometimes innovative and extraordinary architecture and other times by square boxes with small apartments. At the same time, the Central Villa District on the outskirts of Beijing looks like parts of San Diego, only with bigger houses and more international private schools. Contrast this with the Hutongs — areas of Beijing with narrow streets and laneways, small houses, cafés and a vibrant street life and you get a sense of how the city, but also the country is evolving. The interface of old and new is so stark and so intense and so ever present, that the city feels like it is boiling over with sometimes wonderful and often times startling contradictions.

Nonetheless, Beijing is vibrant, full of energy, cultural activity and the pursuit of entrepreneurial success. It feels like a city at the start of a new era. Beijing is discovering its roots and its new direction, just as the country is, but this is also covering over its many contradictions. It is a city defined by pastiche, where imitation rules amidst innovation. Although the past remains dominant, the future hovers like a geodesic dome over the entire population and with so many cars is part of the reason that the city is so polluted. The few historical buildings that remain are like parkland in the midst of urban chaos.

A visit to the district known as 798, which is over 150 acres of buildings and streets and cafés and shops devoted to culture, art and exhibition deepens the interface and also cracks the façade of state authority. Some of the art is outrageous, a mixture of Dada and Surrealism. Some of the art works take images that just a few years ago could not be duplicated because of their supposed sanctity and strips them of their logic, let alone their iconic importance. Contrast this with the guards at the Forbidden City who don’t allow photographs to be taken of Chairman Mao’s red portrait embedded in the main wall of the entrance to the Forbidden City.

The ubiquitous presence of giant LED screens on many of the new buildings attests to the desire for every object to somehow reflect the rush into post-modernity. There has not been enough time for modernity to instill some of its better values into the culture, with the result that there are breaks and cracks everywhere. Bathrooms in the main museum have no soap and no toilet paper and no toilets, just holes in the ground. There is a disheveled look to some restaurants and turn a corner and you are suddenly in the old China. The subway looks relatively new but try and take a train at rush hour!

The Silk Market incarnates the ironies of China today. It is in a building that sits on a Subway line with restaurants like Flat White (from New Zealand) serving western food next to large garbage bins, which are constantly being filled and emptied. The market itself is one hundred percent fake. Rows and rows of knock-offs styled for western purses which after a while start to look more and more real. Young Chinese women entreat you to enter into a Faustian bargain with them and they dominate the entire market. They have a carefully nurtured look of naivité as if each buyer is worth a conversation. Buy the fake Marc Jacobs bag! Here is a real Bally purse! Real, real, real! The goal is to break down resistance. The average tourist overpays for junk in order to justify having come there in the first place. The market is designed to hypnotize buyers and it does, but not by waving a key chain in front of your eyes, but by giving you enough mirror images of your own desires that you finally give in. It is voyeurism, narcissism and consumerism that drive sales, not value or even functionality. When a fake Sony camera was thrust into my face, I remarked how real it looked and how it could not possibly last since it was made of cheap materials. I was challenged to prove my point and told that the camera was at least as good as a Sony one.

The antique market further extends the ironies here since for the most part it is trash and treasure and even amidst some beautiful laneways, many of the goods come from India. Some small stores with individual artisans working in wood were striking and it was here that I found myself next to people who might if given the opportunity carve out a new role for Chinese manufacturing.

District 798 of everything that I saw and experienced struck me as the incarnation of the new China where the balance between art, innovation and vision was obvious and not hidden.