Vancouverism: One Year Later

Posted: Wednesday, June 10, 2020


Written by Larry Beasley, C.M.

In this blog post, I want to tell you something about my new book, “Vancouverism”, just out from UBC Press in 2019:

  • why I wrote it;
  • several of the themes at the centre of this city-building phenomenon;
  • several of the challenges that we continue to face for the future; and,
  • key messages for other cities.

Since our launch last May, I have been so happy to see peoples’ reaction to this modern urban adventure story and to receive comments from readers all over the world. Maybe Vancouverism is really gaining steam as a different way to build and manage contemporary cities that is of world interest and merit.

Dense Skyline in Vancouver

I have dedicated my book to the many men and women who were the creators of “Vancouverism” – but two people are of special importance at the very centre of this story with me – the person I call the “father of Vancouverism”, Ray Spaxman, and the person who was with me all along the way making “Vancouverism” real, my partner in crime and “co-chief planner”, Ann McAfee. As I say in the book, nothing I talk about would have been possible without the invention and leadership of these beloved colleagues.

I enjoyed a companion in arms in writing this book. The distinguished journalist, Frances Bula, took on the task of introducing my story in her Prologue. She offered a perfect historical context from which my words were able to freely flow and make sense.

As an introduction to the book, let me start by quoting directly from my text – from Chapter 1.

“No one knows for sure who first coined and used the word “Vancouverism.” Some say it was an architect’s shorthand for the simple notion of a building composed of a thin apartment tower sitting on a podium of townhouses. That is surely an iconic image of Vancouverism that is special to this city. But it is only part of the picture – it is not the whole picture.

In essence, Vancouverism is an ethos…., a formula…., a process…., and a model….

The ethos of Vancouverism embraces deliberate planning, with the local government in the driver’s seat, for a result that meets not just developer business needs but also the dreams of all the people who share the space.

The formula for Vancouverism is all about livability and, more recently, sustainability, with hundreds of moving parts.

The process of Vancouverism is inclusive. To pursue its objectives, it is necessary to cooperate; it is necessary to be multi-disciplinary; and it is necessary to embrace wide and incessant public engagement.

The model of Vancouverism is complete for the needs of the moment, but it is always inherently incomplete. It is a flexible, changeable, and adaptable model. It struggles for environmental reconciliation and better human fulfillment, along with the increasingly elusive requirement for affordability.

This book presents an insider’s view…. This is not a history, although I offer the history of precedents which became the foundation of Vancouverism. This is not a policy guide, although I describe the policy framework that composes Vancouverism. This is not an evaluation, although I offer commentary and critique on the various tenets and oversights of Vancouverism. This is not an individual memoir, although I chronicle my personal experiences in order to make the story come alive… After all is said and done, what I offer most of all is just a fascinating urban story… of a city that faced the unknown, seized its destiny, and created the future it wanted.”

Dense Skyline in Vancouver

I wrote this book because it had to be written and someone had to do it. I felt it was also better if someone like myself wrote it who was at the centre of the action and really knew what happened, how it happened, and why it happened. No one else from my generation rose to the occasion so I felt I had to take it on. This inventive period was a golden age for our city and for the art of city-building and I felt it needed to be put down on paper for the record and for posterity.

This story covers many city-building themes. Let me highlight a few unique ones as a teaser for those who want to dive into the book.

  • The city must be created by design. It must host the experience that people want in their lives. It must have an artfulness and beauty, reflecting the natural beauty of the setting and the artfulness of human invention. Human needs are well organized and offered in neighbourhoods, complete communities. Progressive tools that build better cities include humane density, alternative mobility, protection of unique assets such as, in Vancouver, the magnificent views from public places. The book covers hundreds of strategies and measures to build layer upon layer of fulfilling experience in a place conceived by deliberate design.
  • The city must be responsible to its citizens and to its environment. My generation, as articulated in the book, started a coherent sustainability agenda and the current generation has progressed this exponentially with success after success. No matter what other building and development imperatives there may be, a finesse of neighbourliness and mutual respect must be built in to every urban scheme. All people must be accommodated, thus the Vancouver emphasis on family housing at high density and social housing for our lowest income citizens. We could have done more – we must do more for the poor and for the modest-income middle class – but at least we made a start and created a tradition of care, which had languished before us for decades. The book documents those achievements but also makes front-and-centre the continuing gaps and shortfalls.

  • The city is a collaborative effort but driven by a confluence of individual interests. Vancouver learned that by everyone having to work together to create a new economy after the implosion of the traditional resource-based economy. This was operationalized through a discretionary and transactional development management system, somewhat unique in the world, and funded through developer contributions and responsibility.This was also operationalized through massive public engagement in every policy and design decision and extensive peer review to bring out the best of proposals for change. These techniques are elaborated fully in the book.

There are continuing challenges to the paradigm of Vancouverism that need very careful attention – the book offers re-sets to attack these contradictions.  The book calls these out as updated applications of Vancouverism that must be loaded into the urban system by new creative people now on the scene in all sectors of society.

  • This was an inner-city story that now must spread. Now the key ideas and principles have to be retrofitted and evolved in order to expand the transformation out to the suburbs. This is the biggest challenge for the next generation. This is what will create a whole successful urban system rather than a patchwork.

  • We have not been inclusive enough. The poster-child of this gap is our troubled Downtown Eastside. Despite our best efforts this remains a ghetto for the poor, the mentally ill, the addicted, and the disenfranchised. We are not in a state of grace for these people. This represents a black eye to the very best intentions of Vancouverism.

  • The biggest single vulnerability of the Vancouverism model is collapse of affordability – perhaps an inevitable result of all the other successes.  Vancouver has become an acknowledged great place to live – liveable, safe, healthy, lovely – in a globalized world. The result is that more people want to be here than we can accommodate, so urban prices are skyrocketing. Also, outsiders often come with lots of wealth, so they outbid locals for space. We have a crisis for “missing middle” housing, for start-ups, for work places and, of course, for low-income housing. Completely new policies and schemes and funding will have to be invented and allocated over the coming years to address this shock – types of solutions that have never before been considered. And a big focus is to create first and foremost security for those who are here now and have been here for generations.

In the book, I highlight six essential city-building themes from Vancouver’s story that might be helpful to other cities:

Dense Skyline in Vancouver

1. public leadership;

2. collaboration;

3. acting from principles;

4. organizing for success;

5. building public constituency;

6. avoiding complacency.

It is easy to focus on the continuing challenges and unfinished business of Vancouverism – and that is a good thing because we want to make this city work better and better. But, we should also enjoy what has been achieved. At the end of the book, in the Epilogue, I take a simple stroll in my own neighbourhood on the north side of False Creek, to savor the pleasures of the place we have created. In a world of brutal cities, these pleasures should not be taken for granted – they are a great achievement that has put our city on the world map.

It is an achievement that my book is crafted to celebrate.

Thank you.

Posted by Megan M.
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