Lessons in urban planning from Vancouver

Highrise living in downtown Vancouver

WHAT? “Making a Great City by Design,” a lecture by Vancouver’s former planning director, Larry Beasley
WHEN? Monday, October 29th at 6:30pm
WHERE? McGill’s Macdonald Harrington Building (aka the Architecture Building), Room G10

When it comes to urban planning, the so-called “Vancouver Model” has a lot going for it: high-density downtown living, ample green space, public amenities paid for by developers, quality urban design and priority for pedestrians over cars.

Sure, it has its critics, who accuse it of transforming downtown Vancouver into a bland condoscape, or of promoting residential construction at the expense of office and industrial space, but you can’t deny that Vancouver has dealt very well with some pretty massive population growth and development pressures over the past twenty years. As other young, fast-growing cities have sprawled like crazy, Vancouver has densified, creating a functional urban core where a car-free life is now possible.

Larry Beasley, Vancouver’s director of planning in the 1980s and 90s, deserves much of the credit for his city’s transformation. He was instrumental in developing strict urban guidelines that shaped Vancouver’s growth during the prolonged real estate boom that began with Expo 86 and will last beyond the 2010 Olympics. Next week, Beasley will be coming to Montreal to deliver a lecture on his experience as Vancouver’s head planner.

Montreal is enjoying a minor boom at the moment. As I write in this week’s edition of the Mirror, it could learn a lot from Beasley about how to manage that growth.

Beasley isn’t just in town to deliver a lecture, though. On Tuesday, he will lead a design charrette in which urban planning students will imagine ways to redevelop the vacant space left over by the demolition of the Pine-Park interchange. Raphaël Fischler, the McGill urban planning professor who invited Beasley to Montreal, promised me that the students would be encouraged to think outside the box. Their ideas will be unveiled at 5pm that evening.

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with some comments from Fischler on Beasley’s legacy: “He looked at urban design as a city-building strategy. It has to do with the aesthetic and the cosmetic, but it’s much more than that. It’s about shaping a place where people live and work and play. Place-making is an important element and Vancouver has made that kind of achievement.”


  1. interesting…i am wondering if there is a relation between vancouver’s downtown core and the eastside skid row?
    …did vancouver create a downtown core inhabitable for lower income earners thereby pushing and condensing the lower income folk to the eastside? vancouver does have immense problems with homelessness. a recent un delegate investigating homelessness recently visited canada and was, let’s say, ‘not impressed’ and was left wondering why a government with surplus was not investing in social housing.

    i am not saying this should be looked at as the sole cause of vancouver’s situation, but it is interesting to think about and i hope the students at mcgill urban planning do look outside the box, outside and beyond the downtown core of vancouver to see relations between how one space, or sector of a city impacts upon other sectors. a city is more than just its downtown.


  2. I’m not sure if there has been a direct relation but the current state of the Downtown Eastside is definitely a failure not just on the part of Vancouver’s planners, but on the part of higher levels of government who have failed to deal with the social problems that take people to the DTES in the first place.

    It has always been a skid row, though, so the downtown condo construction isn’t responsible for that. In the 1930s, the area had huge problems with poverty and unemployment and was the site of organized resistance to the government. In the 1950s, there were already problems with alcoholism and drug abuse. But maybe condo development — or, more indirectly, ballooning land values — did play a role in creating homelessness, which wasn’t nearly as bad in the 1980s or 90s as it is now.

  3. yeah. i remember when i was still a child and this area was called skid row…but it is quite astonishing to have these two extremes pushed up against each other, the downtown lux right next to extreme poverty.
    i rememeber in 2005 while in paris learning about a government initiative to have every arrondisement reserve a certain percentage of their housing for low-income social housing…however, apparently this was not an enforced law…so it did not do a lot…as the riots of that same year proved i guess.

  4. I believe that Vancouver has a similar arrangement for affordable housing units in condos as the one you mention above in Paris. However, I’m not too sure how effective it’s been as Vancouver is obviously struggling with its homelessness levels. I think there have been issues of units being lost through concessions between government and developers.

    Also, just a quick FYI on the info for tonight’s Beasley lecture. The Macdonald-Harrington Building also houses McGill’s planning program and is in fact the Architecture and Urban Planning Building…just wanted to reclaim a little space for us planners!

  5. Downtown Vancouver is not much of a downtown since it has no sense of community and not that much to do. The nightlife is weak and the whole downtown is wasteland of condos, homeless people, drugs, prostitutes and crime. The only things I like in this area, which local people called downtown, are Stanley Park and Vancouver Library. This area is a disaster! I’d rather be in Detroit since it’s cleaner and safer than Vancouver. Downtown Detroit really has improved significantly in the last few years, and it’s more interesting than Vancouver’s.

  6. To offer a counterpoint to Paul – I live in downtown and love it. I live carfree and plugged into the community. I’m on a quiet residential street in the West End with everything just minutes away. It’s the best place I’ve ever lived. So experiences differ.

    While the gap between rich and poor is astonishing in Vancouver blaming the condo boom and/or good design for the problems of the DTES is not terribly productive. We could design the city to be awful so that no one wants to live here and property prices stay low and affordable, but that’s not much of an answer. The trick is how to provide affordable housing in a desireable city?

    Vancouver, I’m pretty sure, requires a 20% affordable/social housing contribution from most major developments but since the city isn’t in the business of building housing, they usually take cash in lieu and buy land which they hope the province or federal govt will then build housing on. I believe there are currently 12-16 empty sites owned by the city waiting for someone to build social housing on them.

    Cities are in a tough position to solve the difficult problems of areas like the DTES given their limited ability to raise funds (the province and the feds hold most of the tax money, cities only have property tax). Cities are taking on the burden of services the province/federal governments used to provide but they haven’t been given new revenue streams to pay for them.

  7. I would be curious what Mr.Beasley has to say about the Vancouver City Planning Department’s and his role in red lighting and abandoning the downtown east side of Vancouver as they built/build high end condo towers all around it. Vancouver is a beautiful vibrant city with an ugly massive port and unchecked suburban growth rapidly sprawling all the way up the Fraser Valley with more than it’s share of NIMBY’s . Everyone living in the Greater Vancouver Region is responsible for downtown Vancouver’s inner urban problems . Perhaps Larry can answer for his part in it.

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