George Bernard Shaw once said: “Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” And while Mr. Shaw may not have intended his words to be applied to our current housing affordability crisis in Metro Vancouver, there is perhaps no more apt a statement with which UBC SALA professor and co-organizer Leslie Van Duser could’ve kicked off the inaugural Urbanarium debates this past week.
Speaking to a sold out audience at the Museum of Vancouver, Leslie officially cut the ribbon on the proceedings that featured the first of six debates to take place in Vancouver between now and the end of May—this past one, on January 20th, being followed by another on February 3rd that is unfortunately already sold out.
Consequently, the first debate was carefully planned to coincide with the launch of the three month long Your Future Home exhibition at the Museum of Vancouver that features an eye-popping collection of large photo murals, room-sized video projections, and beautiful models that will surely get our community talking about intensification in Metro Vancouver.
Urbanarium founder and architect Richard Henriquez began the evening by thanking his fellow co-organizers, as well as SALA, the Museum, and their sponsors. The debate was moderated by Tyee editor David Beers and had a engaging structure whereby the audience was required to vote at the beginning and following the debate, with a winner to be acclaimed and awarded trophies (second place would receive t-shirts), once the vote differential had been calculated.
With the rules dispensed with, David quickly rattled off a number of current statistics about the Lower Mainland, including the results of a survey done some months ago in which 9 out of every 10 people polled said they did not want more density in the Lower Mainland. As our moderator pointed out, with one million people set to come by 2040, it comes as no surprise to learn we are entering into a time which is polarizing our urban populous.
David also pointed out some of the misconceptions that often accompany these statistics. The two most prevalent being that Vancouver has experienced massive growth in the last little while (overall, it has actually been moderate growth), and that Surrey is the fastest growing local municipality (in fact, it is Port Moody). With these facts in mind, the Urbanarium formulated the first question to be debated in the series – where should densification happen in Metro Vancouver? Everywhere (the Pro side)? Or only in certain places (the Con side)?
Before the debates began, using our smartphones or paper ballots, the 200+ people in the room voted 79% in favour of the Pro side. It was then left to the debaters to convince the remainder to vote in their favour, or the Con side to convince them otherwise.
To argue the Pro side were two of Vancouver’s most formidable proponents – architect and urbanist Joyce Drohan from Perkins +Will, and former City of Vancouver Director of Planning Brent Toderian. To argue the Con side were UBC School of Business professor emeritus Michael Goldberg and former mayor of Vancouver Sam Sullivan. Each would have the benefit of giving a seven minute presentation before the debate began, with two minutes of closing remarks by each.
As would be expected, both Joyce and Brent spoke of the need for the missing ‘middle’ density, i.e. mid-rises, townhouses and duplexes which could bolster our housing stock, while not being disruptive to existing single-family neighbourhoods. One of the most provocative images of the presentation was Joyce’s heat signature map, which showed all of Metro Vancouver as a map of human activity, revealing massive white spaces of inactivity in the city’s west side. Brent also added the importance of the 2100 laneway houses that are currently being constructed, and how they, along with the secondary-suites which Vancouver were the first to allow, have improved the housing situation. Yet much still remains to be done.
With both Joyce and Brent saying the density needs to be added in all shapes and sizes in all areas of the city, Michael and Sam countered by saying that we have to pick our battles, that we know towers are more appropriate at transit nodes, and ultimately that we can, and should, be strategic about where we allow density to happen. Furthermore, they described the need for all municipalities to collectively look at innovative locations for housing, such as in Industrial zones, where the different house types could be mixed in creative ways.
The former mayor being a long-standing proponent of his eco-density philosophy, Sullivan pointed out how wasteful of land a tract of suburban houses is in comparison with one single point tower. One of the evening’s most shocking statistics was Sullvan’s graphic that showed how the carbon footprint of residences increased dramatically the further one travelled from Vancouver’s downtown, with the amount of GHGs released forty times greater than those living in the core.
One of the debate’s most amusing moments occurred when Brent and Sam pointed out the fact that Brent was the Planning director while Sam was mayor, and much of what Sam was proposing in his side of the debate was Brent’s job to carry out. This led to the moment when Brent pointed out that Sam Sullivan and the NPA were ‘ousted’ for having very unpopular ideas for how the city should be densified, to which Sam later countered how the same thing had happened to Brent, prompting David Beers to chip in that they were both experiencing ‘post-traumatic density’ syndrome.
As the debate continued, it became evident that in many ways, both sides were arguing for the same cause—density—with the conversation having more to do with the modus operandi for how to achieve this. With everyone agreeing that, like it or not, densification was coming, the debaters closing remarks were less arguing their side as making observations of how this could be achieved. And if the audience was likewise made up of the architects, planners, and developers that want to build the density, the room could at least agree that at the minimum strategic intensification needs to occur, as demonstrated by Sam’s images showing some of the busiest transit nodes in the city surrounded by one and two-storey structures, notably Broadway at Cambie Street and Commercial Drive.
The debate finished with only time for three questions from the audience, including one from Graham McGarva of VIA Architecture, also one of Urbanarium’s founding members in the 1980’s, asking what about the 25 years after 2040? What kind of preparation are we making for the next million people? It was a tough question to ponder, as most of us probably have not given it much more thought than hoping we are not all underwater by then, as Brent pointed out.
The evening’s final vote favoured Michael and Sam, who managed to convince about 5% of the voters to come over to the Con side with their arguments, and for which they were awarded trophies fashioned after the Urbanarium logo.
Suffice to say, the event was a great success, though some would say a little on the ‘safe’ side to start things off, as both sides of the debate did at times overlap. In marked contrast, the next debate will ask if towers are evil, a debate which could provide a little more heat – as will remain to be seen!
Regardless, Urbanarium and their collaborators must be commended for this tremendous effort, providing a dialogue for interaction instead of the more typical lectures to accompany the exhibit, the likes of which has not been seen in our fair city since Bruce Mau’s Massive Change at the Vancouver Art Gallery several years ago.
Finally, as fitting as Leslie’s choice of quote by George Bernard Shaw to start the debates off, the perplexity with which our housing crisis has become the stuff of our daily news headlines is perhaps to suggest another quote by Shaw:
‘The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.’
Let the debates begin!
Sean Ruthen is a Metro Vancouver-based architect and writer.